Signal Chains and the Break in its Chain of Signification

“… ‘reality’ which is the site of a permanent struggle to define ‘reality’. To grasp at one and the same time what is instituted (without forgetting that it is only a question of the outcome, at a given point in time, of the struggle to bring something into existence or to force out of existence something that already exists) and representations, performative statements which seek to bring about what they state, to restore at one and the same time the objective structures and the subjective relation to those structures, starting with the claim to transform them: this is to give oneself the means of explaining ‘reality’ more completely, and thus of understanding and foreseeing more exactly the potentialities it contains or—more precisely, the chances it objectively offers to different subjective demands”

–Pierre Bourdieu, Identity and Representation

What differentiates Images from Visuals? Looking at Signal chains, the question is what precisely is being looked at, Images or Visuals, a representation of reality or the reality of representation? Do they refer to an Other or they are just to be conceived of as self-referential? What objective or subjective criteria are to be utilized here for measuring what is at work in the representational mechanism of these works? The objectivist ‘reality’ to which they may refer, or the subjectivist [art] history of formal transformation, which by now operates on its own reality?

Instead of seeking answers solely within the works displayed in Signal chains (i.e., the objects in isolation), it would be much less tedious, and more offering, to explore the trajectory of Steven Cottingham’s recent image-based works, from which Signal chains seems to have come about (i.e., the objects-in-relation).

From January of 2020, in an Instagram channel named image.obj, and in an ongoing fashion, Cottingham has been posting a series of images picturing “new artworks” showcased in white-cube looking exhibition venues. The documented works span from sculptural installations, readymades, painterly objects, and images. Taking the form of an equivalent of the wall-mounted labels juxtaposed with the artworks in exhibition venues, here too each posting comes with a caption containing the title and date of the works, medium and dimension specificities, and, sometimes, work descriptions.

There seem to be three different levels of semiosis at the stake with these images. First, given the amount of works posted within a relatively short time span, and that each project seems to have been exhibited in a different exhibition venue, the first signal sent to the semi-professional art viewer following this Instagram channel signifies the volume of institutional receptions Cottingham’s artistic practice has been receiving lately. In other words, the first level of semiosis evoked by these images operates on the transformation of visual information into a form of capital, that is, the conversion of indexical and iconic signs into the symbolic, as well as the social. To put it differently, here the signified is perceived within the metonymic transformation of the visible into cultural capital.

The second level of semiosis pertains to the artworks that are represented within the images (sculpture, painting, etc.)—the question of ‘meaning’ of the artworks. Considering the temporality enforced by Instagram’s interface (i.e., displaying images in a fairly small size and aspect ratio; subjecting the viewer to the ephemeral mode of contemplation through the mechanism of scrolling, etc.), the viewer of these images is typically rendered incapable or even disinterested in spending profound time on the question of meaning of the represented works. By not remaining impervious to digital interfaces’ exertion of sensory effects and reification of emotions, the intellectual question of meaning of the works here is destined to be of secondary level of significance.

The third signal may or may not be perceived. Yet in case it is, it would function against the signified of the first two mentioned signals, and also foment another level of signification.

This third signal is the only existing disparity between the captions of Cottingham’s posted images and those customarily accompanying exhibition images on social media. This signal is the absence of any information in Cottingham’s captions pertaining to the name of the venues in which these works have been exhibited and subsequently documented. As mentioned before, the captions only include information such as title of the work, medium specificities, and work descriptions. It is only now that the viewer may possibly suspect the nature of these images and that it will be manifested to them that the images are all digital renderings.

As mentioned before, with the manifestation of this third signal, which could however remain safely sequestered in the periphery of the image.obj Instagram channel, the first two procedures of semiosis previously activated by these images will be exposed to an interruptive derangement.

At first, it is probable that the primary cultural capital the images had produced will be exposed to an aggressive process of devaluation. Secondly, and subsequent to the devaluation of this capital, it is time for the question of the meaning of the works to also lose its importance to a newly arisen “moral” question—that is, the artist’s integrity as well as the authenticity of his level of intentionality in art-making.

Nevertheless, it seems that among the multiplicity of viewers, the targeted group for whom these images are made available are indeed the semi-institutionalized art viewers; one for whom Cottingham seems to have been making a gesture. The latter’s familiarity with western artistic discourse will subject them to this gesture embedded in Cottingham’s digital renderings, which are guised as documentations of exhibited “art”. Ironically, and prior to discovering the real identity of these images, they are also the same group of viewers who had assumed the cultural capital these images set up. The paradox of these viewers lies in their capability for both locating the discursive gesture these images uphold, and at the same time declining it by giving in to the trivial judgments of morality following their knowledge of the images’ “false” identity.

There can be little doubt, however, that there is much more to think about in Cottingham’s gesture than sufficing with the mentioned trivial judgments. It is here, that a fourth synthetic level of semiosis can arise, one that targets discursive arguments around what art is, what it ought to be, and how it is operating institutionally.

To understand this gesture, it is crucial not to confuse Cottingham’s images with the “poor image” that Hito Steyerl describes in her eponymous essay. They are not “ghosts of an image” nor do “they transform exhibition value into cult value or contemplation into distraction.” They are not “the lumpen proletariat in the class society of images.” Nor are they “poor” because “they are not assigned any value in the class society of images.” Quite on the contrary, Cottingham’s images are assigned great value within the class society of images. This is because the type of representation that is at work in them evokes the viewer’s supposition of ‘real’ artworks having been ‘really’ exhibited in ‘real’ art venues.

In Digital Provenance and the Artwork as Derivative, McKenzie Wark has the following to say about Steyerl:

Unlike Hito Steyerl, I don’t think art is a currency. I think it’s a derivative, which is not quite the same thing as a currency… Let’s start with this paradox. Art is about rarity, about things that are unique and special and cannot be duplicated. And yet the technologies of our time are all about duplication, copies, about information that is not really special at all. At first, it might appear that the traditional form of art is obsolete. If it has value, it is as something from a past way of life, before information technology took over. But actually, what appears to be happening is stranger than that… the artwork is now a derivative of its own simulation, or rather of its simulations, plural.

For Wark, the actual value of art in our time is both created and authenticated by the circulation of its own images preceding its physical exhibition—circulation of jpgs on the internet, image attachments in curatorial online correspondence, images on art blogs and online art magazines, appearance of artworks or their semblances in television shows, and so forth.

Nonetheless, this authentication of the original by the copy can only be the case insofar as the actual object, whose digital image has preceded it and thus authenticated its current value, is ultimately displayed in a physical venue. The foregoing, however, is not the case (at least, not yet) with Cottingham’s images. And that is precisely where their strength lies.

The paradox of these images is that they represent two temporalities at once. By digitally, yet photo-realistically, representing the documentations of [non-] exhibited [and non-existing] artworks in an [non-existing] art venue, in fact these images are referring to two Others which do not even exist. First, a “past perfect” to which any documentation refers and thereby gains its authenticity—i.e. “I have exhibited.” At the same time, these digitally produced images refer to the realization of a “future perfect” in relation to which Wark’s argument remains intact­—i.e. “I will have exhibited.” Cottingham’s images live in these two tenses at once. At the end of the day, they are images (renderings) of the images (represented art objects) that have been displayed within the image of physical spaces. Hence, the name of the Instagram channel, image-objects. As if the artist here is pre-actively, and with a touch of sarcasm, creating images to be later circulated so as to create the value of real arts-derivatives that are yet to come!

Notwithstanding the existing degree of commonality between Cottingham’s gesture and Wark’s theory, or even with Baudrillard’s Simulacra (i.e., representation preceding reality and thereby creating it), there is a determining difference with the type of images in image.obj that has to be further explored.

While still maintaining Baudrillard’s assertions that to simulate is to feign what one hasn’t, and that simulation is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality, the determining factor in Cottingham’s simulating images is that by revealing the reality of simulation, they represent the reality of representation in their processes of representing. It is exactly this additional disposition of these works that offers insight not only into the way in which simulating representations work, it has also a lot to say about how art institutions and institutionalized artists in our time operate in relation to the logic of simulating representations.

Wark’s theory of artwork as derivative falls short for explaining this additional feature. This shortage, however, stems from an inherent structural inadequacy. What is actually being said—that “art” in our time grasps its value and authenticity from the circulation of images preceding its actual exhibition, thus, it is a derivative of its own digital provenance? Such an assertion seems to solely apply to established and mid-career artists. It is merely with this type of art that—once displayed in the acknowledged institutions—one may conceive of them as derivatives.

But how does Wark’s assertion remain intact when it comes to the type of art and artists whose actual art, unlike the established and mid-career artists, is first and only seen in the local artist-run centers? Is their art still art? With them there is no such thing as previous circulation of images creating their current value and thereby authenticating them. Even if true that the art of the latter is of much less institutional/market value compared to that of the former, it is hardly accurate to conceive of them as being derivatives of a digital provenance. To me, this is exactly where Wark’s theory founders on something. Throughout Wark’s essay the term art is used in an equivocal fashion. This equivocity, however, seems to be a methodological one. It is not clear whether Wark is talking about art in its categorical, ontological, or paradigmatic sense, or is she just concerned with the type of art that is often exhibited within the prestigious art institutions?

It appears that Cottingham’s digital renderings hunt the heart of this institutional problem in the professional art world.

Despite feigning what they are not, and despite simulating the two non-existing tenses of “I have exhibited” and “I will have exhibited” at once in the form of [false] documentation, are Cottingham’s images still to be called art, and if so, what type of art is at work with them? By surpassing the first two levels of semiosis (the question of cultural capital and the meaning of the represented objects), and then by surrendering their true identity (as renderings), they subject the viewer to the conjectural question of what art is, and what it ought to be. It is exactly through this sundering of the viewer’s pre-conditioned subjective judgment on “art” that they these images create art. In fact, they help the persistent viewer spend less time looking at them and, instead, turn away so as to contemplate the above questions.

This situation is very similar to what Dave Beech prescribes in his essay “On Critique”, that “after the Avant Garde, anti-art, the readymade and conceptual art, shouldn’t we spend less time looking at art […] and more time writing and thinking about it?” In other words, the artistic that is concerned in such a paradigm of art-making and looking at art that is prescribed by Beech, can be thought of as: the synthesis of the dialectics of art object in relation to art viewer––i.e., the possibility for discursive argumentation. It is then clear that art is neither to be located in the object nor is it with the viewer, but it is contingently somewhere exterior to both artist and the viewer—the linguistic realm of thinking, writing and talking, and the self-explanation of senses, all fomented by mediation of art object meeting the art viewer. The latter seems to be precisely what Cottingham’s images-in-relation are capable of. The Other to which this relation refers, albeit metonymically (and not metaphorically), is the very institution of art.

Having access to a rather in-depth history of Cottingham’s digital renderings, we can now see that the works presented in the Signal chains have arrived at a different stage of becoming. Here the photoreal renderings seem to be intentionally disclosing themselves. But what does this disclosure have to offer to the viewer other than confirming that what is being looked at here are mere images that, despite operating on the real laws of representation and resemblance, may have nothing to do with reality?

In The Future of the Image, Rancière writes: “if there is now nothing but images, there is nothing other than the image. And if there is nothing other than the image, the very notion of the image becomes devoid of content.” It appears that by disclosing their real nature, Cottingham’s images in the Signal chains “attempt” to find a place outside the dichotomy of mere images vs. mere reality. Ultimately, they appear to be a type of images that incessantly represents, not simply their content, but much more their own imageness to the viewer. This could perhaps be better understood, if we can, by way of imagination, temporarily ignoring the physical apparatus in which the Signal chains’ images are displayed. What remains when we strip the images from all the props surrounding them? The remainders will be a type of imagery that do not even bother to look “real”. Quite the reverse, they adamantly confirm that they are just images, and that they insist to be “real”. It is in this way, that they represent their own imageness, and nothing else, both to the viewer and also to themselves.

Nevertheless, the physical apparatus with which the images in the Signal chains are actually displayed suggests that the artist desires something more than the above description; something by mediation of which he could assist these renderings (realism-without-reality) to find a way out of their own imageness, to the “reality”.

Thermochromic workflow (detail), 2020, heat-sensitive fabric, led screens, led controllers, media players, flash drives, amplifiers, faux rock speakers, cables, each approximately 44 x 77 in. (112 x 196 cm)

Thermochromic workflow (detail), 2020, heat-sensitive fabric, led screens, led controllers, media players, flash drives, amplifiers, faux rock speakers, cables, each approximately 44 x 77 in. (112 x 196 cm)

The sculptural screens, the hardware, the cables, the battery, the audio amplifier, the media player, the USB drive, all together produce real heat whose transmission to thermochromic fabric causes the fabric to alter colour.

But is this heat really coming from the representation—for instance, from the image of the fire in the video Dodge charger fire sim? Or is it actually the display apparatus that produces heat and activates the fabric? How different the dissipated heat would have been if, instead of fire, the screen displayed a video of some red and yellow apples spinning around? We know that the issue of the thermal management of displays has for a long time been an ongoing question in digital and analogue technologies. Beside the lower power usage and provision of brighter picture, one of the key reasons for the invention of “light emitting diodes” (LED) was precisely that they have lesser heat dissipation than “liquid crystal display” (LCD).

Therefore, the truth is that even if there is a relationship between the realism of the images and the reality of the discoloured thermochromic fabric in the Signal chains, such a relationship is just metaphorical—one that stands by virtue of the existing relation between the words “fire” and “heat”, and not their visual representation, aka. images. The question that persists, however, is why the metonymic relationship that the image.obj’s images maintained to their Other, and by which they hunted the institution of art, has here swapped its place with the above metaphoric one? Perhaps the missing metonymy is to be located in the artist’s decision for applying such a methodological change to this body of work.

Signal chains, however, strenuously remains in the category of art that demands more from the viewer than just looking at them. Cottingham’s recent works perfectly require a type of understanding (of art) that from the outset needs to be built out of language—reading, talking and discussing the artworks with the others. It is only then that one would return to these works, and perhaps, spend more time looking at them. “Reading to see the artwork does not mean reading about the artwork,” writes Beech. Signal chains does provide the situation for such activities through various modes of discursive production that the images in it foment.

–Ali Ahadi, September 2020