One of the stranger pieces exhibited in the Italian pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale was Mario Garcia Torres’ What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax (In 36 Slides), 2004-2006. This work consists of 50 black-and-white slides which advance slowly into one another via a dissolve effect, the whole show lasting nine minutes. At Venice the projection was very dark which intensified the notion that these images had possibly been discovered in a shoebox.
At the same time given the fact that art has always been concerned with artifice one had the distinct impression that what one was witnessing was a reconstructed, and possibly simulated history. It was somewhat disappointing, therefore, to learn afterwards that the work was actually factual. This knowledge seems to shift this piece away from art practice towards the condition of art history. It is certainly interesting, however, to consider reframing what is to a large extent an art historical project as a “work of art”. But we cannot really refer to Torres’ Halifax project as “art history” because its conclusions are fundamentally poetic. We are not dealing with the critical distance and objectivity that ought to be associated with an academic study. Is this work interesting, therefore, because it points to the fact that in fine art weakness of thought (Vattimo) is rewarded?
What we are dealing with in the case of What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax (In 36 Slides) appears to be a young artist (born 1975) who is enamoured of an historical phenomenon: namely, conceptual art. And his individual admiration assumes a more general interest due to the fact that conceptual art, and more generally art of the 1960s, seems to hold an unending fascination for the generations of artists who have followed. We can say generations in the plural because Torres belongs to the third generation of artists to have followed in the footsteps of art of the 1960s (if we take it that a contemporary art-world generation [or business cycle] is approximately fifteen years).
During the 20th century we became used to the steady stream of isms in the field of fine Art. But at the turn of the millennium this stream appears to have slowed down. It seems that fine art has found its comfort zone, or perhaps “endgame” might be a better way of putting it. What is of interest in this post-ism context is the undeniable heterogeneity of fine art. Yet this apparent heterogeneity actually consists of innumerable variations upon a finite number of themes, most of which can be traced back to the revolutionary art of the 1960s.
Torres’ What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax offers an especially clear instance whereby to examine the influence of the 1960s on a young contemporary artist. What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax concerns a specific event in the history of the visual arts program of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Canada. John Menick notes that “NSCAD’s 1960s and 1970s program is known by generations of artists for the works it produced and for the pedagogical community it fostered” (Menick). What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax concentrates on a particular student exercise set in autumn 1969 for David Askevold’s Project Class by the American conceptual artist Robert Barry (b. 1936).
Via fax (which was pretty cool in 1969) Barry asked a group of students to “decide upon a “shared idea” that would be kept secret from both Askevold and Barry. As Barry wrote: ‘The piece will remain in existence as long as the idea remains in the confines of the group.’” (Menick). Which is to say, once anyone outside the group knew of the work of art would cease to exist—according to Barry. As soon as we add the caveat “according to Barry” we enter into the zone of the Readymade wherein a particular individual assuming the role of an artist declares that is certain thing (which can be anything, or nothing) is “art”.
When Duchamp’s Fountain was rejected for incorporation in an exhibition in 1917 a critical response was published in the New York based Dada publication The Blind Man, that stated: “Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object”. (Ramirez 1998: 54). But this account, which was probably written by Duchamp, does not really hold water because anybody can call themselves an artist and declare anything to be a work of art. Or is it the case that anybody who performs this action automatically becomes an artist? If so then this is certainly the easiest profession to master.
Realistically the person performing such an act must first be recognized by the fine arts community. Gaining acceptance by that community is considerably more difficult than simply declaring something, anything, to be a work of art. And so it is not actually the individual who declares that a certain phenomenon is a work of art, it is actually the artistic community; which ultimately maps onto the institutional structure of art—the fine system.
Returning to Barry’s instructional exercise there is a further complication which is that the students who performed that exercise were not actually creating a work of art. What they were doing was producing Barry’s work of art. And this indicates the indebtedness of Barry’s conceptual art to romantic aesthetics which focuses on the mysterious “genius” of the artist-individual. When Duchamp used the “whatever an artist declares to be art is art” argument in The Blind Man it seems reasonable to assume that he was being ironic, but one is not quite so sure in the case of Robert Barry. One of the more dubious features of post-Duchampian art is the way in which it has become insidiously infected with the elitist individualism intrinsic to the romantic ideology.
I would argue that the exercise that Barry set for the Halifax students is fundamentally romantic. It should be recalled that Barry made his name pioneering “invisible art”. He began by exhibiting very thin wires stretched high above the ground, Barry explains:
The wires were so thin and were in certain pieces stretched so high above the ground that it was virtually impossible to see them – or to photograph them. … I guess it was the first invisible art (UbuWeb)
After giving himself the credit for inventing “invisible art” (we should be thankful?) Barry explains that after the wire installation he went on to exhibit invisible radio waves and inaudible 40 KHz ultrasonic soundwaves. Regarding the radio waves he explains:
One was called 88mc Carrier Wave (FM) and another – 1600kc Carrier Wave AM. Since you cannot photograph a carrier wave, we had to photograph the place where the carrier wave existed. The carrier waves have several very beautiful qualities. For example, they travel into space with the speed of light. They can be enclosed in a room. The nature of carrier waves in a room – especially the FM – is affected by people. The body itself, as you know, is an electrical device. Like a radio or an electric shaver it affects carrier waves. The carrier waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum of which light waves are also a part. A carrier wave is a form of energy. Light waves are made of the same material as carrier waves, only they are of a different length. A person is also a source of some kind of a carrier wave. Let me call that telepathy. (UbuWeb)
Barry’s reference to the way in which carrier waves interact with the human body is certainly interesting although in his exhibition his dedication to invisibility entailed that he provided no way in which this could be represented to the human senses. And it seems reasonable to suggest that his reference to telepathy supports the argument being put forward here that Barry’s conceptualism is informed by a romantic aesthetics. This impression is reinforced when he observes:
in a certain frame of mind man can perceive anything as art. In the ideal state of mystic perception, Blake described it “Everything is seen for what it really is: infinite.” Then there is no need of drawing attention to art, is there? The mystical experience is closed to us. It is now, anyway. It is probably very close to revelation. Every once in a while the defenses of the mind break down and infinity rushes in. Then it closes up again. (UbuWeb)
I have provided this background to Robert Barry because I think it is may be pertinent to understanding why Torres pursued Barry’s rather curious student exercise with such dedication. One wonders whether Torres is as romantic, or fey, as his 1960s hero; although it has to be added that Barry’s rather odd notions did him no harm in terms of becoming canonised as a major American conceptual artist.
To some extent Torres dispels concerns about feyness in an interview with John Menick, but not entirely, there is still an element of adoration that signals a lack of both critical distance and a healthy disrespect for authority.
One of the most intelligent observations that Torres makes in his interview with Menick relates to the question I pointed to above concerning the problem of authorship that the student exercise opened up. Torres asks “how did … [the students] feel about a class so obviously devoted to erasing their own authorship and replacing it with a number of artists who were enjoying increasing success in the contemporary art scene?” (Menick). Torres refers to “a number of artists” because Barry’s was merely one of a number of “instructional” pieces that the students had to carry out at the behest of various up-and-coming conceptual artists including James Lee Byars, Jan Dibbets, Dan Graham and Sol LeWitt. Although Torres does touch upon this key question in What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax my own opinion is that he does so in a manner that ultimately, and perhaps inescapably, genuflects to to the genius of Robert Barry.
In one way, yes, I am interested in history, and in rethinking the construction of history. But in another way, I knew I wanted to go first to the people who were actually an essential part of the piece in order to discover what they specifically remembered about it. I was also interested in discovering what lasted over the years and why. I guess from that perspective the Barry piece is incredibly interesting. (Menick)
It seems a little overenthusiastic to suggest that this aspect of the work is “incredibly interesting”. The fact of the matter is that this was a student exercise. Accordingly, suggesting that it was “incredibly interesting” makes Torres appear to be a species of religious zealot, consciously or unconsciously, trying to put Barry forward as a mystic or saint when he was probably, like so many others in the 1960s, an acid casualty.
Torres also informs us that he believes that Barry’s intention in the instruction piece was less to frustrate processes of art historical documentation than to “configure a set of parameters that gave the piece larger resonance and greater ambiguity”. From an aesthetic point of view this is an interesting observation because it points to the demand in that fine art shouldn’t be obvious. Now when we make works of art that are not obvious we are actually pursuing something that is not so much mystical as rhetorical. Literary theory refers to the “dead metaphor” which is a metaphor that has become engulfed by common sense. What is more interesting, from an aesthetic point of view, is what could be termed the “live metaphor” a trope that has not become subsumed into common sense and which is, therefore, ambiguous.
The surrealists provided the most succinct description of the process of creating metaphor (metaphorization) when they spoke of the juxtaposition of two or more distant realities (artintelligence). And surrealist objects are nothing if they are not resonant and ambiguous. But the process of metaphorization (a mental process that still remains beyond the capacity of science to analyze) seem to be just too straightforward for Torres, he appears to prefer it when an artist such as Barry pushes beyond metaphor into pure mystification. But one should not be too hard on Torres because his admiration for Barry is, thankfully, ambiguous. For example he notes:
my piece is not necessarily about Barry, about Barry’s work—at least it does not intend to create links between his works or analyze his context, etc. It is a story about the group of people that happened to be part of a work of art. (Menick)
And so the object of Torres’ enquiry is, ostensibly, the group of students. But this focus is effectively erased by the fact that we cannot remove Barry from the picture, because he created an exercise that is entirely dependent upon his precise instructions. This was not an exercise in which the students would create their own work, it was an exercise in which the students would create a Robert Barry work. Barry carefully defined the parameters of this work of art with precision of a lawyer drawing up a contract.
Torres’ claim that his focus is on the former students is also weakened somewhat by the fact that in the course of his research he contacted Barry; although, given the parameters of the Halifax project, this was an entirely understandable thing to do. Torres reports: “When I finally spoke to him, I basically asked him questions regarding how he saw the aftermath of the piece and if that was relevant at all to the work itself today. I knew he kept showing the piece as an instruction, even though he knew that maybe the secret was not a secret anymore.” (Menick).
So are we dealing with a rather silly quasi-mystical exercise or are we dealing with an aesthetic conundrum? Barry’s instruction piece is certainly of interest from the standpoint of the conundrum; an extension, if you will, of the original postmodern puzzle that is the Duchampian Readymade.
With regard to the issue of conundrum, I think that Torres is being disingenuous when in his interview with Menick he claims that for him “the piece was what had happened in Halifax and not the instructions by themselves” (Menick). What we have here is a contradiction because Torres has already noted that the piece was “obviously devoted to erasing … [the students’] authorship” (Menick); which is to say, he accepts that the instructions determine the work of art. Yet after stating this he tells us that he thinks he can detach what the students did from the instructions. And he claims that he is doing because he is primarily interested in the students. But we can detect another motivation, which is that if he can detach part of the phenomenon he is examining from the person of Robert Barry then Torres can appropriate some of it for himself; after all, he is attempting to create his own “work of art”.
But pragmatically, Barry’s instructions are entirely integral to the work. We are dealing with a holistic system here, something that conceptual artists were extremely aware of in the 1960s and early 1970s. When Torres tries to separate out the instruction from the work he is being analytical, although his intention is actually to be poetic; which is actually quite interesting, given that analysis and creativity are fundamentally separated in the context of romantic aesthetics.
In order to be less obvious, less commonsensical, and more ambiguous, Torres claims that the instructions are not the integral part of the work. This is an interesting stratagem that suggests we are playing a postmodern art game: a game of appropriation. And although Torres suggests that his primary focus is the students it does appear that a more fundamental intention is to remove Barry from the picture so that Torres can stake his own aesthetic claim.
Torres emphasises that for him: “the most interesting thing about the research is how the instructions become just the beginning of a story way more complex than one can imagine at first sight”. Notice the hyperbole,”way more complex than one can imagine”, what does that refer to most: the students, Barry, or an extraordinary insight possessed by Torres? It seems reasonable to suggest that it refers to Torres because he created this “work of art”, we know that it is art andbecause it was exhibited in the Venice Biennale. The question then is does Torres’ art historical dissertation, because that is what it seems to be, manage to ascend higher into the aesthetic ether than even the inventor of “invisible art” was able to achieve?
In fact there is actually nothing particularly complicated about what happened after Barry’s instructions were given to the students. It is extremely doubtful that this particular exercise had a profound affect upon the lives of the people who participated in it. Indeed, this becomes apparent in Torres’ slide show, two of the captions read “Those involved said they have not thought about the idea since that time it was realised” and “… since they couldn’t remember what the original idea was”.
It was probably these two slides that gave me the original impression that this work of art had a sense of humour. But if I had read the slowly advancing and very dark slide captions more carefully this impression would have been dispelled by two more slides which read: “that weekend in Halifax triggered in these students some memories that were thought to have been erased.” and “If so, this will certainly give away to a whole new story. The one I was actually looking for”
In other words Torres is focusing on these students for a purpose, he states quite categorically that this was the story he “was actually looking for”. And the question has to be asked whether this story is really about the former students, or Torres’ brilliant insight which he would crystallize into his own work of art.
But Torres is also very clear that due to the instructional nature of the task the students did not create their own work of art: they created Barry’s work of art. I believe this is a bind that is impossible to escape. In fact it can be argued that in creating What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax Torres is not creating his own work of art but is instead elaborating upon Barry’s original instructional concept. But of course this is not unusual in the field of fine Art, because most so-called “original” works of art are, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, “a tissue of quotations” (Barthes 1977: 146).
The focus of this work is ostensibly on the ex-students but is, I would argue, ineluctably a mystification of Barry’s genius. indeed this mystification is absolutely necessary in order to underscore the extraordinary nature of the insight that Torres claims he has added to this work, and which justifies him framing What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax as a work of art, and not a work of art history. Mystification is evident in the photo-rhetorical form assumed by Torres’ slide installation. We can ask, for example, why the images are in black and white? If this work was really about the people living now, and what happened after the event; then why does the photographic rhetoric used flashback to the 1960s and therefore, inevitably, to the canonical figure of Robert Barry. Why, also, is What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax presented as a slide installation, hardly anybody uses slides today. And so we have another rhetorical pointer back to an earlier period in time namely the 1960s which in the context of this work signifies Robert Barry. We can also adduce the poetic, evocative nature of the photographs used in the slides which was intensified by the extraordinary darkness of this particular slide installation which made it almost impossible to photograph. This darkness increased the atmosphere of mystery and mystification, which at first sight seem to be simulated and ironic.
If this piece was really about those former students then we would have heard more about what those people have to say. Instead those people are really, despite what Torres claims, principally the vehicles for an homage to Robert Barry that is, in turn, a vehicle for Torres to establish himself in the venerable tradition of conceptual art.
The only significant insight I gained into the mind of those people came not from Torres’ slide show but rather his interview with Menick when he reports that one of the students was particularly unimpressed by Barry’s exercise.
She had changed her name, so I contacted her quite late in the research. Apparently, people had told her I was looking for her, but she didn’t want to deal with it, so I only got one email from her. She felt the class, and more precisely the Barry project, was an imposition that had little to do with them as students. She felt the work was “precious and tiresome” and that she was being “used.” (Menick)
An intelligent woman, who obviously realised that the “master” was not really giving guidance to students on how they could create their own work; instead he was telling them how they could create his work. From an educational point of view one would understand that the primary purpose of a fine art course would be to encourage students to be independently creative, rather than slavishly following the “instructions” of their tutors. But it is often the case that if students want to get a good grade they must do exactly that. And even when artists are making their name professionally they tend to map themselves onto what has been previously accepted by the art system; and What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax is not unique in this respect.
Torres refers to himself as an admirer of “conceptual art stories” (Menick) but he also notes that “A lot of those early 60s works are really cold, and they limit themselves to a list of information, but when you dig in, you discover there are actually people behind them, memories mixed with their subjectivities” (Menick). But what really happens in this piece is that Torres appropriates not only Barry’s original concept but also the “subjectivities” of the former students. more particularly, what he appropriates is their memory. And, although he never mentions “memory” so obviously as to position it is a central concept, he is correct in suggesting that the aftermath of Barry’s exercise is actually an interesting study in memory; although, perhaps it does not live up to the hyperbole that Torres attaches to it.
If we place What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax under the thematic “memory” then starts to make a lot more sense, especially if it directs us to think about memory in general. Memory is of interest because it is not a simple “impression” as David Hume (artintelligence) believed, contemporary psychology considers memory in terms of “encoding” (Parker 2002), which is to say as part of the autonomous cognitive processes of the brain. Unfortunately for fine artists, from a scientific point of view memory is no longer the total mystery that it was during the reign of the aesthetics of Romanticism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, there still a great deal to be learnt about memory and the fact that it is intimately interwoven into processes of thinking, imagination, and intuition makes it an entirely eligible aesthetic subject. So Torres does add something to Barry’s original conception, and he also provides us with valuable insight into how the process of creating a “work of art” actually operates.
Barthes, R. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, pp. 142-148. London: Fontana. Original edition, ‘La mort de l’auteur’, Paris, 1968.
Parker, Amanda; Wilding E., Bussey, T. 2002. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory: Encoding and Retrieval. New York: Psychology Press.
Ramirez, J. A. (1998). Duchamp: Love and Death, Even. London, Reaktion Books.