General 11-23-2003

Trialogue: P.R.S.S.

This is a version of the talk that Andrew Knighton gave on Nov. 16 at the Szyhalski/Shelton show P.R.S.S. at the MIA. It's one in a series of Trialogues on Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program shows. The show runs through November 30.

The big buck
Vending machines

St. Hubert was converted on a Good Friday toward the end of the seventh century. A playboy and a rogue – called a “worldling” in the Catholic Encyclopedia – Hubert was legendary for his love of hunting. On that Friday, afoot in the woods of northern Europe, a mighty stag appeared to him, between whose antlers glimmered a crucifix. A voice called to him: “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you will quickly go down into hell.” Casting his lot with the voice, Hubert surrendered his worldly possessions and gave himself over to the service of the Church.

An enormous appropriation of Hubert’s stag – the crucifix replaced by a dollar sign — fills one wall of the MAEP room as part of the current exhibition, P.R.S.S (by Rich Shelton and Piotr Szyhalski). From there the stag surveys not only the four room-sized installations that make up the rest of the show, but also the vending area directly beneath its gaze (in that area, one must buy admission to the locked rooms, at a dollar apiece). St. Hubert’s stag is thus here transformed into a prize buck – it is not only the buck to which we pay homage while experiencing P.R.S.S. but also the very concrete buck that gains us admission. It is the iconography of the stag that informs our experience of the remaining rooms, revealing them as components in a multifaceted critique of capitalism and the power of money.

There seems something scandalous about the show’s frank exchange of art for money, even – or maybe because of – the petty cheapness of it all ($4 gets you into all the rooms). I have to confess that on my first visit to the show, I surveyed the vending area, walked around the closed installation area once without entering, went down to reception to try to find someone to get me in for free, and then left the museum. Somehow the requisite exchange was too much to ask (simply scandalous!), and many museum-goers seem to be having the same experience – a good percentage of them snaking along one of the outer walls en route to the comparatively uncomplicated George Washington exhibit in the next room. And yet neither these timid gallery-goers nor the admittedly too-frugal art critic are likely to blink at news that a Van Gogh has sold for $67 million; we are not too pure to judge as fair the expenditure of a few thousand clams for some Mies-school office furniture. None of us is unfamiliar with how this money thing works.

Each month, thirty trillion dollars in monetary transactions occur, netting the earth in a gigantic, largely invisible, and mostly electronic network of exchange in which human agents today factor increasingly less centrally. All around us, money is always in motion, saturating the social with its murmur. The “financialization” of our everyday lives means that the most fundamental aspects of our existence are shaped by and modeled after the exchange of money wealth: its inevitable role has been summarized by way of a couple of surprising metaphors. On the one hand, money is the ether in which human activity moves: it suffuses all spaces and facilitates all interactions. It is invisible, only perceptible to us when we are denied access to its powers: money is like the air that we breathe.

On the other hand, money functions in a way like the apparatus of language, its formulas of equivalence making possible a syntax of exchange. Though we need it and define ourselves through it, we generally take language for granted, noticing it only when some disorder deprives us of its use. Whichever of these two metaphors one prefers, the message is essentially the same: life, thought, communication, and production today must all transpire in and through money. And while we flatter ourselves, thinking we can escape it into a pure and uncontaminated exteriority, it is always with us.

Here in the museum – site for aesthetic autonomy! – one must wade past the invitations to become a member or to buy some postcards in the bookshop before getting to any art whatsoever. Each of us here, simply by being here, is put into play as part of a marketing cohort, a construction of subjectivity designated by our appreciation of art, a construction that can then be sold to, exchanged, circulated as a badge of identity. Not only does “Television Deliver People” – as Richard Serra warned in a 1973 videowork outlining how TV delivers viewers to advertisers, instead of product to viewers — but so does the museum, albeit in a fashion thought to be somehow more nobly situated upon the curve of refinement. In more general and concrete terms: Each of us is probably holding a couple of credit cards (or perhaps we are being held by them). The percentage of American households with some stake in homeownership is around two-thirds. Most of us are in debt in some fashion, and being a debtor is a full-time, round-the-clock job, a ceaseless exercise in production. Through the interest my debt accrues on a yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily basis, I produce money value — enjoyed, of course, by someone else. And I produce that value in my every waking moment – and in fact even in those hours of seeming respite when I try to put my money worries aside and sleep.

This fact of contemporary economic reality rather dramatically alters the terms of St. Hubert’s conversion. The voice of money that we hear today no longer comes from outside us: it is internalized into our very selves and from there determines our activity without us exercising any choice about it. That today body and soul are the province of finance is demonstrated by even a cursory glance at the titles in the self-help section of the bookshop, where economic mastery is the key to the body (as in Jerry Mason’s Financial Fitness for Life) and the soul (as in the spiritualized conceits of Seven Stages to Money Maturity, or Jerrold Mundis’s Making Peace with Money).

P.R.S.S. is not about making peace with money. It might be about making war on money, or maybe about making art with money. It is almost certainly not about making money with art, for hardly anyone has figured out how to do that….

My contention is that P.R.S.S. is fundamentally a show about how to confront money when that is all there is. I have chosen to introduce three conceptual notions to talk about this confrontation; I think each of them helps to clarify the relationship between the inner, closed rooms of the show and this outer space, with its stag and its dollar sign and its vending machines. P.R.S.S. makes its argument about money in part through its conception of this space (the way the rooms are laid out); through its conception of artistic spectatorship (the way the rooms are experienced); and through its conception of what it today means to be human (the way the rooms are produced).

Looking down the hallway that skirts the backside of P.R.S.S.’s inner sanctum, I feel strangely as if I have been here before: this is a space familiar to me, this long hallway and its doors with electronic-card triggered locks. Mary Abbe wrote in the Star Tribune about this space recalling a hotel corridor — a legitimate enough description (especially because of the card keys). But it’s also reminiscent of the contemporary office block, the office-and-cube environments inhabited by the postmodern “organization man.” We’re also in a space like the carnival house of horrors, or the adult bookstore’s column of peep booths (especially given the coin-op entry). Spatially, the spectator confronts a disciplinary environment – to each space its person, to each person his or her activity – and, crucially, it is possible to imagine this space as simultaneously the space of domesticity and recuperation (hotel), of work and production (office), and of pleasure (carnival/porn shop). It makes no difference what activity you’re engaged in – rest, work, or pleasure – it unfolds in disciplinary space and does so under the watchful gaze of our prize buck, the omniscient money relation. Yet P.R.S.S. is also riven by a spatial tension, for its hermetic disciplinary zones are complemented by the presence of an EBay terminal in the vending area: at the same time that these cloistered human spaces enclose us, our relationship to money opens up to the infinity of a world-wide web — a web that concatenates flows of money at the same time that it enables networks of communication. (When was the last time you received spam that wasn’t trying to sell you something…?)

P.R.S.S. complements its complex spatial conception with a very specific idea of the meaning of aesthetic experience. Much can be said for the wide array of possible reactions to the art housed in the show’s four rooms: it evokes the uncanny, produces terror, creates joy, foments uncertainty, triggers disgust. But each of them is generated by a structure of risk. This means not only that P.R.S.S. is part of the larger trend in which art has increasingly put people’s physical and mental well-being directly at stake – whether in actionism or body art or even the mainstream diversions of “extreme sports” or Jackass. The risks P.R.S.S. forces us to take are not only those of being emotionally harshed out by violent imagery, or of feeling mocked by some arrogant conceptualism, or of scorching one’s testicles while trying to pull off some inane stunt. Instead, P.R.S.S. reveals the basis of aesthetic risk as explicitly financial: Will I get back what I invest in P.R.S.S.? Can I expect reciprocity? Will this exchange of money for art be enriching? P.R.S.S. notes how personal risk and financial risk are increasingly the same thing, and in the process makes it evident how aesthetic risk has a place in that homology too.

Finally, and in part because of the first two interpretive frames, it is possible to argue that what P.R.S.S. ultimately advances is a comment on what it means to be human. We might consider the text accompanying the infamous “R-room” as an indication of the stakes here. It quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski: “The mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis or of class enemies by the Communists had much in common, in both cases becoming a totally dehumanized process, devoid even of passion, not to speak of compassion.” Nevertheless, the R-room’s take on dehumanization is nevertheless an anachronistic one, and it is belied by what goes on in the other spaces that make up P.R.S.S. These other rooms are in fact not about the historical fact of dehumanization, but rather about the future potentials of post-humanization: the question they raise is about the new forms human subjectivity can take, and the capacities of the new human species that we are creating and becoming.

It could be that we are no longer the self-interested, atomized, monadic humans of modern capitalist society. The flexibility and fungibility demanded by the money form has made that insular self incompatible with the postmodern way of life. The inwardly directed self has been supplanted by a highly dependent node in an enormous and impersonal network that exceeds us and our comprehension. The EBay portal, along with the Dolphin room, both make this point; each of them links us up through communicative networks that are no longer properly human – or at least no longer only human. P.R.S.S. illuminates for us the way that we subsist within a vibrant system of feedbacks and relays that functions for the most part outside of us, without our control or intervention.

P.R.S.S. nevertheless suggests not that our immersion in this network of financial and communications flows dehumanizes us and reduces us to something less than we were before – for this is mostly not a show about lack or resentment – but rather that there might be as-yet unforeseen potentials to this new world. Among these is a new concept of collectivity no longer obstructed by the anachronistic limitations of the self-contained bourgeois individual. Like Shelton and Szyhalski, whose matching orange worksuits here serve to reflect a kind of anonymity, we (at least here in the first world) are increasingly technicians quietly and unprepossessingly doing our part to keep the money machine thrumming. We mostly play that role automatically, all the while collaborating with an infinite number of other producers in circumstances of anonymity or transient identity. Thus does the title of P.R.S.S begin to make sense – this is a show without a name, only a jumble of abstracted initials. Rich Shelton tells me that the initial idea was for the promotion of the show to unfold without the artists’ names even being attached to it; they wanted to render P.R.S.S. as an event enigmatically materializing in this space without connection to its human agents, mechanically admitting human spectators into its post-human environs, welcoming them to experience the vertigo of becoming something new. By functioning like money, all the while revealing the function of money (and even asking us to make our own critique of money), P.R.S.S. serves to catalyze that becoming, its locked doors opening up to the future.

Trialogues are produced by V.A.C.U.M., the Visual Arts Critics Union of Minnesota, and are a feature of every Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The Trialogue is a conversation among a critic or critics, the artist or artists, and the audience.