Striving Toward Coherence: Q+A With Sam Lewitt

Paper Citizen 4326, (2011) Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum 63 3/8 x 49 3/4 inches (161 x 126.3 cm) Framed: 66 1/8 x 52 1/2 inches (168 x 133.4 cm)


Sam Lewitt’s recently-closed exhibition at Miguel Abreu in New York, “Total Immersion Environment,” comprised three works, although only two were physically present in the gallery. The third, The Prosumer’s Discretion (all works 2011), was a set of images accessible on the gallery’s website. They involved advertisements and reproductions of the artist’s work covered in squid ink. The website was likely the way most people first found Lewitt’s exhibition, and it was an apt introduction to an artist whose work manipulates the practice of consuming material.

In the gallery were the artist’s Test Subjects, reflective sculptures covered in “test dust,” a material used to gauge the threshold at which mechanical objects like vacuum cleaners or helicopter engines cease to function due to material interference. Paper Citizens was a group of large high-resolution images hung throughout the gallery, showing letterpress compositions that must be read in reverse. Each of these three series was subjected to screens of concrete material and saturated information. While in one respect Lewitt’s treatment of surface was homogenizing, the artist simultaneously foregrounded the process of reading by isolating and slowing down the moment at which information is transferred.

DENA YAGO: I would like to start by talking about The Prosumer’s Discretion and your use of the neologism “prosumer.” Is this a contraction of the words “professional consumer” or “producer-consumer?”

SAM LEWITT: Both definitions are valid. A short text embedded into the URL for The Prosumer’s Discretion (the_prosumer_is_not_an_end_in_itself ….) suggests that the “prosumer” is but one moment in the production cycle. What attracted me to this hackneyed market language was how it tries to force a shift away from the negativity associated with consumption, a term that implies standing over and above an object of knowledge, use or exchange.

By contrast, “Prosumer” suggested to me a decoy positivity that a regime of professionalized leisure and value-casual, non-professionalized knowledge production-would seek to promote. It’s the feeling of producing something when consuming, or raising one’s level of technical knowledge to the level of a “professional.”

YAGO: So “prosumption” approaches consumption as a medium. Speed becomes your content-and the rate of reading, particularly in the case of Paper Citizens. Is your intention with those photographs to counter that speed through which the “prosumer” takes in knowledge?

LEWITT: I do see rhythms of reading playing out in the photographs, specifically through the strained reading experience caused by an excessively graphic field. I propose an inverse proportion to the accelerated optical experience with high image resolution.

I want to establish a situation in which reading opens onto more conflict-ridden timeframes. In the Paper Citizens this is obviously telescoped back onto the letterpress, which is a cast-off tool for inscription that reemerges in the photographs as architecture for reading.

YAGO: Along those lines is there an asserted rhythmic syncopation between the three elements of the show?

LEWITT: What binds the three elements in the show is an attempt to foreground different densities of information. The squid ink in The Prosumer’s Discretion and the dust in the Test Subjects are heteronymous layers of material that “filter” graphic and physical information while creating a new, minimally composed surface. In both of these cases a certain material thickens into a homogenizing interface. I think of this as a way to establish a screen, and a play between graphic disclosure and the concealment of information moves between the images, objects and texts that populate the exhibition.

YAGO: The term “prosumer” relates to advanced customization as a mode of production. There is a readymade component, a sense of working within the confines of established forms. How does that relate to your own mode of production?

LEWITT: I’d want to narrate the relationship of the readymade to the logic of customization in terms of art’s link to more generalized conditions of production. I want to emphasize the technical infrastructure through which artists are always reaching for tools: hammers, language, computers, etc. I want to make work that inspects certain tools as anonymous documents that might reflect upon the ways in which it is possible to make things.

For instance, today the serialized factory model does not serve as the emblem of social organization. Instead, it’s a globalized network model of social production, which includes decentralized and “just-in-time” production, and the evaluation of information as commodity. I think that this change is reflected in a certain creative freedom and an emphasis on flexible structures that artists utilize.

In my most recent work, I’ve chosen frameworks that foreground the relationship between subjective choice and standardized systems. The Paper Citizens can function as an allegory for the way in which information hangs together between a customizing subject, the artist, and a determinate structural constraint. The Prosumer’s Discretion tries something similar by integrating the gallery website as a representative organ.

YAGO: The thresholds that figure in your work—for mechanical breakdown in Test Subjects, challenging reading, or scanning, in the Prosumer’s Discretion and Paper Citizens—are the experience of technological images. But in what ways are you addressing the generalized threshold for absorbing language?

LEWITT: I might want to describe what I’m doing as folding the “technical image” back onto itself to become the image of a technical system. And language is the form of practical consciousness that we have to cope with. Nevertheless, it is something like the problem of a threshold, the arresting of the moment at which one passes into the active use of language, or the apprehension of an image, or the seemingly effortless use of a technological system, that I want to concretize in this work. So this brings us back to slowing down reading and finding oneself abstracting from the density of graphic information comprised by a technological image in order to strive toward coherence.

YAGO: Are you trying to reclaim the artist from being a function of his own image?

LEWITT: With regard to the texts I use in the Paper Citizens, I like to keep things at the level of anonymity and citation. So although my name is attached to the work, I often feel more like an editor than a source of ideas. This is what I liked as an art student when I first came across Jenny Holzer’s Truisms or Weiner’s statements. There is a speech act there that reminds me of Lacan’s “headless subjectification,” where both speaker and auditor are produced to one another in language without being able to locate the source of speech.

For Paper Citizens, I’m looking for a grammatical construction whose rhetorical tone can be felt, as one spells out the letters of the text, like something material or plastic. I don’t think of this as a fantasy of inviolable anonymity, since I suspect that I’m starting to sound like the ridiculous Petrushka in Gogol’s Dead Souls, who is astounded that identifying abstract lines of signs with sounds, ideas and things is possible at all.