Art Seen: Chicago

VOLATILITY SMILE // INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP VANDERHYDEN

In Conversation with Ruslana Lichtzier

— Part 2 —

As I prefaced in the first half of the interview, the reason for inviting Philip Vanderhyden to participate in a textual conversation came from a strong sense of confusion on my part.  When I went to visit Vanderhyden’s current show, Volatility Smile, at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, I assumed that the space will feature his well-defined paintings, but instead the artist chose to exhibit a 30-foot-long video wall sculpture. Continuing our conversation, in this part we are attempting to position the forces of virtual reality and its images, and we open up the problem of the screen, while thinking of Gretchen Bender as a kind of compass to Vanderhyden’s current work.

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014 Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014
Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

Ruslana Lichtzier: The color scheme of this video is strange. It is very bureaucratic, hyper hygienic; a paperless bureaucracy. What logic did you follow by constructing the colors in the video?

Philip Vanderhyden: Most of the color comes from the videos that are reflecting off of the sculptures. Sometimes I alter the color to tighten things up aesthetically, but I tried whenever possible to let the color speak for itself. Most of the videos, whether they are real estate ads for a Norman Foster highrise or promotions for financial products by Blackrock, are as you pointed out, benign, clean and dreamy. The ads were all created in the same types of computer programs that I used to create the sculptures and whenever possible I would try to marry the lighting of my sculptures to whatever kind of color was present in the videos, so that it became difficult to disentangle them.

RL: It is interesting to consider the color scheme as a study case. I perceived it as an overdose of comfort. For a moment it made me sick. Structurally, the video can be divided into three sections : the first part is placed in the virtual reality of simulated, abstract objects and moving logos; the second part is placed in yet again, simulated cityscapes and in the architecture of offices. The third part marries the first two parts. Then the slick objects return, moving in a slightly different choreography, while reflecting the cityscapes.      

I am interested in these divisions, while the first part gives us, the viewers, the sense we are part of the scene, the second part places a strict separation, that we are observes of reflections that are out of our reach. The images are moving at a continuous horizontal speed. As passengers on the L train, we view the downtown, while not exactly being there. I enjoy this connection to the specific urban experience of this city, Chicago. Did you have this in mind while making the video? 

PV: Definitely. I wanted it to feel very dreamy and vicarious. My own proximity and distance from wealth here in New York informed the work. Most of the real estate ads that I use are for buildings that are close to where I work, so I walked past them quite often. One really important thing for me about the real estate ads is that they are all for buildings that don’t yet exist or are currently under construction (551 W. 21st Street and 432 Park Avenue are the most prominently featured). They are all computer simulations. And, the computer and the virtual spaces that it makes for us, was just as powerful a force in and of itself. In fact, the more I worked on the piece on the computer, the more I began to think that I was coping—as I think we all do—with a lack of agency.  The computer is a great coping device.

RL: What do you mean by “coping”? Can you talk more about this “lack of agency”?

PV: Computers are arenas for aspiration, ambition, and escape from a world increasingly unable to hue to the promises the virtual world creates—a place where we are trapped in our classes, trapped in our corporatized social-media selves, and in our physical bodies. In other words, computers are solutions to the problems that they create. This would be a way of tying in to my interest in finance: attempting to tame risk and volatility is often the very thing that creates it, so there’s a bit of a feedback loop.

RL: Would you say then that the computer copies our corpo, manufactured, yet intimate desires into images? 

PV: Totally.

RL: There is only one moment in the video that has a trace of a human body. It is a hand, that seems to be of a man; a businessman or an architect. It traces something, explains, but not too us.

PV: That hand came from an architect describing the layout of a luxury apartment. He ceremoniously unrolls real blueprints and begins to move his hands over the space, “cutting” it up with his hands to make the scale seem intimate and tangible. I also liked how it seemed like a swipe.

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014 Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014
Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

RL: Let’s talk for a moment about the installation. While the screens create an effective video-sculpture that is floating, they are also well-tied to the floor, grounded, due to the revealed cords. Why did you find it important to keep them unhidden?    

PV: I like the materiality of the cords. I thought at first that it would get in the way of the experience of the sculpture, but I think the opposite is true: one sort of forgets about them and gets hypnotized, in spite of the medusa-like mess of crap underneath. Despite the high-resolution screens, there’s something surprisingly low-tech about the whole thing. The televisions are all consumer grade and most of the equipment could be taken off the shelf at Best Buy.

RL: What I like about the cords is the “nothing to hide” character. It is the capital, but it is also art. They did not vanished from my sight. But they did not reveal a secret. They were just cords. And yet, they bound the worlds.

PV: Definitely.

RL: This piece is in a continuous, steady movement; it is familiar speed, that produces a dis-attached comfort. In the two-channel video on ten LCD monitors, the images are floating on black and white backgrounds, which creates a horizontal installation. The alternation between darkness and light in the monitors changes, elegantly, the intensity of atmosphere in the space, without being alerting. It does not captivate as it mesmerizes. The length of Andrew Rafacz becomes a passageway, a corridor in an airport, a bar, or a store of electronics. Do you agree with this reading?

PV: Yes to all of that! A friend of mine described it as “narcotic”. It is in many ways very mollifying. I wanted a pace that was relatively uneventful, save for a few moments where one snaps out of it. The video runs at two complementary speeds, the speed of the sculptural forms as they twist and move through the frame and the speed of the information sliding across them. In terms of the arrangement of the screens, it needed to be a long line, so there was no real frontal way to address it. If you stand right in front of it, the viewing angles of the screens at the edges will be somewhat obscured, so you have to move around it and shift your viewing angle, much like a minimalist sculpture.

Philip Vanderhyden, People in Pain, 2014

Philip Vanderhyden, People in Pain, 2014

RL: The recent Whitney Biennale featured…can we call it a research project of yours? For it, you reconstructed the 1988 show of Gretchen Bender, People in Pain, while spending the past three years in uncovering her oeuvre. Thinking of Bender as the now remembered mother of media art, it seems as if she spread her wings over you.

Can you position Gretchen Bender’s influence on you?

PV: My relationship to Bender’s work involved quite a bit of research, but my interest was more about art than scholarship. What fascinated me about People In Pain, the work that I remade for the biennial, was that the narrative of the object’s movement through the world was analogous to the poetry of the piece itself. The wall sculpture contains ninety glowing movie titles, emblazoned on crumpled black vinyl, backlit by blue neon tubes. In 1988, when the work originally appeared, the titles were all of movies that were about to be released. The idea being that as the piece aged, the titles would pass in the mind of the viewer from anticipation into oblivion. The crazy thing is that the piece became a victim of the very forces that it framed: as years went by, without an institution to care for it, the piece fell into disrepair and was discarded upon her death in 2004. My interest in recreating it was in many ways to allow it to fulfill its intended path, but also to reflect on a complementary sense of memory. The Whitney Biennial itself is very much like a blockbuster movie. It got hyped and anticipated, reviewed (usually negatively) and then it disappears until the cycle begins again.

In terms of Bender’s influence on me and on Volatility Smile, her work accelerates into the inhumane reach of the technological: we don’t trust our memories, our bodies and our perceptions to be as accurate and powerful as the machines that we build to replace them. In her videos and performances, viewers constantly feel like they are catching up with her edits. Rather than a critical “slowing-down,” her work is a speeding up.

Around the time that I discovered Bender’s work, I had just finished curating a show about financial engineering. I remember talking to someone at the opening and telling them that the show was a way for me to create work (I made a book for the show) that I couldn’t fit into my paintings. My approach to painting had some of that slowness to it.  One needed to be a sensitive, close observer and be willing to engage discursively to get into them. They ran at a different speed than the world them. But, I grew frustrated.  I wanted something existential…intersubjectivity, all of that. But at the same time, I think there are limits to what one can ask of one’s viewer and I didn’t want to be a connoisseur of an increasingly rarefied discourse. It felt like a trap in that I knew the audience too well. Bender’s work freed me from that trap, because she loves that her viewer changes as time passes. There is nothing preservationist about it.


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Ruslana Lichtzier is a Chicago based artist, writer, curator and educator.

Volatility Smile will be at Andrew Rafacz Gallery through January 16, 2015.

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