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The Brooklyn Rail

Thanks to Apple, Amazon, and the Mall

By Maya Harakawa


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The digital and its potential are at the heart of Thanks to Apple, Amazon, and the Mall at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery. Curated by critic Brian Droitcour, the show is an extension of the gallery’s digital publishing venture, Klaus_eBooks. Since 2013, the series—also edited by Droitcour—has produced digital books that experiment with the possibilities of the still-nascent medium. Thanks to Apple includes nine artists, and all them have made, or are in the process of making, books for the gallery. However, the exhibition does not strictly represent or display these digital projects. Instead, it is a holistic consideration of the digital and how it might facilitate ways of thinking that are not beholden to its specificities.

The emphasis of this small group show isn’t how the digital formally functions as an artistic medium. Rather, having identified an interest in technology’s effect on feeling and embodied experience throughout the eBooks, Droitcour centralizes this theme. Of the 16 works on view, only one is specifically computer-based. In Thanks to Apple the eBook is a metonym for art making in a digital age: in both, media—visual, linguistic, or otherwise—are utilized indiscriminately and the boundaries that might otherwise separate practices are actively transgressed to express the complexity of lived, rather than digital, reality.

Text is prevalent throughout, and an interest in the possibilities of language is particularly evident. In “Regrind (1–4)” (2014) by Deanna Havas, brief de-contextualized phrases that suggest the truncated language of Twitter or text messaging are papier mâchéd over a pulpy ground along with images of hearts and suns with smiley faces whose graphic simplicity recall emojis. The juxtaposition reflects a style of online communication that is increasingly cryptic, even if it betrays its linguistic roots. Body by Body’s “TG-30” (2013 – 15) are haikus of bodily transformation drawn from an ebook of the same title and pasted on the gallery walls in large, vinyl serif. Inspired by posts on DiviantArt message boards, these haikus conflate multiple forms of expression and mirror the metamorphosis of the fantasies they portray. Michael Hessel-Mial’s “postcards from VITA NUOVA II” (2015) are would-be poems in the form of collage. With text such as: “masturbating, I learned to summon images,” Hessel-Mial posits a theory of the digital that can produce new concepts of thought, emotion, and desire.

Assemblage also looms large. Recalling its Surrealist history from the early 20th century, assemblage in a digital context also asks how different modes of existence or consciousness can productively commingle. In James Deusing’s video “End of Code” (2009), codes that comprise D.N.A. and computer programs are conflated to comedic ends. Made up of elements including a ham, a bust of George Washington, and a brain, Deusing’s digitally animated exquisite corpses speak phrases such as “expectation is premeditated resentment,” with an absurdity that evokes the Surrealist desire to find revolution in the irrational. The work of Isaac Richard Pool is a nice sculptural complement to these digital assemblages. “Ddad” (2015) is a portrait of stitched together Carhartt jeans that rest on the gallery floor directly in front of Deusing’s animation. These pieces formally work in dialogue to ask how objects can craft stories or represent individuals. In “Field Visits for Chelsea Manning” (2014) Lance Wakeling assembles objects together on two slender glass tables crafting a portrait of someone who publically negotiated a reworked relationship to her body. The archive displayed in the gallery is a sparse collection of items—an international driver’s license, a Rubik’s cube, a mug—that represent the places where the former Army intelligence analyst was imprisoned. Wakeling visited these sites and documented his travels for a film that asks questions about identity, sexuality, surveillance, and their circulation.

Each of the individual works in Thanks to Apple is an evocative exploration of the digital’s lived effects. But their cumulative effect is also compelling. It’s possible to see the entire exhibition, a group of separate yet still interacting parts, as a physical eBook of sorts. The title draws parallels between the commercial enterprise of the gallery and the mechanisms for eBook distribution, asking how a relationship with the digital reconfigures existing modes of circulation. Works in different media are productively juxtaposed, enacting the possibilities of a platform where video, photography, and drawing can easily co-exist. And text enlarged on the gallery walls interacts with the rest of the exhibition’s visual content, reflecting the basic formal properties that all books share but the eBook can re-conceptualize.

These digital books do not approximate their physical predecessor. Instead, curating becomes an exploration of how physical space might perform what makes eBooks unique. In a refreshing reversal, the physical strives to represent the digital, however approximately. Rethinking the dynamics of digital and print, the exhibition evokes a history of artists’ books where the medium became an opportunity to experiment with the practical, formal, and conceptual underpinnings of art. As books and technology continue to develop, Thanks to Apple suggests that the ramifications of these experimentations will continue to remain constructively elusive.