Kodwo Eshun on abstraction

Found a PDF of Christopher Cox's 2014 interview with writer Kodwo Eshun, making a case for a hermetic practice, despite the current art world's hatred of abstraction lacking in obvious identity signifiers. Excerpts are below.

Christopher Cox: Yet you clearly don’t aim to wrap it all up neatly. As you mentioned earlier, there’s a hermetic -- even mystical -- tendency in your work that resists decoding and competes with the hermeneutic tendency to fully understand or “unzip.”

Kodwo Eshun: Yeah, the sense of initiation, the sense that the work is initiating you into an enigma so that you become something like a disciple. So, there is something occult.

CC: Not just a reader or interpreter, but a disciple?

KE: Yes. You become part of it, which implies that you’re won over by it and that you too will go out and somehow proselytize on behalf of the work and carry it with you so that you’re now a kind of card-carrying disciple of this enigmatic experience that you’ve had. You haven’t decoded it. You’ve accepted that you can’t decode it and you’ve enjoyed that process will take it with you. This initiation is something I really enjoy. Certain kinds of audiovisual experiences are really good at doing that. Certain kinds of films have this capacity to turn you into disciples of them; and this is also the strongest feeling of Drexciyan music itself. So, there’s a kind of affirmative dimension to mystification. “Mystification” sounds obfuscatory, like you’re mystifying for the sake of it. But I’m interested in “mystification” in the sense of what Marshall McLuhan calls“participation mystique.” [The phrase is originally from Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, How Natives Think (1910), trans. Lilian A. Clare (London: Allen & Unwin, 1926).] If an artistic experience is really working, it’s working through this level of you finding yourself participating in a mystery without quite realizing how you got there. The music I love has that dimension.

CC: It has to solicit you, in a way.

And more:

Kodwo Eshun: There’s a curator in the States, Valerie Cassel Oliver, who’s been excavating African-American abstraction. It’s not that it was buried, but for different reasons, certain abstractionists perennially complicate an easy read. Whether it’s Norman Lewis or Fred Eversley, these figures are not racially readable. That’s all it takes. As soon as the work throws up a dimension of optical fugitivity, in other words, as soon as the work cannot immediately be read as belonging to what people recognize is African-American legibility, then suddenly it disappears, whereas actually it is exactly that work that is most compelling precisely because it blocks legibility so you can’t easily read it in terms of the identity of the person who is making it. You have to do more work. You have to think of all the other things that the work might be about, as well as the identity of the artist. So, with people like Charles Gaines, the African-American Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson, all these artists, the complexity of their work is not an easy read. So, they tend not to be named when we talk about Afrofuturism. But actually, if they’re not Afrofuturists, I don’t know who is.

new page: selected critical writing

I've added a new page to my blog sidebar (the thing that appears at the bottom of the page on a phone) called Selected Critical Writing.
Actually it's an older page from my Digital Media Tree days that I've been updating. Several new pages have been added, linked from that one. The contents are:

Selected writing for print publications:

• "Paradise/Paradox," Sculpture, March 2004, pp 71-72 [image and text]

• "Palo Alto Dreamin': Towards a New Digital Expression(ism)," Art Papers, November/December 2001, pp 20-24 [images and text]

• "Compression" at Feigen Contemporary, Art Papers, May/June 2001 [text]

• noto (Carsten Nicolai): "The Trouble Is (Not) With Your Set" VERY No. 8, October 2000 [image and text]

• Michael Rodriguez, Miami-Dade Community College, catalog essay, June/July 2000 [images and text]

• "Secondary Structures": Rachel Harrison, Ross Knight, Michael Phelan, Sculpture Magazine, June 2000 [PDF] [text] [link]

• "Laura Parnes and Sue de Beer: Double Your Transgression, Double Your Fun," VERY, Fall 1999 [text] [link]

• Nina Katchadourian at Debs & Co., New York, NY Artforum, Summer 1999 [image and text]

• Ross Knight at Team Gallery, New York, NY Artforum, April 1999 [image and text]

• Drew Dominick at Jose Freire, New York, NY, New Art Examiner, February 1996 [images and text]

• Jack Featherly at Team Gallery, catalog essay, March 2002 [images and text]

Curated exhibitions:

• Perry House at Gray Matters, Dallas, Texas, October 1993 [images] [PDF of essay]

• "Thread" exhibition catalog, Cristinerose Gallery, New York, NY, September 4 - October 4, 1997 [images and text]

Web-only (self-published):

• "One Hour Photo: Portrait of an Artist," 2002 [image and text]

• "Video Games and Contemporary Sculpture," 2002 [images and text]


• jenghizkhan [click here]

• Jack Featherly [click here]

• Doris Piserchia (with Joanna Pataki) [click here]

from the vault: "Tom Moody's BLOG," by Palo Fabus

UK-based Furtherfield.org, an artist-led online community, arts organization and online magazine, gave me a very supportive review back in the '00s, written by Palo Fabus. The page recently got a stylistic makeover. I greatly appreciate that Furtherfield is committed to older content from the pre-social media days, unlike certain publications that weaseled out and abandoned their work to the Wayback Machine.

from the vault: Video Games and Contemporary Sculpture

Am (still) gradually moving content from my old Digital Media Tree website over to tommoody.us, including an index of published writing examples. I wrote the essay below in 2002 as a self-hosted web-publication. Not sure how well the funky image alignment HTML will work with modern devices but I'll keep it for now.

Product design doesn't emerge in a vacuum; it's part of a larger visual history, reflecting developments in technology, fabrication technique, and philosophy that also apply to the purer arts. Before the late '60s, when the scientific pretensions of the high modernist era began to break down, art and design seemed to move in easy parallel, influencing or being influenced by one other. Yet since that time, with the exception of the occasional visionary (or quasi-visionary oddball such as Matthew Barney), art has preferred to take itself out of the equation, offering ironic footnotes and meta-commentary rather than design per se.

For an example of a commercial object planted firmly in the modernist feedback loop, let's consider Nutting Associates' Computer Space game (1971). The first arcade-style game is clearly rooted in the space age design of the late '60s and early '70s. Its body is made of Fiberglas, one of the "new materials" that promised to revolutionize how we live, work, and shop: tough but malleable, able to be molded into pleasing, biomorphic contours, as in the Eames chair and the Corvette Stingray body. Combining the abstract curves of a Henry Moore sculpture with Apollo-era push-buttons and screen technology, Computer Space is delightfully anthropomorphic, with a bulbous head and pseudopod arm proffering its control panel like a robot butler. Typical of science fiction's use of present-day kitsch objects as futuristic props (e.g, the design-store salt shakers as medical instruments in the McCoy-era Star Trek), Computer Space appeared briefly onscreen in the 1973 Charlton Heston vehicle Soylent Green--as a game, however, rather than a piece of newfangled equipment.

Many artists of the '60s, such as George Rickey and Kenneth Snelson, made objects with the same buoyant optimism and faith in science one sees in the contours of Computer Space. Some of Canadian sculptor Walter Redinger's Fiberglas sculptures fit right in with the NASA aesthetic, while others begin to break away from the upbeat positivism of the '60s and explore its dark side. An untitled wall-piece from 1969, featuring a bizarre, quasi-fetal shape spewing out of the placid surface of a large monochrome triptych, belongs to the latter group. In Redinger's late-'60s-style rhetoric, this phallic-vaginal wraith reflects "the tension which exists between organic and geometric forms," but in retrospect it reads more as a tumorous growth on the picture plane--as if the bodily repression of the Formalist tradition were taking pathological form.

By the '80s, artists had left the design world to fend for itself as they went off to explore the outer reaches of French theory, identity politics, and institutional critique. During this period, video games became functional, box-like, and festooned with tacky graphics: the Xevious game, 1983, for example, featured epic battles of Star Wars-style space ships painted on its sides. The shapes of the consoles may have been utilitarian and ordinary, but the games were popular, thus providing a visual meme that could later be recycled within the art world's self-referential feedback-eddy.

Thus, in Rita McBride’s Machines, 2000, the shapes of "various standard video game consoles found in arcades and neglected bars around the world" (to quote the gallery press release) are presented stripped of all signage and hardware. Made of mass-produced vitreous enamel typically used for industrial signage and subways, the sculptures combine the comforting hues and textures of '50s refrigerators with shapes invoking the design-challenged, shopping-mall '80s. Unlike Redinger's work, however, which was to some extent participating in the grand experiment of its age, McBride's exists at a critical remove from the design world's cycles of innovation and cliche. It comments on the underlying social assumptions of objects without putting too much at risk. That's fine for now, but eventually we may get hungry to see a lava lamp again, as opposed to a "lava lamp."

Photos, top to bottom:
Computer Space arcade game (Nutting Associates), 1971
Walter Redinger, Untitled, 1969, Fiberglas
Xevious arcade game (Atari), 1982
Rita McBride, Machines, 2000

self-determination (what a concept)

Geert Lovink, from his essay "Requiem for the Network":

Let’s get unfashionable and dig up an Adorno quote from Critical Models to recast into the social media age: “The old established authorities decayed and were toppled, while the people psychologically were not ready for self-determination. They proved to be unequal to the freedom that fell into their laps.” This is what networks require: an active form of self-determination. Self-organization from below is the precise opposite of smooth interfaces, automated imports of address books and algorithmic ‘governance’ of one’s news and updates. Self-determination is not something you download and install for free. During the turbulent 1990s centralized information systems lost their power and legitimacy, but instead of smaller networks that claimed to be more democratic and -- in theory -- promote autonomy and people’s sovereignty, all we got were even larger, more manipulative monopoly platforms. Self-determination is an act, a political event, and precisely not a software feature.

Net theorist Lovink returns to form after a painful stretch writing as if everyone used social media. Non-pod-people can read and enjoy this essay!