On the Survival of Images: KINETIC IMAGE AND MODERN VISION

PAMELA LEE

 

Of the thousands, indeed, countless images that cycle through Jon Kessler's THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. (2005), you would be hard pressed to argue that the most powerful appears in a piece entitled MODERN VISION (2005). That one can even raise this suggestion flies in the face of Kessler's meditation-cum-nightmare on the world circa 2005. Composed of 40 kinetic sculptures, some 60 surveillance cameras capturing the viewer's interaction with the work, 300 monitors (which spit these feeds back in real time), and approximately 50 aluminum cutouts, THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. is a sprawling, global gestalt on the chaos of images that inform our current world picture, with the Iraq catastrophe serving as its locus mundi. And like the mirrors that refract such imagery throughout the multiple galleries the work inhabits, THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. provides a most pernicious reflection. The hideous, towering mug of George W. Bush and his gang, blown up to the scale of a billboard and scrawled over with the word "WAR," is the least of it. A grid of imposing television sets (THEATER OF IDEAS, 2005) betrays the sense that ours is an endlessly mediated world, whereas a figure with dunce cap recalls the subhuman iconography of Abu Ghraib. For its part, SWANS (2005) features a bevy of models rendered grotesque. All the while, glorious sunsets and falling towers picture a world sublime in its violence. In case anyone missed the point, arcs of red paint, like blood, sign off on the disaster.

How perverse, then, to make claims for the staying power of images in MODERN VISION! For rather than depict the geopolitical abattoir that is the "War on Terror" or the media glut of images that provide easy distraction from it its imagery strikes much closer to home: the section offers a smart-bomb's vista on the destruction of the Museum of Modern Art. Created specifically for the P.S. 1 iteration of THE PALACE AT 4 A.M., MODERN VISION is an eight-second simulation showing a fly-through of a missile penetrating a photograph of Taniguchi's building. In the process the missile destroys a tiny model of the very work the viewer currently engages, and repeats the moment of impact over and over a visual mantra for our time.

Taking its cue from an essay by Benjamin Buchloh on the new Museum of Modern Art, MODERN VISION has all the charm of a spectacularly failed joke. Its absurdity stems in large part from the sense that, amidst the debris field of images the rest of the work lays bare, Kessler saw fit to stage a mini-drama in which the question of the implicit survival of his work stands cheek-by-jowl with pictures of destruction and torture. Kessler himself has referred to MODERN VISION as "solipsistic" and "narcissistic": it is a work that offers no glimpse of an outside. But in speaking of this section through the language of the "kinetic image" I want to stress how the question of the persistence of such images and their mechanisms informs our capacity for meaningful responses to them.

MODERN VISION, then, does not simply address the narcissism of the art world, a point that can only border on tautology. Though the work might seem a grossly impolitic footnote to the essay on twenty-first-century violence that is THE PALACE AT 4 A.M., it also throws into relief the question of the stability, preservation, and transformation of images and their uses in what the collective Retort has referred to as the "Image-Power" of contemporary spectacle.[1] Retort It does so through the multiple and shifting logics of its many, layered interfaces both within the work itself and with those who encounter them. This is a question of no small consequence for our current situation, and one that finds precedent with our very recent past.

Indeed, the rubric of the "kinetic image" derives from Alvin Toffler's best-seller of 1970, Future Shock, a book I've considered relative to the history of kinetic art in the 1960s.[2] When Future Shock first appeared, it enjoyed mass appeal for its shrill prognoses on the dawning Information Age. Today it reads like a techno-cultural relic—a period piece for the RAND generation. Still it is by dint of the book's apparent irrelevance that the notion of the "kinetic image" speaks forcefully to the problem of the survival of images. The phrase was meant to diagnose the transient quality of data endlessly streaming from computers, televisions, and all types of media ever subjected to the vertiginous cycles of production and obsolescence. For Toffler, the eruptive force and instantaneity of the image—its rapid-fire appearance and flash-for-ward disappearance found cultural expression in the welter of 1960s kinetic art then flooding galleries and museums. This was a moment that saw the renaissance of an art form that explicitly invoked the avant-garde experiments of a Moholy-Nagy or a Duchamp. The proliferation of this machine-driven work and its stress on movement and ephemera spoke to the mass circulation of information in the 1960s and the struggles over the place of that information within the public sphere.

Where Kessler is concerned, it's important to note the rhetorical sleight of hand motivating Toffler's analysis. Toffler's is a convergence between older forms of media kinetic art, its Machine Age inheritance, and its putative obsolescence and the new modes of distribution and reception associated with the information society. It is this logic that structures Kessler's technical interfaces as well, not to mention the ultimate interface that takes place between viewer and object. For though THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. takes its titular inspiration from Alberto Giacometti's Surrealist masterpiece of 1932, it is a broader history of kinetic art, and not Surrealism, that captures something of the affective capacity of images in this recent context. Kessler first began to think of his work in these terms in 1983, when Richard Armstrong referred to his then more discrete sculpture as kinetic.[3] The artist himself sees his work as inheriting from the events staged at 9 Evenings, the performances of the Judson Group, and artists such as Robert Whitman and Alex Hay. What binds these figures together—and what links them to a longer history of sixties kinetic art is an understanding of bodily movement relative to its interface with a host of technical apparatus, itself often kinetic. The immersive situations staged by these predecessors called on an active viewer, if not one compelled to push so many buttons like the subject of much interactive art. THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. implicitly understands that the image is ultimately indivisible from the mechanism that produces it, whether body or machine, and the viewer who encounters it by extension. Hence the tangle of machines and images that comprise the larger experience of THE PALACE AT 4 A.M.: each cutout is accompanied by a surveillance camera, whose images change with each new participant/observer. Computers and analog mechanisms resist parting company; sculpture punctures provide new vistas to ever-changing scenarios.

Something about this interface and its interference can tell us much about the survival of images in MODERN VISION. Kessler has used computers in his work since 1985 as a means to "drive the analog forward and give it more emotion and personality."[4] Yet he also notes that "I do not use digital technology unless I absolutely have to ... I am much more interested in using analog to make work that has a mimetic relation to digital processes." In the same way that Toffler's kinetic image mimed the movement of the new information technologies, Kessler's crossing of older and newer media produces a kind of historical drag on its imagery, a way of catching the production of images as they flicker, spin, and circulate throughout the galleries. In both the work's multiple forms of mediation and its imagery, the vestiges of a recent past remain. They remain, for one, because of the sheer physical density of THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. A virtual bulimia of images and their props, the work tells us that even as its pictures are the garbage of a so-called information economy, the very existence of that garbage gives the lie to information's alleged dematerialization. The ecology of the information society is such that media will always come back to haunt us, even if the mechanisms that spur their production or the data-bank of images insistently claim to carry no physical charge.

But there is another way that these images survive for us, less as a matter of the props that generate them than the strange duration they highlight for the observer. It's a mode of temporality dramatized by the first work in which Kessler used surveillance video, entitled ONE HOUR PHOTO (2004). Appearing in "Global Village Idiot," Kessler's solo show at Deitch Project, ONE HOUR PHOTO consisted of a tiny camera filming a sequence of postcards of the World Trade Center; as the pictures rotated, the images produced a scene as if witnessed from the cockpit. Like many works in THE PALACE AT 4 A.M., the rotation of postcards created the illusion of a continuous image in the eye of the camera, not unlike the fabled notion of the afterimage used to explain how cinema produces its sense of continuity. For the afterimage was alleged to remain in the eye of its viewer, as if inhabiting however phantasmatically the viewer's body.

Like ONE HOUR PHOTO, the images in THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. take on a paradoxically carnal weight paradoxical because the images themselves are essentially non-repeating. Of course, the reason they don't repeat is due to the constantly renewed presence of a viewer, always implicated by the dozens of surveillance cameras throughout the work. The viewer, in a manner of speaking, becomes the work: the viewer incarnates the image as its one consistent variable. This is not another retread of the bland promises associated with interactive art, mind you, so much as an acknowledgment that each image is singular because each viewer caught up in the dynamic with the surveillance camera is singular. And this observation is rife with both potential and dread, a point which brings me back to MODERN VISION, that section of the work described by Kessler as "solipsistic."

That may well be so, though this endlessly introjected vision is equal but opposite to what happens in the rest of THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. Indeed, consider this section through the terms of the kinetic image of the tension between old and new media that is the motor of the larger work as well as the shifting modes of reception that accompany each. Notably, this is the only section of the work in which, as Kessler reminds us, "there is no outside." Its optic is tunnel vision. A closed system, it appeals to the sense in which the work's survival depends on its repeated imaging by a camera that records its own destruction and then plays it back, over and over and over again. In a culture where people willingly submit themselves to the camera's all-seeing eye— where the former threat of surveillance has been internalized as the desire to broadcast every last move on YouTube—MODERN VISION incarnates what it means to live and die by the Spectacle. "Its edict," Kessler notes, is "I am filmed ... therefore I exist."

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Retort (fain Bowl, TJ. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts) Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005), p. 28.

[2] Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004).

[3] This and other information derives from a conversation with the artist, February 16, 2007, New York.

[4] All of Kessler's quotations are from an email exchange with the artist, February 1, 2007.