in Frieze | 01 APR 06
Featured in
Issue 98

Definitely, Maybe

Using light, sound, text, video and objects, Angela Bulloch makes art that explores the systems that organize our behaviour

in Frieze | 01 APR 06

Flip over even the most innocent of things and you’ll find yourself staring at its dark, scaly underbelly. In the first verse of the English nursery rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ an ageing aristocrat marches 10,000 troops to the top of a hill and then, motivated by some unexplained caprice, marches them down again. He is a figure who embodies the exercise of arbitrary power (imagine his ruddy-cheeked satisfaction as 20,000 feet trudge up the muddy incline at his instruction), the parental voice that, when asked to explain this rule or that regulation, answers with the endgame words ‘because I said so!’ This is drawn into sharper focus in the rhyme’s second verse, in which we learn that when the troops ‘were up, they were up / And when they were down, they were down’ – a pair of tautological statements that emphasize both the apparent purposelessness of the Duke’s drill, and its status as a self-referential system that’s almost impossible to escape. The only freedom on offer in ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ is in the lines ‘And when they were only half-way up / They were neither up nor down’. In this in-between moment, amid the clamour of bodies on the move, you might just be able to make a bolt for it and leave your marching days behind you.

Since the late 1980s Angela Bulloch has been making art that explores and exposes the systems that organize our behaviour. Employing light, sound, text, video and objects (or combinations of any or all of these things), her work, as she has said, ‘outlines the fact that the individual’s choices are more or less meaningless’ because the work itself ‘has already defined the parameters of choice’.1 If this appears tyrannical, it is only because it replicates the tyranny of the wider world, in which true choice – that is to say, unfettered choice – rarely exists, and what we are presented with instead is at best a number of palatable yet still predetermined options, and at worst no options at all. (To take just one example, Baskin and Robbins’ famous ‘31 Flavours’ of ice cream represent, for all their seeming variety, only the smallest and most commercially viable portion of all possible frozen desserts.) Given this, how might we slip past the authorities that act on us and become the genuine authors of our own experience? This question, it seems to me, is the beating heart of Bulloch’s practice, and its answer is found in ambivalence – in the sticky, semi-permeable membranes between one thing and another.

For the 1991 exhibition ‘Broken English’ at the Serpentine Gallery, London, Bulloch installed a group of three related pieces that test the waters on which the notions of ‘options’ and ‘choices’ float. Yes Chair Sound Piece (1991), No Chair Sound Piece (1991) and Maybe Chair Sound Piece (1991) each consist of a padded chair that, when sat on, emits the recorded voice of the artist, which utters various synonyms of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ like an existential whoopee cushion. Although one might take these statements as comments on the act of opting to park oneself on one of three proffered seats (‘yes to sitting on the Yes Chair!’), there is really no logical reason to do so. Hanging there in the air, Bulloch’s words refer to nothing, or at to least nothing in particular, and interpreting them as a verdict on one’s behaviour reveals less about the piece than about one’s own cultural conditioning. It’s equally possible, and much more empowering, to use these works as, say, safe-bet oracles or Magic Eight Balls (‘Yes Chair, should I do X?’) or, shuffling swiftly from one to another, as a device on which to compose a nonsense poem made up of contradictory affirmations, negations and equivocations. While Bulloch’s trio of seats – which both recall and extend Joseph Kosuth’s exercise in ontological distinction and tautology One and Three Chairs (1965) – appear to offer us only three options, this is an illusion that depends, like the card sharp, on our predictable, self-imprisoning habits of mind. Shake these off, and there’s a lot of space to play with here, a lot of space to make real choices. In the end the ‘Chairs’ series is designed to throw us back on ourselves, to make us – despite the apparent parameters set by Bulloch – take responsibility as co-authors of the artist’s work.

Bulloch’s inclusion of a Maybe Chair in the series is, I think, significant. While the statements ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are non-negotiable, or at least only negotiable if you’re willing to bare your teeth, ‘maybe’ has an unfinished, shape-shifting quality. ‘Maybe’ makes no demands and threatens no sanctions, but rather keeps everything marvellously, maddeningly in play. However, important as this concept is to understanding Bulloch’s art, it is conspicuously absent from her ongoing ‘Rules’ series (1993– ongoing), a group of works that reproduce lists of ‘found’ regulations in the form of photocopies, wall texts and slogans printed on objects. To date, the series has included rules for go-go dancers at New York’s Baby-doll Saloon (‘If you do drugs, try not to bring them to work with you’), instructions for riding on a funfair ride (‘Remove all items from your pockets’), government advice to residents in advance of predicted riots in Santa Monica (‘Have fire extinguishers and water hoses with nozzles ready’), the principles of data protection (‘Hold only data which is adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose for which it is held’) and even, in an echo of mathematical ‘set theory’, the rules of the ‘Rules’ series itself. Reading this material, you’re reminded of every regulation you’ve ever been subject to, from the colour of your school’s football kit to the instructions on a ballot paper. Even if a particular rule in the series is unlikely ever to apply to you, it’s hard not to test yourself against it mentally, asking yourself whether you’d be willing to conform to its demands, and, if not, what you might risk as a result. In a sense, we might read the ‘Rules’ series as a type of triple-portrait – first of the rule-makers, secondly of the ruled and thirdly of ourselves. Displaced from their original contexts, Bulloch’s texts encourage us coldly to deconstruct the limits that power puts on behaviour, but they also prompt something warmer: a (re)-examination of the self and the first tentative steps of a walk in somebody else’s shoes.

Since 2000 Bulloch’s practice has focused increasingly on the use of ‘pixel boxes’ – plain cubic light units measuring 50.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm, constructed from glass (their fronts), plywood (their bottoms and sides) and aluminium (their technology-sprigged backs). Resembling Donald Judd’s ‘primary structures’, they house three 14-watt fluorescent tubes in red, green and blue that, when manipulated, are capable of mixing some 1.6 million colours, the same number as on a standard computer screen. (Like the subtle niceties of some alien philosophical system, most of these shades cannot be distinguished from each other by the human mind.) Connected to a DMX modular system designed in collaboration with Holger Friese, these boxes may be programmed with any visual information Bulloch desires, from the movements of gallery-goers in Prototypes (2000) to the colour schemes of André Cadere’s Round Bars of Wood (1970) in Chain A (2001) and Chain B (2001), to film scenes in works such as Blow Up TV (2000). (They may also, as in her 2005 installation To the Power of 4 at Secession, Vienna, act as surfaces on which video footage is projected). These devices, then, are primarily machines for broadcasting images – or rather those images’ rudimentary approximations. A pixel (the word was coined in 1932 by the Hollywood magazine Variety) is the smallest unit of information in any given picture. To blow up every pixel in, say, one of the photographs on this page to 50 cm by 50 cm would require millions of pixel boxes. Bullock doesn’t go in for such unfeasible literalism, but instead radically reduces the resolution of her source material so that a scene from the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix (1999) may, in her Bullet Dodge (2001), be expressed by only a handful of stacked-together units. There are losses here (of authorial intention, of clarity), but also corresponding gains. To see one of Bulloch’s pixel works is to see an image that has both regressed and evolved – that has become as simple as plankton, or as simple as a god.

In Z-Point (2001–5), shown as part of her recent retrospective at Modern Art Oxford, Bulloch uses a 32-unit, cinema screen-like bank of pixel boxes to reprise the final moments of Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic of counterculture cinema Zabriskie Point (1970). In this scene Daria Halprin sees (or imagines, or else somehow psychically causes) the explosion of a luxury Modernist mansion, whose red flames contrast fiercely with both the blue sky and the almost identical dusty peachiness of the actress’s skin and the trackless desert sands. While Bulloch’s piece preserves Antonioni’s gorgeous coloration and general air of trippy-ness, it renders his narrative invisible, and it is left to viewers to map this back on to Z-Point from their (imperfect) memories of the original film. Cinema, here, becomes a ghost that haunts itself, and in a neat joke on Minimalism’s preoccupation with the relationship between the viewer and manifest form, the artist’s boxes become fully functional – fully art – only when the viewer accepts them not just as discrete objects but also as parts of a surface, a window-like screen. This is, then, an art that belongs not to an intractable ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but rather to ‘maybe’. Contrary rules are in play here, and it is by simultaneously obeying and disobeying them that the piece – and the viewer’s self – emerges.

While Z-Point demands to be read using several available codes, Bulloch’s recent installation The Disenchanted Forest x 1001 (2005) at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (and currently included in the Tate Triennial) appeared to reject the possibility of being ‘read’ at all. Here, between a raised segment of floor and a lowered segment of ceiling, looped a spidery kilometre of glow-in-the-dark string – a metric re-imagining of the mile of string shown by Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1942 as part of the André Breton’s exhibition ‘First Papers of Surrealism’. On a nearby wall hung a horizontal line of 1001 coin-sized numbered plates of the type used by Berlin’s municipal authorities to keep track of the city’s trees. Below this, painted directly onto the plaster, was a luminescent text detailing (in an echo of the ‘Rules’ series) at what height and with which tools the plates should be attached. On another wall hung four silkscreen prints depicting an apartment, a silhouetted female figure as seen through the slats of a blind, an eye, and what appears to be the ‘Death Star’ from George Lucas’ film Star Wars (1977), unaccountably accompanied by the number 400. Lying on the gallery floor were 101 copies of this final print, and on top of them the artist had placed a hammer, nails, a nail-holder and a number-plate dispenser – the tools mentioned in the wall text. A spotlight zipped along the line of plates, stopping seemingly at random, and a multi-channel soundscape, composed by Florian Hecker, emanated from speakers inserted in the floor and the ceiling. You could call it spooky, but that would be the wrong word. The piece was unsettling, sure, but not because of its eldritch elements (all of these were winkingly overdetermined), but rather because of its tight-lipped determination not to speak.

Attempting to untangle The Disenchanted Forest x 1001 is tough work, and is perhaps beside the point. The disillusioned woodland of its title suggests that 19th-century northern European Romanticism has been rendered untenable by the modern bureaucracies of Duchampian Conceptualism and civil service protocol; that if he were alive today, Caspar David Friedrich would have exchanged his paintbrush for a hammer and a dispenser full of numbered plates. But if Bulloch’s piece is about the expiration of one fantasy, it might also be about the perpetuation of others. Her use of the number 1001 recalls the 10th-century epic One Thousand and One Nights – a collection of Arab folk tales that, legend has it, were told each evening to King Shahrayar by his beautiful captive Shahrazad, who by ending each tale on a cliffhanger kept the King in a state of constant anticipation and confounded his plan to execute her. Like Shahrazad, Bulloch is at pains to avoid conclusions, and has said of the piece that ‘I’m making a kind of hermetic art work and the very act of doing that is a political act in itself’. Sometimes, to refuse meaning is to refuse the power that the act of meaning confers on you – a refusal either to make or to play by the rules.

1 David Bussel, ‘Who Controls What? Interview with Angela Bulloch’, in Art from the UK, Sammlung Goetz, Munich, 1997