the generosity of world-building

World-building is a term most often associated with fantasy, both film and literature, and gaming.  Digital technology may have granted the word its fullest expression, but it obviously precedes the digital’s overwhelming capacity to world-build.  It’s earlier deployment to describe a certain type of engagement associated with analog role-playing games and massive literary worlds, described a strategy of moving a game or novel out of its form alone and into the wider worlds of the participants interacting with it.  Maybe you learn the language of the fantasy world.  Maybe you involve your friends in what would otherwise have been a solitary experience of this other world.

I am thinking here of Henry Jenkins’ notion of trans-media storytelling and how old media aren’t going to go away, we are simply going to learn to navigate across and through them to find and create our own ‘world’ or story comprised of unique remixes of both old and new media forms.  I have written before about the work of the artist Jacolby Satterwhite and in a recent interview he describes this sort of picking up on the pre-digital history of experiencing media as a means of setting the stage for his own worlds and their unique fusion of analog and digital forms into an over-signified utopia/dystopia hybrid.  He describes the raw material from which he works as ‘a complicated, forty-gigabyte palette of hard drive space.”  His body and its movements, foregrounded as they are in his video work, serve as a means of grounding the disparate figures and aesthetics he’s combining into the same space; the material of the hard-drive represents the traces of his own transmedia journey while, as he puts it, serving as a kind of Rohrschach test for his audience, one whose effectiveness, one whose recognition will depend from where they watch.

In the Bomb Interview, he describes his work in terms of generosity; it is always open to his audience, if at times it can seem hyper-personal.  If our trans-media journeys are always uniquely our own, they also overlap, just as do old and new media forms.  If, as he notes, not only has art always been about the individual, the Instagram era individual more narcissistic than ever, Jacolby’s work reveals the persistent ‘group-oriented’ nature of that individuality.  Maybe its most honest to ground the body (Satterwhite’s) in his work (because what art ISN’T about its creator, after all) but the variety of other elements at play here, elements assembled from the world of the Internet as well as that of the “real,” make this anything but a purely insular, individual world (utopia).  The multimedia nature of Satterwhite’s work, and the fact that so much of it is based in collaboration is no doubt part of this as well.

Leidy Churchman is another artist whose work is literally about something else while revealing more generous, positive ways of thinking about how we navigate the analog world through the digital.  Despite working in the flat medium of painting, his disparate subject choices are themselves a kind of trans-medial trawl through what Churchman has seen and considered to whatever base degree of attention is required to turn around and paint them.  Johanna Fateman describes his wide-ranging combination of subject matter as imbuing his work with a “signature browser-cache quality.”  If pre-Internet we considered artist’s work by looking for themes across their oeuvre, seeking to tie it all together or leave it open-ended but remarked upon just the same, I wonder if the Internet allows us to let the disparate subject matter of an artist’s practice just be what it is.  In a way we might not have previously, we understand ourselves as crossing lines of taste and genre, while collecting, incessantly collecting, subjects.  I wonder too if this understanding of how we operate can make us more generous both in terms of the evaluation in how we experience life through the web, but also in terms of how we make sense of an artist’s body of work, of art itself, and most importantly its experience by an audience.  As Fateman writes with regard to Churchman’s ‘attentive’ practice and its honing of attention towards the easily passed by, mightn’t the labor of painting itself, and its persistence in the 21st century, allow us to be consistently reminded that “being online is actually just being?” Churchman’s painting too can be understood as a kind of Rohrschach test of what one recognizes and one does not, the variety of elements and aesthetics and subjects deployed seem tailor-made to reveal us as variously cued in and then not.  The borderline photo-realistic nature of his practice bolsters the experience of these works as begging to be interpreted through any lens but that of art history, a discipline that seeks to over-determine what should be a more open-ended experience of art which would lead to interpretations as variable as the life experiences visitors bring to a gallery.

Media work on a variety of levels, they always have.  You might recognize the nostalgia encouraged by the recycled use of certain genre flourishes, as Leo Goldsmith notes of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ “Bacurau” in the same issue of 4Columns which featured Fateman’s review of Churchman’s show.  He describes the director’s use of cinemascope framing, wipe transitions, and splatter-like violence as recognizable deployments of cinematic tropes from 1970s and 80s genre cinema, but the effectiveness or recognizability of these tropes and their use varies.  One audience member might experience a hint of nostalgia when watching the film but be unable to pinpoint the aesthetic element which evoked it, another might not experience any sense of nostalgia whatsoever.  Another might liken the film, as Goldsmith does, to a spaghetti western, and predict everything that will follow as a result.  Another may not.

Perhaps the combination of banal and complex elements in novel, at least in Satterwhite’s case, sensorily overwhelming ways, alongside the new modes of interpretation and reading inaugurated by the web, could finally generate the kind of open-ended generosity art and its audiences have always deserved.