Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Airy with substance
Published by Manukau Institute of Technology
Edited by Paul Cullen (now at AUT) and Grant Thompson (MIT)
96 pp, b/w and colour illustrations, $15
The fourth issue of Z/X is a breezy, tidy little publication with a clean modernist elegance and lots of quality material crammed into its 96 pages. It is similar in look to the early issues of the eighties Australian journal Art & Text. Layla Tweedie-Cullen, its designer, has given it a pre-Raygun feel and its content is a mix of academic essays and visual or textual artworks – like a post-typewriter version of Xerox publications like Splash or And.
It is a very good read. All of it. The seven essays are not wearisomely long, the language, though academic, generally avoids being turgid, and the page layout and font options are light and airy, not densely heavy. All geared up to create pleasure for the eye and mind.
The most omnipresent figure is Robert Smithson, through the influence of his drawing A Heap of language. This work exudes a presence through the contributors - even more than Spiral Jetty which is specifically discussed in Ralph Paine’s Heap of Dirt essay alongside the innovative concepts of Deleuze and Guatarri. In this publication, Smithson as influence is much more apparent than the other salient theme, Guy Debord and the Situationists, who are examined by Jan Bryant and occasionally, Bruce Barber, in their informative contributions.
Even though Smithson’s notion of the materiality of language (and his praise of Alexander Graham Bell in his writing) indicates his view was about sound patterns more than linguistic structure, the way his famous drawing of written words is organised is extrapolated with the text works of Alex Monteith and Grant Thompson. Monteith’s list of assorted nouns from the individualised pages of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in increasing font point size, is a sprawling mesmerising work, one you dip into for a splash, not a prolonged swim. Obversely Grant Thompson’s much smaller list of dependent and independent clauses containing ‘green’, taken from Melville’s ‘The Piazza Tales’, provides the opportunity for a vigorous 33 yard sprint.
These textual artworks are an effective synthesis between the essays and certain included visual artworks such as Frances Hansen’s collection of found lists and notes from the streets of Avondale, Kate Newby’s photographs examining the notion of placement as action (positioned with some beautifully worded texts by Tahi Moore) or episodic snaps of suburban trees and films on television by Monique Redmond and Ron Left – works that have an accelerating cumulative quality when inserted into the journal.
Contributions like Hansen’s photographed lists and notes relate in a very precise way to Vaughan Gunson’s central essay, an absorbing account of changing attitudes to theory and other varieties of art writing. In part of it he discusses Lara Strongman’s commissioning of eight writers to create texts to parallel eight artworks in City Gallery's 1997 show Signs of the Times, and how this wilfully subjective writing refused to acknowledge art history or theory. He describes the shift from early Art & Text or October to Sign of the Times as reflecting the freedom that art itself has and part of a growing scepticism towards theory brought about – he believes – by the then separation of theory from mass political movements. The funny thing is that in discussing those writers who ‘have chosen to escape the idealist bottleneck altogether,’ Gunson states he wishes to avoid making “strict value judgement(s)”, yet he refers to some as ‘stimulating, often provocative’ and others as veering “towards being politically reactionary” without clarifying the distinction.
Besides theory, Smithson, and Debord and the Situationists, there is also much discussion of the term ‘situation’. Rod Barnett contributes an essay that uses Alain Badiou’s use of the term to examine film noir masterpieces like D.O.A., Double Indemnity, Detour and Kiss Me Deadly. (It is a good companion piece to Stephen Zepke’s article in Natural Selection 5 on Badiou’s ethics and ‘alien arrival’ films.)
Barnett does not successfully make it clear what a 'situation' is. According to him Badiou defines it as having “an exceptionally open sense, and to capture that openness, I say it’s a multiplicity.” But ‘multiplicity’ itself is vague. It seems to be just any particular that can be repeated. And how exact a copy defines 'multiplicity'? Near the end of this publication is an amusing two page diagram by Nicola Farquhar showing all the interconnections between fifty famous westerns and forty-three famous cowboy actors. Each shoot-out on Main St is a 'situation' perhaps?
Part of a rich and entertaining offering from Peter D. Osborne, the photography theoretician, focuses on Sartre’s use of ‘situation’, presenting it as a self-conscious act of self-creation through bringing aesthetic objects into the world. This helps transform an indifferent world “by means of the imaginary so that the world appears to have its foundation in us.”(Osborne p.3) ‘Situation’ is also used in another sense by Andrew Clifford in a synopsis on Z/X’s inside back cover of his essay for the journal’s CD of five sonic works. The word as he uses it showcases the recording maker’s presence as instigator instead of hiding it, embraces subjectivity, and nicely links into Gunson’s discussion about writing. A good connection. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication with the burner, the CD is audible on Macs only - but replacements playable on stereos and PCs are on their way.
That technical hiccup, and the absence of any contextualising editorial and contributors list, is my only criticism of an otherwise perfectly conceived publication. Roll on #5.