EXCEPT PERHAPS A CONSTELLATION: The Temporal Poetics of Studio For Propositional Cinema
By Aaron Peck
What kind of poetry does Studio for Propositional Cinema compose? For an anonymous collective that works with text, specifically a kind of writing that often resembles poetry, the Studio’s relationship to that genre needs consideration. To begin to answer that initial question, I want to quote from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: “Ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you're really in the total animal soup of time.” In politics, in technology, in medium, and in style, we are all in that soup. And from within it, Studio for Propositional Cinema attempts to work.
The Studio delights in mixtures, in impurities, in mongrelization. It champions hybrids. It claims that its material is time. As an anonymous collective that compartmentalizes its activities into a series of “Divisions”—Production, Exhibition, and Publication—the collective might author the works appearing in any of these three, or it may commission them from others, in effect becoming a host. As a result, the authorship of any event, action, or publication from the Studio is complicated. The Studio invites its participants into a fuzzy congregation, so that even these basic three divisions start to dissolve; we could call that dissolution poetry. With the Studio, poetry is not so much a thing as a form that emerges from mixture; its poetics are not necessarily in its language. Its current work at the Swiss Institute in New York, for example, turns the Comte de Lautréamont into an unwitting collaborator by stripping Les chants des Maldoror into a six-part play, following in the tradition of Poet’s Theatre, much like the New Theatre project of Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel. From its “Exhibition” Division, which is based in Düsseldorf, the Studio recently presented John Miller’s The Dark Ages, a small sculptural work. Often the Studio’s own productions resemble text works, à la Lawrence Weiner; but unlike Wiener’s, which give us the concept or outline of an artwork, the Studio’s are also paintings that aspire to be called poems. It’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Amid all of this, its publication division also produces zines, gathering together the voices and projects of fellow travellers, such as Joseph Strau, Dena Yago, Peter Culley, the Otolith Group, and also collaborating in co-publications with Keren Cytter’s imprint A.P.E. Art Projects Era.
To attempt to disrupt contemporary information feeds and streams through slower media that harken back to 90s riot grrl zines or 60s mimeograph and gestetner countercultural poetry scenes; to distribute cassette tapes and yet make them listenable on Soundcloud; to insist on cinema at the moment of its nadir: it’s both the most current gesture and the most anachronistic. Let me continue. To distribute pamphlets, pins, and patches; to engage in performances and exhibitions; to maintain a hesitant disregard to a website: all of these attempt to mix a variety of media that arrived in the artworld within the past fifty-five years, without paying much attention to which is the most current.
And from these, it produces a kind of poetry. I don’t want to confuse its poetry with its Publication Division, because that is something different, even though I am particularly interested in how the Studio uses publication. In certain cases, it could seem mannered or nostalgic. Why zines in 2016? The only good answer is, why not. In an attempt to compose the time in which we live, the Studio knows to avoid making hyper-acute statements about the media or superficial circumstances of our present moment: nothing so totalizing as saying, “the artist of our era is a traveller,” or “because of the society of the spectacle, making new pictures is impossible,” or “all future art will be digital.” The Studio knows to make the opposite kind of pronouncements. Nothing is dead or out of date. Nothing is “late.” The wreckage of history has overtaken us. (As a result, I am waiting patiently for the Studio to produce a figurative masterpiece.) Studio for Propositional Cinema shows no respect to the linear history of contemporary art, and for that reason it is very much of its moment. Our contemporaneity is neither a style nor a medium; it’s the connection between enunciations, in whatever form that they happen to be—in their gait, gesture, and glance, to quote Baudelaire—not in their content. And one of the modes the Studio chose to work in is publication.
So at the moment that seems to end a certain era of print, the Studio has understood that now is the time to have a publication division. Our sense of time has become mixed up, fucked-up, out of joint, a game of connect-the-dots, a constellation; it’s what children play when they eat animal soup. As a result, the Studio’s strategy of appropriating zine and chapbook culture is not nostalgia. The Studio understands print to be a fragment from history that remains lodged in the present.
The Studio was not born on Tumblr (it had an account but deleted it), or Instragram, but more than print media its ethos resembles the a-temporality of those digital platforms, where anything—an image of Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1620 Judith Slaying Holofernes, a picture of Young Thug in a dress in 2016—can be juxtaposed and put in concert with each other. It’s a legacy of montage, of course, but contemporary technologies have normalized it. Through the Internet, montage and collagist sensibilities have become banal, our everyday.
So, at this moment, for the Studio to have a publication arm may or may not be the most contemporary thing it could do. Print currently seems to be threatened—from the economic pressure of online metrics, from right wing political will and its complete abuse of language, and even from science, which claims that the nascent digital world is reconfiguring the neurochemistry of our brains. It’s at that exact moment in time that, for the Studio, a publication division seems most fitting, not as a last stand against the so-called alt-right digital barbarians, but because of the way in which our inherited notions of time have become so mixed, that nothing is ever really out of date, neither print, nor cinema. So long as it can be repurposed online (everything can be), it will find a new iteration, a new life.
Along with its publications, we also have its text works, those wall paintings that aspire to poetry in the proper sense. Which reminds me that I haven’t defined what I mean by poetry, only what the Studio does. Normally, by poetry, I would mean the interplay between sense and rhythm in language. But for the Studio it is any kind of emergent form from mixture. Transgressing divisions is its sense, its rhythm. If we say that Studio for Propositional Cinema writes poetry, it is not necessarily that it is versed in the canon of poetry, in its Elizabeth Bishops, its Ezra Pounds, or its Sir Philip Sidneys, even if many of the Studio’s works consist of verse painted on walls or paper. Nor that it needs to be. Through its mongrel-forms, the Studio makes connections between a variety of different people, things, and ideas. And this mixture is a form of poetic rhythm, with time as its material.
I recall a phrase from Stephane Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice.” It is a poem that is composed in a variety of different font sizes, and if the reader follows all of the words in a particular font, distinct phrases appear, from within the longer run-on sentence that makes up the entire piece. Following the largest font size, in the final pages, the words read: “Nothing / Would Have Taken Place / But Place / Except / Perhaps / A Constellation.” The Studio’s activities—the way in which it disregards divisions of authorship, of object, of agency, of genre, of medium—remind me of the complex beauty of a star-map. The “poetry” of the Studio is, as much, in the way that different things are connected together, in the way that its Divisions merge, so that we—its spectators, collaborators, critics, friends, or enemies—can compose it for ourselves. In our own time. Now, in order to navigate unknown storms, we only need our astrolabe.