- Issue One: Failure
- Issue Two: Territory
- Issue Three: Bare Life
- Issue Four: Slowness
- Issue Five: Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design
- Issue Six: Aesthetics of Heterogeneity
- Issue Seven: Responding to Site Specificity
- Issue Eight: Invisibility (escaping notice)
- Issue Nine: Relations
- Issue Ten: Enchantment, Disenchantment, Reenchantment
- Issue Eleven: Heterotopias (Worlds Within Worlds)
- Issue Twelve: Thresholds
- Issue Thirteen: The Outside
This paper examines Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s video installation consisting of the film P.opular S.ky (section ish) (2008) and the environment in which it is shown: a space comprised of three sculptural installations titled Public Crop (2011), Local Dock (2011), and Porch Limit (2012). After establishing a methodology to read films as utopian spaces, I argue that P.opular S.ky is a glimpse into a utopia where capitalism’s tools of disenfranchisement such as neoliberal individualism, mass culture, and hyper-consumerism are transformed into means to affirm and express identity. Contextualized within the economic crisis of 2008, which initially appeared to signal the end of decades of delirious and hubristic neoliberalism, Fitch and Trecartin’s installation utilizes exhibition design to affectively implicate the viewer in the potential realization of the utopianism espoused in the film. This approach entails expediting the forces that give late-stage capitalism its energies to turn them into tools that destabilize capitalism itself. They realize this by extending the film’s utopian space into the embodied space of the gallery and defamiliarizing the iconography of middle-class taste to alter viewer’s relationship to consumption. This paper then moves on to investigate the limits of installation art to communicate the plausibility of radical change, a reality that Fitch and Trecartin draw attention to rather than obscure within the installation.
The Accelerated Individual: Utopianism in Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s Sculptural Theatre
Artists who work in time-based mediums such as film occasionally create an environment for viewers to experience their work. This practice emerges from a long tradition that begins with the scenic designs of nineteenth-century Operas and twentieth-century movie theatres. Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller’s plywood cinema pavilion The Paradise Institute (2001), for instance, as well as other purpose-built film theatres, create spaces-within-spaces that afford artists greater control over the environment within which audiences experience their work, and allows them to challenge expectations that viewers carry into spaces like cinemas and gallery exhibitions (“The Paradise Institute”). Los Angeles-based artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s collaborative video installations take up this tradition. Their work seeks to radically alter the viewer’s understanding of their relationship to consumerism through the affective space within which their videos are presented. This paper will focus on one of their video installations, P.opular S.ky (section ish) (2009) and the sculptural theatre it plays in: a combination of the installations Public Crop (2011), Porch Limit (2012), and Local Dock (2011), as it was displayed as part of the Prima Materia exhibition that ran from 30 May 2013 to 15 February 2015 at the Punta della Dogana gallery in Venice, Italy.
Fitch and Trecartin’s collaborative video installation (Fitch designs the sculptural theatre while Trecartin directs and edits the video), took up a long and narrow space in the Prima Materia exhibition (Koestenbaum 2009, 275). Orange coloured walls were put up to restrict the rather cavernous brick-lined rooms of the Punta della Dogana, once a customs house that Tadao Ando redesigned into a gallery in 2009. The first space viewers encounter in Fitch and Trecartin’s installation is Public Crop, a viewing room within which P.opular S.ky is projected on the wall. The space is full of domestic furniture, including a row of reading chairs, an exterior dining table with benches, a hammock, as well as unsettling features such as a piece of luggage hanging by a rope from a wooden scaffold that encircles the room, and loose heavy-link chains in haphazard piles. Ominous electronic ambient music plays from hidden speakers in the space. To hear the film P.opular S.ky, viewers must put on pairs of headphones scattered throughout the space. In contrast to the dim-lighting and relatively peaceful atmosphere of the theatre, P.opular S.ky is a jarring, unrelenting, and seemingly nonsensical fever dream of a film. Trecartin’s movies are an iconoclastic mix of the aesthetics of YouTube videos, reality TV, and unsettling 3D animation characteristic of artists such as Jon Rafman. Actors in the film play half a dozen characters each and wear colourful face paint, bright clothes, and constantly change their makeup and identities throughout the film. The characters speak in digitally altered high-pitched voices with the language of advertisements and corporate boardroom meetings but with the inflection of the oversharing vlog, tweet, or Facebook post.
Just beyond a dividing wall are the sculptural installations Porch Limit, and Local Dock, sitting rooms that extend the mashup of corporate and personal life found within P.opular S.ky into the design of the exhibition space. Porch Limit features an upturned concave roof of a shed, attached to a bed headboard by a chain. This structure serves as the base for a miniature room with a white couch and wooden veranda on top. The sculpture also includes 5-gallon top-loading office water jugs placed on chairs alongside the shed. Local Dock, installed right next to Porch Limit, is comprised of modified domestic and corporate furniture found in North American furniture stores, with half-office/half-dinner chair hybrids, a long row of un-openable wooden cabinets, and two patio umbrellas stacked on top of each other. Viewers can sit down at their leisure and listen to the music playing in the space. The headphones that allow viewers to listen to P.opular S.ky are restricted to Public Crop, however. Taken together, P.opular S.ky (which in this essay refers not only to the film but to the whole installation including the film and the three sculptural installations) is enclosed within purpose-built walls, and exists within a space autonomous and distinct from the larger gallery environment that allow Fitch and Trecartin full control over the aesthetic experience of their work.
P.opular S.ky is a representation of a utopian future where humans have appropriated strategies of capitalism such as advertising and consumerism to turn them against the systems of control from which they emerge. This paper explores the utopian claims of P.opular S.ky and demonstrates how Fitch and Trecartin invite viewers to replicate the resistance against capitalism’s control practiced by the characters in the videos through their exhibition design; lastly, it elucidates the limits of this homeopathic resistance, to borrow Frederic Jameson’s term, where the strategies of capitalism are re-appropriated to destabilize capitalism itself.
To argue that Fitch and Trecartin’s film P.opular S.ky is a utopia, I must show that films and exhibition spaces can be utopian. Louis Marin, in his essay “Frontiers of Utopia,” discusses two slides of the Sears Tower in Chicago. One slide features the view from the top of the building, while the other looks up at the tower from the water below. The viewer from the top identifies themselves “with the tower’s master and metonymically with the master of the world,” while the lower perspective is that of those subject to that power (Marin 1993, 398). Those at the bottom are “visible from everywhere, […] the object of a powerful and virtual omnipresent gaze” (402). Both have distinct types of mastery over their domain, the former surveys and rules from a bird’s eye view, while the other can project and imagine themselves free from this subjection (Vujosevic 2015, 81). Both perspectives are faced with a horizon or frontier, which is the boundary or limit of what does not fall under their gaze. According to Tijana Vujosevic’s gloss on Marin, “the horizon can also be a utopian frontier, the ultimate destination of the explorer who is trying to reach and map the realm beyond the dominion, a no-place of freedom and happiness” (81). A frontier exists between the subject and a projected world where they envision themselves free from subjection. This is a figurative frontier I interpret as the literal horizon of the film screen.
Marin and Vujosevic’s ideas of utopia refer to the literary tradition of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). More’s text has two books: the first is a criticism of sixteenth-century England, while the second explores the titular imaginary world of Utopia across the horizon of the Atlantic. Vujosevic claims,
The rupture between the two books of Utopia is conquered in a sea voyage that is not described in the book but is executed in writing. All narrative, Marin writes, is ‘spatial.’ Travel narratives in particular always take place between two kinds of horizon: the horizon that is seen as the boundary of a domain; and the horizon of the explorer, which cannot be reached […] (81).
Marin sees the frontier as a spatial divide between the subject’s space and their utopian projection of freedom and happiness. This utopic world exists only in the imagination. Movies can be utopian, then, since we can consider the film screen a horizon akin to the spatial divide between the present and the utopic. Film scholar Kate Mondloch writes, “the screen traditionally frames a view of a space that is conceptually, though not literally, distinct from the viewer’s material space” (2010, 63). The film screen, as a conceptual spatial divider between the subject and the utopian world, operates like the literary voyage in More’s text.
Further, if all narrative is spatial, according to Marin, the divide characteristic of utopias can also be extended to exhibition design. Fitch and Trecartin’s enclosed sculptural theatres engender a spatial divide between the conventional gallery space and the utopian space of their installation. As a separate, contained space, viewers cross multiple thresholds to enter into Fitch and Trecartin’s world: the divide between exterior world and the gallery space, a border between the gallery space and the sculptural theatre, as well as the horizon between the sculptural theatre and the film. The result is that viewers are perhaps more open to the affective possibilities that the film puts forward as a utopian projection.
Utopian films are certainly affective, as they project their logic retroactively (nostalgia), laterally (alternate universes), or forward in time. Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson’s discussion of the nostalgia film will be helpful here to elucidate the affective potential of utopian films. Jameson cites Star Wars as nostalgic because it is a postmodern pastiche (an uncritical reference) of Saturday afternoon TV serials like Buck Rogers. Jameson writes, “the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again” (2002, 133). The nostalgia film is utopian because viewers project their ideal past onto the horizon of the film screen. What of utopian films that are not about a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but about the future? Fitch and Trecartin’s P.opular S.ky offers viewers such a glimpse.
The film P.opular S.ky is utopian because the characters are “posthuman, postsexual, and post-linear time” (Cornell 2011, 55). They are not tied down to the limitations and boundaries that define our society such as gender, class, and race. They transform their identities, genders, and all other elements of their personality and identity at will. In this utopian world, such transitions are normalized (Cornell 2011, 56). For instance, actor David Toro portrays multiple characters which vary dramatically with regards to clothing, hair, makeup, and gender expression, the external identifiers of their characters are not essential to their identity. Gender, here, is an opportunity for expression rather than an essential factor. To quote Trecartin, “I think it will be healthy for us to see ourselves as people first, and for everything else to be tools of expression. I hope it will someday be possible to truly liberate ourselves into a state where expression is existence […] It would be great if the body could be utterly neutral and malleable” (Podesva 2011, 103). It is clear that Trecartin sees this future as a liberation from discrimination. What makes the film utopian, then, is that there are no politics of marginality in P.opular S.ky, since there is no center or status quo to which the characters are the alternative (Cornell 2011, 56). It is a utopia because every character’s body is a neutral canvas upon which their gender, class, and race are factors of identity and means of expression rather than signs of otherness.
The film also envisions a utopia where the characters have re-appropriated the logic and language of neoliberal capitalism as a means to assert their identity and resist capitalism itself. P.opular S.ky‘s characters “have adopted [capitalism’s] strategies and employ them to their own ends, picking up and discarding different lifestyle options or status symbols as it suits them” (Cornell 2011, 57). For example, one of Telfar Clemens’ characters Global Korea, who wears white face paint and a bob cut wig, exclaims to the camera, “I’m gonna wash off this picket fence and fuck up a tanning bed” (Trecartin 2010). This passage illustrates the literal shedding of an identity associated with white, middle-class desire: the American Dream of a white picket fence. It is as if one could simply “wash off” such an identity (or even wear it in the first place) and recreate one’s entire self at whim. The utopia we witness in P.opular S.ky is a future where humans have internalized and re-appropriated the language of neoliberal consumerism and turned them into means to assert identity. P.opular S.ky proposes a world where individuals use the logic and structures of capitalism—a system that typically negates individuality—as a successful form of resistance and expression.
The resistance P.opular S.ky offers to viewers may seem quixotically utopian, but it emerges from a particular socio-political condition that contextualizes this strategy. Fitch and Trecartin filmed during the 2008 financial crisis which for many sounded the death knell for years of hubristic neoliberal capitalism and signified that the current political system was on the verge of cannibalizing itself (Magagnoli 2015, 145). Marxist political theorists such as Frederic Jameson, philosopher Gilles Deleuze, and psychiatrist Félix Guattari have attributed this self-destructive tendency to what they term the schizophrenic quality of contemporary life in late-stage capitalism (Jameson 2002, 137). For Jameson, the “schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence” (137). Jameson borrows psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term schizophrenia, more descriptive than clinically accurate, for the experience of incoherent freneticism characteristic of neoliberal individualism, hyper-consumerism, and fast-paced pop-culture. According to Paolo Magagnoli, “schizophrenia and capitalism are related categories in that capitalism should be considered as a profoundly irrational social system […] the apparent rigor of economic sciences cloaks the profound delirium at the heart of this historical foundation” (2015, 145).
In response to capitalism’s schizophrenic quality, Deleuze and Guattari propose what Benjamin Noys calls “accelerationism” (2010, 152). Accelerationism is an attempt to push the strategies of capitalism to the limits to bring down what, in 2008, appeared to be a system on the verge of collapse. Deleuze and Guattari declared that the most viable approach to undermine capitalism is to seize on its schizophrenic qualities and expedite its energies for revolutionary purposes (Magagnoli 2015, 149). They propose that the only revolutionary path is a rush forward, not to withdraw from capitalism’s strategies and tendencies towards destruction but to push them further, to accelerate its processes to arrive more quickly at its seemingly inevitable demise (Deleuze and Guattari 2009, 239-240). I prefer Jameson’s term “homeopathy” to Deleuze and Guattari’s “accelerationism,” which relies on the clinically inaccurate and stigmatizing term “schizophrenia.” Jameson uses homeopathy in the context of postmodernism to articulate a similar strategy: “to undo postmodernism homeopathically by the methods of postmodernism […] to work at dissolving the pastiche by using all the instruments of pastiche itself […]” (Jameson and Stephanson 2007, 59). Homeopathy means that one uses a part of the disease as a cure. It is similar to accelerationism, where strategies of an oppressive system are used to bring about its downfall. We can now turn to examine the installation P.opular S.ky as a case study of the practice of a homeopathic resistance to capitalism’s tendencies.
The hyper-consumerism and fast-paced freneticism of P.opular S.ky, with its jarring editing style, incomprehensible structure, and relentless pace, indicates that Fitch and Trecartin take homeopathic cures to capitalism seriously. Fitch and Trecartin’s film and installation embrace the frenetic and incoherent strategies of late-stage capitalism to render the utopia in P.opular S.ky not only possible but actionable. Here I must make an important caveat: theorist Steven Shaviro claims that homeopathic approaches may “actually work to promote and advance capitalism, by providing it with its fuel” (2013 par. 21, cited in Magagnoli 2015, 152). Homeopathy, then, may not be an effective means of resistance, as it resembles the very structures it critiques. Is homeopathy, then, more symbolic than useful?
It is important to note that Fitch and Trecartin’s installation does not claim to cure the entirety of capitalism; they seek instead to alleviate specific symptoms of its logic, such as working-class consumption and commercialism. To propose that art can offer a homeopathic way out of an entire political system is unrealistic. Fitch and Trecartin’s utopia, rather, is one where a homeopathic approach to undermine symptoms of late-stage capitalism is not only a plausible form of resistance, but a means to concretely affirm one’s identity. As such, P.opular S.ky is not a blueprint with instructions on how to strike at the heart of capitalism, but a movement towards a transformative foundation for viewers to build on. Their installation confronts viewers with a tangible and implementable form of resistance, a confrontation that seeks to alter the viewer’s relationship to consumerism. It is because Fitch and Trecartin extend the utopian film to the sculptural theatre—as an affective environment that renders viewers more open to the arguments of the film—that this form of resistance can become effective rather than merely symbolic.
As mentioned above, P.opular S.ky is projected in a sculptural theatre called Public Crop. This theatre, as well as the adjoining installations Porch Limit and Local Dock, are populated by sculptures that Fitch constructs out of cheaply manufactured furniture from stores like IKEA. Fitch’s choice of materials represents, according to Kevin McGarry, the “lexicon of middle-class desire and taste” (2011, 112) and the classic family living rooms of post-World War II American suburbia (Åkervall 2016, 36). Fitch is comfortable in the obscure boundaries between functional furniture and functionless sculpture, as well as the mundane and outlandish, themes that run throughout Fitch and Trecartin’s collaborative art practice. The utopian space of P.opular S.ky and the real-world space of Public Crop fold unto themselves. The same sculptures that appear in the film exist in the real space of the gallery. A part-ladder, part-veranda featured in the pool party scene in P.opular S.ky appears in the sculptural theatre Public Crop. Film scholar Lisa Åkervall states, “the fictional space of the videos extends into the exhibition space and, conversely, the exhibition space is integrated into the video’s fictional space” (2016, 48). Fitch and Trecartin use the exhibition design of the sculptural theatre to extend the utopian ambitions of the film to the viewer’s space. The film’s utopianism encroaches on the viewer’s reality, tearing down the border or horizon of the film to make its arguments tangible and affective. The sculptural theatre turns the film’s arguments into actionable strategies for homeopathic resistance to a specific symptom of capitalism: the working-class consumerism that requires the manufacture and sale of cheaply-produced household goods such as IKEA furniture.
I read these sculptural theatres and the hybrid working-class domestic/corporate spaces they represent along the lines of Marc Augé’s theory of non-places. Non-places are locations where individuals become anonymous. They are places with no local relationship to a place nor a specific history. Augé clarifies, “[i]f a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place” (1995, 77). Airports, hotel lobbies, highways, and malls are non-places. They are uniform spaces found around the world that lack any sense of the local or individuality. The only humanity or sense of community non-places offer is a shared identity of anonymity. Non-places create shared identity, not through shared memory or culture, but through an inverted logic of place wherein everyone follows the rules set out by the non-place as opposed to socially-generated ones. In other words, non-places dictate their own use. They offer no spontaneity or opportunities for social cohesion. Take, for instance, signs in an airport that instruct those within it where to line up. Non-places reduce individuals to a group of anonymous users, which Augé states “can even be felt as a liberation, by people who, for a time, have only to keep in line, go where they are told, [and] check their appearance” (101). Users of non-places enter into a space where they paradoxically possess a shared identity through only their collective anonymity.
Since non-places are devoid of a localized identity, reduce users to anonymity, and dictate their use, I read the North American working-class or middle-class home full of cheaply-produced IKEA furniture, for instance, as a non-place in an expanded application of Augé’s theory. A shared identity exists between consumers of such furniture since one can find the same products globally. IKEA proudly proclaims on their website “[i]t is estimated that every five seconds, one Billy bookcase is sold somewhere in the world” (BILLY Bookcase). What’s more is that such products literally dictate their use, as each product is accompanied by a booklet that communicates instructions for their construction and use in supposedly universal ideograms. IKEA’s erasure of localized identity and the dictation of use is typical of non-places. Augé’s theories, typically applied to public spaces, thus operates within working- or middle-class domestic spaces. I will now show how Fitch and Trecartin use Public Crop, the sculptural installation within which the film P.opular S.ky is displayed, Porch Limit, and Local Dock to homeopathically offer a way out of the anonymity and lack of history inherent in the non-place of the middle-class consumerist home.
Fitch and Trecartin’s sculptural installations transform the non-places of IKEA-furnished homes into a place by adding relational experiences, history, and spontaneity; they reaffirm the identity of their users within the gallery space and offer a homeopathic way out of consumerist control exemplified by cheap, mass-produced products. First, relational experiences are added to the installation space because the characters in the film P.opular S.ky interact with the sculptural pieces that surround the viewer in the sculptural theatre. The video imbues these meaningless and homogenous sculptures with a lived history. Second, though IKEA furniture dictates its use through streamlined design and function, Fitch radically denies their original purpose and turns them into unique, functionless hybrids that no longer dictate a use. In Local Dock—with its unusable cabinets or its chairs with the wheels of office chairs and the backs of dinner chairs—Fitch borrows the familiar furniture characteristic of corporate and domestic non-places but alters them into expressive sculptures that re-introduce an element of life and spontaneity, in other words, re-introducing a sense of place. These objects show signs of a maker’s intervention. Their function is now to surprise and invite viewers to sit in the space to linger, to engage in conversation, or to simply be unsettled (a sentiment that non-places such as airports and hotels seek desperately to avoid). Fitch draws out the unique, spontaneous, and creative potential latent within objects typically representative of the homogeneity within singular purpose-built mass-produced objects. She offers the viewers an escape hatch from the rigid structures of anonymity synonymous with the ownership of mass-produced goods found across the globe. In Public Crop, the non-places of middle-class IKEA-furnished homes therefore have the potential to become place through the relational dialogue they enter into with characters in P.opular S.ky and viewers. The utopian aspirations of P.opular S.ky are perhaps closer than before; the suggestion that one could turn structures intent on homogeneity on their head and assert their identity suddenly appears less outlandish.
To complicate this, philosopher Peter Osborne points out that institutional art spaces can also be considered non-places due to the network character of the international artworld and modernism’s influence on art’s spaces of display (Osborne 2001, 190). Osborne argues that art’s influence on architecture has led to the creation of art-space, an erasure of art’s autonomy that led to visual art and installation becoming co-extensive with the spaces in which it is exhibited (191). What is at stake here is a refraction of art’s placelessness and timelessness out onto galleries, resulting in a proliferation of a globalized white cube gallery aesthetic (191). By placeslessness and timelessness, Osborne means the capacity of certain artworks to be transported and displayed globally, and their capacity to exist across multiple different eras, what Mieke Bal calls the “permanent diffraction of reception” (Bal 1991, 179). Osborne concludes that it is only outside of such spaces that art can continue to be critical on its own terms (192). He writes that art can only live “outside the gallery, by recreating the ontological character of gallery space (art-space) in various ways, transfiguring the social character of the space it occupies” (192). In other words, it is by producing art within autonomous spaces, separate from conventional exhibition environments which have been dulled of their critical force, that transformative social relations may be produced. Fitch and Trecartin’s installation, as an autonomous space set apart from a larger gallery in Venice—one of the epicenters of art’s international network as the seat of a global biennale—has the capacity to create transformative social relations, but their critique takes on a different tone to explore the very real limitations of their own film’s utopian aspirations.
Rather than taking on capitalism itself, Fitch and Trecartin offer a realistic suggestion on how to re-appropriate a specific strategy of capitalism through the creation of an affective space. By designing an autonomous, enclosed installation apart from the wider non-place of the gallery, Fitch and Trecartin disrupts everyday encounters with familiar items such as mass-produced IKEA furniture. Without such a space, the utopian ambitions of the film may appear too distant and unrealistic. The physical installation space provides a bridge between the viewer and the aspirations of the film. The sculptural theatres are thus relational spaces that puts forward the possibility that acts of consumption that would traditionally erase individuality, dictate use, and remove the potential for transformative relations may in fact offer opportunities for creative expression. Though concerns of the potential ineffectiveness of homeopathic cures to capitalism’s spirit of consumerism have been partially addressed; it is essential to consider the limits of this homeopathic approach before we follow Fitch and Trecartin through their proposed escape hatch from capitalist consumerism. The following is an examination of the primary roadblock to Fitch and Trecartin’s project: the individualism of the homeopathic emancipation they propose in their installation.
The main concern with Fitch and Trecartin’s solutions is that they are not emancipatory for everyone subject to capitalism, but rather for individuals already in a position of privilege. A salient metaphor for this individual liberation exists within the space of the installation. While viewers sit on modified mass-produced picnic tables or lie down on a hammock to watch P.opular S.ky, they cannot experience the film together. This is due to the fact that the audio of the film plays through headphones. In Public Crop, the audience is not an assembly of people; they are individuals experiencing the film alone (Fitch 2011, 9). The homeopathic strategies Fitch and Trecartin offer, if viewers understand them (requiring the leisure time and financial means to visit the gallery), demand that one works against capitalism from within. A homeopathic solution to the consumption of cheaply-made IKEA furniture requires the purchasing power to acquire such goods in the first place. While the film expresses dissatisfaction with the conditions of capitalism, it shies away from addressing fundamental and deeply-rooted social and political issues such as the exploitation of labour necessary for mass-produced furniture and goods necessary for this suggested emancipation (Magagnoli 2015, 134). Though the film proposes ways to creatively express oneself and reassert individuality within such a system, it does little to undermine the system itself. The headphones one must wear while experiencing P.opular S.ky serves as a metaphor for the individual nature of the liberation the film proposes. Fitch and Trecartin are seemingly aware of the limits of their own project and draw attention to it with the forced individual spectatorship, rather than hiding it behind the curtain.
To highlight the limitation of P.opular S.ky and other utopian projects for collective emancipation, a comparison to Russian artist Ilya Kabakov’s work The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment (1981-1988) will be helpful. Kabakov’s installation is the representation of a Soviet citizen’s apartment. Its resident has created a makeshift catapult and used it to launch himself to space through the ceiling, now an open hole. Tijana Vujosevic, who provides us with the context for Louis Marin’s view of utopia in which I locate P.opular S.ky, demonstrates that individual liberation is perhaps all utopian projects can offer. We recall that Marin sees the two slides of the Sears Tower as metaphors for two perspectives of power: the mastery of power and totality symbolized by the view from the top of the Sears Tower, and those subject to that power, symbolized by the bottom-up view from the water. Subject to structures of control such as communism or capitalism, individuals imagine a makeshift way out from this oppression that take the form of utopias (Vujosevic 2015, 96). Kabakov’s installation features many rooms, each with a unique plan of escape for individual inhabitants from the drudgery of their lives. As Vujosevic writes, “all the characters plan to go somewhere and desire to go somewhere where the […] grim realities of the quotidian cease to exist. Instead of a horizon, there are multiple individual thresholds. Utopia as a totality is, from this perspective, ultimately unimaginable, unrepresentable” (97-98). The same individualism and limitation apply to P.opular S.ky and its utopian promises. In Fitch and Trecartin’s utopian film and the sculptural theatre that provides an example of an escape from capitalist suppression, the horizon between utopic desire and reality is very much still in place. They draw attention to via the various horizons viewers must traverse (spatial and ideological) before they become open to the proposed solutions the film offers.
Experiencing the film alone with headphones, collective emancipation from capitalism is ultimately unimaginable from the vantage point of P.opular S.ky’s sculptural theatre. Fitch and Trecartin’s installation can only offer a limited and individualistic threshold out of the structural oppression of capitalism. That is the claim they make when they oblige viewers to encounter the work alone wearing headphones. Those oppressed cannot imagine total emancipation: the perspective from the top of the tower is out of reach. Herein perhaps lies the limit of utopian projects: all they can do is offer an imaginary threshold of escape in the form of a hole in the ceiling, or in this instance, a movie screen. The obstacles standing in the way of the threshold in P.opular S.ky are numerous. One must pay the entry fee of the gallery, spend the time to understand the lessons of the video, and buy into the possibility that homeopathic solutions to capitalism are viable. Once one passes through these obstacles, this threshold can only provide a way out that one must pass through, just like the man who flew into space from his apartment: alone and accelerating at breakneck speed. Utopias that champion individual freedom in the face of homogenizing systems of control must perhaps set aside aspirations for collective emancipation to truly be effective. Therein lies their visionary strength, and possibly their undoing. A radically new and inclusive form of installation art is perhaps needed to afford a vision of collective emancipation, one that, in Fitch and Trecartin’s installation at least, seems increasingly distant as late-stage capitalism accelerates seemingly without an end in sight.
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Doug Dumais is an MA student at Concordia University with a B.Hum with Combined Honours in Humanities and Art History at Carleton University (2017). His thesis project explores the role of archival practices and fiction in twentieth-century feminist historiography in Canada. Doug’s research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship (2017-18) and the Concordia Faculty of Fine Arts Fellowship (2017-19). He is also a published poet and co-editor of 30 under 30: An Anthology of Canadian Millennial Poets, published by In/Words Magazine and Press (2017).