Chris Domenick by Natasha Marie Llorens: From science to cyber-punk: an artist and a curator read his works via books.
While he works primarily in sculpture and large-scale drawings that read like sculpture, Chris Domenick also composes performative lectures that sketch a chain of associations between 30–50 images over the course of 15 minutes. These lectures are (perhaps) exercises in widening the viewer’s capacity for associative reading. They try to forge an understanding between materials, objects, images, and fragments of history. I didn’t get something basic about Domenick’s objects—their layered literacy—until I saw the lectures and watched him slide between reading surfaces.
There is no way to make the reader feel the vertigo of these lectures, nor to make visible in print the comparative work Domenick puts into his objects. Instead, we put together a reading/object list, another sort of exercise to expand the possibilities of thick analogies. We read together here, toward each other and objects. This kind of reading is also the work of our ongoing, regular studio visits and has developed over several years.
Chris Domenick: Someone recently recommended to me a book called Alongshore by a Yale professor of visual and environmental studies named John Stilgoe. The recommendation came after I was trying to articulate an interest of mine that has to do with the metaphysical (and physical) similarities between the beach and the desert. I had begun thinking of this comparison when I first saw the film The King of Marvin Gardens, from 1972, starring Jack Nicholson. Other films Nicholson had starred in (Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Passenger, and so forth) during that time are imbued with an American existential tone defined by a young white man’s search for meaning, particularly as that relates to landscape and space… In this film, Atlantic City is the collapsed American dream made manifest in near-abandoned architecture, leftover geriatric gamblers, and Coney Island–style theme parks. This is a unique moment in the history of Atlantic City: after its golden age of beachside resorts, and before Donald Trump and Steve Wynn’s baroque renaissance. The beach is a precipice of meaning. It is the edge. The boardwalk is the site of lurid indulgence for a classless people. The ocean symbolizes freedom and nature, where “culture” has yet to poison its purity. The beach is really the place on the edge of that freedom; it is the space between the land and the sea, which gives it a psychological elasticity. The movie becomes the story of the characters’ unraveling of idealistic fictions and psychological collapse. I was interested in this psychic map of histories, physicalities, and symbols. In my project Wet.Lobby.Luxor, I saw this series of points as a psychic framework to stretch and share material and conceptual interests I had been pursuing in regards to a trip that I had taken to Las Vegas.
Natasha Marie Llorens: In Alongshore, Stilgoe ruminates on a wide range of American literary fiction, including one of my favorite doomed-heroine stories: a novel by Kate Chopin entitled The Awakening. It is a book about a young woman’s struggle against her own sexuality. Ultimately she walks into the ocean and drowns herself because she cannot live without desire and there is no frame for hers in the nineteenth-century bourgeois milieu.
The narrative moments when she slips into lurid fantasies are excruciating in the same sense as many moments in The King Of Marvin Gardens are: it is very painful to watch characters who have fallen out of their frames as they flounder. The beach is a precipice of meaning, indeed, where the anachronistic go to catch the glimmer of immanence and where failed tropes go to die: the fast-talking double-dealing salesmen, the woman who used to be the young-thing-accessory-to-illicit-heroism but who is no longer young, the hopelessly-naive-young-thing-in-training who is fast outgrowing her naiveté. They are classless because they have been robbed even of this final coherence, not because they are taking refuge in an empty signifier whose purpose is to mask privilege.
Chris, you screened the movie in conjunction with the exhibition of Wet.Lobby.Luxor—a series of extremely precise objects that appear as though distilled from Marvin Gardens’s semiotic chaos: strange, dysfunctional things that were meant to secure people in frames. These objects are fully convinced that they embody the promise of the beach, and of the fall into meaning it makes possible.
CD: This is the falling in and out of frames, as it occurs physically and metaphorically. One exciting and terrifying perspective is that “things” are perpetually located within frames, and also are operating as frames themselves, containing other “things.” I’ve been whispering the word “metonymy” to myself for some time now as a liberating device that suggests non-hierarchical movement, one that structurally resembles a horizontally growing mode of representation. I have approached it from the inside, that is, microcosmically: one point of reference yields multiple points that continue to unfold, infinitely. I aspire to see, comprehend, and articulate the network from a broader view; but as I see it, more often than not, this happens in retrospect. This may be our mutual interest in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, as it is replete with characters moving indiscriminately through virtual and physical spaces.
One point of reference that arose during discussions of this pseudo-conversation, where we speak outward, as well as “toward” each other, is Gibson’s more recent novel Pattern Recognition, the premise of which hit home for me: a search for the “source” of viral video clips anonymously posted to the Internet that have spawned an online community and provoked the interest of corporate advertising agencies. Among many themes, one that dominates the book is the search for meaning through patterns, with characters making connections between seemingly random information: old recorded audio files, television clips, Internet videos, advertisements, and so on. Much of my studio practice revolves around forms and images that have an idiosyncratic relationship to their source, and to each other. Sources are material-specific, physical things. I’m interested in how “original” meanings dissipate through transmediation and leave their results troubled with the possibility of meaninglessness. This is a place where forms indiscriminately mingle between material states and disrupt expectations projected onto them through the reference points they inevitably carry. As in Pattern Recognition, the materiality exists independently from desire. Natasha, I’m curious how you understand this novel in regards to this conversation?
NML: It’s a novel about the structure of information in contemporary society. If your work is—very broadly speaking—about the way people and objects and sites and textures and signs fall in and out of legibility, then this plot reads to me like a digital equivalent to your experiments in physical material. Pattern Recognition is a post-cyber-punk (mystery) novel about video clips that people all over the world become utterly obsessed with, to the point that many feel the clips dream for them. Thousands develop an intense investment in these fragments of aesthetic narrative, fragments for which the interpretive frame is entirely absent. No one knows if the images compose a film, if they are historical or documentary, or if they are (simply) advertising. Like images that float to the surface of our minds arbitrarily as we sleep, the footage transfixes a subset of society. It makes them leak longing through the pages of Gibson’s novel—not for an original image, but for the freedom of the dream-state, the beach, the edge of meaning, where images are untethered. Pattern Recognition is a novel about the mind’s (human, animal) ability to translate visual information into coherent and live forms; to take a collection of feathers, skin, and hair and make of these features a face, a set of socio-psychic codes; to take a set of unrelated circumstances and make of them a crime thriller narrative, a love story, and an anti-capitalist diatribe. This is also the gesture of your drawings—to force the mind to make three, four, eight narratives that necessarily overlap and contradict from a collection of visual signs that are scratched onto a surface.
However: Are the material experiments empty of desire? I am not sure. I am thinking of the mauve vinyl sculpture in the show at Louis B James Gallery. I am thinking of the semi-circular orifice at about the level where such a form should have a mouth. I am thinking of the way it whispers its metonymic relationship to bodies and countertops and office furniture that had escaped orderliness. I recognize desire in this not-such body, perhaps one pattern among others.
CD: While I was making that mauve table/piece, titled Unit with Slip Center, I realized that I wanted an object with a hole in it and the sexual possibilities of that. Orifices ask to be filled by something. At the time, I wanted to disrupt the continuous surface and insert an absence, something a hand could fit into, and that operated as a decontextualized insignia: an upside-down misplaced shrunken mouth. It is a brand of desire manifested as seduction via tactility, engaged by the specific materiality (apart yet akin to their semantic presence) that accompanies that surface.
I’ve been making sculptures I call “Books” that are made from traditional book-making materials. These are irregularly-shaped covers with hand marbled endpaper “inside.” There are no pages. Their scale and materiality locate these works within the language of books. With this and other recent projects (one of my attractions to Formica is its implementation in spaces that can be touched yet remain clean, unsoiled…a sort of imbued repression of human interactivity), I want the works to operate in a space where touch is a strong desire, where physical seduction compounds their meaning. The books exist in a virtual space that lacks a physical manifestation; there is no table, no wall, no floor that could accommodate the context of these works. Their site is in our hands.
NML: So the book-things are analogies for our attraction to books, perhaps also to narrative.... Yes, they are only properly sited in our hands, with our fingers traversing them, unfolding them, tracing their seams. To me, they are also an analogy for what Jacques Derrida has called “acts of literature.” Such acts do not have political urgency because they tell a particular narrative, but rather because in producing an alternative they demonstrate the artificiality of existing narrative structures. It could be otherwise, they whisper. Let us tell you another story, let us tell this story anew. What is interesting about your books is that their whisper is so tactile, that they insist that acts of literature be acknowledged as ones sited in the body, in the curiosity of our fingers.
CD: There is the viewer’s touch (or the possibility of touch), and there is also the painter’s touch, or hand, and the over-mystification of this in the history of art. For me, the books use conventional craft techniques often marginalized in the art world. They are a sculptural proposal of how books operate within the systems in which they are encountered. Their quiet violence lies in their innate failure.
The “Diptych” series comes out of the books, insofar as a hinge physically connects several rigid panels. These works employ Formica as the functional surface that both covers the edges of the panels and connects the two by way of one continuous face. It is a literalizing of the space between two objects, activating what we would otherwise call a negative space. It also, for me, threatens where an object begins and ends. It’s interesting how rigidity and taughtness imply objecthood—and how, in turn, objecthood carries an Apollonian clarity of language.
I am interested in the process of arrangement in the studio, but I’m wary of how, when displayed, an object just sits on a surface, motionless. As a viewer, you are asked to project the metaphorical implications of an object that lives in a gallery—or any space we call an "art space." I’m always compelled to kick objects on the floor, or move a thing two inches to the right on the wall, to think about the fragility of metaphor and the thin space we walk between clear communication and obfuscation. These objects seemed to operate like a solution to that, an absurd display of the precision of the space between. The panels of the works are sometimes situated where two walls, or the floor and the wall meet, giving an architectural dimension to the sculptures.
NML : Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain … It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits. —Rem Koolhass, “Junkspace”
CD: The physical world is a series of misleading footnotes and hyperlinks. We scroll through landscapes navigating panoramas of information. Against my will, I complicate this experience with history: I grew up in the ’90s, in the suburbs. I’m partial to industrial faux surfaces that cover furniture and the walls of public spaces. Ruptures in uniform veneers meant to decorate speak to me. I enjoy diners, parking lots, cul-de-sacs, torn jeans, dirty siding, strip malls, playgrounds with cedar chips. I’m comforted by recognizing the idiosyncratic attempts to decorate facades by simulating nature. I’m struck by how even the “generic” carries its influences. There are the names of places where I lived: Hemlock Court, Victoria Crossing, Bradford Glen; all of these are meant to be located within the natural environment, or a British picturesque. Who is Victoria? —“Footnoting the Negative Space (And A Thesis Exhibition),” 2013
NML : “Junkspace” is a rant by the dubious and irresistible architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas. The first time I read it, I was sitting in a green lawn chair in a backyard in Somerville, Massachusetts, a not-quite suburb of Cambridge. Wearing a sundress. Drinking iced coffee. Riveted by his lack of decorum, marveling at how his vitriolic logic performed the vapid seamlessness he railed against (exalted?). Noticing, between sentence breaks, the dirty, too-bright yellow plastic siding of the house I was ostensibly living in. I did not usually grow up in the suburbs and suddenly here was a grammar to begin to articulate my unease at living among so many evacuated surfaces.
“Junkspace performs the same role as black holes in the universe: they are essences through which meaning disappears…”
“Junkspace” is not a theory of architecture. It is not even a theory of space. It is a theory of space’s semiotic death. Like the beach, precipice of meaning, the last refuge for those who cling (for whatever reason) to the illusion of essences. I do not suggest, Chris, that your forms illustrate this logic, just as they do not picture the beach; rather they refer obliquely to the dilapidated hotel on the beach where tropes sleep at night, the better to present themselves to it’s semiotic promise anew in the morning.
Your work “Diptych” series feels incredibly hopeful to me, a careful refusal that artificiality necessarily entails the disappearance of meaning, a careful refusal that it refers to something that was once natural, or had natural meaning. No such meaning, they seem to say. Not at the level of material, not at the level of form, not at the level of the frame. Something else, something as yet unthought.
Since facts always occur in a context, a particular lie—that is, a falsehood that makes no attempt to change the whole context-tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality. As every historian knows, one can spot a lie, by noticing incongruities, holes, or the junctures of patched-up places. As long as the texture as a whole is kept intact, the lie will eventually show up as if of its own accord. —Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics.”
CD : The relation between parts to whole is constantly present. If we accept a metonymic movement between forms, the process is perpetually transitioning between looking at a thing from above, and looking at a thing from within. This experience of the relationship of things is pushed into the studio and becomes a part of the modus operandi in the construction of an object. If an object can both propose a system of rules for a viewer, and simultaneously nurture ruptures to that system, it can embody an ideological tension that I’m interested in.
Tears, holes, junctures, cuts. All these physical operations have semantic associations and a certain relationship to truth which is generated by the suggested relationship between the subject and object. When a subject performs with/on an object, its factuality is compromised. If an object already contains that performed language within its making, it embodies the subject. A merging of subject and object.
This is where science fiction comes in, and with it the exciting redefinitions of subjectivity in alternate structures.
NML : This is where “acts of literature” comes in, whispering that it could be otherwise.
For more on Chris Domenick's work, visit his website.