Reviewing Surround Audience, the New Museum’s third Triennial (on view February 24 through May 24, 2015), is no easy task. The survey packs nearly 150 complex works by fifty-one artists into the downtown kunsthalle, requiring exceptional stamina or, for the rest of us, multiple visits. The exhibition’s focus on early-career artists (there is no longer an official age limit, but the vast majority of those included fall below the thirty-three year mark at which the first Triennial was capped) means that almost every work bears the burden of both introducing and standing in for an unfamiliar practice—an impossible task, not much helped by the bricks of artspeak-heavy wall text that strive to bridge the gap. One is tempted to simply praise the event as a model of inclusivity (twenty-six countries and six continents are represented) and opportunity for the selected young artists—more than half of whom were commissioned to make new work specifically for the Triennial, with seven of them receiving research and production residencies—and leave it at that.
On the other hand, at the level of curation, the model all but compels a critical response. While positioning itself as “predictive” rather than “retrospective,” the Triennial by no means presumes the posture of neutrality that the term “survey” might suggest. On the contrary, the “predictions” we encounter emerge from the highly particular perspectives and sensibilities of its organizers, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin. As Cornell notes in the foreword to The Animated Reader, an anthology of poetry published to accompany the exhibition (in addition to the catalogue), “when we were starting our research, I asked my co-curator Ryan Trecartin if he could define the main concerns in his work, thinking we could use them as a point of departure for developing themes to structure the show” (her emphasis). Trecartin’s answer, “Language and Humanity,” while no doubt sincere, hardly adumbrates the specific qualities of his video works—frenzied, kaleidoscopic funhouse mirrors of reality TV and the deeper strata of YouTube, replete with clownish characters howling in seemingly private languages. Sure enough, many strains of Trecartin’s aesthetic run throughout Surround Audience. They traverse a wide variety of themes and concerns, but nonetheless circumscribe a particular sphere of art production, the ongoing vitality of which it is the argument of this survey exhibition to predict.
In Cornell’s perceptive catalogue essay, “Notes on Surround Audience,” the curator endeavors to define the core concerns uniting the various artists that she and Trecartin chose to include. In one way or another, she suggests, all of them engage with “Surround Culture”—a term of Trecartin’s coining, referring to the “more participatory,” but also “more intrusive media environment” in which we now operate. Think social media and its mixed implications for subjecthood, privacy, and politics. Indexing the included artwork to such issues, Cornell divides Surround Audience into three non-exhaustive themes: “Elusive Personae” covers work addressing the perils and possibilities of self-representation in modern media environments; “Invasive Systems” includes work registering threats of surveillance, censorship, and other instruments of oppression; and “Embedding Art in the World” entails work that proposes platforms, digital or otherwise, that exceed what is seen as an often confining “artworld.”
The category structure that Cornell introduces is revealing: it at once belies the actual diversity of forms and ideas present in the exhibition (as it must), and points to the particularity of the curatorial logic that assembled them. Of course, it would be difficult, even foolish, to attempt discussion of an exhibition as sprawling as Surround Audience without the aid of some sort of schematic, and this review will be no exception. Rather than simply reproduce Cornell’s, however, here I will situate some of the exhibition’s more memorable works according to three themes (equally non-exhaustive) that struck me as the most recurrent over the course of my two visits. The idea here is not to replace Cornell’s framework with one that I consider to be better, but to allow the two to exist side by side, thus foregrounding the inevitably perspectival nature of both the show’s production and reception, as against the rhetoric of objectivity that terms like “survey” and “predictive” may imply.
1. Uncanny Subjects
Whereas it once would have been deemed pathological to maintain a host of variable identities, today it is de rigeur for even casual internet users to maintain multiple “presences” across digital media, each with its own avatar, code of conduct, even personality. Juliana Huxtable internalizes such mutability in her very body, which she presents in multiple guises as part of her printed work of word and image, UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING (2015), and which reappears in exquisite form in Frank Benson’s sculpture, Juliana (2015), a precise reproduction of Huxtable’s body using rapid prototyping technology. Yet, if for Huxtable self-representation is a terrain of empowerment, for others it is one of anxiety. In Ed Atkins’ nearby grayscale video, ironically titled Happy Birthday!! (2014), a digitally rendered body, fully inhabiting the uncanny valley, appears marked for death, recurrently disintegrating, often in gruesome manner, before a slick transition whisks a new scenario into focus. Perhaps the most haunting transmutation of all is that of Barack Obama as an Orwellian talking head in Josh Kline’s chillingly dystopian installation, Freedom (2015). Here the president re-delivers one of his actual State of the Union addresses in slightly but significantly modified form, the effect produced by overlaying the Obama’s face over that of another speaker. Looming over the Other-Obama’s well-worn rhetoric of progress and determination for justice are the systems of surveillance and self-surveillance that have come to light during the actual president’s term, here surreally embodied by a troop of Teletubbies rigged out in SWAT-team gear. Filtered through, and against a backdrop of, digital media, the familiar returns as decidedly strange.
The human voice, long pushed to the margins of visually-dominated artistic practice, assumes a more central, even aggressive role in the work of artists like Casey Jane Ellison and Steve Roggenbuck. Both operate at the limits of the art world in more ways than one. Ellison straddles the spheres of art and stand-up comedy, sometimes performing live, sometimes emitting her droll wit through a digital avatar whom she ventriloquizes, as in her video-based contribution to the Triennial, IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO SEEM WONDERFUL (2015). On the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, Roggenbuck’s poetry—ecstatic, often extemporaneous-seeming ranting—has earned him a sizable following on YouTube, the primary home for his work, which seems more than a little out of place in the halls of an art museum (even relegated, as it is, to the New Museum’s basement floor). In Tape Echo (2013-14), an installation comprised of underlit C-prints and an audio cassette recording modulated by an echo effect, Lawrence Abu Hamdan muses upon the politics of sound in noise-polluted Cairo, where sermons reverberate daily from loudspeakers affixed to mosques, precluding the possibility of other, non-authorized forms of mass address. The prints, for their part, would seem to represent visual “noise” in the form of images blown up to a point of grainy abstraction. Each of these pieces bears the mark of the amateur by comparison to Lisa Tan’s Waves (2014), a visual and verbal essay in the medium of video. Here, the artist seamlessly integrates heterogeneous but thematically-keyed visual content—for example, sublime footage of crashing waves; a feed of a gorgeously azure gallery in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, seen through the lens of the Google Cultural Institute’s “museum view” application on a computer monitor—with an oral narration that is as much about its titular subject as it is the difficulty, and art, of composition itself. A work of quiet ardor, Waves merits a viewing setup more generous than the corner nook and set of two headphones (only one of which was functioning during my visit) that it receives. Indeed, one cannot but notice that, while the theme of speech-oriented work is strikingly recurrent in Surround Audience, most of the associated pieces wind up crowded to the margins of the museum space itself.
3. Digital Inflections
The majority of the objects included in Surround Audience bear an obvious imprint of digital technology. Many of the rest, in turns out, simply bear a less obvious one. Eloise Hawser, we learn from the artist’s wall text, often employs technology such as 3D printing in order to assume a more “casual” relation to the objects she produces. One wonders the extent to which this is true for, say, Haus der Braut (2012). Comprised of both industrial and “customized” elements, the sculpture layers rolling metal security doors, the grooves of which interlock in surprisingly delicate volutes. Avery Singer’s grisaille paintings in sprayed acrylic apparently begin in the 3D modeling program Google SketchUp, though the meaningfulness of her transfer process is not entirely clear. Rachel Lord’s paintings, on the other hand, begin in Adobe Photoshop and, either subtly or overtly, refer back to this origin; Palimpsest (2014) suggests a likeness between the ancient manuscript practice and the use of layering in the Adobe app; Tablet (2015) simply depicts the Adobe Creative Suite logo on a slate background. In contrast to the best works in Surround Audience, Lord’s paintings seem to incorporate the digital more in the spirit of doctrine than that of innovation—as though a medium as traditional as painting can now be countenanced only if it entails some sort of digital inflection, however surface-deep.
Although summary, I hope this review has made this much obvious: as capacious a concept as “Surround Culture” may be, not all works in this exhibition engage with it equally. Ellison and Kline, for example, are veritable poster artists for the exhibition, easily summoned to illustrate the thematic breakdown that Cornell posits. On the other hand, the relation of artists like Tan or Hamdan to the phenomenon of “Surround Culture” is more complex, murky and allegorical, while that of Avery or Moore seems as plain as it is superficial (though it is entirely possible that the true complexity of their work is being obscured by context in this case). Indeed, many other categories could be drawn up—say, an ethnographic one for the curio-like displays of Shreyas Karle and Asli Çavusoglu—that would seem altogether unyoked by the show’s stated thematics. And as a result of this perceived disconnect, works such as Karle’s and Çavusoglu’s read as opaque compared to their more assimilable (and often more technologically tricked out) neighbors. Here we face the inevitably restrictive aspect of even the most conscientiously curated survey shows (indeed, especially these): there is bound to emerge a perceived center, a set of aesthetic concerns given pride of place, that is surrounded by successive rings of periphery. Under such conditions (and especially with early-career artists), a “prediction” can easily become an imperative to drift toward the established center. Whether the resulting near future of art would be a compelling one, Surround Audience gives us more than ample opportunity to ponder.