The Wattis Institute, San Francisco, USA
In his satirical novel I Hate the Internet (2016), Jarett Kobek writes: ‘You can’t stop the gears of capitalism. But you can always be a pain in the ass.’ How? We are alone, together, to use Sherry Turkle’s descriptor of online sociality, united in a shared willingness to click a user agreement and carry on, data that we are. Resistance to social media’s algorithmic regime isn’t futile so much as it is circumscribed and necessarily contingent: everything requires a password, and everywhere offers a cookie, tracking each click and share. In ‘Mechanisms’, a prickly, expansive group exhibition curated by Anthony Huberman at California College of the Arts’s Wattis Institute, a Bartlebian resistance to modern life’s prized efficiency (and trackability) is executed by a number of eclectic works. As the exhibition brochure states, these pieces ‘test existing systems with inefficient mechanisms, impossible tools and elaborate protocols that misalign outputs from their inputs.’
At the Wattis, the exhibition itself is one of the systems these works (each a kind of pain in the ass) disrupt through ‘acts of “mis-engineering”’, with the building a primary target. Cameron Rowland’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Constituent (2014) exposes a disconnected power outlet, ready to have its copper wires stripped, revealing, through a small incision in the museum’s body, one of the most sought after scrap metals for foragers of condemned buildings. In an adjacent room, Lutz Bacher’s Cyclops (2017) – a wall-mounted arrangement of 26 giant mirrored surveillance domes – underscores existing surveillance technologies while deranging the viewer’s understanding of how they are being watched by the institution. And, in another room, Louise Lawler’s large photo-print Formica (Adjusted to Fit, Distorted for the Times, Slippery Slope 1) (2017) offers a funhouse mirror-like distortion of a warped, enlarged gallery interior that confuses the relationship between the image and the space it occupies. Other works, including Neil Beloufa’s film on a co-ed party monitored by university math students, Desire for Data (2015), and Garry Neill Kennedy’s The Letter E (1980–2017), an ongoing installation of text works, each with the letter ‘e’ clipped in half, are considerably more playful and winking.
Several works in ‘Mechanisms’ direct their interventions at institutions and mechanized processes outside the gallery. Rowland’s Disgorgement (2016), a stark, documentary display of articles of incorporation and stock reports, stands in for the complex legal and financial framework an institution instantiates and relies on. For that piece, Rowland established a trust that indefinitely holds 90 shares in the insurance company Aetna, which profited historically from insuring the human property of slave owners. Should the federal government ever enact legislation to issue reparations to the descendants of slaves, the trust will terminate and the shares will be liquidated, with resulting assets granted to the agency in charge of redistribution. Rowland is unlikely to see returns. As the work’s accompanying wall text points out, the congressional reparations bill has consistently failed to receive enough sponsors to even make it to the floor since Representative John Conyers first introduced it in 1989. Disgorgement highlights the bureaucratic torpor that can arise from ‘working within the system’ rather than valorizing collective or individual action that would seek to undo it altogether.
After proofreading a large number of legal documents, Herman Melville’s Bartleby (a patron saint of ‘Mechanisms’?) declines to do any more work, repeatedly stating that he ‘would prefer not to’, much to the ire of his employers. Acts of passive refusal, such as Bartleby’s, frequently bring up ugly feelings: confusion, exhaustion, exasperation. Wrestling with inconvenience can be merely irritating or a means of limning the scope of a larger, troubling phenomenon. In the case of Disgorgement, what is more discomfiting: the passive resistance the piece sets in motion or the histories of profit and governmental inaction it draws attention to? ‘Mechanisms’ invites such questions even as it sometimes replies with a smirk or a shrug.
Main image: 'Mechanisms', 2017, installation view, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA. Courtesy: Wattis Institute, San Francisco; photograph: Johnna Arnold