Digressive reflections on R Eric McMaster’s The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order.
Installation shot of Eric McMaster’s The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order, 2012, projected on 1708 Gallery’s front window, courtesy the author
They’re young. Unconventionally attractive. Representative of a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities. Under pressure, they operate exquisitely, unshaken by their emotions. They’re taut. Zeroed-in. Not quite superhuman, though: nerves bubble to the surface. Eyes dart, mouths pursed; they roll their shoulders and exhale strongly through their mouths. Excessively blinking. They snap their necks, flicking free a cobweb of doubt, licking their lips. They wave and shrug. They snort and mutter to themselves. While their stares sometimes meet the lens, the fourth wall is never breached. If they are looking anywhere—if their gaze does have an object—it’s towards an interior horizon. They are gloriously conditioned and flexible.
The first thought I had when R Eric McMaster finished installing his captivating video projection, The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order (“R Eric McMaster: The Obstruction of Action,” 1708 Gallery, January 4–February 16, 2013) was ‘Minority Report!’ McMaster’s video features appropriated footage of athletes—most of whom are Olympic gymnasts—preparing to perform. Projected onto the left half of the large front window of 1708 Gallery, The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order steadily floats in the glass, evoking a feeling of a seemingly groundless and screenless image–concrete and ephemeral, at once adhered to and emanating from within the glass.
I was thinking of the 2002 Spielberg movie, Minority Report, based on a Philip K. Dick short story: in the year 2054, detectives in the pseudo-psychic “Precrime” unit of a metropolitan police department arrest people for crimes they are about to commit. A police chief played by Tom Cruise discovers he is about to murder a man he’s never met, and has to escape his boss, who’s trying to capture him for said about-to-happen murder.
It’s a bit of an ouroboros. And even though it’s totally apropos of broader themes in The Obstruction of Action, Minority Report’s anticipation of a dystopian police state and inevitable heady debates regarding free will and determinism are not exactly what The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order elicited in me.
As I stood there slack-jawed in the dusk, what flooded my imagination was my recollection of the film’s visual effects. I was particularly struck by how McMaster’s video projection evoked the movie’s rendering of screen technology[i]. Moving images and streaming information figure prominently in Minority Report, memorable for their fluidity, ubiquity and apparent mundanity in the world to come. The characters are awash in iridescent pixels. Something like American Gladiators doing qigong, law enforcement officers navigate a database by waving their arms at invisible scrims, photos and text sweeping around their bodies. Later, a holographic ad in The Gap welcomes the protagonist to the store by name[ii].
Screen grab of Minority Report (2002)
We have early versions of these technologies now, little more than a decade later. Not only can we remotelessly swat through channels on 3D TVs, but we’re algorithmically tracked daily by entities that want us to do one thing or the other—usually, buy stuff (or buy into stuff)[iii]. This morning, looking for materials for an upcoming installation, I searched for recycling centers and dumps in the Richmond area, and called Junk King Hauling & Removal; this afternoon I was looking up Minority Report clips and lo-and-behold, there’s a Junk King ad in YouTube’s margin. A small sliver of my world, popping up, returning, like a forgotten item on an unwritten list of errands. In my larger paranoid cosmology, the Junk King ad amounts to a bit of toilet paper stuck to my heel. But it’s hard to shake the sense that every click is haunted. The fractional movements of my finger on the trackpad are captured, poured, sorted, filtered. In this light, the Junk King ad feels like déjà vu. Rehearsed.
Mitigating refrains come to mind: “We’re all complicit,” and, “It’s just an ad.” If I hadn’t been writing this I probably wouldn’t have noticed the ad. Google scans my email about looking for old refrigerators and then advertises appliance stores right next to the “compose” field. Smartphone users, Facebook friends, and Amazon shoppers all understand that, not unlike the holographic ad from the movie, their clicks, swipes, and taps are tracked and re-presented to them when they’re nearby, whether in digital or analog format[iv]. Mostly it seems useful. If it feels intrusive at times, that’s the cost of convenience and security. Freedom isn’t free. And free email isn’t.[v]
But to the first point: Yes, we’re all complicit. Cue collective shrug. I’m so tired of acknowledging that. When It asks, “Do you agree?” I check the box. But am I truly saying “Yes?” I feel like the fine print is actually used as a weapon in this instance—so dense, drawn out, and tiny as to render a comprehensive reading by the layperson impossible. Are terms and conditions–written as small as the voiceover at the end of the Abilify ad is fast–equivalent to informed consent? “Yes, of course! Whatever! Just give me the goddamned Candy Crush already!” The shadow of this desire, of course, is the need to participate, to be a part of some kind of community, however metaphysical.
Can being tracked be that bad if every other person in your circle isn’t freaked out about being tracked? Or is it all going to come due some terrifying day in the future, like the bill for a Vegas hotel mini-bar?
But, again, that’s not why I thought of the movie when I first stood outside the gallery gaping at The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order. I just thought it looked, like, really really awesome. While McMaster’s work doesn’t function at all similarly to the motion-navigable or identity-tracking screens of Minority Report, it trades in emission, offering the same shallow-far synthetic luminescence as our devices, at once saturated and transparent, looking through and at simultaneously. And the rudimentary instrument of my body buys it, just like a deer buys headlights. It’s transfixing to stand before in the gloomy light of West Broad Street at night.[vi] I feel… imported.
Photo Credit: Terry Brown
“A player becomes a willing participant by subscribing to the regulations of a game, knowing that their genuine acts are altered and still choosing to feed into the system that restricts these acts.”
–from McMaster’s artist statement for The Obstruction of Action
The works in The Obstruction of Action use competitive sport as a metaphor for social structure. In his exhibition statement, McMaster refers to the soccer player who refuses to intercept an incoming ball with her hands for fear of incurring an infraction. The title of the exhibit (and most of the works) implies there is an “original,” more authentic, or, to use McMaster’s language, “genuine” action that is not taken for fear of an infraction. In the case of The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order, one must ask, “What action?” “Whose order?” Precisely what is “the system” to which he refers? What is a genuine act in this arrangement, in which compliance is secured through a finely woven matrix of incentives and penalties, all of which are grounded in a collective awareness of premature death? And does all this hold up when we consider that each of these persons supposedly has agency?[vii] Does McMaster’s work suggest its audience members are like the athletes, anxiously awaiting the signal to perform? Or do some of us compete, while others merely ump?
Competitive sports are a fine example of these relationships because they clearly demonstrate the contrasting loyalties one accrues as a member of any institution. The athlete binds herself to her teammates in a collective effort to win. In both individual and team sports, she binds herself to the tradition of the sport in which she competes, as well as agrees to the rules and procedures of the game. She ultimately submits to the authority of ruling bodies like referees and conferences, but also the informal jurisdiction of her peers, which includes everyone mentioned above.
Reading McMaster’s words, I couldn’t help but think about art. The meaning individuals derive from shared (if vague) understandings of concepts like “society,” “structures,” and “the system” has everything to do with how one accesses those very things—the social deltas at which “me” joins with others–to become “we.” For all of our collective talk about “society” in the abstract, each of us belongs to institutions (writ large) through which we access and become society. These are both formal, such as citizenship, or employment, and informal, such as class, or clique. They all have rules one must abide by and membership dues one must pay in order to access benefits–even if the only benefit of membership is not being kicked out. Likewise, in many cases, the only due one must pay to belong to an institution is to not make the social code visible by breaking it. Those for whom conformity doesn’t come easy, or naturally, get marked as deviant by anyone who can manage their deviance enough to not get ostracized themselves. For instance, gender is a powerful example here, especially with regard to queerness. Breaking the norms—cross-dressing, for instance—makes both the convention and the deviant highly visible, though usually only the latter receives scrutiny.
Art has its own institutions and traditions, and could even be argued to be an institution itself, albeit perverse. Anyone reading this is bound by the well-documented and often overlapping conventions of galleries, museums, schools, mediums, and histories. Even if we don’t understand why a rule exists, we understand it would be costly to break it. Everyone knows you don’t touch the art. Don’t take your call in the exhibition space. Don’t put it in the center of the page. Don’t copy others, and don’t copy yourself. At this point, don’t paint intuitively (unless you can generate some kind of just-wacky-enough fictional meta-narrative around it in order to justify your impulse to paint intuitively). Don’t break the fourth wall.
Installing an exhibition, one navigates this sticky web of don’ts with formal knowledge, keen sight, presence of mind, bodily awareness, patience, and maybe even intuition. One tries to see the task at hand clearly, in dialogue with the work, rather than through the refracted light of what you think someone else might expect from their own art experience.
As McMaster installed The Obstruction of Action in 1708, I wondered where I might find evidence of his recognition that his work critiques not just society, but us: where he tips his hat to say, “Yes, I know. Even here, we are also obeying rules, all of which are unwritten, which makes them that much more potent.” I couldn’t find it. I often need things to be spelled out for me.
The night of the opening, my wife and I parked on the north side of Broad Street. I filled with pride in the vaporous glow of The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order, its vital light and color flooding the damp sidewalk: wet on wet. A group of students laughed and smoked nearby. Like a beacon or a bug light, the video drew visitors near to watch before they entered the gallery. One of the artist’s assistants stood before it, admiring his own handiwork in a moment of endearing unself-consciousness. I saw some sculpture kids whose names I know, but don’t say hello because we haven’t been formally introduced. My baggage, I know. I look through and at the fresh faces on the screen, biting their lips, rolling their shoulders, their big, wet eyes like dams about to burst, to the gathering crowd inside. I take a deep breath. I found my answer.
Matthew P. Shelton
February 15, 2013 – February 22, 2014
[i] Praised at its release for the plausibility of the future it envisioned, and in the years since for its accuracy, futurists working on the film anticipated gestural computer interfaces, corporate data mining, self-driving cars, and drone technology. Production designers on the film consulted John Underkoffler, a pioneering inventor in user interface technology. Underkoffler used the film as an opportunity to do research and development on what has now become the G Speak Gestural Technology System, a spatial interface that operates almost identically to the memorable UI Cruise’s character navigates in the story.
[ii] Technically, it’s the wrong name, because the store scans shoppers’ retinae in order to identify them, and Cruise’s fugitive has undergone a back-alley retina implant in order to disguise his identity. Are your eyes itching yet?
[iii] But we now know that where we are, who we call and where they are is fair game for the NSA, who get it from Google, Verizon, etc.
[iv] And very soon, companies will be able to advertise to you with models whose faces are actually composites of pictures of friends and loved ones culled from social networks. You’ll get a warm, fuzzy feeling from a bowl of Campbell’s soup being dished up by a nice lady that looks like your grandmas. For more on this, Google “Alessandro Acquisti privacy TED”. Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, studies the economics of privacy and generally introduces people to the future.
[v] As Paul Chan snaps in his 2009 essay, What Art Is and Where It Belongs, “The carrot is a stick.”
[vi] What better vantage point from which to view such unblemished bodies—these little Atlases, ideal specimens from which to build a new society—than a re-re-revitalizing, blandly depressed American thoroughfare, where one feels the gap between depression and agility most acutely, on a number of levels?
[vii] What Would Ayn Rand Do?
Matthew P. Shelton is an artist and teacher from Danbury, NC. He received an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BFA from Guilford College. From May 2012 to January 2014, he served as Gallery Coordinator at 1708 Gallery. He lives in Richmond, VA, where he teaches in VCU’s Art Foundations and Painting & Printmaking Departments.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.