first published in
Three Films/ Three Photographs
Fotohof edition Vol. 181, Salzburg, 2013.
Reconsidering: A Trick Without Context is a Gesture
From across the room, Mario Pfeifer’s Reconsidering 1611 S Boyd Street, St. Ana, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974 [mirrored] (2011) reveals two frames. One surrounds a print drawn from Lewis Baltz’s photo series, and is encased by a larger display, also of glass and brushed aluminum. When approached, the rectangle framing the image of 1611 S Boyd Street collapses, its ambiguous profile revealed as an extension of the printed monochrome image. The exterior metal frame and the interior one (produced by archival inkjet) extend the dialogue of flat, tiled planes reflected in Baltz’s 1974 series. The image from Baltz’s project presents the façade of a newly constructed industrial building with attention to the rigid geometries that form the building’s flat planes: a white prefabricated door is centered against corrugated sheet metal and a larger surrounding wall of concrete slab. Two black bands span the upper and lower edges of the image. A gas meter and a floodlight interrupt the photograph’s impeccable symmetry. In Pfeifer’s reframed piece, the image has been flipped horizontally— a correctional measure, as Baltz’s original photograph unknowingly mirrored the building’s actual appearance. Now the image reflects the site’s reality, but its added framing poses a quandary: how to continue “reconsidering” this original work, now with an added layer of photographic removal?
In 2011, Pfeifer’s project Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974, took on new form as a publication of critical essays and interviews. Its initial manifestation, in 2009, was a dual-projection 16 mm film. On April 10, 2011, a public panel discussion took place at LA><ART, Los Angeles, between artist and art historian Allan Sekula, curator Catherine Taft and Mario Pfeifer. It was moderated by Andrew Freeman. The discussion centered around Pfeifer’s Reconsidering project, with each participant’s contributions reflecting a specific position relative to the trajectory of Baltz’s and Pfeifer’s work. As a contemporary of Baltz, Mr. Sekula showed extensive knowledge of the American artist’s biography and the context surrounding the photographic project in the 1970s. Much of the critical questioning came from curator and critic Catherine Taft, who often responded with transhistorical knowledge of both Pfeifer’s and Baltz’s projects—specifically how Reconsidering (2009/2011) has developed through objects and discussions over time. Mario Pfeifer’s responses throughout the event continued his concerns of shared authorship and collaboration, the project’s reception, and the conversations surrounding his work which, in turn, create its context.
One of Pfeifer’s initial comments evinced a notable departure from Baltz’s original series. “The depiction of labor … absent in Lewis Baltz’s work is present in my film,” he said. In an untitled article published in 1974, Baltz listed the industries housed in the industrial parks he photographed: “aerospace, data processing and information storage, and leisure time industries, such as the fabrication of recreational vehicles and equipment.”1 The historical context coinciding with Pfeifer’s investigations and the specific fields of work the buildings originally housed are an appropriate pairing. As recent decades have marked the shift away from industrial labor towards a decentralized, service-based economy, these Southern Californian industrial parks appear to have originally housed the very fields whose products now characterize aspects of contemporary life. An emphasis on global mobility, social networking and cloud computing, and a vanishing distinction between work and leisure and the subsequent increase of “lifestyle” marketing have all become hallmarks of contemporary society. These conditions correlate with the industries listed by Baltz in 1974. In this respect, the work of both Pfeifer and Baltz highlights this trajectory, which has formed part of contemporary living. Reconsidering (2009) pans through the S Boyd Street buildings while laborers engage with rugged, indiscernible light-industry machinery and the sounds of sawing, torching, and other mechanical instruments echo in the background. Pfeifer’s filmic inclusions of labor call to mind the matter of work itself: as a creative worker, the artist’s display of factory operations contrasts with the immaterial conditions under which artists and art workers perform today. The rooted, local references noted by the factory owner James Billington conjure a very different scenario from the current international migration of art workers between global sites and the increase in temporary, precarious employment. Outside of art and its global apparatus, one can read press coverage noting decreased factory production, cuts in labor, and the cessation of site operations altogether. Pfeifer’s dual-projection 16 mm film gestures towards both the beginning of a productive mode (by leafing through Baltz’s original 1974 publication) and reflects its entropic shift: the S Boyd Street interiors, with scattered objects throughout and apparent signs of age, conjure an inverse scenario to Baltz’s untouched façades. All of this is revealed at a time when industrial labor, in the US and elsewhere, is experiencing its own forms of austerity. In Pfeifer’s 2011 publication Baltz, a Southern California native, expresses the dissonance between the industrial parks’ progressive concept and his personal vision:
“The county [of Orange] had been transformed from a sparsely populated archipelago of small cities with an agricultural economy to the biggest real estate development in California. It had acquired a university, four million people, and one of its own had been elected President. It was hailed by its developers as the fulfillment of the American Dream. As you can clearly see from the photo-graphs I made, I thought it was a nightmare.”2
As Baltz’s words make their way into Pfeifer’s publication, the apparent continuity between the two artists’ projects seems to be mutually consensual—a topic explored by moderator Andrew Freeman at the April 2011 discussion panel: “Given the conditions of appropriation, given the conditions of the piece that you made, what do you think the strategy of your process reveals?” Appropriation as a strategy did not fuel extended conversation, but Pfeifer ultimately responded to notions of authorship saying, “It was intriguing for me to use a shared authorship to conceive this piece.” The artist’s approach to taking on a project of notable art historical value as a source, without considering the act as appropriation but rather as a piece of shared authorship, is another quality that places Pfeifer’s project within a contemporary context. It’s clear that in Pfeifer’s work, Baltz is nearly everywhere: the California artist’s 1974 Image magazine article is republished in Reconsidering (2011) and Baltz’s original publication, The new Industrial Parks (1974) is presented throughout Pfeifer’s dual-channel film installation. At LA><ART, Andrew Freeman asserts to Pfeifer, “Baltz’s presence … [is] linked to your reiteration.” Indeed, Baltz reappears consistently, although defining his presence as appropriation limits the potential for “reconsideration.” Pfeifer’s strategy suggests an effort to put Baltz’s work back into play as a primary source without subverting its original context, as many works rooted in appropriation strategically accomplish. Pfeifer later responds, saying the strategy of the project “was actually to follow many contributors and collaborators,” calling Baltz a “great collaborator and point of departure.” A look at the artist’s use of titles and credits poignantly marks this shift towards an archival, citational approach that recognizes appropriation tactics themselves as standard operations. The title of Pfeifer’s 2009 film installation contains the complete title of Baltz’s project, in-cluding the year it was produced, to frame the 1974 work as an entity being “reconsidered.” Far from being an offhand gesture, the act re-presents a methodical effort both to establish a shared authorship and frame a discussion rooted in historical continuity. As further evidence, the final page of the artist’s 2011 publication is an extensive list of collaborators, designers, editor’s notes, and acknowledgements—a decentralized approach to authorship that contrasts with an otherwise unified understanding of one artist appropriating another’s work. In a broader context, Pfeifer’s thorough disclosure of collaborators and sources suggests today’s emphasis on gestures of transparency within corporate and political modes of production. (Whether these efforts function as a window, or act as a screen, remains to be seen.) Returning to the work, Pfeifer’s structural understanding of authorship is lateral and community-based, and relies on social networks and existing archival material to produce new meaning. This dispersal of the authorial role is further emphasized by discursive events surrounding the project, such as the conversation at LA><ART.
The consequence of Pfeifer’s work with collaborators before and after the project’s exposition is a shift in focus from production towards circulation and reception.With regard to photographic archives Allan Sekula wrote that “it is clear that photographic meaning depends largely on context,” and that “within the archive meaning exists in a state that is both residual and potential.”3 Similar to the reframed photographic work described earlier, Pfeifer’s Reconsidering (2011) publication recontextualized the 2009 film by arranging production and film stills with newly produced textual discourse. Through each different form, the Reconsidering project and Baltz’s 1970s imagery recirculate and receive additional context (this essay is implicated as well). Lewis Baltz’s original project has invited reconsideration in part through its mysteriously flat, direct nature. In Reconsidering (2011) Vanessa Joan Müller states how “from today’s perspective we notice an almost calculated incoherence of subject and pictorial aesthetic …
The mostly windowless factory buildings were erected as gigantic speculation objects … and no single element is accentuated [in Baltz’s photographs] more than another.”4 Surely, the speculative nature of the buildings has made its way into their representations and eventual flow of circulation. The unadorned aesthetic in Baltz’s depictions lays the groundwork for their interpretation, and Pfeifer’s 2011 publication re-enlivened such critical context when Chris Balaschak revisited Allan Sekula’s response to the 1975 New Topographics exhibition: “ For Sekula, the ambiguous documentary style of these photographers is due to the ‘absence of the human figure.’”5 Sekula later responded to this reference at LA><ART, calling Baltz “sort of a trickster.” All of this conversation from and around the project exemplifies Pfeifer’s continued relationship with context and demonstrates how the artist uses it as a medium to extend his work. The potential that Pfeifer sees within Baltz’s now itinerant images is reflected in a tweet by Dutch design and research studio Metahaven: “Tumblr [the image-blogging social media site] is a permanent utopia of floating images, which precisely because of their lack of purpose become full of potential purpose.”6 The “floating” nature of Tumblr is due to its content’s digital format, while Reconsidering (2009/2011) gives the Baltz archive potential for exchange by reintroducing it across multiple formats and audiences. Unlike the analogue 16 mm format of his dual-projection film, Pfeifer’s mirrored, aluminum-framed photograph is produced through purely digital means. The artist’s strategy involved framing and photographically reproducing a Lewis Baltz digital sample, then flipping the image in postproduction before printing it and remounting the inkjet image. The work’s production required little more than a staged photo shoot and a few clicks of a mouse, epitomizing today’s shift away from material labor towards a decentralized, outsourced approach. If the camera’s most technical moment is its exact reproduction of objects, Pfeifer’s lens takes hold of photography’s roots as a documentary apparatus. However, now, the document produced is a trace, a signal of an artifact that was always already facsimile. By mirroring Baltz’s photograph, Pfeifer positions an image at the crossroads of local and art historical longevity: it correctly depicts 1611 S Boyd St as one would see it in reality, while departing from its art historical referent that was always larger than life. Baltz’s New Industrial Parks series was consistently mounted in its fifty-one-photo entirety. Here, the artist has removed the image from its larger context to produce a work of progressive singularity. Pfeifer has reinserted Lewis Baltz’s work today with fresh potential and compelling ambiguity, a gesture worthy of consideration.
1 “Untitled,” Lewis Baltz, 1974. Image, vol. 17, no. 2 ( June 1974)
2 Lewis Baltz and Mario Pfeifer, “An E-mail Conversation,” Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine California by Lewis Baltz, 1974, ed. Mario Pfeifer (New York/Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), p. 67.
3 Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive: Photography between Labor and Capital,” Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (London: Sage Publications, 1999), p. 445.
4 Vanessa Joan Müller, “Between Representation and Reality: Reflections on a Film Installation by Mario Pfeifer,” Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks, p. 83.
5 Chris Balaschak, “New Worlds: Lewis Baltz and a Geography of Aesthetic Decisions,” ibid. p. 53.
6 Metahaven (mthvn), Tweet, Jan. 23, 2013, 2:44 p.m.