The New Normal

Reviewed by Joe Biel

One of the key moments for me in reading and looking through the catalog for the exhibition The New Normal, occurs toward the back of the book, at the beginning of the last essay, The Unreality Clause by Marisa Olson.  Olson states:
When The New Normal’s curator Michael Connor, asked me to contribute an essay, he encouraged me to ‘make the leap to first person’ and write about privacy and self-surveillance from the perspective of my own work as an artist.  Ironically, for someone whose work often has the surface appearance of self-absorption and frequently revolves around public confession, I hesitated.  I was taught that one does not insert oneself into critical essays, no matter how subjective the material.  There is a time and place to talk about oneself, and this isn’t it.
Olson goes on to talk in the first person with impressive precision and lack of ego about the collision between notions of the private and the public in her own, and today’s mediated world. And she doesn’t attempt to ‘solve’ any contradictions, but rather lets them exist, the way such contradictions seem to exist in the ‘real world’.   But it is Olson’s tactic of inserting the private ‘I’ into what would seem to be a detached critical essay on the problem of private information in a public world that encapsulates a lot of what I ended up admiring about the catalog as a whole.   Olson’s anecdote itself becomes a sort of allegory for the premise of the entire exhibition.
For me, the act of asking questions without sewing everything up neatly is one of the things that make the catalog engaging and relevant in a number of ways.  Rather than organizing the show around a rigid thesis, the curatorial umbrella here is constituted by a number of platforms from which we see how publically available information and private concerns of the individual collide, mesh and coexist.   The brilliance of this catalog lies in its lack of predictable consistency.  In no way does this water down the rich layers of information of both thought and image. In fact it is the range of ideas and images that make this catalog so thought provoking and so much fun to read and look through.  The feeling that it is all still happening out there, even as we read about it in here, is, perhaps a key.
Stylistic range is most striking in the curatorial choices of artists and works.  The word range truly applies in particular to the applications and qualities of aesthetic. In this show the full gamut is presented without a sense of qualitative hierarchy.
On one hand we have the examples of Sophie Calle and Mohamed Camara. Both artists display in their respective video works a distinctly European poetic sensibility (one thinks of Cartier-Bresson and Atget), as well as a real sense of existential malaise (or at least melancholy) worthy of Camus or Beckett.  The fact that these figures and spaces are connected to ‘surveillance’ (private or otherwise) in no way lessens a humanistic connection to art of the past. Here, as in existential literature and philosophy, the detached becomes personal.
On the other side we have two collaborative teams: Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher and Eyebeam R&D (Jonah Peretti and Michael Frumkin).  Both teams minimize traditional aesthetic in favor of practicality in gathering information from one public and displaying it to another.   In July/Fletcher’s case images are made by public participants who take and send pictures to the artists.  In the case of Eyebeam R&D, information on individuals’ political leanings is made ‘public’ in the form of a diagrammatic map.  In both cases, whatever aesthetic presides in the final works is wholly dependent on the practicality of providing information. What’s notable here is the ‘grass roots’ feeling in creating and disseminating images.  In this work there is a sort of ‘from the ground up’ anti-corporate quality due mainly to a focus on the individual that brings to mind the increase of an optimistic artistic social practice today.  In their playfulness (July/Fletcher) and practical directness (EyebeamR&D), their collective effectiveness in establishing an opposite pole from Calle and Camara is undeniable.
But the real masterstroke in Michael Connor’s curatorial vision lies in filling in the dualistic void left between the poles established above.  The other artists in the show all exist somewhere between these poles, often displaying multiple and contradictory characteristics of one or both.  Guthrie Lonegran’s video stills have the intimate focus of Warhol’s screen tests while retaining the immediacy of Facebook pictures.  Corinna Schnitt’s videos hold a markedly ‘set up’  quality, but at the same time casual domestic feeling.  Hasan Elahi has a similar quality in his videos, and his c-prints are collections that call to mind the formal rigor of Robert Flick on one hand, and the everyday sprawl and urban ubiquity of 99 Cent Store on the other.  Trevor Paglen’s ink jet prints of CIA officers have the minimalist focus of an Agnes Martin painting and the iconic pull of an Indian miniature. Sharif Waked and Jill Magid both present works featuring individual characters.  Both also employ narrative strategies that play the line between detached documentary and the subjective artifice and direct emotional theatricality of a Sam Shepherd play.
Perhaps the clearest and most striking example of this ‘bridge’ between and objective and subjective is the video work by Kota Ezawa.  His single contribution, Home Video II is an overworking of a video featuring Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Ezawa’s transformation of the original cultural document bridges the issues of private/public and aesthetic awareness/lack of concern in a number of ways.
By painting over the photographic information in an evenhanded manner, Ezawa decimates the specifc roles of celebrity. Moreover, the whole premise of celebrity-based reality-TV, that is the privilege of watching ‘special’ people in unextraordinary circumstances, is reversed.   The erasing of identity transforms Anderson and Lee into almost ‘everywoman’ and ‘everyman’ figures, turning cultural specificity into an almost mythological generality.  This flip is echoed stylistically where the specific ‘look’ of video is made into a conventional painting aesthetic.  The figures move and talk with the same quality of reality show, but also function in the weird unreality and flatness of Gothic manuscript painting.
The sense of mythical transformation of this video is contradicted by the unremarkable action and dialog.  This in turn makes the banal take center stage, creating something Olson refers to in her essay as a ‘poetics of the minutely banal’.  What I find really striking here is that Ezawa’s sense of banality calls to mind writers like Proust, Joyce and David Foster Wallace as much as it refers to the haze of consumer culture.  I suppose this is also due to the decidedly handmade quality of the painted video.
What is wonderful here is that all the associations function simultaneously.  The layers pile up and can be taken in individually or all at once.  The viewer/reader of the exhibition/catalog gets to decide. There is a sense of the generously democratic at work here.  And the quality of openness is not based on sloppy vagueness but on a distinctively precise multiplicity.
One of the realizations I had while reading Clay Shirky’s contribution to the catalog, Private, Public, and the collapse of the Personal, is that Shirky’s huge range of cited cultural examples points to a notion that runs through the exhibition itself: namely that artists are willing to use anything from the endlessly layered information stream that broadly constitutes perception today.  Inclusiveness is the key word here. And this again points back to Joyce.  The feeling of reading the bizarre collection of images, banal and extraordinary in the list sections of Finnegans Wake is not unlike the expansive range found while reading and looking through The New Normal.  For me the multiplicitous feeling of life being lived pervades and recommends both.
Michael Conner, Clay Shirky and Marisa Olsen, The New Normal, (Independent Curators International/Artists Space, 2008) 
Images: Cover and interior image from The New Normal