The MAK Center Schindler House, Los Angeles
9 May 2012
Context Note: In April, May, and June of this year, Les Figues Press hosted a short series of long conversations on queer art and literature. Titled Q.E.D., in honor of Gertrude Stein’s novel by the same name (and one of the earliest coming-out stories), each Q.E.D. event explored the constructions of speech, art, literature, materiality, and sex. The conversations were moderated by Vanessa Place at the historic MAK-Schindler House, L.A.’s original nod to green architecture.
Blocked off by thick and towering bamboo shoots, the hush of the Schindler House is a surprise even given its location on a quiet, residential West Hollywood street. The House belongs to the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles; it was originally built in 1922 as a two-family home and workspace by Rudolph M. Schindler for himself, his wife, and another couple. The House’s then-innovative indoor/outdoor, open-plan design was the basis for the “California houses” that came to litter the landscape throughout the mid-twentieth century. It is hard to imagine anyone actually living in the House as it stands now: almost entirely empty, the structure and its surroundings feel more like a church or a yoga studio. Visitors speak quietly, and it is hard not to step lightly, as if any exuberant move might knock down the concrete walls and let the rest of the world into this sacred bohemia of careful art and right living.
I was there on May 9 for “WHAT MATTERS,” the second in a series of three conversations this spring curated by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place of Les Figues Press. The series, “Q.E.D.”, is billed as “a short series of long conversations on queer art and literature” taking place at the Schindler House; each conversation is moderated by Place. The discussants, Michael Du Plessis, Brian Teare, and Lincoln Tobier, each gave five-minute presentations, which were followed by a conversation between all four panelists with ample opportunity for audience participation. Each discussant was asked to respond to two related questions with reference to their own practice as artists and critics: How does materiality matter to you? How is what matters made material?
Brian Teare, a poet, titled his presentation with a phrase from American minimalist painter Agnes Martin’s writings: “It’s always better to be a little bit hungry.” A few years ago, Teare explained, he had been suffering from undiagnosed advanced celiac disease; Martin’s grid paintings provided a “calming and healing” antidote to what he described as the “messy material” of his affliction. Teare explained his drive to understand the paintings as an escape from matter, to make it a sphere of transcendence from the “disaster of embodiment.” He traced the origin of this dematerializing move to some of Martin’s own statements and then complicated them with the actual plasticity of the paintings, their traces of embodied techniques and experiences of duration (e.g., the grid as space for active composition and the actual construction of the line). Teare explained that postmodern poetries have likewise taken the page as a site of plasticity and used words as marks in composition, and ended by reading one of his poems inspired by Martin and composed as two columns, each comprising three short stanzas resembling blocks. The poem closed with “the impossible patterns of life,” encapsulating the quasi-paradox with which he had begun, seeking vitality in the grid.
The visual artist Lincoln Tobier then described his own long-standing project to reconceive the machinations of Roger Ailes, prominent right-wing media consultant and mastermind of the FoxNews phenomenon, as a total work of art. In 1992, Tobier curated an unauthorized retrospective exhibition of the work of Ailes, taking him at his word as an “image-maker” and aligning this type of production with the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Tobier outlined for the audience some of the specific techniques prominent in Ailes’ oeuvre, such as crafted media appearances for politicians, carefully-worded casual soundbites to achieve the appearance of spontaneity, and the choreography of hand and facial gestures for optimal effect. Tobier went on to discuss a play that he produced last year at the Schindler House called “The Orchestra Pit Theory by Roger Ailes,” which takes its name from Ailes’s notorious remark that “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” The play recreates a segment of Fox News with three actors playing all of the parts; Tobier considered this a sort of “flattening out” of the putative multivocality of the news media by assigning its authorship and production to Ailes as playwright. He sought, in this way, to return some responsibility to Ailes for his invisible hand in making the media.
For writer-critic Michael Du Plessis, what matters is art. Or, more specifically, the figure of art as construed by the tradition of aesthetic theory to be a domain of withdrawal and disinterest. Du Plessis cited philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s remarks on quotation and collection in the work of Walter Benjamin; Agamben outlines a convergence of these two practices in their shared drive to recontextualize texts and/as objects. To this, Du Plessis argued, we should affix the grace of an “angel of art” who might supplement Benjamin’s telegraphic remarks on the “angel of history.” While the latter faces backwards, being blown forward by the storm of progress toward the future, Du Plessis’ angel of art would instead be “nowhere-directed,” honoring withdrawal and separation as the very stuff of the aesthetic. A self-declared partisan and preacher for art, Du Plessis asked what the project of the avant-garde might be now that art and the everyday have actually been unified (his claim), suggesting a renewed withdrawal to the “church of art” as a desirable movement. Of course, this notion of the aesthetic as a withdrawal has a venerable history, beginning at least as early as Kant’s notion of “disinterestedness” as a precondition for the experience of beauty, and many scholars and artists have drawn out the extent to which such demands for a withdrawal from social relations often veil the concrete social interests that attend them. I would have liked to hear more from Du Plessis on how, exactly, he proposes that we dis-identify with this mendacious tradition of art as withdrawal.
There was no consensus as to the specific contents of “matter” and “materiality,” but neither did the discussants take up clearly opposed stances. Rather, the conversation shifted through various understandings of materiality — claims made about social production, the materiality of the signifier, and the materiality of the body did not have the same matter at hand, so to speak. Yet materiality was invoked with some regularity and with a relatively stable rhetorical form, which I will now divide into two distinct but related gestures.
1) On the one hand, Tobier’s descriptions of his work, as well as remarks made by the audience and other panelists regarding it, was the closest to a sort of historical materialist project in its recognition of processes of dematerialization, specifically the machinations whereby the elite U.S. right-wing constructs its version of a “populist” media. Historical materialists have, since Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, insisted that it is the explanation rather than simply the description of objects and processes that provides tools for change. Such a materialism might be described as an attempt to explain how ideal forms (such as, most famously, the commodity form) veil the concrete relations of production (including circulation, exchange, and consumption) that they simultaneously represent (i.e., the socially organized labor embodied in them). Tobier’s description of his work was not oriented toward such political-economic explanations, but he did outline the ways in which certain socio-aesthetic ideologies, such as the feigned transparency of the news media, are belied by the intentional structures that subtend them. In other words: he was not involved in reconstructing the social relations that undergird and overfund FoxNews, but he was interested in exposing the transferability of aesthetic practices across seemingly divergent domains (by, for example, staging a FoxNews opera in gallery in a two-family home). We might call this a sort of second-order cultural materialism whereby aesthetic ideologies are explained to be a production of some sort, if not explicitly in terms of their place in the capitalist mode of production. On the terrain of ideological struggle, in any case, the reality and accessibility of such a materialism remains a rhetorical weapon for socialist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist, queer, trans, disabled and other activists and scholars who seek to disclose the particularly situated moorings of supposedly neutral knowledge in an effort to transform the relations of domination and exploitation that they conceal.
I would have liked to see the concept of “time” made subject to such an approach by the discussants. Indeed, during the open conversation following the presentations, I asked Du Plessis and Teare whether or not the painstaking, time-consuming aesthetic practices of Agnes Martin (and of other artists who theatrically or silently withdraw from social relations, as DuPlessis suggested they ought to) might not in fact be attempts to negate or refuse late-capitalist organizations of time. That is, to refuse time as managed both in the “traditional” workplace (where labor-time is directly valorized through a wage and the surplus value stolen by the capitalist) and in the context of housework and other informal or affective labor (where traditionally “women’s” work is unwaged). My effort to push for some historical account of dominant regimes of labor-time went more or less unanswered; my bare-bones gesture toward material analysis through some such historicizing of its ideal forms was met with a skepticism toward the “totalizing” claims of history.
2) Meanwhile, on the other hand, “materiality” was invoked to name something inaccessible to knowledge (scientific or otherwise), some index of an extra-discursive excess of matter. The gesture towards materiality, in this rhetorical framing, indicates an unmasterable or inappropriable remainder to discourse that cannot be further elaborated or accessed. Vanessa Place expressed a version of this logic in her claims that the question “what matters” can be answered best with “nothing,” or that “materiality immediately suggests its opposite.” The interest, for her, is then 1) in how people fill this void left by an over-inclusive materiality and 2) in the anxiety about such an absence. Place asserts that in her practice, “the use-value of works is drained out,” and its “only point” is now the moment when you encounter it. It seems to me that such a description resembles point-for-point Marx’s understanding of the relation of the capitalist to the commodity which he only momentarily possesses in order to sell it – the use-value of the commodity lies, for the capitalist, simply in its exchange-value and in the prospect of using the commodity (such as human labor) as a means of adding value to the capital invested in it. The capitalist has no interest in mastering any subsequent “uses” of the commodity (whether health care or nuclear missiles) – these are, idiomatically and literally, immaterial to him, so long as a profit can be made.
In Place’s hands, this rhetorical framing of evaporating materiality is accompanied by an ethical gesture against all forms of mastery; in her own work, she explained, she aims to be a mere function rather than an authority on the work. Of course, as Place well knows, the “author function” is precisely to embody, as an ideal form, the social provenance of a work. That is to say, the function of “the author” is precisely to obscure the social relations of production of the work even as it provides an ideal representation of it in the form of a person. It can’t come as a surprise to Place, then, that she is assumed to be an authority on her work as soon as she signs her name to it and stands in front of a crowd of ticket-buyers to read it aloud.
The discussion closed with an audience member eloquently explaining why the materiality of artistic media is “what matters” to her. Place replied affirmatively and joked that “this would be a completely different conversation if we’d had it in a food court.” Indeed it would. When the event ended, we slinked our way out of the Schindler house, that hallowed church of art, and had a boisterous smoke.
 See Anne Middleton Wagner’s A House Divided: American Art since 1955 for a thorough exploration of this aspect of the work of Martin and others: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270978.
Samuel Solomon lives in Los Angeles, where he is completing a PhD on 1970s British experimental poetry and socialist-feminist politics at the University of Southern California. His poems, essays, and translations have been published or are forthcoming in differences, Décalages, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, Hi Zero, Inkwell, Five Fingers Review, Lyric Review, and Narrative. His chapbook Life of Riley was released this June from Bad Press and a selection of his work is forthcoming from Veer Books’ first set of Foursomes.