Unpacking The Box: Colloquial Aesthetics and Conceptual Art
James MacDevitt
It’s been a little over fifty years since 1967, that infamously disruptive time in which, amongst so much other social upheaval, Sol Lewitt published his influential treatise, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” laying out for the first time, in the pages of ArtForum, his systems-based approach to artmaking by explaining that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”1 The 1920s, enamored by planes and automobiles, may have given birth to the industrialized fetishism of the Machine Aesthetic, but the late-1960s had a different kind of machine in mind, the computer. Seemingly immaterial, software at the time was on the verge of capturing the social imagination,
replacing the longstanding cultural fascination with shiny metallic hardware; machines, it seems, like people, needed to be much more than just a pretty exterior. The modernists were fond of saying that “form follows function,” but, historically, the opposite appears to be true. For Lewitt and others of his post-modern generation, function was actually the key; and form be damned.
Conceptual Art, in particular the text-based formulas Lewitt produced for his famous wall drawings, was clearly invested, not in the ‘thing-in-itself,’ an object in isolation, but rather in the procedure itself; the system, the protocols, the process. In large part, this was because the machines of the era were increasingly open to taking and executing commands, either autonomous of human oversight or, as more often than not, with the direct and interactive participation of human agents. Video games like PONG (1972) allowed for a distal engagement with immaterial digital ‘objects,’ as well as the self-projection, by players, onto a representational ‘avatar.’ It’s no
wonder, then, that the dematerialization of the art object was such a popular trope in the contemporaneous art world. At the same time, home computers, packaged with increasingly accessible programming languages, such as FORTRAN and BASIC, meant that even those individuals without advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering could finally - not just understand, but actually - compose simple instructional protocols to be executed by a machine.
Whether playing games or writing code, post-modern society was training itself to think procedurally. As video game theorist Ian Bogost points out in Persuasive Games:
"To write procedurally, one authors code that enforces rules to generate some kind of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines."2
Not surprisingly, the language that Bogost uses here sounds remarkably similar to Lewitt’s dictate about Conceptual Art, in which the artist develops the code (rules/idea) and the machine (simply by following procedure) creates the representation (art).
This procedural thinking, found at the root of both the computational programming and the Conceptual Art of the seventies, flourished in large part due to the post-war cultural ascendency of cybernetics. Case in point, the landmark exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, which saw some of the first publically-exhibited examples of both Conceptual Art and Computer Art, debuted at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London the year after Lewitt published his treatise. Importantly, Norbert Weiner’s own influential text, which originated the term, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, made little distinction between the systemic rules governing technological and biological organizations; both could be cybernetic and, in fact, the now-familiar term
cyborg, short for ‘cybernetic organism,’ was developed to distinctly imply a symbiotic fusion of the two.3
Despite the art world’s fascination with the theory, however, nowhere was cybernetics more popular during the sixties and seventies than in the increasingly computer-driven environments of the American manufacturing-industrial complex, already preordained to be modular and procedural by design, thanks to the existing structural efficiencies of Taylorism and the assembly line. But the decade that saw the rise of video games, home computers, and Conceptual Art was also framed by the inevitable pitfalls of globalized capitalism. Despite the growth of productivity inspired by the seamless integration of cybernetic theory, the inflationary pressures and oil shocks of the era still led anyways to the downfall of American manufacturing and, ultimately, the outsourcing of production to foriegn companies (with the US running its last trade surplus in 1975).
However, the mid-seventies, ironically due to the same neo-liberal globalization that kick-started the decline of American industry, also saw the opening of the first IKEA store outside of Scandinavia, initially in Switzerland and West Germany, but followed shortly thereafter in the United States. IKEA, of course, produced well-designed and aesthetically-pleasing furniture at a fraction of the cost of U.S. manufacturers, no doubt an important reason for the company’s international success. But, it also made distinctly modular and procedural products, appropriate to the time. Consumers, after purchasing a product, would actually be forced to assemble it themselves, generally with the help of a product diagram and a set of step-by-step instructions. Through this process, the consumer
would performatively enact the productive labor of the worker and, in doing so, would actually invert the process of alienation once derided by Karl Marx. This is likely the reason that consumers often feel a sense of accomplishment and a personal attachment to the furniture they buy and assemble themselves. There is even a name for the phenomenon; yep, it’s called the IKEA Effect.4
In an austerity economy - such as the one that has been in place globally since the beginning of the Great Recession - when direct product consumption is, by necessity, reduced, a performative consumerism often takes its place (browsing, window shopping, etc.). In the age of the internet, window shopping has, for some, been replaced by the increasingly common spectacle of so-called ‘unboxing videos,’ in which viewers can participate in the ebbs and flows of material culture through the dynamics of peer-to-peer textual production and consumption. In this way, they get to co-construct themselves as consumer just as the IKEA shopper co-constructs themselves as producer, in both cases regaining a connection to the product which was effectively lost through the vageries of late post-capitalism.
As Alex Nichols states in his provocative essay “The Relentless Consumerism of ‘Unboxing Videos’”:
The anticipation of buying a product is often more gratifying than actually having it. The act of watching someone else buy and open something you want tricks the brain into releasing dopamine in the same way opiates mimic the natural endorphins of a runner’s high.5
In this way, ‘unboxing videos’ operate as a reflection of the broader phenomenon of passive voyeurism and vicarious living present in so much of contemporary culture (endlessly scrolling Instagram feeds, video game playthrough commentaries, pornography, etc.).
The brilliance of Sonja Schenk’s project, The Box, made recently as part of the Cerritos College Art+Tech Artist Residency, is that she so successfully manages to bring together art historical references as diverse as Sol Lewitt’s modular/iterative structures and his formulaic processed-based work, at the same time that she incorporates colloquial references such as IKEA diagrams and ‘unboxing videos.’ In invoking these art historical and colloquial referents, however, the work itself ‘works’ to subtly undermine them. For example, this project’s significant emphasis on craftsmanship, from the finely-welded joints of the box itself to the consistent and colorful powdercoating to the thoughtful interlocking of the component parts, runs counter to Lewitt’s own conclusions about idea vs. execution. The full paragraph from which his famous saying about ‘ideas as machines’ is extracted reads:
When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.6
The exquisite craftsmanship of The Box, as such, is the perfect counterpunctual argument to the assertion that execution is just a ‘perfunctory affair.’
Likewise, the modular nature of the component parts, despite the leading character of the self-produced ‘unboxing video’ and IKEA-style screenprinted instructions, leaves open near-endless permutations of arrangements. The interactivity of the work, therefore, subverts the vicarious engagement insinuated by the ‘unboxing video.’ Unlike with most online videos of this ilk, the object of desire is not fetishized through its mediated absence. When visiting the gallery, the box and its parts, described so deftly by the soft-spoken ASMR-inducing narration of the video, are actually right in front of you. The mediated separation that inspires commodity fetishism (consumption) and/or worker alienation (production) is collapsed upon itself as the visitor engages directly with, and temporarily
completes, the Conceptual Art object before them.
Witness, for example, the way the engineering background of the welding students that visited during the opening reception inspired them to build a fundamentally symmetrical and stable design that could literally grow all the way to the ceiling (see pages 84-85). This particular design iteration sits in rather stark comparison, however, to the one produced by the group of artmaking visitors that initially unpacked the box that same night, deciding as they did - against all expectation, including Schenk’s - to use the extraneous wrapping paper, tape, and other packing materials as ornament (see pages 81-82). In either case, the visitors interacted not just with the
structure, but also with the colloquial and professional codes that underscore structure in general. To put it another way, they hacked the code by overwriting the procedure.
1. Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” ArtForum Vol 5, No 10 (1967).
2. Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 4.
3.Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948).
4. Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, “The ‘IKEA Effect’: When Labor Leads to Love,” Harvard Business School, https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/11-091.pdf,
Accessed: June 15, 2018.
5. Alex Nichols, “The Relentless Consumerism of ‘Unboxing Videos’: WHy Do We Like to Watch People Buy and Unwrap Things,” The Outline, https://theoutline.com/post/1356/the-relentlessconsumerism-
of-unboxing-videos, Accessed: June 15, 2018.
6. Lewitt, ibid.