Conference paper for Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada 2010, (international conference at the University of Toronto presented by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, held in conjunction with the exhibition TRAFFIC: CONCEPTUAL ART IN CANADA 1965 - 1980, 2010-2012).

Protocol as difference: inter-generational relations of conceptual art, or, critical difference as conceptualism in the works of Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Fiona Macdonald.

The return to conceptual art as a model of practice, and the engagement with the re-production of “first-wave” conceptual artworks within contemporary art practices over the last decade, has taken place through the lens of a curatorial focus on the period of 1960s-70s conceptualism. These curatorial and art-historical projects have compounded the establishment of the “first-wave”—as a canonisation of certain available visibilities and technologies. As this canon is produced through the extantiveness of the document, it has also produced an establishing set of paradigms of Conceptual art understood as the protocols and documentary frames of the period.
However we can also understand this as a continuing event of Conceptual Art’s protocols, propositions, and instructions, These structures and processes then become available – and not just for a pop-Conceptual cover version – but critically available to be activated or corrected, revised or remediated. What acts of difference does this produce, not only as a contemporary set of differences, but as difference activated within the frames of the “first-wave”?
If the engagement with Conceptual art is articulated through the mediation of the document as both (historical) evidence and artwork, then a contemporary approach as a remediation and a collaborative thinking of those terms of engagement can be developed through the codes (protocols, addresses) of the document/artwork itself. Which is to say that the engagement is procedural rather than interpretive. But if conceptualism is to be approached as a model of critical engagement and the critiques and discourses of earlier conceptual art—relations of location and relations of language (both inherited problems of neutrality and distribution)—are to be reactivated, then these remediations anad collaborative thinkings will also engage the critiques and discourses of feminisms, post-colonialisms, and post-structuralisms within any relation to these protocols of the document.

Protocol as a category of procedure, a status as form, and a certain mode of address, is a modus operandi for practices of making and for practices of reading conceptual art. In both cases, the literality of protocol is what activates an address to these practices, and within certain historical & theoretical understandings or framings of conceptualism, this same literal address can be understood to be a form of tautology, or an articulation of serial practices, or an effect of structuralist identities. Protocol as a quality and condition of the document activates linearity in connection to the work and in approaches to the work. Protocol deployed as process, theory, method, and content, becomes a question of an approach or a departure from that linearity, and a question of what is then produced as a continuation or dis-articulation of conceptual practice.

The critical thinking around translation as a set of protocols, argues for literality as a necessary procedure in order to activate the theory existing in the protocols of the “original” work. Walter Benjamin in his "Translation..." essay, conceptualised translation as a form of serial articulation. For Benjamin, the literality of translation disconnected it from representational meaning, instead opening up a structural seriality of grammars, grammars that allow the form of the original to remain evident in the translation. However, for Benjamin, this literality was also a fracturing of the original (and the translation) and a work that would remain necessarily incomplete. This serial articulation of translation is a textuality that opens the spaces between meaning, as much as articulating the links between it.

Within this notion of procedure—of protocol, of literality, of translation—is also an action of transitivity, one that connects with the notion of the unit of the word that Benjamin insists on as literality, but one that opens up to a dissemination of meaning through dispersion and deferral. This is the supplement of translation, the inter-space or disseminating shadow zone between the translation and the original. Benjamin describes this as the tangents that are the trajectories of the translation after its encounter with the original. Insofar as this tangentiality operates as improprieties in relation to the original, it also materialises the aporias of the original itself. This plurality, as it is described by Benjamin, is the touch of the translation on the circle of the original, a touch that deflects and disperses meaning as a material transitivity.

As these relations of translation to original are activated—and I am using the word original to stand for a work, a lineage of work-events, an idea contained in a circle of signification—they undo both translation and original.

The terms of relation can be understood here beyond the thinking of relational aesthetics, not as a form of communication, but as something that is a complex of traits, a liminality, or a thing at the limit of non-identity. For relation to be, a thing must be at the limit of its identity, and by being this limit, it becomes a threshold of others among others. How do these relations of traits operate in the artwork? This operational question of relation, is also an operational understanding within analytic philosophy—a territory mined by certain Conceptual art practices—where relation is assigned as a function—one that determines the spacing operation of constants or other predicates. This functional, formalising relation is attached to repetition, in the sense that as a function, the trait of the relation is assigned a potential for repeatability. So this formal relation functions as a defining relation for units, sets, and other monadic forms—that again we are familiar with from certain conceptual art practices—but the thing that repeats this relation (the trait), also operates as a threshold, as a latency of others, as a possibility that will undo that limit from inside. Therefore, these operational and pragmatic roles, on one hand form a term of relation, and on the other hand, form a term that can be deployed as a passive and promiscuous term of latency and plurality. The folding one to the other are the operational terms of relation as understood within the work of Thérèse Mastroiacovo.

Following Following...:

Because I am now in a relation of following Christof Migone’s paper this morning, so I am also following his presentation of Following Following Piece: July 8, 2008 to June 2, 2010, by Thérèse Mastroiacovo. This presentation therefore will be a doubling—but this double will find its dispersion in other regards.

Comprising fifty-three drawings of pages of books where Vito Acconci’s Following piece appears, Following Following Piece follows Acconci’s Following piece through its reproduction and distribution as image.
Following Following Piece: July 8, 2008 to June 2, 2010—and the dates in the title are specific here—is a document of the reception of reception. Reception is more than one of the critical frames of Following Following Piece, it is its hinge. Following, as reception, the distribution of Acconci’s Following piece, these drawings circulate through the art-theoretical sub-headings that frame Acconci’s project across four decades from its publication in AVALANCHE #6 FALL, 1972—each of these frames formed around the reproduction of the same set of images, as document.

Do I need to describe Acconci’s, Following piece, or would it be the case that we have all encountered it in a bibliographic text—of conceptual art, performance art, sculpture, photography, body art, surveillance art, new art (from 60s & 70s), public art, political art, or, and particularly, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (and which we have just seen reproduced in Bill Wood’s presentation)? I can follow and depart from Christof’s description by saying that, Following piece is a performance, where from September 3-25, 1969, Acconci followed a person picked at random, through the streets of NYC until they entered “a private place” (to use Acconci’s term), and that the work was documented at some point on index cards—a high-conceptual trope as we have seen during the last two days—and following that, a description was sent in the form of a letter from Acconci to 25 curators and artists—those who Acconci describes as “the 25 prime names” of the art-world mailing list.

The four photographs that have become the visual representation of the work were enacted after the event of the performance of Following piece. They are a production of the work for, and as, representation. These photographs repeat the following performance, only this time the camera follows the figure of Acconci. As “documents”, purportedly or otherwise, these photographs produce the cultural and historical distribution of Acconci’s Following piece. What is at play in Mastroiacovo’s Following Following Piece, is not a critique of the representational ploy in place of the “real” presence of Acconci, for what is at stake is not Acconci’s actual presence, but rather the distribution of a-presence-marked-out-through-its-representational-ploy.

In Acconci’s 1973 interview with Willoughby Sharp, Sharp queried the public dissemination of the Following piece, his question being: "So how does this wanting them to be public, condition them in their becoming?"

Acconci’s answer is that the apparent contradiction of private and public is (and already speaking a displacement in his use of the second person), “What pushes you to do it, you know that this is going to be told”.
And, to further this deferral of the act into language, he continues, when pressed by Sharp:
"Well you might do it [the private act] and then talk about it with the kind of flair that’s needed…for it to become public."

For Acconci then, the publicity of the work through its representation in language is embedded in the work’s logic. Activating another second-order presentation of the work, through the photograph as “document”, is a continuation of this logic.

To return to the hinge of reception that is the location of these representational devices, is to deal not only with a distribution of self-representational, epistemological orders, but also to deal with the activity of historical linearities as geneaological identities. These two trajectories of reception, are the work of Following Following Piece.

Jacques Derrida, writing on Benjamin’s Translation essay, locates translation as being the negotiation of the question of the proper name. For Derrida, this question of the name itself is also an economy, one that operates on several levels: firstly, the economy of genealogical inheritance; secondly, which follows and is a doubling, the “name” which becomes word, thus opening into the economy of origins and originals; and thirdly, economy as a question of a “quantitative relation”, i.e can a word become more than one word? These are the same economy in that they are tied to the name and its meaning as origin. In other words, an economy of the same and the same.
These questions of economy are the outcome of translation, they are revealed through the literalism of translation, and its knowable and unknowable quantitative relations.

To ask here, in relation to the Following Following Piece, what is the economy of the proper name of Acconci, what is the doubling and following of the name through image and word, what is the quantitative relation of this genealogy, is also to ask, what is the performance of the Following Following Piece, that reveals this operation of the proper name? What is Following Following Piece as a translation?

Certainly, the economy of the name is brought to visibility in this project. But to focus on that visibility as pertaining to an institutional critique of reception, or of theory as it might distribute reception, would be to mis-recognise Mastroiacovo's two year performance that constructs Following Following Piece. The following that takes place, the act of drawing each of these reproductions, follows not only the genealogy of the Following piece through its distributive framing, but by its own, enacted, durational process, outperforms it. The silence of this performance points to the activity of translation that Paul de Man describes as the secondariness of the translator, the one who remains lesser, unacknowledged by history, in the shadow of the original. Mastroiacovo draws this shadow, literally, and this plurality of translation as the relation that undoes the original from below, dissipates the distribution of the proper name to a dissemination that exists now as its own supplement.

The triangulation that structures the photographic images of Following piece, repeats the triangulation of signification within Acconci’s project. As Christof quoted this morning, these images stand in for Acconci’s desire to step out of himself and view himself from the outside, as it were. Neither the followed, nor the photographer, are subjects in these images, but both are the necessary ground of desire for the figure of Acconci—the followed as prop, the photographer suspended (with the viewer) outside the frame.

The remediation that takes place in Following Following Piece, brings the reception-effect not only into visibility but also into time, and with it the viewer now located within the frame, in an equal relation as receiver. The self-representation of Following Piece is exchanged for the representation of a relation—a representation that is occurring as both as a relation of non-identity and non-alterity. The otherness of the project remains in its protocols and its literality—it gives itself over to that process that is also the remediation of the neutrality of the ground on which it is activated.

Following Following Piece is not a quotation in that it does not seek signification in the original. It treats all parts, original and mediated, of the reproduction and distribution as equally significant. Neither is it an attempt at an exhaustion of the image as a document in the world—not so much for the obvious reasons of that impossibility but because it does not recognise a privileged signification in the original that would require exhaustion.

It does however exhaust the figure/ground relationship of Following piece. The mediation of the dialectic of essence/non-essence can be understood to be an undertaking of Acconci’s project. The remediation of the ground of that project as a central present of meaning to a distributive materiality of the text somewhere between renovation and negation, is the work of Following Following Piece.

This correcting action against neutrality is also at work in Re)Association Area.

Re)Association Area

In 1971 while in Halifax, Vito Acconci produced a performance in which he and Mel Waterman, blindfolded and wearing ear-plugs, attempt to imitate each other’s actions through intuition and concentration. Acconci termed it a “quasi-ESP exercise”. The 62-minute videotape titled Association Area documents this performance. Association Area as video mediates the performative parameters of the work, transferring it to the screen, and introducing a third element to the relational dynamics of the performance that is the whispering voice of an “off-screen” instructor, audible only to the audience.

Acconci described this work in Avalanche in 1972:
“Blindfolded, ears plugged: our goal is to sense each other’s movement and bearing, to attempt to assume the same movement and bearing. An off-screen voice, heard only by the audience, gives directions that would help us attain our goal.”

Five years on, speaking at an artists talk at NSCAD in 1977, Acconci accounted for this work as having failed to connect psychologically to the audience, failing to combine “his space” with the “viewer’s space”, rather that it had produced what he called a “magic circle” cut off from the viewer. Inside this circle, the work became about the relation of the two men who are “possibly coming to some kind of unity with each other.”

Association areas are regions of the cerebral cortex that plan actions and organise perception into abstract thought and language. The concentration on the bodily organisation of relation in Association Area clearly relates to those concepts underlying the terminology of the title. Yet, the neurotic equilibrium that is played out in Association Area as both its aim and its method, and the knowingness and technical neutrality of the instructor as the voice positioned outside the action, brings the associations of the psychoanalytic situation into the frame. The instructor—the one who knows—is positioned as the knowing that cannot be accessed. This bar of the Big Other for the performers in their blindness is a demonstration of the diagram of analysis. However, the viewer (audience), that for Acconci is complicit with the voice as the “one-who-knows”, remains unanalysed.

The audience, here, outside the frame, witness this repetition of the triangulations that underscores the processes and protocols of Acconci’s work. In as much as these are a move away from the dialectics of structuralism in its polemic forms, they embrace the triangulations of a subject position that is always in a relation to a barred or a fulfilled desire (these being the same thing) in relation to the patrinomic inheritance—of knowledge, of name, of appeal, of procedure.

In 2006, in Banff during the Future of Idea Art residency, this performance was re-produced. Taking the video as a starting point, instructions as to the process and aims of the performance were devised for the performers. In this scenario two fellow artists were chosen as the performers while I took the role of the instructor. Using a soundproof television studio, the performance was recorded using two cameras, two viewpoints and two video standards while from a third viewpoint from inside a soundproof voice-over booth, directions were transmitted to one or other of the performers through walkie-talkies connected to their ear-phones/plugs.

In Re)Association Area, all the participants are connected to the technological process that presents the performance as a set of viewing relations. The magic circle is broken by the intervention of the voice. The artist in this case, as instructor, directs the performance albeit in a partial and not always accurate way—the performance of the instruction is embedded analogically with that of the performers in the 62 minute duration of the video . The instructional voice is not one of knowledge but of representation that directs the performers as much to their presence in the frame of the video as to their relation to each other. The performers work not only from a concentration on sensory experience and from outside direction, but on their memory of having already been the viewer of Acconci’s video. There is no “one who knows” in Re)Association Area, rather the viewer is a witness to a series of representational acts.

The viewer of this work, is also a witness to the representational structure of the video medium itself. Re)Association Area was recorded using two video standards (PAL & NTSC) and these are presented side by side, one replicating the camera position of the Acconci document, and the other deployed as a surveillance of the scene of the performance. To watch the video presented in the installation is to witness these two would-be documents moving further and further out of sync with each other: the differing frame rates of the video standards delivering differing representations of the duration of the performance.

Earlier this year Re)Association Area was exhibited in Halifax, in the ballroom at the Khyber ICA. The exhibition was titled “What Happens in Halifax, Returns to Halifax”—a reference to Mario Garcia Torres’ work (What Happens in Halifax, Stays in Halifax), but equally a description of the project as a return to its originating scene. Describing the work as its return to Halifax brings into focus one of the loops of amplification at work in the project which, as a work of neurosis, brings into visibility an historical equilibrium that positions conceptual art as an historical moment or an archive of historic resources. Re)Association Area is both a critique and a continuation of one of the programs of conceptualist art. It also proposes that the activities and discourses of conceptualism are not closed. The work continues.

Fiona Macdonald, 2010