Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â There is no place like home
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â K. Malcolm Richards
â€œWe are taking the strange, the un-home-like, as that which casts us out of the â€˜homely,â€™ i.e. the customary, familiar, secure. The un-homely prevents us from making ourselves at home and therein it is overpowering. But man is the strangest of all, not only because he passes his life amid the strange understood in this sense but because he departs from his customary, familiar limits, because he is the violent one, who tending toward the strange in the sense of the overpowering, surpasses the limit of the familiarâ€¦.not only that in so doing he is a violent one striving beyond his familiar sphere. No, beyond all this he becomes the strangest of all beings because, without issue on all paths, he is cast out of every relation to the familiarâ€¦.without city and place, lonely, strange, and alienâ€¦Man embarks on the groundless deep, forsaking the solid landâ€¦.he abandons the place, he starts out and ventures into the preponderant power of the placeless waves.â€?- Martin Heidegger
Â Â Â Â Place brings with it a non-place, a place for displacement, a somewhere else that is marked as not being â€˜here.â€™ Like the â€˜here and now,â€™ always marked by some place not here and some time not â€˜now,â€™ but in a past or a future yet to come, a place has the potential to say something, if not everything, about an individual. Place bears on an individualâ€™s identity with or to a location, shifting as those locations and identities may or may not be. It is from a negotiation between place and identity that the visual and textual negotiations of Brian Spies may be seen as embarking. Of course, it can also be argued that his work starts with the institutional framing that comes to determine the normative self, the way this self is always already a product of institutional framings from family to school and from mass culture to the psychiatric ward. Canâ€™t Find My Way Home presents the newest project by Spies. Beginning from personal research into the activities of fracking taking place in his hometown of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, this research developed into and became part of his newest work. As presented here, the work encompasses a series of photographs, redacted newspaper articles, and a web site. The resulting images and texts raise a number of important questions about the economics, politics, and environmental concerns that come to impact the rural fringes of the twenty-first century, while also showing a subtle and sensitive negotiation with the aesthetic traditions of the recent past that his work addresses.
Â Â Â Â In particular, Spies extends his engagement with what Benjamin Buchloh terms the â€˜administrative aestheticsâ€™ of 1970s conceptual art. His research methods, photo documentation, and archiving of material evidence build upon the tradition established by artists such as Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, and others. Reflecting their social consciousness and activism, Spies uses twenty-first century means to document and expose the mechanisms of power that exert material force upon the marginalized within society. His web site not only extends his work beyond the gallery walls, it also facilitates access to the information that he has documented. Building on the possibilities of the archive, Spies is able to present in the physical gallery space pertinent examples from his documentation to suggest the power lurking within the virtual place of his archival site. Doing so sets up a relationship that does not overwhelm the viewer immediately, something that would be quite easy to do given the extent of Spiesâ€™ research and the scope of his subject, almost too immense to comprehend, while, at the same time, all too easy to comprehend in a culture of natural resource spoliation. As with his conceptual predecessors, there is a use of the formal devices of institutions to expose the workings of these very institutions. In drawing upon the media, Spies analyzes everything that is hidden by what the media tries to â€˜reveal,â€™ offering a voice to those silenced when the media â€˜speaks.â€™
Â Â Â Â There are additional sources for the aesthetics set in motion by the photographs included in Canâ€™t Find My Way Home. While serving as documents, at one level, they simultaneously bear a relation to the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers brought out the formal similarities and differences between kindred industrial structures, presenting their series of photographs in grids accentuating the marks of identity and difference these structures bear. Simultaneously documentary, formalist, and ruminations on landscape and progress, their work opens up terrain that has been investigated further by contemporary artists. Sharing a focus on the industrial presence in the landscape, Spiesâ€™ photographs also engage with the larger tradition of landscape, as well as the use of landscape as a genre to reflect on and against technological progress. Certainly, the larger ethical issues that Spiesâ€™ work raises relate intimately to the work of another artistic couple from the 1970s, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, while also engaging the contemporary ethical imperative seen in the will to expose powerâ€™s mechanizations, as seen in the work of Alfredo Jaar, Tania Bruguera, and Doris Salcedo, to name a few. Still, on another level, Spiesâ€™ work addresses the aesthetics of the picturesque that haunt the landscape genre from the eighteenth century to the present. Aware of the Romantic fantasy of a pantheistic communion with nature, Spies shows a strong awareness of the dangers of such facile myths within a world marred by corporate interests. Our blind faith in an eternal nature blinds us to the temporal traces of its ruination by the forces permitting the existence of â€˜advancedâ€™ society.
Â Â Â Â If the framing of the landscape by the photographic eye bears one trace of Spiesâ€™ artistic intervention, the redacted newspaper articles bear an even more seemingly immediate trace of the artistâ€™s hand. Yet, these authorial marks continue a duplicitous relation between aesthetics and documentation, the chiasmic relation between the aesthetics of documentation and the documentation of aesthetics that his images set in motion. Through the use of redaction, an authorial voice emerges, one that is all too easy to ascribe to the artist, but, rather, should be treated more akin to the relational logic between narratorâ€™s voice and author in fiction. That is to say, while there is an autobiographic moment of great potential at play here (this is, after all, the artistâ€™s hometown), there is also a potential voice that represents any individual impacted by or following these far from isolated cases. (The story of fracking is well laid out in the documentary Gasland (2010, director: Josh Fox), while the subject of big oil has been the focus of numerous documentaries, including Crude Impact (2006, director: James Jandak Wood).) In other words, his written marks function in a manner similar to the language and script of William T. Willeyâ€™s multiple voices or Robert Arnasonâ€™s vox populi. Giving a voice to the marginalized, the artist as marginalized, the space of the margins allows for a voice of moral outrage, of disbelief, of not wanting to believe. The framing space of the margins provides a place, tenuous as it is, for a supplemental voice, the voice of the other, of the marginalized, to speak. The voice that speaks from this margin is never just one, never simply the artist/authorâ€™s, but always n+1, the reader already bringing voice again to these words, adding a voice. Simultaneously singular and plural, these supplemental words, added on by the artistâ€™s hand, reflecting aesthetic decisions in form and color, bear great power in representing powerlessness, a powerlessness that is not even aware of its powerlessness. As the voice questions rhetorically concerning rhetoric, â€œWhich Pennsylvanians?,â€? Spies activates a space where the framing devices of corporate media representation become apparent. Taking on the role of supplemental journalist, the artist as investigator offers a voice to questions perhaps not apparent to even the primary journalist.
Â Â Â Â These minimal marks, the one space where there is a trace of a hand, are set amidst the quasi-objective fonts and tropes of mass journalism, an authorless voice whose authority potentially delimits the readerâ€™s understanding of the framing activities at work. It looks like the news, but with a trace of difference. Juxtaposed next to the trace of a photographic eye/I, the selection and editorial supplementation of newspaper articles provide the space of authorial presence, minimal as it may seem. Yet, the restraint of these artistic marks also bears a recognition of the impossibility of representation to ever encompass such devastation, so many forms of devastation, in a singular, whole representation. In this fashion, the works presented in Canâ€™t Find My Way Home continue Spiesâ€™ exploration of the tension between formal constraint and excessive content, between a message too violent to be communicated and forms too sensitive to bear such violence, between a signified violence materialized in delicate signifiers and violent signifiers framed by innocuous ornamentation. Of course, such an experience should cause a certain amount of dis-ease in the viewer and exposure to such work is not a matter of becoming inoculated from the dis-ease, but to recognize the disease and the environmental impact of the continuation of a reliance on a limited natural resource. The urban and suburban modes of living that these technologies developed in the twentieth-century are now leading to the ruination of rural communities whose disappearance is marginalized in the spectacle of twenty-first century society.Â
Â Â Â Â Lastly, not to return the work back to an authorial and authoritative self, still, it is worth mentioning, nonetheless, the way that Spiesâ€™ minimal marks and simultaneously exhaustive research are additionally remarkable given that what he is documenting and representing, representing while documenting and documenting while representing, is the material evidence of the devastation of his hometown, of the place he knew and knows and that industry â€œnoâ€™s,â€? negates. Even identity is negated as a corporation becomes a town and a people become impoverished. The hand that giveth always taketh back and then some. The economics and the fallout from these economics of spolia ruin more than just the land. If Spiesâ€™ previous work explored through more direct forms his own personal history as subject matter, here, still, in his most restrained and aesthetically sophisticated work to date, he maintains a personal narrative set amongst the larger social, economic, environmental, and aesthetic narratives at stake, while building ways for the viewer to enter into the work and dialog, to give the viewer space to appreciate what has been lost and room to experience the extent of this loss at their own virtual dis-comfort or avoid it at their own material risk.
Â Â Â Â What remains hidden, always, on the edge of representation, impossible to represent, yet always already presented as an image, re-presented, the signs of devastation always present an (im)possible task for artist and viewer. Brian Spiesâ€™ work resists the seductions of the image for the limits of representation, demonstrating a sensitivity through process, through documenting, editing, and leaving traces of a careful attention to detail, of questioning and questing for the (im)possible, a visual form adequate to the demands of bearing witness and baring witnesses. Demand of justice, but just for us? No, always other, demand justice for the other, even the self as other. Demand to be just. Demand a place just to be.Â
â€œThat is why the call for justice is never, never fully answered. That is why no one can say â€˜I am just.â€™ If someone tells you â€˜I am just,â€™ you can be sure that he or she is wrong, because being just is not a matter of theoretical determination. I cannot know that I am just. I can know that I am right. I can see that I act in agreement with norms, with the law. I stop at the red light. I am right. That is no problem. But that does not mean that I am just.â€?- Jacques Derrida