Tuesday, June 20, 2017



As a child I used to cut up refrigerator boxes with a pocket knife in order to construct a nearly life-sized replica of the cockpit of a military fighter jet. To complete the effect I would only need an abandoned chair, instrument dials drawn in black Magic Marker, and an old broomstick between my legs for a joystick. One leans in the direction of the turn and mumbles technical-sounding gibberish into an imaginary headset. It was the mythology of speed and the seduction of technology that made me want to fly those planes, not the desire to serve my country or the more base desire to kill. In the drive to construct a virtual facsimile, I spent hours in the library in search of photographs, diagrams, anything to help me make my creations more realistic. In the meantime the grown-ups around me, many of whom had been through actual war and had certainly earned a respite from it, were sitting in their easy chairs, watching Vietnam on TV. I loved the idea of virtual reality before the term even existed and would have been thrilled to know that in a very few years I would be able to sit in those very same easy chairs, in front of a PlayStation console, and experience a more realistic simulation of flying than anything I could ever have built. I hadn’t yet learned the disturbing aspects of the simulacrum, the simulation that in its endless recopying replaces the grounding of what used to be called, quaintly, reality.

How far from this kind of simulation is the reality of fighting a war with drones? To judge from Mark Brown's article in The Guardian, not very far:

“It is a lot like playing a video game,” a former Predator drone operator matter-of-factly admits to the artist Omer Fast. “But playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” His bombs kill real people though and, he admits, often not the people he is aiming at.

Perhaps culture will always invent a way to make its young people accept the killing of certain others as natural. Perhaps the process of socialization engineered by the video game, in which the child becomes inured to taking life in certain antiseptic conditions, is not so different after all than the one my generation experienced, playing war in the yard and dolling up our G.I. Joes while across the world the real life soldiers were trudging through the muddy jungles of Vietnam. Maybe childhood is always a preparation for war. But maybe it’s not only the warriors who are being prepared. The problem with the simulacrum is that it’s sexier than reality. The drone pilot sees the bodies shatter--I've read that they suffer from PTSD in the same way as soldiers in battle--but we, in front of our screens at home, only see the spectacle of the buildings exploding on cue. I think it’s not the pilots who are desensitized, but the rest of us, we spectators of the spectacle, we multitudes in our easy chairs who watch our screens, tweet our praise or indignation, and either raise the flag in honor of victory, or congratulate ourselves for taking part in the resistance. Here’s Zizek:

It could be said that the typical World Wide Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, is increasingly a monad with no direct windows onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in a global communication network. The masturbathon, which builds a collective out of individuals who are ready to share the solipsism of their own stupid enjoyment, is the form of sexuality which fits these cyberspace coordinates perfectly.


The distance between the child’s bedroom with the PlayStation in the corner, and the base where pilots operate killing machines, is only part of the story. There’s also the distance between the base and the target. Pilots in Nevada, sitting in easy chairs, can squeeze a missile into a village in Afghanistan. If the sun never set on the British Empire, today’s United States is the world’s omniscient eye. The villager must know by now that somebody in the Pentagon is watching him weed the yard.

Two men shake hands in Washington. The watch commander picks up the phone. In Nevada a drone pilot finishes his coffee and drives to work. An hour later the villager sees a glint of light in the sky. It’s the last thing he sees.

John Rosewall, Reach, 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

paint it, black

Starting a new project always entails making bottom-line choices that will carry through from one work to the next. One of these initial choices, for the work that I’m doing now, had to do with ground. When I conceived the earliest of these paintings, my first priority was to achieve the ultimate in austerity. I would have to be rigorous in my choices in order to ensure that nothing made it into the works that was not absolutely necessary. As Robert Bresson commands in his Notes on the Cinematograph, “Cut what would deflect attention elsewhere.” I wanted nothing that would take away from the symbolic relationships of the figures. Starting with photographs of current events, usually from press sources, I was already cutting enormous amounts of information in the form of objects and people surrounding the principal figures. It seemed logical, even obligatory, to do the same with the elements of setting. I was also thinking a lot at the time about the de-contextualized existence of traditional sculpture, about how the figures, on the one hand, were sufficient in themselves, but on the other implied a setting simply with the fullness of their presence. That’s the kind of presence that I wanted for the figures in my paintings. And if sculpture exists in a de-contextualized space, then my figures should inhabit the same kind of space, but in a form that was proper to painting. Bresson again: “It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.”

Black was the way to go. Any of the chromatic colors seemed to be an addition to the work. I wanted subtraction, and a color implies too much. In an early version of one of the pieces—“Touch,” for those keeping score—I used a soupy green to imply the institutional setting that the figure, who is being placed under arrest, is or would soon be inhabiting. This green made perfect sense, but it was also superfluous. The hand that is resting on the back of the detainee is gloved in black, and the sleeve is blue—police-officer blue. What more needs to be said? I haven’t been able to find this Bresson quote again, but I know I read it somewhere: “If one violin is enough, don’t use two.”

Still, part of me worried about the possibly facile nature of this choice. Black was almost too closely associated with the dark impulses of human nature, exactly the sorts of impulses about which I was painting. From The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” to the Netflix series Black Mirror, the absence of color has signified, perhaps too neatly after all, the absence of hope or redemption. It has signified death, the final destination for many of the figures I was depicting. I could hear Ian, the manager of Spinal Tap, justifying the black cover of Smell the Glove to a suspicious David St. Hubbins: “David, every movie in every cinema is about death. Death sells.” Maybe the black grounds weren’t so much an absence as a presence that was too on-point after all, or worse than on-point: tacky.

But when I started to hang multiple paintings together, my initial feeling seemed to bear out. By letting the figures hover in a deep black space that bore no trace of any existing, real place, the figures created their own setting, a setting that could not be fixed but that somehow encompassed the disparate activity in the different paintings, as if it all was taking place in some indistinct but coherent zone. One version of an indistinct, place-less zone where all things happen is, of course, the aforementioned black mirror that all of us carry around these days. It must have been Baudrillard who wrote that television is the place where all things happen. Now, of course, it’s cyberspace, which we “enter” on our phones. Can a color depict what we have come to know as a place that we visit but never inhabit? If so, it must be black, the color that is no color, the color of ultimate absence. “How much more black could this be?” asks Nigel, looking into the album cover that is a black mirror avant la lettre. “And the answer is, ‘None. None more black.’”

But another version of this indistinct zone is perhaps more relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish. It has to do with the difference between reality and the Real: between the place where things actually happen, and the space where they give way to a deeper truth. In his book Violence, in which he endeavors the task of “looking at violence awry,” Zizek expands on an idea from Wallace Stevens of “description without place”:

This is not a description which locates its content in a historical space and time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a decontextualised appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being. . . . it extracts from the confused reality its own inner form.

This describes perfectly what I’m seeking to do by using the deep black spaces. I’m removing the figures from their “historical space and time,” from the “depth of reality behind” them, and creating “an inexistent (virtual) space” that “coincides with real being.” It brings us back to the difference between reality and the Real. Removing the figures from “reality” means only that they have been excised from their immediate context, the particular field, street corner, or building in which they were photographed. In "Touch" this means fashioning, out of the absence of the black ground, a setting for the figure that is more than the institution, for his Real is the nightmare of the state's obscene power. Taking away the trappings of place means that we can now re-contextualize the figures in a space that is identified with the Real, in order to highlight the deeper relationships between them, and the underlying, truer state of things. From the “confused reality” of the photographic models, I’m trying to discover reality’s “inner form.”

It’s what you do when you need that extra push over the cliff. Maybe all the Real really means is turning reality up to eleven.

John Rosewall, Touch, 2016