BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147

Coming to Life

Spirits, objecthood and the ‘Black Forest voodoo’ of Geoffrey Farmer’s mirages and micro-events

BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 MAY 12

What if they move? If they start to wiggle like creatures, stir as if they had souls, or make sounds as though they could live and die – although you know they’re just a bunch of objects – should you trust your eyes? For all you know, you might be hallucinating. Objects are not supposed to act like this. Even if they’re automated they’re not meant to be that animated. It’s too scary. Or too funny. Or both. 

The phenomenon of material animism is at the heart of Geoffrey Farmer’s practice. And he taps into its numinous uncanny dimension as much as into its sometimes striking mundanity. His installation at Redcat in Los Angeles in 2011, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, for instance, was a magical backstreet symphony of lost things: a vast array of objects arranged on a huge, white, low-level platform performed a ghostly choreography of (mechanically) animated motions, in the act of channelling the irreverent spirit of Frank Zappa summoned in the title eponymous with a 1968 Zappa song. There were many things on stage, some still, some, at particular times, momentarily springing to life in erratic motions: a stick, a stone, a pot, some coloured light bulbs, some plants, a photo of one guy kissing another on his boxers, a plank, a bulky shape covered by blankets the size of a baby elephant, a light, a rod, a box, a hammer, a figure in a cloak wearing a hat with a plant on top whose mechanical arm now and again hits a can with a light bulb, a record player, a chair intertwined with a silver-leafed branch and some large potato-shaped rock which, when its turn comes, takes a slow majestic bow. 

The Surgeon and The Photographer (detail), 2009, 365 puppet figures, fabric, found images, metal stands and 60 wooden plinths, each figure: 45 x 13 x 13 cm. All images courtesy Casey Kaplan, New York, Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, and the artist. Photograph: Scorr Massey

The computerized choreography – which runs to a pre-programmed one-hour cycle – turns diverse coloured lights on and off, plays sound files at set times and controls the motors that cause the objects to move. The audio recordings include a speaker announcing a performance by John Cage; the voice of the writer Kathy Acker reading poetry; a man calling for his mother, father, brother and sister; atmospheric sounds (recorded in the Walt Disney Concert Hall above the gallery); and the low death cry of an elephant, rising from a subwoofer inside the blanketed mass. One might also recognize the potato-shaped rock as resembling Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture To the Issei (1979) from the plaza of the nearby Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. It bows gracefully, but the mechanical arm making it do so generates quite a noise.

Farmer collaborates with the artist Brady Marks on the electronics behind the sequencing of these numerous staged micro-events. It’s a complex composition, yet the work isn’t presented as a wonder of technology. On the contrary, its mundane materiality openly discloses its affinity to the simple mechanical charms of automated figurines on barrel organs, Glockenspiels or cuckoo clocks. It’s just some shades darker. Think Black Forest voodoo.

A lot happens on Farmer’s stage, but an equal amount occurs in the mind of the beholder. There is no clear storyline to follow. Rather, mental images are evoked by the environmental changes in lighting, sound and movement. The overall experience of the piece thus approximates that of an apparition or a mirage: it’s a vivid sensation. Yet the reality of what you see remains unverifiable – disturbingly so – as when subconscious memories resurface in dreams. You can never quite be sure that you’re not just imagining things. Big Bird had this issue too. For years, he was the only character on the children’s television programme Sesame Street (1969–ongoing) who interacted with Aloysius Snuffleupagus. Others never saw him and mocked Big Bird for holding on to what they thought was an imaginary friend. The blanketed bulk in Farmer’s installation is dedicated to Snuffleupagus and to the synchronicity between two events that took place in 1985: ‘Snuffy’ finally coming out on Sesame Street to meet the grown-ups on the show and let them know he was real – and Zappa speaking out in court against the policy of parental advisory stickers on album sleeves. A Muppet made commensurable with the laws of the parental reality principle, and a musician revolting against it!

The Vampire of Coyoacan, 2010, 10 giclée prints, dimensions variable

One crucial characteristic of Farmer’s work, however, is that no matter how eerily kaleidoscopic the sensations it generates, compositionally it remains materially concrete. The objects the artist employs retain their objecthood even – especially – at the moment in which their magical transformation takes place. By affirming the mundane as a medium of the miraculous, Farmer taps into a deeply animist sensibility: the capacity to perceive spirits as dwelling in all things. The artist Trisha Donnelly once succinctly explained the principle of West Coast spirituality to me in this sense as ‘anti-materialist materialism’.1 This stance is also very much what gives Farmer’s work its particular edge. While being unabashedly trippy, it roots its magic in the sheer physicality of things: in the crooked looks of objects and in the peculiar sounds they make when, say, a stick beats on a can. The manner in which the sublime and the profane are wedded is at once eerie and potentially comical. There is no church here, so the gods can laugh when, for example, the noise of the mechanical arm causing the fake Noguchi sculpture to bow sounds like a rubbish truck unloading.

Spirits, too, Farmer implies, experience life’s daily cycle. Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is cyclical: all events in the piece repeat in patterns. And, since their choreography is not scripted to build up to one climatic big bang, the work, while being overtly theatrical, is also deliberately anti-spectacular: the objects perform, they do odd jobs and then they rest again. The cycle is equally one of work as it is of leisure. As with genies and demons, they lie dormant until summoned. And doing so is also a question of the right timing. On Mondays, for example, the sixth book of Moses says that contact to a devil is best made at 10am or midnight; on Tuesdays, it’s at 11am or 1am …

Although there is some physical resemblance in this work to Jean Tinguely’s sculptural apparatuses, Farmer’s mechanic ensembles are operative while Tinguely’s were designed to be dysfunctional. They are the demons of the working man running their own ghostly cottage industry. Let them close the factories: these spirits will continue their labours eternally, refusing to leave the workshop. Are they cursed? Who knows? With Farmer’s objects, it would seem entirely plausible that they rise after the gallery closes and, at midnight, perform a collective dance on the roof to the merry tune of ‘Chim-Chim Cher-ee’.

God's Dice, 2010, mixed media, installation view, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre

This demonic work ethos is another key characteristic of Farmer’s practice. Most of the objects used in installations such as Let’s Make the Water Turn Black have been gathered by the artist from the streets of the city the work will be shown in. This seems to be as much a self-imposed rule as an opportunity for exploring new places. When I met up with Farmer in San Francisco, he set off afterwards on a collapsible bike to scout around town looking for stuff that he could use in his work. He exuded the same sense of purpose and anticipation as a nocturnal animal heading out into the night.

Often, Farmer takes on the role of the ghostly worker himself, altering his installations overnight. God’s Dice (2010), for instance, staged at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre in Alberta, resembled a real-time enactment of the structural principles of Let’s Make the Water Turn Black for the exhibition’s duration. On a similar vast white platform, a different scene materialized each day, like a drama in stop motion, or the visions a capricious god might send to prospective prophets in the desert to test their spiritual capacities (e.g. Monday raining frogs, Tuesday temptations of the flesh etc.). Blankets and draperies crumpled in lumps on one day, rose to be suspended as backdrops and ghostly figures with masks and magic rods attached to them on the next.

In an earlier piece, For Every Jetliner Used in an Artwork (2006), Farmer acquired the entire seating and panelling of a passenger aircraft cabin. During its exhibition at the Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver, he first assembled the cabin on a waist-high plinth, to expose the interior of the ‘dead’ plane in its brute facticity, and then covered the entire thing under a cloak of assorted frayed blankets, like a vast raft prepared for a burial rite or, perhaps, another incarnation of the imaginary Muppet mammoth. Part of the piece was a video showing moments of Farmer working on – and spending time in – the plane at night. Shot in night-vision, it looked like footage of ghosts caught on CCTV. What do ghosts labour over at night? They take care of what the dead leave behind. Earlier, for his 2005 exhibition ‘A Pale Fire’, Farmer crammed an exhibition hall in Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery with truckloads of disused furniture. Piece by piece, he disassembled the furniture and fed it into a metal fireplace, suspended from the ceiling by its slim elongated chimney; the smoke rising over the gallery serving as a visible index of the fact that someone was performing the work of clearing out the city’s closets.

Let's Make The Water Turn Black, 2010-11, mixed media, isntallation view, REDCAT, Los Angeles

But this is demons on the job. Farmer promises no cure to the maladies of civilization. Rather, he sides with all those whom civilization traditionally considers needy of treatment, adjustment or parental advice. And there are armies of them, of us. In The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009), Farmer summons these demonic hordes in the form of hundreds of small paper cut-outs, each a collage of body parts from different sources, affixed to a stick like a shadow-play puppet: they form a queer swarm of pixies and witch doctors; too many for a single tribe, but wildly tribal in spirit. In The Surgeon and the Photographer, they take over the stage entirely; in bigger installations, however, they may appear like fairy insects in the shadow of larger objects. In The Quasi-Cameraman (Make Picture of Kaleidoscope) (2010), a tiny cosmonaut warrior guards a mast the size of a transistor radio antenna, on which multiple cut-outs and a page of poetry are attached like flags to a tree. Scale and proportion are strictly contingent on your readiness to imagine the mini as macro.

This transformation of small things into spirits is not just a game of make-believe, for Farmer: it’s a magical material practice. This was further underscored in the artist’s collaboration with Jeremy Millar on Mondegreen (2011) for the Project Arts Centre, Dublin. From 10:22am to 7:58pm (the gallery’s opening hours were altered accordingly), a performer would work in the exhibition space, rather like a Foley artist, on interpreting a scripted series of small sound events with the help of all kinds of sculptural props, ranging from a box filled with stones (to walk on) to sticks, a whistle, a triangle and other tools for generating percussive effects. The script is based on a minutely detailed description of the day Farmer travelled up to meet Millar to discuss the piece. As in a Cagean listening exercise, the artist noted every environmental sound on his journey, and it is these which are reproduced in the performance. Unlike Cage’s work, however, Farmer and Millar’s project did not stem from an embrace of uninterrupted presence. Similarly transcribed – and rendered in the performance as, for instance, short text readings – are the slippages into reverie that are prone to occur when one tries hard to focus on the here and now, only to find one’s thoughts all the more happily wandering off onto other things, people and places. Each day, the performer worked through a diurnal cycle in the body and mind of someone else, rendering Farmer’s experience tangible through a vocal rendering and through noises produced by particular objects which sound like noises made by other things elsewhere.

What is special about Farmer’s work is that it is as dedicated to the material culture of labour as it is to the transformative potential of magical practices and a demonic imagination. Implied in the ethos of his art is a defence of an intimacy with things created through labour, yet also a renunciation of the utilitarian mind-set of a worker who will only ever call a spade a spade and will accept no other realities. In Farmer’s practice, the practical knowledge of what things are when you work with them is married to a liberating sense of wonder: that is the joy of seeing how things behave when you put them on stage, free them up to be whatever they could be and voice whatever memory clings to them. That’s anti-materialist materialism, charged with all the wild magic it needs to take things to the next level.

1 ‘The Other Side’, Jan Verwoert, frieze, issue 93, September 2005

Geoffrey Farmer lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. Recent exhibitions include Project Arts Centre, Dublin, Ireland (with Jeremy Millar); and redcat, Los Angeles, usa (both 2011). He participated in the 12th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey (2011), and his work is included in documenta (13), Kassel, Germany, from 9 June. He will have a retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2013.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.