Mechanisms

The Wattis Institute, San Francisco, USA

In his satirical novel I Hate the Internet (2016), Jarett Kobek writes: ‘You can’t stop the gears of capitalism. But you can always be a pain in the ass.’ How? We are alone, together, to use Sherry Turkle’s descriptor of online sociality, united in a shared willingness to click a user agreement and carry on, data that we are. Resistance to social media’s algorithmic regime isn’t futile so much as it is circumscribed and necessarily contingent: everything requires a password, and everywhere offers a cookie, tracking each click and share. In ‘Mechanisms’, a prickly, expansive group exhibition curated by Anthony Huberman at California College of the Arts’s Wattis Institute, a Bartlebian resistance to modern life’s prized efficiency (and trackability) is executed by a number of eclectic works. As the exhibition brochure states, these pieces ‘test existing systems with inefficient mechanisms, impossible tools and elaborate protocols that misalign outputs from their inputs.’

web_09_lawler-kassay-boyd.jpg

'Mechanisms', 2017, installation view, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy: Wattis Institute, San Francisco; photograph: Johnna Arnold

'Mechanisms', 2017, installation view, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy: Wattis Institute, San Francisco; photograph: Johnna Arnold

At the Wattis, the exhibition itself is one of the systems these works (each a kind of pain in the ass) disrupt through ‘acts of “mis-engineering”’, with the building a primary target. Cameron Rowland’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Constituent (2014) exposes a disconnected power outlet, ready to have its copper wires stripped, revealing, through a small incision in the museum’s body, one of the most sought after scrap metals for foragers of condemned buildings. In an adjacent room, Lutz Bacher’s Cyclops (2017) – a wall-mounted arrangement of 26 giant mirrored surveillance domes – underscores existing surveillance technologies while deranging the viewer’s understanding of how they are being watched by the institution. And, in another room, Louise Lawler’s large photo-print Formica (Adjusted to Fit, Distorted for the Times, Slippery Slope 1) (2017) offers a funhouse mirror-like distortion of a warped, enlarged gallery interior that confuses the relationship between the image and the space it occupies. Other works, including Neil Beloufa’s film on a co-ed party monitored by university math students, Desire for Data (2015), and Garry Neill Kennedy’s The Letter E (1980–2017), an ongoing installation of text works, each with the letter ‘e’ clipped in half, are considerably more playful and winking.

web_131_beloufa.jpg

Neil Beloufa, "Desire for Data," 2015, installation view, 'Mechanisms', 2017, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy; the artist and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, USA; photograph: Johnna Arnold

Neil Beloufa, "Desire for Data," 2015, installation view, 'Mechanisms', 2017, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy; the artist and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, USA; photograph: Johnna Arnold

Several works in ‘Mechanisms’ direct their interventions at institutions and mechanized processes outside the gallery. Rowland’s Disgorgement (2016), a stark, documentary display of articles of incorporation and stock reports, stands in for the complex legal and financial framework an institution instantiates and relies on. For that piece, Rowland established a trust that indefinitely holds 90 shares in the insurance company Aetna, which profited historically from insuring the human property of slave owners. Should the federal government ever enact legislation to issue reparations to the descendants of slaves, the trust will terminate and the shares will be liquidated, with resulting assets granted to the agency in charge of redistribution. Rowland is unlikely to see returns. As the work’s accompanying wall text points out, the congressional reparations bill has consistently failed to receive enough sponsors to even make it to the floor since Representative John Conyers first introduced it in 1989. Disgorgement highlights the bureaucratic torpor that can arise from ‘working within the system’ rather than valorizing collective or individual action that would seek to undo it altogether.

After proofreading a large number of legal documents, Herman Melville’s Bartleby (a patron saint of ‘Mechanisms’?) declines to do any more work, repeatedly stating that he ‘would prefer not to’, much to the ire of his employers. Acts of passive refusal, such as Bartleby’s, frequently bring up ugly feelings: confusion, exhaustion, exasperation. Wrestling with inconvenience can be merely irritating or a means of limning the scope of a larger, troubling phenomenon. In the case of Disgorgement, what is more discomfiting: the passive resistance the piece sets in motion or the histories of profit and governmental inaction it draws attention to? ‘Mechanisms’ invites such questions even as it sometimes replies with a smirk or a shrug.

Main image: 'Mechanisms', 2017, installation view, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy: Wattis Institute, San Francisco; photograph: Johnna Arnold

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018