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MUD Club Jakob Schillinger on Sam Pulitzer at Artists Space, New York

95-schillinger-1 Sam Pulitzer with Vania Zouravliov, “Loosely Termed Image Scrim with Text Supplement” , 2014, Artists Space, New York, installation view

Known in certain circles as an unrelenting art-world antagonist, Sam Pulitzer nevertheless acquiesced to New York’s Artist Space this spring with his first institutional show in the United States, “A Colony For ‘Them’”. Perhaps not surprisingly, the exhibition took as its subject the longstanding venue’s evolving identity and the artist’s role in authenticating its current status.

Here Jakob Schillinger unpacks this effort — one involving contributions by a dispersed community of artists, extensive writing by poet Jeff Nagy, and an elaborate reorganization of the institution’s renovated SoHo space — exploring the historical precedents and contemporary limits of Pulitzer’s hacked Institutional Critique.

To many, Sam Pulitzer is primarily associated with the Art Observations he and Mathieu Malouf have been pseudonymously publishing since 2009 as Jerry Magoo. [1] The blog has been instrumental to constructing and projecting Pulitzer’s position of antagonism toward the art industry and unsparing critique of individuals singled out for complicity. While many subscribe (quite literally) to its general attitude of criticality, the question is how to translate such an attitude into an exhibition practice and artistic career – or at least how to reconcile the two.

Upon entering Artists Space, Pulitzer’s exhibition first presents itself as obstruction. Adjoining walls form a palisade blocking the view of the vast space. The exhibition’s most prominent gesture is a mannerist reversal of the venue’s spectacular 2009 architectural restructuring, which came to epitomize the institution’s major organizational overhaul that year. Reflecting shifts in cultural values, attention economies, and managerial culture, all interior walls had been removed – the former warren of project spaces (each with its own exhibition) traded for the iconic underlying expanse of a SoHo loft and its downtown vista. In turn, the new configuration now featured a consolidated stage, prescribing a focus of attention and resources, all the while suggesting flexibility, openness, and transparency. In the same spirit, the sequence of hierarchically tiered administrative spaces was replaced with an open-plan office that bleeds into the exhibition space.

Addressing this institutional development, Pulitzer partially restored the prerenovation compartmentalization, separating the administrative operations from the rest of the exhibition, and resurrecting elements of multiple shows staged since. By activating a mnemonic dimension and foregrounding the role infrastructure plays in constituting artworks and their reception, Pulitzer evoked the legacy of site-specificity and Institutional Critique, specifically Michael Asher’s 2008 Santa Monica Museum of Art installation which recreated the metal skeletons of ten years’ worth of temporary exhibition walls. [2] But Pulitzer’s architectural intervention didn’t just restage this gesture, it explicated the critical status of that legacy long after its operations had become functions of the institution itself. For example, the reversal of Artists Space’s celebrated architectural renewal pointed to the latter’s kinship with Asher’s removal of the wall dividing the back office from exhibition space at Claire Copley Gallery in 1974. Spilling into the (still walled) restroom, Pulitzer’s exhibition ironically marked the limits of such a gesture of transparency.

95-schillinger-2 Sam Pulitzer, “Non-Ludic Induction Site”, 2014, Artists Space, New York, installation view

The foregrounding of institutional infrastructure extended to the exhibition’s promotional and educational discourse, issuing an excess of such literature: By the entrance, a wall text presented a hacked press release, replacing its institutional voice with that of art world-affine poet Jeff Nagy, who emulated the personal address of a multi-user dungeon (MUD), a type of text-based online role-playing game. The original press release was available only upon request. In its place, the website offered Episode 3 of “The Trojans”, a serialized novel by Nagy that utilizes art infrastructure for its distribution. This multiplication and distortion of promotional discourse exaggerated and at the same time destabilized its function: Whereas the original release offered clear-cut interpretations and contextual information for easy consumption, its derivatives wrapped the exhibition in an opaque web of ambiguous allusions, proliferating latent meanings instead of explicating one. Continuing in the educational register of vinyl type and aluminum wall labels, the text sprawled across the entire exhibition. In keeping with the MUD motif, the reader was sited inside a virtual world, yet one superimposed over the experience of the actual exhibition, seeing as Nagy’s text referred not just to the artifacts on view, but to the exhibition architecture and the visitor’s position within it as well. From this mapping of dungeon onto exhibition and arts speak onto sci-fi emerged a strange caricature of art discourse. One segment, for example, described the reader’s encounter with a graphic artwork on the opposite wall. Shifting through travesties of different modes of art-historical analysis from ekphrasis to hermeneutics to the social history, it identified the work as “legislative art” in the style of “magical capitalist realism”, whose social function “isn’t to facilitate debate for an illiterate audience but to foreclose it into a contentless consensus for a perversely overeducated one.” The grafting of literary explication onto sensual experience and its mode of address – a second-person narrator describing the reader’s perception, actions, and thoughts – read like a satire of how some press texts “guide” the visitor through an exhibition, prescribing rather than facilitating experience.

But who is going to read 60,000 characters of wall text? If a MUD requires immersion into its information feed, its superimposition over the exhibition experience points to recent transformations of art’s technological infrastructure. Its purely linguistic interface, however, makes the MUD an outmoded technology. In fact, the acceleration facilitated by networked handheld devices permanently integrating users with aggregator websites and image-sharing platforms has been associated with an end of discourse. [3] From this perspective, a critique of institutional discourse would seem like the proverbial beating of a dead horse. But as the impact of Jerry Magoo has demonstrated, this dead horse still goes far if flogged the right way. [4] Nagy’s MUD immediately captured this ambivalent status of the discursive, beginning as it did with a piece of ASCII art – a graphic design technique using characters to generate visual images, allowing their transmission when printers still lacked graphics support. Here the image was itself a text – dashes, brackets, and commas arranged to form huge letters spelling out SAM PULITZER.

Problematizing authorship is another critical trope the exhibition took on. In express contradiction to its heading, the wall text credited the show to eleven “contributors”, Pulitzer among them. As with the architectural intervention, this paradoxical construction marked structural contradictions within art’s (attention) economy and the concentration of resources it enforces, as it explicated the separation of authorship from production in the form of a split between Pulitzer the author/brand and Pulitzer the contributor/individual.

95-schillinger-3 Sam Pulitzer, “A Colony For ‘Them’”, Artists Space, New York, 2014, installation view

The dry manifestations of these reflexive operations were juxtaposed with elements culled from different (sub)cultural sources. Organized in sets that highlighted particular socio-aesthetic systems, these artifacts suggested the cultural mechanisms of differentiation, authentication, valuation, and social distinction that their respective aesthetic codes mediate. While they did not fail to perform such functions, signaling subcultural affinities and connoisseurship and thus charging the artistic product with substance and “authenticity,” their constellation spoke to these very operations of referentiality and transfer themselves. Its narrative recontextualization within Nagy’s MUD, for example, only underscored the imagery’s decontextualization from the aesthetic, semiotic, and social systems in which it usually circulates: a tongue-in-cheek self-citation – a laser directed at a one-inch ear gauge fitted into the floor, and thus literally pointing to the cultural re-coding emblematized by this item – displaced Pulitzer’s trademark gesture of architectural intervention to a sort of theater set, exponentiating such semiotic shifts.

Like these subcultural references, the reflexive procedures associated with Institutional Critique were employed allegorically. Their decidedly mannerist articulation generated ambiguity, a multiplication of meaning that not only prevented subsumption under a genre, but by virtuosic exaggeration, explicated the genre’s reflexive operations themselves as solidified forms. Like the aggressiveness of Jerry Magoo, the exhibition’s mannerism thus spoke to the current status of criticality as an attitude and of its formalized articulations. The discourse of contemporary art structured by the figure of criticality has been formative for generations of artists including Pulitzer’s. But while institution-critical procedures still hold significant institutional purchase as a repertoire of canonical – i. e., legitimized and legitimizing – templates, criticality itself has stalled. Art discourse’s highest value devalued, it seems that, “the aim is lacking; ‘Why’ finds no answer.” [5] “Forgetting the Art World”, “After Art”, “What was Contemporary Art?”: The titles of recent publications seem to play on a general fatigue with contemporary art. There is an increasing sense that the field’s bustling activity might not be an indicator of its vivacity, but merely the flipside of its dedifferentiation into a mass of “equally loud and equally important art practices” [6] – that that cultural system “has reached its limits” and is approaching entropy. [7]

Pulitzer’s discursive and exhibition practices both respond to this condition. The former presents an extreme attempt to construct meaningful differences by merging the confrontational communication culture of blogging with a residual criticality impulse, which proved highly effective within the art world’s strained attention economy. [8] Embracing the canonical status of a wide range of reflexive procedures, all the while suspending the critical pathos to which they are usually tied, the detached, cool character of the exhibition, on the other hand, acknowledged the historical development that the blog theatrically reacted against. But unlike the new pragmatism epitomized by what has been termed “flip art”, Pulitzer’s practice does not deny (or forget) the history of criticality. Rather, to paraphrase Benjamin Buchloh’s characterization of the allegorical mode, it represents and analyzes its historically obsolete forms and the hold they still exert on present experience. [9]

jakob Schillinger

Sam Pulitzer, “A Colony For ‘Them’”, Artists Space, New York, March 16–May 18, 2014.

Notes

[1]Brian Boucher, “Getting Trashed on the Lower East Side”, in: Art in America, Jan. 2009, online at: http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/william-gallery/.
[2]Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s writings on the practices and procedures associated with Institutional Critique remain highly instructive and have strongly informed my analysis. See especially Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” in: Artforum, 21/1, September 1982, pp. 43–56.
[3]Michael Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission”, in: Artforum, 51/10, Summer 2013, pp. 294–301
[4]For the impact of Jerry Magoo, see Michael Krebber’s 2011 exhibition “C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting” at Greene Naftali gallery; John Kelsey, “High Lines (for Sick Bees)”, in: Whitney Biennial 2012, exh. cat., ed. by Elisabeth Sussman/Jay Sanders, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012, pp. 26–27; Kelsey, “Next Level Spleen”, in: Artforum, 51/1, September 2012, pp. 412–415.
[5]Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche/Walter Kaufmann (eds.), The Will To Power, New York 1968, §2/p. 9.
[6]Diedrich Diederichsen, course description “saturation, overproduction, entropy,” online at: https://campus.akbild.ac.at/akbild_online/lv.detail?cperson_nr=51111&clvnr=131411 [Translation: JS]. Diederichsen refers to David Joselit, After Art, Princeton 2013; Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, Cambridge, Mass, 2012; Richard Meyer, What Was Contemporary Art?, Cambridge, Mass, 2012.
[7]See Philipp Kleinmichel’s brilliant analysis of the crisis of belief in critical art and its relation to a “cooling down” of the art world. Kleinmichel, “The Art Boom Paradox”, in: The Ivory Tower, 2012, online at: http://theivorytower.tv/kleinmichel.html.
[8]See Diedrich Diederichsen, course description, op. cit.
[9]Buchloh, “Marcel Broodthaers. Allegories of the Avant-Garde,” in: Artforum 18/9, May 1980, pp. 52–59