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(G)hosting: Towards a Recessional Aesthetics

 

In late 1978, Christopher D’Arcangelo and Peter Nadin–with assistance from fellow artist Nick Lawson–began work on their final collaborative ‘functional construction’ piece, entitled Thirty Days Work. Unlike earlier works in this series, in which D’Arcangelo and Nadin reframed their contracted install labour for institutions as a form of discrete artistic practice,[1]  Thirty Days Work involved the construction of their own independent gallery located within Nadin’s home. Unsatisfied with–and highly critical of–the prominent institutional avenues for the presentation of art,[2]  D’Arcangelo and Nadin sought to establish an alternative space that they felt could better represent the practices of their contemporaries, as well as their own.

 

Peter Nadin gallery opened its doors to the public on November 9, 1978, launching its first (and only) exhibition program,[3]  prescriptively titled The Work shown in this space is a response to the existing conditions and/or work previously shown within the space. For the first month of this program, the gallery remained empty–an announcement card informing potential visitors of the materials used in the gallery’s construction (“Compound, Drywall, Wood, Nails, Paint”), its spatial limits (“1,450 sq. ft”), and the quantity of labour invested by its operators thus far (“30 days work”). In the months that followed, a series of artists were invited to present exhibitions within the space. As the title of the program suggests, these exhibitions did not simply replace one another sequentially, but instead accumulated within the gallery. Each new addition was accompanied by an extended version of the original announcement card, beginning always with the reminder that the space owed its existence to Thirty Days Work.

 

Though D’Arcangelo and Nadin defined their contribution to The Work… most explicitly in terms of this initial investment of background physical labour–nominating this as an artwork in the context of the announcement card–it is possible to understand their aesthetic involvement as extending well beyond this limit. For by establishing an exhibition platform, one takes responsibility for the broad range of duties involved in the ongoing maintenance of a context of aesthetic experience. These various tasks–inviting, invigilating, cleaning, installing, repairing–while perhaps not immediately apparent, play a vital role in subtly shaping the viewer’s conceptual and phenomenological experience when visiting a space. The coordinated application of this labour in a concerted way, then, is a means of producing specific aesthetic outcomes: of self-determining a context for art’s visibility. Regardless of how minor or insignificant each of these labours may seem in isolation, the small, nuanced differences in the way they are subjectively enacted have a cumulative effect–shaping an overall tonal context in which the works of various artists are then experienced.

 

In a thoughtful description of the electronic synthesiser, artist and musician Philip Brophy once characterised the instrument as “non-definable, distanced… devoid of its own identity yet capable of calling up simulated timbres in a breathy, hazy way.”[4]  Extending on this observation, music historian Kodwo Eshun noted that the synth’s primary function in electronic music was not to draw attention to itself as an element of the performance or recording, but to produce “a pressure or a kind of liminal sound.”[5]  The contribution of the synthesiser to a musical composition is often not discernible at the level of content–it does not play a ‘part’ in the same way that we might identify a rhythm track or a guitar solo. Instead, it functions as a tonal processor in the projection of other formal components. Such descriptions could equally be applied to the background labour of the independent gallery director. As an aesthetic instrument, this labour is a kind of peripheral processing device through which other works of art become perceptible, subtly imbued with its tonal effects. Seen in this way, it becomes possible to understand the ongoing labour of art’s hosting as an oblique aesthetic practice in and of itself.

 

This notion of art labour as a “non-definable” instrument that produces a tonal ambience without calling attention to itself, while a useful and poetic analogy, also identifies a significant difficulty inherent in any attempt to (re)present this kind of work as aesthetic practice in concrete terms. The ongoing maintenance labour of the gallerist-as-host cannot be easily identified and translated onto the aesthetic stage it prepares precisely because it operates on a different temporality: it is an incremental process involved in the peripheral minutiae of framing. As critic Jan Verwoert has noted, the practices of maintenance “are too many, too unspectacular, and too protracted over time to be convertible into the theatrical logic of instantaneous onstage delivery.”[6]

 

To further complicate things, it is important to ask: even if it were possible to identify a particular act of backstage labour as resulting in a particular aesthetic outcome–to draw a one-to-one relationship between, say, a single act of gallery maintenance and its experiential affect–would it be appropriate to foreground this? To place it on the stage in the same way we might present a traditional work of art for examination? Any attempt to spotlight such labour poses a sincere risk to its actual function. For the aesthetic contribution of this labour is a peripheral one: it frames and supports the artwork in large part by virtue of its own near-invisibility. If such elements are brought into too sharp a focus within the context of art, they begin to compete with the works they hope to host, thus undoing their nuanced aesthetic potential.

 

The art historian Thomas Crow observed this very tension in a work produced by Christopher Williams–Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo (1991)–which functions as a form of homage to the two conceptualists named in its title. In the piece, a single photograph of a floral arrangement is mounted on a section of gallery wall which has been built to the same material specifications set out in Nadin and D’Arcangelo’s Thirty Days Work. In an attempt to focus the viewer’s attention on this structural element–that is, to highlight the labour of its construction as an aesthetic gesture–the wall has been mounted on brackets and extended into the gallery space. But in this act of valorisation, the wall becomes readable–and assessable–in sculptural terms, rather than remaining a (necessarily) imperceptible component of the process of hosting. The ‘functional’ nature of the construction–its ability to hold, to frame, to offer up for aesthetic contemplation–is therefore compromised. As Crow describes it, present in any attempted foregrounding of supportive aesthetic labour is the risk that this “citation would destroy the grounds of its existence.”[7]

 

How, then, might we find an appropriate format for “showing showing”?[8]  One that recognises the backstage labour of the host as an aesthetic undertaking without undoing its functional potential? Perhaps, resisting art’s general impulse toward revelation, we hosts might instead proceed in the opposite direction: receding slowly, willingly into its background–towards a Recessional Aesthetics.

 

This excerpt has been adapted from the artist’s MFA thesis, Recessional Aesthetics (2019).

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Employed as part of the installation team at MoMA PS1 in 1977, D’Arcangelo and Nadin stated–in the form of a contract countersigned by their employers–that their labour would be understood not only as a reproductive support for the museum, but as constituting a work of their own: a ‘construction piece’ aptly titled Seventeen Days Work. Copies of the contract were distributed as a typeset flyer, inviting visitors to the museum to consider not only the work on show, but also the work involved in the show’s own production. D’Arcangelo and Nadin would continue this approach over the next two years, refurbishing the homes of collectors “as a means of surviving in a capitalist economy” that did not discount their own contribution to aesthetic experience. In doing so, the artists were able to subtly recalibrate their maintenance labour as something in excess of simple reproduction.

[2] D’Arcangelo’s practice in the years preceding his work with Nadin had included a number of anarchist interventions into museum spaces. These involved the removal of paintings from gallery walls, the appending of critical texts beside museum works, and bodily gestures of protest at the entrance to large institutions such as MoMA and the Guggenheim.
For more on these works, see Ben Kinmont’s interview with Allan D’Arcangelo in Project Series: Christopher D’Arcangelo, edited by Kinmont (Paris: Antinomian Press, 2005), 16-24

[3] On April 28, 1979, aged just 24, Christopher D’Arcangelo committed suicide. Peter Nadin gallery ceased operation the following month.

[4] Philip Brophy, 100 Modern Soundtracks: BFI Screen Guides. (London: British Film Institute, 2004), 182

[5] Kodwo Eshun, “Ten Paragraphs of Music Criticism,” filmed February 24, 2012 at Off The Page Festival, Kent, UK, video 31:10, https://vimeo.com/27729955

[6] Jan Verwoert, Cookie! (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 176

[7] Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 234

[8] In her 2012 essay on the practice of Louise Lawler, Beatrice von Bismarck uses this term in reference to the artist’s ongoing engagement with art’s backstage framing. See Beatrice Von Bismarck, “Notes on Showing Showing: Louise Lawler and the Art of Curatorial Hospitality” in Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art, edited by Maria Lind (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 135-147.

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Every month an artist, writer, graphic designer or curator, who uses writing in their artistic practice, contributes a text. Throughout the month the contribution vanishes in direct relation to the number of visitors, leaving, eventually, an empty website until the next contribution is published.
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