in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Energy Fools the Magician

The artist explores themes of loss and conservation with archaic machines, extinct bird-songs, lost sounds, failed speeches, a stuffed bear, melting money, ticker tape machines, marching music and 86 car horns

in Features | 10 SEP 04

After Paul Etienne Lincoln’s masterwork New York, New York (1986 - ongoing) is finally performed, the end product will be some ticker tape. However, a great number of things will happen between the phone call signalling the beginning of the work and this minute conclusion, some 60 hours later. As with many of Lincoln’s large projects, the archaic machines that make up New York, New York are at once fascinating oddities and important stages in what the artists calls an ‘allegorical theatre’.

The performance will consist of ten-hour segments over six days, each begun at 9 a.m. with a phone call from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado to a telephone unit, which sends a signal to a set of four small electrostatic generators. These run on old LPs, collecting static electricity from the records in Leyden jars. The resulting voltage darts down the side of a long reflecting pool of dimension equivalent to Central Park and, through Lincoln’s recreation of the first integrated circuit, jump-starts two tower machines – one made of an antiquish brass (New York Hot), the other a futuristic aluminium (New York Cold) – both of which pull water from the reflecting pool to perform their respective duties. New York Cold freezes the water into a five-dollar bill, which it mints each hour and slides into the pool to melt. New York Hot transforms the water into steam, powering an orchestra of 86 car horns that bellows an unrecognizably slow version of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, that classic of American jingoistic jingles, taken from a 1901 gold-plated punched disc record. A particularly intricate mechanism regulates the tones of the tune so that no single note is played twice at the same pitch; combined with the agonizing speed of its performance, this translates the march into discordant noise. At the end of each day viewers are afforded the chance to hear the song at normal speed; a ticker tape machine records each note played in a given day and sends whatever has been covered back through the car horn orchestra. At the conclusion of the final day all the notes have been inscribed on to the ticker tape, and the march is played once in full.

The individual elements of New York, New York function both mechanically and allegorically. The generators create the work’s electricity from sound technology; any records would suffice, but Lincoln chooses to employ vinyls of lost sounds relating to the city (such as extinct industrial noises, vanished bird-songs, failed political speeches) and recordings from the Metropolitan Opera. And the ticker tape – the linear translation of the Sousa march’s circular disc format – becomes the repository of everything that has been used up or fallen away: the electricity, the melted ice bonds, the steam energy lost over the course of the song’s drawn-out recital. A work ostensibly about the development of technology and its role in shaping the 20th-century metropolis, New York, New York is an elegiac portrait of the late Modern city (involving two towers, even), begun long before loss figured so prominently in New York’s present identity.

Memory naturally figures strongly in Lincoln’s work, often as a metaphor for loss and desire. For Ignisfatuus (1995–6) castings of the arterial systems of a human brain, heart and lung set among the plants in a conservatory in Baltimore glowed purple once each month in response to the lunar cycle and to certain recordings of the work of the late soprano Rosa Ponselle. The work allegorizes a physical manifestation of longing in that most Victorian of ways, with desire amplified by its denial in a restrained crescendo, eulogized in the ‘bloom’ of phosphorescent light.

Lincoln’s fixation with the themes of loss and conservation is usually oversimplified as nostalgia, a characterization that is faci-litated in part by the Victorian–Surrealist aesthetic of most of his works. That visual character, combined with the taxonomic literary quality of his smaller editions and vitrines, can be intimidating. The fact that the artist meticulously builds everything himself is a fact concealed by the seductive mass-produced finish of his objects, an effect nevertheless consistent with Lincoln’s hybrid identity as blue-collar labourer (he repairs accordions and builds custom furniture to support the costs of his work) and dandy connoisseur. Periodically he makes rather decadent luxury items, such as the Equestrian Opulator (1990–2001), a project exhibited at Catterick racecourse with a special fillies’ cup race held in its honour. The Opulator is a specially boxed shooting-stick that can be employed as a stool during the race, a flare gun to signal to one’s butler for more drinks, or an orange peeler. In the course of the project Lincoln cross-referenced the varieties of oranges available at racecourses around the world.

The artist catalogues all of his research, so that the oddities he stumbles across – be they materials, processes, ideas or connections between them – are saved for use in future works. (His discovery, for example, that a Yugoslav scientist once estimated the tonal range of a dinosaur’s vocal cord to be similar to that of a 1936 Buick car horn found its expression in New York, New York.) Were Lincoln able to work with galleries that funded his projects, one has to wonder how this would change his practice. The sorry possibility that a great number of his ideas may never be built or performed seems to provide the motivation for his copiously annotated artist’s books, which detail both the machinations and the associations inherent in a given project. Against this backdrop of implied loss (or lack of realization), Lincoln lays out all of his thoughts with great care and diligence, romantically relishing ideas that may never come to fruition and opening up as many new avenues of association as he resolves.

At the Hamburger Bahnhof last year Lincoln presented the latest version of the as yet unperformed New York, New York alongside Die Berliner Zuckerbärin (The Berlin Sugar Bear, 2003), a new project employing Berlin as its central conceit. Specifically, Zuckerbärin focused on the German capital’s role in the history of genetic research and manipulation. Lincoln fitted out a large stuffed bear – an animal long associated with the city – with a bladder containing milk. Cued by a particular tango, arranged for accordion quartet by the artist, a goat milking machine extracted the liquid from the bear and sent it to two glass tanks, where it was broken down into its four simple sugars and bonded on to thread. This was sent along to a braiding machine, around which lay four embroidered tapestries, each one a different colour, referencing different aspects of the city’s history. As the braider worked, it unravelled the embroideries and pulled the threads from each – the ‘four cultural bases’, as Lincoln terms them in reference to genetic nucleotides – into the contraption, where it sheathed the sugar thread in a randomly generated, woven double-helix. This cord was subsequently encased by a braid of 24 more threads plaited from bobbins, each of which bore a sugar residue from a plant named after a famous Berliner, each plant having been distilled by Lincoln in a specifically made glass still. Here the raw energy (sugar) ‘produced’ by the metropolis’ mascot becomes the core of a rope woven from other symbolic representations of the city’s history (erasing those images in the process), within a structure meant to mimic DNA.

Both Die Berliner Zuckerbärin and New York, New York seem to function as inexact distillation processes that shed meaning while concentrating it. The rope produced by Die Berliner Zuckerbärin and the ticker tape of New York, New York effectively become the distillate of the complex metaphors invoked by their apparatuses’ functions, but serve just as well as, respectively, a simple cord or a strip of punched paper. This seems at once a sly joke and a subtle allegory on the action of history, where so much detail falls away and whole decades, centuries and civilizations are condensed into ideas or notions that cannot adequately refer to their antecedents. The Purification of Faguus sylvatica par pendula, performed in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2001, married Lincoln’s romantic interest in conservation with a sense of anxiety for what is lost in the distillation process, refining the country’s first weeping beech tree into a preservative compound.

The reductive effect of Wim Delvoye’s shit machine comes to mind, as do aspects of certain other of Lincoln’s contemporaries: the intuitive associations of Simon Starling, the do-it-yourself engineering of Tim Hawkinson and the hermetically expansive cosmologies of Matthew Barney. A comparison with the much loved Barney works in Lincoln’s favour, not least because of Lincoln’s earnest desire to engage viewers and involve us intimately in the mechanisms and sources of his projects, the operation of which depends on the healthy participation of our imaginations.

It is the porous and imprecise nature of the causal progressions in a work such as New York, New York that provides the room for Lincoln’s metaphors to expand. Armed with the artist’s abundant explanatory material, our imaginations have to consummate the relation between one process and the next and, in an act of mental alchemy, keep the thread of an idea alive through to the end of the piece. (One thinks of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Rube Goldberg-esque video of the endless science experiment, which obscures its discontinuity with smoke and tricky camerawork.)

Lincoln now hopes to hold the sole performance of New York, New York in a water tunnel beneath the city, to be viewed through a periscope in a midtown park that was once a reservoir. The LPs of lost sounds will be stored and exhibited in the public library headquartered nearby and downloaded to the machine each day. This may never come to pass. If it does, however, Lincoln’s two-decade project will demand even more of our imaginative powers to exist, hidden hundreds of feet below ground. When it is all over, the little ticker tape will be brought up to the surface and at some future date, of the artist’s choosing, the relic will be used to regulate the introduction of hot and cold air into a small cloud chamber. It will be a fitting postscript. Those lucky enough to witness the evanescent result may not realize that the vaporous clouds will be forming according to The Stars and Stripes Forever, as the final condensation of a magnum opus. But those who know the back-story may, like a group of mid-century scientists, try to divine the workings of the entire universe – or at least New York – in the billows of water molecules. If you ever wanted to inhale the essence of an entire city’s 60-year history in a single gasp, this could be your chance.