PART I: STRAYLIGHT
Not so long ago - as late as 1988, in fact - we had a prophet walking among us. His name was William Gibson, and in his breathtaking Sprawl trilogy, he forecast the near future of technology and its social and cultural uses and impacts. For science fiction geeks my age, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive were so dazzling that it took us maybe ten years to notice that they essentially came true. Gibson is alive and writing. He writes about the present, because the world is his world now.
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe are two artists almost exactly my age, and their recent installation, Stray Light Grey, mounted at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, New York, from September 13 to October 27th, is a kind of extended love poem to, among others, William Gibson's future. The name of the show is partly derived from the Villa Straylight, a house built into one end of the space station in which part of the Sprawl trilogy is set. A resident of the villa, named 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, writes an essay about it:
The Villa Straylight is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves. ... In Straylight, the hull's inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising ... The semiotics of the Villa bespeak a turning in, a denial of the bright void beyond the hull. ... We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self. The Villa Straylight knows no sky, recorded or otherwise.The Marlborough Gallery is, like many ground-level galleries in Chelsea, basically a large empty room with a concrete floor. It provides enough space for a fair mimicry of the structural conceit of the Villa Straylight, and that is what Freeman and Lowe used it for. They installed a bewildering series of rooms into the gallery. Most of the rooms are connected by holes punched raggedly through walls, which distracts from the troubling observation that many of them don't have doors. Each room is designed as a sealed planet, and the installation overall has the feeling of a pocket universe.
- William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984
Stray Light Grey, Freeman/Lowe, Marlborough Gallery, Chelsea, 2012
The first room is a small white-wall gallery, from which one enters a cluttered closet, a filthy office bathroom, a dingy home bathroom, an office corridor, an abandoned off-track betting outfit... slightly off-key details accumulate: a chunk of ginger depends from a soap dispenser, for instance -
- as well as references to source texts: the OTB office is littered with Metro Holographix stickers, as if Gibson's engimatic Finn had just stepped out of his demimonde place of business:
Posters advertise SanSan, a futurist vision as obsolete and never-was as the concrete husk of Arcosanti.
This show has been assembled with an expert eye for shittiness. Consider the hallway:
Look at the grime streaking the walls:
Appreciate the stained fluorescent light panels:
Then remember that all of this is only a few weeks old. It's all new, all synthetic. There is no smell of decay in the horrible, decrepit spaces of the show:
Oddly smell-less, and yet finely detailed. One climbs the stairs to a plastic surgery clinic, in which the ceilings are just a little bit too low:
And then continues on to a lobby showcasing sleazy rental videos, and faded porn, and vague cosmetic products, and decorated cakes. The installation takes on the texture of a very particular type of nightmare: one of those tedious, pointless nightmares dreamt while already half-awake, their narratives complicated messes linked by dubious logic, their rooms stuffed with details that dissolve away even as the fingers of one's memory grasp at them. What is this?
It plays on the world of Gibson, but its metaphysics reaches back to Gibson's predecessor science fiction prophet, the mighty Philip K. Dick. Dick, who was one of those rare authors crazy enough to really understand madness, and sane enough to write clearly about it, was haunted by a concept which he variously referred to as gubble and kipple. His best explanation of it occurs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, set in a depopulated future full of abandoned apartments:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's [newspaper]. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more. ... There's the First Law of Kipple, "Kipple drives out nonkipple." ... No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment... But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over... the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.Dick is a poet of the decay cycle of the universe, and Freeman and Lowe vigorously apply the kipple concept to their show. It is shitty, it is littered with shit nobody wants anymore, all of it from a hallucinatory alternate present, where the pictures of some celebrities are recognizable, and some are not, and some VHS boxes hold real movies, and others movies you could swear you vaguely remember, but do not. All of the dusty unwanted products on all the cheap shelves look slightly out of date, and serve purposes it is no longer possible exactly to determine.
- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968
Freeman and Lowe carefully populate their installation with those objects most prone to turning into useless crap: betting forms, posters, videotapes, pornography, cosmetic surgery technologies, beauty products, industrial electronics, public safety notices. The dreary heaviness of their microcosmos arises not only from the architecture, not only from the slightly underpowered lighting and low ceilings and confusing layout, but also from the props - those wretched, hateful props.
PART II: APOPHENIA
Now, why on earth would anybody want to spend even a couple of minutes in this claustrophobic anti-vision, this muttering account of dreams that were of questionable utility even before they were forgotten?
Let me try to unfold my own answer to this question.
In Stray Light Grey, I experienced a quintessence of one utterly specific state of mind, an intensity of this state of mind that one might call wakefulness-plus. This is a general category of mindfulness which art can induce, this wakefulness-plus. And we seek it from all of our art. The specific content of the experience is almost beside the point. All experiences are legitimate topics of concern and interest, because all experiences are part of our human nature. So the artist can pick anything, literally anything, and make art from it, so long as that artist has the insight and discipline to refine the medium into a wakefulness-plus-inducing artifact.
Freeman and Lowe have chosen a certain hallucinatory nightmare-state as their topic, and assembled a constellation of relevant narratives and concepts as the armature of their expression of it. They have redeemed the hopeless by returning it to us purified, so that seeing it, we have returned to us something of ourselves which we had lost. We lost it, this liminal, horrendously image-forming zone, because it is one of the things easiest to lose. But Freeman and Lowe scanned the dark horizon of our nature, and spotted it fleeing, and hunted it down, and pinned it to the wall.
This kind of presentation tends to engender in its receptive audience - and clearly I was extremely receptive - advances in thinking on long-standing problems. My own advance was with regard to the question of installation art itself. I just didn't really get installations before. I've seen them, and I've been open to them, but they haven't been open to me. Fine, that's fair. But seeing this show, I had a flash of insight: I've been looking at installations wrong.
I confused their medium for their nature. They are made from the materials of the plastic arts - matter - so I assumed they were a plastic art, like painting and sculpture. But they aren't. Installation art exists in time, in the time of its own rapid corruption (how long can this spray-on dust last? how many feet can walk these cheap carpets before they wear away?) and in the time of the viewer's immersion into the space of the installation. Installations are not part of the plastic arts. They are part of the performing arts.
Once I reached this conclusion, a body of hard-won skills came into play: those skills by which I can overcome my grief at the transitory nature of theater. I'm friends with a lot of theater people, and I've been involved in theater myself. I think that theater provides for some necessities of the soul. The theater, like music and dance, seems to me to partake of religion, of the active phase of the part of us which is transcendent. We are scarcely more than animals if we do not have the theater. But it goes away. No matter how good it is, it just vanishes. That's its nature. And it really, really hurts to recognize that. But at the same time, you learn to cope, and to celebrate the only-this-onceness of it.
That was the insight I had in Stray Light Grey: that installation art shares this nature with the performing arts. It will not survive. That - that - I can live with. It lets me out of my category error, of looking at installations and trying to see how they are actually sculptures.
But this insight leads to a more fundamental admission, something I have always been loathe to admit. Consider two kinds of thing. One of them is the most revelatory of mental states. And the other is the arts. These revelatory mental states connect us to the infinite, to eternity. And the arts are the conveyor belt to the revelatory states. Our intuition tells us that, like the things we glimpse during revelation, the arts themselves should be permanent. They should be marks made on the wall of the universe.
The thing one does not like to admit is that perishable things can trigger the most profound of revelations. It happens all the time - what else is love? - but we, or at least I, want art to last. Art is our best chance to roar "I am," and have the echoes go on forever. If we admit that art is subsiding into dust, then we admit that we too are dying, we are already launched on the fearful process of disappearance.
And what is Stray Light Grey made out of? Fiberboard and light bulbs - cardboard and foam - grime and plexiglass - and cultural references resonant for a very narrow wedge of individuals, emerging from a certain demographic, in a certain place, at a certain time. Stray Light Grey has already substantially ceased to exist in anything but our memory. And yet, for the few weeks of its installation, it was absolutely one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
So you take all that together - the actual subject of the show, and the materials that made it up, and what I realized while thinking it over - and it adds up to this:
It helped teach me how to die.
This is a lesson which is not even learned in the dying, for many of us, but it is an essential part of the skill of living.
So what is apophenia? It is a mental disorder, defined as seeing meaning in meaningless data. It is the disorder that made Philip K. Dick's high sensitivity to kipple bearable. Because trash is data, a lot of data. Dick thought that Christ was going to announce his return in the patterns of trash by the side of the road. There was an immanence to Dick's kipple, a profound hopefulness.
Stray Light Grey was also a lot of data. It created a broad tapestry of data, and with the artistry of the masters, it nudged you in a particular direction without being pedantic about road signs. It induced an apopheniac state, and moreover, it fulfilled the mad promise of the disorder. There really was meaning hidden there.
Like any great art, it bled into the world around it. Stumbling out of the installation, New York was converted to the disarray of Freeman and Lowe's kippleized, Gibsonian space. Everywhere I looked, I was receptive to rooms inside of rooms, and heightened detail, and accumulations of trash. I had another show to see, on an upper floor of another building, and getting out of the elevator, I took a wrong turn, and opened a door, and here I was:
Right back inside of Stray Light Grey.
PART III: AFTER THE STORM
What now? quoth you. Now New York City has been through the hurricane. Sandy wrecked the very site of the installation; it burned homes, leveled neighborhoods, flooded shore and river, canal and street. People are still cold, and hungry, and crouching in the dark. Isn't it obscene to sing the praise of kipple when real life has intervened, and so much that meant so much has been turned into shit?
No, no, it isn't. That's what I have to say. It is not obscene at all. Look - it's bad timing. No doubt about it. But the two seas of wreckage - the fake one and the real one - are two different things. They merit two different responses.
The destruction wrought by Sandy is a real event, and it demands a certain type of response: pity, relief, sorrow, whatever you must, but above all, the extension of the helping hand. People were hurt here, and people ought to be our first concern in our response. That is not what this article is about.
Stray Light Grey was an artistic construct, by which I mean to say it was a spiritual phenomenon, or more precisely, it was Freeman and Lowe themselves, and by extension, we who saw it. It did not pertain to what the world is, but to who we are, beyond the world.
To deny Stray Light Grey is a kind of survivor's guilt. The guilty survivor has an impulse to negate himself, as if to say, "What was acceptable before is no longer legitimate; it's got to go - I've got to go." It is inevitable, but irrational. Once everybody calms down, hopefully we come to our senses and say, "No, of course, you must continue to live, you have a right to live and to be who you are."
This is the kind of legitimacy that Stray Light Grey has, and which cannot be stripped from it. The intervention of real kipple does not take away our right to make false kipple, in pursuit of getting at the truth of things. We must certainly step aside from our aesthetic preoccupations for a minute and see what we can do to help, but we ought also to return to these preoccupations, because they are a good chunk of the point of surviving at all.
Onward, Freeman and Lowe, and may your strength persist and increase.
Sprawl trilogy - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gibson_sprawl.jpg
All installation photographs by the author, except the one of the author, which was taken by some very nice ladies who were passing through at the same time.