Fuck Social Synthetic – Seth Price at the Stedeljik Museum

Squid-skin, slowly passed by a roaming camera. The glossy surface is being erotically, mechanically panned over. The camera rolls over its freckles and its creme-brulée colors – without an end in sight. The camera reveals the kind of layering that one is aware of when in front of the works of Seth Price. The somehow human-like texture of the squid is introduced by the purple light at the staircase stretching along the ceiling of the Stedeljik Museum. This leads to a second room, a second layer of ‚Social Synthetic‘.

Seth Price’s first solo exhibition in an European institution, the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam, will be followed by a second one this year, at Brandhorst Museum in Munich. Price’s influential work is here presented as an never-ending texture of associative criticality, as a doxological affirmation of still virginal digital landscapes of the art world and as a confirmation of his reputation as an outcast, anti-heroic model and as a (metaphorical) social designer.

This influence of this perfectionist has been channeled through pivotal essays like ‘Disperson’(2002) or ‘Fuck Seth Price’(2015) on networking strategies, and mirrored in his objects, fashion and countless video works available online.

The surfaces at this exhibition announce a kind of visual thickness, a certain frivolity in the layering, literally and conceptually, of his solo exhibition. The layering is already implied in the title, merging the human and technologic into one entity. Both humanity and technology are not easy to define without one another, the same way materiality and its opposite, the void, are.

This dialectical layering (hybridity) is only apparent, as the works are expected to create a violent skepticism towards the meaning and value of reproduction of layers. the imprint of a face on transparent plastic, a closely photographed arm, as well as the blank noise of a broken television filling the space, the cast of bomber jackets, women’s breasts, ropes and clenched fists as vacuum formed polystyrene sheets. These surfaces particularly express a certain kind of presence.

‚His vision is so accurate it becomes fiction’, wrote Rachel Kushner about the practice of Price. Her opinion makes me think of the carbon-freezed Han Solo in one of the first Star Wars episodes. Yes, this is exactly what fiction idealized in 20th-century-fantasies, like tele-transportation and hologram-visualizations, and this is are exactly what Seth Price dives in, for their merciless decomposition.

'Social Synthetic', one could say, is about plastic. And as plastic could be defined as the stuff at the heart of what modernity is made of, Price's sculpted vacuums are actually topical and prehistoric in its core. This vacuum works are like the print of bare hands with blood on stone. As simple as that. Price employs a joyful game with signifiers of the industrial condition of our perception (of life). It is the technique of reproduction that makes his gesture so temporally complex, letting the ancient encounter the contemporary. The dialectic between presence and absence, the post-internet and the rest, the body and the artificial, the analogue and the digital is presented within this exhibition through crucial moments of Price’s career. His essay ‘Dispersion’ (2002) plays an important role here, as one of the first PDFs to observe the latent suspicion of everything that will come in the years ahead.

Without falling into the trap of self-idealization, ‘Dispersion’ - be it as a transparent plastic sheet or a booklet - offers visionary aphorisms that guide us through concerns/ reflections on the circulation of information, the distribution of artworks in its peculiar system, the displacement from knowledge and experimentation from one context to another, or the boundaries between conceptualism and mass media distribution.

The problem is that situating the work at a singular point in space and time turns it, a priori, into a monument. What if it is instead dispersed and reproduced, its value approaching zero as its accessibility rises? We should recognize that collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion, and discussion.

The video showing the jihadist beheading-acts after 9/11 - being the first televised terrorist attacks - is a further comment on the condensation of the circulation of the media, the art world and filmic abstraction. His series of videos are the subject of profound contemplation on the brutality that is accessible for everyone now. This fact, so contemporary and barbaric at the same time, is, as Beatrix Ruf puts it in the introduction of the catalogue, an example of the ‚authorless', ‚headless‘ internet-transmitted information we receive daily. It was Price's first ever solo show at Reena Spaulings that underlines a crucial chapter of the show ‚Social Synthetic‘, where constellations of ideological and commercial concerns appear. In the form of stacks of black CD-Rs containing each one of them a video file of the decapitation of Nicholas Berg at the hands of Iraqi terrorists, which were available at the gallery for ten dollars, along Price’s musical compilation, t-shirts and pamphlets. The stacks served as a foothold to four photographs of sliced bread behind security glass.

Most of the visitors agreed on their difficulty to understand Price’s work by that time. Cory Arcangel would describe himself as ‚completely‘ lost at this point, not being able to understand what he was witnessing. The cold and alienating combination of flesh and artificiality created a sinister atmosphere in the exhibition, as if negating everything. The photographs give a comprehensive installation view. The amateur-like shots now amplified on the catalogue comment on the way Price wanted the works to be seen: immersed in reality. What somehow seemed to be a piling stack of garbage for many years - as the artist himself would describe it - is now recognized as his own defining assortment of mediums and disciplines, including sculpture, installation, 16-mm film, video, photography, drawing, painting, fashion and textiles, web design, music, and writing.

‚How to disappear in America‘, and appear in Europe: Seth Price sees his work placed now in a very prominent place within the realm of art history, and uses this stage to put the artist himself into question. It cannot be denied: Price is a successful artist, even though such denominations is something he rather avoids. The ‚death of the author‘, that would be also the death of the artist, as Roland Barthes put it, turns into a less dramatic and more practical event when reading ‚How to disappear in America‘ by Seth Price and published by Reena Spaulings.

The book doesn’t refer directly to art, or to any other context. The book can be understood any way possible. For ‚How to disappear in America‘, Price assembled and copy-pasted treatises, manuals on how to “go to ground”; how to shake off pursuers, or the government; law; abusive spouses. He found some from the seventies, little mimeographed pamphlets that give the cover of the book a certain aesthetic, that of a regular manual, or a novel of any kind. But as ‚How to Disappear in America‘ was published primarily for and within the context of contemporary art, Price’s literary collage seems to gain layers beyond the idiosyncratic language he chooses while re-adapting the information that was edited originally for similar purposes, yet lacking the self-critical and contemplative part of the re-writing (aka. copy-pasting) process.

  • Find nomadic jobs. They don’t have insurance, but the people are communal and will help when they can. Renaissance faires, traveling Carnivals, Migrant farm workers are all nomadic. (p. 13)

  • Be prepared for a spiritual awakening. Be prepared to have a new appreciation for peopled less appreciation for material things. Be prepared to learn how wonderful and cruel the human being can be. Learn to drop your grudges. Any heavy emotional baggage takes physical energy to contain and release. You are going to be tired and hungry and just won’t have the energy to maintain it. (p. 14)

Ei Arakawa adapted in 2016 ‚How to disappear in America‘ to a musical, also for the art context, and performed it in collaboration with the writer Dan Poston and the artist Stefan Tscherepin and a cast during the opening weekend in Amsterdam. The musical was lip-synced; Arakawa used pre-recorded voices of the performers, with monitors facing the audience displaying the entire script, showing how shifts in context can reframe previous artworks to produce radically augmented meaning – not unlike the analogue photographic development-, the negative of meaning itself. The cover of the book also presents a kind of small, golden monogram based in the negative version of a stock image showing two hands, one passing a set of keys to the other. It looks like a surrendering figure about to disappear.

Price’s fixation on the negative space of an image or material is again the embodiment of other fetishes of society. Flesh and skin, corporate monograms, trash and waste and packaging, isolated body parts, leisure products, brutal and violent imagery, fashion and design - they all seem to show a never-ending struggle, quite literally, of how to deal with stuff that go beyond the artist condition. Like writing Fuck Seth Price and make a website called Organic Software, which was not thought of as an art work, without the intention to make money, in contrary, they cost him money.

They both express a kind of negativity and aggression that everyone should have access to. This brings us back to the name of this exhibition: Social Synthetic. No matter what Price does, it all synthesizes into the narratives he avoided for years. His works commutes with the larger world of finance, taste and politics, fake profiles and real personal data being massively collected. In his first institutional show in eight years, Price introduces in Amsterdam all this, layer for layer, on different levels of fictions and realities that portrait anything but himself. His absence is the only instance in which he turns graspable.


proof-read by David Goldenberg.