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Installation view, Hiding in Plain Sight, Pace Gallery, New York, Jul 14 – Aug 20, 2021 © Pace Gallery

Essays

Infrastructural Aesthetics

Minimalism in the Information Age

By Andria Hickey, Senior Director and Curator, Pace Gallery

Hiding in Plain Sight began with a consideration of the iPhone: a minimal, geometric conduit for infinite access to goods, services, and people. Yet, when turned off, it is reduced to a shiny, flat, and somewhat mute object. Millennia from now, it could be rediscovered and easily mistaken for something rudimentary—a token of exchange or a roof shingle, for example. To consider the objecthood of a mobile phone is also to consider the relationship between an object and its potential to activate what lies within. When dormant, the phone is simply a combination of plastics, glass, and rare mineral microchips. Yet, when networked and plugged in, it contains limitless potential, information beyond measure, and access to a multitude of intertwined global infrastructures.

Operating simultaneously at the level of the individual and at a global scale, infrastructure is powerful—it defines the shape of nations, cities, cultures, economies, and daily life. It creates a scaffolding of support that allows individuals, corporations, and political entities to distribute information, access, wealth, services, and goods. In contrast to the analogue infrastructure of the 20th century—highways, trains, telecommunications, and localized government agencies—infrastructure today lurks beneath the surface, barely visible. From undersea fiberoptic cable routes to data server cooling centers at the North Pole, complex global supply chains, free ports, satellite surveillance, Google Maps, internet search engines, social media superpowers, and digital financial technologies, these entities are critical in keeping our basic systems (and daily lives) moving. Yet they exist primarily outside our field of vision, and we have little knowledge of how they function, or at what cost.

Architect Keller Easterling defines this relationship to visibility in terms of infrastructural space:

Infrastructure is considered to be a hidden substrate—the binding medium or current between objects of positive consequence, shape, and law. Yet today, more than the grid of pipes and wires, infrastructure includes pools of microwaves streaming from satellites and populations of atomized electronic devices that we hold in our hands. The shared standards and ideas that control everything from technical objects to management styles also constitute an infrastructure. Far from hidden, infrastructure is now the overt point of contact and access between us all—the rules governing the space of everyday life. [1]

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Installation view, Hiding in Plain Sight, Pace Gallery, New York, Jul 14 – Aug 20, 2021 © Pace Gallery

Easterling’s notion of infrastructural space provides a potent lens through which to consider the discursive nature of abstraction in art today. Much like the forms of infrastructure that she describes, art’s ability to function at a symbolic register is also critical to its reception. And throughout this exhibition, artworks chart unexpected but real connections between the aesthetics of minimalist abstraction and the global infrastructures that characterize life in the Information Age. Hiding in Plain Sight includes works by 18 artists from around the world, both within and beyond Pace Gallery’s program: Etel Adnan, Yto Barrada, Aria Dean, Simon Denny, Torkwase Dyson, Sam Gilliam, Suki Seokyeong Kang, Kapwani Kiwanga, Alicja Kwade, Tony Lewis, Rodney McMillian, Trevor Paglen, Walid Raad, Adrián Villar Rojas, Hito Steyerl, Rayyane Tabet, Jessica Vaughn, and Fred Wilson. Showcasing a wide range of media and outdoor sculpture, the exhibition explores new modes of abstraction and how they manifest the complexity of modern life through forms that map unseen connections between time and location.

Mining and interrogating the edges of infrastructural space and its material representations, these artists create forms that play with what is hidden and what remains visible. Shown collectively, their works demonstrate a new minimalist approach to form that creates an open space for perception and interpretation of the work’s subject matter (rather than exploring the purity of form itself, as in the earlier Minimalist movement). These pieces, despite appearing dormant, are activated by a constellation of information that is distilled within the formal dimensions of the work, extending beyond the boundaries of the object. As Michael Truscello has recently proposed in his 2021 book on art and the necropolitics of infrastructure, "Infrastructural visibility must be produced and negotiated through semio-materialist practices, of which the circulation of artistic expressions is a prominent component.” [2] In this way, artists have the ability to interrogate “the gaps, interstices, and zones of opacity as infrastructural facts..." [3]

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Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, single screen in architectural environment, 15 minutes, 52 seconds, Courtesy of the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Hito Steyerl’s video installation How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), echoes throughout the first floor of the exhibition. Her short video, sound tracked by the Supremes, examines how hidden infrastructures operate at both an individual level and at a global scale. Offering five lessons in invisibility, the film wryly maps the formal, symbolic, and real connections between the worlds of art, economics, and global political regimes.

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Simon Denny, Backdated NFT/ Cryptokitty Display Hardware Wallet Replica (Celestial Cyber Dimension), 2018, 2019, 2021, jpeg, Cardboard, UV print on cardboard, Non-fungible token (NFT), 3-15/16" × 2-3/8" × 2-3/4" (10 cm × 6 cm × 7 cm)

As Steyerl’s film dictates, we all participate in maintaining the invisibility of power that is embedded in infrastructural space. For example, I do not question how my Venmo account works, how the information about one person’s bank account instantly merges with another, how the internet service secures the transaction, how much data storage is required for it, how much electricity the server storage needs, how that use of energy effects climate change, and so on. I simply split the dinner bill. Simon Denny, whose new NFT Backdated NFT / Cryptokitty Display Hardware Wallet Replica (Celestial Cyber Dimension), (2018–2019–2021) is included in this exhibition, reveals the glitches in financial, tech-infrastructure by interrogating the fixed nature of the decentralized blockchain ledger and non-fungible tokens that mark transactions in cryptocurrencies.

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Trevor Paglen, Trinity Cube, 2017, irradiated glass from Fukushima Exclusion Zone, Trinitite, 8" × 7-3/4" × 7-7/8" (20.3 cm × 19.7 cm × 20 cm)

Reflecting the same properties of infrastructure, art becomes a vessel carrying unseen but ever-critical information within the (im)material dimensions of its form. At the same time, the very information that is interrogated and exposed also establishes a complex network of connections between global infrastructures of the past and their enduring effect in the present. Sitting at the entrance to the exhibition, Trevor Paglen’s gem-like Trinity Cube (2017) is deceptively elemental, suggesting a historical through line to the Minimalist cubes of Donald Judd. However, Paglen’s cube is composed of trinitite—a radioactive glass produced by the 1945 Trinity nuclear bomb test near Alamogordo, New Mexico—and irradiated glass found where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in 2011. The work itself was created by melting these two historical elements together to form a third element, the cube.

Bringing these unique, glassy, synthetic materials together in a single form, the sculpture intertwines the histories of American nuclear technology and current circumstances in Fukushima, where TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was built by the US-based power conglomerate General Electric. In contrast to the standardized industrial materials used in Judd’s Minimalist sculptures, the composition of Paglen’s Trinity Cube evokes a complex global narrative. Nonetheless, the piece maintains a similar opacity and silence, inviting an open-ended interpretation and a multitude of perspectives.

Rayyane Tabet’s Steel Rings (2013–ongoing), installed on the second-floor terrace of the gallery, similarly evokes the language of Minimalism. Yet on closer examination, Tabet’s geometric sculptures function as surrogates for a specific place, time, and situation. The installation replicates a section of steel rings from the Trans-Arabian Pipeline—a form of multinational, interconnected extraction infrastructure that transported oil across the Middle East from 1950-1982. The pipeline traversed a long and arduously inefficient route, defined by the borders of five political entities in the Middle East. It stretched some 1,213 km (753.72 miles) to travel the short distance from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia to Zharani in Lebanon. Each of Tabet’s steel rings is the same diameter and thickness as the original pipeline and each is engraved with their distance from the pipe’s source and corresponding geographic coordinates, representing a single kilometer of the pipeline’s journey through and around these fraught geopolitical territories. Twenty-three rings are included in the exhibition, representing the pipeline’s route across the Golan Heights, an area of Syria occupied by Israeli forces following the region’s 1967 war.

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Rayyane Tabet, Steel Ring, 2013 - ongoing (fabricated 2021), rolled, engraved steel with km longitude, latitude and elevation marking of specific location on the TAPLine, 30-3/4" × 30-1/2" × 4" (78.1 cm × 77.5 cm × 10.2 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut / Hamburg

Many of the works that comprise Hiding in Plain Sight emerge from a discovery of curious, obscured histories and little-known facts. The practice of unearthing information from various sources as part of an artistic process results in networks of information that chart new ways of thinking through colonial history, corporate entities, technological advancements, and the flow of capital. Throughout the exhibition, minimal—and often opaque—objects point to specific subjects that reveal, question, and challenge the hidden connective tissues of infrastructural systems. As if secreted into the means of their making, information can be imbued within the object itself. For example, Kapwani Kiwanga’s two-tone Linear Paintings—recalling the work of Imi Knoebel or Blinky Palermo’s color studies—are painted on drywall, becoming an architectural chimera for the color theories of Faber Birren, who examined the relationship between human psychology and color in the early 20th century, particularly when used in institutional settings. The same can be stated of Suki Seokyeong Kang’s approach to traditional Korean painting, weaving, and musical notation. In her paintings, sculptures, and installations, aesthetic histories metamorphose and are distilled into new modular forms, carrying forth relational and object frameworks for the individual within the community.

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Kapwani Kiwanga, Linear Painting #11: Birren White -Turquoise (U.S Coast Guard's Shore Establishments), 2021, drywall, wood paint, 250 cm × 125 cm × 3 cm (8' 2-7/16" × 49-3/16" × 1-3/16"), Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin

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Adrian Villar Rojas, Untitled IV (from the series Rinascimento) (detail), 2015-2021, organic, inorganic, human and machine-made matter

Exploring subjects across disciplines, the artists in this exhibition suggest the act of archaeology as well as storytelling: creating poetic, incisive associations between what appears to be self-evident and what is hidden in plain sight. Adrián Villar Rojas’s untitled work from his Rinascimento series (2015–21) consists of an older model white fridge (itself a quotidian, minimalist form) with its top freezer compartment transformed into an aquarium-like vitrine. Filled with rotting produce, crustaceans, and other detritus, slowly these once living forms are overtaken by frost to create a contemporary fossil of obsolescence and abundance.

Tony Lewis’s site-specific shorthand drawing abstracts the word “William,” in reference to William F. Buckley, the Goldwater-era “father” of modern American Conservatism. [4] The stenographer’s mark of curved and bisected lines is etched into the wall with nails, stretched rubber bands, and powdered graphite so that the word is larger than life, obscuring language to deconstruct the weight of Buckley’s persona and his deep and detrimental sway on American culture, most heavily impacting African Americans. In Lewis’s laborious drawings, words can be seen as objects heavy with history. [5]

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Tony Lewis, ...if it does finally come to a confrontation...then we will fight the issue...not only in the Cambridge Union, but we will fight it as you were once recently called to do on beaches and on hills, on mountains and on landing grounds. And we will be convinced that just as you won the war against a particular threat to civilization, you were nevertheless waging a war in favor of and for the benefit of Germans, your own enemies, just as we are convinced that if it should ever come to that kind of a confrontation, our own determination to win the struggle will be a determination to wage a war not only for Whites but also for Negroes, 2021, graphite powder, screws, and rubber bands, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles / New York / Tokyo

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Rodney McMillian, "shelf #6", 2016, wood, glass vases, spray paint, 46-1/4" × 28" × 16" (117.5 cm × 71.1 cm × 40.6 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

Meanwhile, Rodney McMillian’s quotidian objects are vessels that carry the past forward. In Shelf Series (2016) glass vases are spray painted black and placed atop white tables, symbolically disrupting the hierarchical order of museum objects, while holding space for histories lost by institutional gatekeepers that only selectively conserve the past.

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Yto Barrada, Geological Time Scale (assembled group of primarily monochrome Beni Mguild, Marmoucha, and Ait Sgougou pile rugs from Western Central, Middle Atlas, Morocco), Mid-20th Century, mixed media, dimensions variable

The colors utilized in Yto Barrada’s Geological Time Scale (assembled group of primarily monochrome Beni Mguild, Marmoucha, and Ait Sgougou pile rugs from Western Central, Middle Atlas, Morocco), Mid-20th Century, (2015) correspond to periods based on geologists’ international visual coding while also referencing the lasting cultural impact of the early 20th century French Army General and colonial administrator, Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey. The installation includes 50 brightly colored modern Berber rugs that Barrada purposefully collected from specific tribes in Morocco. The work of these tribes was excluded from Lyautey’s canonical catalogue of Moroccan rugs for not adhering to his criteria for authentic forms of “traditional” weaving, thus forcing the work of Indigenous weavers to appear stylistically stuck in time. Here, Barrada creates connections between a colonial past and how it still holds influence and sway over contemporary perspectives of color, form, and design—what is tradition and what is modern.

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Aria Dean, Forward Proxy 2.1, 2019, clay, resin and wood, 45" × 45" × 3" (114.3 cm × 114.3 cm × 7.6 cm), Courtesy of the artist; Greene Naftali, New York; and Château Shatto, Los Angeles / Paul Salveson

While we might experience infrastructural space today as something alien, and unknown, it maintains the hidden social, economic, and political power relations that allow production in all its forms to keep moving. Similarly, the work presented in this exhibition mirrors a relationship between abstract forms and the invisible scaffolding of nation-states, colonial regimes, multinational trade agreements, fiber optics, etc., that support prevailing infrastructures. As such, we might consider these artworks as a kind of meta-model, a model of a model, or an abstraction of an abstraction. [6] Aria Dean first used the word “meta-model” in relation to contemporary art as the title of her 2019 exhibition at Chapter NY, (meta)models or how i got my groove back. Included here, Dean’s Forward Proxy 1.1 – 1.5 (2018) is a minimal tondo composed of red clay and resin on a wooden support structure. It is both enigmatic and referential, exploring how an object delivers information and is a receptacle for a projected and often misunderstood narrative.

The clay is from Mississippi, two hours away from where the artist’s grandfather was born, and stands as a proxy for the American South, the artist’s family history, and the conditions of interpretation. In the artist’s words: I’m interested in finding some third term beyond “abstraction” and “representation.” When dealing with Blackness, these categories blur even if you don’t want them to—as do “material” and “symbolism.” I believe a minimalist framework allows the artist to condense a lot into a single object.…Representational strategies lend so much specificity, there’s no room for how these things interlock more ambiently. But minimalism allows me to speak to complex histories without having to enumerate and fix every element. [7]

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Walid Raad, Preface to the Second Edition _ III, 2012, archival inkjet print mounted on aluminum Dibond, 59" × 78-3/4" (149.9 cm × 200 cm), image; 61" × 80-1/8" × 2" (154.9 cm × 203.5 cm × 5.1 cm), frame, Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Many of Walid Raad’s works function as similar meta-models, tracing a curious combination of truth and fiction alongside stories of individual experiences shaped by political, economic, and military conflict. In 2007, Raad began to examine the history of art in the “Arab world” in a series of works titled Scratching on things I could disavow (of which five photographs are included in the exhibition). The project aligned with the rapid rise of large Western-brand museums, art fairs, and cultural foundations in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Dubai, Ramallah, and Sharjah, among others. In this project, Raad concentrates on the stories, economies, forms, lines, volumes, gestures, and colors he encounters as he navigates in and out of these emerging infrastructures.

In Raad’s Preface to the second edition (2012), ghostly reflections hover on gray monochrome backgrounds, modeling art objects as a function of their reflection rather than objects themselves. In the artist’s words, “I was recently taken aback by how most paintings on display in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha lack some (but not all) reflections. I decided to provide some. I am hoping that the reflections in my photographs will eventually leave my works and attach themselves to the paintings in the museum.” [8] Interrogating the institutional structures of art, Raad’s work suggests that the perception of art from the Middle East is a specter, an apparition without a reflection, as fraught as the institutions attempting to create a new definition of Arab art alongside the conflicts that have consumed the region.

Specters of the past are present throughout the exhibition. In some cases, archival data and historical documents are transformed into poetic evidence of histories intentionally obfuscated. Torkwase Dyson’s abstract paintings are formally grounded in the histories and futures of Black and Brown bodies navigating the architectonics of liberation and environmental racism across distances of time and geography. In thinking about what Dyson has called the “hypershape” (a geometry culled from the history of Black liberation), she states:

When you think about these histories you see that each one of these individuals self-liberated through a kind of architecture whether they found the architecture or built it. For instance, Box Brown built the architecture; Harriet Jacobs found the architecture. So what I’m doing is thinking about these ideas of improvisation, infrastructure, architecture, and thinking through, as a painter, a system that I’ll need to produce something—that’s paintings and drawings—that reflect that liberation, that reflect that freedom, that reflect that knowledge, that reflect that sense of movement and insistence on liberation by any means necessary. [9]

Jessica Vaughn’s Hope Labor, Flat and Folded (2021) likewise gestures to geometric forms that both recall and reject the language of Minimalism. Her present series of work evokes the sculptures of Ellsworth Kelly, but deeper inspection reveals a scaled replication of a set of visual tools from the training manuals of the Occupational Information Network, the world’s largest resource of vocational training.The shapes are designed to predict a worker’s ability to maximize productivity by training the student’s dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and spatial recognition. The original letter-sized sheets of construction paper—scored, cut, and ready to fold into three-dimensional shapes—are here reproduced into large-scale, powdered-coated aluminum panels. Positioned on the floor of the gallery, they are no longer usable as training models and instead become relics of standardized tests and the push for increased production. Enlarged and retooled into minimalist sculptures, the objects pose questions about not only labor and productivity but also the taciturn nature of Minimalism in the past.

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Installation view, Hiding in Plain Sight, Pace Gallery, New York, Jul 14 – Aug 20, 2021 © Pace Gallery

The relationship between Minimalism and art being made today extends beyond the question of reframing the problems of the earlier movement. Artists now employing these past visual languages do so not to make art about art, but instead to make art about the world we are living in and how a multitude of perspectives are required at any one time to see complexity with clarity. The formal vocabulary associated with Minimalism here creates space for the unsteadiness of complex histories and the importance of multiplicity without fixing a position or perspective.

This approach to form is as multifaceted as the infrastructure that defines our daily lives. It is an abstraction of an abstraction. Minimalism, today, strips information down to its most essential forms, regardless of the complexity of interwoven stories that may be concealed within the object’s making. It is as simple as a two-tone color scheme on a painted wall, trinitite and glass, a clay-covered tondo—these objects are the formations of what remains when subjects and information are digested and transformed by artists, each of whom brings their own histories and subjectivities to the process. These minimal objects invite curiosity and slow looking; they require questions and engagement to activate the expansive narrative the works embody. In this way, they function as a kind of operating system, performing an abstract representation of how information becomes form and how form can, in turn, create information.

[1] Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London & New York: Verso Books, 2014), 11.

[2] Michael Truscello, Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2020), 28.

[3] Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Stsuro Morita, “Infrastructural Complications,” in Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion, eds. Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita (New York: Routledge, 2016), 4, quoted in Truscello, Infrastructural Brutalism, 28.

[4] Lewis is particularly interested in a 1965 landmark debate at Cambridge University between William Buckley and James Baldwin. “Baldwin’s argument—that “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro”—won the approval of their audience at the Cambridge Union Society…But it was actually Buckley who uttered the phrase that resounded with Lewis: ‘There is no instant cure for the race problem in America, and anyone who tells you that there is… is a charlatan and ultimately a boring man.’ In Janelle Zara, “It’s a Call to Action’: Why Artist Tony Lewis Is Battling the Legacy of William F. Buckley, the Godfather of American Conservatives,” Artnet News, May 31, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/tony-lewis-blum-poe-los-angeles-1561066

[5] Susan Saccoccia, “With ‘Plunder,’ Tony Lewis deconstructs racial language, history,” The Bay State Banner, December 15th, 2017. https://www.baystatebanner.com/2017/12/15/with-plunder-tony-lewis-deconstructs-racial-language-history/

[6] A meta-model is scientifically defined as the practice of using a model to describe another model.

[7] Travis Diehl and Aria Dean, “Aria Dean on Designing an Anti-Monument,” Frieze, May 2021. https://www.frieze. com/article/aria-dean-designing-anti-monument

[8] Walid Raad, “Scratching on things I could disavow, Preface to the Second Edition, 2011.” https://www. scratchingonthings.org

[9] Robert R. Shane and Torkwase Dyson, “Torkwase Dyson with Robert R. Shane,” Brooklyn Rail, September 2020. https://brooklynrail.org/2020/09/art/Torkwase-Dyson-with-Robert-Shane

Essays — Infrastructural Aesthetics, Aug 6, 2021