Rebecca Baumann: Manoeuvres: Fremantle arts centre.
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A friend of mine recently put it to me that while she would go out of her way to see a show by Rebecca Baumann, she would probably not write about it. After beginning this piece, I realised that it was actually of great difficulty to say anything about Baumann’s work that was worth saying. This is not because it is unworthy of attention, but that the difficulties within other works that make them seem necessary to speak about do not seem to arise in Baumann’s creations. Her work’s simplicity and ready accessibility spurn attempts to language it. In a way, it is already quite complete. The communication technologies that she misappropriates parallel the dilemma: if an artist goes so far as to remove the typically linguistic and figurative content of a tri-fold billboard so that the only content is the playing of light and colour, does it mean that the almost inevitable ‘figuring’ that occurs in analytic writing is a disservice to the art? The operations of Baumann’s works are simple, and they require very little by the way of explication. She designs them to speak to us in a refined language, and it is perhaps better understood as an experience than converted into words.
There is, however, something else. Reading the criticism that is directed at Baumann’s work it is overwhelmingly positive. There is the frequent acknowledgment of the moment her work captures: between fleeting joy and inevitable melancholy. Yet perhaps we should be more inquisitive than this. It seems almost too obvious. Where, in Baumann’s work, is the possibility of antagonism? Where is the challenge? Is the reason I cannot write about it the fact that it is too meek? Is it, despite its flamboyant colours and occasional dramas, just too mild to whip up any resentment, bitterness, or even criticism? I enjoy it, but do I do more? The typical response to Baumann’s work often seems limited to noting that it is both happy and sad. A kind of weird catharsis pervades her creations, and how we feel about them, and people are happy to leave it at that. I would like to offer what I hope is a reading that may begin to challenge the more typical language of Baumann’s critics. Baumann is clearly well rehearsed in contemporary artistic creation, but does this disguise the absence of any friction in her work? Let us follow this train of thought:
But first: a further note on the subject of possible antagonism: it seems that people are too willing to state that the melancholy in Baumann’s work is somehow indicative of something active and perhaps even destructive. I think that the better way of expressing the experience of Baumann’s work is one of apathy. The perfect example is OFF/ON, the streamer attached to the industrial fan that lies on the floor until activated. This apathy is the apathy of a practice that links itself to the commercial production of spectacle. In the vein of the assisted ready-made, Baumann uses the commercial and industrial products of our world to make her work. The space that it inhabits is certainly at the edge of the happy and the sad, but it is also invested in commercial and industrial production, particularly of spectacle and entertainment. Yet does Baumann’s work present any sort of antagonism or even investigation here? To this realm of the commercial and the industrial from which it draws its materials? The work seems easily recouped, focused as it is on emotional manipulation. Baumann’s work does very little to the objects of commerce and industry, only removes their content. A party without people, a billboard without an advert. Does this absolve us of guilt? Is the purpose of her work to alleviate the commerce from the commercial celebration and provide us with the soft-core emotional response of melancholy?
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Have you ever watched the cube?
it is the film where people get trapped by various strange machinations in a game that kills them – a game of cubes, inside a bigger cube. The game in the film is constituted of a system that is incredibly complex, involving square roots of prime numbers. The end result is often gory and imaginative death. I didn’t watch it until I wrote this, but I read about it, and its premise sticks in my mind, something about that sentiment, the inexplicability of this machine that someone has built, trapped people inside, and consigned them to death, but with a way out. There are various issues that make it interesting to consider, as a metaphoric circumstance it is of particular interest: unknown systems, moving beneath and around you. The ending, giving us no glimpse outside of the cube, offers us nothing outside its game plan. Though perhaps an oversight, it is the nature of games that outside them is less fun: Hence one of the character’s decisions to stay in the cube, giving up on the exterior world.
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I think that there is a reason Baumann is loved and respected, though. I love her work, too. I do think there is a relationship to the emotional turmoil of both celebration and its aftermath, but I also think there is a more complex and parallel relationship to the space of commerce, capitalism, entertainment industries, mass production, and spectacle. The materials she uses are reconciled to their inevitable apathy, though. The apathy that Baumann presents in these works is not something I am critical of her work, for. In a way it is wrong to criticise Baumann for not overthrowing the inevitable apathy of commercial enterprises and worldwide systems of capital. Who could possibly do that? Baumann’s response is something both moderate and nihilistic: Everything is Terrible, but the Party must go on until it ends.
But this is not true all the time. The works that she has recently been presenting, from automated colour field through to this show, manoeuvres, are not so caught up in failure. They fail sometimes, but they are more invested in repetition, slow and subtle movement. They tick like clocks, but not a time-bomb. What are they doing? What is at stake in them? Time is implicit there, certainly, moving slowly, trickling away. Automated colour field, a new arrangement every second, is a slowly grinding kind of delight. There is something austere here, like her conveyor belts and industrial fans. These objects are industrial, less commercial, less spectacle, they point to the probable place of creation of the materials she uses: in a factory somewhere, putting toxic coatings on party goods. Industry, time, and constant movement: Baumann’s apathy is understandable from the position of industrial production. This is repetition causing a loss of meaningful exchange – things happen, they go on happening, and here we are, still. Automated colour field goes on without us, unlike confetti international. Manoeuvres also presents this. In a way, Manoeuvres goes further: it plays us. We are trapped, like the people in the cube, but this time in a benevolent (?) orchestration, that none-the-less is counting down our lives.
We can compare her work favourably to Ryoji Ikeda on this count. Ikeda’s work is visually impressive and stimulating, yet it is also somewhat negligent to the viewer, it addresses you in the language of the overwhelming, and the impressive. Like fireworks, it enters a realm in which the individual is overwhelmed by mass spectacle. Baumann is less prone to mere spectacle than Ikeda’s works. Her installations are not always slower or without similar impact, but they vary in pace much more than Ikedas, they give you time to view the mechanics and nature of the presentation.
Manoeuvres is part of Baumann’s continued investigation into these information presentation mechanisms – from the automated colour field flip-boards, through once more with feeling (re-presented in this exhibition) and into Manoeuvres, with the delicate flipping panels from buses. As she has continued, the investigation has deepened, and the most recent iteration is not randomized, as automated colour field, nor as limited in scope as once more with feeling. Manouevres is an intricate dance through space and time, and it plays with rhythms of movement. It even extends interestingly into an aural dimension in the strange tune the signs play, shimmering in the gallery. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the installation of this work is that it is not overwhelming or impressive in dimension; it is instead a work that is more about hiding. The installation across two corridors and a room and the multiple planes that it activates means it is impossible to see or know what might be going on at the other end of the work. Though a simple device, the independent, and though cyclic, potentially random animation of the panels, transforms the gallery into an active participant, and even a potentially malicious participant. Often, I felt as if the work was playing me, particularly in moments of surprise, when what I expected to happen from what I had seen was undone – when the program was interrupted. Even more so, when it did not show me what I wanted. The panels are covered from behind, and so hide any possible vision of their content, and this complexifies movement even within the less dynamic spaces (the room as opposed to the corridor, where one typically moves cyclically around the art on the walls before leaving), where the panels stand in space, facing opposite directions, yet being constantly played off each other.
I am reminded of one of my other encounters with another of Baumann’s works – at Light Show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in 2013. While the rest of the show used light in a painterly fashion, seeming to sit more on the wall than in space, and denying the potentialities and legacy of the light and space movement, Baumann’s work was the clear exception, and stand out. Her use of space there was much more low-fi, and more direct. Here, the same strength – of acknowledgement and interest in space – is deployed, but is more cohesive, powerful, and complex. The artwork does not sit, site-adapted or even site-responsive, rather, it is a truly active participant, engaged in the creation of a performance within the gallery. One becomes aware, in watching the work, of the logic of play, and the fact that our interactions with the work are guided by a system outside of our control, pre-ordained by the artist. The artwork thus becomes something more than pleasing, toying with us, and our desire to see.
This is quite contrary to the nature of the media Baumann has taken. Advertising and information presentation is absolutely focused on convincing us that we can see everything and all at once and that everything we see, we can have. This is the lie of DeBord’s spectacle: that of the movement from being to having and having to only appearing. Baumann’s work reminds us, in ways that few other artworks do – which often seem to be resolutely their own advertisements – that the world is not given, and not everything you see can be yours. The world is a place governed by those that have the power of the gaze, not only in a sexual sense, but economic and social sense too. We live, though, more and more without the possibility of seeing the person who controls. Control is exerted both invisibly and visibly, and invisibility can have as great a power as visibility. Baumann’s work moves in the direction of challenging us to perceive even the most simple and physical of spaces in this manner, a synchronic circuit that operates beyond and without us, that we are a cog in a machine, and the machine is all around us.
However, what we do see remains pleasing. It causes no great dissonance. Though Baumann plays our desire to see – particularly our desire to see everything at once – by hiding the appearances, activating individual and minuscule pieces of the installation, she simultaneously offers us visual riches. This visuality has long been at the heart of Baumann’s practice – the appearance of colour, movement, and temporality, give us senses of animation, excitement, and pleasure.
The perceptivity of Baumann’s work is in the relationship present between the tragedy of celebration and the late capitalist world we inhabit. The dream has gone sour, and her work presents us with this very situation. Its success as a reflection of the economic and social world we inhabit in the world of global capital is the cause of its success as art. It is not the simple undoing of the dichotomy of happy and sad emotions that she exposes in her work, it is the apathetic cornucopia of the late capitalist world. Framing it like she does, the bright colours and delicate dances become hollow, removed, distilled, and distinct. They take on an air of coldness, some of the chill that we are not often invited to feel in places of entertainment. They are possessed of an austerity that shows the nature of a true inquiry. Baumann does not pass judgement, however. These works offer a means of misappropriation and a means of engagement that may offer something of a resistance. They none-the-less only make sense in response to the technologies and materials they come from. They are bound up in a discourse of material and use that is subverted. Yet the subversion relies on the origin. Baumann’s work, here in the art world, relies on the nature of entertainment industries and broader aesthetic developments, industrial materials, to exist. However we perceive the work, it is implicit in the discourses that it stands in ambivalent relation to.
Ambivalence is not, however, a powerless position. Apathy and ambivalence are not necessarily the negative reactions or even actions they are often perceived to be. Apathy and ambivalence are certainly the states that we inhabit upon passive consumption. Yet perhaps they are also a certain resistance. How far can you push them before they become not an absence of care, but something more sinister? Despite the belief that the consumer is apathetic, they are often more seduced and active in their consumption. The apathetic and ambivalent are the realms of disillusionment as well, in this contemporary age. From these places arises the potential for antagonism and agonism. Not that I expect any extreme political action from a viewer of Baumann’s work, but perhaps work like this can arm us against the constant presence of billboards and advertising and information delivery systems in our lives. We can imagine the pixels of our screens, the panels on the busses, ticking over, reflected in the saturated, pointless mirror of this work. There is a space opened up, a space opened up where we can look on and look over the delicate play, perhaps become more attuned to its machinations, and the potential materials of communication have to be blocked and misused. Perhaps the destruction of languages we are used to is the means to a renewal, a means of resistance, and a new means of relation to their activities.
Is this subversion a simple transformation of what was ‘evil’ into something ‘good’? If this is all it was, the work would be weak, and it would be interesting only so far as we all agreed. The potency of Baumann’s work does not rest only in the subversion, but also in its execution, and in Manoeuvres, the implementation of a complex set of operations within these transformed advertising and information delivery materials. The operations of play, of hiding of the work, and its propensity to entice us across the room, only to leave us disappointed, or surprised. It is the very spatial and temporal engagement that is the cause of the work’s immediate and sensorial success. This is as it has always been. The criticisms of Baumann’s work are often so simple because the elements of her works are so simple – at least they seem to be. The party materials, the kinetic elements, the industrial materials, they all speak to certain broad and simple ideas – violence, repetition, celebration, happiness and delight and consumption. Yet it is always in the refinement of these simple elements in operations and couplings of materials that Baumann finds great affect, but also something more interesting. It has to do with the conceptual potential of the materials, but also has much to do with the very absence of any prescriptive or didactic content from the artworks – a shift particularly evident in her later works that literally remove information. This absence of didacticism and prescription is the place I began my essay. It is perhaps what makes it worth it to think about Baumann’s work: how we might come to terms with it, and not just prescribe and describe over the top of the often deliberate opacity they have. Perhaps this argument requires some more compromise though: for it is not that these works do not speak, but how they speak, that makes them worth looking at.
For Baumann’s works speak in simple, easy statements, and yet this does nothing to relieve their ambiguity. The elements that make up her works are rarely made to speak directly or didactically, but present themselves silently, in a manufactured yet highly material way. This opens the path to a physical and subjective realm for the viewer (interestingly, Baumann herself often seems like a distant conceptual orchestrator, behind the scenes rather than tactilely involved herself). The silence and brevity of her works leaves a vast space. The work is constantly eluding the grasp, as it cannot be pinned to any number of words, except perhaps those that share the work’s difficulty in analysis.
Yet there is something else worth mentioning: Baumann does not stand in any sort of antagonistic relationship to much of the art world, her work is favourable to gallery spaces, and is enticing to gallery goers. It is almost perfectly suited to this situation in fact. The apparent interest and inquiry it has into the spectacle seems at odds with the easy acceptance of the gallery going mode of viewership. Yet this is what Baumann’s work now deals with as the principle source of its dissonance: the distance between the means of communication and the absence of content from that communication. Her billboards, the automated colour field, the colour clocks and manoeuvres all present a misappropriation of a means of communication, and a realignment towards something much less pragmatic and didactic. The mode of perception in the gallery space is, so far, upheld as one that can display to us something about – and perhaps an alteration of – the modes of perception we are engaged in outside the white walls.