in Frieze , Profiles | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Adam Chodzko Captures Invisible Moments of Connection

The artist created networks, collided subcultures and introduced people to offer them a view into spheres that they perhaps had never known existed

in Frieze , Profiles | 11 NOV 96

To the Red-Headed League:

On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, USA, there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of £4 a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind, and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o'clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the League, 7 Pope's Court, Fleet Street.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red-Headed League (1892)

In much of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes literature there is a constant search for the true meaning behind the arbitrariness of circumstance. Coincidence does not exist. In The Red-Headed League, for example, Holmes' client is puzzled by his apparently random receipt of philanthropy (and its eventual withdrawal) after answering an advertisement in the newspaper. He seeks an explanation. Most of those that turn to Holmes do so for similar reasons: an inability to grasp the meaning, the reality, or significance of events that befall them, upsetting the regularity of their lives. They are subject to twists of fate that bring them into contact with people and events that had hitherto been completely outside their knowledge and experience. These people and events cast doubt upon their values and their idea of the everyday, the mundanity which is so readily embraced.

Frequently, this descent into another arena is initiated and navigated through the classified section of newspapers, or through letters. Holmes himself constantly scans the papers, gleaning disparate scraps of information to be worked into a narrative of events, and ploughs through the small ads, trawling for clues on the noticeboard of the criminal underworld beneath the stolid facade of Victorian England. In many of the stories, the protagonists pass through different strata of society in pursuit of the logic that will bind everything together. Apparently unconnected individuals are drawn together and found to have common pasts, often in different countries and frequently in wholly different social contexts. The stockbroker living in suburban Utopia turns up as a beggar in the city of London; the retired gentleman on his estate in Sussex is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan; the fashionable socialite is Europe's most notorious blackmailer. Things never exist at face value.

The literature of Joseph Conrad also intertwines subcultures and social strata: in the novel The Secret Agent (1907), the anarchist movement crosses over with the world of the pornographer and the mute respectability of the shop-owning lower middle classes. It is at these moments, when subcultures collide and suddenly become aware of their status, that interesting things happen. This suggestion of an alternative logic of the everyday (that only a sharper, more oblique mind can penetrate) is revealing, both of a Victorian desire for analysis and rational explanation and the highly fragmented, insular nature of British society. Not that much has changed.

The origins of much of Adam Chodzko's work lie in the classified section of newspapers, or rather in one newspaper that is composed entirely of classifieds - Loot. The rise of Loot, the free ads paper, from weekly to daily publication, reflects the acquisitive, materialist aspirations of the 80s coming to terms with recession. But, on the same pages as this surfeit of second-hand consumerism - three-piece-suites, camper vans and Negretti and Zambra clocks - many of the things advertised in Loot seem to be ludicrously unsaleable: 'Blank video tapes, used, 50, £1 each'; 'half a tin of pink paint, £2'. Some of the advertisements are pathetically hopeful, as if the advertisers were trying to wring every ounce of goodness, value and desirability from the discarded remnants of their lives - 'Bedside lamp, pale green and peach, in good working order, £5 each'; 'Dinky Toys, Junkers JU87B, part missing but excellent condition, £10'; 'Tea Chest, as new, £2'; 'Action Men, 3, clothed but no hands, hence £3 each'; 'Fridge, worktop height, fair condition, works well, free for collection'. There is a suggestion, here in these forlorn solicitations ascribing value and desirability to the patently worthless, that the exchange of commodities is the by-product of a different desire - a desire for social exchange. Frequently advertisers in Loot use the buying and selling of useless commodities as a pretext for meeting people, a way to make new friends.

For the ongoing series Transmitters (1990-96) Chodzko himself tapped into this culture by placing advertisements for fictitious items in the pages of Loot:

Mexican Sugar Scale, from Todosantos, £40. Zulu shield and 2 spears, very convincing and collectable, no male callers, £45

Bickerton Urban environment pack, very spacious and durable, collapsible, 5ft x 2ft, also Floppy Tank, Gortex, good for storage, £80 for both.

Hale & Pace signed photos, Pruitt & Early signed Buster Bloodvessel single, slightly scratched, £10 each

Many of the ads joke about the activities of well-known contemporary artists, turning their work into second-hand commodities of dubious usefulness and thus bringing home the fact that the value of art is very closely tied to the extremely limited context in which it is marketed and sold - just how much would an Ashley Bickerton fetch down Brick Lane market? Chodzko brought the contemporary art world even more directly into contact with normality by helpfully appending the names and telephone numbers of artist friends onto the end of the adverts.

The personal contacts pages of Loot play a similar role to its commodity section, that of life enhancement, but in this case offering an increased choice of sexual experience. They likewise fulfil a notion of potential satisfaction: that you can find exactly what you are looking for in their pages. In Certainly (1992), Chodzko recorded the taped messages of those advertising for partners in Loot's lonely hearts columns. Having compiled sets of perfect matches - a bisexual woman's request for a couple paired with two people looking for a bisexual woman for 'adult fun', for example - Chodzko suggests that complete satisfaction is just around the corner if only you look carefully enough: that the world contains an equal balance of the desiring and the desired.

In The God Look-Alike Contest (1992-3), Chodzko placed an advertisement asking for people who 'think they look like God' to get in touch with him for an 'interesting project'. Searching for God in the pages of Loot is perhaps the ultimate expression of its function - after material improvement and sexual variety, spiritual enlightenment is the most challenging thing you can ask for. Over a period of a year, replies to Chodzko's advertisement drifted in. Surprisingly, the applicants didn't conform to the stereotype that he had expected of a white-haired old man, but represented a wider section of the population: from professional look-alikes, such as a Diana Ross clone and an imitation John Travolta (who thought perhaps the artist might have some work for them anyway), and a woman who equated godliness with glamourousness and sent in photos of herself wearing lingerie, to a man who was only God with his clothes off and an inmate of a mental hospital who had killed a priest (his photo was sent in by his social worker). The resulting work, with its twelve images of look-alikes and the original advertisement framed up with satin mattes, brought this disparate group of people with entirely different notions of godliness together through their involvement in the look-alike project. It also brought them into contact with another subculture - that of the contemporary art world - and, in this, engineered a meeting of different value systems and ways of perceiving the world.

Product Recall (1994) also united a group of disparate people: in this case owners of a Vivienne Westwood 'Clint Eastwood' jacket. Sought through the pages of the style magazines The Face, i-D and G-Spot, they were assembled for a single event and recorded on video. From the tape, it seems as if those gathered there don't really know what to do. They have something in common with one another, but that something, the Westwood jacket, was bought as a symbol of exclusivity. It's disorientating to unexpectedly find yourself sharing your individuality. Two more recent works of Chodzko's have brought together people with a stronger bond in the form of an intense shared experience in the past. From Beyond (1996) reunites and videos extras from Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), while in City of Women I and City of Women II (1996) extras from Fellini's film of the same name re-enact a scene in which they had appeared as children. In both these works, the original experience that binds the participants together is an orgiastic moment of abandon. In From Beyond the extras are asked to describe that experience and to try and make sense of it 25 years later. There is an extraordinary incongruity between the 'normal' middle-aged figures on the screen and their film images, writhing around, mostly naked, in scenes of typical Russellian chaos. In fact, most of the extras are only able to articulate their experience in terms of chaos. In City of Women I and II, the extras, who, as children, taunted an adult in the original scene, now attempt to recreate that moment, but as adults themselves find their attention focused on the camera.

This switching of contexts in order to reveal the nature of something is equally visible in Involva (1995), which saw Chodzko placing a drawing of a forest in the pages of the contact magazine Experience with the request to 'join me here'. The letters he received in reply (all from men although the gender of the advertiser was never stated) were then photographed in the woodland setting that had provided the source for the original drawing. Shot from ground level with the rays of the sun cutting obliquely across them, the letters record an overwhelming response of intrigue. Virtually every reply mentions the unusualness of the advertisement (a soft pencil drawing of a wooded glade amidst the harsh flash-lit photographs of 30 and 40-something advertisers looking rather the worse for wear) and begs for The Answer to the mystery. Jolted out of a world of stiflingly predictable permutations of requests for sexual gratification, the slim, healthy, generously endowed respondees grasp the opportunity to think about Nature and address the lyricism of the pastoral.

Subcultures are by nature insular and their insularity is generally related to their distance from perceived notions of normality: anarchist terrorists are generally more self-contained than John Travolta look-alikes. Subcultures also tend to generate their own languages, languages that can range from the acronyms of contact magazines (V/W/E, GSOH, DIY) to the phraseology of selling objects in classifieds. Many of them are justifications for the sale, as if the vendor were thinking that potential buyers must be wondering why they are selling something if it is so great; hence the almost ubiquitous 'unwanted gift', or the more obscure 'selling due to allergy' tacked onto the end of ads.

Shadow Inhaler (1994), like Chodzko's Transmitters, makes use of this language, but also plays on the role of the classified as a vehicle for messages, obscure to the outsider, but which have a special meaning for the intended recipient. Again using the pages of Loot, Chodzko advertised for a variety of firearms. The guns requested ranged in calibre from a Vest Pocket Benadelli pistol to a Crystobal machine gun. All were surreptitiously placed in sections of the classifieds whose appropriateness was dictated by their ability to camouflage the names of the guns. In the 'Gardening (tools and equipment)' section, for example, appeared an advert for a rocket pistol: 'Gyrojet with cleanly operating nozzle wanted, must have powerful range, good price paid', while 'Astrology and Prediction' contained 'Crystobal urgently required, Dominican preferably, but any will do as long as sights are unimpaired, good price paid'.

The idea of planting an object in an alien context where it may easily be overlooked, but when noticed takes on a radical meaning, is a strategy that is pursued in the continuing Secretors (1993-6) series. Originally, glass drips filled with a blood-red liquid that very obviously wasn't blood were installed at discreet locations around a gallery space. Playing on the conventions of low-budget horror movies, they suggested that some form of manifestation was taking place within the gallery - that something from beyond was making its presence felt. Gradually the Secretors moved outside the gallery space and the realm of contemporary art and into other worlds, finding new niches on the ITN news (as part of the studio background during an interview with Gordon Brown), in an Esquire fashion shoot and as part of an MTV title sequence.

Perhaps Chodzko's main activity is that of a facilitator, creating networks, colliding subcultures and introducing people to offer them a view into spheres that they perhaps had never known existed. Alternatively, he brings people together to try to make sense of their experience and their position in terms of a network or subculture that he has articulated. His most recent work, Out of the Distance (1996), makes clear this sense of interconnectedness. 13 colour photographs show elevated views of a city - London - as seen through the window of a tall building. In the foreground of each panorama is a barely visible spider's web on which a red liquid (resembling the Manifestation Juice found in the Secretors) has condensed. As you look out across the city, this city or any city, you sense the lives of its inhabitants running their course in the buildings that enclose them and the streets that channel them from place to place. The structure of the city itself is paralleled by the invisible, or only just visible, links that the inhabitants spin between each other to define themselves, create connections and articulate differences. At certain points, the points that Chodzko chooses to work with, these connections cross over and congeal. At this moment they become visible.

Main image: Adam Chodzko, Secretors, in ‘Dark Monarch’ at Tate St Ives 2009. Courtesy: the artist