"How to Look at Television"
by Christina Ritchie
Catalogue essay for "Everything is Interesting" - 2014
Published by Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in collaboration with Blackwood Gallery, the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Kenderdine Art Gallery, and the Cambridge Galleries, Canada.


It comes as no surprise that television has frequently served as a source and reference for Kelly Mark’s work. In a practice that revels in upending common perceptions of the everyday world, television is prototypical and ubiquitous, the epitome of banality. As readymade, as medium, or as a catalogue of genres, Mark has put her engagement with television to good use is such works as Prime Time (2000), Glow House (2001) and Glow Video Installations: Horror, Suspense, Romance, Porn, Kung-fu (2005). More recently, with REM (2007) Mark exploits the narrative impulses of her habitual channel-surfing.

Premiered in the exhibition “Stupid Heaven” at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in Toronto, REM takes the form of a feature-length movie presented on a television in various “living room” settings. The movie, a little over two hours long, is the product of Mark’s television watching over a four month period during the summer of 2007. Following a few simple rules and procedures, (1) she recorded about 170 films from TV, including a few re-runs of classic TV shows, slicing and dicing them to assemble REM. It includes station logos and program intros; notices about nudity, language, violence and that the material has been modified for television viewing; and extensive credits for producers and stars (though the only editor noted is Richard Marks, ACE). 

Theodor Adorno, whose title I’ve borrowed for this text, (2) was among the first theorists to develop a thorough critique of mass media. Along with other Frankfurt School theorists, he demonstrated how television used commodity logic, standardized formats and common stereotypes to impose social norms and maintain the status quo according to the interests of political and economic elites. Developed in tandem with the initial rise of television, this critique maintained that television served to integrate the working classes into consumer society, patterning their daily behaviors and beliefs, keeping viewers passive both physically and psychologically. While this critique may be at some historical distance from Mark’s position, even in the era of 500 channels, reality TV and Youtube it continues to shape contemporary media studies. It is an apt allusion to the working class posture that Mark maintains throughout her work, and for the gesture of resistance tha REM manifests.

Specifying the setting in which her movie will be viewed, Mark insists on the corporeal experience of TV. In Toronto,REM was presented in four adjoining room-like settings, each composed of TV and stand, sofa, coffee table, rug, ashtray and clock. Assembled from cast-offs and thrift stores, they had something of the retro chic of working class living rooms, not fancy but serviceable and almost stylish. (In Vancouver there were two identical settings, 100% Ikea. Other settings may vary.) The clock is stopped at 4:05, perhaps to suggest the notion that time itself seems frozen in the thrall of TV. (3) Or perhaps Mark wants to suggest that there is something in the experience of watching REM that goes beyond the mere physical endurance of time spent. These rooms, however composed, assert a domestic social space, an affirmation that whatever experience occurs here is potentially a shared experience. This opens up the dynamic of exchange, the potential for a conversation.

Mark starts from the self-evident principle that being engaged in your everyday environment means that you actually have to pay attention to all the mundane details that make up your everyday experience. REM exploits fully the standardized formats and stereotypes of popular media. Despite its disparate sources, its persistent genre-jumping and frequent interruptions for ads, the movie seems to make a certain kind of sense. A character in one film lights a cigarette and then another character in another film takes a puff, or a series of scenes show a series of characters laughing or running or lying in bed, or a chatty guy in a pick-up is replaced by another chatty guy in another pick-up. The hooks may be gestural, scenographic or narrative but they all keep the story moving along, or sort of anyway. Rather than the fragmented attention span that critics like Neil Postman declare to be one of the harmful effects of television viewing (4), Mark has focused rigourously on the discontinuities and cuts, the pace, characters and storylines of her summer’s worth of viewing, and distilled their similarities into a quasi-coherent narrative. It may be no less insipid than the source material she started with but it has equal power to command a state of absorption from the viewer.

Montreal filmmaker Olivier Asselin describes narrative as “a category of understanding which allows us to feel and think.” (5) In this light,REM shows and tells the distinct ways in which the artist has used the tropes of television to feel and think through her experience of television. By this, Mark positions herself in the line of critical inquiry extending from Adorno, while building a crucial distance from the normative narratives of television. That this distance is cloaked in self-conscious humour, easy laughs like the identity of the editor, for example, puts Mark far from the psychological and cognitive impairment described in the classic critique. We are reminded thatREM is debuted in the context of an exhibition called “Stupid Heaven.” The pleasures of television may indeed be stupid, but not mindless; they might induce a timeless catatonic state, but that state may indeed be blissful, like stupid heaven.

(1) Mark’s rules were that she could not consult a program guide or otherwise plan what she would watch, and she had to find her opening and closing scenes on her first night of viewing. Further than that, she would watch and selectively record from 8pm until 4 or 5 pm for three or four days in a row, then sort and edit the captured material for another two or three days, alternating between watching and editing throughout the summer. 

(2) T.W. Adorno, “How to Look at Television,” originally published in The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, Vol. VIII (Spring, 1954), and subsequently in The Culture Industry (Routledge, London, 1991).

(3) The clock stopped at 4:05 is also a reference to the final scene in REM, a clip from “Living in Oblivion – 1955” picturing Steve Buscemi waking from a nightmare and looking at his digital alarm clock, which reads 4:05 AM. In fact there are numerous time signatures in REM and they appear in linear sequence, as if the action of the movie occurred over the course of a single day.

(4) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, New York, 1986).

(5) Olivier Asselin (can’t find citation)

- Christina Ritchie

 

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"Everything Is Interesting" by Jonathan Watkins
Catalogue essay for "Everything is Interesting" - 2014
Published by Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in collaboration with Blackwood Gallery, the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Kenderdine Art Gallery, and the Cambridge Galleries, Canada.


Indeed, at one point, we were strongly urged to call the exhibition “Everything is Interesting” …
                                                Susan Ferleger Brades, Preface, Facts of Life

I made my first trip to Canada in November 1997. At the same time Elton John was touring the country, and it was amazing how many people mistook me for him. English accent and glasses. Late one night in a bar in Ottawa the resident pianist struck up the first few bars of Rocket Man with an idea that I would burst into song; my insistence on not being Elton John was met with a camp-conspiratorial “Of course you’re not, Mr John”.

Travelling from west to east, trawling as artistic director of the next year’s Biennale of Sydney, I had accumulated a lot of Canadian experiences by the time I got to Toronto. There I met Kelly Mark for lunch – two days after my unwitting Elton John impersonation - and I remember us being in a shopping mall laughing, swapping notes on this and that, developing a running commentary on the variety we saw happening around us. Vulgar things. Innocuous things. Graceful things. “Everything is interesting”, Kelly Mark said, definitely not in some portentous way, but as a throwaway line. For me, it was one of those epiphany things.

The work by Kelly Mark that we showed in Sydney – including drawings that wasted all the graphite in Castell pencils, sets of domestic lightbulbs that consumed thousands of hours and watts of electricity, and planks of hemlock wood that had been bashed together a thousand times – could not have been more poignant vis à vis the theme of my Biennale. Every Day. I was interested in the fascination of the unremarkable, essentially; that and the difference made by time passing, embodied in the succession of every day. Having mustered up some polemical energy, in my catalogue essay I argued against “played-out operatic tendencies and an overloaded academic (often pseudo-academic) discourse in [current visual arts practice]”. On the other hand, for me, there was Kelly Mark.

Around the corner of the Biennale office – in a Sydney district that glories in the name of Woolloomooloo – was a pub with a pool table. Every night, artists and organisers resorted to this place to talk through the progress and the problems that inevitably beset large international exhibitions. I will never forget Kelly Mark’s first time there. Soon after her arrival she fronted up to the pool table (I think wearing a red checked flannelette shirt) and proceeded to thrash all challengers, game after game. This sporting achievement, foiled by the artist’s understated panache, was breathtaking.

The Biennale came and went. I was back in the UK in time for the new millennium, with the words “everything is interesting” often recurring in my mind. It was like a mantra. When commissioned to make an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art for the Hayward Gallery (2001), and the question of a title cropped up, the answer seemed obvious to me. Everything is Interesting. Its recommendation of our meticulous attention to all kinds of detail, and a certain no-nonsense zen-ish-ness too, made it, well, just so Japanese …

The marketing department of the Hayward didn’t like it. Maybe, they explained, critics will abuse such a title when writing reviews – viz. “yes, everything is interesting, except this exhibition”. Instead we landed eventually on Facts of Life, but not without my sharing with some friends, garrulously, the story of our wrangling over a title. The British artist Graham Gussin – whose philosophical position is not a million miles away from that of Kelly Mark – asked me if he could use “everything is interesting” instead as the title for an exhibition he was in the process of organising. I said no, that I was saving it up.

This was a bit rich, especially as Kelly Mark had remained unconsulted. Before too long, in 2002, I was making another trip through Canada (east to west) and one of the first things planned was a reunion with her in Toronto. We met, sentimentally, in a pool hall - King (or Queen) Street, West – and caught up with each others’ news. She told me about her recent work, including the Letraset drawings, then being shown nearby at the Wynick/Tuck Gallery. She showed me the tattoo on her arm for the first time, the one which is added to (prison-cell-style) with the passing of every birthday. We talked about the cocktail parties she liked to throw, her cat Roonie, and, as ever, her enthusiasms for the work of other artists. I recounted the recent manœuvrings in London around “everything is interesting”. It turned out that Kelly Mark too was rather fond of the ring of these words and felt, understandably, that perhaps it was now time for her to assert some rights of authorship.

That night, as we played pool, the plot was hatched for a sequence of projects by Kelly Mark, under the umbrella title, Everything is Interesting. It would happen in Birmingham, in and around Ikon Gallery where I was now based, during the following spring.  Drinks, possibly, the jetlag; vaguely I remember winning a game or two. Unforgettable, on the other hand, was that night’s soundtrack of heavy metal hits, the playlist of a nice guy behind the bar. A far cry from the Elton-John-mellowness of Ottawa, this thumping music struck me at the time as being a good augury, especially as Birmingham is in the heartlands of British heavy metal.

Kelly Mark’s work at Ikon included a video featuring Roonie, aforementioned cat, on a sofa, sandwiched between two loudspeakers blaring out the sound of Black Sabbath. He was fast asleep, a picture of tranquillity, absolutely unaffected by this drug-fuelled local music of the devil. Off-site, we presented the artist’s extraordinary Glow House. Through the careful placement of fifty TV sets, turned on and tuned in to the same channel after dark, a large suburban house was transformed into a pulsating lantern, a weird drive-by moment for thousands on the Wake Green Road. Back in the gallery building, on the staircase winding down to the entrance, visitors’ footsteps coincided with I Really Should, the artist’s recorded litany of things to do: “I really should get more sleep”, “I really should stop to smell the roses”, “I really should keep in touch”, “I really should go to the dentist soon”, “I really should leave my body to science” et cetera.

To this day, there are plastic bags available with purchases from our shop inscribed with a Birmingham version of I Really Should: “I really should risk a drive on Spaghetti Junction”, “I really should just stop while I’m ahead”, “I really should fight to save Moseley Baths”, “I really should get another tattoo”, “I really should avoid Broad Street at night when I’m sober”, “I really should stop letting Jonathan beat me at pool” et cetera.

Also, as part of the same brave new marketing strategy, Ikon produced lapel badges declaring, with lower-case black-on-white modesty, that “everything is interesting”. They were very popular in Birmingham at the time we embarked on our Kelly mark adventure, and every year since then we seem to be ordering another batch of a thousand or so. Not infrequently I see someone – on the tube, in a queue waiting for a taxi, in a café – wearing one of our badges. It’s nice to see the artist’s message of philosophical scepticism, and optimism, out and about. I really should let her know how much it means to me.

- Jonathan Watkins

 

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Introduction by Barbara Fischer
Catalogue essay for "Everything is Interesting" - 2014
Published by Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in collaboration with Blackwood Gallery, the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Kenderdine Art Gallery, and the Cambridge Galleries, Canada.


Visiting Kelly Mark’s studio at the bottom of Tecumseth Street in Toronto – the abattoir district, and one of the city’s last remaining artist studio buildings – was to immerse in a small space, dense with a careful arrangement of art storage, loft bed and shower, kitchen and working space with sofa and cat, in which there are also shelves stacked with CDs, books, bottles of scotch, and a punch clock that flashes up and rings with a hard clang in one-hour intervals.

The punch clock has accompanied Mark’s working life as an artist since 1997, and the work titled In & Out, is the monumentally conceived evidence. In its exhibition form, the piece consists of several steel racks with hundreds of time cards bearing the stamps of the time that Mark has punched in and out. The racks comprise weekly logs for each year, from 1997 to the present (and Mark has pledged to continue to the official retirement age of 65). In a proto-Conceptual manner, In & Out commits artistic creativity to mechanical process, biography to administrative system, and life to “file.”

With its indexical preoccupation, In & Out, mimics industrial or service-sector shift work, but measures instead the capricious durations of the working life of an artist. The hardcore Conceptualist format, that grey-in-grey of the file, unexpectedly returns something of the unpredictability of “life,” especially the particular condition of the artist’s studio. In fact, the tension between formal methods of time management and the interval – the time and duration between – underlies much of Mark’s interests (the way in which, in the complex flux of durations, life is lived).

This book, and the circulating exhibition that initiated it, sets out to document the rich array of Mark’s preoccupations and interests with time. While organized around media – drawings, video, photography, sculpture, etc. – the works’ underlying and overlapping chronologies trace shifting concerns and ricocheting interests partially inflected by the saturated landscape of media and signs upon which they draw. The earliest works are concerned with processes mechanically performed: Mark would set herself a task – charged with the pathos of uselessness such as counting the grains of salt in a saltshaker – and follow it through methodically, thereby echoing an industrial mode that found its appropriate counterpoint in the concerns of Minimalism, process art, and early Conceptualism. Here the idea was “a machine,” such as evidenced in a series of early sculptures and drawings that were made by setting a graphite pencil to paper and drawing tight, spiraling circles until the graphite was gone. The material is consumed by mechanical execution, and the artist’s time – invisible yet ensconced – becomes its aura.

Mark’s more recent focus has shifted from the tautological nature of “a work made by time spent working,” and the compaction of time within the mark-making, to frame the poignant actions of others and the residual flotsam of the everyday. The Conceptual format becomes an indexical medium, taking account of a particular, observed phenomenon, whether repetitious or unpredictable in nature. A series of photographs reports on the way in which desperate people have affixed, with great ingenuity and creativity, comedic notices on broken parking metres, seeking to avert ticketing. Notably, the new, more efficient sun-powered devices now in operation everywhere no longer allow for grey zones of freedom granted by mechanical failure. The administration of time, as to be expected in our culture, has hardened its grip, and creative forms of “talk-back” are disappearing. Throughout, Kelly’s low-key attitude and slow-burn resistance to the abstract administration of time is registered precisely against its systems. Sometimes suspension in the automation performance of a task, the absorption within it, suggest a preferred mode of being – the task that requires no thought at all allows thought to take its own course, into daydreams perhaps. Within the stupid there lies heaven – as the title of the circulating exhibition suggested. At other times, Mark short-circuits the obsession with achievement, such as in her reiterations of the sentence “I really should…”, the ellipsis of which betrays procrastination or the ever deferred Ideal. Indexing the innumerable ways that define what one indeed should do, an audio-track fills in the elliptical blanks of I Really Should… to the point of sheer excess. If obligation is bound-up in social structures (family, health, work), to refuse it (by procrastination or resistance) casts doubt on their values and diligent striving. Such existentialism underlies much of Mark’s humour, as when an orchestrated demonstration puts an end to the historical, conventional form of social protest demands: in front of a gallery’s black-tie fundraising event, a group of artist friends bearing blank placards declare, “What do we want… NOTHING!” and “When do we want it… NOW” and “Hell no… We don’t know.”

Watching television is perhaps the greatest means of contemporary distraction and procrastination. It is also the greatest tool of time management and immersive pleasure ever devised. If television constructs and dominates “Free” time, it has substantially altered the once “natural” pulse of day and night, waking and sleeping, by absorbing its audience into an interstitial day-dreaming, time-eating, surreal time. The installation REM (2007) (1), part of her recent multi-leveled focus on the glow and narrative structures of television, is nothing short of a tour de force, featuring a movie that illuminates the experience of channel-surfing television time. An encyclopedic array of segments are taken from television, edited, and strung together to create a new full-length “feature,” complete with title warnings, ads, network logos, and credits. The story follows a protagonist who seeks to escape the law, and who changes shape like an avatar, appearing with each edit in the body of a different actor. He (and through him the audience) perpetually loses and regains track of where he is – whether in a dream, asleep, awake or in a drug-induced state. These states are not only the means of narrative propulsion and the content of the new film; they also elucidate the subject of television as such: consciousness recycles and strings together changing attention spans and pursuits in a combination of narrative bits. The meshing of production and consumption in narrative hyper-time informs a new sense of subjectivity and artistic practice.

While In & Out continues the march of time with that implicit clanging of the relentless clock, Mark’s work has come to engage ever more often formats of public interventions, therewith punching holes into the landscape of cliché and neurotic urban obsessions, such as Public Disturbance, in which an angrily arguing couple is staged and recorded at a fundraising party of the Power Plant, catching the attendees of the ball unawares and uncomfortable, but heightening some of the social tensions that typically beset such occasions; as well as her eight-hour chain-smoking performance in Smoke Break, which interjected demonstratively into working life, and reminded one of the smoking-as-leisure moment that is all but illegal in most public spaces now. Her working-life – in which she herself regularly makes appearances wherever and anywhere – is a matter of working hard(ly) working. More often yet, she has been working with neon and other sign formats to interject circular pronouncements into the public realm. Their exclamations suspend the reader, stumping attention to focus on that which is often elided in the thrust of progress, forward movement, striving: Hold that Thought, for instance, consists of a purposefully flickering neon that does not settle down; the laser-cut sentence, IT’S JUST ONE GOD DAMN THING AFTER ANOTHER, is set in a circle so that it eats its own tail; No Tofu, No Yoga Mat signs counter fashionable trends of self-improvement; and with I Have No Issues she declares her own distance not only from currently favoured art parlance, but also everyday contestations. Such interjections throw a wrench into the mechanics of meaning and focus the attention on the here and now, sometimes with as simple a means as the addition of a letter into the publicly reigning fire exit signs: they now hail the passerby to EXIST. Her work seems to stretch attention and land us unconditionally in the temporary reprieve of the moment, and as such, resolutely countering – or perhaps forgetting to remember to forget – the administration of life.

(1) REM is the acronym for rapid eye movement, which occurs as a result of brain activity during sleep.

- Barbara Fischer

 

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“Kelly Mark Marks Time” by Dan Adler
Catalogue essay for "Everything is Interesting" - 2014
Published by Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in collaboration with Blackwood Gallery, the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Kenderdine Art Gallery, and the Cambridge Galleries, Canada.


What does it mean to mark time? Is it what we do while waiting for something consequential to happen? Such idle pursuits are frequently frowned upon, as they fly in the face of behavioural norms bound to the efficient use of time and labour. We are conditioned to question the conviction of dawdlers. A lack of productivity is associated with an absence of marketable skill. The extent of this lack is often measured and timed by straight authorities: parents, educators, bureaucrats. Indeed, short stints of idleness, customarily condoned as momentary lapses, might blossom into an alternative lifestyle that is deemed suspect, or at least eccentric, by the majority.

Time and again, Kelly Mark shows us that just marking time is both a means and an end. A number of tasks and interventions that Mark performs are, conventionally speaking, lacking in specialized skill. A case in point is her devotion to the dull process of dulling points: in the Graphite Drawings Series, Mark covers objects with pencil strokes. Bouquet (1998) features six wooden tulips in a cylindrical vase. These have been blanketed with scores of sinuous lead lines. Perhaps her activity is the product of simply finding a way to fill up the day, while questioning what constitutes (artistic) labour: Bouquet does indeed operate in tension with widely held assumptions about what it means to skillfully draw. But this is not some dry Conceptualist exercise. Rather, it registers as a seductive sculptural statement: its heavily worked metallic surface shimmers, suggesting a materially grounded, craft-based consciousness.

Mark rightly considers still life a suitably sedate subject: it doesn’t distract from experimentation with what work can or should be. Her practice recalls monochrome Analytical Cubist paintings, with each of the Graphite Drawing Series a performance of erasure, a suppression of illusionistic uses of colour and shading. Mark chooses neutral objects to perform her singular task, while subtly playing with the concept of verisimilitude: already a simulacrum (wooden tulips), she darkens the thing, twice distancing it from its referent. The accumulated nature of her labour encourages us to consider how Mark’s utterly mundane objects—a table, a chair, plates, a bowl of fruit, framed pictures—function as signs. (1) As such, Mark’s practice recalls historical gestures that perform a dance between repetitive, unskilled exercises—often absurdly or laconically confined to a single task—and a Conceptualist reduction to a single procedure (covering objects with graphite). (2) In particular, I am reminded of Andy Warhol’s Paint by Numbers series, of the early 1960s, which, in place of bearing authentic brush-strokes, comprises matching pigments in coded areas. But while Warhol’s series resists the neat categorization of Pop art (its stereotypically smooth surfaces identified with machinic mark-marking), it results in a tactile thing that can be appreciated as the product of just marking time.

Mark’s act of erasure also recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Committing to a job of decomposition, Rauschenberg performed his task of obscuration, applying the same amount of pressure throughout, and arriving at a delicately bruised and decidedly seductive surface. (3) Mark, like Rauschenberg and Warhol, provocatively stretches the bounds of what it means to be devoted to an expressive end. Yet, she arrives at a material object that is still capable of being fetishized, one that has obviously been worked with diligent care, and registers as a record of activity—one which may have been the consequence of having nothing consequential to do. (4)

Part of the Glow Video Series, Mark’s installation Commercial Space (2007) consists of a pile of plugged-in TVs, some turned on their sides, others facing upwards. As with the Graphite Drawing works, the monitors all offer the same image of slate monochrome blankness. And yet, I am seduced by the material presence of the screens’ fluttering faces, knowing that staring at them may just be a way of passing time. They play silent video footage of reflections cast on the wall by commercials. These ads—the trash of TV—have been muted and abstracted, perhaps the result of sustained slacking—merely staring (un)productively at the reflected patterns, which are just as worthy of (in)attention as the products peddled onscreen. Normally, ads permit one to let the mind and body wander, to space-out. But circling this refuse pile of electronics, I notice that the flicker on every screen is occurring at a precisely synchronized pace. Here is a medium-specific discourse: these machines fluctuate according to the ad trade’s editorial process. Normally employing an especially dynamic torrent of shots—accompanied by a sales pitch, naturally—here, however, the ads are reduced to silent, shiny, vibrating rectangles of light. Sometimes there is an emphatic rupture, corresponding to the end of a thirty-second spot. Mark is providing the index of an industry, one that minutely assigns minutes and seconds of airtime, so that programming is cut and contorted according to the dictates of advertisers and executives. She raises awareness of such surgery by performing the singular task of suppressing the television’s conventional function: she turns TVs into lamps.

Mark has long investigated the light emanations of various film genres. Take for example the installation Horror/Suspense/Romance/Porn/Kung-Fu (2005), which features fifteen monitors installed in a ring on the gallery floor. (5) On the day I encountered it, porn was the main event, offering me an opportunity to ruminate on its distinctiveness. Like TD advertising, porn is a truly pervasive media phenomenon, generating billions annually. As with ads, the industry cultivates the appearance of novelty, but profits precisely because its products are, in truth, remarkably alike and formulaic. Compared to other genres, adult videos are edited in highly regulated ways. They function like clockwork, with formulaic narrative structures which provide predictable sequences of shifting positions, quickened paces, and increasingly elaborate (and climactic) scenarios. Such a medium can indeed be converted into a vehicle for just marking time. Not pursuing a directly expressive goal that would lead to a properly “composed” video, Mark again does the job of capturing the projected light given off by these “blue” movies. Mark favours a palette of flickering orange, pink, and red, the vivid shades of porn, which signify its flesh and genitalia. (6) Mark abstracts from porn’s abstraction, however, providing silent footage that flashes with bodies banging each other. As Mark’s video progresses, the plot thickens, the intensity builds, and the darkened gallery begins to rhythmically pulsate and throb. A public venue becomes a provocative site for recasting a typically private product.

The Kiss (2007), another installment in the Glow Video Series, features a pair of monitors—similarly synchronized to play a porn-derived light show—positioned on white pedestals so that their rounded faces touch each other. (7) I briefly marvel at the portly bodies of these appliances, which harken back to when television always functioned in domestic settings as three-dimensional personages from whom messages were received. The TV here embraces its own kind. This is not a husband-and-wife marriage diptych, but rather a broader allusion to affectionate exchange that references same-sex coupling. This recalls Félix Gonzáles-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991), in which white clocks—devices that regulate our perceptions of what it means to mark time, or even when we should express affection—are set to the same temporal frequency and hung side-by-side, unexpectedly exuding intimacy. (8) In The Kiss, the matching luminosity of these objects also strikes an unexpected note of lyricism. On the same wavelength, literally, this couple is apparently open to the idea of shagging—but it chooses, or is programmed, to express (and broadcast) this exchange in an abstract and sublimated form.

In some sense, Mark’s approach in the Video Glow works is akin to that of structural filmmakers in the 1950s and 60s, who used abstraction to deconstruct the mechanics and devices that supported the illusionary fictions of the film industry. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) especially comes to mind: in this installation, a projector stood in an open space that was darkened and filled with smoke. A beam of light emanating from the projector gradually diminished to a cone, flickering myriad tones of white, grey, and black; here, film morphed into a sculptural being. Like McCall, Mark’s brand of deconstruction is relatively dependent on the transfer of screened imagery from conventional venues—the movie theatre or living room—to the gallery, arranging the monitors as a kissing couple, a pile, or some other configuration, so that visitors are free to materially interact with them, as sculpture. (9)

But perhaps the most relevant historical source for the Glow Video Series is Nam June Paik’s mid-1960s works based on gestures that involve screwing with onscreen imagery. Using electromagnets and a Degausser, (10) Paik generates wave patterns on a standard cathode-ray TV tube, masterfully manipulating the received broadcast imagery into abstract and dynamic electronic patters, emerging in part from the unique properties of each TV set. As with Mark, Paik’s converted uses for monitors focus on the idle pursuit of marking time, as in TV Clock (1963), which repetitively applies the same basic gesture of compressing the video image into a single band of light cutting across the screen. A series of monitors arranged in a row—each placed atop a pedestal and on its side—emanate light bands which rotate slightly around the axis at each screen’s centre. Each of the twenty-four monitors broadcasts a different static yet flickering image of time that unfolds through the installation over a twenty-four-hour period. The medium here becomes an elegant commentary on the television’s regimentation of time. (11) Indeed, in the Glow Video Series, Mark subversively updates Paik’s practice of using TVs, radically reducing onscreen imagery into meditative forms that function as critiques of mainstream media, while serving as sculptural sites for sensory experiment. (12) Paik’s effort to individualize reception to the extent that content was no longer functional in any conventional sense is remarkably akin to Mark’s project, which critiques conformist ideologies about how broadcast information and entertainment should be understood and consumed—and to raise awareness of the creative potential of using TV in wrong ways.

Mesmerized by Mark’s monitors, I am reminded of Timothy Leary’s contributions to the acid subculture. Leary strove to generate new forms of perceiving and acting, particularly those directed at loosening the commodity’s regulatory hold on experience, so that an artist’s living and working spaces melded and became a kind of laboratory in which consciousness could be radically e-conditioned. In the writings of Leary, Aldous Huxley, and others, acid experience is characterized by the dissolution of ordinary objects and imagery into waves or pulsations, a continuous field of sensory stimulus. (13) This dissolution is comparable to Mark’s prolonged observation and isolation of reflected patterns derived from conventional movie genres—horror, suspense, porn, kung-fu—that are resituated in the gallery for viewers to interact with, passing time in a space analogous to the artist’s own studio/residence. For Mark, both of these spaces are derived from everyday realities, and yet she alters them perceptually so as to encourage a critical distance form more temporally regimented contexts. As with Leary, I associate such meddling with media and the abolition of commodities as they are conventionally used: transforming, but never replacing, the endless streams of commodified broadcasting, exposed to us practically everywhere on a daily basis. (14)

Mark is fond of subjecting movies to the combined procedures of fragmentation and reintegration. For works such as Horridor (2010) and REM (2007), she assembles mash-ups of clips from film and television reruns, which she recorded at all hours from a wide range of cable networks. (15) In Horridor, a vast series of movie fragments—all completely divorced from their original (conventional) functions and contexts—are strung together, featuring actors screaming. Categories of imagery begin to assert themselves, with fragments grouped according to specific emotional states and accompanying their cries: fear, frustration, physical agony, madness, and so on. Horridor was exhibited in a highly public setting—Toronto’s major transportation hub, Union Station—on multiple screens located in a corridor. Indeed, public places, such as train stations (habitually used by commuters according to regimented schedules), are often furnished with TV monitors that broadcast textural facts from news and business channels, supporting an aesthetic of information barrage. These screens normally require only a minimal emotional investment: they may easily integrate into the comings and goings of public space. With Horridor, Mark supplies a different sort of repetitive barrage, one that signifies emotional excess, but denies a discernible narrative progression in any traditional sense. She broadcasts a seemingly endless series of fragments with no obvious beginning or end, and implies a sense of the arbitrary or the redundant, allowing viewers to enter in at any point. Accordingly, she enacts an effective critique of how entertainment industries relentlessly maintain “normal” linear ways of understand time. (16) Her work also engages with another major public TV tendency: trivia has a widely recognized consumerist value, working to direct attention toward a screen during a period of transit or idleness. Mark taps into this conditioning for trivia, as viewers of Horridor are compelled to identify the sources of individual clips, She succeeds in complicating, while never eliminating, the underlying commercial purposes of her material. (17)

In contrast with this highly dynamic work, Mark’s work Hiccup began as a thirty-day performance by the artist, who appeared at the same public location on successive days, wearing the same clothes, performing the same mundane actions at precise times, for a fifteen-minute period. This intervention—which has thus far been enacted at nondescript sites in Birmingham (UK), Houston, and Toronto—is about marking time and offering a representation of Mark as landmark, one that is static and stable within a constantly shifting urban environment. Mark’s daily repetition of her self was a sight that may have been slightly confusing to passersby, but not distracting enough to draw attention in an obvious way. The Toronto version of the work (2000) was displayed on seven monitors in a gallery, with screens simultaneously showing footage—always recorded from the same out-of-the way, stationary position across the street—of the same actions performed in the same order on seven successive days, from 9:00-9:15 am. (18) Installing herself on the steps of a high school, Mark became a living sculptural object, an egoless mirror reflecting the surrounding, utterly mundane environment (people congregating before class, everyday traffic, weather, and light patterns). Wearing headphone, which helped to enhance her anonymity, Mark listened to a pre0recorded audio track that provided cues to switch activities: smoke a cigarette, look to her left, scratch her right ear, take a sip of coffee, stretch her leg, and so on. She plays (with) the role of anthropological researcher, observing less-than-conscious reactions—the sorts of overlooked behavior that social scientists would not likely consider worthy of study—to a temporal hiccup that she introduces into public space. Among other things, she uses video in a repetitive way to demonstrate that the one who habitually just marks time, day after day—seated on some stairs, or in an infinite number of other sites, like the corner of a coffee bar—may very well affect and condition the behavior of others in ways that are not explainable or consciously felt. Mark becomes a marker generating the mild discomfort associated with déjà vu. Through subtle means, she explores the border zone between subjecthood and objecthood, between being consequential and being ignored.

One of TV’s regular tasks outside the home is to guide us through periods of waiting—morosely inhabiting the lounge of an auto-repair shop; staring exhaustedly at monitors while expecting a delayed flight. (19) The practice of charting time’s passage often affects how and why we receive TV imagery, to the degree that it interweaves on a less-than-conscious level with onscreen content, and with the rhythms of the surrounding environment. (20). Indeed TV imagery is a habitual backdrop in public spaces, from the bar to the barber. The seven video screens of Hiccup portray Mark simply stationed there, working as a performer. Myself stations before them, waiting for something to happen, I being to wonder what, or whether, she might be anticipating. Then I consider whether this activity is worthwhile, how (much of) her time (or mine) is being (mis)used. By representing—like the daily installments of a week0long mini-series, presented on multiple monitors—the acts of waiting around, of performing a repetitive job, and of minutely and strictly following a timeless, Mark draws attention to the cultural conditioning of regular folks who mix labour, leisure, and the passive reception of messages. (21) Her project derives its power in part form the ways that she blurs boundaries between active, performing subjects, and inert, abstract objects. In the form of Hiccup’s seven monitors, she becomes something akin to signage. (22)

The single-channel video, 33 Minute Stare (1996), presents the artist looking into the camera until she can no longer focus. The growing levels of discomfort on her face help cast the performance as an endurance piece; but the manner of documentation, with a stationary camera focused solely on her face, helps to emphasize her objecthood and stillness. (23) For the most part, Mark is part stationary presence, presiding over us. Ego-boosting, mythologizing, and dramatic devices are absent from Mark’s work, which contrasts well with full-body image of Marina Abramovic, for instance, famously performing a staring contest (The Artist is Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010) with a succession of individual museum visitors lucky enough to bask in her presence. But Mark is now staring at me. I stand in the gallery, instinctively anticipating some sort of narrative event, a revealing gesture of some kind, aside from her eventual failure to focus. As in the case of The Kiss, which represents two people as monitors, Mark’s work stretches the bounds of self-portraiture, with few character traits explicitly featured: here no vulnerabilities are exposed, no confessions are made. The reductive emphasis on the singular activity of staring makes “Kelly Mark” a blank, an abstract screen that waits projection by me. Her presentation of inactivity as work is radically laconic—using a minimum number of terms, concisely to the point of seeming either rude or mysterious. (24) There is indeed a vague element of the anti-social operating here, associated with a sheer lack of articulation, an absence of detailed social or personal identity with which (TV) viewers may identify. However, there is an earnestness to the work, too, the result of a sustained commitment to a cause that may seem stupid in its blankness, but still manages to impress, given its status as sheer accumulation fo a single gesture. This is comparable to Bruce Nauman’s bodily and facial gestures—in works such as Lip Sync (1969) or Walking with Contrapposto (1968)—executed for the camera, and for audiences not accustomed to focusing on a single gesture for such extended periods, which barely any variation or incident aside from the gradual onset of fatigue. Nauman performs in a non-heroic, workman-like manner, perhaps because he had nothing better to do that day. (25) In comparable ways, Mark stubbornly resists making myths. She simply stares and gets the job done.

In myriad guises and varying degrees of absurdity, Mark has consistently and fruitfully returned to the premise of playing the role of the blank. For the performance work, Demonstration (2003), Mark enlisted colleagues to perform a protest without a narrative. Stationed outside Toronto’s Power Plant art gallery on the evening of a fundraiser, the demonstrators greeted party-goers. Somewhat disorienting to the arriving guests, who mostly resorted to nervous smiles, it initially seemed like a genuine protest or strike, with the familiar structures of placard-pacing, slogan-recital, and handing out leaflets. All of this was captured by cameras that would normally provide (media0 legitimacy to their cause, perhaps involving a labour dispute or some other disagreement derived from exploitation of a particular group, like artists. But then the laconic humour began to register, as the signs and flyers were white and empty, statements of monochrome abstraction—and hence relatives of the reductiveness enacted on flickering screens in the Glow Video Series—accompanied by repeated sayings like “What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it? Now!” or the simple declaration “Hell no, we don’t know!”

But Mark presents this event in a video form, detaching it from the drama of the actual intervention (which, anyway, was experienced mostly by an elite crowd of museum patrons), so that the work becomes an abstract structure that more indirectly, and allegorically, reflects real-world realities, like understanding TV by viewing its projected light on a wall. As the evening progressed, the social or political purpose of the demonstration never becomes revealed. But, as with all of Mark’s work, critical qualities are eventually detectable. The video subtly stages inequities: at one point protests gather around a fire in a garbage can, and party patrons exhibit their conditioned responses—never engaging directly, mostly just walking on by—entering the secluded, private space of the building to schmooze with their own kind, and snack on hors d’oeuvres. Despite the lack of a specific plotline underlying the protest, this demonstration footage demonstrates how folks may, on TV or computer screens, become reduced to objects, to stereotyped signs for the have-nots or discontented. They may be identified all-too-easily with the notions of stirring up trouble, of being suspect, of not applying or “composing” themselves in a worthy or worthwhile way. To some extent, it does not matter to folks that the signs are blank.

I would suggest that for Mark, it is never a matter of merely twiddling her thumbs or pacing about. She is a worker, committed to a lifestyle of applying herself, and sometimes others, to tasks that are insightful and subversive partly because they do not start with objectives that are tied to a lofty and coherent cause. She plays wonderfully with the notion of avoiding a “goal-oriented” practice that is properly rewarding and responsible, and that signifies sophistication. Consequently, there will always be those who judge all of the blank placards, the pencil marks, the fragmented clips, the flickering screens—as mere filler, as suspicious stuff made during intervals between what is generally said to matter. But this is precisely the reason why I will never see Kelly Mark as just marking time.

(1) For comments on working-class identity and mundane objects in Mark’s work see, for example, Ivan Jurakic, “The Buddha of the Banal,” in Kelly Mark, exh. cat. (Hamilton and Vancouver: Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton Artists’ Inc., and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2000).

(2) The Graphite Drawing Series is typical of Mark’s earlier career, in that there is tendency to fully formulate a procedure for executing the work prior to its production. Perhaps the fullest expression of this preconceived, rule-bound labour is Mark’s In & Out (begun 1997, continuing until she reaches the age of sixty-five or until she passes away), in which the artist punches in-and-out of the studio with an aged time clock; she performs this tasks whenever doing certain studio-based activities. Mark’s more recent projects are relatively open to the notion of revision or change after work commences.

(3) For a particularly important discussion of Duchampian and Conceptual artistic traditions that question preconceptions about artistic labour, see Helen Molesworth, “Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades,” Art Journal 57 (1998): 50-61; and Molesworth, ed., Work Ethic, exh. cat. (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press and Baltimore Museum of Art, 2003). Molesworth deals with communities of artists who engage in pioneering Conceptualist practices, and yet resolutely resist trends toward managerial experiments, such as those which require turning over the execution of their work to paid assistants or fabricators. It would be a worthwhile project to examine the nature of Mark’s relationship to a close-knit group of Toronto-based artists, those with comparable interests in labourious, studio-based processes which employ humble material that is simply at hand. This relationship has yet to be treated with the attention it deserves, but I cannot do so here.

(4) Mark challenging assumptions about what it means to be expressive is, in part, identified with craft-based traditions, as craft is stereotypically associated with something that was mastered in the hands, not in the mind. There is a consistent trend in the literature comparing art and craft that I feel is relevant to Mark’s project, as craftspeople traditionally have been considered lesser by learned (fine) artists, as producing work that lacks integrity or purpose. According to Theodor Adorno and other highbrows, craft cannot function as the vehicle for self-doubt and rigorous internal analysis that true art can. For helpful treatment of these issues, see Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007).

(5) This exhibition was held at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto. Mark’s other Glow Video works include the popular Glow House—which has taken on various incarnations in several cities—featuring multiple TV sets installed in the front rooms of a house, all playing the same synchronized video footage of reflections. Seen in the evening by pedestrian passersby on the street below, this luminous work encapsulates Mark’s recurring dialogue between private and public everyday behaviours.

(6) As such, Mark’s work functions in conflict with primary and secondary definitions of pornography, including the depiction of sensational acts, in order to arouse a quick and intense emotional reaction.

(7) Mark is paying homage to Constantin Brâncu?i’s legendary sculpture of the same name (1908).

(8) González-Torres’s work differs from Mark’s in that his clock-lovers becomes less and less synchronized over time—hence incrementally growing apart—while her monitors remain perfectly in tune with one another.

(9) Although in the service of more expressionistic goals than Mark, Stan Brakhage also worked to free the imagination from the formulaic confined of conventional narrative exposition, the deterministic logic of “professional” movie production. Brakhage’s cinematic works, such as Anticipation of the Night (1958), are silent and abstract, the result of reflexive dialogue with the film medium; with Brakhage, this is the consequence of a skillful, poetic play with the processes of editing, framing, camera movement, recording speed, filters, and focus. Mark is more inclined toward the unskilled and sustained implementation of one basic task, like recording reflections on a wall.

(10) The Degausser is a device normally used by electronics engineers to eliminate electrostatic charges.

(11) See, for example, John G. Hanhardt, “The Cinematic Avant-Garde,” in Hanhardt, ed., The World of Nam June Paik, ex. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000). Paik produced a body of drawings, including TV Scan Line (1981), employing the paper surface to depict raster lines, the basis of imagery on the surface of the cathode-ray tube. The drawings use the form of the TV screen as a template to explore patterned surfaces. This ongoing effort to shift between sculptural and pictorial media is often ignored in the Paik literature, and is also crucial to Mark’s practice.

(12) Also relevant is Paik’s Zen for Film (1962-64), in which viewers watch and interact with an hour-long blank film, featuring only the projection of clear film leader onto a screen, a work that may really seem like a vehicle for passing time, but which unexpectedly draws attention to other incidental perceptual occurrences, including those caused by particles of dust and dirt caught in the projector’s gate and illuminated by its beam of light. Mark does not subscribe to the mystical beliefs that motivated Paik—or to the machismo of oppressive and hallucinatory structural film experiments such as Tom Conrad’s The Flicker (1965)—but does have to air her own network of meditative programming; Mark’s broadcasts do play with perceptual and cognitive expectations, and yet ultimately reside in the mundane, everyday world.

(13) For excellent discussion see David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 43-84. See also Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 21-22: For Huxley, a table, chair, or desk is rendered as something without depth, as something to project one’s mind onto or into, to share one’s identity with, thereby giving up a part of one’s ego, facilitating an object-person fusion, a “Not-self.” This sentiment strikes me as being relevant as well to Mark’s labourious, lengthy engagement with ordinary objects, by covering them with glowing graphite to the extent that the artist and object may rub off on each other. It is worth noting that Mark is committed in her daily life to performing such ego-suppressing activities herself, alone. In her case, however, this activity has little to do with belief-systems derived from Zen-Buddhist or other spiritual traditions. I am grateful to Kelly Mark for her comments.

(14) Leary often used the metaphor of TV to describe his LSD hallucinations, frequently implying that it is an ideal vehicle for transforming an object into “patterns of light waves,: in which one “hears, not ‘music’ or ‘meaningful’ sound, but acoustic waves.” See Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1964), 61. Also useful in this context are music lyrics describing drug-related meditative states that are expressed in relation to conventional TV programming, including Lou Reed’s repetitive references to a love of watching TV, satellites, and parking cars on the moon in Satellite of Love (1972). Among other things, the song is very much about just whiling away the hours.

(15) For discussion of REM, a two-hour film mash-up that is one of Mark’s most celebrated works, see Christina Ritchie’s contribution to this catalogue, and my review in Artforum (December 1007). Like Andy Warhol, Mark tends not to watch primetime network programming. Warhol took pride in being a member of the “fringe time” audience—an industry term used to refer to late night and early morning viewers—when stations traditionally air reruns or old movies, his preferred fare. For comments about queer or alternative relationships to TV, those that may entail lifestyles outside, or on the fringes, of conventional work-leisure patterns and nine-to-five schedules, see Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 251-78.

(16) For theorizing discussion of these issues see, for instance, Christine Ross, “The Temporalities of Video: Extendedness Revisited,” Art Journal 65, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 82-99.

(17) For example, Planet Hollywood bars have screens with trivia questions that address customers, testing folks’ movie knowledge, asking customers waiting for tables to name the actor originally cast as Indiana Jones. Such quizzing is meant to distract from waiting by facilitating social interaction, while promoting media consumption.

(18) For further discussion of this work, see Sara Krajewski, Kelly Mark: Thanks Everyone for Everything (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, 2006), n.p., and James Patten, “Important Instructions for Changing the World,” in Kelly Mark: Important Instructions for Changing the World (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2001), 32.

(19) For insightful commentary see Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001). See also the classic study by Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken Books, 1975).

(20) In its staging of silence, Mark’s work may function like a reflective surface, akin to Robert Rauschenberg’s monochrome White Paintings (1951), which faintly mirrored their urban surroundings, and John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), which demonstrated that there is no such thing as complete silence. Cage’s piece is a physical, rather than Conceptual work; it is about the materiality of overlooked sounds, shapes, and bodies. For helpful comments see Dieter Daniels, “John Cage and Nam June Paik: ‘Change your mind or change your receiver (your receiver is your mind)’, in Sook-Kyung Lee and Susanne Rennert, eds., Nam June Paik, exh. cat. (Düsseldorf and London: Museum Kunst Palast and Tate Liverpool, 2010), 107-26.

(21) This content comes from a variety of media “providers,” and is consumed often within cognitive conditions that are uncritical and unaware, according to a regular, cyclical programming schedule. Questions of when, and for how long, we watch monitors at home and elsewhere directly relate to the issue of how to define our relationships between work and recreation. TV makes routine tasks, or just passing time, easier; it is a means of maintaining control, allowing folks to manage their time, moving from one portion of the (work)day to the next. By repetitively isolating such activity on multiple TVs, Mark draws attention to repressive uses of media.

(22) I would suggest that the notion of signage—whether expressed in the form of human performers, computer screens, or some other material—is a key thread running through much of Mark’s oeuvre. Her well-known series of Neon works are one of several series that I cannot touch on here. In this regard, Mark’s Hiccup is reminiscent of video footage of Ken Lum’s performance Entertainment for Surrey (1979), in which he stood—for four consecutive days during the morning commute—beside a suburban stretch of highway, staring expressionless at the oncoming cars of commuters. With differing motivations, Mark and Lum both play the role of stoic statues, of roadside anti-monuments. Unlike Mark, on the fifth day Lum replaced his body with a cardboard silhouette self-portrait: the work culminated in a self literally becoming signage. In Hiccup, Mark deliberately avoids such hints at narrative incident.

(23) For some perceptive, theorizing treatment of the notion of performing stillness, and the staging of silence, see Emma Cochur, “Performing Stillness: Community in Waiting,” in D. Bissell and G. Fuller, eds., Stillness in a Mobile World (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 87-106. Cochur deals well with the enactment of stillness as a mode of resistance against increasingly legislated conditions of urban existence, especially pressures toward speed and efficiency. Particularly relevant to Mark is that act of focusing on singular actions—like sitting around or staring—as a means of testing the temperature of behavioural permissibility in a given context, potentially causing glitches or jolts, or subtly drawing attention to unnoticed rhythms and patterns.

(24) For philosophical treatment of types of humour expressed in conceptualist art practices, see Simon Critchley, “Laughing at Foreigners: A Peculiar Defense of Ethnic Humour,” in Mami Kataoka, ed., Laughing in Foreign Language, exh. cat. (London: Hayward Gallery, 2008), 17-23. In particular, Critchley expands on the key point—applicable to much of Mark’s work—that humour depends on maintaining a distance or sense of removal from detailed social realities. Humour is an “oblique phenomenology of ordinary life,” providing an alien perspective on mundane practices and routines: in Mark’s case this perspective often may seem absurdly anthropological. See also Jennifer Higgie, ed., The Artist’s Joke (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2007), and Critchley, On Humour (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

(25) While not enacted for the movie camera, another relevant historical example would be still photographs documenting Robert Morris performing as sculptural object, in a stationary, standing position, staring outwards from within a coffin-like box turned upright. Perhaps in Untitled (Box for Standing) (1961), he was simply marking time waiting for death, while deliberately avoiding the temptation of providing character traits with which audiences might identify or mythologize.

- Dan Adler

 

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“Together, at last” by Robin Metcalfe
Catalogue essay for “Micah Lexier & Kelly Mark: Head-to-Head” - 2012
Published by: Saint Mary's University Art Gallery. Halifax, Canada
Curated by: Robin Metcalfe & the Artists


Micah Lexier and Kelly Mark are mid-career Canadian artists, friends and colleagues who both received degrees from NSCAD University in Halifax, both live in Toronto and both collect each other’s work. Since their respective graduations (Lexier, MFA, 1984 and Mark, BFA, 1994), both have produced prolifically, in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of work. Both have worked in a similar range of media: ink stamp-pads, business cards, wallpaper and text laser-cut or waterjet-cut out of metal; in multiples, neon and performance.

Both Lexier and Mark have made work consisting of, or incorporating, found objects and images; numbers and processes of counting; letterforms (typefaces, ways of representing letters or numerals in print form or in cursive script; statements of intention; corrections or amendments to a found text; and processes of exhausting a material medium (the ink on a plate, the graphite in a pencil). Both have asked other people to sign the artist’s own name and then reproduced that signature in their work. Both have produced commissioned buttons for the Toronto International Art Fair (now going by the name, Art Toronto). Both have made work that foreground the gallery as a location of mundane labour. Both have produced multiples and works consisting of very large numbers of the same thing.

Whether borrowing ideas from each other, or arriving at them by independent means, Lexier and Mark have each echoed the work of the other, in ways that illuminate the difference between their art practices as much as the uncanny parallels between them.

Astonishingly, until this exhibition, they have never shown together.

Process and Procedure

As students at NSCAD, Lexier and Mark were immersed in an environment deeply shaped by conceptualism, understood to place a greater emphasis on the idea that generates the work – or the idea as the work – than on its material qualities. Sol LeWitt’s influential 1967 text, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” contains the proposal most often cited to define its subject: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (1)

That idea often takes the form of a procedure that the artist defines in advance and then executes, or has executed for her, or leaves for the audience to execute or imagine executing. In his 1968 “Declaration of Intent,” Lawrence Weiner wrote that “1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.” (2)
Weiner’s text reads similarly to Micah Lexier’s rules for the production of his ongoing series, A Minute of My Time: “1. Each drawing must take one minute. 2. A drawing may be made with eyes open, eyes averted, or a combination of both. 3. A drawing does not have to be used in an artwork in the same year in which it was made. 4. More than one drawing may be used in one artwork. 5. No drawing can be used in more than one artwork.” These instructions to himself constitute the programme for this body of work.

According to Lexier, “we use systems or rules as a way of generating/creating inventive imagery…imagery that we could not come up with if we just sat at a desk trying to think of how to make unusual mark making… To me all of these projects are a way of making a drawing.” (3)

Both artists have made work about the very act of forming an intention, leaving open the question of whether it will be carried out – Lexier’s Notes-to-Self (2007-08) – or rendering the outcome improbable or absurd – Mark’s I Really Should… (2002). These two works constitute one pairing in this exhibition, under the title Good Intentions.

Working hard, hardly working

Kelly Mark sets herself defined goals for many of her works, with a frequent emphasis on their performative qualities. Sometimes these have an aspect of endurance, challenging herself to perform a task or action for a set time, or until exhaustion, of herself or of the material. To make Dixon (Until Drawing) (1997) she marked on a piece of paper with a standard Dixon pencil until the lead was exhausted. The original manifestation of All In A Day’s Work (2009) was an artist’s talk that lasted through the hours of a normal workday, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Mark took two 15-minute breaks and a one-hour lunch. When the “boss” was away – when there were no visitors in the gallery – she would sneak outside for a smoke.

A recurring theme in Mark’s work is the art work as work in the ordinary sense of the word: As an occupation, what one does all day to make a living. Since 1997, for In and Out (1997, ongoing until 2032), she has regularly clocked in at her studio, like a factory worker, recording on punch cards the hours she spends working: a work she intends to continue until the age of 65. Mark grew up within the greater conurbation of Hamilton, Ontario, traditional heartland of Canada’s industrial economy. In both her work and her self-presentation – ballcap and black nylon jacket – she positions herself close to the condition of the working class. This can be read both as a deflation of the pretensions of high culture and as a reality check, grounded in the actual low-income status of many working artists; their need to hustle for a living. When I speak of endurance as an aspect of some of her performance work – the continuation or repetition of an action for an extended period of time – Mark counters that this is what most jobs are like: it’s no big deal.

Lexier’s take on the gallery as a workplace is Gallery Hours (2001-ongoing). Setting up a procedure whereby one visitor per hour, during regular public hours, may ask for a custom-minted coin in an envelope, he stipulates that the gallery attendant must ask the visitor to sign his or her initials on a form, modeled on those that record the most recent cleaning of a public washroom. This repositions the gallery as a mundane public facility where work is ordered by repeated tasks and where every hour is accounted for.

During her studies at NSCAD, Mark supported herself working in a local restaurant, and then made a series of works that made reference to that. Salt Series: Pillar (Approx 100 Million) (1997) consists of 240 standard restaurant salt shakers arranged in a pillar. The number of shakers suggests the repetitive nature of restaurant work – constantly cleaning, tidying and replacing the same objects – while the “Approx 100 million” in the title refers to her estimate of the number of grains of salt in the work. Characteristically for Mark, she painstakingly counted every single grain in one shaker before multiplying that by 240.

Repeat after me

Lexier has also worked with a profusion of identical objects, particularly in his coin pieces. Coin Piece (dentil, no dentil) (1997) is a metal box containing approximately 3,000 custom-minted, nickel-plated coins. Both sides of each coin are blank, but one features a “dentil” – a repeat pattern around the edges of many coins, named after a common ornament in classical architecture. The dentil locates the coins within conventional and classical traditions of ornament, while the blank face of each coin constitutes an absence where one might expect the portrait of a monarch or historical figure. This absence draws our attention to the dentil as the only articulated feature of the coins, teasing the viewer to perceive that each coin has two subtly different faces.

Counting is a recurring motif in the work of both Lexier and Mark. The hash mark that features in Mark’s 12345 Wallpaper (1999/2000) – four downward strokes and one horizontally, to record a count of 5 – has become a trademark of the artist, punning on her last name and reflecting the importance of counting and repetition in her practice. Lexier plays with numeric elements in Two Ways to Make 2 (2000) and in Marcel Duchamp’s Missed Opportunity (2007), where he intervenes in a statement by the great French artist to correct what he perceives as a failure to achieve a numeric consistency between the text itself and its meaning.

Repetition figures prominently in the work of both artists. For Lexier, his use of repetition and patterning is “a way of generating an image.” While serving that role for Mark, it also proposes a relationship between visual art and industrial and manual labour. Working often with multiples in large or unlimited editions, Lexier and Mark both challenge the conventional regimes of market value in art, associated with rarity and authenticity.

“Although we are known as conceptual artists,” says Lexier, “we are equally interested in process and materiality.” Writing about this exhibition’s pairing, Slow Fade, he notes, “Both of our works are about ways of depositing ink on paper.”

“Both Kelly and myself often work with found sources,” says Lexier, “Which we then sometimes alter (or just document) and re-present… and this pairing [Alternative Texts, which pairs the Duchamp piece with Mark’s Working Hard, Hardly Working] is a good example of the two of us using texts as our ‘found’ material. I might also point out the audacity of me trying to ‘correct’ Duchamp…” He goes on to draw a parallel between the concept of this exhibition “and the idea of going ‘head-to-head’ with Duchamp.”

In his 1967 essay, Sol LeWitt stipulated that “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.” Mark’s Letraset Drawings (2000-ongoing) demonstrate LeWitt’s dictum that “irrational judgements lead to new experience,” while relaxing the rule-bound strictness of conceptual art in favour of free intuitive play.

Both artists have a playful streak, but always with an edge. Lexier’s play is tempered by, or contends with, his love of order. Mark’s humour tends towards the sardonic and the pessimistic. She has a Trickster aspect – a sense of knocking things off pedestals, of being an artist of Misrule – that aligns with her critical working-class stance.

Having a reversible name, either part of which could be first or last, Mark has been known to toy with the confusions that can engender. When, as a student at NSCAD she produced – as part of a sculptural series using railroad ties – a video showing two young men bashing two such ties together, she mused about presenting the same work twice, once under the name of Kelly Mark (accompanied by applause) and once as the work of Mark Kelly (accompanied by boos). Those understanding it to be the work of a man could, presumably, place it squarely within a tradition of heroic masculine material brutalism; those knowing the artist was a woman might assume it to be a feminist critique of the same tradition. Mark maintains a crafty evasion of gendered expectations – including those of feminists – of herself as a woman artist.

Entropy and mortality hover around the works of both artists, in registers alternately of anxiety or resignation. Lexier, who has generated paintings, sculptures and installations from calculations of the proportion of his age to his statistical life expectancy, seems to be bargaining with chaos through procedures of counting and measuring; seeking to control it by forcing it into rational systems – actions that point to their own futility even while generating aesthetic satisfaction. Mark, particularly in her time-based work, directly addresses entropy, deliberately going as far as she can in the direction of repetition, absurdity, exhaustion. One could imagine the artists as two characters in a Beckett play, arguing about the best way to get nowhere.

The procedures that generate many of each artist’s works act as challenges to oneself, often coming to completion at a point of failure. For his Touch Down Drawings (2004-2005), Lexier set himself the task of drawing a line at the end of a plane ride, at the moment when the plane landed. He continued the series until one trip where he forgot to do a drawing. In the video work, 33 Minute Stare (1996), Mark stared at a video camera until her eyes became exhausted. Her own physiological failure became the content of the piece.

Mark’s procedures often have the character of a dare to herself: irrational behavior undertaken for the hell of it, but with absolute conviction. With Lexier, one has more of a sense of the comforting pleasure of imposing order – and the release of letting go, or moving on, when an ordering process has exhausted itself. For the punctilious Lexier, it is often the mistake, the break in order, that animates the work. In Wallpaper (1992), he notes that several of the signatures (of his name, in other people’s hands) are misspelled.

This tension also plays out in Lexier’s juxtaposition – in Wallpaper and in Individually Numbered Pin (2009) – where the edition number is handwritten, whereas the number of each individual pin is mechanically stamped: a reversal of standard procedure. This relationship between handwriting and typesetting, or between the organically fluid and the more rigidly ordered, also characterizes Marcel Duchamp’s Missed Opportunity and Two Ways to Make 2.

The pairing of Lexier’s Wallpaper with Mark’s 12345 Wallpaper is one of many instances of the two artists working with an existing format, one not usually associated with fine art. The wallpaper pieces are displayed together in this exhibition as partly unfurled rolls, which is close to Lexier’s practice of displaying it “as a wrapped roll, emphasizing its presence as an object.”

Both artists’ use of signatures – signed in the hands of other people – critically undermines the fetishisation of the personal mark and of the authenticity of art work as a determinant of value. The Belgian artist, Marcel Broodthaers, similarly displaced the value of the signature in his work, for instance by having it printed rather than written, and on tracing paper (making it easy for someone else to copy).

It is what it is

The pairing, Signs, consists of two works that superficially resemble conventional, anonymous directional signage. Mark’s Exist (2009), which at first glance seems to identify an emergency exit, actually consists of a simple command to be. Lexier’s This is an Arrow Sharing a Wall With Something Else (2009) is one of a series of arrow pieces, each of which features an engraved text making a statement about the object itself. For Lexier, “this notion of ‘self-reflectiveness’ is fundamental to my practice, as is the use of the world ‘This,’ which is the word that starts many of my text-based works.” The Signs pairing brings together things that, like many of Lexier’s and Mark’s works, double back and point to themselves. The conceptual and the material, through text, exchange glances.

The Zen concept of “is-ness” denotes that quality of a thing that eludes naming. The works of Lexier and Mark – whether through the circularity of the act of naming, through their deceptive ordinariness of means, through exhaustive repetition, or through their embrace of failure and disorder – frustrate one’s desire for fixity and resolution, surprising the viewer in a moment of recognition that escapes language.

- Robin Metcalfe

(1) Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum, June 1967.
(2) Lawrence Weiner, “Declaration of Intent,” ARTnews, Fall 1968.
(3) All quotations from Micah Lexier are from an e-mail to the curator, 3 September 2011.

 

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"Always Working: The Aesthetic Labours of Kelly Mark” by Rosemary Heather
Canadian Art. Volume 24 #4, Winter 2007


The fusion of art with everyday life has been a perennial goal of contemporary art, but today it seems forgotten. An obvious explanation: this has already been achieved. The future as predicted by the avant-garde is here, in other words. The signs are ample, if poorly organized in the contemporary psyche; the futurologist Alvin Toffler has made a career out of the insight that the rate of change in the West far outstrips our ability to adapt to it. Even if the avant-garde’s penchant for prognostication is now a thing of the past, art continues to be adept at creating templates to help us recognize change, to see the reality of it. For a close-at-hand example, look no further than the work of the Toronto artist Kelly Mark; or, rather, look to the artist Kelly Mark, fusion of art and life.

Tracing her history, it is easy to see how the changes within Mark’s art-making parallel changes within the wider culture. While she started out a hardcore conceptualist, the art she makes today is characterized more by what Mark terms “re-creativity”; this shift in her approach is in part inspired by the wholesale changes being wrought within our society by digital technologies. All the while, the work she produces has retained the elegance that only the formal solutions found within art can provide.

An artist of prodigious output, Mark creates works that bear the distinctive attributes of East Coast Canada conceptualism. This is a legacy that began with the 1967 appointment of Garry Neill Kennedy as director of the Nova Scotia College of Art. His 23-year tenure transformed the school, in part because Kennedy, himself an inveterate conceptualist, initiated a visiting-artist program that featured cutting-edge practitioners of the moment, including Vito Acconci, Dan Graham and Sol LeWitt. The rugged coastal outpost of Halifax proved to be an ideal backdrop for imagining the spare, dematerialized artworks characteristic of first-generation conceptualism. This, combined with the 1972 launch of NSCAD Press, which published monographs by influential artists like Michael Snow and Yvonne Rainer, helped to cement the school’s reputation, which lingers to this day.

Sol LeWitt famously voiced the core attribute of conceptualism—“ the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” In its purest form, this type of practice can consist purely of verbal statements, which might be written on the wall, as in the declarative sentences of Lawrence Weiner, or exist as a set of instructions, as in the Fluxus-aligned work of Yoko Ono. Although such projects would seem simple to do, the difficulty of making artworks in this vein finds its best summation in the colloquial expression “ideas are a dime a dozen.” Because it begins with an idea, the conceptual artwork is necessarily anchored in the person of the artist. For such an artwork to become “real,” the artist must be unwavering in his or her commitment to the concept that makes it possible, maintaining it in whatever way is necessary.

The performance-based works of the German artist Tino Sehgal, for example, only exist during their enactment by “interpreters” hired by the artist, and are never documented. Prohibiting the production of images of his works ensures that Sehgal remains the final authority on their existence; they ensue from and return to him, as it were. Sehgal’s work represents one extreme of conceptualism’s contemporary legacy. Kelly Mark’s works, on the other hand, have more in common with minimalist strategies for art-making, but employ a similar steely resolve concerning the use of self to establish their veracity.

Like the sculpture of Donald Judd, many of Mark’s works find form through repetition. In the ongoing performance In & Out (1997–), Mark punches a time clock installed in her studio every time she starts and finishes working on art. That her studio doubles as her living space points to the fluidity the artist sustains between the two modes; the punch-clock performance stands as a wry commentary on how very thin the dividing line is between the two for the artist. Adding a further dimension of self-deprecation to the piece is the fact that since 1999 it has been owned by the Toronto collector Dr. Paul Marks, meaning that Mark, in effect, has a “boss” who pays her on a yearly basis for the work. Currently, employer and employee in this arrangement are looking for a buyer for the piece, preferably a Canadian art institution that has the vision to match Mark’s long-term commitment to her art.

In & Out is an update of Tehching Hsieh’s informally titled Time Piece, one of a number of year-long performances by the Taiwan-born, New York–based artist. For this work, Hsieh punched a time clock once an hour, on the hour, for a year, from April 11, 1980, through April 11, 1981. Each time he punched the clock a movie camera shot a single frame, resulting in a sixminute stop-motion animation. Hsieh’s body of work consists of just six sustained pieces, all of them employing a combination of declared intention and action, the latter often involving extraordinary feats of endurance (perhaps most famously, he spent an entire year tied to the artist Linda Montano by a rope, with the two trying not to touch). His use of the calendar year to structure each performance gives his work a conceptual clarity that invites his audience to contemplate the meaning of time and the arbitrary nature of our frameworks for measuring it.

Mark has said that her own time-clock piece will continue until she “retires.” Itself a work of endurance, In & Out resonates with certain conditions in the contemporary world in a way that distinguishes it from Hsieh’s Time Piece. If Hsieh’s work, in its conceptual purity, is the art-world equivalent of the Great Wall of China as viewed from space, Mark approaches the goal of marking her time as an artist from a less exalted perspective. In a related performance that has been ongoing since 2003, she often wears in public a black windbreaker and peaked cap embroidered with the word Staff, which is also the title of the work. For the insight it offers into Mark’s choice of art as a profession, a statement posted on her Web site is worth quoting in full: “I tend to show up late. I usually leave early. I take long breaks. I have issues with authority. I don’t follow instructions. I don’t work well with others. I drink on the job. I complain a lot. But I’m always working...”

By her own account, she is a bad employee, but the job requires nothing less than her full commitment. Setting herself up as an “art worker,” she comments on the 21st-century conditions surrounding both work and art. She is “always working” and yet, at least in the case of In & Out, faces potential job insecurity. Saving the artist from the prospect of real joblessness, however, is the purpose she applies to the tasks she sets herself, which gives a whole new meaning to the term self-employment.

Mark’s refashioning of first-generation conceptualist heroics into a register of the mundane serves as a comment on the banal status of the object in contemporary art. This is a utilitarian approach to art-making that privileges not the unique object but any ready-made substitute thought suitable for making the artist’s point. It’s a type of practice that dates back at least to Duchamp, although the use in collage of what Clement Greenberg termed “extraneous materials,” such as pieces of newspaper or graphics from commercial advertising, marks perhaps the first appearance of the everyday in art. In an early work, Mark counted how many grains of salt would fit into a thimble. Arriving at the number 12,618, she then used this figure to create Pillar (100 Million Approx) (1997). Composed of filled and stacked salt shakers of the variety you would find in a greasy spoon, the work resonates with the ready-made, minimalist practice and the biblical story of Lot’s wife. It also demonstrates how conceptual rigour combined with sheer repetition can push meaningless activity— like counting grains of salt or punching a time clock—over an invisible line into a realm where it accrues meaning within the field of art.

Early conceptual art was often said to be engaged in a process of dematerializing the art object. In its immateriality and indifference to traditional forms of art-making, it was thought to represent a kind of resistance to the art market. Considered 40-odd years after its inception, however, conceptual practice looks to have wider ramifications, as it essentially prefigured the very dematerialization of Western culture into the virtual world we semi-inhabit today.

Mark makes free use of a variety of inherited conceptual strategies, in whatever combinations she finds useful. In 20thcentury art parlance, such a bold repurposing of the work of one’s predecessors was viewed in terms of an Oedipal narrative; by definition, aesthetic innovation required a certain degree of disrespect for what had come before and a measure of artistic patricide. Today, it seems not only as if traditions of art-making are under threat but that an entire cultural order is coming to an end. The difficulty experienced by the music industry in preventing the sharing of music files on the Internet is the most tangible symptom of this change. (The ease with which new technologies abet such activity fatally undermines the argument that freely available digital music files should be paid for.) Mark’s polyglot practice indicates that she holds a similar viewpoint regarding ownership: conceptual strategies are in the ether, free for everyone to use. This is the other side of the ready-made coin, an attitude given guileless expression in the buttons Mark occasionally wears and has informally distributed since 2003, which read “everything is interesting.”

The idea that everything is potential subject matter for art suggests that the postmodern dismantling of the dichotomy between high and low cultures has reached a point of synthesis. The culture we currently live in has a tendency towards the immersive; we are all insiders now, sophisticated manipulators of the codes history has left to us. Many of Mark’s more recent works address this condition. Embodying the idea of the immersive is Glow House, a work that Mark has created three times in three different cities (Winnipeg, Birmingham and Toronto) since 2001. In it, a minimum of 50 television sets, all tuned to the same channel, are placed throughout a house dedicated to the project. Looking at the work from the street at night, viewers see the house gently pulsing from the collective, synchronized glow of the TV monitors. Taking her cue from the televisual flicker that emanates from residential neighborhoods at night, Mark metaphorically accumulates the ether of our communal entertainments to create a gorgeous, evanescent artwork.

Writing about Glow House , the Toronto artist and curator Dave Dyment has noted that “it’s rare that we think of televised images as made of light.” Mark works with this insight in a number of pieces that use the light emitted from television screens as source material. In the Glow Video Series (Horror/Suspense/ Romance/Porn/Kung-Fu) (2005), she records the pulsing light given off by a playing television as the light is reflected off a wall. The resulting films are presented on monitors as sculptural works. The monitors have been installed in various configurations— positioned back to back or pointing towards the ceiling, for example. Permutations of the work are titled according to the genre of film that served as the original light source, with the different genres creating different perceptual experiences in terms of rhythm and light. That the experience of television is no less seductive with its content removed speaks to a mass cultural preference for living in a netherworld made up of molecules of light.

Writing about the effects of mechanical reproduction more than 70 years ago, Walter Benjamin theorized that mass entertainment created a new form of reception: viewers of cinema absorbed a film in a way that did not require their direct attention. Itself a kind of prophecy of the fusion of art with everyday life brought about by the advent of digital technologies, the capacity for distracted perception hypothesized by Benjamin would seem to have been multiplied tenfold in our current culture. Mark’s epic work REM (2007) recreates this experience using TV as its source. Two hours in length, REM , which is compiled from more than 170 films and TV shows, creates a composite feature film from disparate clips Mark recorded from television. The work’s narrative is coherent; by definition, film and television provide the building blocks of storytelling. As one watches the work, however, it soon becomes apparent that a semblance of coherence is all that is required; in REM, following the narrative is akin to the experience of being adrift in your own thoughts. The work is a parable for our culture—lost inside the figments of its own imagination. Like Mark’s practice as a whole, it brings a syncretic intelligence to bear on cultural detritus, ultimately offering us the insight that our culture belongs to us. The subtle shift in thinking that is required to grasp this idea is the future of our culture—one that we are already living in today.

- Rosemary Heather

 

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"Everyday People” by Ray Cronin
Exhibition catalogue essay "Devon" & "Pete" - 2006
Third Space. Saint John, New Brunswick & Gallerie Sans Nom. Moncton, New Brunswick


When I first became aware of the work of Kelly Mark, I would have unequivocally described her as a “sculptor”.  Her practice in the mid-nineties was rooted in a local (Halifax) understanding of the histories of the primarily New York based movements of Minimalism and Conceptualism, and understanding drawn from the particular milieu of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and of its faculty.  Mark was hardly alone in this “post-minimalist” or “neo-conceptualist” practice, which bore all the marks of the serial and process work of artists like Dennis Oppenheim, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Morris and others who rose to prominence in the late 60s, as well as the performative and politically or socially engaged practices of such artists as Vito Acconci, Martha Rosler and Joseph Beuys.  This was the dominant strain in contemporary art in Halifax throughout the 1990s.  Mark was one of the keenest of a group of keen strategists and her success with what Ingrid Jenkner, curator of her 1995 exhibition “Works”, called “critically motivated sculpture”, was notable.

            More than ten years on I hesitate to still describe mark as a sculptor, in fact, given her use of sound, video and photography, of drawing and of object-based installations, I would hesitate to describe her practice in any but the most general of terms.  She is an artist; any other descriptor is both unnecessary and inaccurate.
Certain elements of Mark’s early strategies remain – most notably the collection and presentation of commonplace items – but she has since moved on from more overtly historical or referential works such as “Nail Collection”, “Random Pipe Grid”, or “1,000 Hits”.  Mark’s new work still retains the layered awareness that is a hallmark of neo-conceptualism but it is less about responding to past work and is more fully realized as her own vocabulary.

In “Devon”, a three-part exhibition, the maturing of Mark’s critical and conceptual vocabulary is evident.  Together the video projection, “Devon”, the sound work “I Really Should…” and the video installation “Porn”, reflect the range of Mark’s most recent concerns.  Each deals with what has become Mark’s signature subject matter: the quotidian – that is, the a-historical, uncritical, minutiae of the everyday.
However, as commonplace as the subject matter (reflected light from television screens on the walls of a darkened room; the banal details of the daily lives or strangers; a quiet expression of regret or longing) may be, the resulting work retains a quiet force.  In “I Really Should…”, a room that was once a vault contains Mark’s by now well-known sound piece.  The work is a litany of one thousand injunctions by Mark to herself: one thousand things that she should really do – such as pay back her student loan, take the initiative, and drink more water.  The work, which has been broadcast on radio in NY and Kansas, as well as displayed in art galleries around the world, works best in the kind of setting found here – the intimacy of a very small room filled with the sound of Mark’s quiet, monotone voice.  Hearing it this way, as when listening to it with headphones, the work becomes a kind of inner monologue, that is, Mark’s own obsessive listing mirroring one’s incessant interior voice.

“Porn”, which continues a body of work that includes Mark’s installation “Glow House”, features five televisions propped on their backs, and arranged into a rough circle on the florro of th gallery.  Each screen plays the same video, and the light they cast glows on the surrounding walls.  The image is a recording of the flickering light cast on the walls of mark’s apartment by another television – one playing, in this instance, recordings of pornographic movies.  There is, of course, no visible content, and we are asked to trust the artist that in this case the flickering light is indeed what she says it is, aw we do the other works in the Glow Video series, such as “Suspense”, “Horror”, Kung-Fu” and “Romance”.  Utterly mute and visually opaque, these works cast back at the viewer any attempt to read them.  Subtle, unassuming, virtually absent, “Porn”, nevertheless, is a compelling work in how, in it, the artist is able to side-step so much of the baggage attached to video in out culture.  “Porn” is pure visual experience, and also an idea distilled to its core.  It is simply and only the light from television, a reminder perhaps of how that device has replaced the fireplace as the centre of out homes.  In our information and interpretation saturated time, to make something that is at once engaging and utterly closed, is a noteworthy feat.

“Devon”, and its companion piece, “Pete”, continue Mark’s careful observation of the everyday, and her subtle manipulation of how we, the viewers, understand that everyday quality.  “Devon”, in Saint John, is a video projection.  On the screen a young man looks at the camera, awkwardly patting a black and white cat.  The setting is Mark’s apartment, the cat is hers – familiar to those knowledgeable about Mark’s other videos.  The young man is answering questions from an off-camera interlocutor, simple queries into his relationship with a woman named Devon such as “how did you meet Devon?”, “What do you love about her?”, “What bothers you about her?” and so on.  His responses are obviously unscripted, just as he is equally obviously not a trained actor.  The subject is human relationships; specifically that between a man and a woman.  There are no insights of rare wit, no confessional scenes, and no harrowing tales.  It’s just some guy talking about some absent girl.  Despite its innocuousness, the video is compelling.  One gets drawn in, perhaps by the lack of artifice as much as anything else.  However, that lack is not as spare as it seems: the companion piece exists, after all, and while one was watching “Devon”, the subject of the video was answering the same questions in the video “Pete”, part of an exhibition at Galerie Sans Nom in Moncton.  The conversation is thus sundered, physical distance standing in for the existential gulf between people.

That gulf is perhaps the main subject of Mark’s recent work, the innerness of being human.  In Mark’s work, life is a repetition of an endless series of everyday acts, and whether or not they are acted out in public, there is an inner core of the private.  How we pass the time in our heads is the inexhaustible source of Mark’s creative imagination.

- Ray Cronin

 

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"Kelly Mark Aestheticizing the Everyday” by Shirly Madill
Exhibition catalogue essay "Kelly Mark 9 to 5" - 2000
Contemporary Art Gallery. Vancouver, British Columbia; Art Gallery of Hamilton. Hamilton, Ontario; Hamilton Artists' Inc. Hamilton, Ontario.


Central to the development of the arts in the twentieth century has been the desire to extend the boundaries of the traditional definitions of art, and at the same time, expand the ways and means of creating works of art. Particularly important is the desire to go beyond traditional materials and to use found objects or incorporate non-art materials. From Marcel Duchamp and Constanti Brancusi on, the process of creating a work of art has involved the development of an articulated system of references between object and context, form and presentation. The work of art is no longer seen, and hence created, as independent of its background and setting, but is experienced as a single whole in which there is a symbiosis, an interweaving of both spheres. For example, by placing ordinary objects within the sphere of art, Duchamp exalted the decisive and meaningful role of the container – the gallery – as much as the rite of putting a work on show, so as to set up a dialectical interaction between choice and meaning, input and creation.

In her work, Kelly Mark aims to reduce the distances between ordinary objects and art, to blur the lines between life and language, but with a critical focus on the relationship between experience and expression. Mark’s work has been frequently described as being based on conceptualist strategies developed in the latter 1960s, when art centered on the artistic experience as well as theoretical components. It was the American art critic, Lucy Lippard, who coined the phrase “the dematerialization of the object” as a means of defining the conceptual ideal. Conceptual artists’ concerns rest more with engaging the mind than the emotions. Their focus may centre on common tasks and activities. In Canada, the critical statement of art in a conceptual context was codified by a number of individuals. Garry Neill Kennedy in a work titled, Canadian Contemporary Collection, Average Size, Average Colour, used art in the context of a public gallery as the subject. He questioned not only the process of artmaking but also the support systems that presented it. Some of the most prodigious and inventive conceptual artworks stemmed from other artists such as the N.E. Thing Company and Gathie Falk in Vancouver, Gerald Ferguson and Eric Cameron in Halifax. American artist Vito Acconci, explored the artist-viewer relationship in a work titled Following Piece (1969) which he created by randomly selecting individuals on the street in New York and following them until they went into a non-public place. By this act, Acconci, became a passive participant in someone else’s time and space. One episode lasted nine hours, ending when Acconci followed the person into a theatre showing a film entitled Paranoia. This entire body of work spanned 19 years ending in 1988.

Situated within a like premise, Kelly Mark’s work demonstrates a similar performative aspect that extends into the everyday world. Her work refers back to the artistic subcultures that produced DADA historical avant-garde and Surrealist movements during World War I and the 1920s – movements that sought to efface the boundary between art and everyday life and challenge traditional notions of artwork in a gallery setting. Duchamp’s Readymades – urinal, shovel, bicycle wheel, typewriter, etc. – attest to his irreverent nature. Mark’s oeuvre aims to demystify art, dissemble its sacredness and challenge its location. Although not as anti-gallery as her predecessors, she explores the idea that the detritus of mass culture, debased consumer commodities and everyday action can be art – an approach shared with such proponents of Pop Art as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein. Art, in Mark’s eyes, is found in the anti-work, in the “happening” or the transitory lost performance which cannot be museumified, as well as in the body and other sensory objects in the world.

For Mark aestheticization is about turning life into a work of art. The central fascination of her work in this exhibition, is the argument that life should be devoted purely to aesthetic enjoyment. This ethic of life as a work of art can be detected as far back as around the turn of the century with the writings of Bloomsbury Group member G.E. Moore and Oscar Wilde. Wilde assumed that the ideal aesthete should realize him(her)self in many forms and by a thousand different ways and be curious about new sensations, tastes and possibilities.

The rapid flow of signs and images that saturate the fabric of contemporary society shows our fetishization for commodities and objects. This is highlighted in the works, Prime Time and Points of View. In Points of View a series of seven wedding photographs have been hung behind a period sofa (c. 1940) with French Provincial accents. In front of this couch, on the coffee table, is a television through which Prime Time is featured, vignettes from television shows screened at breakneck speed. We are placed in this space, a comfortable familiar environment, but without access to the remote control. We watch as the screen bombards us with an endless flow of deadening imagery and simulations – the ultimate anaesthetic experience. The wedding pictures are photographs that Mark has taken of various brides and grooms, who were posing for their wedding photographs, but for another photographer. Mark, like Acconci, acts as a voyeur, entering another’s time and space. This buildup and density, characteristic of all of Mark’s work, is consistent. The presentation of the seamless, all-encompassing production of images pushes us toward a qualitatively new society in which the distinction between reality and image is effaced and everyday life becomes aestheticized.

In Mark’s world, art ceases to be a separate enclaved reality, but enters into production and reproduction so that everything, including the everyday and banal, falls under the rubric of art. The investigation of the beauty in banality exists in specific locations for Mark – on the streets, on parking meters, on newspaper stands, or in telephone booths. Conversations and impressions that flow past us are caught by Mark and become her subjects. Capturing them reflects her capacity to view these objects differently than we would and immerse us in a new experience.

Process, duration, repetition, seriality – all these characteristics of Mark’s art were also fundamental to Minimalist and post-Minimalist art. In Minimalist art, the reduction of the object to an essential form or tendency towards abstraction was important. In Mark’s work, there is form, but it is never the overriding principle. For example, In and Out, an ongoing project by Mark whereby she punches in and out of her studio on a daily basis, takes on a formal minimalist abstract façade. The work, however, is directly related to life and draws attention to task-like procedures. In and Out is situated with other conceptual artists such as Gerald Ferguson and Eric Cameron who approach their life and art in a similar manner. Cameron, for example, made his Thick Paintings a life-time project. Since 1979, Cameron has been painting ordinary objects lying around his house – shoe, lettuce, cup and saucer, egg, - with layer upon layer of white paint. A new object emerged and the original receded. To this day, he continues to document every coat by marking it down in his journal. Mark, like Cameron, brings forward personal and collective experience and meanings where time is measured and the space of repetition experienced.

Beyond the various formal solutions, the laconic and literal titles of mark’s work serve to underline a constant feature of her intent – to show us the act of showing, the ways in which our daily world is put on view, displayed, positioned, classified, ordered in accordance with its meaning and functions, or else jumbled together, like – Loose Change. Neatly placed on shelves, four glass jars contain quarters, dimes and pennies, corresponding to their allocated expenditures – cat food, Paris, cigs, and bus/subway fare.

Mark successfully presents to us the very nature of our daily social dynamics such as what we leave behind like traces in the world marking our passage whether it be garbage, conversations, or messages. An object, inasmuch as it forms part of our daily lives and is used for certain actions or to satisfy certain needs, becomes vital to the construction of our identity. Origami Transfers are an excellent example of this. Although made from TTC bus transfers – mass produced cloned paper objects – Mark personalizes the objects by moulding them into shapes with her own hands, then placing them neatly and reverently on rows of steel shelves.

The experience of repetition resonates in the video work 9 to 5, where Kelly herself, Tyler, Chris and Herbie are four short-order cooks who have been taped for a day at a restaurant. The video projects with a Zen-like hypnotic effect, with the rhythmic chopping of vegetables and food documented alongside bodily movements of the cooks going about their work. Paralleling mass production, with wry wit and intellectual humour, these works are the product of an individual who brings to form the very meaning of our daily existence.

There is a persistent aesthetic questioning and message about everyday creativity in Kelly Mark’s mind. A great deal of what has gone on in modern art may be understood as an attempt to replace the notion of art as a mirror of reality with a new compelling idea – art as its own reality – a desire to close what is felt as a gap between art and life. It is here that Mark’s work is situated.

- Shirly Madill

 

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"Literalist of the Imagination” by Christina Ritchie
Exhibition catalogue essay "Present Tense: Kelly Mark" Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1997



Kelly Mark once said that she wanted two tattoos, one on each shoulder. The first would be the logo for the Canadian Tire stores and the second, the Tim Horton’s Donut Shop logo. This was a joke, of course, an ironic and self-deprecating comment on the downscale consumer culture that she frequently, though indirectly, invokes in her work.

On first approach Mark’s work appears to be a reworking of minimalist and conceptualist strategies. This appearance has become increasingly familiar in the art of the 1990s, especially in the work of women artists like Roni Horn, Mona Hatoum or Rachel Whiteread. Repetition, the grid and systematic production strategies: these are the essential formal elements of both historical Minimalism and, tempered with a conceptualist emphasis on linguistic and administrative processes, of the work of a growing number of contemporary artists. But the rhetoric of power that characterized Minimalism and the fetishization of language that marked Conceptual art have been largely displaced in this work.

Mark’s sculptures and drawings demonstrate this displacement through a reconnection of the formal characteristics of Minimal art to personal, psychological expression. For example, in her work 25 Hundred, repetition and the grid are stretched well beyond any reference to industrial method, as understood in Minimal art, and into the realm of obsession and an irresistible compulsion to order. In an unpublished note about this work, Mark refers to the balls of wadded paper as a mistake made over and over again. The wadding of the paper is an intense, highly controlled act of violence in the face of a familiar, humiliating frustration. Mark’s display of this trauma, in such a rational and elegant form, approaches absurdity. But it also reconnects an impersonal, idealist aesthetic to a psychological reality. This is accomplished without recourse to personal disclosure or the sacrifice of formal discipline. What is remarkable about this process is that it subverts both the impersonal, masculinist interpretation of the minimalist approach as well as the polemics and sentimentality of much of the discourse on identity.

Ideas about time, duration and process became entwined with performance and body art of the 1970s, a lesson that Mark has recuperated for Object Carried for One Year. Wherever she went, Mark carried a small aluminum bar in the back pocket of her jeans for a year. Because of the softness of the metal, it registered the year’s worth of bumps and abrasions that accompanied her daily routines. At the same time that the bar registered these traces of the artist’s physical existence, it became a kind of fetish object, a thing that she was compelled to observe and handle on a constant basis. At the end of the year the bar was engraved, like a trophy, with the artist’s name and the title and date of the work. Engraved at a tacky jewellery shop at the mall, Object Carried for One Year takes on the aspect of an award of merit, an acknowledgement for getting through, and ultimately, letting go of an obsession.

Serial production and the ruse of mathematical progression are similarly transformed in the series of drawings One Castell, Two Castell, Three Castell. In these three drawings the artist has used first one, then two, then three identical pencils, as the titles specify. Starting in the upper left corner in each drawing, she has used short, dense strokes to cover the surface of the paper until the pencils were completely worn and she could no longer grasp them. The impression of intense force behind the mundane and repetitive strokes of the pencil becomes the focus of interest in these works. As in 25 Hundred the artist has concentrated her attention on a banal task, giving the work a tactile sense of compressed violence. Again the artist’s notes are revealing: she relates her methods to the violence that arises from the social dynamics of mass production and consumption and which serves to neutralize and ritualize behavior. At base, then, we can see these works as a drive to individuation within numbing social pressures toward uniformity. The companion series of drawings, Venus Velvet, Mirado Classic and Dixon, are also named after common brand name pencils. Within the identical procedure for creating the drawings, we must seek out the subtle details of their difference.

With 1,000 Watts and 1,000 Hours Mark gives the viewer an opportunity to “share her pain.” Both of these works are composed of ten 100-watt light bulbs arranged in a row and burning constantly. Like a deadpan joke, they give literal expression to the comic-strip shorthand of the light bulb as ubiquitous symbol of inspiration and the creative act. The joke serves to illustrate the often paradoxical and painfully confusing nature of creative expression. 1,000 Hours, titled after the average life expectancy of the bulb, will burn until the bulbs have all expired and will then become a conceptual relic – the end of the work, the end of the creative process. 1,000 Watts, however, will have the bulbs replaced, maintaining a uniform level of brightness and constant expenditure of power. Following the phenomenological tenets of Minimal art, the viewer who chooses to share space with this work will have to engage with it physically, but because of the brightness of the light they will have to endure severe physical discomfort in order to view the work directly. Working upon the minimalist logic that designates the interaction with the viewer as the completion of the work, 1,000 Watts risks its own completion by the physical challenge presented to the viewer, and by that ensures that the creative process will endure.

The challenge to the viewer is made even more explicit and direct in the video 33 Minute Stare. Likewise it induces the viewer into an uncomfortable confrontation with the work, in this case, with the compressed aggression of sustained eye contact. Again the artist’s sheer physical distress becomes manifest as we see her eyes tear and redden as she struggles to hold our gaze. There is a supreme ambivalence in this work. The artist’s affectless stare embodies an unresolvable oscillation between suppressed rage and a painful determination to see it through. Her face on the video screen becomes a shield against the churning of emotion and metaphor that lie on the other side of the gaze.

If we return now to the tattoo joke, we can see that it has more than an accidental consonance with Kelly Mark’s work. A tattoo, after all, is an incidence of self-imposed pain through the application of repeated small gestures in order to create something of personal significance that also captures a more general, culturally bound meaning. And, this is also what occurs in Kelly Mark’s work.

- Christina Ritchie

 

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"Approximately” by Ingrid Jenkner
Exhibition catalogue essay "Approximately" Halifax: Eye Level Gallery, 1997



Kelly Mark makes certain, in her typically laconic way, that each body of work she exhibits will register her presence as maker.  Given that her art is neither confessional nor lyrical, the Mark persona tends to emerge through myriad small acts, both physical and administrative, whose traces are meticulously documented.  Seriality, repetition, and gridded formats confer anonymity.  The works in Approximately wear these formats like a uniform; they are costumes in the production strategies of the recent avant-garde.  Together they perform a paradox that yokes the normative impersonality of minimalism to the psychological intensity of abstract expressionism.  in Approximately, Kelly Mark presents the visual conventions of minimal and conceptual art as the props of an obsessional personality.

Mark's allegiance to a reductive aesthetic lets her inhabit the work without risking the personal disclosures that some contemporary discourses insist on.  Because of this her art retains a psychological resonance that is capable of critical extension.  By this I mean that the work is situated; the artistic persona it supports is indexed to historically and socially specified identities.  Positioned by age and education as an inheritor of post minimal and conceptual production strategies, Mark grounds herself socially too, as a low-skilled, subsistence-level recruit to the surplus labour force.

For example, her presentation of 25 different, individually framed disposable napkins (Take-Out), and her arrangements of cheap, utilitarian salt shakers (Salt Set/Approx. 6,089,876, Salt Set/Approx. 5,727,472 and Pillar/Approx. 99,934,560) are too obsessively task-orientated to be construed as mere expressions of a perverse connoisseur ship.  In the context of her other, process-directed work, they might be interpreted according to a material economy of production ad consumption.  Thus, as indicators of the artist's consumption patterns and income level, the restaurant table wares portray the habitual diner-out and sometime server in low-rent establishments, who might be expected to want to salvage ritual significance from the repetitive routines of need.  Mark's selections of readymade collectibles display her as a market outcast, the sort of consumer no status-seeker would wish to emulate.

Her salt shakers may be mass-produced, but in Mark's taxonomy we are forced to recognize in the differences between specimens both the mirage of consumer choice and our own need to be recognized as individuals.  But what is the value of counting, of even estimating, the total quantity of salt grains held by each set of shakers?  Furthermore, why engage 500 times in a manual procedure (the wadded-up "mistakes" of ER-500) that invariably falls short of the objectives of the set task?

These insistently quantitative designations, while furnishing "objective" descriptions of the art, also underscore the oppressive rationality that frames Mark's activity as alienated labour, akin to factory work.  Perhaps it is through such absurd excessiveness that Mark declares her critical agenda.  Given the controlling logic of her chosen idiom, in order to figure in the work at all, the artist must appear to have been flushed out by a traumatic event -- her own failure to stick to the plan.  In the case of ER-500, it may be inferred that a compulsive activity was gradually overcome by the frustration that made her quit after wadding up 500 sheets of paper.  In the series of which Venus (titled after the brand name of the pencil) forms a part, the task was to begin at the center of the sheet and extended the marks outward, with uniform density, until the pencil is too worn o be grasped any longer.  Conceived as process with a fixed beginning ad end, as an antidote to subjective caprice, this drawing nonetheless betrays, through the forceful distortion of the paper surface and the aureole of lines at the perimeter of the graphite disk, the gestural trace of Kelly Mark's impatience.

Throughout Approximately, the tension between emotional violence and self-imposed discipline is sustained across a series of elegantly austere works.  Their appearance cannot be reduced to a set of rational causes, but is only approximately predictable.  The accounts of conception and of completion can never be identical.  One way of understanding the significance of this in historical terms is to compare Sol Lewitt's dicta with those of Kelly Mark.  "To work with a plan that is present is one way of avoiding subjectivity.  It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn."  (Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1967.)   "I really should get my shit together."  (Kelly Mark, I Really Should 197)

- Ingrid Jenkner