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This text is by Anthony Marcellini in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

The Ooze Stage1
An Introduction

Anthony Marcellini


heading 01: The Ooze Stage

A caterpillar no longer has an appetite. Its drive to eat has shifted to an urge to find shelter and molt.  Climbing a plant, the caterpillar attaches itself to the underside of a leaf; hanging upside down it sheds its skin. The old skin quickly hardens into a tough shell surrounding the larval body. Inside this container the caterpillar does not immediately start to transform into its future configuration, but rather enters a strange in-between state. Within its chrysalis the caterpillar’s body begins to break down and softens into a thick liquid. This liquid stage is key to its metamorphosis; within this state pre-programmed cell clusters trigger and specialized body parts, like wings, legs, and eyes start to form within the muck.

Although other insects molt, the caterpillar-butterfly is the only one that enters this viscous condition, between caterpillar and butterfly. Although there may be a word to describe this transitory state, it has been difficult to locate a nomenclature in any Lepidoptera journals. When I asked an entomologist at the Smithsonian if there was a name his answer was, he was uncertain2. It seems it is a moment without clarification, a pause between definitions, which we might as well call The Ooze Stage.

A poet, at a dinner party, finds himself confronted with an unknown object, which an artist has just made3. It is the late nineteen-fifties in Brazil, a moment in which divisions between artistic formats were still quite fixed. The artist tells the poet she does not know what this object is. Freestanding with multiple surfaces, it sits somewhere between a painting, a sculpture and a piece of furniture. The artist does not know what this thing is because its function is uncertain. The poet is left alone and considers the unknown thing for some time before concluding, “the object is a non-object”. When he tells this to the artist and other guests present, including a philosopher4, they protest claiming that ‘non’ nullifies the object. The philosopher counters, by making it “not an object of knowledge or a nothing, it is a thing without existence5”. The poet replies clearly we are talking about a thing, “which is therefore an object, but one with no utility and function whatsoever”6. It exists and possesses meaning but what that meaning is, is uncertain, thus it is a non-object.

These stories represent two examples of median objects, objects in states between transitions, which we cannot really name except by what they could be or have been; they both exist in an Ooze Stage, a stage between definitions. Post caterpillar or pre-butterfly, between art and functionality, they are objects in the intermediate, between worlds. For the caterpillar-butterfly, it is the earth and the sky: for the non-object, the aesthetic and the tool.

There is a third story about a slightly different object, but one that will lead us into our present condition. In this story by Rudyard Kipling, the domestic cat, Felis catus, makes a decision not to fully abandon the wild for domestication, but remain balanced between both worlds, free to choose either direction7. The story begins when several wild animals learn of man by noticing his light or fire. Wild dog is curious and investigates. On their encounter man offers wild dog a deal. Man will provide abundant food, warmth and shelter in exchange for wild dog’s assistance in the hunt and protecting of the home. Dog submits to man’s dominance in exchange for these comforts. Dog invites wild cat to join but wild cat is wary and abstains. Other animals, wild horse and wild cow, are also curious. They too submit to domestication in exchange for the security of domestic life. Still wild cat abstains. Finally, after all the other animals have left, wild cat decides to see what has happened. After much deliberation wild cat tricks man into agreeing that cat will work in exchange for food, warmth and shelter but occasionally break control and run wild. “He will kill mice and he will be kind to Babies when he is in the house, just as long as they do not pull his tail too hard. But when he has done that, and between times, and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.8” Man agrees but only if he can treat cat as a wild beast, and throw his boots and stone axe at the cat. Dog will treat him the same and chase cat whenever they meet.

Our relationship with cats is over 9000 years old; it is a thing that we are very familiar with. It is an object we assign a subject to, yet it continues to resist subjectivity and confound our definitions. To us cats seem to exist in a state of uncertainty and unpredictability. Never quite domestic and never wholly wild, they exist within the intermediary, seeming to crossing into various stages and definitions depending on their will or, more correctly, our will, the viewer.

Due to this fluidity many cultures assign cats the character of the trickster or transgressor of boundaries, which do not remain fixed to the human world. Like the Cheshire Cat to Alice, in literature and folklore the cat serves as a guide to humans who wish to transgress into the non-human, the magical or dream worlds9. Thus it is not surprising that the cat also serves as a guide into the world of the virtual, the internet and the computer age. Cats are always lurking at the periphery of the virtual, as screen savers, staring at us from the desktops of computer screens, on computer printouts commenting on the difficulties of digital communication and etiquette, and the most watched or liked animal next to humans on social media, with a much higher presence than any other pet.10 

This role is twofold. On the one hand, the cat’s digital fame rests largely on the humor of its unpredictability,11 autonomy and independence12. Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), the cat never seems wholly at ease with the machines and comforts of modern domestic life. Thus, the cat becomes a representative of the uncertainty lurking at the edges of digital order. On the other hand, the cat is a guide because the digital is a second space, a virtual life. The cat’s prevalence suggests that the digital is a dream world, which does not operate by the same rules as the analog. It is a space that provides contrast to the non-virtual, changing our relationship to it.

heading 02: The Ooze Stage

Since the rise of the Internet, the globalization of the digital revolution and the proliferation of handheld network devices, the majority of our communication and the way we source information is now interfaced via computer. With a large portion of our lives enacted through digital simulations–digital technology and the Internet has become a mirror of our non-virtual lives. On social media we present the lives we lead for others to see, and consciously or not, to reflect back to ourselves. There we present the people we meet, places we go, food we eat, music we listen to, and so on. We have a web-presence in addition to our corporeal presence. Digital technologies have duplicated, and, at times, replaced numerous items from the non-virtual world, including objects and places that we formerly used or occupied such as libraries, books, movie theaters, telephones, classrooms, lecture halls, films, pets, even to some degree ourselves–turning them into information, accessed through the same experiences and devices. And with the advent of digital printing almost all objects, like tools, sculptures, weapons, or even organic things like food13, are being redirected from the physical to the virtual, rendering their essence from a substance into code or pure information, redirected to the same machine, the same operating system or database.  Every printed version is a copy of a root file.  With this shift in origin and substance, many of the physical objects in our lives are starting to change and appear much stranger to us than before, turning many of them into ghosts of their former selves or non-objects.14

In Walter Benjamin's famous text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction15, he describes how technology has changed man’s perception of the world and him/herself in it. In this essay Benjamin is concerned primarily with the invention of photography and film, and its effect on art, allowing artwork to be reproduced and distributed to a mass audience faster and broader than ever. For Benjamin widespread distribution, made possible by technology, has an emancipatory potential, bringing political art to the masses. The drawback is that reproduction eliminates what he refers to as the aura or the uniqueness of the original, its “unique existence at the place where it happens to be…[which] determined the history to which it was subject through the time of its existence.”16 Basically the person who made it, the culture that influenced it and the political events occurring at the time of its production, are ultimately erased in its duplicate copies. Furthermore, the aura, as defined by Benjamin, is the “unique phenomenon of a distance no matter how close it may be.”17 An object’s aura suggests the aspect of the object that is far away and “unapproachable”, always at a remove from definition and total understanding. Or, as Benjamin says in another text, it is something so unapproachable that we cannot own it, so much so that it “takes possession of us.”18 Our desire to control and bring things closer allows for greater distribution by reducing the aura or the distance of the thing.

At a time when our non-virtual world is almost infinitely reproducible in the digital, this situation, which Benjamin describes about the work of art, is extended to all objects. Not only do we produce copies of objects that lack an aura, but the aura of the analog, no matter how non-digitally reproducible, also becomes highlighted and amplified. Our attempts to make all objects in life easily accessible by bringing them closer, also causes our non-virtual life to become somehow more distant, weirder and unapproachable. That which is not touched by the virtual, or stands against it, becomes increasingly fetishized perhaps even ritualized.

Many objects that once had a specific meaning and use are now beginning to fall into the Ooze. Perhaps only a portion of their body is starting to break down, a foot, a leg, an arm, but soon the entire beast will drop into the acid and become soupy liquid. This is caused by their function being diverted to another format; the purpose they once served is rendered obsolete. In the nineteen-nineties the introduction of compact discs seemed to usher in the demise of the vinyl record. Twenty years later it is the CD that is becoming obsolete overtaken by digital downloads. And the record has returned, with an amplified aura now achieving ritual status, a collector’s item accompanying the release of most digital albums. In 2010 the U.S. Department of Energy passed the first fluorescent lighting mandate, calling for an end to the production of ballasts in T12 Fluorescent lamps. In 2012, a second mandate required that all T12 fixtures and bulbs were to be phased out of production completely. T-12 bulbs are the most common fluorescent lightbulbs and the principle media in the minimalist artist Dan Flavin’s installations. The phasing out of these bulbs means not only that the lights that hang from garage ceilings, parking structures, factories, malls and office buildings, must all be replaced, but also that thousands of Dan Flavin installations and sculptures using these lights are also becoming obsolete. On March 14, 2012 the production of printed volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica was permanently ceased. Hundreds of thousands of books, featuring over 700,000 articles, became suddenly without a clear value.19

 heading 03: The Ooze Stage

Wallowing in the muck, mired in the sludge, The Ooze Stage is the moment when an object’s function, meaning and structure is broken down, or it is the phase of a newly formed object, like the non-object whose future function is uncertain. The Ooze Stage is part of a triadic, not a binary. It is not a relationship of inside vs. outside, art vs. life, but introduces a third space, in which things are in transition, taking on aspects of both binaries, in some cases multiple perspectives, or entirely suppressing definitions. The Ooze Stage holds some similarities to Benjamin’s aura in that it too is always at a distance, and therefore undefined. Just as the aura suggests that a distant object lacks detail, The Ooze Stage is indistinct, a kind of muddle or jumble, a moment without clarification. The Ooze Stage is both primordial, the stage prior to an object’s utility, while at the same time its aftermath.

However, the Ooze Stage Object’s lack of definition also means other motives can be placed upon it; it can be given a value and used to satisfy multiple agendas, or represent differing ideologies. Yet, the Ooze Stage Object cannot remain tethered for long. It is a slippery thing and will eventually elude all representations, congealing outside these structures and agendas. Values will not hold its form for long; this is simply not in its nature.

Artwork is one of the few objects created for the Ooze Stage, between divides, which becomes the beginning; a sustained inception that resists being pulled in any one direction except towards art. Perhaps you could say not all artworks sit within this undefined space, if so I would argue, that artwork is tied to a specific goal, agenda or function, a documentation, a specific solution, the fulfillment of a need. Only artworks (objects, films or performances) not ready-formed, pre-inscribed or fixed, objects first encountered and unknown, like the non-object, become demonstrative of such a passage.

This notion of The Ooze Stage artwork should not be confused with a reassertion of arts autonomy, in which the artwork sits by itself, solitary and immobile, waiting for a viewer or a critic to unpack it20. Nor should we think of artwork as solely a presentation of skill and creative expression; this notion of artwork is guided by selfish objectives, they are not understood as independent objects but subjected to their maker.21 As we know, the experience of artwork changes dependent on its surroundings, political context and whatever has occurred with an audience member prior to their interaction with it. And here I would also add that the experience of the artwork–those interactions between the artwork its context and viewers–is as much a part of the artwork as the object itself, although one that is quite fluid and always changing, yet at a different rate than the physical thing.22 This understanding of fluidity, at the core of the art experience, is key to the Ooze Stage. An Ooze Stage Artwork should be understood as both adaptable and resistant at the same time. This is part of the dialogical structure of artwork, between the viewer and the object. Parts of any conversation are comprehensible and even in agreement, while other perspectives will always remain unknown and unsaid.

Is there then a way to consider the production of objects that refuse definition, seemingly fluctuating in their relationship with us, objects that lack a subject, and take possession?  Could we write an art history of The Ooze Stage and prophesy its future? Can we locate objects and experiences that are not exactly documentations of past events, not tools for a defined purpose, but things in a state of conversion, frozen or slowed down, much slower than we are able to comprehend, transforming from one condition to another? Can we find objects that mark an in-between, a continual variation in form and perspective? And in this way can we locate a way through the mire of our contemporary situation?


footnotes

1 This essay is an introduction to an idea that I plan to advance in several forthcoming texts. It comes about in response to conversations with students in the Fine Arts Program at The College for Creative Studies, recent research into some theory concurrent with Brazilian Neo-Concrete art in the late 1950’s, and as a way to elaborate on some themes present within my artistic practice.

2 “Hi Anthony: There probably is a term for this stage or process but at present I am uncertain as what this might be. The term prepupa is often used for the stage immediately preceding the pupa (usually last larval instar) that might apply. The chrysalis is generally the obtect pupa of a butterfly or moth. If I learn of anything else, I will let you know. – Don” From an email exchange with Don R. Davis, Curator of Lepidoptera, Smithsonian Institution on November 21, 2014.

3 This story references an anecdote the Brazilian poet Ferreria Gullar tells about an experience with a (now lost) early artwork by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, which she presented at a dinner party in the late 1950s. This creation story inspired Gullar’s essay “Theory of the Non-Object” (1959) and, in many ways, the essay (and perhaps equally the anecdote) becomes a cornerstone of the neo-concrete movement in Brazil. He has told several versions of this story; I am referencing the one described in, Ariel Himenez and Ferreira Gullar, Ferreira Gullar in Conversation with Ariel Jiménez (New York City and Caracas: Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 2012) 52-53

4 The philosopher is Mario Pedrosa, also an important art critic in Brazil at the time.

5 Ibid, 53

6 ibid, 53

7 Rudyard Kipling, “The Cat That Walked by Himself”, Just So Stories, (1902) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2781/2781-h/2781-h.htm It should be noted that in Kipling’s story almost all of the diliberations take place between the wild animals and woman, who tends the hearth in the cave. In the passage above man is used to mean a human being or the human race not a male for the sake of consistency and narrative flow.

8 Ibid

9 Maria Nikolajeva, "Devils, Demons, Familiars, Friends: Toward a Semiotics of Literary Cats" Marvels & Tales, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009) 248-267.

10 See Perry Stein, Why Do Cats Run the Internet? A Scientific Explanation, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/101283/cats-internet-memes-science-aesthetics

11 See Why do Cats Dominate the Internet, http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2013/05/why-do-cats-dominate-the-internet/

12 Cats On The Internet: A Psychological Explanation, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanshapiro/2012/12/07/cats-on-the-internet-a-psychological-explanation/

13  Drew Prindle, “Whether you like it or not, 3D printed food is on the way, Digital Trends, (January 13, 2014) www.digitaltrends.com/home/whether-like-3d-printed-food-way

14 When I recently broke the glass of my iphone, I had a very emotional response, a feeling of intense loss through my carelessness. Not that I am a techno-fetishist, but I was saddened by the violence of shattering the face of the screen, an area of both connection and touch with my body (when I tried to use it the glass shards stuck into my fingers) and its main interface, rending it almost totally unusable. Because it was cheaper, I traded my old phone in for a duplicate new one, rather than have the glass replaced.  Somehow this demonstration of infinite supply made whatever relationship I had with my first phone–which resulted in my sad reaction to the violence of cracked glass–to totally evaporate. It has been rendered simply a tool, without a sense of aura.

15 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). 217-251

16 Ibid, 220

17 Ibid, 243

18 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999). 447

19 These are three examples from my recent installation/performance Obsolescere: The Thing is Falling (2014),commissioned and performed at the Experimental Media and Performing Art Center, Troy, NY. This installation featured, in addition to the above objects, a first generation Ford Taurus, a goldfish, a bushel of cornstalks, and a rusting cast iron selfportrait bust. Each object is voiced by an actor recounting their past or future state of obsolescence; the moment their usefulness to humans becomes uncertain.

20 I am thinking of much of the critism of the infamous Clement Greenberg epitomised in such texts as Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1986) and Clement Greenberg, “Necessity of ‘Formalism’ ”, New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 1, Modernism and Postmodernism: Inquiries,  Reflections, and Speculations (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Autumn, 1971), which saught to distant artwork from any relationship to site, audience, politics and illusion. And to much criticism that came after, largly within the October group, which placed the job of unpacking the artwork within the hands of the critic or theorist. For an indept discussion of this see Grant Kester’s essay “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Critism”, e-flux journal, (#50, December, 2013) and the responses to his article. 

21 I am thinking here of failures in art education that overemphasizes art practice as a way to explore personal expression and creativity, without a thought towards the subjectivity of the audience or the context in which the work might be viewed. 

22 This notion of dialogical artwork is borrowed from Grant Kester, explored in the above text and more pragmatically in his book Conversation Pieces (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)

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link - issue 12: December 2014