Letting It Drop
Elisa R. Linn
In casual conversation “spam” means very different things at different times, though mostly tinged with mendacity or misconduct. As a vague noun, its use can easily slide into what is known as the “paradox of the heap.” Collective and singular, “spam” can mean all the (spam) messages one has received or it can refer to one particular e-mail. The code that camouflages a spam mail so it can enter our inboxes is often dubbed “spaghetti,” implying twists and turns that flagrantly violate the principles of structure. Firewalls and filtering programs do not just casually ignore “spaghetti,” they do not even recognize it in the first place. Although distorted or patterned by image interference, these montages form convoluted pictorial compositions, while carrying out a flat, sometimes mindless message on their surface: “cures baldness!”; “quick loans!”; or “horse kicks Harrison Ford in stomach!”
Could programming (the tool to code and decode “spam” and “spaghetti”) be referred to as a gesture? Could it be something in between making and writing, something that, to echo Vilém Flusser, involves the dialectical movement of informing, transforming, or moving matter with power, a free expression of an inwardness, that possesses the ability of deception?
In Andy Boot’s noodle paintings one might recognize precisely the act of programming as a sort of gesture. Boot’s paintings can be considered as a way of conceptual thinking situated where semiotics interferes—abstracting lines from surfaces and decoding them. Boot dissects and synthesizes the tactical and complex striking aesthetic obscuration that spam e-mails and their image attachments are provided with—by tossing color-impregnated noodles on canvas.
In his work Yellowbird (2015), shown at Minerva in Sydney, the colored traces of noodle-tossing appear like dispersed ribbon worms in yellow, red, orange, purple, green, or blue, marking a vigorous and staggering existence. While operating autonomously these wormy shapes still seem to make use of their potentiality of swarm intelligence—holding connections to one another between several planes of a picture and sprawling within the limited space of the canvas. These filigree painterly marks wave consciously irresolute between micro and macro: depicting merely a detail section of a larger whole and at the same time the painting as an entirety.
Any belief that these color drips could possibly form a recognizable, regular pattern through their repeated appearance is dispelled. This effect can also be seen in another work by Boot titled Consumed (2015), which was presented in the same exhibition. Here, the marks appear to be caught in an everlasting state of becoming, of coming into shape and collapsing out of it, like a fluid dance of energetically charged particles whose intertwining and pathways call to mind the paths of particles in a bubble chamber. This is like visualizing a momentary “passage” of particles. In the works, projected paths mark the transfer of pre-existing information rather than the production of new information itself. By physically veiling paint on the ground, “passage” allows signs to be convertible, like heterogeneous articulations evolving in real time, in which a variety of senders and receivers, channels and modes of connection arise and suspend.
The pictorial effectiveness of these paintings arrives through its moves. It does so by balancing and unbalancing, disrupting and restoring—to put it briefly: by adopting principles of chaos dynamics that are impossible to be fully tracked by the viewer for whom the work keeps a fantastical arena of get-togethers incoherent. Those complex, even “chaotic systems” can have few interacting subunits, but produce very intricate dynamics. Known from nature, the neural networks of the brain, or Internet traffic, chaotic systems show certain typical behavior patterns despite their long-term unpredictable and seemingly irregular behavior.
In the case of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, physicist Richard Taylor began to notice that the drips and splatters on the artist’s canvases seemed to create repeating patterns at different size scales—just like fractals, regularities that are self-similar on finer and finer magnification.1 On the basis of fractal measurement, Taylor later helped collectors to reveal fake versus authentic Pollocks in circulation.
In Boot’s paintings a twisted aesthetic order, from the look of accident, might resemble Pollock’s drip paintings that art critic Emily Genauer once demonized as “a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out.” 2 Both lack any obvious principle of organization, and their internal logic does not reveal itself at first glance. In Boot’s case the outcome always depends on the technique and chance location of the thrown noodle, and of course also on the individual noodle as a middleman, its texture. This “all-over” method gives the impression of being chaotic and promises an order out of mechanical routine—only to betray it. Here randomness is married to repetition, where impenetrability is elevated to a characteristic structure, a signature, calling its substructures arbitrary, describing the variations, changes, and alterations vaguely ephemeral.
To stay with Pollock, the reconceptualization of painting from the surface as a “window on the world” to the relationality of seemingly haphazard physical and metaphysical forces went hand in hand with his removal of the canvas from the vertical plane of the wall to the horizontal plane of the floor. In a similar way, but rather heaving objects on the painting, and through that, leaving an epoch behind, Duchamp demanded a horizontal relationship between the artist and the artwork. He did not express “movement” as kinetic or dynamic moments, however, but rather as cuts of time that bear witness to the idea of movement as traces—something that he would call “pictorial nominalism”—and made works of art that serve as a documentation of experimental assembly. One truly surreal experiment by the artist was to let three threads of one meter each be dropped from a height of one meter onto three different canvases in order to fix the accidental forms which are quite different from case to case—an instance of “canned chance” that Duchamp used for creating the work Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14).
Duchamp himself saw this type of active passage from one to the other taking place in the “infra-thin,” a notion that explains itself rather through illustration than a definition: “Fire without smoke, the warmth of a seat which has just been left, reflection from a mirror or glass, watered silk, iridescent, the people who go through [subway gates] at the very last moment, velvet trousers, their whistling sound, is an infra-thin separation signaled.” 3
Boot subtly addresses this question of how objects can become artistic out of almost anything by literally reconstructing the act of letting something fall into the picture as such. Boot here links up to a self-aware handling of decisions, coincidence, and repetition through shaping the final form of his work. And this is precisely where “passage” emerges, i.e., in the behavioral shape between things. This happens, for example, by repeatedly letting pink, blue, or purple gymnastic ribbon bands drop into picture frames and fixing them with dried white wax, as in his earlier works Untitled (navy blue) and Untitled (pink) (both 2012).
The act of falling resists the bands’ initial purpose to accompany and perform rhythmic movement patterns. The solidified wax ultimately forces the object and its three-dimensional arrangement into a two-dimensional transmitted image of a pattern whose optical appearance fluctuates. Boot has broken down the proverbial walls of what is appropriate to display in a frame and one might wonder if one is tricked into seeing a flat patterned surface with a slightly Op Art touch or a topographical relief.
Boot’s works resist any sort of transparency, instead, they are elusive, and keep the observer first of all at a distance—which has the effect of making them more enticing. Dealing with physical and virtual notions of absence and presence, however, they still count on the viewer’s inclusiveness. Thinking of artworks as walking through an entrance, when you see it the first time, and an exit, when you stop thinking about it, it seems as if Boot’s noodle paintings and works of ribbon bands in wax provide a hospitable stay and never too hastily show you the door.
Unconcerned that the works might play with clichéd attributes of the avant-garde, and with a little ironic overtone, Boot appropriates the ingenuity of Pollock’s drips and tackles the redefinition of the readymade’s meaning (after Duchamp)—and by this action orchestrates works as mediums of communication. In these works by Boot the viewer is finally constructing the images, illustrating the Duchampian dictum that the work becomes the point of departure, an agent to invent another work.4 Here, art does not emerge as a contest for the most original idea. What if art is an autonomous language, which evolves in any case and thereby occupies the artist-subject only as a “host”?
This leads us back to the notion of programming: if one plays programs enough, realizing all their coincidental combinatorial possibility—even the most unlikely—they become toys.5
As Chus Martínez argues, drawing from Flusser, what underlies our entanglement with technology is fundamentally ambiguous, for as much as we wish software and machines to reduce the level of skill required to carry out a job and eventually free us from unpleasant work altogether, we fear this kind of deskilling at the same time.6 What is inherent in this thinking is a dream of an enhancement through artificial life that stems from a modernist approach towards technological progress. But a true fusion of two entities, the human and the artificial, is beyond a hierarchical understanding of one becoming only the tool for the other or that one suffers because of the emergence of the other. The acceptance of alterations and the merging of orders, as well as the coexistence of codes, continue to be a problem to the extent that a rigorous engagement with hybridity still remains out of sight. But hybridity might be understood as a return towards experimental conditions. This transition will be challenging as our prevailing interest is focused on the definition of steps that lead to results rather than the “educts,” meaning the forces that motivate and enable the experimentation in the first place. As Martínez further argues, art should be the site for an ongoing effort to create these experimental conditions.
While looking at Boot’s noodle paintings and his rhythmic gymnastics ribbon works, significant surfaces on which elements act in a magic and technical fashion towards one another, they seem to spur the viewer’s mind to consider what Flusser understood as the potential of freedom: the question of whether one might succeed in mastering the code (of “spam” and “spaghetti”) and find new possibilities of the program. Or to put it prosaically, can we find the ability to rule the apparatuses instead of letting the apparatuses rule us.
1. Richard Taylor, “Order in Pollock’s Chaos,” Scientific American, vol. 287 (December 2002), pp. 116–21.
2. Emily Genauer, “This Week in Art,” New York World-Telegram (June 16, 1945).
3. Marcel Duchamp, Notes, arranged and translated by Paul Matisse (Boston, 1983), p. 45.
4. Octavio Paz, “The Castle of Purity,” in: Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare (New York, 1978), p. 86.
5. Vilém Flusser, Medienkultur (Frankfurt am Main, 2002 ), p. 24.
6. Chus Martínez, “The Complex Answer,” Berlin Biennale text (2016).