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2_Richard-Birkett

Rotate the Pass-Thru

In periods when capitalism functions in a so-called normal manner, and its various processes appear autonomous, people living within capitalist society think and experience it as unitary, whereas in periods of crisis, when the autonomous elements are drawn together into a unity, they experience it as disintegration. Georg Lukács1

This text is comprised of two parts and the nature of this bifurcation may require some explanation. The first part reflects on an exhibition I curated in collaboration with the artist Sam Lewitt at Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (mumok) in November 2013 – February 2014, titled and Materials and Money and Crisis. This section focuses particularly on the work that Lewitt produced for this exhibition, which also included contributions by ten other artists. The second part, contributed by the artist Cameron Rowland, is an email exchange between Rowland, his New York gallerist Maxwell Graham, and a collector of his work, that speaks to the distinctive terms at work in Rowland’s practice.

While the two sections are not directly related, they are joined by the emphasis placed in each case on the conjunction of the various agents at work in the narrative – artist, curator, museum, gallerist, collector – and, extending from this, the manner in which the semantics of the artworks in question are tied into the circuitry of display and collecting, no longer as a recipient or depository of those semantics but actively constructing and informing them. These conjunctions can be summarized by a passage in Rowland’s contribution in which he describes an “attempt to use the exchange of the artwork to produce meaning, [just] like another material.” and Materials and Money and Crisis was approached as an experimental proposition addressing the matter of capital as it exists in the artwork. Specifically, it sought to articulate questions around how, against the backdrop of a financial system in which the materiality of price is emancipated from any even illusory reference to physical property, aspects of materialization within art might be read as a response to crises in the process of establishing value.

The positioning of these two moments of cultural production alongside each other is instigated as a means to reflect on, to quote the editorial invitation to this issue of PARSE: “how art at once embodies conflicting terms of valuation, can propose and enact alternative economic notions, and at the same time is caught up in economies (not only financial ones) in which it is already doing plenty of work.” On face value and Materials and Money and Crisis, as a group exhibition in a public museum, located artwork firmly within a matrix of curatorial and institutional mediation, whereas the work of Rowland, discussed in the email exchange, finds its primary site in the typically mediated relationship between artist, gallerist and collector. While both projects understand such loci of value formation as open to materialization within artworks themselves, what is of particular interest to me is the degree to which such artworks draw in and make palpable other social and cultural formations, and the potential for discourse outside the regime of contemporary art that emanates from this.    

***

At the core of and Materials and Money and Crisis was a desire to “ask after what resources help conceptualize the ways in which the constellation of materials, money and crisis hangs together,” and how this “may provide a basis for thinking the limits and possibilities for artistic practice in the present”.2 In this, and Materials and Money and Crisis sought to articulate the open conjunction of its title’s terms as somehow parallel to the disposition of valuation and claim-making that delineates the “event” of distribution within contemporary artistic culture. Such declamation is not merely the purview of curators and institutions but of artists, critics, gallerists, collectors and viewers of art also, as nodes within an expanded field of display and reception. These claims may be as crude as to posit generational or regional characteristics evidenced by a particular group of artists’ works – a teleological form of cultural and sociological trend-spotting – or to call on what Lewitt has described as a “panoply of discursive support systems” in order to advance a distinctive argument external to the artworks’ material operations. Such rhetorical assertions of “interestingness” and importance – whether of individual artworks or practices, or of a collective countenance – attain object-form through the predominant apparatus of exhibition-making, yet are held in distinction from other less unitary modes of valorization that an exhibition and its contents are subject to.

Parallels can be drawn between this condition within the sphere of contemporary art and that of financialization. As the application of advanced financial instruments from the 1970s onwards has freed exchange value from perceptible material properties, so a concept of monetary flow has become embedded with that of permanent volatility and endogenous crisis. The processes of valorization attendant within the systems and structures of contemporary art appear disintegrated, similarly intertwined with a perceived state of crisis (the “failure” of art as an efficacious socially liberal project) as “the claim” hedges on possible futures of cultural, critical or social value distinctive from material conditions: to appropriate the words of media theorist Joseph Vogl when talking of the financial system, the sphere of contemporary art is constituted by “events that determine the production and representation of events.”3

and Materials and Money and Crisis endeavored to locate in relation to one another a number of artists’ practices that look to leverage such claim-making, addressing the visual, exhibitive field as permeated by specifically capitalist relations of property. One of the basic starting points for the exhibition was the assertion that the material composition of an artwork is not limited to that which is physically present when we encounter it; rather, it includes many things we might otherwise consider to be immaterial – the language used to talk about the artwork, the relationships that enabled it to be made and exhibited, the conditions under which it is displayed, and the active forms of exchange the artist and artwork enters into. The artists corralled in Materials and Money and Crisis turn to the processes by which such materials exchange properties, values, and attributes; processes that belong to the world into which an artist is thrown, rather than being a capacity possessed by the artist. Perhaps as an echo of the “outsourced” nature of the exhibition’s mediation – curated by myself, acting independently yet “representative” of another institution, and also working in dialogue with an artist, who himself brought to bear a network of affinity with other artists in the exhibition and also beyond them to a group of representing galleries – a dual, contingent movement marked the artworks in the exhibition: inwards towards their own institutionally bound set of relations, and outwards towards alternative sites of uneven production.

In a moment of political and economic crisis linked to dematerializing processes of speculation and derivation, the definition of “material” is rendered as contingent, changeable, and unstable. and Materials and Money and Crisis understood the status of contemporary artistic culture, fully immersed in an expanded field of tools, conceptual strategies, and technical processes, as equating to the contingent logistical future of production materials as “exchange-value tends towards its pure state as the idea that circulates through the system.” A primary motivation behind the exhibition was to move beyond questions of how art might serve to represent the insensible processes of neo-liberal capitalism. As Lewitt has speculated:

In what ways can artworks eschew facile representational conventions – i.e. mere information about present conditions – while still making a claim upon the social imaginary that surrounds their material foundations? […] The geography of global volatility continues to expand, even as value contracts to its idea and the paid labor force shrinks. Perhaps this modulation of expansion and shrinkage allows us to generate forms of material equivalence.

Speaking of the matrix of infrastructural substrates that govern the space of everyday life, architect Keller Easterling has highlighted the importance of apprehending such forms through their “disposition” – that is, via the immanent relationship of the components of a system. The artworks included in and Materials and Money and Crisis could, in this vein, be collectively qualified through their attempt to capture technical supports and organizational systems in ways that might enact breakdowns, intensify internal contradictions, stage accelerations and cessations of the idealized circulatory system of exchange. Processes of materialization and formalization were employed to register the conflicting terms of valuation embodied by the artwork itself, as active “multiplier” within complex economies. As Gareth James – one of the artists included in the exhibition – has stated in relation to his own practice, the works turned to the possibilities of formalization to limit “the endless openness of the concrete situation in favor of making something intelligible within it that was previously inchoate.”and Materials and Money and Crisis had a somewhat unusual gestation in that, prior to any discussion of an exhibition, it took form as a one-day symposium at Artists Space in New York in 2012 that brought together artists, economists, and art and architecture theorists. The parameters of the symposium stemmed from a dialogue between Lewitt and myself, initiated in relation to the artist’s participation in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, for which he produced the procedural work Fluid Employment. I invited Lewitt to collaborate on the formulation of an event that would run parallel to this work’s presentation, honing in on questions around neo-liberal financialization and material agency that could be said to undergird the work. Lewitt responded with an extremely rich “abstract” that provided a guiding set of terms for the symposium, and the subsequent exhibition and publication.

The questions that Lewitt raised in this text, and the related presentations from participants in the symposium speaking from varying disciplinary perspectives, seemed particularly pertinent when reflecting on an approach from Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien to curate an exhibition at the museum. mumok’s reputation is largely grounded in its historical collection, and the production of temporary exhibitions presenting research into recent art history (for instance Changing Channels, a 2010 exhibition on the historical use of television as an artistic medium), alongside a “project room” series of solo exhibitions by young artists. The invitation to me to curate an exhibition on three floors of the museum that would engage with “emerging” discourse within current international art practice and theory, was out of step with the typical program, and seemingly born from the impetus of a new director, Karola Kraus, who has perceived a more vocal role for the museum beyond its primarily historical focus. A shift in address can be perceived in the invitation, from the retrospective to the prospective, the geological connotations of the word – the extraction of value within matter – resonating with both the object form and active form of the museum.

While the exhibition and Materials and Money and Crisis was decidedly not an exercise in site-specific institutional critique, it was grounded in a particular understanding of mumok as an active cultural form constituted by and through complex infrastructures, from the tangible to the symbolic. That symbolic space and history can be briefly summarized as follows: the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien is an internationally renowned institution, founded in Vienna in 1962, with a diverse collection of modern and contemporary works (with, indicative of its conception in the early 60s and its geographical position, a particular leaning towards Viennese Actionism, Fluxus, Pop Art and Conceptual Art). This national collection was established through largely private means, initially formed of loans from the patrons Peter and Irene Ludwig – a situation later formalized by the creation of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation, through which a considerable number of works permanently transferred to the museum, and a program was put in place for the continued growth of the collection. In 2001 the museum moved to purpose-built premises, located in the newly branded MuseumsQuartier, a “dehistoricized” cultural zone in a former imperial stables, financed by the Austrian state and the state owned National Bank of Austria. The quartier includes new buildings housing mumok alongside the Leopold Museum and Kunsthalle Wien. Designed by architects Ortner + Ortner, the Leopold Museum and mumok are situated across a courtyard from one another, and materially signify their distinct cultural purposes – the Leopold houses a collection of mainly early 20th Century Austrian art acquired by Dr. Rudolf Leopold, and takes the form of a pale sandstone monolith; mumok, with its focus on late 20th century and contemporary works, was conceived as a similarly bunker-like form, but, in contrast to the Leopold, constructed with a shell of black basalt rock. The volcanic material was intended by the Ortner brothers to evoke the museum’s function of presenting the boldly new and emergent, in contrast to the clastic geology of sandstone, and its suggestion of sedimentary accumulation.

On a surface reading, a dispersed character that emphasized seriality and atomization marked the positions taken by the works in the exhibition, in relation to the localized conditions evidenced in the building’s physical structure. The artworks worked through their own material constitutions, questioning their status as both material thing and epistemic structure in distinctive ways. Works such as Pratchaya Phinthong’s Give More Than You Take invoked, through the artist’s own displaced actions, the transformations of material and value embodied in artistic labor, and that of others both within and outside the “network” of contemporary art; whereas Maria Eichhorn’s Meer. Salz. Wasser. Klima. Kammer. Nebel. Wolken. Luft. Staub. Atem. Küste. Brandung. Rauch. (Sea. Salt. Water. Climate. Chamber. Fog. Clouds. Air. Dust. Breath. Coast. Surf. Smoke) used a climate chamber to materialize the state of suspension between linguistic comprehension, and the physical “delivery” of the artwork, as an active process.

It would be overly long-winded to go into detail here about how and Materials and Money and Crisis functioned holistically. But a more in depth discussion of Lewitt’s work provides a sense of the exhibition’s “disposition” – its intentions towards engaging with both material and symbolic infrastructures as a means to articulate the possibilities presented by art as a volatile point of contact between physical and linguistic forces, put into effect within the accelerating time of capital’s increasingly insensible flows. The work also reflected Lewitt’s collaboration on the conception of and Materials and Money and Crisis, in how it articulated itself schematically in relation to the museum’s material and symbolic infrastructure.

Lewitt’s contribution, titled Weak Local Lineaments, followed an organizational logic for the placement of distinctive objects that formed a “continuous tissue” throughout the exhibition, appearing sporadically almost as indeterminate mediating signs. The logic for this schema came from existing structural traces within the mumok building, primarily the tall slat-like windows that mark the largely homogenous black basalt façade of the building, originally conceived by the architects to provide natural light to the museum’s galleries and auxiliary spaces. After the museum’s opening in 2001 the windows were deemed highly impractical by curatorial staff, with strong vertical strips of sunlight cast on wall and floor based artworks. The narrative is not unfamiliar, as the particular value formation of the institution contained within its architectural statement, rubs up against its supposed mutability with regard to the art it serves. The majority of the mumok windows, particularly those opening into the galleries, were internally shuttered. Lewitt’s Lineaments – eight individual copper-clad laminate panels – were sited over the location of and Materials and Money and Crisis: some panels were mounted in front of still unblocked windows, such as in emergency exit stairways, others were placed to mark the existence of a window hidden behind a gallery wall, while several more involved the removal of wall sections to expose a window that had previously been covered up.

The Lineaments themselves were manufactured from etched Pyralux, a sheet material used in the production of ultra-thin flexible circuit boards in electronic equipment. Connecting and controlling circuits in devices such as cameras and cellphones, the substrate is valuable as a space-saving device, its flexible form enabling the restructuring of different hardware designs. Lewitt printed and etched each laminate panel with a matrix of dots and connecting lines based on high-capacity LED screens, the scattering of light through a medium being linked to corrosion and technical mediation by differentiating layers of fresh and corroded copper. Long scrolls of the treated Pyralux were projected in front of windows or walls through the use of customized metal brackets, the material being held taut as a thin membrane-like screen delineating an architectural volume. In their materiality, positioning, and surface etching they presented the schematic of a technical system, yet one that does not cohere into functional image production. In Lewitt’s words:

the Lineaments follow the specific productive logic of the materials with which they are manufactured … the work physically submits to the flexible control regime that is encoded into the world of materials to which Pyralux belongs. Yet the Lineaments ‘submit’ while making flexible control their subject, a subject filled with moments of lassitude and stress, corrosion and diffusion.At mumok, Weak Local Lineaments entered the museum architecture as if to “submit” to the pre-existing conditions of display, customized in scale to the slat windows and traversing different lighting scenarios. However, their installation reconstituted a delineating system of environmental regulation; and, equally, because the copper material’s exposure to air resulted in slow processes of oxidation and surface coloration of the screens, they were no less affected by the conditions of their display. Concepts of flexibility were connected to physical and environmental vulnerabilities. As such, beyond the tracing of physical patterns of regulation, Weak Local Lineaments sought to:

throw into relief the symbolic regulation that functionally determines the space of exhibition, using the “window” as a conventional marker of a view into conditions that are aporetically both contiguous with the substance of the artwork as a marker of the contemporary, and a view to a reality outside of its immediate presence as an organization logic. If the mumok building itself is an extreme example of the ‘black box’ conditions that are necessary for the appearance of the ‘white cube,’ the Lineaments line the inside of the space as one that is both open and homogeneous.

The Lineaments functioned within the interdependency of flexibility and constraint that physically regulates the mumok building, and by extension the subjects called into being by mumok as a distinctive cultural form – the artists, viewers, museum employees. As Lewitt has observed, the word “flexibility” appears three times in the description of the mumok building on the museum’s website – not only a marker of the structure’s supposed capacity for mediating multiple forms of display, but a wider signifier of the contemporary demands on the museum towards “cultural integration … after the radicalism of a non-media specific art”. As the title of the work acknowledges, its logic was one of “weak localization” as opposed to that of site specificity or mooted autonomy. It’s not then irrelevant to Weak Local Lineaments to consider mumok’s status as a state-supported collecting institution, conditioned through both an ongoing responsibility towards the acquisition of internationally recognized artworks and the increasingly hybridized public and private funding initiatives required to achieve such a goal. and Materials and Money and Crisis was embedded in this dynamic, with its emphasis on newly commissioned works activating a sequence of speculations in which contributions to production funds by artists’ galleries were leveraged through the promise of acquisition, and acquisitions were leveraged through the courting of individual museum patrons.

Following the logic of such contingencies, Weak Local Lineaments constituted an indeterminate re-schematization of the space of exhibition, as if to encode its function with the potential of future iterations both “on” and “off” mumok’s distinctive embrasures – i.e. both in mumok’s collection, and in unrelated contexts. As it transpired, the museum acquired a number of the Lineaments for the collection, but not all – a decision likely dictated by financial limitations, but also by the incommensurability of the work with the internalized vertical hierarchy of the building, which ordains defined levels to temporary exhibitions and presentations of the collection. The Lineaments placed in the mumok building functioned like unreliable “tour guides” to the systems of valuation of the work, the exhibition, and the institution itself, speaking not just to the “flexible logic of the institutional architecture itself” but also to “the bending of the subject of artistic culture to an unrestricted field of practices and media formats.”

***

The following section of this text does not relate directly to the exhibition discussed above. But the artworks and operations it addresses resonate with aspects of and Materials and Money and Crisis, while opening up further a consideration of the sites of value formation art might intercede in.   

Cameron Rowland’s two sculptures titled Pass-Thru (both 2014) emphasize, in relation to particular social and economic contexts, the materialization of customization, mediation and occlusion. In Lewitt’s terminology, they “thicken” the regulation and conditioning of exchange by turning to the “daily, material activity of transacting” as that which “leverages [exchange’s] conceptual efficacy.” The Pass-Thrus are versions of an object commonly found in the world, one in fact seen both in mass-produced and “homemade” forms. Pass-Thrus consist of a rotating chamber, housed in a surrounding box, installed in some businesses to pass cash or goods back and forth. When used in post-offices or banks they are typically industrially fabricated with bullet-proof glass. Those commonly used in low-income urban areas, in liquor-stores or corner stores, are often made by hand, as in Rowland’s versions, with basic Plexiglas as the cost of bullet-proof glass proves too expensive. Paradoxically such cost-saving measures, where one material is called on to “pass” for another, are often adopted in the small businesses most prone to being victims of criminal activity.

Rowland presented both Pass-Thrus, shown next to each other on the gallery floor, in his 2014 exhibition Bait Inc. at Essex Street gallery in New York – the commercial space that represents his work. They were similar in size and construction, apart from a sheet of cardboard on one – which blocked one open side of the Plexi box. This was a feature carried forward from stores where, between transactions, employees block the Pass-Thru to retain heat or cool air on their side of the partition. Produced by Rowland, the Pass-Thru fulfills the conditions of being artwork (i.e. made by an artist), and of being functional as “the object it is”. They are, however, removed from a state of use to that of a disposition, in the sense given by Keller Easterling as “a tendency, activity, faculty, or property in either beings or objects – a propensity within a context.” They serve to construct a physicalized diagram of immanent exchange mediated by structural conditions, in which “the business owner, the clerk, the customer and the potential criminal (who the Pass-Thru protects against) all exist within the same network of subsistence, competing for limited resources.” Within low-income communities (“at the frontier of capital, where it serves the fewest,” as Rowland describes) the “normalization” of such security devices as the Pass-Thru rests on the immediacy of risk within exchange, and the materially conditioning need to retain property. The transposition of the Pass-Thru within the event of exhibition proposes an uneven equivalence with the regulation and structural organization of the space of contemporary art, and the transactions that underpin such ordering.

These transactional issues are all in play in the Pass-Thru sculptures themselves. One of the two was for sale while the other was to be transferred only using a rental contract, an intentional parallelism that is echoed through a similar split across Rowland’s work. The rental contract is considered by Rowland to be a “parasitic work” that operates on the exchange of another work – he has used it since 2014 as a condition attached to approximately half of his artworks. The contract is comprised of a boilerplate equipment rental form, and a background check or “Rental Order” form used at Rent-A-Center – a US company with over 3000 stores nationwide, that  The background check employed by Rowland requires the provision of a Social Security Number, information on monthly income, and at least two references. These requirements impel consideration of the purpose of the work for the collector, and the impetus for its possession beyond accumulation. The construction of a transactional network of equivalences and in-equivalences Rowland instigates with regard to the artwork, via the rental contract, is further articulated by the following email conversation that took place between April – May 2014 involving Rowland, Maxwell Graham, and an unnamed collector.


Rental Information

Apr 11
From: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>
To: ******** <********@**********.com>

Dearest ********,

Thanks so kindly for dinner last night.
It is great to share ideas with you and work on designing the future together. Attached is the Rental agreement for Cameron’s Pass-Thru.
It is made up of two parts, a rental order and a lease.
There are made two copies of each, both are signed by you and the artist. You get a copy of each and Cameron does also.

Cameron Rowland
Pass-Thru, 2014
Acrylic, hardware, 24-hour rotator disc
23 x 20 x 21 inches (58.42 x 50.80 x 53.34 cm)
3 Year Rental / $200 a Month
In some places, businesses use a Pass-Thru, to pass cash or goods back and forth; this could be at a bank or a liquor store. The highest standard of Pass-Thru use bullet proof glass, although this material is far too expensive to be used as a protective measure by those business where it might be most effective. Therein plastic is used in place of bullet proof glass. They are either made by a manufacturer or by the shop owner. This Pass-Thru was made by Rowland.

Re: Rental Information

Apr 11
From: ******** <********@**********.com>
To: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>,

To all,
Regarding the Pass-Thru, exhibited together with copies of the lease agreement under glass, we’re not convinced that the rental model is a sufficiently artful solution to deal with how commerce is transacted in poor neighborhoods and how that can be reflected in an artist-collector framework/transaction. The rental model also seems to be a bit at odds with the Pass-Thru which by all accounts functions as a conduit for purchases. It may be unfair to drag in Felix, but he dealt quite elegantly and effectively with wanting to subvert both the preciousness of the art object and its possessability as a unique/collectible object. His certificate and model required sharing, dissemination and dematerialization – while at the same time operating (in a fashion) within the system. He had to eat and in order to eat he had to sell.

Let’s give some more thought and discussion as to how we address this issue while embracing Cameron’s intent and gesture. It would be a shame not to realize such a fully poignant and political installation.

********

Re: Rental Information

Apr 11
From: ******** <********@**********.com>
To: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>

OK of course. Think installment sale. Buying on time. You miss an installment and the TV is repossessed. Real estate is leased. That’s between a landlord and tenant. And it’s generally for a somewhat long term. Not personal property. Who wants the TV back after three years. It’s junk.

Sent from my iPhone

Renting

Apr 15
From: CameronRowland <cameronhrowland@**********.com>
To: ******** <********@**********.com>, Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>

The use of rental as a work is not meant simply to describe the way property is distributed to poor people but the way profits are made through these means. Rental is aimed at those who have little. Their scarce resources are turned into a profit by Rent-A-Center, because the goods for rent cost much more than the object would outright.

A tablet is a good example – this is based on current pricing at Rent-A-Center An 8” Samsung tab 3 costs $249.00 on Amazon.

At Rent-A-Center it rents for $23.99 per week

So if it is rented for more than 12 weeks the rental cost exceeds the normal sale price (a minimum of 1 month – 4.33 weeks is required).
You can either just rent or rent-to-own at Rent-A-Center.

You can rent-to-own this tablet for 90 days for a total $683.00 dollars. So you must pay 90 days of rent ($308.00) plus an additional $375.00. This total $683.00 is called the “cash price,” and is almost 3 times the typical retail price. If you don’t pay in the first 90 days, the buyout price increases every day after that until the end of the term, which is 63 weeks for this tablet. If the renter does not pay the buyout price or return the product, the renter must pay the weekly rent through the end of the term. At the end of 63 weeks, the individual will have paid $1512.00 for the tablet – 6 times the normal sale price. Each week after 90 days, the buyout price goes up, making it more difficult to buy the product. People who rent computers, sound systems, and furniture for shorter periods of time (1-6 months) without paying the buyout price never own the product. Although they may pay as much as or more than the product costs new, they are deterred from buying it out in 90 days, considering that this requires more than double the monthly payments. The accelerated increase in the buyout price after the initial 90 days further inhibits the potential for ownership. So renters either rent only, often paying the retail cost of the product, or they rent-to-own, paying somewhere between 3 and 6 times as much as the retail cost. The point is not that Rent-A-Center wants the product back because it’s useful at the end; the point is to make as much money as possible.

Rent-A-Center uses a formula that functions like interest to calculate the cash price and the increased buyout price after 90 days. However, it is not referred to as interest – as it might be in a typical loan or car lease. This might be because the interest rate is enormous compared to, say, a car lease. This rate is justified partly because it is standard for all customers and independent of credit score (unlike a car lease). Everyone qualifies. If you don’t put a deposit down, the background check I’ve included is used in place of a credit check.

I think standard behaviors and practices like these can be analyzed and questioned through their mobilization as artworks. The rental is less an attempt to dematerialize the object than to use the wide range of materials at play in an artwork. Exchange is a material, and it is often taken for granted in artworks. It is part of a work that artists don’t often control. Gonzalez-Torres is inspiring in the variable form his works take as they result from instructions, and the way that distribution becomes part of the work. The certificate maintains the unity of it as a single work, while the distribution of material and the instructions that replenish those materials challenge that clearly defined unity.

Just as we can openly challenge the limit of what constitutes physical sculpture as it is filled and emptied, I think we can challenge how artworks are owned, at whose cost and benefit, for how long, and how the price is controlled. The rental attempts to take up these issues, which are taken for granted even in the case of Gonzalez-Torres and most artworks that are acquired privately. The goal is to raise these issues through the exchange and dissemination of the artwork. Not where dissemination is described or performed, but where it actually takes place undergirding most works. The rental is a kind of parasite that is designed to alter the otherwise normal exchange of a work. It’s not meant to illuminate specifics of the work that is being rented, but rather intercede as another work within the exchange of that artwork. The contract you keep records your interaction with both works. You can do whatever you want with this contract except resell it.

This arrangement is not devised to cheat the collector, but asks them to consider the questioning of these assumed terms of exchange, profit, and dependency within the greater economy and within the exchange of art, and, if this is valuable, to do this questioning, and play out its consequence (including the denial of speculation and the denial of financial profit for the collector) rather than only to refer to, or wonder about how the distribution of artwork might look differently.

In implementing this strategy, the works’ ability to be “propertized”, as I refer to in the text for the show, is limited. The rental also enacts the very real limitations of ownership and exploitative terms of this kind of rental. Although these issues (one theoretical and the other practical) might not be directly related, structural inequality is central to both of them. My attention to and deployment of them within the rental is an attempt to use the exchange of the artwork to produce meaning, like another material.

Cameron

Apr 23
From: ******** <********@**********.com>
To: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>
CC: CameronRowland <cameronhrowland@**********.com>

Maxwell,

I agree with Cameron’s statement. The rental arrangement is not simply about distribution but it’s about how profits are made. And in the case of the Rent-A-Center, the profits are excessive to say the least. They are egregious! In the rent-to-own model, the incremental payment is clearly interest and the level of interest is clearly usurious. Why consumer affairs hasn’t paid attention to this is another question. Our system typically relies on disclosure rather than outright prohibitions. If there was adequate disclosure, I would think a consumer would see that it made a lot more sense to save up the retail price of an object and buy it rather than rent. But disclosure is typically thwarted by human nature which often seeks immediate gratification. The Rent-A-Center clearly looks to take advantage of this.

Cameron’s rental model raises issues of the terms of exchange and profit, within the political context of dependency, coupled with the extreme societal disparity between those with resources and those without. The rental model certainly underscores and drives home these issues. In fact, it goes further. Since the model is a pure rental without the possibility of ownership (in contrast to the rent-to-own model), the possibility of resale and therefore financial profit is, as Cameron says, denied. The collector needs to take off his or her hat as a collector and put on some other chapeau. What should that be?

Cameron’s principal gesture is the exchange — that is, the rental arrangement. It is not (as between the artist and the renter) inherent in or evidenced by the art object which is the subject of the rental. True, the Pass-Thru, in its real world application, functions as a conduit of exchange. But it is the rental agreement that denies the collector the opportunity to own the work and realize a profit. The Pass-Thru (other than its surrender) has no function in that regard. Cameron could have suggested any of the objects in the show for rental. All of the ideation as well as all of the physicality referencing the rental gesture is embedded in the rental agreement. And Cameron states that this piece of paper, this contract, cannot be treated as owned or as property since it cannot be sold.

There is no doubt, to Cameron’s credit, that he has moved us out of our comfort zone. Or, at least, nudged us in that direction. That’s interesting, no doubt.

So – Maxwell – we are still thinking about this and I hope that’s okay with you time-wise. We will make a decision soon.

Thank you and, of course, thank Cameron, for the experience.
********

Re: Cameron

Apr 23
From: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>
To: ******** <********@**********.com>

********,

Your response is very thoughtful.
For sure, any of the works in the show could have been rentals. Or any not. The rental is a kind of parasite onto the object.

We could sweeten the deal somehow…

Thanks, M

Cameron

Apr 23
From: ******** <********@**********.com>
To: Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>

CC: CameronRowland <cameronhrowland@**********.com>

Maxwell,

Our dialogue is not about sweetening the deal. It’s an attempt to explore the conceptual basis of the work and its functionality. To be sure, we are not focusing on the Pass-Thru as the work. Rather, the rental transaction is the work (or the non-work, in a conventional sense, or a “parasite” work, as you call it) that we are focusing on. I think it fair to say that Cameron is attempting to mirror in an art world context a generic exchange that occurs every day in circumstances of “dependency within the greater economy”. These transactions are obviously exploitive. However, Cameron is looking to consummate his rental arrangement under circumstances where “dependency” is not a factor. To accomplish this, the participation of the renter is essential. How do we describe the role of the renter in the context of the art world? Is it simply performative? If so, is the action of the renter just as much an artistic gesture as that of the artist? A collaboration I suppose?

Thinking about the rental under non-“dependency” circumstances, let’s further examine the terms of the exchange, the realizable profit, etc., etc., that Cameron wishes to critique or, using Cameron’s term, “challenge”.

Cameron points out that under one of the models at Rent-A-Center, a consumer would have to pay six-times the normal sales price of a product if they opted for a payment-plan to be funded over roughly a year. Presumably, if payment was extended over three years, the payments would amount to approximately 18-times the normal sales price. Your proposal, as the Rent-A-Center on Eldridge Street, is for us to pay $200 per month over three years (before your suggested rent abatement). What if we pay you the entire rental upfront, when we first take possession of the piece? What discount would we be entitled to? By prepaying would we be entitled to pay only 1/18th of the aggregate rental payments of $7200 ($200 X 36) or $400? We would, as prescribed, be required to return the work after 36 months. (Would we retain the non- salable rental agreement?) Let’s recognize that we are not renting a Samsung tablet which has a limited useful life — certainly no more than three years. Rather, we are renting an artwork which has an unlimited useful life and, as collectors, we would be fully relinquishing the opportunity to retain the work for an indefinite future period of time. That’s a lot of potential appreciation. How much is that give-up worth? On the other hand, the artist will, of course, have the benefit of having the Pass-Thru, coupled with the “parasite”, prominently exhibited in a high profile collection.

Doesn’t this prepayment discount structure effectively adapt the Rent-A-Center example to the non-dependency circumstances of the instant situation — recognizing, of course, that we’ve looked to “rotate the Pass-Thru.”.

Your thoughts?

********

Renting May 6

From: CameronRowland <cameronhrowland@**********.com>
To: ******** <********@**********.com>, Maxwell Graham <info@essexstreet.biz>

The rental work does not operate the way renting objects from Rent-A-Center does for a number of reasons. Not only because what is being rented is an artwork, but because the renter is not poor, and the primary impetus is not to profit from their inability to pay upfront. Each product at Rent-A-Center has a different relationship between rental price, “cash price,” and its retail price outside of Rent-A-Center. The specifics of the rental artwork are not meant to approximate reality, but to use the rental agreement toward another end.

Part of my intention is to emphasize that this is a normalized form of production when it is directed at poor people. In an attempt to materialize this normalization as opposed to simply describing it, I’ve redirected it at those who would otherwise buy rather than rent. The discomfort this forms in the would-be buyer is inconsequential in comparison to the discomfort of someone who could only rent. The fact that this form of rental is indeed uncomfortable for those on whom it has little negative impact, and is acceptable for those on whom it has a much greater impact, is the premise of its exploitative function (producing profit on the financial weakness of the working and serving class). The rental also asks why the type of exchange and the terms of said exchange should be outside the purview of the work. Although the critique of institutions is comfortably within the boundary of the artist, exchange often is not.

If the primary role of a work is to be bought at a price that is hopefully significantly lower than what it can be resold for, then the rental work is not valuable. The collector who rents is not a collaborator in this situation, but is integral in affirming the value the work may have. The rental asks whether a work can be valued (monetarily) for its significance without potential financial return. This question is posed by not offering any returns. However, there is still something to be gained: the social and cultural capital of renting the work may be the same if not greater than if it was bought. The rental isn’t meant as a moralistic solution to contradictions of the market, but as a work that offers a number of additional problems. One problem you bring up is that of balance. The assumption that the artist and collector, through sales, typically have a fair and balanced relationship may be correct. However, this commonly held assumption seems to be more a result of normalized exchange practices than demonstrable fairness.

The rental is not a sales model, but is an artwork. I hope questions regarding its feasibility as an investment can be suspended in the treatment of it as an artwork. As a work, the rental is intended to unsettle expected forms of financial growth.

***

If, as Rowland proposes, the exchange of an artwork is to be considered as a material from which to produce meaning, the rental contract draws the collector explicitly into the circuit of the value-making of the artwork in terms that are not only those of its market valuation, but which materialize the varying political moments and meanings of an exploitative form of production which in other contexts appears normalized.

In defining the terms under which Lewitt and Rowland’s artworks function, and the manner in which they intersect through the systems of value-formation that they activate and are subject to, it is worth noting by way of conclusion the overlaps and distinctions between Lewitt’s “weak localization,” and Rowland’s “parasitic” artwork.

– As Lewitt has adopted a term that in physics describes the anomalous transport properties of electrons in disordered systems, affecting the degrees of resistance within materials such as Pyralux, so his Lineaments “understand the architectural container that houses them as … an interior whose character emerges from environmental regulation and constant structural reorganization.” They are therefore neither dependent on their context nor autonomous from it. Rowland’s notion of a parasitic artwork similarly considers the exchange of an artwork as a container, only appearing “as a functional entity once it is lined and delimited.” The rental contract renders “normal” exchange discomforting in its regulation and limitation of an artwork’s “ability to be ‘propertized.’” It insists at once on the customization of an artwork’s exchange to pre-existing conditions of display, acquisition and collecting, and its incommensurability with those conditions.

– For Lewitt, the specific intention within the use of Pyralux as a material is not to isolate it as a subject for an artwork, or to present it as meaningful in its own terms, but to “submit” to its encoded propensity, its “disposition.” Such comportment is not overt, in fact the material is both designed to occupy hidden spaces, as much as its properties allow for abstracted forms of technical mediation and interface. Weak Local Lineaments seeks to “thicken” a comprehension of such undeclared disposition as contiguous with a broader world of flexible control – that which connects globalized labor, the dislocation between material use and production, speculation and derivation as measured in velocity, and the “dehistoricized” integrated cultural quartier as national identity. When schematized as “as distributed and remotely controlled as any matrix of data centers,” the ordering of the contemporary cultural form, such as mumok, emerges as a site of contradiction and crisis.

And within Rowland’s application of the rental contract and in his work generally, there is a similar turn to infrastructural mediation. Yet what is abruptly clear for Rowland is the distinction between Rent-a-Center as a particular social formation rooted in the maintenance of poverty, and that which is constructed by an institution such as mumok, ordered around wealth and propertization. It is important to note that at a certain juncture, Rowland willfully resists “submitting” to the contemporary nature of exchange wherein the distinction between actual transaction, and its mediation, performance and description, is blurred. The Rent-a-Center contract operates through an obfuscated technics, and an abstraction of value and temporality of ownership that relies on and exploits the reality of social and economic contexts in which the risk attached to exchange is immediate, and the difficulties of retaining property are at their most extreme. Rowland’s assertive use of such a mechanism to challenge “how artworks are owned, at whose cost and benefit, for how long, and how the price is controlled” is an insistence on the lack of equivalence across the “concepts of flexibility and constraint” that order “contemporary cultural forms.”

End notes

1. Georg Lukács. Realism in the Balance. 2002. p. 32

2. Unless stated otherwise, all quotes regarding and Materials and Money and Crisis are taken from Sam Lewitt. Materials, Money, Crisis: Introductory Remarks and Questions. In Richard Birkett and Sam Lewitt. and Materials and Money and Crisis. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. 2013. p. 35-39

3. Joseph Vogl. Taming Time: Media of Financialization. 2013. p. 75

4. Keller Easterling. Extrastatecraft: The Power of infrastructure space. London: Verso. 2014. p. 72

5. Gareth James. A Real Problem of Materials: Gareth James in Conversation. 2011.

6. All quotations regarding Weak Local Lineaments are taken from Sam Lewitt. Notes for mumok piece. Unpublished text. 2013.

7. Target Hardening: Cameron Rowland interviewed by John Beeson. April 2014.

8. Easterling. Op.cit.

9. Rowland and Beeson. Op.cit.

10. Rent-A-Center. URL: http://www6.rentacenter.com/about-rent-a-center/company-overview. (2015-04-30).

11. Sam Lewitt. Op. cit.


References

Beeson, John. Target Hardening: Cameron Rowland interviewed by John Beeson. 43. April 2014. pp. 138–141

Easterling, Keller. . London: Verso. 2014. p. 72

James, Gareth. A Real Problem of Materials: Gareth James in Conversation. 2011. URL: http://www.artlog.com/2011/166-a-real-problem-of-materials-gareth-james-in-conversation. (2015-04-30).

Lewitt, Sam. Materials, Money, Crisis: Introductory Remarks and Questions. In Richard Birkett and Sam Lewitt. and Materials and Money and Crisis. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. 2013. p. 35-39 Lewitt, Sam. Notes for mumok piece. Unpublished text. 2013.

Vogl, Joseph. Taming Time: Media of Financialization. In Richard Birkett and Sam Lewitt. . Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. 2013. p. 75

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