Review of Contemporary Art, Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion by Francis Halsall

(All quotations from the book are italicised.)

Ten years ago, I read and greatly enjoyed Francis Halsall’s PhD thesis Systems of Art, first published by Peter Lang in 2008. It was one of those books that presented to me a wholly new way of looking at the art world and the systems that pervade and are inextricable from any art object and an encounter with it. It’s a great academic book. Rereading it recently, I was still taken by the precision of the analogies. For example, in his conclusion to a chapter titled ‘Gallery as System’, he says:

… the complexity of the museum system allows, by the processes of irreversibility and the memory of the system which is manifested in the effects of positive feedback, for the preservation of particular cultural forms.

What’s so game about this book is that all of the main theoretical terms in the statement above – complexity, system, irreversibility, memory, feedback – are described earlier, so with this strange vocabulary in place you begin to realise that when you encounter certain objects in a museum (a painting by a famous painter, let’s say) that you are seeing a painting alright, but all around it are these systems, many invisible, that brought this moment about. So to look at this painting is not to say ‘this is a good, moving, technically impressive work,’ as much that this object (and its maker) were subject to years of positive feedback within a complex system. [1] An analogy from earlier in the book that playfully underpins Halsall’s claim is the story of VHS v Betamax of the late 1970s and ’80s: VHS, the arguably inferior product, became the market leader in home videos – through locked-in positive feedback in the market system – thus crushing Betamax out of the game. With that illustration in mind, the sentence that follows the previous statement makes good sense:

And with the preservation of certain cultural forms at the expense of the exclusion of others certain social hierarchies, structures and power relations are also maintained.

In Systems of Art, Halsall brought a systems-theoretical approach to an account of art, but it is one where the gallery and the museum still maintained a somewhat central role. Contemporary Art, Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion takes account of the fact that things have since become much weirder, and the institutions of the gallery and the museum are less pillars of the art world so much as merely other fields of possibility for art that sit within a world of other everyday systems of display, dispersion, logistics, image-making, image-sharing, etc.

The opening chapters of the book continue with some descriptions of systems and the terminology required to negotiate the book’s later ideas. Things like the difference between a complex and a complicated system are pointed out, much like in Systems of Art, but this terminological set-up now extends into developments in contemporary systems (and our places in them) with terms like ‘The Age of Dispersion’ – subjectivity does not pre-exist processes of power and production, but is instead constituted by them – and the idea of personal identity (Dispersed Subjects) – within systems, human subjects are conceived of as the outcome of dispersed relations within those systems … [we] get our identities from the systems we are dispersed through, and following from this, the succinct claim that in the Age of Dispersion, both objects and subjects are distributed across systems of communication and control.

The book is full of profound observations like these, passed off with little fuss. The five artists Halsall sees as exemplary (or useful in illustrating aspects) of this age are: Seth Price, Liam Gillick, Martin Creed, Theaster Gates, and Hito Steyerl, and each artist, it is argued, presents an important tendency of this Age. All of this I found made the central claims of his book convincing; they being: that an understanding of what art is will be dependent on an understanding of what it is to be human … and that this dependency is framed by technology, and therefore, as technology changes so do the self-images … and therefore the technology of late-capitalism and the network society correlates to an aesthetics of systemic and dispersed experience.

*

The chapter on Price is foregrounded with useful and economical descriptions of his work, especially those works dispersed through different systems using many different media – online PDFs, websites, an auto-fictional novel, gallery wall-works – all of which are made up of different kinds of ‘stuff’. Halsall makes the observation that Price, instead of focussing on the dematerialised tendencies in Conceptual art, turns instead towards the stuff of it and how this stuff circulates in the world.

One section titled ‘Folkore U.S.’ looks at Price’s homonymous 2012 contribution to dOCUMENTA (13), which consisted of a series of paintings, fabric sculptures, a clothing line designed in collaboration with fashion designer Tim Hamilton, and a fashion show. In this alone one can see several systems of making and display. Halsall claims that positioning artworks within different systems of distribution provides an opportunity to observe the conditions of those different systems and the effect they have on the content that is dispersed among them.

Material symbols, such as leather jackets and envelopes, reoccur as object and image in Folklore U.S. Price is pointing the viewer towards the different systems of distribution from where these materials come. For example, the bomber jacket is from a military-industrial complex then co-opted by the leisure-industry complex, and part of what Price’s artistic work consists in, Halsall claims, is pointing out the slippages between systems of distribution through an attention to the particular objects and fabrications made and dispersed in these systems and reflected in Prices’s art world arrangements too.

*

This tension between system and (pertaining) object is expanded in other directions in Halsall’s analysis of the work of Liam Gillick. I’ve always got a bit of kick out of Gillick’s work – the conspicuously designed objects, the books, the films, the subdued acting, the minimalist-seeming sculptures, the reticence, the quiet bravura. I remember seeing one of his arrangements of objects – Complete Bin Development – in the Kerlin Gallery in 2013, it a series of six cuboidal frames standing aloofly in the middle of the room, full of light yet at the same time withdrawn. The show was called For the doors that are welded shut and it was only after a while of looking at the basic elements of the structures – the coloured Plexiglass, the white angle brackets, the stainless steel fixings – that I realised the arrangement was as much there as not there, in that there was a series of modular objects alright, but they seemed merely to be an index pointing fervently to lesser-known secondary structures elsewhere. The angle bracket is one I most associate with bracing-elements for portal frames in industrial units or as cross-bracings for telecommunication masts. This detail in turn then pointed me towards the aspects of logistics that underpin not just the delivery of a fabricated object of any kind, but also its making. One question at design stage might then be: How long is the van that will deliver these lengths of steel to the fabricator? Why? Because that will dictate an affordable maximum length for the movement of the longest elements of the object. Then when the object is made, how is it broken down, transported and reassembled? – via systems of tenable logistics. So the object then in this way is as much ‘of van’ as it is ‘of artist’. I still find these questions and visualisations spinning explicitly off Gillick’s objects as weirdly fulfilling, fruitful and even at times, in the driest sense possible, amusing. I find I make sense of Gillick’s objects when they have fallen from memory only to reappear when I’m looking at some random element of infrastructure elsewhere, and I think ‘ah there it is!’

Halsall – with a slightly more pessimistic tenor – views the materials of Plexiglass and powder-coated aluminium as those of the world of corporate display, which is also true, and this suggests other tangential systems of labour and distribution, but more tellingly Halsall sees these works as ‘disappointing’ in that these Plexiglass and frame objects (like much of Gillick’s art it seems) are both aesthetically unsatisfactory and theoretically opaque. There is always something missing, incomplete or not fully resolved.

While I don’t share Halsall’s view of this work as being disappointing – I happen to think Gillick’s work is in a way complete; it seems to me to just complete itself elsewhere – I do find myself agreeing with Halsall’s general argument that:

Gillick neither valorises nor attacks systems but rather presents something more deflationary, and in doing so, provides an opportunity to engage in a critique of two systems: the system of capital and the system of art and point to their mutual complicity in the production of dispersed subjectivity.

One upshot of my agreeing with this did leave me wondering how convincing the link-claim was: that the work is ‘disappointing’. The two registers of the word (in the theoretical and subjective senses) diverged for me to the point of snapping.

The other upshot of this led me to the question of how artworks in this Age of Dispersion might be appraised. What might the appropriate style of this appraisal take? It was a question I had no idea how to answer – though the method of this book might give a clue.

*

The chapter ‘Martin Creed, the Anti-Readymade and the Dispersed Art Object’ is fun, pointed and at times brilliant. It opens with a description of Creed’s The lights going on and off, an artwork contributed to the Turner Prize exhibition, which he won in 2000. Halsall then delves down into what is happening here and by page’s end makes the fascinating claim that:

… Creed’s work [can] be considered as the structural equivalent but inverse of the Readymade. His things are Anti-Readymades. That is, far from being aesthetic, Creed’s objects provide a means of rethinking our encounters with all objects in the world in aesthetic terms regardless of whether they are art or not.

From here we are guided towards other instances of Creed’s work and what Halsall sees as his ‘Maximalism’. Halsall’s appraisal includes complex works such as the 2012 Work No. 1197: All the Bells – where all of the bells in a country are rung ‘as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes’; and Creed’s stacks-of-plywood works 571 (2006); and 1017 (2009) – all of which leads to Halsall’s observation of Creed’s often reiterated claim that ‘the whole world + the work of art = the whole world’:

Hence instead of gestures of severe reduced simplicity, Creed’s work instead might be characterised as maximalist rather than minimalist.

Halsall sees Creed – in his diversity of materials and promiscuity of methods – as an artist who displays these practices of dispersion to the point that the work is aesthetically inseparable from the social systems of their support.

This fascinating, resonant observation then leads us onto the next chapter where Halsall sketches out for us the work of the American artist Theaster Gates. This is another thing the book does well, I think; it expands the terrain of the argument (with fine descriptions of these artists’ work) all the while nudging the argument and the artists featured in its framing outward in directions that lead texturally one onto the other. There’s a seamlessness to it all that is pulled off with an ease that only becomes apparent when you realise how difficult an endeavour it is. At least one other value of this book it seems to me, then, is that it expands outward the fabric of a fundamental observation about contemporary art and its dispersion in the world while simultaneously attempting to fence out this terrain for the writer to point to and say: this slippery new tendency is at least this and it contains at least these features.

*

Theaster Gates, over the course of Chapter 5, appears as an entrepreneur, improviser … who mobilises a number of platforms as mediums for his practice including art institutions, real estate and archives and in so doing becomes to Halsall an ‘Entrepreneur of Relations’ – more a trickster than, say, a businessman in the usual sense.

There are a number of Gates’s diverse and expansive works brought forward – one such is his Rebuild Foundation, an ongoing project (since 2009) that began with the Dorchester Projects, which renovated an abandoned two-storey property in Chicago into a library, slide archive, and food kitchen. Following this the Art + Housing Collaborative, which included the renovation of a derelict housing block into affordable shelter for artists and cultural workers, and alongside this project another platform called Dorchester Industries where furniture-making and interior design is carried out. What emerges as you read is that this project is a whole complex illustrating the ‘housing industry’ in real life all the way up to a renovated bank – The Stony Island State Savings Bank – now used as a space for innovation in contemporary art and archival practice.

By the end of the chapter, I was convinced that Gates was some kind of genius of large-scale improvisation, like the way (in a metaphor Gates himself provides) one might manipulate, through haptic responses, a piece of clay in one’s hand. Gates seems to do this with the same ease, but by manipulating and perhaps even toying with very large cultural institutions, whole systems of display, the entertainment industries, banks, the construction industry …

Near the end of the chapter, Halsall makes the observation that Gates’s work is underwritten by a different model of creative practice to that of institutional fine art and in particular the lineage of practices after modernism including conceptualism and Institutional Critique … and seems to more likely draw on different traditions including religious studies, ceramics, town planning and gospel.

This figure of the ‘outlier’ comes back into focus at the very end of the book, when Halsall discusses briefly the work of Robert Smithson, this giant of American art and yet one who was not formally educated in fine art – no BA, no MFA. And because of this he was, claims Halsall, freer to explore a different trajectory for contemporary art. Smithson was a figure who at first lay outside the systems of art, but through the attraction and subsequent valorising of this art, became deeply embedded. To me, he always seemed to be a distant figure who produced an ache of system, a sort of structural yearning of the art world towards him, maybe most so because he remained ineffable to the desires and tendencies of the system – an indifferent attractor of sorts. I often wonder if his outlier-ness stemmed from a good form of ignorance, a blindness to norms, or a seeing past them, like the way in which Wittgenstein disdained ‘professional’ philosophers, or like how Agnes Martin turned away from the art world to gaze at horizons. The artists Halsall reviews here have this quality to sharply varying degrees, but Gates, who seems to swim closest to Smithson in this way, still seems to me a figure of the now in that he is more intra-system than an alien ex-system, which is how I imagine Smithson.

*

The final case study focussed on some important works by the fascinating German artist Hito Steyerl. (All of the artists in this book are in some way or another quite fascinating. So too are the references to the rear of the book; a read through the footnotes and bibliography will keep anyone interested in this subject matter stocked up with research material for some time.) Halsall describes the multi-valence of Steyrel’s practice – teacher, essayist, installation artist, filmmaker… – and then proceeds to hone in on the most pertinent aspects of her work. She seems to me the most exemplary artist relative to Halsall’s argument and whose work meets most succinctly the primary aspects of this Age of Dispersion. The placement of her output at the end of the book works well not only in pulling things together, but also because it introduces this important idea of the ‘Poor Image’.

The ‘Poor Image’ are ones in flux of bad quality or poor resolution characteristic of images copied, distributed, ripped, remixed and experienced across different networks, platforms and screens. The term ‘platform’, which appears often in the book, is first brought up in the earlier chapter on Gillick where Halsall quotes the American theorist Lane Relyea’s observation of the move from ‘medium’ to ‘platform’ in contemporary practice and how ‘platform’ denotes a basic, ‘underlying architecture of system, a common workbench that, while itself stable and enduring, is open and flexible enough to allow for a high variety of interfaces, a range of inputs and outputs.’[2]

In the works, Halsall presents of Steyerl’s this word ‘platform’ seems by her to be played with and manipulated often. Her installation work Factory of the Sun (2015), which was first shown at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015, comprised a fictional video-work narrative shown in a carefully arranged environment – a large gridded blue space dotted out with collapsible sun chairs – which tells the story of a video-game maker called Yulia who recounts her family journey of immigration from the former USSR to Canada, where in the interim her brother has become famous for dancing online. His legions of fans have created animated versions of this dance. In a parallel narrative in this work, there are workers dancing in this way too, but are doing so against their will in a motion-capture studio. Complex multi-platform, multimedia works of this kind, according to Halsall, highlight in Steyerl’s oeuvre the complex relationship between subjectivity, agency, economics and power in dispersed systems.[3]

With an active understanding of the Poor Image in place we are then led into an examination of this idea of Remediation, which is described as the repurposing of one media through another and how in doing so certain qualities of the medium will be emphasised by virtue of the way in which they are … ‘refashioned’ in another medium.

The Poor Image, then, is one such result of remediation and more tellingly, as Halsall observes in his conclusion to this chapter, the Poor Image and the method of remediation that underpins it is also isomorphic of more general conditions of remediation that underlie global systems in the Age of Dispersion … whereby objects are transformed into commodities. [4]

Extending this observation of the Poor Image one further step into the depths of the contemporary, Halsall posits it as exemplary of a strange if inexorable shift from: natural resources as the source of capital to human activity and experience as the product of fiscal remediation.[5]

In the closing pages of the book, a certain bleakness-of-view emerges, a certain despondency, and with it this sense of ‘disappointment’ – first probed while discussing Liam Gillick’s work – reappears. The cumulative effect of which had a compelling, unsettling force because it seemed to present the melancholy impossibility of an outlier, or even the imagining of one, beyond these new and ultimately enclosing systems of art and its dispersion.

Adrian Duncan’s most recent novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, 2023.

Contemporary Art, Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion was published by Routledge, May 2023, 108 pp., 10 b/w ills., ISBN 9781032324920

Notes

[1] Halsall’s work here is not just a rehabilitation of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of technology (media) and message, as my summation might suggest, but his is a dive into the particulars of the art world as seen through the lens of system.

[2] Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 20.

[3] This description of this work is a paraphrasing of Halsall’s.

[4] An isomorph is a substance or organism that exactly corresponds in form with (or maps onto) another. This is an idea Halsall refers to more than once or twice in his work and this, it seems to me, has extended in his work more recently to the idea of the Isophor. This – from Halsall’s 2022 PVA review of Anne Tallentire’s But this material … at the MAC, Belfast, 2021 – gives a sense of what an isophor is and from where it emerged: Humberto Maturana, the systems theorist, coined just such a new word: isophor. Isophors are neither representational or metaphorical; they are not imitative or symbolic. Instead they are the instances of basic or underlying patterns that may be present in different iterations, circumstances, or mediums. He explains: The notion of metaphor invites understanding something by proposing an evocative image of a different process in a different domain (e.g., politics as war). With the metaphor you liberate the imagination of the listener by inviting him or her to go to a different domain and follow his or her emotioning. […] So, with an isophor you would not liberate the imagination of the listener but you would focus his or her attention on the configuration of processes or relations that you want to grasp.

[5] As Halsall points out this was first observed by Shoshana Zuboff in her The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019).

Image credit: Liam Gillick, Complete Bin Development, 2013. Powder-coated aluminium, Plexiglas, 6 elements, each element 300 × 150 × 160 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery.

Adrian Duncan

20 December 2023

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