Ghosttown is typical of Red76, a self-described “arts group” founded In 2000 with shifting membership that (this time around) Included Sam Gould and Khris Soden. Red76 has enabled similar exchanges through projects like Dim Sum, 2002— (a show-and-tell buffet of in-progress artwork served with a sit down breakfast), Little Cities, 2005— (cut-and-paste poles to make model cities), and Laundry Lectures, 2003— (talks given at Laundromats), both inside and outside art Institutions In North America and Europe, including the Drawing Center in New York, Southern Exposure in San Francisco, and the Autonomous Cultural Center In Weimer, Germany.
Like much of the most trenchant art In Portland, Ghosttown was exquisitely half-assed. If only a few people showed up, it didn’t matter; Sam and Khris were psyched. When someone had no dish for the potluck, he or she stall ate. Ditto at the store: You could get what you wanted with a promise (though no one would ever take your money). Sam said Ghosttown was art; Khris said It wasn’t. This ease with the malleability of form, the contingency of relations-let’s Just say “winging it”—had its material corollary In the disposable news circular and the miscellaneous detritus of the project (cardboard clothing tags, dinner sign-up sheets penned directly on Sheetrock at the store, Xeroxed hand- scrawled flyers for the jukebox playlists). It gave a hum of lightness and optimism to the whole project, a take-it-for-granted sense of abundance and possibility that disabled any programmatic readings of the work as a site of struggle, whether social, political, or artistic.
Such ease can also be read as shallowness or a failure to engage real politics, and the charge is probably fair. But lack of depth is also this work’s greatest accomplishment. Ghosttown was a rigorously attenuated enactment of surface, one that produced a particular political space quite unlike that which we arrive at through digging deeper. Red76 evacuated depth by becoming hauntingly present on the surface. Old hierarchies of meaning (hallmarks of modernism such as irony, repression, revelation, and subtext) were rendered absurd, a strange effect that marked every interaction in Ghosttown. To put it simply: The face of Ghosttown wore a benign, foolish smile and bright eyes-the blank stare of the fully evolved hippie. Anyone who looked behind it or beyond it was missing the point. To stand in the warmth of this regard was to become, de facto, awesome.
The high-wire act of becoming the engine for such a redemptive gaze is ultimately much more than a politics; it is a metaphysics, a commitment to skate eternally on a surface of immediate presence because that is where we are, together, and it is really real and really,
really great here right now. Pragmatic critiques—that, for example, such projects are luxuries we cannot afford in divisive times—may be politically salient, but they are artistically conservative, restricting artists to relations they abhor and obliging them to abjure their most far-reaching propositions.
The ascendancy of surface and complete unintelligibility of depth goes some way toward explaining why art practices, once comfortably confined by conceptual and even formal boundaries, now spread ravenously outward, indifferent to locale, staging themselves serially across a vast horizontal plain of interchangeable opportunities: The museum, a storefront, your bedroom, online, even a toilet—all blossom as sites of meaning when the artist arrives, bringing his beaming face with him. These actions leave little trace and have generated corresponding crises in the discourse around them.
In these pages last month, Claire Bishop nicely described one such crisis when she compared the thinness of ethically driven projects such as the Turkish artists’ collective Oda Projesi’s neighborhood picnics with what she called the greater conceptual density” of Thomas Hirschhorn’s interventions in the Turkish communities of Kassel. Bishop is not alone in her preference, and so groups like Superflex or BANK, a British collaborative, or individually authoring artists such as Hirschhorn or Philippe Parreno often deliver a raft of textual materials, in the form of wall texts, catalogues, or other normative media of traditional art criticism, that, among many other things, enact the desired conceptual density.
But Red76 or Learning to Love You More, 2002— (the collaborative project of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July), or Dynamite (a broadly traveled live/work collective from Grand Rapids, Mic higan)—artists who, with the exception of Fletcher, have little or no formal training—tend not to add depth but, instead, obsessively broaden their reach. Critics compensate by restoring depth to the image of the artist, enacting a shadow play of romantic heroism that concentrates meanings in the shell of these artists’ sensibilities and inner lives, which are then targeted as sites of critique. This misreading is almost unavoidable wherever the task of art criticism is taken at all seriously-as it is here in this essay.
The search for depth exacerbates a related disjunction between art-critical discourse and projects like Ghosttown, and that is the problem of authorship: How to sort out the ambiguity of authorship in projects that enlist the creative energies of nonartists under the unifying banner of a single creator? It is foolish to propose an equivalence between mists and the community they work with, where no such equivalence exists. Authorship is never a fact; it is politics, a negotiation of power. And so, while it might be progressive politics to map this ecology as rigorously as possible and give names and credit to everyone involved, it is sometimes pragmatic to draw the line sharply and claim sole authorship. Neither of these strategies is any more virtuous than the other, but both presume that the drama of authorship is an interesting one, the consequences of which are at least desirable enough to fight over. In this they exist well within the normative strategies of contemporary art.
But there are other positions, including that of Red76 or the dead rock star who kept shifting the spelling of his name from Kurt to Kurdt to, beautifully, Curdt. These are not pseudonyms. They, and such related nominal ants as the “Museum of Jurassic Technology,” “Ethyl Eichelberger,” “Hakim Bey,” and “The M.O.S.T.,” are more akin to drag arts, wherein the proposition is sufficient in itself, a moment when you become, as Charles Ludlum said, “a living mockery of your own ideals” (adding, “if not, you’ve set your ideals too 1ow”). These propositions are unwieldy and do not yield clear narratives of authorship. They play out contingently in the realm Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa called the “drama em gente” (the drama of people)—the negotiated, decentered social space that, not coincidentally, is the very same one within which projects like Ghosttown take place.
Pessoa wrote under different names, which he termed heteronyms, treated them as autonomous persons. They cannot be resolved the way pseudonyms can (as further evidence of the author’s potency), but instead muddle the field with paradoxes. To insist on an alter- native spelling like “Curdt” is to oblige those who would venerate you to also obscure you beneath an error. Today’s most interesting social practices employ the Pessoan heteronym and abjure the pseudonym. They propagate themselves by repetition and serial naming while never constructing the architecture of concealment and revelation. They are not liars so much as they are lies. But art history prefers a liar to a lie.
Red76 further complicated the problem of authorship by claiming everyday exchange as their own, creating the arena In which to perform its theater of redemptive good tames by looking for the most common and widespread activities. And so cooking and eating a meal, swapping clothes, or sharing time at a movie or a bar became the “work.” As Sam and Khris devised more and more ingenious ways of integrating their art into the varied terrain of the social, the less and less obvious were any “ruptures” or “transformations” that could be easily accounted for and credited to them. The most perfect dinner party at Ghosttown would be the one that transpires without the host’s ever knowing it was an art project.
Yet Ghosttown was an art project, very much like earlier ones by Group Material, or more resonantly, Darrell Fletcher, the Portland-based artist who brought neighborhood garage sales into a borrowed storefront and asked the people running them to write stories on the price tags. What sort of claim should Red76 make for borrowing from a Fletcher project that, in the first place, was cobbled together out of the preexisting impulses and actions of his neighbors? If the neighbors feel ripped off, this would be a matter of ethics. Artists and art institutions face a different question: How does authorship affect the meanings and value of art? Without knowing their origin, how can we trace the lineage of these ideas and locate them meaningfully in relation to others? Red76’s general indifference to accountability or formalization poses a final affront to the needs of art discourse. Content to occupy the present, the group took little care to honor art history or make plans for the future—i.e., long-term commercial viability. No doubt the seductions of the art market will continue eliciting any trace of material it can from these practices, but I suspect that the primacy of this residue will recede as artists become more confident of their own priorities and values. Certainly materials will remain instrumental, but their presence in relation to the work of art will be recast as one of many textures composing an infinitely varied terrain, rather than as a vault in which all meanings and value are stored.
The ascendancy of the horizontal—and note the absurd paradox of this formulation--is a turn that completely changes the possibilities and conduct of meaningful artistic practice. If we are witnessing the complete repudiation of depth or verticality as modes of making or interpreting art, this marks an important shift in art history, one with enormous political implications. Ghosttown’s indifference to struggle or the enactment of political and aesthetic depth suggests that this is, in fact, the new territory we are faced with.
MATTHEW STADLER IS A