Diedrich Diederichsen: Selling, Valorising, Burning. On Two Installations by Hannah Sawtell

Prior to the screening of Chelsea Girls on Friday 5 April we are proud to launch BROADSHEET #1-3 by Hannah Sawtell. Reproduced here is Broadsheet #3.

Prior to the screening of Chelsea Girls on Friday 5 April we are proud to launch BROADSHEET #1-3 by Hannah Sawtell. Reproduced here is Broadsheet #3.

Selling, Valorising, Burning. On Two Installations by Hannah Sawtell

There’s a hole in the ground, and there’s a well-lit showroom. One stands for blue collar, the other for white collar. Or so one might think. But things have long ceased to be so clear-cut. The blue collar location, the hole in the ground, also stands for nightlife. And for mining. Primitive accumulation. But also for conditions of exploitation that would have had Marx at a loss for terminology. I’m talking about two exhibitions by Hannah Sawtell, one in a windowless room at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, the other at Bloomberg SPACE, a gallery dedicated to art, by a company, whose ambition is for ‘transparency, collectivity and creativity’, qualities it associates with the ‘unique’ light-suffused architecture of its London headquarters near Finsbury Square. Sawtell suggestively links this light-dark contrast of the two galleries with the divergent diagnoses and reversible figures on which her twin shows are based.

The art in the windowless space at the partly state-funded interdisciplinary art centre deals with extreme exploitation, but also with intensity and powerful stimuli, physical weight and existential crowding, as well as tenacity, slowness and obsessive-compulsive neurosis. The art in the brightly lit space deals with flat, dynamic and accelerated forms of contemporary valorisation. The two exhibitions refer to each another, they are interlinked, but without the construction of these references being reducible to a logic of two sides of the same coin.

‘Osculator’, as the ICA show is called, interlinks allegories of severe exploitation, of prison and slave labour, and other forms of valorisation corresponding not to the law of surplus value creation, but to that of primitive accumulation – a trend in global economic development often noted by observers in recent times, as in the work of the Retort Group†. In the middle of the dark room, two screens face each other, defining a smaller area for the viewer to enter. One is covered with small, Braille-like perforations whose sumptuous but regular patterning turns out to be dictated not by aesthetic concerns but by science: it is an acoustic screen that reflects the audio content of the video projected onto the screen opposite, thus containing the production of sound within the demarcated zone of the artwork.

Consequently, the dark room surrounding the art is granted an unusual un-marked quality. It is as if the scarcely possible has been achieved: to define a zone within the exhibition space of an art institution in which the magic symbolism of the white cube is reversed. Whereas the white cube (or a corresponding symbolic convention) is normally capable of declaring an everyday occurrence to be art (and thus something exceptional), here a space within the art institution is labelled by negation as being outside art, and thus as ‘reality’ – not in real terms, but on the symbolic level. The void around Sawtell’s installation is only ‘real’ on this symbolic level, then, the result of a double-negation of reality whose incompleteness proves that the initial symbolic negation of reality always remains incomplete. Nonetheless, her gesture highlights and represents the power and impotence of art in an astonishing way.

By catching the sound, however, the industrial psychedelia of the acoustic screen also captures real traces, annihilating them and opening up Sawtell’s second theme: the antagonism between extreme weight, severe exploitation and primitive violence on the one hand and, on the other, the obliteration of their traces in the virtualisation of digital culture. On the right half of the screen we see a huge truck driving in circles. It is a vehicle used in diamond mining, one of the industries where exploitation based on primitive accumulation occurs. The truck is linden green. The source is a You Tube clip. Sawtell used a similar colour for the virtual monster truck that she designed using a commercial wire-frame model. She makes this truck drive in circles, too, but this time in the entrance of a computer manufacturer’s outlet store in China, a reference to the working conditions of those who make their products.

Strikingly, this vehicle, whose appearance signals extreme weight, drives around on a glass-like floor without leaving any traces. An allegory on the meaningless (loop) and crudeness (diamond mining) of large-scale exploitation is combined with an allegory on the ineffectiveness of art (no traces). But even this description is not entirely adequate. What we have here is both a utopian image of the artist’s power to lift the heaviest weights with zero effort, and an image of immaterial production and its victims in the digital service industry, with an added direct allusion to the material production of immateriality in the computer industry with the human labour connected to it.

Finally, this installation is far more than an allegory, as it mobilises sign supports (digital players, speakers, screens, partitions) that are made to assert their presence as sculptures and materials, as products and machines, beyond their mere function as supports. Viewers are obliged to walk around the extensive backstage situation in all directions before reaching the scene of meaning. And although this scene is immersive, with components that make a direct impact (looped sound of low-frequency crackling, hypnotic circular movement), the empty, unused space that surrounds it remains present like the drop below the rock climber.

The other location (white collar) is several stops away on the underground. The exhibition is the link between Bloomberg SPACE, a company with global communications reach, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, an organisation with a rich history as an art institution and countercultures hotspot – cultural collaboration in the global city of London, a centre of financial capitalism and fine art.

For viewers in a three-dimensional space, two-dimensional surfaces are usually oriented in a single direction. One must approach them, or turn round to see them. Not so with the picture panels installed by Sawtell in specially designed and produced structures for her ‘Vendor’ show. In these open-sided display towers, the slightly inclined visual data carriers can be approached from various directions. As a result, their space becomes virtually open and transparent – but also endless. Although each individual panel always faces in a single direction, each display tower contains another image facing in a different way. This undermines the stability of the distinction between the world to which the picture refers and the world in which this referring takes place, because the picture in this open, endless and undirected display is part of the world to which it refers. For in these display structures – whose elements are standardized but whose height varies – the pictures could not be further removed from being read as the kind of window onto the world traditionally associated with high-definition images. Viewing the inclined panels is more like looking at record covers or posters, packaging or wallpaper samples – something one can buy and that can be inspected prior to purchase.

This logic of presentation extends to the pictures themselves. At first glance, there seem to be two types of image: digitally processed or constructed surfaces, and photographs of luxurious interiors. But the pictures are so different that there is no dominant principle in terms of content, no non-visual concept to capture the viewer. Instead, there is an almost inescapable sense of visual similarity: is this due to the digital processing, or a special lustre found on rain-soaked panes of glass, cargo containers and water surfaces? No, it must be more than this, there are also pictures that are politically coded or which point to current events: a Greek euro coin, for instance, a fire at night. But these are all phenomena from the world of the post-object commodity, appearing to focus on that part of the world that is devoted exclusively to further valorisation without taking on the concrete form of an object that might be isolated and localised. This is apparent both in the way that the surfaces look like patterns of materials, cases, stocks, etc., and in their appearance as untouched, high-quality luxury goods or parts of such goods. Here, then, valorisation amounts either to processing a raw material for added value or to selling commodities at a profit. In the case of both materials and commodities, it no longer seems to apply that nature or work or processing of nature is simply converted into commodities. Instead, chains of well-developed processing and valorisation, steps with no beginning or end, are observed for a snapshot-like moment as they continue to pulsate and develop.

In classic critiques of capitalism, commodities already have the reputation of reducing a thing to its surface. But this is a fallacy. Many critics of capitalism believe that the packaging of a commodity marks its character as a commodity, its exchange value, but that the ideal of pure use value can survive in the content of such packages. This has never been true. Under the conditions of today’s capitalism, this notion of flat, empty, evil surfaces, contrasting with deep, sensitive flesh, is wrong again in a very specific way. The improper dominance of exchange value cannot be countered by romanticizing use value. Instead, hi-tech surfaces in particular bear marks of the capitalist drama that can be more reliably traced back to their truth than realistic reconstructions.

Rather than looking for truths behind packaging, the exhibition at Bloomberg SPACE attempts to reconstruct the laws governing the self-representation of capitalism. For, it is the packaged objects themselves that are wholly defined by their exchange value, while their packaging develops a peculiarly voluble truth-telling. In its lack of substance, capitalist productivity is well acquainted with the need to include fleetingness in any diagnosis of the present. Daily newspapers were not fast enough, radio and television news was too tied to specific formats – only in the formless flow of news through online portals has this demand for news found the adequate technology. Sawtell’s artistic diagnosis of the present takes its cue from this semi-automatic over-productivity without succumbing to its blindness. Low-key interventions like tilting the pictures and using a uniform, non-directional exhibition architecture, but above all the dramaturgy of the image fragments themselves, help ensure that the way the pictures speak differs from the breathless mode of speaking that dominates the realm from which these pictures originate. Instead, they now speak for themselves, bear witness and provide evidence.

Digital images can only do this, however, if digitality is understood not simply as a technical condition of our times, but as the technical form of neo-liberal capitalism. Rather than digitality itself, of course, they show the world in visual constellations. But the structuring function of limits, figures, rhythm, harmony, contrast, shadow, light source, etc. reveal the outstanding qualities of movements in this world: no longer primarily copy and paste, but definition, high speed, alarmism, simultaneity – fire and entropy.

Sawtell deploys a twofold method here, combining Eisensteinian montage and Pollockian all-over, two modernist techniques which on their own have no chance in the context of digital culture (as they are too precise to reflect its unresisting material), but which take on a new lease of life when combined in this way. Both have long since become everyday properties of digital images and they appear here in this guise, too: the unresisting montage of visual material on menus, flyers and websites and the potential endlessness of decorative material and visual loops as an all-over treatment are everyday stimuli. But in Sawtell’s work, there is also the scandal of specific content in the midst of the eye candy, upsetting the visual arbitrariness of digital hyperrealism.

In this way, both ‘Vendor’ and ‘Osculator’ work with a dialectic of allegorical production of meaning versus real-capitalist noise. At the ICA, the allegory and the meaning speak through the pictures while the real destruction (or threatening) of meaning speaks through the presence of the installation. At Bloomberg SPACE, the noise is found in the pictures and the allegorical meaning is generated by the installation. It is made clear that the aim is criticism, justified criticism, which can be undermined from two sides: by capitalist indifference and destruction through valorisation on the one hand and, on the other, by the physicality of dance, delirium and ‘liberation’ in the loop.

Diedrich Diederichsen

† Retort Group, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, Verso, 2005

BROADSHEET #1-3 by Hannah Sawtell. Printed by Business Week on the occasion of the exhibitions: Vendor, Bloomberg SPACE, 5 October 2012 – 12 January 2013, and Osculator, ICA London, 9 October – 18 November 2012.

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