UNEDITED essay by DaveDyment for Germaine Koh: Stall catalogue (Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong, 2004)
Stand Up and Be Counted: The Quotidian Work of Germaine Koh
Grandmother: What are you doing, Smut?
Smut: I’m counting the hairs on the dog.
Grandmother: Whatever for?
Smut: (incredulously) To see how many there are.
Drowning by Numbers – Peter Greenaway.
Conceptual Art loves to count and codify. Artists as varied as Vito Acconci, Mel Bochner, Jonathan Borofsky, Stanley Brouwn, Hanne Darboven, Hamish Fulton, Jonas Mekas, and Lorna Simpson have all utilized counting in their work. On Kawara filled volumes by counting back a million years from 1969 (One Million Years [Past]) and ahead a million years (One Millions Years [Forward]). An audio installation at Documenta XI presented volunteers reading from the books, into a tape recorder.
For his Fluxus performance Counting Song, Emmett Williams simply counted the audience and left the stage. Martin Creed titles his work numerically and, with his band Owada, released a CD of pop songs where almost every lyric consists solely of Creed’s rhythmic counting. Roman Opalka started counting in 1965 and hasn't stopped, committing each successive number to canvas. Even Ed Ruscha’s classic artist’s books might be deemed mere volumes of photography were it not for his tidy titles, such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations and Thirty-Four Parking Lots.
A recent web project by Claude Closky, Top Ten Favorite Numbers, invites visitors to vote on their favorite digit, thus altering the numerical sequence based on popularity.1 Toronto’s Micah Lexier (now living in New York City) takes a similar approach to numbers – resizing them to democratize their surface area. He also counts his own age in coins, ink prints and other media, constantly attuned to his own mortality.2
Counting figures largely in the work of a number of other Toronto artists; Daniel Olson3 has published all the prime numbers and the value of Pi up to a million digits as attractive leather bound books for handy reference. Kelly Mark does her counting with the One, Two, Three, Four, Stroke of prison walls. The work is published as a wallpaper and her own years are tallied as a tattoo on her arm – updated yearly on her birthday. She also punches in and out, daily, using a time-clock to tabulate hours spent on artwork.
Germaine Koh’s Counter from 2002 is a simple numerical counter embedded in the gallery wall, with a push button below it. Unlike the tired, ‘interactive’ art of the late eighties and early nineties, all the gallery visitor must do to take part is press the clicking button and register his or her presence.4 The numbers cannot be rolled back but there is nothing to prevent someone from incessantly pressing the button, in order to somehow have more impact on the data than his predecessor. So the Counter accommodates exaggeration and registers idle boredom. In this way, the skewed figures are significant, rather than flawed data.
Most substantial counting is done for eventual wider reporting. We answer statistical information because we know it will be entered into large, potentially useful data banks; we vote to have our opinion counted and influence change; we attend protest marches in the hopes that the following day the press will report the large number of people who agree with our social or political position. Corporations take counts for market research, to better their ability to sell their product or service. Amazon.com has yet to post a profit. As a retail venture it is unsuccessful yet as a data bank of personal consumer information, it is unrivalled. This data will eventually be used to determine, not only how to market a book, but whether or not it will be published. The data is meticulously scrutinized and of course, sold to other companies.5
Counter reports its data only to the visitors that follow you. The information is neither gathered, analyzed nor published. No conclusions are drawn, but the data is somehow not inconsequential - it exists as a record of seldom-noted gestures and impulses; it serves to lend importance to the smallest of actions.
One of Koh’s best works is Poll, from 1999 – a two-meter high metal post that tracks the choices of pedestrians. Placed in the centre of a high-traffic footpath, the pole forces those who encounter it to make a decision to veer to the left, or to the right of the obstruction. Many will make this decision unconsciously, most without any knowledge of participation in Koh’s project. The survey, then, is not taken numerically, but by the path itself. The side most worn represents the favoured route.
The crossroads, the road less traveled, diverging paths, the chosen path. These are ubiquitous metaphors in literature, blues music and other narrative arts. They suggest themes of fate and destiny and the notion that a simple choice has profound implications. Koh gently pokes fun at these grand ideas by disrupting the path only slightly, making the ‘alternate route’ no more than a few simple steps.
Teams, from 1997, consisted of a mass of blank publicity buttons, available for the taking, in two different colours. By selecting a colour, visitors placed themselves in one of two groups. Once worn outside the gallery the participants became representatives of their particular “team”.6 The 2003 work, Focus Group, further distills the notion – all the buttons are identical and so the visitor must only decide whether or not to partake. Like Poll, the title pun serves as an entry point – the buttons two-tone, high-contrast graphic is one used to assist optical focusing.
Survey Field, a 2003 project for Artengine (www.surveyfield.net), is a web work that collects opinions from online communities and presents the data in the form of a grid of coloured points. The answers to a series of questions are presented based on the participant’s geographical location. The red for no, green for yes or blue for maybe colour scheme blurs into other colour patterns to simultaneously present the bigger picture and distort the findings.
Like Closky’s survey, Poll, Teams, Focus Group and Survey Field all provide a vehicle for charting popular opinion, but as an end rather than as a means. With constantly increasing data processing abilities, statistics have become incredibly specific. During the Bill Clinton scandal it was reported that 84 per cent of the public who wanted him impeached ate Campbell's Soup, while Burger King customers were predominantly pro-Clinton.7 Conversely, Koh’s imprecise evidence eschews correlations in favour of gestalt.
For Prayers, 1999, Koh hooked up a device to the administrative computer in the gallery office that translated the keystrokes into Morse-encoded smoke signals, which were then broadcast from the gallery window as long and short puffs of smoke. This foregrounding of the behind-the-scenes tasks that gallery staff perform dignifies8 the actions but also makes them beautifully meaningless. The number of people able to decipher Morse Code is, I suspect, small. In many ways the piece reduces the deskwork to clouds, to weather.9
PoS and Relay, both from 2004, continue the practice of converting communicative data into shared experience, however ephemerally. PoS utilizes an outdated commercial Point-of-Sale receipt printer to translate information gathered online, the staccato rhythms of the printer sounding like Morse code or incoherent speech. Relay concretizes the currents of longing and hope embedded in long distance text messages by way of a flashing beacon of light.
A synonym for counted is ‘included’ and to be counted is also to be politically empowered. Koh is interested in more than simple data gathering; her work investigates systems of communication, circulation and exchange. A strong sense of social justice pervades her practice, free of the didacticism that often accompanies art-as-activism.
Despite radio’s omnipresence10, access to its broadcast is fairly restricted. Spot Radio, a low-power FM Radio transmitter in a common floral suitcase, presents a mobile solution. Koh makes the device available to local community members to foster open dialogue, forge connections and allow the disenfranchised to claim at least a small portion of the airways.
A more recent political public intervention turns real estate sandwich boards into actual architecture by adding tent fabric to the existing hinged frame structure. Located in neighborhoods in the process of gentrification Occupancy, 2003, playfully comments on the need for affordable housing, not more high-rise condos for high-end clients. It reminds one of Krystof Wodiczko’s 1988 Homeless Vehicle Project in which the artist provided makeshift shelters out of shopping carts. The ensuing outrage from both sides of the political spectrum (the carts were inventive but hardly adequate accommodation) was precisely the dialogue Wodiczko intended. Koh has also produced Squat, a work which commemorates the use of construction sites as temporary housing.
Twenty-two percent of Canadians live below the poverty line, says Statistics Canada. The Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, argues that it is only eight per cent. Even without misreporting, misinterpretation and manipulation these statistics threaten to generalize and depersonalize the problem - they narrow, rather than broaden debate. Koh’s count presents the bigger picture via the smaller one, and re-humanizes in the process.
Counting can also be both mundane and reflective; one counts sheep to overcome insomnia and counts to ten to quell one’s anger. The quintessential Zen exercise involves counting ones breath as a means of mindful meditation and contemplation. A recent performative multiple titled Placebo (Toronto)11 consists of a labeled glass bottle containing twenty-five stones and the instruction “Swallow one when feeling ungrounded. Focus on its passage through your body.” Koh’s practice is often said to invoke Zen, perhaps by way of Fluxus. Her work can be viewed as quiet answers to rarely asked, barely asked questions, decisions as experience rather than exponents, census as sense of, data as Dada.
1. At the time of writing ‘three’ is in first place (third place?). To vote, visit http://www.sittes.net/top10.
2. Many of these works began in the eighties and are likely informed by the AIDS epidemic.
3. Olsen is currently living in Montreal.
4. The work also references gallery attendance data. Many of Koh’s gallery pieces are site-specific and comment on the inner workings of the institution.
5. This is becoming an extremely common practice. Rent and rent any two videos of the same genre, from Blockbuster and watch your mail for related advertising. Someone renting Westerns, for example, might receive ads selling trips to Texas, Country music CDs, or cowboy hats.
6. The solid colour buttons also resembled oversized museum admission lapel tags, providing the additional layer of quiet humour that can often be found in Koh’s practice.
7. Boyle, David. The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can't Make Us Happy. Flamingo Press, 2001.
8. Marks, Laura U. Immanent Domain. Essay from Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver, 2001) Catalogue Germaine Koh.
9. Weather features largely in Koh’s practice: in By the Way the swooshing sounds of commuter traffic is converted via acoustical filters and broadcast back into the driver’s car; in Fair-weather forces: wind speed a turnstile is installed in the gallery and rotates according to exterior wind movement, which is monitored by an anemometer on the roof.
10. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m constantly aware that radio waves share my living space, as uninvited guests.
11. New editions will be made available in various cities, where the stones are collected locally. The work debuted in Toronto as part of Anitra Hamilton’s Satchel Gallery.
Thanks to Roula Partheniou and John-Joe Kavanagh.