Kathy Slade and the Infinite Sadness of Utopian Melancholy, Brady Cranfield, text from a talk given on April 22, 2006 at the Tracey Lawrence Gallery
(This talk, delivered at the Tracey Lawrence Gallery on April 22, 2006, used a prop: an acoustic guitar that I left leaning against the wall behind me in the corner of the gallery next to Slade's work, otherwise untouched and ignored.)
I want to talk today about a word that begins with the letter M. I don't mean Minimalism, which seems obvious, in fact appropriate, but melancholia. In the case of Kathy Slade's Chart, looming large behind me, I think the two are deeply connected, the former helping present the latter. So, let's get Minimalism out of the way first, deferring melancholia. Slade's Minimalism in Chart seems to be, on the one hand, a subjective aesthetic preference, a formal choice also shared by much of her other work and, on the other hand, something indicative of her conceptual interests—interests that employ Minimalism as a metaphorical reference more than simply to continue its now-familiar preoccupations (preoccupations that, although moribund, I think are on the upswing). As often with Minimalist work generally, Slade here enacts a phenomenological reduction as a kind of critical and deconstructive exercise. She gets down to some basic stuff, laying it out in its apparent plainness. Yet I don't think she means this to be an exercise in "retinal relaxation," as if "easy on the eyes" in the aesthetic and literal and perceptual sense, but as a challenge, a challenge that articulates a melancholic utopian desire.
As Hal Foster notes, Minimalism's apparent formal reductive-ness historically helped bring about an explosion of theoretical complexity in art production, a tendency that continues today, as if ideas rushed forth to fill Minimalism's seemingly blank austerity. Yet since also materially grounded and contingent, Foster argues that Minimalism is neither simply idealist nor conceptual, instead complicating metaphysical subject/object dualities by means of phenomenological experience. Foster says this criticalness aims less at the ontological than the epistemological realm, focussing, as Foster puts it in The Return of the Real, "on the perceptual conditions and conventional limits of art more than on its formal essence and categorical being" (p. 40). More could be said about this, of course, but it's here where I think Slade's reference to Minimalism begins interestingly to become more metaphorical than exact, imbued with other concerns, reorganizing like an imperfect anagram into melancholia.
My Concise Oxford Dictionary rather glumly defines melancholia as "a mental illness marked by depression and ill-founded fears" (p. 631). Melancholia's Ancient Greek translation means roughly "black bile," referring to the older medial paradigm of the four humours, in which it was thought that psychological states were derived from different levels and combinations of bodily fluids. I think this definition could be made more complex, however, and Slade's work helps with this task.
I remember hearing a news story once upon a time announcing that psychologists had determined that depressed people had a more realistic and therefore in a way more accurate view of the world than so-called happy people. The implication of this test was that happiness was psychopathological, a deluded state, and not depression, which in contrast more even-handedly ascertained life. Being a perennially moody guy myself, I felt somewhat vindicated by this news, but, ironically, still melancholic. Although I was seemingly "right" in terms of my evaluation of life and the world, it was a somewhat empty victory. After all, even in my now righteously bummed-out state of mind, I still had to contend with the world, which didn't get better. Perfectly describing my curious half-victory, Freud remarks in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis that melancholia is marked by ambivalence, "a directing of antithetical feelings," simultaneously both "affectionate and hostile" (p. 435).
I think melancholia's fundamentally dual nature is the source of its complexity, and, I argue, its criticality as well. Although happiness might promise a kind of euphoric contentment, it's by-and-large ultimately short-sighted, present-focused, whereas melancholia recognizes the long, long road of merely compromised satisfactions ahead. Yet what sustains and enables travel down this dusky road isn't simply the darkness of melancholia, as if a self-satisfying indulgence (although maybe a little of that, too). Rather, it's that melancholia is a paradoxical kind of utopian thinking, utopian in Fredric Jameson's understanding as pertaining to a negative or critical apperception of an alternative better world. In other words, melancholia postulates that things could always be better, which is precisely what's so disappointing about the here and now. A perpetual critic, a melancholic person is a true malcontent. The malcontent is one who holds deeply to a sense of something somehow better, sustained by an interminable dissatisfaction with the given. As such, the melancholic malcontent is both critical and utopian.
Always both a little happy and sad at once, Slade is one of my all-time favourite malcontents, and in this way I think she is also located historically. Not full-blown anxiety but resigned melancholy seems to me to be the proper postmodern condition here in the west, maybe only now an appropriate description of our time in history. In a way, melancholy is lived irony: it's ironic in the sense that it perfectly sustains an un-reconciled contradiction, a foundational ambiguity, and as such it's inconsolable.
The most obvious and extreme malcontent in Slade's arsenal is that of the Roald Dahl character Veruca Salt, the subject of an embroidered work, a poster and a t-shirt by Slade. Obnoxiously insistent, Veruca Salt is an antihero, a radicalized crusader taking seriously the promissory claims of contemporary capitalism, transforming its rhetoric of consumerist super-abundance into a deconstructive weapon—a weapon of immanent self-destruction. Veruca Salt's demand I WANT IT ALL I WANT IT NOW is impossible, un-fulfil-able. Yet in Wal-Marts everywhere, ALL is seemingly still for sale. Breaking this circuit while preserving its charge (like a capacitor, saving it for later critical examination), Slade's eponymous poster work gives this implacable demand for ALL away for free, thus feeding all our own little Veruca Salt-like urges. (By the way, if the Veruca Salt of I WANT IT ALL I WANT IT NOW is a possible caricaturized radical feminist in popular children's literature, then Sally Brown, Charlie Brown's little sister, who, in the Charlie Brown Christmas Movie exclaims, "all I want is my fair share, all I want is what's coming to me," is her potential liberal humanist feminist counterpart.)
I want to pause here for a moment of quiet, a moment of listening.
Alas, a wall full of guitar tab chords yet what we do not have is music, strictly speaking. Instead, code, structure, framework and possibility, the chords as referential indexes existentially related to their object. But even without sounding they provoke an awareness of music in our heads, a kind of immaterial cerebral playback. Indeed, there is music already in us. Our heads are full of it, from whole songs to fragments of songs to miscellaneous jumbles of notes, and not always under our control. For example, if heard by chance on the radio, Slade can spontaneously recall with remarkable accuracy the words to and melodies for songs she otherwise has forgotten entirely. Once she starts singing, it seems, the songs are already in her head, then out her mouth. Even if half-forgotten, a vague morass of sound before recall, in some way these songs are part of who she is, defining her subjectivity.
But what is this subjectivity-defining morass of sound, which need not make sound to be heard? Is it the enigmatic intonation of the harmony of the spheres, the secret noise of existence itself as it turns and turns like a record? Or maybe it's the crackling echo of the big bang encoded into our very physiology? Or maybe it's the incessant babbling din of the symbolic as articulated by and in terms of language, which precedes and thus presents subjectivity as active agency?
Slade recently recounted to me in conversation something she kept from a lecture she once attended. Talking about the proliferation of headphones on the heads of urbanites everywhere, the lecturer suggested in an off-hand way that utopia is found in the "space between the headphones." But what is this space between the headphones? Let's start with the suggestion that it's utopia. Strictly speaking, as any good malcontent knows, utopia is factually non-existent, a non-place only ever on the horizon, which is perhaps where it does the most good—again, helping guide us down the dusky road of life. Always around the bend, utopia is a figment, a promise that turns back negatively on the letdowns of everyday life. As such, the practical value of utopian thinking is somewhat paradoxical: being pragmatically non-pragmatic in this way can help make new realities, even if the present is thereby rendered lame. And so if the utopia found between the headphones is therefore a kind of non-place, this means that our heads must be empty, structurally speaking. And why not, the empty space of our heads is the ideal space for fantasy. (And here I'm thinking of Jacques Lacan's simplest "graph of desire," which shows what looks to be an upside-down letter U traversed half way up by an arched horizontal vector—as if I was wearing a comedy "arrow through my head" headband. Funnily enough, this graph can also be read as showing the passage of sound "in one ear and out the other," as the old putdown goes.)
Pop music, the implied agent at work here, pumping incessantly out of a multitude of walkmans and iPods, is a little dose of utopian fantasy, a reverie that temporarily replaces the world with something way better. Not a complete cut from the world, however, more a three-minutes-plus pause, pop music is a melancholic commingling of utopia and reality in a fantasy-type milieu, a kind of minor or little utopia. This little utopia occupies the non-place of our heads, held briefly in suspension, caught in what Dan Graham calls "brain time:" the neurologically-imposed temporal lag required of hearing. Slade's winsome, melancholic video work, Please Please Please, here gives a sense of what might take place in such pop-music-infused brain time: it shows a dream-like point-of-view journey, drifting from Slade's studio at the time to the Or Gallery where the work was presented, all to a particularly ethereal rendition of The Smith's tune of the same name. As such utopian-tinged fantasies often are, the video loops and loops, echoing the circularity of the journey within the diegesis of the video. Simultaneously beautiful, sad, critical and resigned, this work most clearly approximates to me the condition of melancholia. As it turns out, such melancholia is also the ghost that I think haunts this extensive collection of chords: a superabundance that aims for but surpasses the pop music template of three-chord escapism.
After all that, what about the guitar leaning behind me? Am I going to play it? No, I'm not. Truth be told, it's out of tune and I'm not very good. Maybe in a perfect world I can play it and play it superbly. Yet because I might have played it in our contingent here-and-now, this forever-compromised social space we share, it somehow seems as if in some way I have. Strangely activated with a utopian energy, the just-imperceptible echo of songs that could be played, this guitar becomes another uncanny partial object caught in the libidinal economy of desire, another recursive signifier in the non-space of expectation. Here in the gallery with all of us, our attention suddenly on its familiar curves, already hearing the sound it could make, its noisy quiet is loud silence.