Post-art in the garbage era
"Why don't we be more ambivalent and call them cultural detritus?" Germaine Koh asks of her ongoing postcard project Sightings.
But who is we? Are we the silly, garish Fujicolor people that gaze blankly out of Koh's found-art pseudo-postcards? Or, even worse, are they us? Between the interviewer (me) and the artist (Koh) is a discarded canyon; from its trash laden gash the nameless, generic people stare up and out and over the 'we' Koh collects from the garbage so that we -- me, you, the artist -- can laugh and sigh and affix the appropriate postage to the intimate momentary memories of someone else's ('their' [our]) lives.
Since 1991 Ottawa based artist Germaine Koh has been finding trash -- in this case, colour snapshots discarded in urban trash-cans as simply as used condoms or empty pop cans -- and publishing the photographs in the form of postcards in editions of anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500.
Particularly intriguing about this work is the question: What happens to the postcards? We know this much: The postcards go out into the world, they are bought, sold, traded and mailed. Because they are a funny idea, they are intriguing. Because they are funny to look out, they are valuable. Because they are not funny at all, they are ominous and fascinating. They are the ephemeral recyclings of the quintessential recycled sub/urban images. Even as this article is being read, they are already finding their way back to anonymous city garbage heaps. Koh isn't concerned:
"This particular project conceptually needed to be produced in a cheap form that would eventually disappear, so it happens to be one case where the concept precludes a finished--ie. permanent or commercially viable--product."
So: A close up picture flash-bulb exploding in an off-centre face, white flecked constellations swirling over a dark background. This picture is damaged, the lips are almost gone, one earring is visible (was there more than one?), the nose fades in and out depending on how close you hold the card to your eyes. Flip it over. White space to write a message. In the top left corner: Photograph found 12 June 1994, corner of St. Andrew Street and Sussex Drive, Ottawa. Bottom left corner: published by G. Koh, 1995, PO Box 20032 K1N 9N5 CANADA. Flip it over again. Where is this person whose face, once obliterated by the flash, now graces the glossy surface of an imitation tourist memento, a souvenir, to be sure, but of what? and why would any one buy it?
"We recognize ourselves in these images," Koh explains. "We all have similar snapshots on view or hidden in boxes in our homes. We know it is really us depicted, and we suspect that no one else cares." So 'we' (you, me, the artist) must confront the I of the picture as a communality in which the generic snapshot commemorates a vacation to nowhere, a moment in time as external as we consider ourselves. That the 'person' in this particular postcard is fading is no accident; replace that face with your face, please, and you will see that Sightings is a joke told about our own waning sense of physicality, a joke that isn't about the people (and their places: the Scharf family burial plot; the Anson Plaza, windows stuffed with dripping air conditioners, blinds snapped down as a white sports car idles by) who appear in the cards.
In other words, as Koh so accurately articulates: "It [Sightings] supports a view of the urban landscape as something that is defined as much by its every day use by real people as by any deliberate plan. The question of the generic is important to me, and this project tries to isolate what I think is a crucial point. To an extent, any kind of group culture, and even common knowledge or common sense, relies on the existence of a bunch of shared reference points. To me, the banal or the generic--the familiar territory against which exceptions stand out--is a pretty rich source of information and an interesting place to work."
Koh's project -- in turns a celebration and a desecration of what one might term 'the common North American portrait' (my own suggested p.c. term for the snapshot) echoes the attempts of many self-publishers to speak to the culture of the moment by turning it on itself. This attempt is usually labelled self-indulgent, masturbatory and time wasting. But, as Koh demonstrates, reflecting the banality of culture doesn't have to be banal. The details of our unimportant lives, the self-celebration of the meaningless moment, long tributes to, for instance, mindless sit-coms that have subtly manipulated millions of lives, all these things are being struggled with in zines and other self-publishing projects. The challenge is to take what doesn't matter -- the day to day, the fragmentary minutiae of the common struggle to put one sock on after the other -- and somehow render it in the permanent impermanence it deserves.
As 'conceptual art' Koh's postcards rise to this challenge; but they do so without the art- concept pretension of being inaccessible -- the postcards are mass produced because they are for sale the way all postcards are. This makes Sightings a celebration of redundancy and irrelevance that embraces the ethos of even the most insipid zine; "The postcards stand to the side of normal commercial exchange, by being obviously ephemeral and by mimicking a known type of product while skewing its conventions," Koh says, defining Sightings and an entire plethora of self- published projects that allude and elude description.
But Koh uses a peculiar word to describe the aesthetic that bank-rolls Sightings and many zines. The project is "true to its sources, which happen to be downscale..." Downscale. Is that another way of saying low-fi or indie?
"The postcards' affordability and status as commodities are logical and necessary extensions of the medium. Their 'lowness' is indeed important: they have a lot to do with being on the street, in transit, and subject to being banged-up a bit."
Baseball cap facing back, white tall blank wall the back-drop of a spacious living-room, couch-green swirls of fake fronds, youth sits in front of glass coffee table jean-legs spread as if to hold himself steady as things start to slide hold the postcard straight and the boy stares out at you from behind his crucifix, everything in the picture on an angle except the edges of the card- board...you wonder...who is behind the camera?
Is it really you, us, we, or is that just the conceit of a concept? Koh's musings on the lowness of culture won't distract us from the fact that this is hipster art, art for sale, art ripped off the gallery wall, art that, if nothing else, breaks down the barrier that exists between what is seen in the granted gallery, the walls gleaming spot-lights aimed to show off the good side of a landscape facade, and an 'art' that almost anyone can understand largely because almost anyone can afford it.
"The response to the postcards has ranged from bemusement to critical nods to mild affront, though I guess the greatest enthusiasm has come from hipster quarters," Koh concedes. "Perhaps the art world is more likely to make reference to artistic movements that also allied themselves with everyday life, like Fluxus, Situationism and some conceptual art, but this is not surprising. However, both the art world and the 'hip culture world' tend to maintain a critical distance from the mundane. Sometime I would like to try incorporating the cards into the regular postcard racks of a few stores, to see how they are received in that un-rarefied situation."
For Koh, to reach the extremities of lowness, to bring one's art to the peak of downscale is to penetrate the inner sanctum of the mundane...let's see...Anne of Green Gables Museum, the Rideau Canal, Stanley Park, the CN Tower, a nondescript grandfather, his grand-daughter and a dog all sitting in a lawn chair. Well, that one looks like the one to send to the folks back home. But it makes sense. Like any self-publisher, Koh secretly harbours the mass-market fantasy, a rack of one's own in every cheesy souvenir store across North America...
"There is indeed a moral question here," Koh says. "And as I pose it, I also choose to put myself on the line. The cards are traceable to me (my address appears on each), but I have not yet met anyone depicted. There was a close case of mistaken identity once...In a way, since they test different modes of circulation (the voyage of the original snapshots, my own travels, and various distribution systems), it might be a logical completion of the project when and if this eventually happens."
So the project might very well be over when those same generic, uninteresting, peopleless people suddenly find themselves face to face with a representation of a world that isn't anymore, a world caught on a snapshot discarded years, months, days ago. The container of french-fries refuses to empty so we eat quicker, shoving the greasy wedges into our mouth by the handful even though we are no longer hungry, the fast-food image long since discarded returns, the individual stares in wonder at the plenty of a repudiated actuality -- the self literally throw in the garbage of some previous life's incarnation.
And then what do they do? We buy, of course.
by Hal Niedzviecki