Scene: Office/Studio/Gallery/ Hotel
"In his insightful analysis of the 'literary field', Pierre Bourdieu ridiculed the 'positivist' literary studies that try to take stock of the immanent and 'objective' qualities of literature which, in their view, would allow to establish equally 'objectively' what is and what is not a 'work of literature', or who is and who is not a 'writer'. Against such hopes and intentions, Bourdieu pointed out that 'one of the major stakes in the struggles conducted inside the literary or artistic field is the definition of the field's boundaries'--that is, of the aggregate of people 'with the legitimate right to participate in the struggle'.... All social fields, however distinct and specific the subject of their defining/classifying action may be and whatever their tools and products, are sedimentations of past power struggles and are 'kept in shape' by on-going struggles. The essence of all power is the right to define with authority..."
"An itinerary, a suitcase, a book: to decide what to include, what to leave out. You've often wondered if you lacked something which makes decisions like this simpler, or lacked the desire for situations like this, or had too much of something. But you were always completely certain what should appear in italics, parenthesis and quotes."
I first encountered Peter Conlin's book Off Season about two years ago while on my way home, traveling the bus. He happened to have a copy on him and gave it to me. The dark blue-green of the cover sang out vacation, cruise ship, airport, motel room even before opening the book. Thinking about it now, after having read the book, it seems significant that I would have come across it while on the bus. Buses are a way of getting from point A to point B, but they also offer a time for thinking, reading, writing, dozing, eating, people watching. There are of course other possible uses of one's time on the bus. Mentally escaping the rat-race of surrounding traffic is particularly gratifying.
Off Season is about many things but a particularly salient idea is that of using the commodified notions of time and space in subtly subversive ways. Thought and lived experience often find themselves caught in intermediary spaces, spaces of transition (airports, motel rooms, trains) or the infra-thin space between fiction and reality, anticipation and boredom. At times fortuitous flashes of meaning or insight (as in Walter Benjamin's dialectical image), or even new activities, slip out from the blur of routine, from the functionalized space of main arteries and thoroughfares, tourist attractions and shopping malls, day-books, schedules, and timetables. To experience or use space "otherwise" is considered disrespectful of an invisible, tacit public contract. In Off Season there is also a sense of satisfaction vis-a-vis "misused time." Our culture tends to value a strong work ethic and a "constructive" use of time, the idea of constantly being busy, pursuing ideal lifestyle choices, being a model consumer... Idiosyncratic art practices are considered a breach of useful, productive time.
On September 8 th 2001, I went to visit Conlin's new work no. 2 My Novel Hotel . . Conlin's Hotel was on display on the 14 th floor of the historic Dominion Building on Hastings street, office 1409. The unconventional use of space (office in place of studio) made me think of a particular passage from Conlin's book: "...sometimes it seems like it's enough just to use something outside of its normal purpose--such as a motel room. It makes you realize how ultra-specific are the normal intentions of so many things. Intentions--like discrete markers to keep you on the right track." One entered the office/studio to immediately encounter the majority of the space cordoned off using two velvet ropes strung between stanchions, parodying the untrespassable space surrounding the autonomous, precious "work of art". A mental barrier was also being established between artist and viewer via the performative role of artist-as-docent. Conlin presented the work to the viewer as if distinct from the artist himself. This raised many questions: was this a comment on the "death of the author/artist"? or on the alienation of the artist from his own production? on the division of labour and the effects of specialization? or on the privileging of service over production industries? In the end, it seemed a poignant reflection on the boundaries set up between different fields or roles, between artist and writer, artist and docent, literature and visual art, office and studio, etc. I thought of neo-conceptualist Marcel Broodthaers, in his role as writer-come-artist-come-museum director.
Conlin proceeded to explain the nature of the artist's work in progress: the copying out of a novel as would a scribe. Reams of written pages were neatly piled on the desk, beyond reach, as was a box containing No. 1 , a complete hand copied manuscript of a Danielle Steele novel. No. 2 is a manuscript of the Arthur Hailey novel Hotel copied out by the artist's hand. This type of work seems to occupy a space distant from that of the "artist-as-producer," such strategies as reproduction or the readymade used to make artwork (thus commenting on the dead issue of the artist's hand and on the need for a more democratic, or socialist, art practice). Conlin resorts to a pre-reproductive mode, thus throwing our preconceptions of what constitutes an avant-garde practice out the window. While beginning with the readymade book, the copying of the book (and other interventions discussed below) bestows upon the text a "status as both text and as proposal for an art object."
Conlin's work appears to question the sanctioned status of "writing" (as distinct from that which has the supplementary status of gloss or footnote). By this I don't mean the "low" status of bestseller versus the lofty status of literature. In general terms, Conlin's work opens up writing to another dimension, through a somewhat parasitical intervention: the process of unconscious mental activity invading/supplementing the clean, conscious, and rational thought of legitimate writing. While the paperback novel is being copied, the artist's mind enters a private space that is completely removed from that of the story. The act of copying becomes a pretext for disassociated thought, almost automatist in nature: a breeding ground for unforeseeable tangents of thought. These chance occurrences become a key for the artist, the key that opens up new doors within this monolith of a Hotel . The fact that this stream of consciousness occurs within the pedestrian, formulaic space of a bestseller only heightens the sense of disjuncture between the two discourses.
When the artist comes upon a particularly salient thought while copying, he makes a conscious, physical intervention within the text: he adds a footnote to the particular word he is writing, thus making a deliberate break with the original text, or rather, creating a secret passageway by which to escape the original text. On a separate page Conlin proceeds to write out the thoughts that have come to mind. The annotation becomes a kind of "unconscious" of the book, a new layer of mental contingency traced out by the scribe.
Conlin conferred that, on a good day, the footnoted thoughts were completely removed from any textual inferences in the novel. The copying of the novel seems to act as a catalyst for tapping into a more cerebral, meditative, or absurd state of mind. A new textual work, as footnotes, springs from the "original." The idea of the footnote being supplementary to the "core" text reminded me of the beginning of Sadie Plant's book Zeros and Ones where she describes the ground-breaking contributions of Ada Lovelace to the disciplines of mathematics and engineering when she translated and made extensive notes to Louis Menabrea's book Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage (1842): "When Ada wrote her footnotes to Menabrea's text, her work was implicitly supposed to be reinforcing these hierarchical divisions between centers and margins, authors and scribes. Menabrea's memoir was the leading article; Ada's work was merely a compilation of supporting detail, secondary commentary, material intended to back the author up. But her notes made enormous leaps of both quantity and quality beyond a text which turned out merely to be providing the occasion for her work."
So why Conlin's use of bestseller fiction? In his youth, Conlin came across Hailey's Hotel while on vacation: "Encountered the novel: an adolescent, in my mother's family's cottage. I didn't really read for pleasure... It seemed really adult, foreign and boring--the only thing more tired and sad than their jobs was their leisure material. It was on the bookshelf at the cottage--mainly made up of books that guests to the cottage had left. I remember sometimes being bored and looking at the books thinking I could possibly read one, I took Hotel down off the shelf--probably because I have always been fascinated with hotels--in the country there's not much in the way of 'the built'. Skimmed the first paragraph and put it back on the shelf." Upon beginning to read the novel he was perhaps overcome by a deep sense of boredom, wondering: what could possibly possess someone to spend their leisure time reading such a thing, or want to imagine living such lives?
Encountering the book again years later (one could perhaps compare this experience to the Nachtraglichkeit of repressed thought--the afterwardsness of recycled memory), Conlin thought of an alternate use for the novel. The idea came to him to sublimate the exchange value and immanent monotony of this writing into the premise for a new work based on something reminiscent of past automatist writing strategies--the transcribing of ephemeral, wandering thought. What had initially been a failed attempt at pursuing prescribed leisure activities while vacationing becomes something falling into the category of "work," however creative and useless that might be. The "original" text becomes vacant while the mind is occupied with the task of thinking. Conlin never makes these value judgements explicit in the work itself; the thought process becomes an arbitrary addendum to the bestseller through the absurd reified nature of the labour itself. In terms of transcription, Conlin is in complete control of the means of production, perhaps having chosen such a task with the intention of pointing out one's alienation from the products of one's labour. This could even be commenting on the alienating nature of certain creative processes in art when they are contextualized within the desire for recognition, success, prestige. In a commodity driven world, one's artistic production can become dissociated from one's original intention, rendered subservient to the ulterior motive of fame, power's reward for compliance and excelling in normative standards of behaviour. In Conlin's case "art" becomes a mere supplement to (or a deviation from) the reigning "discourse", the bestseller displaying the logic of global capital.
On the wall opposite the desk of manuscripts and paperbacks hung a black suit jacket lined in red silk, the label inside, Hugo Boss (one might associate this with the recent introduction of the Hugo Boss Art Award, a reminder of how the culture industry continues to make in-roads into the realm of visual art). This fetishistic item of high fashion, invested with notions of ambition, competition and prestige, was specifically bought as a prop on which to carry out a sartorial intervention (perhaps an act of resistance vis-a-vis a fashion-conscious local art scene). The intervention consisted of Conlin choosing his favourite passage from his annotations/footnotes, cutting it out from the manuscript (leaving a hole/gap in the page), crumpling the passage into a ball, soaking it in water for a period of time, and then turning the paper/passage into "lint" through crumbling it between his fingers into the inner lining of the Hugo Boss jacket. The passage is thus made doubly invisible. Now formlessly material and resistant to communication, the disembodied thought slips into the jacket, this jacket that will be returned to the store it once came from, impeccably clean, without the slightest trace of tampering. This subversive "invisible" act seems to comment on corporate manipulation, the invisible workings of illicit deals, the corrupt measures taken by global markets, the documents hidden from public view, the contracts that are shredded before they can be held up as evidence.
The performative nature of Conlin's work serves to trump the establishment. The "invisible hand" of the artist is at work. In utilitarian terms such an operation carried out on a mere accessory of corporate structure is futile, and yet conceptually there is a certain hilarity in imagining the guy who eventually buys the jacket. So much of what Conlin is doing also seems to be about the invisibility of service/manual labour under the control of the players with "legitimate" power. I sensed a particular pleasure on the artist's part in undertaking this deviant operation, a private satisfaction in knowing that Hugo Boss and his potential customers have been the object of some art game of sorts. Where there is an absence of "pleasure of the text" (as with Hotel ) there is at least pleasure in other discursive practices.
But what of the manuscript and its footnotes, tucked away in the artist's archive of filing boxes? This crafted pile of papers, these traces of disembodied thought, what of these? They could be seen to mark time spent collecting, thinking, acting out the absurd task of ... the avant-gardist?... deconstructivist?... trickster?...obsessive compulsive? What does this artistic strategy, or symptom, say about the bestseller world of Hotel , the world of corporate suits, the world of art, even?
One only has to look around, down below, from the 14 th floor, or wherever one happens to be: in danger of losing one's safety net, in danger of losing one's freedom of movement and expression, one's voice excluded, to be forever locked up in the annals of someone else's idea of history. Perhaps Conlin's work points to the fact that one has no choice but to find new ways of intervening, and ultimately, attempt to change things.
The office/studio that Peter occupied in carrying out No. 2 My Novel Hotel has now been converted into a fire escape. There is a certain irony in this. Spatial configurations are constantly shifting, losing and taking on new histories, burying the traces of one's passage. The existing hole/gap in Peter Conlin's annotations serves to map out this constant sense of impending loss and emergency, and make visible the obscene machinations of power.