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The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction Ad Nauseum

This post is a long overdue reaction to the exhibition Everything in Time, held last year at the Center for Book Arts. The works in the show were responses to the constant, and mostly losing, battle for the control over information that each of us is fighting every day. The catalog described these works as “maximalist,” referring to the way in which the artists created “documents of experience” in which the filters that we normally apply in order to deal with an overabundance of information have been removed. Kenneth Goldsmith practiced “radical transcription” in works such as Fidget, a book that chronicles in spectacularly minute detail each movement that he made in a 24-hour period. Gabriela Grundler photographed every item in her house and grouped them by type for My Things. And Aspen Mays’s Every Leaf on a Tree is exactly what its title suggests: individual photographs of all the leaves on one of the trees in her front yard.

These artists are doing the collecting, categorizing, and cataloging that are generally considered to be the responsibility of the information professional. But here these actions become a parody, extreme and absurd. Rather than making sense, these artists make the point that there is too much to make sense of, and that it is obsessive and futile to try. The show’s curator explained, “You will not look at every image or read every word in Everything in Time. The amusing but sad punch line is that this evokes our current experience of images and information.”

Though not included in Everything in Time, the work of Meggan Gould and Jason Salavon might lead us to a similar “punch line.” Both artists layer photographic images one on top of the other until they become an illegible blur. Works like Every Playboy Centerfold, The 1990s, and Polaroid (the latter for which Gould used the first fifty results from a Google image search for the title) render their subjects completely incomprehensible, making the point that the more information we have, the less we really know.

Jason Salavon, Every Playboy Centerfold, The 1990s (2002).

Meggan Gould, Polaroid (2005).

There is one work in Everything in Time that seems to indicate that it may be too simplistic and too pessimistic to read only hopelessness in these “‘Every’ documents.” In Inmates + Kittens, Marni Shindelman chronicled every Google keyword search she made over the course of a year. Shindelman’s book evokes strong emotions, touching in its humor (one of her searches is “topless women hippie wallpaper”) and in its intimacy (another is “metformin + missed period”). She searches for her own name multiple times, which is amusingly relatable, as well as a poignant comment on personal identity in the information age. This “self-portrait through the internet” is fascinating—a stark contrast to many of the other pieces in the show, whose very point seems to be their boring impenetrability.

Inmates + Kittens is also a document of information-seeking behavior. It includes many strings of slight variations on a single search, additions or substitutions of keywords indicating the artist’s struggle to find what she was looking for in the vastness of the web.

But Shindelman shows us that even if we can’t locate the information we seek, we are not lost in the information deluge that we face. Our experience of information, even when the information is itself useless, helps us to define our identities in this era of excess.

Perhaps what the works in Everything in Time represent, then, is not surrender to the unavoidable glut of information that bombards us each day. Instead, the actions and processes of making art may help to assuage the anxieties of the modern, information-plagued world, may serve in part as a coping mechanism for the individual artist. Looked at in this way, “the urgency and utility of art under the sign of information” (as E. Melzer described it) is personal rather than public. It may be futile to attempt to make meaning from the information we have. But it may still be possible to make meaning from the process of attempting it.