Matt Wycoff and James Woodfill
In 1999, James Woodfill and I began a conversation which has occurred in emails, recorded audio and video conversations, phone calls, essays, lectures, panels, meetings, collaborative articles, studio visits and interviews. Evidence of this conversation ranges from concrete tapes and audio files or emails, to scribbled notes and recollections. Over the course of this correspondence James and I developed particular strands of thought, phrases and individual conversations into a useful, and wide-ranging, shared language. The subcategories; "Frames of Reference," "Approximation" and "Direct/Indirect," which frame this text are examples of the broader directions or thematic tendencies of the conversation, while phrases such as "tuning the knobs" and "the drift of reference" function as working signifiers, or place markers for useful ideas arrived at within the conversations themselves. This short hand emerged as useful precisely because its meanings have been defined as fluid. Likewise, we have left the attribution of particular thoughts or quotes free to be edited and manipulated in service of the larger text as a whole. This reconstructed dialog extends our conversation - not only as a representation of our history, but as a new construction upon which to build.
Matt Wycoff (03/20&21/2010)
Frames of Reference
I understand that we live in a particular time frame — that eventually the continents will drift, the sun will expand. Quantum physicists tell us that there are particles that move backwards in time. As we grow older time seems to pass more quickly as we compress more and more detail into larger and larger chunks of memory.
I get that moral absolutes are relative to the systems of thought that claim them, and as cultural systems merge there are glaring inconsistencies and contradictions. I can follow the logic of relativism and I think it is correct. (12/05/2004)
I also understand that each of us has our own particular set of lenses that we see the world through. Often these are compatible, but as our understanding of the world becomes more global we can easily see the dissonance between discrete frames of reference. This jarring of traditional (local) structures tends to cause a momentary return to traditional absolutes. I suppose the project of our time then is to keep these hard won realizations of relative truth present while at the same time setting about the task of creating pragmatic strategies for living in this world — creating an evolving series of “frames of reference” wherein we can construct rules that we all agree on given the terms of each new context. This process relies on having faith in the overarching need for hope. It relies on an understanding of the lack of cohesion outside any given frame of reference, and the necessity of an agreement on any given terms. Without these agreements lived experience dissolves into sarcasm, irony, apathy and chaos. So the question is: What are the terms of the agreement — what are the frames of reference? (12/05/2004)
In this sense ethics might be about excelling at being human, and nobody can do that in isolation. Moreover, nobody can excel at being human unless certain political institutions are available. 1 In other words, humans can’t flourish unless the environment in which they live is equipped with certain fundamental things like basic order, safety, and rules that everyone agrees to. The implementation of this situation is politics. (06/2005)
This is where it gets complicated for art. I have developed these ideas — these ways of seeing how people communicate and interact. Then I make things. I’m uncertain about the specificity of many of my decisions in the studio, but at some point each work seems correct as a piece of information that belongs in this world. I want to make work that operates in a way that correlates with my world view. (07/02/2006)
1 Eagleton, Terry, After Theory, P. 142/3 Basic Books, 2003
Starting somewhere in the early 80’s my focus left the central critical dialog in art and drifted into many other areas. I felt the decentralization of an historical narrative in a real way. I spent time learning about various physical and cultural systems, and tinkered with phenomenon-based experience — all of this as a means to put a formal language to work in conjunction with the real, everyday world. I began to see these many points of view as lenses through which I could see new connective tissue between disparate issues. Ultimately my work seemed to operate more effectively as it drifted around through these frames of reference, moving from one set of connections to another. (02/12/2010)
For example, I did a series of pieces where I shrink-wrapped different objects such as box fan frames and amplifiers — I knew what objects were inside, but I wondered if the viewer was given enough information to figure it out. There was this bit of subversion, moving the question from “what does this mean?” to “what is this?” I was looking for slippage. I wanted to unlock the connections that the viewer had with their preconceptions of what they were “supposed” to think about. I wanted to get the drift started. I suppose in a gallery maybe these preconceptions start with varied views of art history, but in a public setting these conditions are more slippery. (07/02/2006)
This drift is evident in the Ultra Gate project from 2006. The clients were looking for something that would be kind of an addendum — something happening as people walked across the bridge. The bridge is a mile long, so it wasn’t a situation where I could affect the whole span of the bridge, so instead of putting up a banner every 500 feet, I decided to pick several locations and construct these fabric jackets that are about two or three feet wide that wrapped around the structure in different ways. I started drawing dotted lines up through the skeletal structure of this steel truss bridge by wrapping the bright colored “jackets” and attaching them with ratchet straps. I also stretched solid color scrims across the span in a number of locations. (07/02/2006)
For me, the project became an effort to “mark” the complex patterns of the bridge structure. The project was the bridge itself. And I really like the idea that you might first encounter my intervention by thinking that it’s some kind of safety apparatus or indicator for something structural.
As if it were functional?
Yeah, it’s very tied to the idea of the functional and not the decorative, so you might not think, “There’s a public art project on the bridge,” but instead you might ask, “Wait a minute, what is going on here?” As with the gallery projects, I am trying to trigger a kind of drift. (07/02/2006)
If we borrow from the idea of ethics brought up earlier, the precondition for art is that its "rules" have to be fluid and relational. In other words art has to speak on its own terms, and not within the terms of some other structure (such as politics). What artwork can do however is allude to the rules of other structures, or frames of reference. I would hope that my artwork is a reflection of this condition — that it recognizes that alternate frames of reference exist and are useful tools to build an understanding of the "rules" of those various frames. (02/12&23/2010)
We were built by evolution to understand local conditions and to survive in our surroundings. How then have we as humans moved so dramatically from understanding ourselves in a local situation to understanding ourselves in a global situation? (07/02/2006) It's a process of defining sets instead of specifics, you have to look at larger tendencies, you have to look at averages; you have to approximate. The worst of that in human nature are things such as stereotyping, but you can’t see things on a global scale without that mechanism. (07/02/2006)
This is a similar mechanism that we use in language. We approximate our experience of many very different objects into the categories chair or book. (12/28/2009) Language does not ask the question, what is this? Language asks the question, what is this like? (02/06/2009) It comes down to something like; you say light bulb and I say light bulb and there is an unspoken agreement for the sake of expedience that what we each think of when the other says light bulb is roughly the same. This kind of conversation takes me to my interest in Douglas Hofstadter and his ideas about lexical items, which are about understanding just how important the approximations that take place in everyday language are for communication. For example when someone says, “This must have been the will of God,” one has to assess very quickly just how approximate the agreement is about what the word God means. If you don't assess that difference then there is potentially a severe gap in communication. (07/02/2006)
Some writers and critics have argued that in the modern consciousness the transition between experiencing the objects around us (a chair or a tree) and understanding those objects through words and language happens almost instantaneously. Some go further and argue that the relationship between form (the physical things around us) and language can no longer be undone — that we cannot look at a chair and not also simultaneously think "chair." The title of a biography about the artist Robert Irwin titled, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” gets at this idea succinctly. The title of the book also implies that, “to see,” is to have an experience of something that is outside of language. The title recognizes language as an impediment to detail and specificity, which, it assumes, are essential to “seeing.” (02/06/2009) As a viewer looking at formal or abstract art this requires trying to suspend the approximation reflex. (01/05/2010)
The tricky thing is that despite any attempt to suspend our tendency to approximate when looking at art, other agreements, rules, systems of thinking and references inevitably start to seep in and affect how one looks at an artwork. (12/29/2009) This process could be referred to as the drift of reference. (01/05/2010) For example everyone has been in a museum and overheard some one ask, “what is that?” only to hear someone else reply, “It's art.” The answer, “It's art” seems to negate the original intent to suspend the approximation reflex. The artwork is immediately categorized and codified into language by calling it art. One way to think about formalism or abstraction in contemporary art is as an attempt to slow down the speed of this movement from form to language. It is an opportunity to revel in the question, "what is this?" (02/06/2009) But at the same time you have to understand that everything that we see reminds us of other things and those other things have meanings that artists can sometimes, but not always, control. (02/06/2009)
So that would be like composing the drift of reference? (01/06/2010) Exactly. For example many of the references in STATIONS are clear: 2 x 4s, steel shelves, video, etc. These elements refer to specific systems of building and information presentation. A 2 x 4 refers to a certain building system. The building system signifies the intent to build a certain type of structure. How we understand the use and history of an object is embedded in its physical structure as well as our memories. (10/02/2008) Nothing is neutral. Everything is referential. (12/29/2009) The STATIONS have a lot to do with issues of fragmented reference — trying to undo the normal references that objects have and build a new set of references. For example the 2x 4s used in the STATIONS do not imply that a building is about to be built, whereas a stack of 2 x 4s in a cleared lot probably would. Nevertheless you might have the memory of seeing a stack of 2 x 4s in a lot and that reference might influence your experience of the work in some way. (12/29/2009)
In this sense each discrete STATION creates an incomplete scenario. Drifting intentions provide numerous places for the drift of reference to start and stop. This continual rhythm occurs both perceptually as one experiences the work and in memory as one compares them to other things they have seen or experienced. Each work allows for reference to drift in and out depending on memory, experience and the physical environment. As the density of the STATIONS accrue the drift of reference picks up speed in different directions. (10/02/2009) So would you say that what’s being approximated in your work is the amount of information necessary to make the viewer think about approximation? (07/02/2006) I think that’s right and it illustrates perfectly the loopy-ness of how we think. The kinds of questions I want to prod are much more effective if they start from the question, "what does this do?" rather than, "what does this mean?" (07/02/2006)
Ultimately, the issue with the specific works or installations needs to move from the idea of how we process and approximate information generally, to how the works themselves can create an experience out of approximate references.(02/23/2010) So is this a doubling of reference itself? In other words, are the works simultaneously a representation of reference once removed, and reference itself? (02/23/2010) You know, you and I have talked about this so many times and in so different many ways and it’s still such a hard thing to get a hold of. But I kind of like the fact that maybe ten or fifteen years ago I could more specifically assign conceptual content to specific things I was doing or making, but that I can’t quite pin that down anymore. I see it as a really successful growth – it’s more instinctual. To me it means that my language has developed to a point where it is self-sustaining. You mean moving away from written or spoken language? Yeah, that it’s become an equivalent of a written or spoken language, and that it has its own characteristics that written or spoken language can only… Approximate? (02/02/2006)
Am I communicating with you directly or indirectly? You could say we are communicating directly. We are speaking the same language. I am saying words that form sentences. You understand the meaning of those words and sentences and then you respond. That seems direct. Right? So if this is a direct form of communication what type of communication would art be? If communicating something through language were a direct communication then communicating something through art would be an indirect form of communication. What we understand from looking at art comes to us indirectly, rather than being communicated directly. So direct communication (language) is about approximating for speed and efficiency, and indirect communication is about... Indirect communication would be about experience and duration. So my words and sentences would be direct communication, but what about my inflection and tone of voice? Would my inflection and tone of voice be examples of indirect communication? It seems like it. Understanding inflection and tone of voice are based on your experiences of me over time — your understanding of my personality and memory of my voice as well as both of our experiences with language – where we grew up or how old we are – and other specifics of the situation such as what time of day it is or where we happen to be. But you could describe to me through language what your inflection and tone of voice meant and that would be direct communication, but if I intuit it through experience that would be indirect communication? That seems right. (01/06/2010)
I can see how inflection and tone of voice are about experience and duration — you have to learn these things through repetition and memory — but the same is also true with learning words. And isn’t a facial expression also about efficiency — aren’t I still approximating what your tone of voice implies, and isn’t this also the same as using words? Ok, so maybe there is a sliding scale. Communication can be more or less direct or indirect by degrees. In this sense maybe inflection and tone of voice lean more towards indirect communication because the rules are less nailed down than the rules of language, but they are still direct forms of communication because they rely on approximation. But if the standard by which we designate direct communication from indirect communication is whether or not the communication depends on approximation, you have to ask the question whether or not indirect communication is possible at all? Doesn’t all communication depend on approximation? Approximation of what: our experience? Yeah. Then it seems like we’re creating two sides here. Our internal experience is on one side, and the communication of that experience is on the other side. The internal experience is not filtered through language so it is more pure, but the communication of experience has to be filtered through some kind of language whose rules are explicit (to varying degrees). In the case of language the rules are pretty nailed down, in the case of facial expressions the rules are loose but still pretty much understood. If that’s the case wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse the meaning of direct and indirect as we’ve been using it? If we reverse the meaning of direct and indirect any language or form of communication would be indirect rather than direct because it is an approximation of something else — it is an indirect reference to something or some experience or emotion that I’m trying to communicate. In this reversal only experience itself would be direct because it does not have to be communicated. So to reiterate, experience is direct and communication is indirect. (01/06/2010)
So if every strategy of communication is indirect (language, facial expressions, etc.) where does that leave art? (01/06/2010) Couldn’t art still be direct, as we’ve just redefined it? (01/05/2010) The history of art has been about constantly trying to reframe the rules about what art is as they accumulate. If directness is somehow about a lack of rules and approximations, wouldn't art then be direct, or at least the closest thing to directness? (03/20/2010) Okay, let’s walk through this. If an artist makes a mark on a piece of paper, isn't the mark itself form? Meaning that when someone else views it they experience it in the same way they would experience anything else (a rock or a tree)? And because the mark was made by one person and experienced by another, wouldn’t that make this a direct form of communication from one person to another? But, if the artist were to make more marks, and these marks were to become recognizable as a dog or a landscape then they would become an indirect communication of something else – an approximation. (01/16/2009) I think this is the whole idea with abstraction. The idea was for the abstract painting or sculpture to be something rather than to be about something. This allows the viewer to have an experience of something not already codified into language. But it seems like abstraction (making a mark on a piece of paper) is an example of trying to communicate directly, because we read abstract art in a similar way to how we read facial expressions or tone of voice. Every mark or abstract artwork was made by another body and is experienced in some context that already has a meaning, and that meaning attaches itself to the mark and communicates something to the viewer about the person that made the mark. (01/06/2010)
So for an artwork to be direct you would have to give up the idea that it is also a kind of communication? Yeah, for an artwork to be direct it cannot communicate anything, and not communicating anything seems impossible to do. So you could say that abstract or formal artwork is about communicating the idea of not communicating anything. (01/06/2010) Sure, but a lot of this has to do with intentions, for example I like to use the term self-referential as a way to describe my emphasis on formal or abstract issues, knowing full well that a drift of reference occurs as viewers make references to other things outside of the work itself. The process of composing reference is sort of like tuning the knobs of an old radio trying to get just the right frequency. Thinking about composing references in my work this way lets me think about how to control the speed and breadth of the drift of reference. (01/16/2009)
Since art cannot be pure experience because it is a kind of communication, it seems like what we’ve really been talking about then are distinctions between types of communication. One type, say, instruction manuals, that is mechanistic and practical, and the other, let’s say art or poetry or literature, that seems to be more about communicating bundles of complex ideas. (01/06/2010)
And you also have to acknowledge that there are degrees of both direct and indirect strategies. (01/07/2010) You have to ask what the best type of communication is for the type of idea you want to communicate and find the right space on the scale between a direct and an indirect strategy. (01/06/2010) For example, the dictionary work that you did, Every word in the English language that I don't know (Wycoff-2005), got at a very complex set of ideas. We've agreed in this discussion that all communication is indirect but one might be able to say that your resolution was the most direct way to communicate this complex set of ideas on the continuum between indirect and direct. I can pull out specific aspects of that project and discuss them. For instance: were you truthful in selecting all the words that you didn't know, or, did you include some words that you thought you should know or that you only sort of knew? What is the threshold for those decisions? Are they consistent? These issues immediately make me question what would I do in the same situation, and wonder what the threshold is for "knowing" a word (or anything) at all? Your execution of that work might very well be the most direct way of tying all these issues up into a singular knot. (01/16/2009)
I think the question you have to ask is "what’s the best type of communication for the type of idea you want to communicate?" It’s about pairing the information you want to communicate to the correct type of communication. (01/06/2010)Yea, but that in itself is bothersome. It insinuates that we are "choosing" between preexisting languages or types of communication. I think what we are saying is more to the effect that the language itself forms out of, or around, the act of wanting to communicate or create something. To take it even further, you could say that forming the language IS the communication. (03/20/2010)The other issue with all of this is that the use of direct and indirect communication changes dramatically with subtle changes in the frame of reference — it's a recursive deconstruction that can be infinitely parsed out and subtly shifted to change the meaning. (01/16/2009)
Isn’t that similar in some sense to composing the drift of reference? For me, the key to coherency in all of this is in controlling relationships in order to establish tendencies. I want to use a set of occurrences, materials and methods in order to form a singularity — a base that acts in concert with other already existing bases. The resolution of this process is a tenuous place that seems correct. What I mean is that I know it when I see it. I am able to adjust the rational decisions I make in the studio such as choosing particular color or materials towards this intuitive feeling of coherency. (10/02/2008)
The STATIONS are pieces of information that get used by the viewer in different ways. They are only part of the larger picture or environment, but the boundaries between the larger environment and the pieces themselves drift in and out of one another. The pieces alter that environment in substantial and hopefully unexpected ways, but their effectiveness is not in the things themselves but in this slippage between the things, and the things around them such as the walls, ceiling beams, light switches or doorframes. The "art" in an installation such as STATIONS resides in this drift. It’s similar to the game of adding the words “in bed” to the end of a fortune cookie fortune. “You will find happiness — “in bed.” My work is similar in some ways to adding the “in bed” to a given situation. As viewers look for signs that inform them about their environment or situation, my work becomes one of the available signifiers in the environment that changes or reorients that environment. (10/02/2008) So the works themselves dissolve into the spaces where the wall meets the floor or along the geometries of conduit, gas pipe and duct work, but they coalesce around our expectations as we confront the difference between "art" and the world around us. The works shift our expectations, prodding the specific kind of questioning generally reserved for “art” onto the objects and situations that surround us, or that exist prior to the works themselves. It also seems important to note the role of composition in all if this. In some sense you've shifted the exterior boundaries of the artwork from the edges of a painting, say, to the boundaries of a particular site or situation. In this sense the works reclaim something of the autonomy, or self-involvement, of painting's preoccupation with composition, color and form. So the objects and the situations they create are simultaneously referential and self-referential. As a result you're communicating something about the nature of communication, but also something about the nature of experience – how information moves from one to the other and how it's changed in the process. The STATIONS seem to be an attempt to tie this duality (the duality between experience and communication) into a single knot. (03/20/2010) The idea of composition becomes an indirect means to communicate something about the idea of direct experience. (02/23/2010)