Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency
by Hal Foster
Could it be that after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, this dictatorial dimension surfaced in American culture? Certainly in the wake of 9/11 a new order of totalitarian kitsch came to pervade this society. Among the signs were thee: the trumping of basic civil rights by particular moral values; the brandishing of the Ten Commandments at courthouses; the obligation of national politicians to make a show of faith; the appropriation of "life" against those who support reproductive choice; and, of course, the clash of fundamentalisms. It is this last connection that Gober captures in the brilliant touch of his acephalic Jesus, for condensed here is not only a reminder of the beheaded hostages in Iraq but also a figure of America in the guise of Christ the sacrificial victim turned righteous aggressor, the one who kills in order to redeem.
You enter a space given over to a noisy tangle of video screen, cables, and wires; here and there homemade mechanisms, mostly in the low-tech form of small surveillance cameras, relay the bizarre actions of toy figures on nearby monitors. This infernal world—its title, you discover, is The Palace at 4 A.M.—is entered through a passage surrounded by a giant beaver-shot. You next encounter a blowup of the trashed residence of Saddam Hussein after the Iraq invasion; the palace in question seems to be his. Yet you also confront a large picture of George W. Bush with the word "war" scrawled across his forehead in blood red, so the location might be his White House as well. In time you understand the palace in question to be a psychological bunker that Saddam and Bush shared for a time, making the rest of us share it with them. In this respect the palace is your home too—in the middle of the night, say, when the war on terror troubled your sleep. And in fact the oscillation between engulfment and recoil produced by The Palace at 4 A.M. is not unlike that of a nightmare.
In this carnivalesque space you pass by discrete stations. In one called "One Hour Photo," tacky postcards of the World Trade Center revolve on a vertical conveyor-belt, at the bottom of which a small video camera is placed. As each card approaches the camera and then trips over it, the monitor shows a wobbly zoom in on the
Jon Kessler, The Palace at 4 A.M., 2005. Mixed media installation at PS 1 with cameras,
monitors, lights, and mirrors. Kessler images © Jon Kessler, Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.
Twin Towers; it is as though an outrageous videogame had projected you into the doomed planes of 9/I I. This perverse point of view, in which you arc asked to identify with a weapon, became familiar during the first Gulf War with cameras embedded in smart bombs. "One Hour Photo" thus conjures up the perspective of both terrorists and victims on the 9/11 jets; in effect you arc offered a reimagining of this trauma. But it is one that is compulsively repeated, not worked through, a conundrum literalized by the mechanical loop. And you recognize the toxic character of all such spectacular events—how they are once traumatically real, utterly mediated, and endlessly replayed.
Another station in The Palace at 4 A.M. is called "Modem Vision," which lines you up, via video, with a mock smart bomb that targets the Museum of Modem Art. Its predecessor (not included in The Palace at 4 A.M.) is titled "Heaven's Gate." Here, again via a video, you fly through a model city into a model apartment, where the camera zooms in on a computer screen. On this screen you first see
Jon Kessler, One Hour Photo, 2004. 74 x 39 x 26 inches.
the buttocks of a doll, and then pass through this unexpected aperture, only to emerge, on the other side, into a gallery space. Once again representation is imagined as a carnal act, in this case an anal rebirth: in opposition to pervasive myths about the transcendence of art and the immateriality of information, you are asked to consider the physical bases and the corporeal effects of art and information alike. You arc also led to reflect on a general condition of obscenity in contemporary news and entertainment alike, in which representations, bodies, and machines often converge violently.
Jon Kessler, the architect of The Palace at 4 A.M. (2005), takes bites out of the spectacle-machine of the American Empire under George W. Bush, chews them over, and spits them out again. Combining news events, military reports, touristic postcards,
Jon Kessler, Heaven’s Gate, 2004. 123 x 91 x 80 inches.
seductive ads, and franchised toys, his delirious little dramas deconstruct some of the political fixations and cultural obsessions of the period. Kessler also works by blunt appropriation and perverse refunctioning in his titles. Consider "Global Village Idiot," an avatar of a ragged old man who appears in The Palace at 4 A.m. and other Kessler productions. The name plays on Marshall McLuhan, who, in such texts as War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), suggested that the instantaneous reach of electronic communications had, for the first time in history, made for an informed audience around the world. In his revision Kessler intimates that in our global village today, one of endless infotainment controlled by a handful of governments and corporations, we are trained to be village idiots—cultural know-nothings and political incompetents. The implication—that technological progress and social regression arc more complements than opposites—is one key to the critical charge of his art, and it flies out in many directions at once. For not only is Bush the idiot here, but so too are Saddam and Osama bin Laden, and neither the artist nor his viewers are excused: "global village idiocy" is an equal-opportunity condition. Since his mechanisms arc even more viciously circular than the media around us, Kessler exacerbates the greater spectacle. At the same time he also interrupts this spectacle, since he introduces compulsive breaks into its flow. All of his setups are rough, and as we
Jon Kessler, Party Crasher, 2004 (detail, 112 x 84 x 55 inches)
watch the low-tech images we see their madcap production; it is a production so close to destruction that the two cannot be easily distinguished. So, too, just as his mechanisms arc not stable, our position is not secure: sometimes we are seen as we see, caught on the monitors as we scan them, and no two viewers witness the same scene. Machine and image attempt "to complete each other," Kessler comments, but this is impossible, and so "a puncture" is produced between representation and referent; it is this puncture that allows us to see through the setups and, in principle, to see though others in the world. Through his little counter-spectacles, then, Kessler suggests that the greater spectacle of American power is in trouble, that its wizards cannot maintain its theater of illusions forever, and that wondrous new technologies are always haunted by awful new disasters.
Like Gober, Kessler calls up different precedents, such as Jean Tinguely and his auto-destructive contraptions, Robert Rauschenberg and his rambunctious combinations of machines and media, and Claes Oldenburg and his regressive theater of homemade products and signs. Kessler also updates the Surrealist juxtaposition of found images and objects, and sometimes here too this results in a "convulsive beauty" in which desire and death arc revealed as bound up with one another. More specifically, Kessler alludes to Alberto Giacometti, who in his own Palace at 4 A.M. (1932), with its spectral figures caged in a skeletal house, conjures up an obscure drama of Oedipal subject-formation. In his Palace, however, with its action figures caught up in spectacular disaster, Kessler reflects on how we are formed as subjects today, that is, how we are inscribed in new regimes of global entertainment and imperial politics in ways that radically reformulate the old familial dramas and psychological inferiorities. In this respect, Kessler is driven by a critical paranoia (another Surrealist theme), as are some of the figures he calls to mind here—theorists like Paul Virilio, filmmakers like David Cronenberg, and authors like Thomas Pynchon, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. As we saw in Chapter 2, Freud defined the paranoiac as a subject who is desperate to connect the facts, often through conspiracy theories, precisely because they appear so disconnected in the first place: for the paranoiac, the very survival of the world seems to depend on the coherence that he can project onto it by the sheer force of his interpretative will. In a further study, the Freud associate Victor Tausk focused on paranoiacs whose conspiracy theories took the form of control by "influencing machines." Clearly, Kessler plays with the tension between connection and disconnection, and he constructs his own influencing machines in doing so. However, he refuses to be at their mercy; indeed, his machines are do-it-yourself models of how to jam, at least momentarily, the image-flow of machines of power. These two installations by Robert Gober and Jon Kessler produce different moods: the Gober is cool and enigmatic, as befits his setting (a chapel crossed with a morgue in the aftermath of 9/11), while the Kessler is heated and explicit, as suits his seem (a videogame parlor crossed with a presidential bunker during the war on terror). But the two artists exploit a similar strategy, which is a mimesis of the given—of political kitsch in the former case, of political infotainment in the latter. And this mimesis is heightened, even exacerbated, to the point of mimicry— "mimesis" connotes this kind of mocking through miming as well—which Gober effects through painstaking facsimiles and Kessler through jerry-rigged assemblages. In each instance the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art is turned from its initial ideal, a utopian reintegration of the human senses, to a contemporary actuality, a dystopian confusion of spectacle and death.