From Pages to Parangolés: Radical Excess, Technology, and the Publicational Body

By Jordan Crandall, 16 October 2008

In recent history, art criticism moved beyond isolated works of art to encompass their institutional framing conditions. These institutional frames were embodied in the figure of the museum. The institutional complex of the museum formed part of the "site" of the artwork, and participated in the object-site dialectic necessary to produce the work's meaning.

Today art criticism is again moving beyond isolated works of art to encompass their institutional framing conditions. These institutional frames are no longer embodied in the museum, however, or in any particular physical space, but in the discourse networks of the media. The institutional complex of the media is now part of the "site" of the artwork, and therefore participates in the object-site dialectic necessary to produce the work's meaning.

The earlier scenario can be symbolized by the figure of the painting in a museum. The later scenario can be symbolized by the figure of the image on the magazine page or computer monitor. But the latter scenario does not replace the former; it augments it. On the one hand, then, we have an artwork that is a combination of the object and its representations, such that we can no longer locate one or the other as primary. They form a new entity, an indissoluble configuration, not locatable, that expands and redefines "objectness." And on the other hand, we have a site that is a constellation of materiality and information, as if its very walls were composed of potent hybrids of museum space and publication space, circulating with increasing frequency and power.

All components are marked by a perpetual flux between materiality and information. The object-site dialectic has become a dynamic matrix: a dance of physical and informational relation, wherein both object and site are bound up. How is this dynamic space constituted? Consider the role of Mute in communicating this scenario. This dynamic space is constituted within the circuits of media.

Considering this new institutional media space and its "sites" of publication, why are the artworks reproduced in contemporary art publications still regarded as if they were objects sitting in a gallery, and not also sitting in a magazine? Why is there no awareness of their own sited conditions? These representations point back to absent referents, origins that are no longer there.

From Pages to Parangoles

Such origins are dispersed among networks of linkage, circuits of information, wherein the image functions vastly different than it did before. Indeed, the image has been endowed with an objectness heretofore unheard of, and the solitary art object with an unprecedented representationality.

It is curious why institutional critique has not been extended to the institutional site of the publication. The art publication is not neutral toward the image it hosts. It directly participates in the content-production of the work it exhibits. Instead of engaging such awareness, the art publication contains almost no criticism of its own assumptions, its contents printed and bound with almost no critical reflection upon the medium in which they are placed. Such criticism halts at its borders.

It is this authoritative border that contemporary textual theory has sought to problematize. But after more than two decades of such theory, which points to alternate, more social modes of textual and artistic construction, the art publication has emerged intact and strangely reinforced, with hardly a scratch in its armour. While theories and practice: point to a more collaborative process of content-construction, the publication'; contents are fixed and rigidly defined its author-reader distinctions vividly, drawn; while the borders of the text blur, the publication clearly demarcate: them; while the artwork's location is: complicated and its medium opened to include social and spatial elements, the publication clearly isolates it within frame and reduces its medium to traditional materials. The fact that the publication is unwilling to put into practice the changing structurality of art and text, and that its contradictions are so severely repressed, points to an alternate, spectral construction composed of the elements that it negates, smooths out under the rollers of the printing press and drowned in ink in order to uphold and secure the borders of the page, the authority and sanctity of the binding. This constitutive outside is never acknowledged, this radical excess never incorporated. The art publication appears to stand outside, the watchdog of discourse. 

Following closely on the heels of textual theory, contemporary technologies have initiated and registered new forms, in an explosion of variations such as hypertext, hypermedia, and multimedia, both online (for instance, the Web) and offline (CD-ROM). In the absence of a better term, and in order to contrast this with textuality, I'll refer to these forms collectively and generally as "hypertextuality," hypertext for short. 

Some theorists of hypertext have written that it embodies most of, if not all, of the concerns of the textual theory of the recent past - for example, that it fundamentally destabilizes text, foregrounds the interactiveness of text, and blurs its relations of production. What has actually occurred, however, is something quite different. Rather than building on textuality's problematics and engaging its rich history, hypertextuality gleefully leaps over it and establishes its own, separate technotopian terrain - a separation that textuality has consistently and severely called into question.

Important differences have emerged between the two. Textuality anticipated the networks of linkage that hypertext employs, but textuality called for links that reach "outside" the pages of the book (such that there is no longer an "outside"). Hypertext, on the other hand, halts its links at the boundaries of the computer screen and resists those connections that would extend "outside" of the monitor. Instead of incorporating in its purview the printed text and other textual forms in an engagement of this constitutive outside, hypertextual theory continues to favour a medium-specific - digital-conception of text.

But there is an even more fundamental difference. Even though it appears to be more active than textuality, hypertext has curiously eluded an engagement with performative studies, which have sought to infuse materiality and action into text. Wittgenstein, for example, saw language and the actions interconnected with it as indissoluble, and speech act theory has foregrounded the material, ambulatory character of language. Those who study other social and discursive theories continually demonstrate how discourse, embodiment, and materiality, far from being isolated realms, are always bound up in each other. Instead of engaging this history, however, hypertextuality leaves embodiment out of the loop in favour of an abstract "information space" where the only action that matters is the choice offered by the if programmer/author ("click here"), and material conditions cede their relative importance to an autonomous text space that is, in turn often subsumed into the realm of "virtuality." That real/virtual, material/text or even mind/body dualisms are so powerfully operative today reveals more about the normative mechanisms of the market than it does about actual social conditions of content-production. To the perceptive artist or cultural producer, such a situation calls not for more products aligned with these market norms, but for their resistance and disruption.

This text provides a diagram for reconsidering the materiality of the publication and its constitutive editorial relations. It departs from the links that hypertextuality employs and augments them with circuits. In terms of the physical presence of the publicational body in which this text is conveyed, these circuits open up horizontal links to networks of flow, prompting awareness not only of the material represented here, but the materiality of Mute as well as the editorial formations and embodied positions that it calls forth and which endow it with meaning.

These circuits call for an irresolvable tension to be maintained between text and hypertext, where each realm actively engages, and complicates, the assumptions of the other. If this tensional space is foregrounded - that is, if I think of how the print text and the digital text (and other texts) are connected through the conduit of my own bodily agency, and resist parcelling these elements out - its constitutive relations can be mapped and the editorial content itself can be located within that tensional arena. As textual studies have shown us, the text is always already located there.

From pages to Parangoles

Three elements form the coordinates of this tensional arena. These elements require contextualization, and they are actively social, generating constellations of relations, but for the sake of illustration, I'll first isolate them. The first is inscription - the linear encoding on a surface, by, for example, pen or keyboard. The second is interface - that surface upon which an inscription is made, such as a page of a book or a window of the computer screen. The third is incorporation - that body or process of embodiment that both encodes and forms itself in relation to code. To position the embodied inscriber within this arena, not on the outside of it staring at the monitor, is to engage performative studies and to understand the extent to which embodiment is a part of the textual process, in terms other than as a mouse-wielding conduit for pre-programmed choices. As such, it prompts not only an awareness of the location of the text, but ways of disrupting its normative techniques.

The circuits drawn between these three elements - inscription interface, and incorporation - define a "content-arena." Together these circuits and arenas weave a new materiality for the contemporary publication. Consider how the print publication was constituted in terms of these components. Individual pages of the print publication have always functioned as "access surfaces" that allow the reader to access the editorial content of a particular issue. They define the editorial content in two ways: its content (the totality of the contents inside) and its form (the physical area constituted and by all of the pages bound together). In terms of our circuit, the print publication has inscription in the form of images and printed text; it has interfaces in the form of printed pages; it has an incorporation in the form of a bound construct, and it prompts an incorporation in the form of the embodied reader, who turns its pages one by one. These pages both register and initiate changes in the publication's relations of production, such as between author, reader, publisher, distributor, and so on-changes that are registered most visibly in the masthead and contents page, but which are also visible in the assumptions and distinctions that the publication makes as well as the regulatory norms that it enforces. 

The traditional editorial page - the print-based interface - interfaced these relations and functions. The content-arena was simply constituted differently. In terms of our circuit, the print-based interface mediated relations between inscription and incorporation, changing the ways they relate, as different relationships between inscription and incorporation changed the ways the interface appeared and functioned. That is, codes and bodies related differently as interfaces changed, and those changes simultaneously caused changes in the ways that interfaces appeared and the roles that they played. To connect the other elements in the diagram: The interface related differently to incorporation through the mediation of code, which changed the ways codes appear and function. Incorporation participated in new relations between codes and interfaces, which participated in the formation of new kinds of incorporations, some of which we might today call "virtual." As an example, within the Internet environment of the MOO, consider the kinds of bodies produced in and - by the printed page, and consider the kinds of hybrid bodies produced in and by the MOO interface. Both are produced by typed texts, but they are codes that interact with, and therefore operate differently within, alternate interfaces. Interfaces are therefore inextricably involved in processes of incorporation. To visualize their role is to foreground their materiality and function, thereby making visible the content-arena within the circuit.

The publication Blast provides a testing-ground for engaging this situation. Blast is a publication of contemporary art that is produced each year by the X-Art Foundation, an artmaking collective and nonprofit organization based in New York. Each issue is presented in a boxed container (called a "vehicle") - containing printed matter, computer programs, sound works, and objects - and distributed through bookstores and galleries. Yet each issue also incorporates live and online elements that disrupt and augment the publication's physical presence. A tension is maintained in this way between its "inside" and its "outside," and the editorial content is deflected into that tensional field. In this way, the boxed container, its content-elements, and the embodied reader/producer are connected in the circuits I have described, none of which cement the content into any particular medium. 

One of the "pages" we've experimented with in Blast is the Parangolé (after Oiticica). This structure is worn on the body and it changes in direct relation to bodily movements. It was inspired by the Parangol6s of the late Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, who created them in the 1960s and 70s in Brazil. The Parangolé gradually developed out of geometric painting, where, as Oiticica says, "everything which before was either background or support for the act and the structure of painting, transforms itself into a live element." For our purposes, one can also substitute "reading/writing" for "painting." Oiticica animated the artwork's surface elements, its structure, its space of interaction, and its modes of construction in a dynamic interplay of corporeal, social, and spatial relation, and Blast attempts to draw parallels to the construction of editorial. As Oiticica indicates, the work is no longer something in relation to which one stands, but becomes a circuit in which one is immersed: a "cycle of participation" in which viewer and viewed, "watcher" and "wearer," are enmeshed in circulatory, changing patterns. Like the surface of the interface, the Parangolé is softened and deepened through interaction: it draws the participant into the space of the work similar to the way the interface draws the participant into an alternate, hybrid space or situation. To "put on" the Parangolé or the interface (or the environment that seemingly lies behind it), then, is to combine body and technology in a process of incorporation, engaging bodies and social formations in a circuitous process of constructing and inhabiting space.

The Parangolés (after Oiticica) exist both in physical space and in the online environment of the MOO. Their pockets contain fragments of texts and maps, assembled and reassembled through direct movement of the body. They emphasize the relations I have described in physical space, within the MOO, and across the computer interface between the two realms, whose luminous color and geometries the Parangolé evokes. As such the computer screen or editorial page does not stand but flickers. It is as if these pages of Mute opened up, with one's arms wide, draw the body into the editorial process, the large sheets somehow "wearable," relativizing barriers between "sender" and "receiver" into a circuit which includes the body and inscribes its actions. When all elements are transformed as such, the paper fluctuates, like a flickering radio station disrupted by distance, atmosphere, movement. Such a structure draws out and foregrounds the content-arena and leaves open new possibilities for relations of production. The way that the Parangolé interface bears inscription - its fabric folds, its sounds, and the codes that it develops socially from being worn - introduces new forms of inscription into the arena and new symbiotic relationships between incorporation and inscription, which might be visible in the form of posture, hand movement, speech patterns, thought patterns, gender citations, and so on. As Homi Bhabha suggests, such a situation foregrounds the foreign' element that reveals the interstitial" - disjoining the unified surface and cascading it out in folds like Benjamin's royal robe. In its folds and wrinkles, the Parangolé embodies the 'unstable element of linkage' - the indeterminate temporality of the in-between, which provides the conditions for invention.

As "pages", then, such interfaces define the publication's editorial arena, which cannot be drawn with any certainty. Instead, its shifting coordinates can be mapped, its patterns studied. To resist resolving this multiplicity is to make the tension generative. Departing from the abstract structurality of circuits, perhaps the elements or formations of this new publication entity can be considered in terms of "scenarios." Such scenarios would root circuits in embodied life and prompt material formations, re-introducing the contextualizations and social relations that I omitted for the sake of illustrating this diagram. Such formations would allow active exchange across diverse disciplines: the circuits between inscription, incorporation, and interface can be seen in terms of, for example, performance (script, actor, and mutable proscenium) or art (signifying elements, creator and beholder, and the artwork's form). What is called for, then, is not only a radically excessive publicational entity that continually exceeds the bounds of closure, but one rooted in material life and one that actively forms such cross-disciplinary hybrids.