Magic tricks of a conceptualist – ‚Seth Price - Social Synthetic‘ in Amsterdam, Stedeljik Museum

The mechanical movement of a camera roams over a screen, which displays a photograph of a sliced squid-skin. The glossy surface is being slowly, almost erotically panned over. The camera rolling 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 works by Seth Price. The somehow human-like texture of the squid introduced by the purple light at the staircase of the Stedeljik Museum - where the video stretches along the ceiling - leads to a second room where two other surfaces announce the visual thickness and banality of the layering that composes (literarlly and conceptually) the exhibition ‚Social Synthetic‘. The layering is already implied in the title, merging humans and technology into one entity. Both elements are hardly divisible, in the same way as materiality and its opposite: void. 
Examples of this dialectical layering (hybridity) become apparent in the following room: 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 particularly express the presence of a certain kind of violent skepticism towards the meaning and value of reproduction.

‚His vision is so accurate it becomes fiction’ ,

says Rachel Kushner about the practice of Price. Kushner’s thought made me think of the carbon-freezing process Han Solo went through and survived in Star Wars. This kind of fiction that idealizes 20th-century-fantasies like tele transportation and hologram-visualizations are also part of the imagery Seth Price employs while deconstructing them.

Besides the fact that plastic is one of the monuments of modernity, the disconcertingly empty gesture of forming a vacuum is actually prehistoric in its origin. The print of bare hands with blood on stone. As simple as it can be, Price employs a joyful game with signifiers of our industrial condition (era?). It is the technique of reproduction that makes Price’s gesture so temporally complex - as the ancient encounters the contemporary. It is this kind of work that will influence an entire generation of artists working on the so-called post-internet. The dialectic between presence and absence, the body and the artificial, the analogue and the digital is presented within this exhibition through crucial moments of Price’s career. The publishing of his PDF manifesto ‚Dispersion‘ from 2002 on is just one example.

His text seems to observe the latent suspicion of everything that will come in the years ahead. It has a visionary status today and what was only a PDF then is now exhibited at Stedeljik as yet another artists’ artwork. 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.

His approach to the imagery showing the jihadist beheading-acts after 9/11 - being the first televised terrorist attacks - is a 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 accesible for everyone to see. This fact, so contemporary and barbaric at the same time, is, as Beatrix Ruf puts it, an example of the ‚authorless', ‚headless‘ internet-transmitted information we receive daily. It was at Price’s first solo show at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York 2004, an underlined chapter of the show ‚Social Synthetic‘, where a crucial constellation of his 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. In ‚WTF‘, 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 (b. 1973, who lives in New York and will present this same show at Munich’s Brandhorst Museum in the Fall), 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 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 of Seth Price – Social Synthetic in Amsterdam. The musical is being lip-synced; Arakawa uses the 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.