Compression and Circulation: Sam Lewitt’s CURE (the Work)
By André Rottmann
In this essay, André Rottmann examines how Sam Lewitt’s exhibition CURE (the Work) at Z33 problematizes the site of artistic production.
If mid-century modernism had stipulated that all elements of painterly or sculptural composition relate solely to each other and to the boundaries of its material support, conceptualism, during the latter half of the 1960s, intended to abolish all referentiality in favor of self-enclosed systems in supposedly “dematerialized” forms and formats (most notably writing or printed matter). Subsequently, another art form arose, known today as “Institutional Critique.” These practices instigated a reflexive engagement with both the symbolic and the material structures that determine the conditions of artistic production and aesthetic experience at a specific site (such as museums, art galleries, and private collections).
Whereas early manifestations of site-specificity had insisted on the non-transferability of situated interventions (most notably in Richard Serra’s post-Minimalist practice), artists such as Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, and John Knight have demonstrated since the early 1970s that it has become increasingly problematic, if not outright impossible, to still conceive of a site as an architectural or even a physical place. By the same token, the aesthetic object began to exceed both spatial and discursive boundaries of art and its genres or mediums as it began to inhabit inconspicuous devices and ephemeral materials (such as mailers, advertisements, display fixtures, and architectural accoutrements). In so doing, notions of stylistic coherence were defied, at times precluding recognizability as works of art. This occurred in such diverse sites as magazine pages, art fair booths, and museum galleries. Such site-specific projects hence start, as often proclaimed in contemporaneous criticism, from “an acknowledgement of the role of the container in determining the shape of what it contains . . . .” In these works in situ, it could be argued with hindsight, even “the institution of art”—to quote the famed literary scholar and media theorist Friedrich A. Kittler—is “correlated with other institutions in order […] to determine the position […] within a system at a given point in time.” In this configuration, site-specificity inserted the work of art into existing economical, ideological, and media networks.
The art of Sam Lewitt takes this genealogy and expanded concept of site-specificity as its point of departure. Over the past fifteen years, the New York- and Berlin-based artist has developed a practice that deliberately collapses the physical aesthetic object into the placeless topologies of global production, exchange and distribution. Instead of simply occupying the supposedly stable perimeters of a given exhibition venue, Lewitt’s projects time and again signal and register, infiltrate and reroute the flow and movement of information and capital, of energy and heat that are operative, yet often concealed or hidden from view, in the standardized mechanisms, closed systems, and infrastructures supporting and shaping the sites of artistic work and public reception beyond the gallery or the museum.
Lewitt’s CURE (the Work) once more epitomizes, but also rearticulates this dialectic between the work’s material stasis and its contextual mobility. For his project at Z33, House for Contemporary Art, Design & Architecture in Hasselt, Belgium, the artist took as his starting point the fairly recent closure and demolition of the Ford Motor Company’s manufacturing plant in nearby Genk (and its move to Valencia, Spain, in 2014), which roughly coincided with the construction of the annex of Z33. This correlation clearly points to processes of deindustrialization which, in turn, attribute heightened importance to a region’s cultural and creative sectors as catalysts of service industries and tourism. (Coincidentally, the former industrial site has been remodeled into a logistics hub.) In response to these developments—and the implication, however tangential, of his own practice in these sectors by accepting the invitation by curator Tim Roerig—Lewitt appropriated remnants from the demolished Ford plant and repurposed them as source material for his exhibition. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the overall structure of Lewitt’s presentation stages a production line that proceeds in distinct steps which are architecturally separated into a sequence of five spaces. However, this virtual Fordist art factory—referring to the historical epitome of efficient industrial manufacturing based on standardization and automation—is decidedly low-tech and quite obviously more interested in models and methods than in manifestations of production.
At the center of this (con-)temporary pseudo-industrial assembly line is the conversion of soil taken from the location of Ford Genk into compressed earth blocks using two portable earth-ramming machines (placed in Room 4). These same devices—designed in a scale that allows the human body and its capacities to move, press, and lift (in effect, functioning as the “nuts and bolts” of classic Fordism)—are often employed in so-called developing countries to create building blocks for the construction of roads and low-cost shelters. More recently they have experienced a modest renaissance in the self-sustained ecology of community projects. Just as in these contexts and circumstances Lewitt mobilized similar implements (and the mechanical advantage they provide) to compress, cure, and stack blocks made of the same earthen base as the Ford Genk site nearby. Other than the historical formation of site-specificity, matters—both literally and figuratively—of contemporary or obsolete, sophisticated or simple technologies, more precisely the concomitant equipment, apparatus, and hardware, play a pivotal role in the art of Sam Lewitt. Tools, instruments and engines, chemicals and substances, packages, crates, and pallets abound across his multifaceted body of work. The base materialism of the earth-ramming machines in particular throws what philosopher Martin Heidegger called the “question concerning technology” into vibrant relief. Heidegger defined the Gestell, “enframing” or framework, as the entirety and essence of modern technology as a way of both revealing and shaping the appearance of phenomena otherwise inaccessible to human perception. In confronting and addressing a specific site, Lewitt’s complementary contention is that its specificity cannot be approximated without recourse to the elements of a wider technical matrix that points beyond the visible appearance of a given place. The earth-ramming machines on display in Hasselt—technical items Lewitt had only recently resorted to in the framework of an exhibition—could therefore be regarded as paradigmatic objects for the artist’s modus operandi: By definition, they dwell on earth only to remove it and ergo change the environment into abstract shapes bound to be employed elsewhere. In this sense, these manifestations of technology are less indicative of the elements and groundedness of a specific site than they are entities which wrest, displace, and standardize natural material from one site so as to insert them into another.
As if to literally invert the grounded logic of site-specificity, the artist devised a parcours which reverses the sequence of block production from raw material into finished product and ultimately into built structure. Visitors to Lewitt’s installation at Z33 hence encounter a regression rather than a progression. Upon entering the gallery’s first floor, they face three doors salvaged from the former automotive plant, still adorned with warning signs (such as the prohibition to smoke shared by museum and factory). Through the doors’ windows a block wall (i.e., a quintessential architectural element) is already discernible. As the sole work, it dominates the subsequent space of the exhibition. Proceeding around to the back of the wall, the visitor sees a lush advertisement for Ford cars, featuring a female model sporting a backpack in the guise of a car, one that promoted the very mobility that, under the current conditions of a globalized economy, not only refers to a means of transport but also to capital and labor. In the next gallery, Lewitt arranged individual building blocks as a geometric floor piece (evoking the gridded sculptures of Carl Andre) on greenish tarps taken from the Ford factory site. Visitors would have to walk across this array before coming in front of the two aforementioned ramming machines, descendants of the so-called CINVA-RAM press, designed in 1952 by Chilean engineer Paul Ramirez to manually compress adobe blocks. In the final exhibition space, Lewitt placed a heap of soil (reminiscent of such Land Art pieces as Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, 1977), thus presenting viewers with a visual and virtual dialogue between the shapeless source material, the machines they had previously encountered, and the basic geometry of the wall erected in the first room. The mechanical simplicity of the earth-ramming machines (and the raw material they rely upon to fulfill their function) once more can help clarify Lewitt’s understanding of site-specificity when considered in terms of the “cultural techniques” they enable. Media scholar Bernhard Siegert defines cultural techniques as “operative chains that precede the media concepts they generate.” In this sense, the most basic cultural techniques would be writing (prior to the alphabet or scripture) and image-making (preceding the notions of painting), or the compression of earth to make building blocks (preceding notions of architecture). In other words, the theory of “cultural techniques” offers a perspective on technologies in reverse, only to account for their eventual emergence (and later disappearance). By the same token, Lewitt’s recourse to earth-ramming machines in his exhibition for Hasselt points to the industrial history of Genk and the mechanical production model once at its core, yet on the other hand it signals the dispersal of this site of labor and creation that has been brought about by the very global standards of Fordism it instigated and implemented—and in turn assigned a new meaning to art and culture on the whole.
As revealed in Z33, the art of Sam Lewitt is suspended between the poles of compression and circulation. It unearths and alters, reframes and complements, shifts, displaces, and transports existing contextual elements in order to make visible, or at least palpable, in moments of rupture or exacerbation, friction, or escalation, the conditions and circumstances that define a specific site—albeit one on the brink of dislocation. Lewitt’s practice also entails, especially in the case of CURE (the Work), a mnemonic dimension, a reminder of the past. Through the factory doors, the visitor is finally led into the entrance hall, where Lewitt hung a poster of a photomontage that once hung in the Ford plant assembly hall. This poster juxtaposed the Ford logo, a portrait of Henry Ford, and three photographs of cars, along with the inscriptions “Werktuigbouw” (Dutch for “Engineering”), “Process,” and “Fabriek 1,” an image that had already greeted visitors at the outset of CURE (the Work), as well as the appropriated sign “Veilig = Leuning Vasthouden” that cautioned them, as it had cautioned factory workers before them, to use handrails while navigating the plant and its now-defunct machinery.
It can be concluded that, in his exhibition at Z33, Lewitt expanded the technique of montage into the realm of the spatial and hence performs a montage of sites. Museum and factory appear in parallax view. The specific items he culled from the former Ford Genk factory are characterized by the paradox that permeates his thinking and practice in toto: Even if soil adheres to a particular place and therefore might register as a source unique to the site of his intervention, the doors and tarps, and especially the earth-ramming machines, are anywhere or nothing at all. In other words, these are objects, as it is not the least manifested by the resultant building blocks, defined by their iterability and standardization. “Depending on the situation,” Lewitt recently stated, “I’m usually focused on inserting some element designed to communicate with existing infrastructural standards, which passes through and materializes an excessive element to the merely functioning circuits of display, but which turns back and determines their operation.” The artist’s exhibition at Z33 unearths the genealogy of a site and cracks open its cured “infrastructural standards” that have been brought into existence in the intertwined histories of technology and economy. These histories resist spatial and territorial containment: Site-specific art, in Lewitt’s work, can fulfill the potential for cultural production in the present only by deracinating the site itself.
. The term “Institutional Critique” first appears in print in 1975 in the essay “On Practice” by the artist and member of the British collective Art & Language Mel Ramsden. See Mel Ramsden, “On Practice” , in Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2011), p. 176. In 1977, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh was the first art historian and critic to invoke this term in his essay “Formalism and Historicity.” See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2015), p. 52. As a coinage, however, “Institutional Critique” was widely in use only since the mid-1980s.
. On Knight and his preeminent role in advancing site-specificity between “in situ” and “ex situ,” see “Displacing the Site: John Knight and the Museum as Modulation,” in John Knight, ed. André Rottmann (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2014). OCTOBER Files Series 16, pp. 177–197.
. Craig Owens, “From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press: 1992), p. 126.
. Friedrich A. Kittler, “Unpublished Preface to Discourse Networks” [1983/1987], Grey Room 63 (Spring 2016), p. 98. In the original German version, Kittler speaks of his interest in the “Systemstelle” of fine art and literature. See Friedrich A. Kittler, “Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. Vorwort,” ZfM –Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 6, no. 1 (2012), p. 121.
. See Friedrich A. Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Mettler with Chris Cullens; foreword by David E. Wellbery (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 369. In an essay on Lewitt’s contribution to the 2012 edition of the Whitney Biennial in New York (Fluid Employment, 2012), art historian Alex Kitnick also referenced the writing of the German media theorist in relation to Lewitt’s work and its technological imprints. See Alex Kitnick: “Fully Automatic Writing,” in Sam Lewitt. Fluid Employment (London / Cologne / Berlin / New York: Koenig Books Ltd / Galerie Buchholz / Sequence Press, 2013), p. 45.
. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
. For Heidegger, Gestell “means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve” and signals “that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.” See Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), p. 20.
. Earth-ramming machines were also on view in Lewitt’s exhibition “Dreamboat Dirtblock” at Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York (January/February 2020). As art historian Sebastian Egenhofer has stated for Lewitt’s practice, historical and technical threads are gathered into one dysfunctional node. In the German text, this passage reads: “Lewitts Arbeit hat diese historischen und technischen Stränge zu einem dysfunktionalen Knoten geschürzt.” Sebastian Egenhofer, “Ströme, Filter und Sensoren. Alteritätsbezug von Technik und Kunst,” in Milieu Fragmente. Technologische und ästhetische Perspektiven, ed. Rebekka Ladewig and Angelika Seppi (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2019), p. 90.
. Lewitt himself has pointed to “cultural techniques” as a concept informing his work (particularly regarding the template and logic of the “grid”). See Sam Lewitt, “The Grid and the Gradient,” in Sam Lewitt: More Heat Than Light (London: Koenig Books Ltd, 2016), p. 193.
. Bernhard Siegert, “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory,” in Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 6 (2013): p. 58. The term Kulturtechnik originally stems from early-twentieth-century German treatises on agriculture. See Siegert, “Cultural Techniques,” p. 56. On Siegert’s adaptation of the concept, see also Reinhold Martin, “Unfolded, Not Opened: On Bernhard Siegert’s Cultural Techniques,” in Grey Room 62 (Winter 2016): pp. 102–115.
. On the notion of compression (relative to algorithms of image circulation) in contemporary art, see Tim Griffin, “Compression,” October135 (Winter 2011): pp. 3–20.
. In a comparison between Lewitt’s approach to site specificity and the phenomenologically inclined work of artist Michael Asher, critic and artist Melanie Gilligan accordingly has stated: “The work […] evokes the globalization of economic markets, in art’s economy as well as across the geographic boundaries and traditions remade by global capital flows. Hence, if Asher’s work looks back into the specific spatial organizations of the modern art institution, Lewitt speaks to the present, as new norms reconfigure space and time within a redefined spectrum that privileges not the experience of a place but rather a dislocated spatial abstraction, which hinges on social relations of production, distribution, affiliation, and economy.” Melanie Gilligan, “When Light Becomes Heat,” in Sam Lewitt. More Heat Than Light, p. 188.
. On the intrinsic relationship between museum and factory in contemporary culture, see Hito Steyerl, “Is the Museum a Factory?” e-flux Journal 7 (June–August 2009): https://www.e-flux.com/journal/07/61390/is-a-museum-a-factory/ Accessed January 7, 2021.
. “Mediation Has the Strongest Echo: Sam Lewitt. Sam Lewitt interviewed by Chiara Moioli,”Mousse Magazine (February 7, 2020): http://moussemagazine.it/sam-lewitt-chiara-moioli-miguel-abreu-2020/ Accessed January 7, 2021.