Bilging a Wetter Fly’s Lap

by A.E. Benenson, Tyler Coburn, Jenny Jaskey, Michael Portnoy, Fernando Ortega And Fly Electocutor Device


Curators Jenny Jaskey and A.E. Benenson met with artists Tyler Coburn and Michael Portnoy at the Artist’s Institute, under a work by the artist Fernando Ortega consisting of a flytrap wired to the lighting system of the gallery. Whenever a bug bit the dust, the lights would go off for ten seconds. Ortega’s inverse engineering often interrupted the conversation that aptly circled the very theme of engineering of artwork in general, in the wider, facet-laden sense of the term: social engineering that offers viewer/participants the chance to play beyond their expectations, “professional whimsicalism,” outsider design of new worlds…


TYLER COBURN: Michael, there is a term on your Wikipedia page that I really enjoy: “Relational Stalinism.” This would come in contrast to Relational Aesthetics—or “democratic lounging,” as you once put it. Jenny and Alex asked us to talk about engineering; in your work, I can see a connection between the Relational Stalinist and the engineer.

MICHAEL PORTNOY: There is a project I initiated in 2010 for the Taipei Biennial, the Improvement League, whose mission is to “improve” contemporary breeds of art making like a crackpot genetic engineer. [1] To take the seeds within artworks, their forms and ideas, and do operations on them as a strategy for invention. Right now, I’ve installed an illustrator, Rán Flygenring, who I call The Roaster, within an exhibition at de Appel to relentlessly permute, through drawing, all of the other works in the show throughout its two-month duration. Since I can’t draw, however, the way I “improve” is to represent art works linguistically, describing them in a sentence, and then rengineering that sentence, replacing words, adding modifiers, etc. You can do this on a micro or macro level, describing not just the features and strategies of the individual artwork but also the features of the breed of art-making it belongs to, and see what new breeds can be generated by playing with that sentence, adding a prefix here or there, grafting in a stranger root.

[Fly gets electrocuted in Ortega device and lights go off.]

TC: For me, “improvement” presupposes a scale of measurement that we can apply to an artwork, however tongue-in-cheek those metrics may be. It immediately makes me think of Google, or other organizations that equate innovation with improvement. Google improves, and hence, one can improve…

MP: Or that knowledge improves you.

[Lights come back on.]

TC: Exactly. So this makes me wonder if improvement, as a term, is really appropriate for art production. Sure, we can try to recodify terms, but this one is fairly entrenched in a techno-determinist mindset. What I like about your work, then, is that it doesn’t seem to be in the business of recodification. Instead, you suspend language, turning such terms into experiential and intangible spaces rather than purely theoretical ones.

MP: There is an example I always like to think about. Maybe I read it in Forks, Phonographs and Hot Air Balloons, which is basically a guide to the heuristics that engineers typically use to invent things. An engineer takes a ballpoint pen, and they decide they want to improve it. So they describe it. It’s a writing implement with a cylindrical ink reservoir that delivers ink continuously through a narrow aperture. And then they start doing experiments on each word in that sentence. So they say, cylindrical, well, what would happen if that was a cubic reservoir? What happens if it delivers ink in spurts rather than continuously? What happens if instead of a single aperture it comes out of many little pores? How about if the ink never comes out at all but the words harden in the reservoir? And I think that’s the method, because I can’t draw, for approaching the next thing. I do that to my own work, and to other art forms, and to processes and structures. I chart them out and then start doing the math on the language.

TC: You linguistically meditate on the pen that you can’t use to make a drawing.


JENNY JASKEY: You inhabit the role of a social engineer in many of your works, giving participants instructions to do things without a clear understanding of exactly what they’re trying to accomplish or why. You’re deliberately playing with expectations.

MP: Yes, in those participatory works the objective is much more ambiguous, or confusing, although it’s still about invention. I’m trying to force people into other ways of creating meaning together through very abstract language and movement. But in these improvement projects I am interested in very tangible outcomes. In jump-starting the evolution of breeds of art. Taking a pro-active stance. That we don’t need to wait for certain breeds of art to die a long, painful death, and for new breeds to arise organically or by some mysterious gathering of energies. We can create them now through acts of language.

A.E. BENENSON: This idea of progress or improvement has new relevance in this era of startups and venture capital. The world that we find your work in raises this issue with maybe more insistence than before.

TC: And crucial to this point is that the forces reshaping our society are not only political actors. Evgeny Morozov wrote an excellent op-ed in The Financial Times last December, critiquing the media’s excessive focus on state spying after the Snowden revelations. Moving forward, he claims, requires situating the revelations within a broader shift in capitalism, which will formalize personal information as the chief currency for many of our transactions. A primary cause of this shift is the “relocation of power from Washington and Brussels to Silicon Valley,” as certain governments have “surrendered their communications networks to technology companies.” On the flip side, we are not lacking in examples of the damaging effects of governmental network control, nor would Morozov likely advocate for such extreme models. Nonetheless, the essay reminds us that the entities doing the social engineering largely have our consumer interests in mind.
Michael, I keep returning to what Jenny said: by playing with audience expectations, you also cloud the criteria for a successful outcome. I’d go so far as to say that you’re challenging the very notion of success. I also liked what you said about improvement as, among other things, working with the seeds within artworks. You’re turning biological metaphors away from dominant paradigms of what constitutes a trajectory—evolutionarily, aesthetically, or otherwise. Instead, an older work can graft onto a newer one, yielding different combinatory states that have less to do with vectors and more with expanding room for experimentation. In a way, you’re not just suspending metrics of improvement and success, but also suspending the engineer as subject-type. You’re imagining a non-determinist engineer, a program that calls itself into question as it runs…

AEB: Or the equivalent of an engineer building a solution that they don’t understand. It reminds me of Hegel’s comment on the ancient Egyptian’s monumental architecture from his Lectures on Fine Art. He said, in paraphrase, that the mysteries of the Egyptians were also mysteries for the Egyptians: that they didn’t even understand the things they were building. Maybe you can use the engineer’s logic of progress or forward movement without the teleological goal.

MP: As a kind of combinatory fantasia. One of my favorite inspirations along these line is an illustrator named Steven M. Johnson, who’s a member of the Improvement League and refers to himself as a “professional whimsicalist.” Although years ago he worked as an urban planner and future trends analyst, he spends most of his time dreaming up amazing and hilarious inventions in the form of drawings. So he takes a necktie and will make a thousand permutations, lengthening it into trousers, turning it into an umbrella or a spare pair of sunglasses, and so on. He has a new book out called Have Fun Inventing where he explains all his conceptual devices, how he invents things. A lot of it is merging things. How do you combine a laundry machine with a spa, or put a private room inside of a bed, or make a trampoline car, or a spoon that launches it’s own condiments over a bite of food. So it’s not about progress per se, though some of the inventions do really address problems, for instance in transportation and care for the elderly, and propose ingenious solutions. In his What the World Needs Now, he takes on every sector of everyday living: dining, home and office furnishings, gardening, camping, etc. The NY Times has presented some of his innovations recently. To address the danger of buses for bike riders, he designed a public bus that has a channel through the center so that bikes can ride through it!

AEB: I’ve often thought that the minimal definition of a really good outsider artist is someone who, because of basically a certain level of psychological or social dysfunction, has a self-belief that they can solve all of these intractable problems in the world by ways that no one has ever thought about before, whether it ’s perpetual motion or how to get to Mars, and of course their solutions are totally insane, but in that insane attempt at solutionism is a kind of beautiful creativity and a way of thinking about something, almost like sci-fi. They are totally improbable as solutions, but there is some kernel in there that is more interesting in an aesthetic sense than a proper solution to the problem, one that actually works.

TC: Though even that has been marketized in recent years. These types of open competitions…

AEB: There ’s definitely potential for recuperation there, but to reiterate my point, and at the risk of sounding kind of banal, I’d look to some of what came out of the open call for redeveloping the World Trade Center site after 9/11. They had thousands of submissions, including some totally untenable ones that were aesthetically and emotionally more evocative than any practical solution. There’s a book called Imagining Ground Zero that the Architectural Record published documenting a lot of them. Ellsworth Kelly, for example, submitted a photograph of Ground Zero with a giant green parallelogram superimposed over it in a way that totally disregarded the topography and existing buildings, and that was the entirety of his plan. Still the overriding goal of these sorts of competitions is clearly to find a way to monetize all this otherwise free-floating creativity. Like with the X Prize for non-governmental space travel that was eventually won by a group funded by Microsoft.

JJ: Or the one the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has for condoms.

TC: Wait, what? There is a condom ideation competition?

AEB: Yeah, it’s very similar to the X Prize.

JJ: Yes, one of the top condoms submitted to their “Next Generation Condom” competition is made of graphene, a fairly new substance scientists are predicting will revolutionize everything from touchscreen technology to DNA sequencing.

TC: I can think of a pretty insidious art world example. Remember Deloitte, the “professional services” firm where Pilvi Takala famously served as a trainee? Since then, a colleague was taken on to contract artists to give presentations and workshops on their practices (read: how to be precarious). Sami Siegelbaum has discussed this at length in an excellent essay for Art Journal. Anyways, it strikes me as one of the more bald-faced examples of how the mythos of the artist can be marketized—even the mythos of artists who are already successfully embedded in the art world’s commercial operations. It also conveys a fairly traditional idea: that the “art” resides within the artist. As such, an artist can be put in a conference room and by their very being demonstrate a quality as valuable in its supposed autonomy as in its potential for appropriation.

JJ: It’s not just that the artist has creative ideas or skills, but that they themselves have an ineffable inspirational quality, akin to divination—what might be the very oldest idea of the artist as an oracle.

TC: Artist, alias “creative.” We can see in the slum the possibility of the gentrified neighborhood. We can see in ourselves the horizon of flexible work. But sometimes we need Richard Florida or Deloitte to come along and tap that capacity of ours.

MP: Or interpret it.

AEB: Or patronize it.

TC: There were moments in high school when I thought that I would end up chained in the basement of a corporation. They would keep me on the good stuff, oracle-style, and come down every few hours to transcribe my ramblings. A couple days later, those ramblings would get product-tested. It’s a frictionless form of engineering: no volition, pure flow.

MP: I love James Agee’s article about the glory years of silent movies. He talks about Mack Sennett’s writing room, where Sennett would hire these “wild men” to sit in on sessions in his writers’ room, some nearly incoherent guy with an unfettered imagination who’d mostly sit silent but every now and then blurt out a “wildy”—some insane idea that’d form the seed for one of the film’s gags.

AEB: One point of difference, to talk about gags for a second, is that some of your works Michael, are not only functional solutions, but the systems themselves are gags too. There’s not too much to instrumentalize about that process. It’s not like someone could come in and think they could market it, because you’re taking the artistic license that means a thing doesn’t have to be workable or at least it doesn’t have to work as advertised. In making something conceptual in this way, there is maybe a type of brokenness or non-functionality that is allowed for

[Ortega device goes off. Lights out.]

in the art world, which would be difficult to metabolize in a more commercial setting.

MP: The paradox is that, Tyler, you’re saying that all of this brokenness can be metabolized.

TC: Well, I’m not sure actually. I think that Alex is right as far as the difference between art and advertising. Art can be formally metabolized, but maybe it’s just a matter of parsing the difference between how it wears its commerce in and outside of the gallery. This is something that I always try to impart to my students when we walk into a gallery: the site where art has seemingly been birthed ex nihilo hides a massive infrastructure funding its capacity to be there.

[Lights come back on.]

I keep thinking about your work, Michael, as well as the figure of the engineer or tinkerer or autodidact. All of this raises a social question. On the one hand, you are critical of Relational Aesthetics in a way that is very resonant for me. But then you talk about the autodidact—what I might call a “world-builder”— and I start to think about the outsider artist…

[Ortega device goes off. Lights out.]

Take Gioni’s Venice Biennale, for example, which reveals the complicated role of that figure in recent exhibition-making. We are invited to look at a given artist—possibly having no education, possibly being insane, possibly being close to God, possibly being less than white—who was able to imagine this incredible world. The problem becomes: how do we ethically approach that world when the very thing that gives this figure its outsiderish allure is a condition of inaccessibility? Additionally, world-building is a lonely job; in other words, the need to carve out a space for the personal imaginary can be isolationist in nature.

[Lights on.]

So I wonder about the space between these two poles: Relational Aesthetics as the fantasy of democracy that belies the real control of certain authorial types, and then the outsider artist who builds a world that can be filled with thousands or billions, but is often designed for a population of one.

JJ: I don’t see how it’s possible to go on making work as an artist without actually committing to one’s own world. That kind of independent thinking is essential when you are trying to make work in an environment whose logic is increasingly tied to the market.

TC: Maybe I mean world in a different way: on the level of communicability. There seems to be a premise, in Relational Aesthetics, that a world can be totally communicable. It may be more of a Rancièrian public sphere than a Habermasian one, but it certainly is convivial, as Claire Bishop notes. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. With outsider art, on the other hand, we are given worlds that we can see, but that aren’t communicating with us. And their value (in all senses of the term) is this inaccessibility, incommunicability. The work does things for us, we draw things from it, but it ultimately doesn’t need us.

JJ: It is indifferent to us. There is a shared interest on the part of many artists today, to ask what it means to make work that is neither fully under the artist’s control, nor directly “for” a viewer or participant. In other words, how could art approximate a dynamic and emergent system?

[Lights out.]

TC: Michael, it seems like you’re between these terms. Indifference doesn’t fully seem to apply, but neither does participation, in the way that we usually think about that term.

AEB: My read is that it’s a trick, where you come to the space and you’re inducted into a fully formed world with very specific rules, and you [Michael] ostensibly take the role of the engineer, the boss, or the wizard behind the curtain, but that’s an illusion, because in fact you’re on the same plane as everyone coming into it.

[Lights on.]

It’s not necessarily a world that you understand better than anyone else.

MP: That’s true, though I’m trying to teach them a way to reengineer their language through my example. I’m trying to teach them how to play with words in a way so that hazy, impossible worlds start to form.

TC: You engineer the scenario to teach people how to reengineer their language. It’s not delegative, per se, but more a training in method. And I like how you describe that space as ontic, that there ’s a slipperiness to it, that it ’s not realized enough to actually be a world. So it’s not totalizable in the sense of some of the outsider practices that we might consider here. Indeed, the slipperiness gives allowance for participants to experiment with the methods and techniques that you’re skilling them in.

JJ: Now Tyler, in your new work NaturallySpeaking, you’re giving us back the ways that technology engineers our language. How it tries to learn about us.

TC: Yes. In my work, I’m very sensitized to how things come to feel natural, and how notions of progress and improvement are entailed in this process. Within the scope of our conversation, I would argue that through naturalization, we are engineered into certain mindsets. For me, the critical questions are: how does one (a) denaturalize and demystify the various techno-mysticisms floating around, and (b) build critical consciousness towards engineering alternative futures through non-determinist means? Demystifying is the first step; producing something else is the second, far more difficult one. NaturallySpeaking follows from these concerns, intervening in the standard training copy that several voice recognition programs utilize. Basically, I’m starting at the beginning: the first words you say to the program, which are designed to combine various linguistic bits to expedite the machine’s capacity to learn your voice.

[Lights out.]

JJ: You want to understand how all the machinery is working, and what the machinery could possibly produce.

TC: Exactly—and by doing so, also consider what is bracketed out. These programs, as you might imagine, solicit flat, nonaffective registers of speech; far from just learning to communicate with machines, we are rendered communicable to them. Much of my rewriting of the training copy thus considers the ramifications for creative expression, as a lingua franca, to Édouard Glissant, “is always apoetical.”

[Lights on.]

AEB: Right, these technologies are often talked about in terms of translating technical processes into human readable forms, but really they do much more to translate our affects into machine readable forms. To add to this, I think that Tyler’s work registers an important shift in our relationship to communications technology. I don’t know what the inaugural moment was, certainly before something as advanced as SIRI—maybe those automated phone trees you have when you call tech support. If historically we had imagined most communications technology as facilitating a relationship between human subjects, now the diagram has been reversed: humans are the interlocutors for technologies to talk to each other. Think about what happens when your router goes out and you call tech support and get a robot triaging and responding to your issue, maybe it even automatically restarts your router for you… you’ve become the go-between for two pieces of technology.

JJ: How would both of you think of your work in relationship to a word like critique?

MP: I think of my work more as futurology than critique, but I am trying to propose some alternatives to modes of thought or practice that I find stillborn. But I hope to do it with a light hand.

JJ: Neither of you seem to have cynicism in what you’re doing.

MP: Yes, that’s not the experience that I want to give.

TC: The presupposition that there are not problems leads to false conviviality, right? The idea that mere presence—or discourse on utopia—can provide ground for imagining alternatives is useless if you don’t spend weeks or years living in the swamp of reality.

[Lights off.]

The swamp is filled with humans and networks, and the struggle in making work stems from this lack of remove. Total entanglement can be generative in allowing for intimacy with one ’s subjects, but it can also hinder clear thinking. We are close enough to touch the thing, but too close to fully see it. As such, it becomes difficult to distinguish critique from cynical reason, productive from resigned pessimism. What’s to be done? I don’t have any solutions on offer, but I can say that I’m earnest about my pessimism.

[Lights on.]

Jenny, what are your thoughts on critique?

JJ: Some of the art that’s had the biggest impact on me comes out of a history of critique, using strategies of self-reflexivity, or deconstructing the systems through which an artwork accrues value. I think now, though, those kinds of operations leave me more self-satisfied than curious. And what I really want from art at the end of the day is to be pushed to place that I don’t yet understand. That’s not to say that I’m after some sublime or mystical experience from art, or that art is better when it obscures reality. I think that the best curiosity-inducing art probably makes me want to live in the world differently in the end, so in that way, it’s productive for me in ways that “critical” art once was. I’m very interested in looking for the effects an artwork sets off—in my thinking, but also in the things it’s connected to.

AEB: I think that there’s a false binary between art that is critical and art that is undetermined or open-ended, and the notion that the former expresses itself didactically or straightforwardly to its object of critique, and the latter is frivolous and superficial. I think that a type of underdetermined play can in fact be a means towards critical understanding. The idea of being able to devolve into associative play and non-directed play is itself a form of critique, this is an idea I’m adapting from the psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, who posits it at the intimate, psychological level; what we’ve been calling this kind of non-directional engineer, he’d simply call the analyst, but I think it also works as an aesthetic theory about the way that people come to a better understanding of their world.

That’s another way of saying what Jenny was saying about curiosity, which is a more flexible and usable form of critique.

MP: Curiosity is a nice word, because perhaps the kind of critique that falls short for us is one that doesn’t demonstrate or encourage curiosity.

TC: I agree. What I like about your 27 Gnosis project, for instance, is how it reminds that there is plenitude in the world, plenitude in language. We may encounter this plenitude more often in its absences and elisions, in our dissatisfaction with how the contemporary is choosing to narrate itself. But this should not suggest that those absent things are irrecoverable. The task of art, in other words, may be to open channels of access to that plenitude.



[1] The Improvement League is a think tank comprising artist/futurologist Steven M. Johnson, artist Adriana Lara, writer/curator Raimundas Malašauskas, Cabinet magazine editor Sina Najafi, artist Michael Portnoy, and architect Gro Sarauw.


Originally published on Mousse 44 (Summer 2014)

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