Friday, July 17, 2009

Thinking about liking

What do I like, and why do I like it?

That might seem like a really simple question, but I think that particularly in this age where it's easy to "like" something by clicking a button on Facebook, it's really important to analyze what actually draws you to certain things. I dropped out of art school after one year, so I didn't really "properly" learn to do critiques or any of that. Perhaps this is part of why I feel ill at ease when asked to articulate my feelings about a piece beyond knowing that I like it, or don't.

I was made aware of two art projects last week that evoked very different, opposite reactions in me. The first, Murmur Study, an installation by Christopher Baker, elicited a strong negative reaction. The second, Environmentally Unfriendly Monoliths, an installation by Peter Robinson, a strong positive reaction. After some thought, however, I realized that the projects have some things in common, and that some further reflection about my feelings might shed some light on the darkness in my soul -- um, I mean, why I had the initial gut reactions that I had.

So, Murmur Study. Really did not like it at first. I was struck with the feeling that the idea was stale and had been done before. I was reminded of some project or projects I had heard about a few years ago involving projecting text messages onto buildings. I wasted rather a lot of time doing Google searches to locate these projects, to "prove" that this idea was stale, but then I had the revelation that I didn't need proof to explain my feelings. I feel like it's been done. I feel like I've seen all I need to see of this kind of thing, and it doesn't really matter if I can find the evidence or not. This therapy session is about MY FEELINGS.

Anyway. I do understand that this project is slightly different, and furthermore, this particular project is kind of unique among Things I Don't Like because I consider it to be very well-executed. In fact, the more I read/learn about this piece and consider it, the more I believe that it's really been done as well as it possibly could. The use of the thermal printers in particular is the perfect medium to use to highlight the impermanence of the very archive that is being created.

I'm pretty sure I "get" it. I "get" it and it's well done. I just don't like it. It seems like a waste of paper, it feels stale and overdone to me, an artistic question that has already been answered, or perhaps doesn't really need to be answered. I wonder if my reaction has to do with the fact that I come from the world of library science and preservation, and we think about these topics ALL THE TIME. Almost every day I am faced with questions about permanence and impermanence, archiving, making decisions about what's "important" or "relevant," and so a project like this just seems entirely unoriginal to me. Real librarians are dealing with these questions all the time, and it's nothing new.

However, I realize that not everyone is exposed to these questions all of the time, so perhaps for them the installation is a lot more thought-provoking. Context is everything!

So, why do I like Peter Robinson's Environmentally Unfriendly Monolith installation then? It also addresses similar ideas of waste and permanence.

I guess the short and simple answer is: it feels more honest. There is no "deep" and thoughtful artist's statement (that I could find) and so it is entirely likely I am interpreting this very differently from how Robinson intended (although, I believe that that is a big part of what visual art is really about -- the potential disparity between the viewer's experience and the artist's intention -- but that's fodder for another blog entry entirely.)

If you want, you can meditate on the impact humans have on the environment, or ponder for a while the notion of permanence, but it doesn't force you to do that. It's just huge, ridiculously huge stuff made out of a total "waste" material, and it's never going to degrade, like all things made out of this material, after the installation is done. It feels like a great joke, and it invites you to consider certain issues without cramming them down your throat in an overexplanatory way.

I did quite a bit of internet probing and couldn't find too much information about Peter Robinson, but I did find this review of another, similar installation of his, and I think it's insightful and worth a read. Probably because it seems like the reviewer has reached a similar if more elegantly stated conclusion about Robinson as I. Also fodder for further thought, in a different blog entry.

The entry took me a good week to write, but I think forcing myself into this mode of thinking is useful for me. I'd be interested in knowing your thoughts as well.


  1. My gut reactions were pretty similar. To me, Murmur Study feels kind of despairing about people's informational byproducts, while the other one feels like it's talking about physical byproducts as some awesome, perverse accomplishment. And that second thing is more interesting to me, and if only by virtue of "feeling less negative." Of course, I made up that negativity after looking at it, and someone could just as easily come up with opposite conclusions about both and favor the first for the same reason I favor the second.

    I really like how the article you linked talks about how even though you feel like the piece should be depressing what with its environmental implications, it ends up being just really awesome and fun to be in the same room with.

  2. My "gut reactions" are exactly the opposite.

    I like "Murmur Study" now that I've seen it. I hated it in theory primarily because I think twitter is redundant, overhyped technology, but I think the impact of being around it would be lovely; simultaneously ominous and soothing, as it should be. And I think you're correct in saying that your career as a preservationist makes the topic feel more old-hat to you. Whereas looking at the other piece just... really, really pisses me off. I'm not sure exactly what it is. Maybe it's just that it's more recognizably "Fine-Art"-lic due to its presentation, or something. I don't know. The only "Big Art" that's ever really moved me has been the kind that's integrated organically into architecture or landscapes; I'm automatically biased against it otherwise. Oh, I guess there was a Jenny Holzer installation once that I felt pretty positive about. But that was it. Also, monolithic single-colored geometric forms do not appeal to me in the slightest. There's something unappealingly 20th-century about them, even when they're kind of convoluted.

    It's nice that they recycle it afterwards, because it definitely feels a lot more OH ICK PERMANENT HORRORS than a bunch of little paper ribbons. Maybe that's a large part of it too; stronger environmental guilt alarm bells get set off by Styrofoam than Plain Paper.

    I really don't want to post this because my internal editor is loud and abrasive, but since you're talking 'bout gut reactions, I'll just go ahead and do it.

  3. Also, I officially hate blogger/blogspot, because I realized the reason my comments always get destroyed is because I am strict about cookie control and because I usually use a browser that doesn't support iframes.


  4. I guess another thing is that for me dialogue, even more than process, is ultimately what any creative work I consider successful is about; I'm not very comfortable with [and rarely inspired or moved by] a rigid division between Artist and Audience, or with Art Product and Its Environment. The first project *is* collaborative, even if its collaborators are unwitting [which kind of works in its favor given the potential hilarious horror of someone seeing their own half-assed poorly-thought-out twitter garbage given physical incarnation]. The second has a strong concept - I understand that its rigid fitness to a very limited purpose contrasted with the overtly-stated death sentence hanging over its head is the better part of what it's about, but I can't imagine someone sitting down to eat their lunch on it without getting in trouble with art gallery staff, and that immediately makes me kind of bored with it.

    This is the same reason I like games and graffiti ["as art," I mean] and playing music with other people and especially performing it in public and why I think Christo is an insufferable douchebag.

    This was a lot longer before, but once again I forgot the correct combination of the right browser to use and which cookies I can't reject if blogspot isn't to totally eat my comment. I should really be doing these on paper first, or at least in a text file.

  5. I feel like that's the point though... I want to be appalled!