Happy Holidays, dear Reader. Yes, I seem always to get stuck with the holidays (Labor Day, Christmas, and whatever might come next…), hence you get stuck reading me—if, in fact, you read on such supposed holidays.
Kindly note that I’m using PC in my title to refer to Personal Computer, not Politically Correct. See, if you’re reading me now, you’re most likely doing so on a personal computer. I have nothing to say about political correctness between the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid, and any other holiday one might celebrate this season. But if you’re here, there’s little chance you’re with relatives, family, etc. and if you are, you’re ignoring them in favor of this little screen in front of you. That’s what intrigues me. I’ve traveled several hours, and am in the house I grew up in, sleeping in the bed I grew up sleeping in, walking through the woods I grew up walking through. Although nothing much seems to have changed, I have, and my way of interacting with all this has as well. I now sit at a little laptop, with four family members in the same room, and all of us have our attention absorbed in the little screens before them. This intrigues me.
Two weeks ago I carried out and presented a little art project. If this sounds diminutive, it should. I was taking a seminar in “combined media;” flying in the face of most programs, there was a relatively precise assignment for the final critique: everyone was to prepare a site-specific project.
Site-specific: as in, after the minimalists; as in, after Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 Sculpture in the Expanded Field; as in, all those works and ideas I’d heard of but never really thought about. Initially, I tried to think of it as a great opportunity—to do research, to try something outside my comfort zone. Fairly soon I simply had to admit it was just a pain in the ass: what did site mean, anyway? Let alone what specific could have meant. And that’s when I realized I was unbelievably lucky; I was being asked to do something I’d never have volunteered for, but could use to step out of my regular practice, run a real risk, and try something new.
Being a word-oriented gal, I began asking myself what those two terms could mean, and how they could be interpreted in a more creative fashion. Nothing came. After three thesauruses and my trusted OED, still nothing came. And that’s when I made a joke and my brilliant companion rose to the occasion: in jest I discussed wanting to create an utterly non-existent project, an experience, something people would be part of but that would leave no trace, something fleeting and pointed and contemporary and temporary—something like a text message.
Admittedly, I was indebted to a colleague of mine who had presented the previous week. In a brilliant critique of academia, he had written out his previous critique as a script; it ended up literally looking like a theatrical script, with the colleague-characters’ names preceding whatever riveting or banal thing they had said in reaction to his latest works. Those latest works (five small paintings and one larger painting) were represented by tape outlines applied to the wall at the beginning of his final critique. Thus it became a complete, and quite engrossing, performance: he’d recruited three other colleagues to make the masking-tape outlines of six rectangles on the wall, and then handed out printed scripts to all the people who’d spoken during his last crit, who then had to recite their part. This became hilarious when one recited—verbatim—his comment that “the taping is shitty,” critiquing the fuzzy outline of several areas throughout the canvas. The last—and perhaps most important—detail is that the scripted dialogue was written from his memory, not from any recording. I picked up on that when I saw that a few peoples’ comments, including my own, weren’t included, and hence they didn’t get to recite their part.
Aside from being remarkably clever, that piece got me thinking about various sorts of site and space, especially memory as space. His performance was held in the room adjacent to the one where the previous crit had been held; the works we were looking at were blank rectangles roughly the size of the actual paintings we’d looked at before, but were empty, prompting us to conjure up our visual memories of the pieces. The fact that he wrote the script from memory meant that the real space—of the recitation and the supposedly visual work being discussed—was all in our heads.
So I discussed my trepidation about the site-specific project with my companion, described the above project, and began to brainstorm. He’d made a political poster stating that a certain thing would happen at a certain time, and left a blank for the certain place it would happen to be filled in by hand—making a curiously site-specific poster edition by leaving site entirely out of it. But I didn’t care to steal his work, so thought of my own relations to this theme. Although I hardly ever gave site or space a second thought, one of my earliest pertinent memories was the way my brother and I would always divide space as children: in our parents’ car we would stake out our claims, using our index finger to draw an invisible line through the middle of the seat and telling one another not to cross into territory that wasn’t ours. The same happened at an even younger age when we shared the bathtub, and floating bathtub toys: any toy or toe that strayed onto the other’s side was the other’s to do with as he liked. This translated into site as territory, and I considered dividing Manhattan along 42 Street with a chalk line or string, referring to these ancient territorial disputes and the fact that the view of the island from my neighborhood perfectly bisects it along that cavernous line between the surrounding skyscrapers. Deciding that wasn’t very feasible or interesting (and being a regrettably practical-minded gal as well), we considered unwinding a spool of thread through the corridors and stairways of the studio building, still referring to territory and division, but also referencing the idea of a loop and of being traced, or chased. None of these seemed at all inspiring.
Thus uninspired by the task at hand, and admittedly discouraged by a recent bureaucratic nightmare related to some other work I’d recently shown, I decided I wanted my solution to be utterly non-existent, physically speaking, and yet very present. I wanted it to make people think about the site they were in, specifically. I wanted to do so through no physical means, and over time. I’d recently seen the Tino Sehgal piece at Marian Goodman, which I found very thought provoking, albeit problematic (and too lengthy to discuss here, but do go see it if you can). So I ventured to provoke some thought, via sms.
I received and then sent my first text message, or sms, short for “short message service,” in the spring of 2000, when a Roman friend of mine was explaining how we could keep in touch without spending the exorbitant sums calling each other by mobile phone required. It seemed silly at first, but did save a good deal of time and money. I then suddenly awakened to the fact that a good portion of the people around me at any given moment were absorbed in writing messages on their mobiles: while ordering coffee at the bar, while walking down the street, while doing just about anything—their attention was elsewhere. This was a huge phenomenon in Europe because calling to and from mobiles was (and is) so expensive; in the US, the system is completely different, and text messaging made little sense. For several years, no one had heard of it, had the patience for it, or bothered with it—until the marketers stepped in with special “texting” packages, pointing out that it’s great for when you’re in loud clubs and can’t talk, or for not-so-directly letting people know you’re late to a rendezvous, or other supposed necessities. Hence everyone here started “texting” one another while absenting themselves from wherever they were as they frenetically typed away on their tiny mobile keypads.
So I decided the non-site of a text message—and peoples’ very state while writing, receiving, or replying to a text message—would be the site of my project. It was an ideally ambivalent subject for me: sms had allowed me to keep relationships alive across oceans and time zones for years on end, yet the brevity and constraints of such limited communication also bothered me. It fed one of my passions in the form of record keeping (I have almost every sms I’ve ever sent or received, creating a curiously concise portrayal of people, events, and experiences), but was also yet another electronic device I felt divorced me from my surroundings. So I ended up doing the most banal thing thinkable—I sent three brief messages:
1. (7:00 a.m. EST) WHERE ARE YOU?
2. (10:00 a.m. EST) WHERE ARE YOU NOW?
3. (1:00 p.m. EST) & NOW?
These were sent, over six hours’ time, to everyone in the seminar who’d given me their number. The idea was simply to get the receiver to be aware of their location at that given time. People were free to reply, or not reply, in any way they preferred. I chose all caps as a nod to telegrams as ancestors of both sms and e-mail and other brief, relatively immediate, ephemeral means of communication. The last message was sent during the final seminar, so it worked both as a last question and as a theatrical “and now what?” sort of lead-in to the discussion of this piece.
Peoples’ reactions were fascinating. Since newer e-mail conventions are fresher in most peoples’ minds than telegram conventions, some interpreted the ALL CAPS as YELLING. Because of how it was written, I knew many people would think the first note was someone summoning them to a meeting they’d forgotten. I also knew most people would still be asleep. A Japanese participant was clearly awake and telephoned me straightaway, but I didn’t answer, as I wanted any and all communication to be text-based, leaving a record. Several people had forgotten giving me their numbers, and asked who I was. Many replied “home.” One replied not with a place, but with a verb: “sleeping.” But he clearly wasn’t, since he was sending me a text message. One girl was awakened by the message while soundly asleep with her boyfriend and, not recognizing the number, was struck by panic after concluding it could only be some ex of hers trying to get back in touch. The seminar “professor” interpreted it as a sort of surveillance, felt it was prying into his life, didn’t reply to any of them, and was reminded of a past project that predated mobiles wherein the artist had someone bring a phone to him periodically throughout the night and said things like “I know what you’ve done,” “confess,” “everybody can see what you’re up to,” etc.—a curious connection that, given its acutely accusatory mode, had little to do with the piece at hand.
I initially thought of it as a mere nudge for the recipients to meditate on where they were at that moment. I was also fond of the idea that we were all linked at three moments, over space and time, by a little nothing of a note, a few characters appearing on a little screen, which had the potential to open up a dialogue. Several of these conversations of sorts continued throughout the day, both by sms and then in the seminar itself. It was my first non-existent project, and the first time I was able to connect with some specific people, in specific sites, on a specific level.
This holiday brings the project, abstract and abstruse as it may seem, back to mind. Gadgets, toys, PCs, and countless other things have the potential to both bring family and friends closer or further divide them—it’s how we choose to use such devices, and ultimately how aware we choose to be, that decides their role. While we might be geographically farther from those closest to us for these holidays, seemingly cold constructions like the internet and mobile networks and text messages, while they cannot embody a person or an embrace, can convey our thoughts and draw us closer.
On that note, it’s time for me to leave the screen and return to familial festivities. May you enjoy wherever you are right now, whomever you’re with, whatever you’re doing, however you choose.
Thanks for reading; previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.