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Issue 68 June-August 2002 RSS

Stephanie Syjuco

Haines Gallery, San Francisco, USA

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Stephanie Syjuco’s exhibition reproduced the stoned, fetishistic ‘interactivity’ of Postmodern shopping. LED lights blinked in digital satiation and objects were arranged on the hardwood floor of the gallery in careful consumerist tableaux, referencing the still lifes of appliances in electronics clearing houses - the unrecognized folk art of computer-shop clerks and petty bureaucrats.

If Syjuco conceives her objects as pieces of consumer technology to be fondled and purchased, however, she does so in order to render that experience surreal, and to thwart the childlike joys of interactivity that characterize many art exhibitions today. The works themselves are eccentric, geometrical shapes that recall the paraphernalia of modern life: mobile phones and keyboards, cameras and stereo speakers. But unlike these items, which are typically designed in matt black moulded plastic, Syjuco’s objects are constructed from tacky, cheap materials, primarily foam-board and Contact paper. The effect is to dispel the air of novelty that accrues to new technologies and to evoke other, less stylish, versions of Modernity. Her choice of materials is evidence of a submerged but significant geopolitical bent in her work; if the new, amphibian bio-chic in consumer novelties now seems ubiquitous in urban centres, in other places - rural areas, for instance, or the Third World in general - this obsolete wood-panel-and-LED aesthetic is still omnipresent, pointing towards uneven rates of technological ‘progress’ in the new global economy. Similarly the objects seem to ricochet between the form of consumer electronics and that of architectural maquettes, suggesting the contours of familiar possessions but also the unseen factories that produce them.

Despite being titled ‘Multi-User Interfaces’ (2002), Syjuco’s appliances are singularly difficult to interact with. There are no keyboards to tap on, no cables to plug in or rearrange, no features to customize; the works are as inert as Minimalist sculpture. Any interactivity is self-contained among the objects, which appear to stack themselves and to proliferate incestuously. The viewer, then, is excluded from the powerful narrative of desire native to shopping, the everyday frisson between consumer and commodity. The question lurks: what will happen when these artworks themselves are purchased? In the gallery this cycle of exclusion and frustration ends when one leaves; in the home their impassive ‘interaction’ would be endless and uncanny, even annoyingly narcissistic (indeed, two of the ‘surveillance cameras’ suspended over the gallery’s reception desk seem to gaze lovingly into each other’s lenses).

But even if the works frustrate the consumerist romance by excluding the ‘consumer’, they do so only because their strange appeal is so close to that of commodities; nowhere is this more evident than in the series ‘Suggested Use’ (2002), which shows Syjuco’s objects ‘in action’. These digital prints again imitate the semiotics of Circuit City: they show us consumers closely cropped in the tradition of electronics advertisements, using the objects to surreal, pseudo-scientific ends. A pair of hands grips one object with the familiar clutch of someone holding a palm-pilot, apparently taking some sort of reading from a potted plant; another pair taps, as if typing, on a keyboard-like surface without keys; a pregnant woman directs a third object ominously at her swelling belly. In each case the focus is on the creepy mismatch between biology and biotechnology. Syjuco’s subjects have all become scientists researching the functions and dysfunctions of their own bodies; they know themselves only as they’re reflected in the mirror of a computer screen or digital photograph. Syjuco’s machines, however, never seem to tell their users much: there is no reassuring read-out, no pixels to match keystrokes, no comforting digital reciprocation or faithfully blinking cursor. Moreover, in each ‘Suggested Use’ the high-tech vibe is spoiled by obvious imperfections in the mise-en-scène. The window sill in Suggested Use (Monitoring) (2002) is chipped and ageing, a quotidian detail that disrupts the suture of the promotional photograph; the hands efficiently keying information in Suggested Use (Entering)(2002) are belied by open bottles of pills, lemon bars and a dwindling bottle of tequila. What story is being told here? What are the hands performing, and what part does Syjuco’s device play? Is this the scene of some alcoholic, retro-modern blowout? Some bizarre blood-alcohol test?

There is in today’s industrial design a desperate attempt to naturalize the relations between the human body and new consumer technology. Think of the rubbery, amoebic surfaces of mobile phones or the uncannily pulsing ‘heartbeat’ of the new iBook. Syjuco’s work reminds us that this circuit is neither natural nor rational but radically weird, subject to perverse desires and prone to absurd, vaguely disturbing new behaviour.

Julian Myers

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Issue 68, June-August 2002

by Julian Myers

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