HOPE IS NOT ABOUT WHAT WE EXPECT
Martin Patrick looks at Colin Hodson’s 2011 Letting Space project The Market Testament
If art and politics meet at all, it’s in the obligation to work concretely in the present toward an ideal that may never be fully attainable.
Barry Schwabsky, The Nation, 12 Jan 2012
I spent my otherwise uneventful small town pre-adolescence squarely in the shadow of disasters. That is to say, disaster films: Airport 75, Towering Inferno, Jaws (parts one, two, and three) and Poseidon Adventure. Our collective, nightmarish fears were projected back to us incessantly, as the prosperity of the post-war era diminished.
Citizens sought comfort in the soothing delirium of the still-wide-screen American movie palaces. These were becoming bifurcated into “twin cinemas”, or screened dollar movies or pornography on their way to bankruptcy, just before the advent of sprawling new multiplexes.
Cinematic disasters come in cycles, as we alternately covet or reject our (post) apocalyptic visions. We currently see a return of this phenomenon - The Road, Contagion, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Perhaps more to the point here is the remarkable and straightforward documentary Inside Job, which painstakingly delineates the financial turmoil enveloping global markets and local households since 2008 (and earlier).
One could argue that ‘real’ devastation - whether economic, psychic, or physical - bears no easy resemblance to fantastical obliteration in CGI mode. Our fears now are palpable, very real, but conveyed in more abstracted, oblique economic channels and forms. (And of course this is not to underestimate the long and difficult period of coping with the manifold effects of the recent earthquakes in Christchurch.)
I fully realise I’m beginning to ramble and muse overly. My intention isn’t to detract from the manifest, novel singularity of Colin Hodson’s remarkable artwork The Market Testament. Nor, by contrast the fascinating ways in which Hodson’s authorial voice was radically diffused by the techno-omniscience of the installation itself. Was the building’s infrastructure itself perhaps personified in place of the author/artist? We might also remember the absolutely scarifying HAL the talking computer from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey more vividly than either Clarke or Kubrick as its sci-fi creators.
Reports of the Occupy movement - spread virally, globally over the past months - eerily recall much earlier reports of social protest as spectacularly conjured events. Take author Norman Mailer’s brilliant yet idiosyncratic account of the 1968 March on the Pentagon in Washington (later published as The Armies of the Night):
“Now the Participant recognised that this was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.”
When reading journalistic reports of today’s out of work artists, artisans, and designers throwing their lot in to create responses to the current climate of extreme economic precariousness, I think of this proposed Yippie stunt, comprising an unequal mix of goofish mockery, creative imagination, and deadly earnest utopianism.
Journalists of every persuasion are digging out their arsenal of tools to try and sum up and categorise an unfinished historical period. Such as Time magazine’s placement of ‘The Protestor’ as their nominated “person of the year” for 2011. In writer Kurt Anderson’s words:
“2011 was unlike any year since 1989 — but more extraordinary, more global, more democratic, since in '89 the regime disintegrations were all the result of a single disintegration at headquarters, one big switch pulled in Moscow that cut off the power throughout the system. So 2011 was unlike any year since 1968 — but more consequential because more protesters have more skin in the game. Their protests weren't part of a countercultural pageant, as in '68, and rapidly morphed into full-fledged rebellions, bringing down regimes and immediately changing the course of history.”
Anderson’s slightly purple prose leans more toward the so-called Arab Spring than any perceived success or failure of the Occupy (Wall Street) Movement, which some have said has succeeded mostly — and ironically — by becoming a ‘brand name’ itself. Anderson’s mainstream user-friendly rhetoric contrasts markedly with the fervent manifesto-style approach of writers Franco Berardi and Geert Lovink in their ‘A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software’, a posted bulletin dated October 2011:
“There is only a way to awake the lover that is hidden in our paralysed, frightened and frail virtualised bodies. There is only a way to awake the human being that is hidden in the miserable daily life of the softwarist: take to the streets and fight. Burning banks is useless, as real power is not in the physical buildings, but in the abstract connection between numbers, algorithms and information. But occupying banks is good as a starting point for the long-lasting process of dismantling and rewriting the techno-linguistic automatons enslaving all of us. This is the only politics that counts.”
Traces from all of the above have raced through my mind retrospectively after observing and reflecting upon The Market Testament.
A bunch of bland, boxy structures, arbitrarily generic, punctuated by little decorative flourishes: the colour of modernist glass and steel, the signage announcing their functions, or corporate sponsors. I don’t know much about these edifices of the Wellington Central Business District. I tend to avoid them assiduously. I can count on the fingers of one hand the memorable times I’ve spent in their midst: health exam, bank visit, solicitor consultation. Perhaps the strangest though was when graciously invited to facilitate a discussion on—or I should say inside —Colin Hodson’s work.
At 139 The Terrace I was ushered into the building after hours, up a lift and into a partially-emptied floor of office cubicles. The remaining contents included some dismal grey desks, formica tables, metallic filing cabinets, along with a few bits of stray, printed ephemera: Post-it notes featuring once urgent, but now discarded information. It was a haunted shell of a workplace.
The artist, curator, curatorial assistant and myself as advance party exchanged jokes, but for me spooky uneasiness prevailed. Then, after the typical swollen handful of attendees as at any Wellington art event had arrived, we chatted about the surrounding context, the work, and the artist’s intentions. But most of what I remember were the slowly changing lights, staggering and stuttering in that typical way of antiseptic, fluorescent ceiling fixtures, being taken for a virtual test drive, flickering according to Hodson’s computerised collision course while we talked.
One collision so to speak had already been had with the local media and respondents to the Dominion Post website, offering uninformed and surly rants that the work didn’t “seem very artistic at all” and against “wasting power this way”, accusations that The Market Testament was not art, etc.. In short, a typically unproductive verbal impasse.
Hodson’s project took ongoing data reports from the New Zealand stock market, and converted them into visual signals over the course of a fortnight. The activity of lights flickering on and off on the different floors of the building onsite was relayed via a streaming webcam video onto an accompanying website, and it was of course visible throughout certain areas of Wellington city. Thus the project involved an actual material site, which was simultaneously mediated, dispersed, and disseminated.
Hodson’s piece brings to mind two notions originated by the artist Marcel Duchamp: the ‘readymade’ and the ‘infrathin’ (or, inframince). In terms of The Market Testament, the site becomes a readymade, an existing object to which new ideas are then applied and associated.
The readymade in Duchamp’s view devolved or branched off into several sub-categories, such as the altered readymade (moustache painted onto a reproduction of the Mona Lisa), or the reciprocal readymade (use a Rembrandt as an ironing board, treat an ironing table as a masterwork). And the readymade was chosen by Duchamp, ostensibly, in an “indifferent” manner such that the readymade object itself would be unlikely to be seen as aestheticised.
Nonetheless readymades have been treated as visually elegant representations (Alfred Stieglitz’s haunting photograph of the urinal Duchamp entitled Fountain), or as mere rubbish (the bicycle wheel readymade was once stolen from Museum of Modern art and found partly trashed nearby). But the readymade seems to maintain such force and latent energy as a conceptual apparatus by the way it serves to deflect and resist meanings. It’s a shell that cannot be pried open; a sort of armoured exterior, in which the interior is left as an empty, conjectural cipher.
Moreover, the notion of infrathin (far more obscure in terms of any comparable art historical fame or ubiquity) was exemplified by a series of glancing blows at philosophical meaning, literary phrases rather than visual figures: “the difference between a shirt when it has been ironed and after being worn”; “the gap between two sides of a piece of paper”.
Duchamp’s compelling maneuver was to describe that which is almost imperceptible, but actually wields a deceptively large significance. This is echoed in the ways by which The Market Testament addresses the seeming arbitrariness of the ascending and descending stock tallies, a steady hum underneath our daily activities. Here this is represented by flashing patterns of lights drawing from algorithmic signals pulsing through the hidden recesses of an existing office block - itself a time capsule, symbolic of the 1980s ‘Greed is good’ mantra.
Ultimately what’s both fascinating and frustrating about The Market Testament is its very elusive quality, as if turning itself inside out from time to time, transforming the flows of unseen numerical data into the visible flickering of lights, but also by asking in a sense, where, when, how is the piece? Even if its logistics were completely revealed to me, could I or would I comprehend them? This very opacity rejects a totalising understanding or awareness. This aspect is also quite different from a mode of activism. It instead operates as a conjuring, a sleight of hand presented only partially to the viewer, whose full comprehension is unlikely to aid the work, rather even to spoil its peculiar merits.
Its resistance to totality recalls both Postmodern fragmentation but also something very of the moment — historical commentary on the spot — the splitting apart of forms, meanings, hopes that have failed to cohere. Who could have prognosticated the turbulence of the last few years of this new century?
This is not to undercut the political awareness of the artist and the cogent research done which serves as background to its quirky façade. It is significant to note that Hodson is a film director and actor as well as a visual artist, well versed in setting a scene, dealing with performance, and thinking through the durational aspect of a work.
A number of years ago Hodson resided in New York and during that period worked closely with the renowned experimental theatre company, The Wooster Group, then comprised of members Elizabeth LeCompte, Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk, Ron Vawter among others. The group’s specialty was restaging, rewriting and utterly reconfiguring classics of the American theatre such as works by Eugene O’Neill, incorporating video, choreography, music, and various Post-modern style ruptures and interventions into the mix.
As in the case of many engaging temporal projects created recently, Hodson’s work presents the intention of taking a snapshot that not only becomes a glimpse of one particular moment, but allows for the flow of events occurring prior to and after the event to prevent that glimpse from freezing totally.
In fact I’m learning more in retrospect from The Market Testament - continuing to consider its reading of mid-2011, created just as the aforementioned protest movements were on the verge of commencing. In the maelstrom of events that continue to occur in these unpredictable times, and which can take a decisive toll on one’s own capacity for optimism and fortitude, I would return to the following statement by writer Rebecca Solnit:
“hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles—not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act. I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.”
I would assert that such an emphasis on “breaks with the present, the surprises,” becomes a very apt credo when considering artworks like The Market Testament. Colin Hodson’s welcome creative surprise simultaneously responded to the global and invigorated the local cultural context.
 Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History (New York: New American Library, 1968) 120
 A group of politically active hippies in which Abbie Hoffman was a key figure.
 Kurt Anderson, “The Protester,” TIME, Wednesday Dec. 14, 2011, Cover story.
 Franco Berardi and Geert Lovink, ‘A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software’, InterActivtist Info Exchange (http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/32852), October 12 2011
 Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power (Melbourne: Canongate, 2005) 163
All images Mark Amery and Murray Lloyd.