Stephen O'Connell

After Midnight

I'm hunched over my keyboard chatting with a group of characters on a text-based internet environment, commonly known as a MOO. But the server which brings us all together is lagging badly, delaying every action by at least fifteen seconds, so I decide to multi-task and work on this article simultaneously.

Using the computer screen to back light the slides that are scattered on my desk, I look at one after another trying to grasp why I sense a coherence among these particular images of contemporary sculpture.[1] There is something about the rhythm of these sculptural objects, something that draws them together and makes them sparkle like a new constellation of stars waiting for a name. I have been gazing into this unnamed space all evening

09:32:00 USA EST

I switch my attention back to the MOO, but everyone has disconnected except for a few north Americans who are multi-tasking like me from their offices and work terminals. I look through the slides again until my attention is distracted by a new infomercial on the portable television flickering in the corner of my room. This is the second feature length commercial of the morning. The first was an old favourite (the Fast-Track exercise machine) but I haven't seen this one before. A man who could easily play the devil in one of those 1950s episodes of "The Twilight Zone" holds his open palms out to the camera and explains how his motivational tapes will help me make the most of life. I'm suspicious but I find his message seductive. Having spent the whole evening pondering slides and watching my words drift away on the lagging tides of the internet, the possibility of acting decisively and without hesitation is very attractive. Let's face it, he makes me feel inadequate. His closing line drives the point home with an imperative: "Act now! Live every day like it is your last!" I would not be watching television or spending hundreds of dollars on mail order tapes if I only had one day to live, but his ethic is clear: only losers waste time. I make a small concession, I turn off the television.

Local Time

I flick through the slides again. This repetitive gesture starts to gather more obsessive traits as I try to build up the speed to write. Lighting another cigarette, tapping out a string of adjectives on the keyboard, clicking on the mouse as I cut and paste unfinished sentences together. Everything is happening at the fingertips. I'm thinking about these sculptors with my nerve endings, while my head just resonates with the dull hum of the computer. The ash tray overflows as I butt out my last cigarette.

At least for now, it is the hysterical labour intensity of these sculptures that fascinates me: Karen Ferguson's woven food packaging, Jackie McDonald's re-assemblages of smashed glassware, Alison Weaver's thatched cigarette butts. Every square centimetre contracts an extravagant amount of time. Their energy is spent at close range, slowly building up an art work with repetitive micro-movements. As they splice and glue and weave, they intuitively plot the coordinates of their artistic practise at the surface of production. In other words, the meaning of the work is not primarily found in the artist's intention nor the context of its eventual display, but in the relationship that develops between the artist and her materials. I imagine them working the unnamed space of their practise with the same sense of fatigue and disorientation that I experience inside the process of writing. As we feel our way, everything is happening at the fingertips.

A Slice of History

Art works often harness seemingly unproductive activity: Andy Warhol's films of time passing; Sophie Calle's diarist accounts of tailing strangers; Joseph Beuys' street sweeping exercises. The question of whether such art works escape subsequent commodification in the art market or museum is irrelevant to their success in activating an economy where process is not directed toward an end or product. This economy may be temporary, but that is the whole point: it belongs to the experimental present. In the terms used by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, we could say that these are cases where "desiring-production 'short-circuits' social production".[2] As Marx observed in the first chapter of Capital,[3] the fetishisation of commodities requires that all work be recorded in the socius of capitalist relations, ultimately giving the impression that any socially productive activity is due to capitalism, rather than labour itself. Desiring-production, on the other hand, embraces labour itself as a process that is not directed toward another objective. In this deleuzo-guattarian scheme of things production becomes a force of perversion. Instead of working for the presuppositions of a capitalist economy (or even a communist economy), a temporal economy is distributed around desire so that labour isn't predetermined by any kind of utilitarian objectives. In this frenzied, often dysfunctional labour, people can reinvent themselves and their existence at the same time as they actually live.

Melbourne 1994

With Ferguson, McDonald and Weaver, the coupling of desire and labour short circuits the abstracted economy of social production in order to activate new flows of energy.

Karen Ferguson adopts the techniques of a home-maker but she lets the routine break down. She collects food packaging, but she doesn't cut out the coupons or competition forms. She keeps empty aluminium cans, but she doesn't send them off for recycling. She pieces together mis-matched tupperware, but she ends up making it even more dysfunctional than before. Domestic labour takes flight from the silent efficiency of a household budget in an inordinate carnivale. Or as Melissa McMahon has explained, Ferguson puts a homely claustrophobia in contact with the swarming unboundedness of the universe.[4]

It is not so much a romantic escape from domesticity, as an experimentation with the exuberance that we already inhabit at every moment.

In "Still Lives and Motion Pitchers", Jackie McDonald rehearses an event that most people would prefer to sweep into a dust pan and forget about. Carefully smashing a jar, bottle or bowl on the floor until she has a jigsaw of shards, she slowly re-assembles each piece of glassware to its original form. Repeating the process dozens of times, McDonald fills the instant of the accident with excessive labour, opening up a fragile space of improvisation in a situation that would otherwise be pragmatically passed over. The duration that is harnessed by these delicate spider-webs of glass testifies to an energy that overflows the containment of labour in our society, branching out to follow sinuous paths and graft new connections.

Unlike Ferguson and McDonald, who illuminate the fissures of domestic labour, Alison Weaver stirs up the repetitive practices that are often used to mark time in the art workshops of public institutions such as hospitals and prisons. More specifically, the little cocoons and nests that Weaver composes from the contents of ash trays evoke those scale model cities made of match sticks. Having been withdrawn from society to recoup or reform, the patient-prisoner can set themselves painstakingly ambitious projects because they have no need to be concerned about how their labour will be converted into capital. Weaver's but(t) sculptures prolong the rituals of "doing time" so that procrastination proliferates like the cells of new life.

Repetitive Reminiscence

Is it a waste of time to work in such haptic proximity to your materials? What exactly is wasted in this process, and what is regained? One of the great discoveries made by Marcel Proust's narrator was that the time of the past has to be lost and regained in an endless stuttering of memory.[5] The hero of la Recherche is initially concerned about wasting time in his reminiscences, but eventually he realises that this is what the present is for. Enveloped in the present are all the disjunctions and false continuities of the past, all the pure and timeless sensibilities of possible worlds. The only way to savour the fullness of the present is to make it blossom through multifarious connections with these times that are necessarily lost.

These three artists recycle substances that would be considered refuse by most, but "recycling" is the wrong term. As I've suggested, they don't convert the waste into the base material for new products. The discarded objects return as fragments to be synthesised in different ways in the present. It is a matter of repetition rather than recycling. To recycle is to tidy up the past and negate the waste, but these sculptural objects repeat the past so that it overflows into the future. They have launched themselves into the duration of Proustian time travel. Or in Nietzschean terms, these sculptors bring about a return of the same as different; the eternal return.[6] The past dances into the future rather than following the straight lines of rational progress.

McDonald provides us with particularly poetic images of time wasted. "Still Lives with Motion Pitchers" includes two monitors playing a video of a bottle falling through space. This translucent form spinning in the air epitomises the sensation of labouring in the present without a concern for progress or efficiency. In the fall, tension is experienced in all directions. The expanded present of her slow-motion video is a perfect compliment to the glassware which encapsulates a sense of past, present and future coexisting with each other in a continual process of negotiation. Weaver's "Spiral Jetty" also captures this sensation of time eddying in and out of the present. And in a different way, the diffused surface of colour and movement in Ferguson's woven "T.V." fills me with a reassuring joy about my ambivalence for the imperatives of infomercial-ambition. It reminds me of how good it is to just watch the television rather than watch what is on the television; sitting in front of it as though it is a little grotto of trash that lets my mind wonder across its flickering surface; that lets me wade off into the tides of sleep.

In the refrains of wasted time that we find in the sculpture of these artists, production has its own pleasure and is not dependent on the acquisition of something that is lacked or needed.

Future Imperfect.

Theorists often speak about the accelerated speed of our culture, with its mobile work force, streamlined transport systems, and digital communication networks. The reality that we occupy, however, is always the present. It is from this in-between place that movement branches out in its aberrance (or forced linearity), contacting and expanding into the future and past as a means of understanding our labour, energy and fatigue. Whether we are artists or teachers, net-heads or administrators, we define ourselves by the way we spend time. Do we add warp and woof to the fabric of our society, or do we just follow the pattern? To work the duration of the present, like Ferguson, McDonald and Weaver, is to open time up in truly inventive ways.


Stephen O'Connell

a version of this article has appeared in broadsheet Magazine


[1] I am focusing on work which was exhibited by three artists in different Melbourne exhibitions during 1994: Karen Ferguson, Epitaph, 200 Gertrude Street Gallery; Jackie McDonald (with Elke Varga and Kate Ellis), Sense, Linden Gallery; Alison Weaver (with .Mimi Dennett), Foul and Fragrant, Basement Gallery.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Hurley, Seem & Lane, Athlone Press, London, 1984, p.31.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Fowles, Penguin Books, London, 1976.

4] Melissa McMahon, "Epitaph", Globe: E-Journal of Australian Visual Arts, vol. 1, http://www.monash.edu.au/visarts/globe/kftitle/html

[5] Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. Moncrieff, Kimartin & Mayor, Random House, New York, 1981.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A book for everyone and no one, trans. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, London, 1961, p.237: "But the complex of causes in which I am entangled will recur - it will create me again! I myself am part of these causes of the eternal recurrence."