Walead Beshty’s Invisible Networks

by Kathleen Langjahr*

There exists [a] word in German, Geschichte, which designates not accomplished history, but history in the present [au prèsent], doubtless determined in large part, yet only in part, by the already accomplished past; for a history which is present, which is living, is also open to a future that is uncertain, unforeseeable, not yet accomplished, and therefore aleatory.

–      Louis  Althusser[1]

In April of 2006, an exhibition of Walead Beshty’s Travel Pictures opened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Beshty had traveled to East Berlin in 2001 to photograph an Iraqi embassy there, which had been abandoned as a result of the GDR’s collapse. These photographs were published in Cabinet magazine in 2004, and Beshty subsequently retuned to Berlin to expand the series. Upon arriving in Berlin, he realized that he had accidentally allowed his unexposed film to pass through the X-ray machine in airport security; he decided to process the photos anyway, and the results were images of the embassy with washes of color that diluted the original photographic image.

Travel Picture (rose), Chromogenic print, 2006, 49 x 97 inches.

Travel Picture (rose), Chromogenic print, 2006, 49 x 97 inches.

Travel Picture (meadow), Chromogenic print, 2006, 49 x 97 inches.

Travel Picture (meadow), Chromogenic print, 2006, 49 x 97 inches.

Beshty was simultaneously working on a series of 13 color coupler prints called The Phenomenology of Shopping (2001-2003), which showed the artist with his head inserted in various consumer products (a washer, the mouth of a giant teddy bear, a rack of silk flowers) and urban social spaces (a potted plant in a shopping center, a bed of flowers in a piazza), his body limp and immobile. The title of each photo notes the store and mall in which they were shot. As Joe Scanlan noted in a 2005 issue of Artforum, “The gesture is as effective as it is stupid, suggesting that when it comes to twenty-first-century capitalism, ‘hypertrophic’ is a more apt adjective than ‘late.’…I like the pun of ‘losing your head’ while shopping, and I like seeing the body go limp as a consequence, not as a sign of death but of rank conformity—in the same way that a frog ‘conforms’ to a great blue heron’s throat.”[2] The Shopping series shows the average, first-world customer ensnared in (and blinded by) a staggering array of consumer products, no longer struggling to free himself from the overwhelming forces of a consumer-based economy.

Phenomenlogy of Shopping (Filene’s, The Danbury Mall, Danbury, CT) 3, color photograph, 2002, 47 ¾ x 68 inches.

Phenomenlogy of Shopping (Filene’s, The Danbury Mall, Danbury, CT) 3, color photograph, 2002, 47 ¾ x 68 inches.

Beshty’s foci in these early works are the superstructures that define our identities and direct our movements. In Jason Smith’s article, “Securities and Exchanges,” he states that the Travel Pictures series is primarily concerned with the “techniques of power that reproduce the given relations of force in a society”[3]; we may call these techniques apparatuses, or, as Michel Foucault termed them, dispositifs. Smith observes that these photographs register the convergence of a means of production and the sphere of reality (a reality that is delineated by the subjectification of bodies to a system that monitors and manages their subjects’ behavior). The machine used to produce the photos (the X-ray machine in airport security) is also a means through which the State may exercise control in a post-industrial society.[4] Gilles Deleuze elucidates the importance of making these apparatuses visible in his essay What is a dispositif? “Each apparatus has its way of structuring light, the way in which it falls, blurs and disperses, distributing the visible and the invisible, giving birth to objects which are dependent on it for their existence, and causing them to disappear.”[5] Beshty’s photos register a shift in ideology marked by the prevalence of highly monitored and secure borders and recognizes the sociopolitical apparatuses that have intersected to create an indeterminate space (the collapse of the GDR and the instability of the Iraqi government).

International airports and the Iraqi Embassy are places where the lines of sovereignty are blurred. The washes of color from the airport security X-ray imbue the photographs with a sense of indeterminacy and implications of globalization; the ’00s followed a decade of rising international travel (particularly within the art world), but it also witnessed the intensification of States’ control over borders in order to provide the level of protection needed in a post-9/11 world. Furthermore, Smith notes that the miasmas of color which evidence the negatives’ passage through the airport X-ray machine also endow Travel Pictures with a self-reflexivity: the X-rays ruined a photo of ruins, “as if the internal logic of what is depicted in the photograph pushed outward to the surface of the image…”[6]

Taking into account Smith’s analysis, one realizes that Travel Pictures and the Shopping series actually deal with a common problem: they attempt to make the ideologies that control contemporary populations visible. While Travel Pictures materializes the stringent monitoring of travelers’ movements, the Shopping series visualizes the psychological conditions ubiquitous among consumers in a late capitalist economy. While the series clearly deals with the suffocating nature of consumer culture, it could also be read as a manifestation of the cognitive nature of the forces that drive the economy (to say nothing of the psychological underpinnings of advertising). Franco “Bifo” Berardi succinctly describes the late capitalist shift from physical to cognitive labor in his 2011 e-flux article, “Time, Acceleration and Violence”: “All of this is clear: value is time, capital is value, or accumulated time, and the banks store this accumulated time. Then, all of a sudden, something new happens in the relationship between time, work, and value, and something happens in technology. Work ceases to be the strong, muscular work of industrial production, and begins producing signs—products that are essentially semiotic.”[7] When the entire financial system can be instantaneously manipulated by a small group of mathematicians who decide to become investment bankers, the delineations separating time, value and work are demolished. The market is deterritorialized; it exists in a virtual space accessible only by the trader, and the workers and consumers who exist in the real world are at the mercy of the mental calculations of a small group of bankers and corporate executives.

Beshty further developed his interest in indeterminate geographic and political spaces when, in 2006, he placed large sheets of film in lightproof boxes, packed the boxes in his suitcases and then checked them whenever he traveled. After they had passed through the powerful X-rays that scanned the checked luggage multiple times, he processed the film, scanned it, and ink-jet printed the image onto archival photographic paper. The results were washes of color (similar to the hues seen in Travel Pictures) covering the entire sheet of film, except for strips of grey or yellow that crisscross the image; the color of the strips varied according to type of film used (either color negative or color positive), and correlate to the number of times the sheet passed through security. Unlike the Travel Pictures series, he gave these images highly descriptive (if tedious) titles, which communicated the type of film used, the dates and duration of its travels, and the airports through which it passed:

Transparency (Negative) [Kodak NC Color Film: May 8 – May 18, 2008 ORD/LHR LHR/IAD IAD/JFK LGA/DCA DCA/ORD], Epson Ultrachrome K3 archival inkjet print on Museo Silver Rag paper, 2009, 44 x 59.471 inches.

Transparency (Negative) [Kodak NC Color Film: May 8 – May 18, 2008 ORD/LHR LHR/IAD IAD/JFK LGA/DCA DCA/ORD], Epson Ultrachrome K3 archival inkjet print on Museo Silver Rag paper, 2009, 44 x 59.471 inches.

Transparency (Negative) [Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 4071: November 26 – December 2, 2007 LAX/ORD ORD/LGA LGA/ORD], Epson Ultrachrome K3 archival inkjet print on Museo Silver Rag paper, 2011, 44 x 59 1/2 inches.

Transparency (Negative) [Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 4071: November 26 – December 2, 2007 LAX/ORD ORD/LGA LGA/ORD], Epson Ultrachrome K3 archival inkjet print on Museo Silver Rag paper, 2011, 44 x 59 1/2 inches.

Beshty had begun experimenting with photograms in 2005, in a series titled Pictures Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light, in which he folded photosensitive paper and exposed it to light. After Transparencies, Beshty would continue to develop his experiments with photograms in the Curls series (2011), where he rolled up large sheets of photosensitive paper while exposing them to lights of different colors. Like Transparencies, he gave these photos descriptive but mundane titles that note the type of film used, the location at which they were created, the date, and (in parallel to the Transparencies lists of airports) he also noted the colors of light he used during exposure: Black Curl (CMY/Five Magnet: Irvine California, March 26th, 2010, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 165-021, 05110) (with CMY standing for cyan, magenta and yellow). In 2008-2010, he created another series of folded photosensitive paper photograms, this time incorporating the angle at which the light was shed on the paper in the title of the works:

Fold (60°/120°/180°/240°/300°/360° directional light sources), June 30th, 2008, Annandale-On-Hudson, Foma Multigrade Fiber, 2008.

Fold (60°/120°/180°/240°/300°/360° directional light sources), June 30th, 2008, Annandale-On-Hudson, Foma Multigrade Fiber, Black and white fiber based photographic paper, 2008.

Black Curl (CMY/Four Magnet: Irvine, California, January 3rd 2010, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 141-005, 00410), Color photographic paper, 2010.

Black Curl (CMY/Four Magnet: Irvine, California, January 3rd 2010, Fujicolor Crystal Archive Super Type C, Em. No. 141-005, 00410), Color photographic paper, 2010.

Photograms are an interesting medium, as each photogram is a unique original (unlike photographs). Beshty imposes a predetermined set of rules on himself when making his photograms, in order to further remove the artist’s hand from the final appearance of the work. [8] Likewise, in Transparencies, Beshty had no control over how electrons emitted from the X-ray will fall (i.e., how many times the airport will scan the luggage, the angle of the scanner when it passes over the film, etc.). Chance determines the final look of the image, and both the folded and X-ray photograms document the history of their own making.

It is important to note that Beshty does not consider his images to be abstract. In a conversation with photographer Eileen Quinlan, he expresses the impression her six-edition work The Full Edition of Smoke & Mirrors #24A (2006) had on his understanding of non-figurative images:

It made me think of Sherrie Levine, particularly the way she would show full editions of her work side by side…I thought your choice undermined the purity that is usually ascribed to working non-figuratively, and connected the history of abstraction with the history of appropriation, two threads that are usually treated as discrete. That work [Quinlan’s Smoke & Mirrors] prompted me to think of abstraction as a readymade form, which resonated with some problems I was considering at the time.[9]

Beshty’s works are not abstract, because they represent nothing already visible; his works can be considered as readymades. The photosensitive paper and Beshty’s set of rules for manipulating it already exist in the world before the artist assembles the final result.

In his review of PROCESSCOLORFIELD, Beshty’s 2011 exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, James Nesbit places Beshty’s work in an art historical genealogy:

The art historian David Joselit has written most extensively and persuasively about the networking aspect of Duchamp’s oeuvre.[10] More recently, Joselit has turned his attention to types of “signal processing” present in contemporary painting, which also informs the kind of exchange characteristic of Beshty’s work…Joselit argues that “the abstract gesture” for these artists has shifted from “the production of information” in earlier practices of the twentieth century to “now [marking] the transfer of information.” That is, the “content” of their work, so to speak, has become “the very texture of transmission.”[11] [12]

When one takes into account the network of state-sanctioned security mechanisms and points of ambiguity (both ideological and physical) through which the film for Transparencies and Travel Pictures passed, it is clear that both series are more accurately understood as conceptual works. Further, Transparencies and Beshty’s photograms can be read as imprints of an idea or process; in other words, an index—a document that registers the act of its own making, as it moves through Beshty’s self-imposed system of exposure. The content, as Joselit would say, is in the transmission of information.

The trajectory of Beshty’s career in the first decade of the 21st century represents a genealogic conversion of media that leads back to the inception of mechanical reproducibility: the camera, the photogram, the X-ray machine (which, interestingly, uses the same technology—a cathode ray tube—as a television), and a digital scanner/printer system. In the years 2001-2010, Beshty created a series of images that use the apparatuses of the past to speak to the apparatuses of the present, and show a movement from reproducible representations of late capitalist systems toward unique indexes of global networks. In Beshty’s photos, the visualization and conflation of social and technical apparatuses present the viewer with documents that explain the relationship of the past with the present and, as Smith explains, “propose an unsettling proximity between the photographic, the X-ray machines, and the entire ‘secure’ environment of the contemporary airport.” Indeed, Travel Pictures is only possible because of the collapse of East Berlin and the questionable status of the Iraqi government. The series points to the line that marks the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the West’s involvement in the Middle East—an involvement that continues through to the present. Travel Pictures emphasizes the importance of tracing the lines of an apparatus back in time, which is to say it emphasizes the importance of tracing the creation of a network of signifiers—in other words, an archive.

In What is a dispositif? Deleuze includes an excerpt from Foucault’s L’archéologie du savoir: “To describe the archive is to set out its possibilities (and the mastery of its possibilities) on the basis of forms of discourse which have just recently ceased to be our own; the threshold of its existence is established by the break which separates us from what we can no longer say, and from that which falls outside out discursive practices…”[13] The archive provides a set of signifiers between which one may draw various lines of force in the creation of a history. Beshty has drawn two sets in his Travel Pictures series: a genealogy of foreign threats to the Western world, and a genealogy of technology (camera to X-ray).

It is clear that Beshty is aware of the indeterminacy inherent in his work. In reflecting on what interested him about the site for Travel Pictures—which he learned about through a short blurb in the newspaper—he said: “German teens looking to drink beer and hang out can sneak in, but no agent of the state can legally set foot on the grounds because of laws protecting national sovereignty, even though the GDR and the Republic of Iraq no longer exist. From a legal standpoint it is invisible, and one can become invisible by entering it.” [14] In a society of commercialism and surveillance, Beshty uses the machines of economic and state control to create photographs that force the viewer to think about the relational implications of the image and its production.

Travel Pictures captures a space of geopolitical and temporal indeterminacy. The disrepair of the embassy testifies to the political atmosphere of past decades, while the washes of color testify to the political atmosphere of the present; both periods exist as one photographic object. The term Deleuze might ascribe to the situation presented in Beshty’s photos is “current”: “The current is not what we are but rather what we are in the process of becoming…In each apparatus [dispositif] it is necessary to distinguish what we are (what we are already no longer) and what we are in the process of becoming.”[15] Travel Pictures and Transparencies exist as imprints of the increasing security measures used for monitoring borders around the globe. Will the preservation of our safety ever be untethered from the surveillance of our movements? Will the failures of fallen governments inform the actions of current regimes?

In Jacques Rancière’s The Future of the Image, he discusses the difference between cinema and television images. His discussion is, at its core, a theory of the nature of images, and his exposition thoroughly resonates with Beshty’s X-ray photos. Rancière first explains that the cinema exists only in the presence of an Other; it requires an external light source to make itself visible. Television, on the other hand, emanates light from within itself. However, this difference does not alter the nature of the images each medium presents, as one might expect:

[T]he technical properties of the cathode tube are one thing and the aesthetic properties of the images we see on the screen are another…The nature of the amusement television offers us, and of the affects it produces in us, is independent of the fact that light derives from the apparatus. And [referring to the films of Robert Bresson] the intrinsic nature of Bresson’s images remains unchanged, whether we see the reels projected in a cinema, or through a cassette or disc on our television screen, or a video projection.[16]

While the light sources in television and film arise through utterly different means, the images produced by each are allowed an equal opportunity to amuse or enrapture its viewer. However, Rancière goes on to note that a key difference between film and television lies in the performances each medium conveys: whereas television programs portray a presence that is foreign to both the set and the camera, a film shown in a movie theater presents the viewer with moving images that “are themselves the performance.”[17] That is to say, the television program radiates and displaces the documented performance, while the film theatre houses a performance of light and movement that exists in and of itself. The cinematic images of the movie theater have no referent—the light source illuminates the film strip; the Other converges with the medium.[18] The alterity of the light source not only coheres with the material, but also becomes a manifestation of the properties of the cinematic medium. It illuminates “relations between a whole and parts; between a visibility and a power of signification and affect associated with it; between expectations and what happens to meet them.” [19]

This understanding of the cinematic and televised image is relevant to the understanding of Beshty’s X-ray photos, as they may be situated within a similar relationship of sameness and alterity. Rancière’s Other is apparent in Transparencies and Travel Pictures, as the washes of color index the spaces of ambiguity through which they passed. They testify to physical and ideological operations and embody a relationship of a part to its whole, a link in the skein of international security operations established in response to the contemporary presence and perception of terrorism. The “technical properties of the cathode ray tube” that exist in the airport security X-ray machines are similarly independent of the images produced by their passage through the apparatus. The film and its Other do not exist separately, in opposition, but rather converge within the photo. Both Transparencies and Travel Pictures have points of reference, but do not represent anything previously visible. They make visible an ideology and the spaces that exist outside of it; they signify an Other.

Toward the end of Beshty’s discussion with Quinlan, he begins to talk about his views on other contemporary artists, and how he sees his work in relation to them. He expresses concern over what he sees as the conflation between the ability to mobilize capital and artistic genius in the contemporary art world, citing Doug Aitken’s public artworks in New York. Conversely, he praises Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings:

[LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #273 was] completely transparent about how it was made and the materials used. The artist as the initiator of the work wasn’t mythologized; it was clear where LeWitt ended and the work began. That balance between total openness and aesthetic beauty allowed seductive beauty to be available, open for a viewer to consider as more than just a receiver, like an open-source version of abstract expressionism, which to me was a potent political assertion. Usually, seductive objects conceal how they’re made—that’s part of their power, the sense that there’s an unaccountable sublime force behind it, whether it’s artistic genius or institutional authority.[20]

Beshty also expresses admiration for Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans project, as it “honed in on a latent resource embedded in a community that was torn apart and fractured, managing to create a production that took this untapped social power and created a legacy that made further production possible in the community…What is most important is that it created connections that were almost impossible but were needed.”[21] Beshty’s admiration for art that deals with the issues surrounding the control and management of society at large is subtly observed in his own practice. His Shopping series and X-ray photos provide a nuanced and striking means of visualizing the major systems of control that dictate contemporary life, while readily adopting a transparency similar to LeWitt’s wall drawings. Their “seductive openness” makes no gesture indicating a sublime force, institutional or otherwise, and they make possible a new sociopolitical understanding of the intermediate forces between governments and travelers, artist and artwork, past and present.

*Kathleen Langjahr is a second year masters student at Columbia University, in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies (MODA) program. She holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University in Art History and Writing Seminars, and is currently co-curating an exhibition titled HYPER RESEMBLANCES, slated to open at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery in April of 2014.

———

All images copyright Walead Beshty.


[1] Louis Althusser. Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978 – 1987, ed. Francois Martheron an Oliver Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2006), 264.

[2] Joe Scanlan. “First Take,” Artforum international, 46.5 (Jan 2005): 142 – 161.

[3] Jason E. Smith. “Securities and Exchanges.” Walead Beshty: Selected Correspondences 2001 – 2010, (Bologna: Damiani, 2010), 9.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gilles Deleuze. “What is a Dispositif?*” Michel Foucault: Philosopher, trans. Timothy J. Armstrong. (New York: Routledge, 1988),160.

[6] Smith, Ibid, 11.

[7] Franco Berardi Bifo. “Time, Acceleration and Violence,” e-flux, 2011: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/time-acceleration-and-violence

[8] “Walead Beshty & Eileen Quinlan,” BOMB/BOMBSITE, web only, posted Sep. 2009: http://bombsite.com/issues/999/articles/3348

[9] Ibid.

[10] David Joselit. Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp, 1910–1941 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).

[11] David Joselit. “Signal Processing,” Artforum 49.10 (Summer 2011), 360.

[12] James Nisbet. “Walead Beshty: PROCESSCOLORFIELD,” X-tra: Contemporary Art Quarterly; Winter 2011, Vol. 14 Issue 2, 48.

[13] Deleuze, Ibid, 165, quoting Michel Foucault. L’archéologie du savoir (1969 ; reprint, New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2).

[14] Walead Beshty. The excerpt of the interview referenced in this paper may be found on the Hammer’s webpage for the exhibition, http://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/detail/exhibition_id/84, or Hammer Projects: 1999 – 2009 (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2009).

[15] Deleuze, Ibid,164.

[16] Jacques Rancière. The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2007), 2.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] Ibid, 3.

[19] Ibid, 3.

[20] “Walead Beshty & Eileen Quinlan,” BOMB/BOMBSITE, web only, posted Sep. 2009: http://bombsite.com/issues/999/articles/3348

[21] Ibid.