Text for Sarah Davidson's exhibition "For the Trees" at Dynamo Arts Association, April 2017.
Printed by Moniker Press.
Published in a catalogue for the exhibition of Victor John Penner's photographs, District* based on a true story at the West Vancouver Museum, Mar 29 – May 6, 2017
Victor John Penner’s photographs of urban and suburban spaces, all marked by human interaction, create a sense of unease. Past series documented abandoned grow-op houses and empty gymnasiums. Penner's new series of works, District* (based on a true story), creates a mise-en-scène of West Vancouver, offering a counter-narrative to landscape/nature based art through photographs of seemingly discordant scenes.Through the new series, Penner reflects on formative aspects of how his early influences have informed his practice.
“I cannot stroll around the outskirts of my neighborhood in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details”
-- Jorge Luis Borges
Much of adolescent memories are made in darkness, or outside of view. The spaces in which you have, at this self-discovering age, the most agency are the night and your room. The night being an illicit escape, the room being a hermetic fortress. Adolescence is remembered as a decorated incubator, a lone walk. Anyone who has grown up in the suburbs has some recollection of this, and the District of West Vancouver has its own beautifully specific mysteries. The presence of a wilderness presses in, and expands the city space towards the north and the west with pockets of forest, ocean, and mountains. The architecture and culture responds in kind, exerting control in some areas, and embracing its lack in others.
These images that Victor John Penner has constructed to colour an environment of influence are of spaces outside the regular flows of the city. They are protected back eddies housing elements that resist a movement through time. They depict a darkness that is more about an interstitial time: the time of night, of hibernation, of incubation, a womb-like, adolescent time, a time that features the bizarre. The photographs take the shape of chrysalises, metamorphic, surrounding that which defies consequence and causality and in which a structure of meaning liquefies, gathers potentiality, and emerges with new signifiers.
A photograph itself is adolescent. It ties a present moment to a past one. A photograph contains the existence of both, simultaneously. Amphibian, it exists in the past as a vestige, and the present as an object. These scenes operate structurally in the same manner as the photograph. Their content is equally outside of time.
I use the metaphor of the adolescent broadly within this work, to speak about its intention, its content, and its structure. The artist utilizes the persona of an adolescent a critical eye. The artist, the work itself is not adolescent as such. I would like to use the impressionable years between childhood and adulthood as a method of looking at the development of an identity of place, as a character that has a particular way of interacting with their surroundings, and as a medium that, for all its accomplishments in this particular region, seems poised on the verge of adulthood internationally and historically. I argue that this position is a vital one, full of tumultuous love affairs, unrepentant rebellion, a deep affinity and sensitivity to beauty, and an acute awareness of death.
Jeff Wall describes photography in his essay “Marks of Indifference,” as being unable to “participate in the adventure it might be said to have suggested in the first place.” This remark is in reference to the annihilation of depiction in art over the course of the modern era. However, the language he uses implies a further anthropomorphization of photography into a character full of its own existential angst, one that may be caught pouting, or damaging public property. Photography becomes someone who is complaining of exclusion by claiming ownership over the activity from which they are being excluded. Like a teenager, this character of photography is able to criticize the mechanics of its existence while having remarkably little control over its resolution.
Many of the works included in District depict some kind of borderland, a discrete wildness that leaks out of its walls. Some, like Breach, are quite literal, others less so. Redacted and In Chambers echo the literal reference with their curving formal compositions, but carry more subtle narratives of control within the design of their spaces. In these images, control is framed as desperate and impractical; this attitude seems to be on the side of the wildness, its inclusion is hopeful.
The images of the archive speak of this same spillage, but of their objects’ significance. The mask of Pierre Trudeau’s implication in a bank robbery constitutes a reclamation of a celebrity persona for criminal means, and our current prime minister recontextualizes his father’s image yet again. BC Binning’s small yet precise radio, sits unheard on a shelf. The irony of space used to store No Parking signs speaks for itself. Cry wolf hints at a similar history of reinscribed meaning, one which has ravaged the body of the beast to which it has been assigned. The meanings are breathing and stretching inside their signifiers, growing stories too big for their given names. If these objects have lifespans, have they reached adulthood yet?
These complex signifiers that deny, defy, trouble or mutate their direct signification exist in the landscape as well as the archive. Penner photographs interior and exterior spaces that are on the edge of those with proper names, and resist them with their narrative ambivalence; these are places where the light bleeds into the forest, or out of the interior. Markedly, these spaces are empty of figures. They imply an eerie outsider, perhaps the artist, perhaps the artist as teenager. A shadow figure that, like the meanings in the photographs, doesn’t quite fit in, and exceeds the space the district has allotted for it. More so than language, a landscape, an era, a person resists these brittle, stark qualifications.
The works are full of names which are contested by their current circumstances. Penner is playing with culture as well as language here; the playful puns in the titles reference art history, the narratives within the municipality, and his own personal stories as well. They often have an exchange with the text in the photographs themselves. The character of the adolescent sees the emptiness of these unquestioned municipal emblems, but doesn’t accuse emptiness of a negative quality. Adolescence points out its absurdity, its radical meaninglessness, and celebrates it.
Familiarity functions in these works as a weapon, like sarcasm. Penner has an incisive ability to recognize and isolate that difference, and claim it as not negative, but absurd. As if it was previously used on the artist himself, these pieces are a reckoning of difference. The familiarity of these spaces, their interaction with a cultural nostalgia, allows the viewer to insert their own personal histories. As yet more meanings enter the works, the expanded, stretched, abraded membranes of their signifiers grow thin. The friction of this difference within the sign, the stretched and crowded meanings, evinces with it an acute pain. The adolescent, oft-criticized for self-pity, has in its capacity a raw sensitivity for empathy. Tender from this abrasion, everything is simultaneously excruciatingly beautiful and painfully dark.
Rather than quash this pain, the adolescent revels in its phenomenological feel, explodes with its jouissance, ridicules it in the most humble and uproarious of ways, is silenced by its small interior pitfalls, eats its words under its beauty. These photographs use adolescent strategies of sabotage: springing leaks, letting in contaminants, packs of feral creatures, countercultures, exploiting weaknesses, constructing double entendres, tagging the walls with pseudonyms.
These strategies in the works are given a gravity of maturity by Victor John Penner that the adolescent is often not allowed. They recommend that the viewer sit comfortably within the inbetween spaces they encounter, to view the differences in light and space, in language and landscape, that they may not have considered since their own pubescent transition. He recommends the position of the adolescent as a critical yet generative one, not to be derided as nostalgic or sentimental, but one which may be necessary to inhabit in order to grow. The adolescent’s ability to inhabit both the spaces of childhood and adulthood, its ability to expand to contain multiple narratives, to be flexible between them, and to be full of both self and other, makes it a character of empathy, transition, and metamorphosis. Far from being dismissed as juvenile and frivolous, this is a character to which a community can aspire.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "A New Refutation of Time." Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Esther Allen and Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. 323. Print.
Wall, Jeff. "Marks of Indifference." Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. By Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995. 260. Print.
I Just Want To Talk About How I Just Want To Dance With You is a pamphlet series that Jacquelyn Ross has compiled specifically for An Exact Vertigo 2016. Initiating individual correspondence between herself and Jane Ellison, Deanna Peters, Alexa Mardon, and Brynn McNab, the ensuing e-mail conversations on dance, movement, poetics, and criticism have been edited together in neat little packages.
What is the boredom trying to hide?
Parataxis? The callousness of purpose?
The room is a hard sponge. It absorbs and exudes everything that lives on it. The air is rich with whatever evaporates
in the sun. It is oily, fecal, sweet.
We snuck in behind the curtain of the typhoon. I thought the pattering sound was the rain on the roof
but it was the whirring of the air conditioner and its subsequent dripping on the vanity.
Outside, there are no climaxes or antebellums, just rhythmic undulations dotted with trees.
The eye snags on the english, the sound of
sea children, school gulls.
Lightning is diligent, but thunder
is lazy, riding on lightning's coattails.
From above, it appears as if
ergonomic electric lace;
a bi-species creature derived from flight regulations
and the altitude of the viewer.
He steps in, takes off his flannel jacket,
lands within a void. The skyline
above, nothing but darkness below.
His fronds wave across the city.
like a rod or a blade or this one potential problem.
How do you phrase how your touch is developing? Eyelashes, long, and trailing
at the waist net the room. Stick to wet skin. Heads are pillars, unmarked under the roof.
It is barely felt, it can't analyze its success your body seems
and is futile. But the breath is
an absurdist critique of proto-analytic poetics, repurposed and divested
of the complexities of their original root, taking solely their popular
(or singularly poetic) connotations and repurposing as:
Neutralization of acids.
3 on Moh's scale.
Light is split into slow and fast beams (like water).
“There is nothing more tentative than an established order.”
We must abandon nothing to the world.
2 tbsp of butter
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped apple
1 tsp thyme
1lb chicken livers
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup brandy
1 cup heavy cream
In large pan, saute butter onion apple and thyme with lid on until apples soften.
Remove lid. Increase heat, add livers and cook until pink inside.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Add pepper, salt, brandy and puree. Cover and chill.
Whip cream into soft peaks and fold into liver mixture.
The room is on your mind. You are on the room's mind.
The room is inherently isotropic. Each piece is contained
in the familiar structure of the frame. In fact, the show is all 3's and 4's. It amounts to 12.
The child is not sure why she is screaming at her mother.
Our toes are in the mud, with the fishes. We have 4 legs full
of strength and dexterity and
balance. As innovative as a biological wheel.
Our breath whistles in each others' mouths just as
the crystalline form
stands off the skin against the curves of muscles
setting the once sibylline and delphic form
against a strict and rigid edge.
The 4 shapes interrupt the images 4 times.
4 different ways each time. Interrupt yourself 4 ways. Enjoy it, subsume yourself.
All that is left of this supposed evil
wakes the image of a tangle
There are 3 positions for your feet. You must rotate between them, roll your hips
for full momentum, twist your waist and let your arms fly loose. You will become a screw, the air in a liquid rollicking in a tube, that space within the centrifugal whirlpool. You float upwards, becoming less pointed as the waters calm.
The movement stays inside the body, flicking quietly to certain areas, showing me around.
The sensation dug and found a key and unlocked a shelf to stand still which we could climb.
The body is a 3 dimensional torus. Everything is outside and there is
no firmament, only strange animals from somewhere else. A litany:
Night F, Night A, Improvised Poem.
From the sound of it, a tray full of icewater,
Tinkling like chandeliers.
You see the baby? A whole lineup of people
staring openly. Half smiles on their faces,
The woman in black – she is tall and above societal reprimand as well – disappears
under the water. It is a dust-up until she emerges.
4 raw whales under her arms, their fillets trying to re-enter
the sea. The scream. It is a comfortable tangle of you and me and him,
sharing certain things with neither of you. Or at least not so you'd believe it.
She speaks as if it has happened to her and me both, closed and cruel and stating the obvious
you would not have thought of.
Your mouth is a nest and does not hear.
Later, the hands turn yellow as they stretch
And there are minute lines in slightly unnatural places, like inaccurate
topography or surgical colour-by-numbers.
My cup calls me Nathaniel for now. It is drawing me a bath
though at the indistinguishable temperature of the weather
and its surrounding histories.
I'm going to play you a portion of this film, called Le Revelateur, directed by Philippe Garrel in 1968. And while the film plays I'm going to tell you the story of how I came to think about this work. And as I tell you this story, and play this film ( and film is intrinsically narrative) I ask you to think about not story. I mean, not to not think about story, but to think about the opposite of story, which means you will, by extension, be forced to think about story as well.
When I looked at Dault's work online, before the show opened, the phrase “Zombie Formalism” surfaced first. My initial reaction was that yes, the work falls into this category. It has a lot of the signifiers that are often in work described this way. It works with aesthetic and formal guidelines that were used in minimalism. I see a lot of Stella, Judd, Flavin, and Morris in her work. Dault herself says that she likes and tries to emulate that aesthetic. However, she also denies theoretical connection to the movement. How then, are we meant to think about the work?
I'd like to talk about this initially dismissive term coined by Walter Robinson in a more generous framework. In the essay in which he introduces “Zombie Formalism”, he asks “Do I need to prove that formalist abstraction is a walking corpse?” Rather than initiate the term as one to describe a movement, he uses it as a straightfoward metaphor for work that he feels is empty, aping modernist abstraction, a “simulacrum of originality”. Even though it has an “ism”, this term is a perjorative adjective, not a useful way of looking at a trend that is currently sweeping in its volume. This type of work is happening on a huge scale. And it is being made by artists who are art-school educated, and painfully aware of modernist art history. This work cannot and should not be entirely dismissed with a mere adjective.
The next word that came up for me was “Skeuomorphia”, which is a beautiful word, describing a complex relationship between stages of technological progression. In a way, it describes the same thing in design that “zombie formalism” is attempting to describe in art history. When I learned the term, formica was the first example of it that I was given. So I found it highly ironic that this is also the primary material that Dault uses for her sculptures. The “marble” formica bench in the next room is a perfect example of this term, especially when compared to Shannon Bool's piece outside.
Now I'd just like to wax poetic a bit about zombies. I have noticed that monsters have come up often in recent philosophical texts. They elucidate the concept that the world is full of ideas of terror that we cannot name, cannot even conceive, and that these therefore do not affect us, are only hints of darkness on the edge of our existence. Lovecraft is the herald of these texts, and his oft-cited monster, the Chthulu, exemplifies this approach. “Dead but dreaming”, the Chthulu is only really described as humanity's most basic nightmare. Zombies, everpresent in popular culture, speak to me of this same concept, but one that exists inside each individual. I wrote an email to a lover a few years ago, defending the zombie, and I'd like to read a selection of the argument.
what i like about zombie movies is the feeling that there could always already be the undead arriving on the scene. that at any moment the space around you could be overwhelmed with these carnivorous blockages. The danger in them is a weird variety, the enemy moves so slowly and their condition necessitates that they cannot be cunning as individuals. It is a biological danger. they are slowmoving viral amoebas. The "infection". When you die, the disease reactivates your brain. only life and the thin boundaries of skin can prevent you from its harsh takeover. once you have reached the unknowable, the metonym of your existence is used to destroy those you hold dear. Is this A terribly trite metaphor on loss or a beautiful atomization of the idea of decay? There is something pretty happening on the razor suspense of these movies, beyond the simple plotlines which consist merely of societal examples and extremes. Surrounding you are the spectres of humanity, reanimated by another species, a virus whose motives we cannot understand. There is no known evolutionary endgame. We give them faces and bodies, marked but still real, to mask this remote creature consisting of many colonies, which are coordinated, cooperative; are amassing for a reason that is never elucidated. but it amasses nonetheless. it is amassing all around us, and we could be caught in the tide at any moment. do not let the drama distract you.
Aesthetically, I find Dault's work very hermetic. The eye has no line of flight, there is no escape from the tableaux that she has set up. This seems very purposeful to me. The double mirror and its infinite regression in the hallway speak to this. She has literally hung her work up in a space that has no horizon, that infinitely gets more and more inside of itself. This gesture is one of the escape. Escape being a state of mind set in motion by fear. Separated from a larger narrative, it is precursored by an unknowable terror, and has no destination in mind, no solution to a state of emergency.
Now, we come to this film. When I first encountered it, I was immediately seduced. My film professor at the time chided me that I only liked the film because of its style, that the politics involved in its making were of no concern to me. I actually tend to agree. Athough it was made to be a reaction to post-war politics in France, and the student riots in Paris, ( a reaction against the vichy regime, the what I like about this film (other than its obvious beauty) is the palpable state of escape that it portrays. The object of the fear is never stated, and there is no resolution, no place of safety presented, just an endless flight.
I think, in the end, I have to argue that work deemed “zombie formalism” is a gesture of the same. It is an escape from the story of the avant-garde. From the story that consists of the emergence of the new in rebellion with the current state of the art. It posits no new solution, it empties past forms while denying even the act of revolution. But it is aware of the pervasive radiation of fear, and in the act of its existence it does provoke further examination of the prevailing conditions of the moments and environments in which we find ourselves. It is an escape without the story that surrounds it, because it implicitly denies continuing that narrative, either in rebellion, or in resolution.
1: Travel to an initial site of meaning for a work. Provide a dissection of the act of travelling to the site. Think about space and time, and their relationship to objects.
2: Objectively describe the map of the site. Objectively describe the populist representation of the site.
3: How is the site represented? What is called attention to? Form a sentence that compares your own personal narrative to that representation.
4: Informally invent your own god. Find them in history, botany, geography, anything arcane. Name them. Name what they command. Have them comment on the site.
5: Show that there is a poetic violence that all these things imply. How has it been recontextualized? What is being misplaced?
Talk about the actual work:
The 1st piece:
Describe it objectively, simply, but imply a purpose.
e.g. “supported from above and below by the scorched earth alone.”
Form one sentence on what is being acheived.
The 2nd piece:
Objective description only. The purpose and activity are already implied. Invoke your god again. Back him up with a metaphor found on the site. Now, talk about that metaphor in a completely abstract manner. What are the implications of this in the site?
The 3rd piece:
Launch into a poetic anecdote with no preamble. Describe objectively the third piece. Describe the transformation from the site the work entails. Describe how this relates to the anecdote, how it encompasses it. In terms of material and medium, take apart what is happening here. What is metaphysical about these objects?
e.g. “Space is the remains or corpse, of time. It has dimensions. Objects are sham space, the excrement of thought and language, Objects are phantoms of the mind, as false as angels.”
Provide a scientific fact that relates to your anecdote. Relate it to your god, and the “coincidence” at hand. Speak in the god's voice about a contemporary reference. Have the god disappear in front of your eyes. Describe this performance.
The 4th piece:
Describe a failure of the medium. Describe how the experience cannot be described. What are the implications of these two failures?
e.g. Surd 1) Voiceless. 2) Incapable of being expressed in rational numbers. Irrational.
The 5th piece:
Describe and dissemble the essential qualities of the pieces. Become confused and enthralled. Take apart matter. Question the existence of everything and/or anything. Suggest future possibilites of making.
The 6th piece:
Bring your own narrative into the work again. Describe your experience of moving through a place and in the same way describe a piece. What is the speed, disorientation, and perimeter?
The 7th piece:
Talk about the history that is being drawn from; not only what is being referenced, but also what subject is being addressed by both the present work and its referent. Speak about how complexity incites dematerialization. Relate this to a past work. Theorize as to their relationship. Find an unlikely viewer for the work. Tell their experience.
The 8th piece:
Question the ability to write and talk about the work. Question your ability to look at the work, to understand it.
e.g. “ Oh, for the happy days of pure walls and pure floors!”
Question the efficacy of a narrative memory.
The 9th piece:
Analyze the form of the site and how it is reflected in the work. Claim that the site itself is a work. Have your god propose a work.
1: Talk about the discrepancies of metaphor.
2: Talk about the invented memories of a place where you have never been.
3: Talk about the hypothetical inexistence of an experience.
e.g. “vacant memories constellating the intangible terrains in deleted vicinites. It is the dimension of absence that remains to be found. The expunged colour that remains to be seen. The fictive voices of the totems have exhausted their arguments [The conversation is over]. Yucatan [the site, the jungle, the garden, the desert, the conservatory, the museum] is elsewhere.”
Published in ISSUE Magazine Vol 3 No 3
Published in ISSUE Magazine Vol 3 No 1
Something White is a chapter excerpt of a novel-length fiction project which was published in The Swedish Dance History, Volume 4, in 2013.
Originally published here:
Writing installation in the Emily Carr University Library in May-June of 2012.
A fiction project which was structured on a 1990's PC with narratives on both desktop and MS-DOS, Rifle sought to examine a particular technological nostalgia, and illustrate the manner in which the support of the text affects the form and experience of the content.
Self-Published, Parts I - V
An editorial project mining harlequin romance novels for the erotic.
The text was replicated in its original place on the page, but edited to change tense to present, female pronouns to you, and male pronouns to I. All text that did not insinuate an erotic exchange was not included.
An excerpt was published in Woo Magazine
Published as a catalogue entitled Remains/Contains for "Let's Show them Yellow Light!" exhibited at the Lion's Den, Vancouver, BC