Gray Works

A Document and Meditation

April 4, 2017

In contemporary societies where information is power, there has been a proliferation of systems and methods for archiving, and as Foucault foretold, there has been a simultaneous multiplication in the procedures for the classification and hierarchical organization of knowledge, as well as the techniques of organization and distribution of information and documents. One of the consequences of this growth has been the incorporation of “data sources” previously inaccessible to the field of knowledge, such as those comprising so-called “gray literature.” We can find various types of documents under this classification, ranging from reports and notebooks to newsletters, catalogues, blogs and dossiers; minor or informal documents that evade the usual circuits of production. “Gray literature” has become an informal medium of communication that, through flexible documentation and an open, ongoing process, can (without readjustments or mediations) take into account personal views and interpretations that revive and highlight the contexts or contributions of a still-ongoing investigation.

One of the most interesting elements of “gray literature” is its lack of definition, its indeterminacy, the fact that it combines the rigor of research with the spontaneity and honesty of personal views, imbuing work processes with the desires and sentiments of everyday experience, offering the chance for a bold and deft view of the different topics and issues confronted, blurring the lines between the personal and the public, between knowledge and opinion, between developments and fulfillments, between ends and means.

Drawing some analogies with the contemporary art scene, we could speak of certain gray works, which would be precisely those that, according to their political vocation, strengthen the “polysemic” character of art, to the extent that they are not only subject to multiple interpretations, but rather they also move from the artistic itself toward explicit sites of knowledge and learning. Gray works that make reference to or affirm their links to specific contexts and settings, which also operate as data sources and spaces for reflection, as phenomena capable of producing substantial content for philosophies and theories related to contemporary reality. Gray works with which we can also participate in a contemplative experience or which we can use as “texts” to identify, evidence or attest to different world problems. These gray works distill diverse themes and at the same time deal with heterogeneous issues, which is why for them a multiplicity of meanings is not strictly a problem of interpretation, but rather has to do with both formal and signifying structures themselves, with the way they establish their connections and the fact that they situate themselves in a borderland region, an undefined space between poetry and documentary, between theoretical reflection and aesthetic expression, between the autonomy of the personal gesture and the rigor of scientific research.

The remainder of this essay will explore these gray works through a selection of pieces that evince these complex operations.


Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck

Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck works with networks and semantic relationships, with interconnected spaces, with links, distributions, divisions, intersections and encounters. He works with different types of signs (images, texts, objects) in relation to the genesis of meaning, therefore his works thematically deal with and reveal the level of culture and discourse in which, beyond disciplinary or technical specificities, the intersections and encounters among distinct protocols of experience and knowledge are what produce meaning. Indeed, these works function on a documentary level as exercises in which those rituals of signification are exposed.

In the series Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect (2007-2009), as well as the series Modern Entanglements, U.S. Interventions (2006-2009), both produced in collaboration with Media Farzin,[1] Balteo was able to establish, by way of rigorous research and faithful documentation, a complex system of surprising and unusual relationships with which he builds different political proposals inscribed in artistic formulations, which function as triggers for reflection that would seem to “uncover” the secret workings of history and the socio-political relations of the contemporary world. With the impact of the petroleum industry and its economic, political and cultural designs as a unifying thread, Balteo ties together works of modern artists, specific geo-political structures and diverse graphic and textual documents (magazine covers and articles, photographs, invitations or interviews). Traveling from Venezuela to the United States to the Middle East, these works broaden the fields of signification and interpretation through the juxtaposition of disparate and fragmentary data, stemming from different spheres. In these series, modernity and its primary thrust are interpreted and perceived through different networks of meaning, through the elaboration of a complex semantic “reality.”

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Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in collaboration with Media Farzin, R.S.V.P, 1939 (C-print version), from the series Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect, 2007–2009. C-print digital reproduction (framed); Time magazine cover May 22, 1939 (framed); vinyl lettering on wall, wall label with narrative text. Entire installation: 35 ½ x 47 ¼ inches. Edition 5 + AP

Each of the elements (fragments) that make up the work takes on meaning and is profiled in terms of the network of connections that articulate it, establishing a sematic constitution that functions as a complex of small shifts or displacements ultimately giving way to a potentially infinite analysis of the political experience of modernity. Thus, for example in the work RSVP, 1939,[2] Balteo traces the existing link between the legitimate art scene and the spaces of power, and does so by recovering contextual testimonies that might seem marginal or supplementary (a sentence from a speech, a cover image, an invitation) but which offer evidence of the density of the field of interactions weaving together cultural operations and political exercises.

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Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in collaboration with Media Farzin, Installation view of Mobile for the Hotel Ávila, 1939–1942 and The Larger Picture, 1939–1942

Similarly, in Mobile for the Hotel Ávila 1939-1942,[3] and The Large Picture 1939-1942,[4] a transformation or dynamic is established among different historic and artistic documents that, thanks to their proximity, shatter the discourse of identity and ideals (as well as their specific location), and are presented as a “semantic occurrence” in which socio-political reality finds diverse horizons for articulation. These works are a kind of “signifying singularities” that are not only opposed to regular aesthetic formulations, but which also reconfigure the fields of meaning to which they allude or which they incorporate through their signs, through the elements they recover from the archive of history, through the information they put into circulation.

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Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in collaboration with Media Farzin, Detail of The Larger Picture, 1939–1942 from the series Modern Entanglements, U.S. Interventions, 2006–2009. C-print digital reproduction (35 x 60 inches), wall label with narrative text. Installation dimensions variable. Edition of 5 + AP

One of the testimonies that makes up the work tells us that “For two decades, the image of an open democracy was projected by U.S. architects and designers through buildings that literally mocked totalitarian bunkers…it all began with the Hotel Ávila.”

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Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in collaboration with Media Farzin, Detail of Mobile for the Hotel Ávila, 1939–1942 from the series Modern Entanglements, U.S. Interventions, 2006–2009. C-print digital reproduction (44 ¾ x 59 ¾ inches), mock construction plan of Calder’s mobile for the Hotel ballroom, wall label with narrative text. Installation dimensions variable. Edition of 5 + AP

This sums up the functioning of this “singularity” which, due to simultaneous convergence and divergence, brings together distant and disparate things in order to elaborate a discourse that establishes itself as “a broader network of stories, facts and contradictions.” The astonishing thing is how these works not only blend and interconnect different perspectives, doctrines, discourses or forms of knowledge, but also establish a vast field of meanings that exceeds their own purposes.


Iván Candeo

Iván Candeo produces video works in which he reflexively, and with a dose of irony, takes on different issues related to the cultural and socio-political conditions of his country, the place in which he lives and works, and his circumstances. Different proposals underlie Candeo’s videos, which also represent a deliberation, a meditation on the “moving image” and ways of articulating it. Indeed, in some way all of these videos are presented as a kind of registry and experiment related to the ways in which meaning is constructed in the cinematic realm: they examine both the fictive structure of montage (the frame-by-frame sequence, the achievement and adjustment of different elements) as that sort of “intermittent visuality” (blinking) inscribed into the scenes. Video (an image in continuous movement, without interruption) comprises a kind of document on the moving image, specifically cinema, which presents or exhibits itself as a series of visual “notebooks” in which a theory of the phenomenology of the technical image, and of video’s desire to construe itself as a kind of enveloping and inescapable signification that characterizes film, is inscribed or written.

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Video still of Iván Candeo’s Paisajes (2009)

The video Paisajes [Landscape, 2009], which can have a duration of either 1 or 39 seconds, shows an extremely rapid procession of 30 painted landscapes, followed by a reading of the list of Venezuelan artists who painted each of these landscapes. Thanks to the extreme speed with which the landscapes are displayed, the “visual” moment of the video is paradoxically invisible, to the extent that the transitions and changes are what is seen; the passage from one landscape to another is nothing more than a flash, an evanescent chromatic variation, a fleeting formal alteration. The work is made “legible” by the appearance of the list of authors (the credits?) that in an imaginary sense fix in place and reference the sequence of imperceptible landscapes, giving materiality and consistency to what, in a phenomenological sense, were bursts of color.

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Video still of Iván Candeo’s Paisajes (2009)
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Video still of Iván Candeo’s Paisajes (2009)

At the same time, this phenomenology accounts for different aspects of the appearance of technical images. First, it manifests the issue of its temporality: the way in which its meaning is constituted in combination with its duration, and how this occurs counter to the logic of its progression, accelerating what appears to be the center of attention to the point at which it becomes inaccessible, and expanding the supplementary, making it the axis for the configuration of meaning. This outdated temporality shows that it is the apparatus, the code and the text[5] that constitute this type of image, and that what gives way to a moving image is a knowledge, an intellectual operation. All of these inversions and distortions make this work a document that takes on the very idea of landscape by showing it to be a “textual construction,” significantly linked to a historic and stylistic recognition that goes beyond the visual image, and which is supported by cognitive references.

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Video still of Iván Candeo’s La película del estornudo (2016)

The video La película del estornudo [The Movie About the Sneeze] (2016) elaborates a thesis on film’s ways of operating, a thesis which refers not to technical, formal or semantic issues, but rather takes on what Candeo refers to as his “erotic vocation”—akin to what Walter Benjamin called obscenity[6]—and which has to do with the capacity of the “apparatus” to visually inspect and desire the world in ways that go beyond the natural. It has to do with the approach (the foreground), and is based on the proximity with the type of body—both of the image and what is presented within it—which that apparatus configures, displays and makes visible. Elaborated as a dialogue among a number of small, fragmentary stories that interrupt and interconnect with one another, this video proposes—and documents in a historical and phenomenological manner—that particular way the cinematic image has of “being-body” (and of becoming-body). The sneeze is the key to the thesis (it is also that which is documented), and this is so because this involuntary act shows a subject succumbing—giving over its will—to the movements and desires of its senses and corporality, and it manifests its “being-body” as a kind of giving over to the self, to its tension, as an expansion that unfolds and releases.

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Video still of Iván Candeo’s La película del estornudo (2016)

In addition to the sneeze, the video is elaborated through a constant and rapid montage of different symbolic “data,” all of which are culturally related to the body and its presence. As a counterpoint to these “data,” we find scenes of movies from the history of early film (historical “data”) and texts that operate as semantic signs, structuring the “documentary” nature of the work.

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Video still of Iván Candeo’s La película del estornudo (2016)

Thanks to its “erotic vocation”, its extreme proximity, the montage operation comprises and becomes the theme and discursive plot, a transformation of moments and occurrences in which a plurality of viewpoints and semantic possibilities make a theoretical activity manifest, a becoming of meaning.


Julia Zurilla

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Julia Zurilla, Horizonte vegetal (2014) from the series Nuevo Horizonte. UV print on aluminum

Julia Zurilla is concerned with absence, with loss. By the same measure, she dedicates her work to that memory, distant from recollection, which can take on presence in the form of remains, a trace, a remnant or an inscription. Thus she works with that which survives incidents, with that which has resisted succumbing to the brevity of time and worldly expiration. Therefore, her works are like a commemoration, like a moment of non-forgetting, in which new meanings can be articulated through the re-composition of fragmented and scattered real-life testimonies, in which those specific subjects and places make a common place for one another, offering themselves up as data anyone can use to create their own narration. The link between these testimonial fragments is shown to be both elusive and transitory, debilitated by the loss, abandonment and exclusion to which all experiences seem destined. Indeed, both her videos and her photographic works operate as voyages, dangerous and difficult traversals in which the past (that which has been) returns to presence—is recovered—establishing unforeseen connections with a present that, nonetheless, reiterates its own peculiarity, its belonging to a place—a world—that is inaccessible.

In the series Nuevos horizontes [New Horizons] this investigation of the possible ways of making the absent present, or giving permanence to things lost, comes together in works produced as a double articulation, on the one hand testimonial and unconnected images that are paired and become each other’s “horizon” (in her referential system of explanation), and on the other hand, this montage of images with text, a quote from a narrative work. The images are photographs and montages of found photographs, they are vestiges of other viewpoints, other framings and other times; the texts, for their part, are citations from a story. Together they investigate and portray new modes of subjectification that correspond to the times of the registry and the technical image. Indeed, in Nuevos Horizontes it is precisely that odd manner of “permanence” to which we are all destined as citizens of the age of technical reproduction, in which the inaccessibility of time (its passing) as well as the irretrievability of death and absence seem to disappear, but in which memory becomes impossible, because it always takes the shape of an appropriation of the impossible, of a re-occupation indelibly marked by an insurmountable distance and remoteness. The photograph and the textual citation function, in this sense, as the revelation of a cultural paradox, that of an era in which the document has converted the past into an image, or a text, therefore ever observable and consumable, disconnected from any context, and thus destined to an eternity with no place, with no future. 

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Julia Zurilla, Horizonte de escape (2014) from the series Nuevo horizonte. UV print on aluminum

These works propose an exploration of the spaces typical of the document, especially its capacity to populate the world with transparent and phantasmagorical events, with instantly eternalized facts that no longer take place but rather are artificially produced. All these fragments, all these images as texts, are documentary “citations.” They are encounters: remains or vestiges of occurrences, works or events that have already taken place, but which impose themselves in their mesh as a non-objectifiable image, that is neither artifice nor representation but which has an intangible and ungraspable composition, a configuration that shatters the visible order. Indeed, in these works the past is not recovered but rather it is exposed, manifested as a possibility, an ever-inaccessible approximation.

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Julia Zurilla, Horizonte moderno (2014) from the series Nuevo Horizonte. UV print on aluminum

Thus, in Horizonte Moderno [Modern Horizon] (2014), we find the theme of that problematic experience, “expropriated” as Agamben would say, from modernity, which brings about a standardization of daily life that does not offer man the possibility of appropriating his world, of understanding himself within it. Two icons are in dialogue, a posed family scene and a view of a city skyline, each imprecise and blurry, imbued with the faded quality that permeates photographs with time, both pointing to an absent, distant world. They are accompanied by a text that manages to complete the dialogue by calling attention to the impotence and the fantastical, inapprehensible condition of that which is made visible—the image.

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Julia Zurilla, Dos horizontes (2014) from the series Nuevo Horizonte. UV print on aluminum

In Dos horizontes [Two Horizons] (2014), for its part, Zurilla reflects on place, on her presence, on that radical exteriority according to which every man is always deferred. Therefore these are distant landscapes, inaccessible and monumental landscapes in which the gaze seems to lose itself, and which, in spite of their contiguousness, can never be encountered. There is a tension between the images—an unresolved connection with the affirmation of the world’s impropriety, its indifference—that is mirrored theoretically in the text.

These gray works are produced from data, fragments and documents of culture, and are presented as reflexive discourses, as theoretical operations, rather than as expressive interventions. They not only offer alternative viewpoints with regard to established discourses and interpretations, they are also able to open divergent spaces of signification for everyday occurrences and realities. Given their ties to the document, they are testimonial works; a hiatus, a tension, a disturbance is established in them between saying (expression, the form) and what is said (discourse, the statement), which debilitates the boundaries between media and disciplines, and which gives way to proposals that resist being fully constituted, that escape, that have some unattainable quality. In some sense, these gray works are “impassioned”: they must constantly break free, exceeding themselves, their structures and determinations.


[1] Art historian and critic

[2] A work in the series: Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect (2007-2009)

[3] A work in the series: Modern Entanglements, U.S. Interventions (2006-2009)

[4] A work in the series: Modern Entanglements, U.S. Interventions (2006-2009)

[5] W. Flusser. Hacia una filosofía de la fotografía (Toward a Philosophy of Photography)

[6] W. Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen