(Pubilshed in the monograph “RAÚL CORDERO”. Turner Books. 2010)
Machines for seeing modify perception.
A paradigm of a future in which there can be no spectators but only participants. All men are
totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in
which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography
or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane
Marshall McLuhan: Notes on Burroughs
Raúl Cordero belongs to the generation of the 1990s in Cuba. The lines of demarcation between one generation and the next are never clear but there are perhaps certain characteristics that give such classifications a minimal use and validity. He is post most! In other words, post-ideology, post-Biennale, post-Cuban art boom, post ISA (although he has taught in this institution), post ethical responsibility for the achievements and failures of the Cuban system etc. His attitudes have inevitably been marked by a cynicism not only towards monolithic structures of belief but also towards the bizarre and equally cynical ramifications of the art market and its procedures of plunder and enrichment. He has experienced, engrained in his own life like sand-paper, the contradictions between the miseries and hardships of the Pe – riodo Especial — still being lived by the majority of the population and a traumatic “educational” process in itself whose full consequences have yet to be unders tood and assimilated psychologically — and the privileged access to travel and consumerism that a substantial number of Cuban artists have been able to enjoy. He has lived a nomadic life, often grant-protected, that has allowed him to acquire a close understanding of both European and American art. Part of the cynicism of the 90s was channelled into learning how to look after oneself, to find some kind of place in the complexities and distortions of the art market, to carve out one’s own particular shape and form of living.
Cordero does not renege in any way on his Cuban identity but he does reject the idea of a Cuban art built exclusively on what he sees as limiting and stale clichés, whether the exhausted vocabulary of an ironic critique of the Revolution or the fervent espousal of Afro-Caribbean roots. He insists on seeing things through the peculiarity and particularity of his own optics and the quirks of his own subjectivity. He has built across the years his own gallery of figures, his own range of sensibility and intellectual interests, and his own collection of sounds.
These are, of course, fairly simple generalizations but they are relevant to the fact that I wish to write about Cordero’s video work, not because it is somehow separate from his painting but because it provides a manageable frame — interrelated but specific — for the essay. Video, for evident reasons, is more a phenomenon of 90s Cuban art than that of the 80s. Travel permitted the Cuban artists access to technology, and the grant systems, sales of work or part-time jobs provided them with a purchase power. Video, an internationally fashionable medium, was now within reach.
Video has had a short history in Cuba and has been the result of the individual’s own initiative. Up until the 90s audiovisual technology was very much a matter of State support and commitment. The State is omnipresent in Cuba and its control spills over — often chaotically, sometimes absurdly, but always with a lax, surreal or iron-clad decisiveness — into the field of culture, pulling one way or another according to the ideological tides, loosening or tightening its hold, permitting or denying.
It is important to make clear from the outset of this essay that Raúl Cor dero is a pioneer Cuban video artist. Cuba had virtually no access to video until the mid- 80s and it did not penetrate the art world until almost a decade later. Cordero’s works from the mid-90s are thus key pieces in this history. Mailyn Machado argues in a paper on Cuban video that it was in the Fourth Salon of Cuban Contemporary Art (Cuarto Salón de Arte Cubano Contempo ráneo) in 2005 that video clearly affirmed itself as a presence and that this presence was consecrated in the 2006 Havana biennial. She argues that:
There were, of course, works that use video between 1994 and 2005 but they cannot be
seen as a signal of any systematic use of the medium in what constituted the national
artistic practice. There was a similar situation with regard to cinema, even if it was a few
years ahead of what was happening in the plastic arts. The cineastes were the first to have
access to video technology. That might well seem totally logical since video is simply one
more medium for the plastic artist, but for a cinema director it meant the possibility of
staying active or of being able to begin to exercise his profession1.
No artist can escape the history of the medium he chooses and Cordero is no exception. What the artist almost inevitably does is to choose what interests him from history and use it for his own purposes, thus entering the terrain of what Harold Bloom has called “the anxiety of influence”, where the artist either consciously or unconsciously kills the fathers that nurtured him. In Cordero’s case these fathers have been classic figures from American video of the 60s and 70s and they have helped him shape his own stance to reality: John Baldessari, Robert Whitman,Bill Viola, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramovic. To list the names establishes a mental framework that helps us approach his work — experimental, conceptually oriented, avowedly concerned with process. It makes it clear that if we are to situate Cordero’s work we should do so within international parameters.
We all know that the beginnings of video art can be traced to the early 60s and to Wolf Vostell’s and Nam June Paik’s incorporation of the television set into their art works. Yet even more significant was the appearance of the portable video recorder on the market in the middle of the decade. It was at this point that video became an art form, since it released the medium from the economic, ideolo gical and aesthetic confines of the television studio and placed it in the hands of individual artists. It proved to be a highly attractive medium, easy to use and flexible. Demand created a rapid development of technology — colour, improved cameras, more competent editing systems. The artists I have mentioned as significant in Cordero’s education came, of course, from other media — a fact that can hardly have escaped his attention. They were all clearly interested in the conceptual recording capacities of the medium and to the fact that they could now explore visual and sound relationships with a whole new set of options. The artist could now direct the camera at himself and create personal narratives.
Video, photography, performance, installation and cinema are the classic media of postmodernism — let me quickly acknowledge the fact that I use Fredric Jameson’s definition of this much questioned term as the cultural and social behaviour of post-technological societies — and it is now clear that the espousal of these technologies has been characteristic of a globalized information world where the majority of the new actors in contemporary art from other equally refined and historic cultures (such as the Indian, Arab, or Orien tal) enter it through these media rather than through the eurocentrically privi leged practices of painting or sculpture.
It is perhaps worth noting that Cordero’s option to access this sphere of influence finds a precursor in the work of Ana Mendieta. The two cases are, however, very different. Mendieta lived the 60s’ context of minimalism and conceptualism in New York and soaked it up. She then re-contextualized what she had learnt on her return to Latin America (to Cuba and Mexico): a search for roots and specific cultural meanings. Her contacts with Brey, Elso and Bedia allowed her to reapply elements that came from Body Art and find a home for them in a specific Afro-Cuban tradition. Cordero, however, uses the history of the medium in terms of his own individual quest and adventure. His search is international rather than Caribbean in its dimensions. It seeks to be part of a larger linguistic community and chooses not to mark difference through ethnicity or religious practices but rather to assert the common ground of postmodern living. Mendieta holds to a certain history of reality and to a return to roots, whereas Cordero sees reality as a fiction and is un-rooted or uprooted. His nomadic proclivity makes him an innate observer, acutely aware that there is always something happening, whatever the precise measure of time required to register it and give it form.
The clearest evidence of derivations from these artists can be found exactly where one would expect to find them in the first works from 1994 to 1997: Baño, Interior, Buscando la permanencia (1996) and Let me Tell you a Video (1997). They seem to me important because they already have a tone, an edge, or an after-taste that will become defining features of his work. They interrogate perception and they show a rigorous and unyielding clarity, an acute awareness of the time needed to say what has to be said: Cordero intelli gently opts for condensed statements.
BUSCANDO LA PERMANENCIA (1996)
It is a title with ironic overtones that could easily be applied to football or baseball leagues! Cordero, however, moves it back towards body politics, using his own body as the subject yet playing with physical reality and the technological possibilities of representation. He takes two body positions on the floor and draws their outlines in chalk as a kind of crime scene sketch. He then uses three cameras that show him attempting to recreate the positions, superposing the two original body postures. It can almost be seen as a matter of economy, using what he has at hand: his own body. He becomes, as it were, the material of his work, or to put it another way, the object of the work. In the 70s, for example, Dennis Oppenheim had made photo – documen tation of his body-related work as a way of effectively raising questions about the relationship of documentation to the original ephemeral work of art. Cordero not only freezes body gesture by recording it but also fragments it to make it more intense, more visually demanding. He returns a past action to life by documenting it on video, giving it a permanency that may well be at odds with the importance of the fact. As always, one of the central impulses behind his work is the raising of questions, and creating situations of intrigue — visual or psychological.
LET ME TELL YOU A VIDEO (1997) / FORWARD AND REWIND (1999)
Here he brings the narrational procedures of the medium itself under question, playing with its possibilities and exploring what happens when a methodology that belongs to one medium is transferred to another. In the first of these two related pieces Cordero looks at accumulative photographic narration, separate and static by nature, and transfers it to the moving but now, as a result, stilted medium of video; and in the second he breaks up video frames into the language of painting — a cross-referencing and ambiguity that is crucial to any understanding of his work.
I have insisted on returning to the 60s and 70s because Cordero clearly inserts himself within that tradition, living in his own work one of the central dilemmas: the move from the white cube of exhibition space to the black box of image projection. However, he shows no desire to resolve it but rather to exploit the tensions between the two, returning the video not to the television screen but to the installation space of contemporary art. He has lived a period of the flowering of cinematic and televisual forms in visual art and a context in which the practice of film and video installation has become a dominant form. Contemporary art is now replete with, perhaps even choked by, the projected image in an array that ranges from celluloid film installations, to single and multiple projections of analogue and digital video, to multimedia environments, sculptural film objects, computer— and net-based installations etc. It is a large garden and Cordero moves around in it with delight and ease. He has an explorative imagination.
In the first of these two works he tells a story as a gestural and vocal presence. We don’t know the context. Is it something that has happened to him? Is it something that he has been told? Is it an appropriation of a text? The photographic image is, of course, mute; the tale is told but communicated only by gestures that we cannot finally decipher. It is a metaphor for so many stories and so many days: technique replaced oil-paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas”2. Cordero clearly does not go along with this but he certainly acknowledges the fact that moving images have redefined what we think of as art, and as much as Duchamp’s Urinal also did!
The installation is then an installation of photos, an infinite number of photos taken from a TV screen, and the video is a moving sequence of still-images. Paradoxically it has become a fragmentary narrative since it has abandoned its natural-flowing temporal form. And this tangential reference to another central aesthetic concern of our time — the role and intentiona lity of fragmentation — is a typically perverse Cor – dero strategy. Fragmentation, collage and assemblage correspond not only to our experience of the world but also to the way in which we assimilate information and accumulate knowledge. We live in a TV-zapping and publicity-ridden world of overkill where collage is our natural habitat. And more precisely in the context of the visual arts, this problem of fragmentation is one of the consequences of the formalist, high modernist allegiances of a large part of the experimental film world that was seeking, desperately or naturally, to establish an equal footing with other high arts. In other words, collage is a common aesthetic coinage that adapts itself naturally to the way we read our experience. Cordero’s collage is artificial, since it is a linear narrative broken into photo fragments, but his purpose is to push us to reflect upon the issues of visual representation.
The second piece, Hello and Goodbye: Forward and Rewind [p. 20], looks at the thorny issue of the role of the painted image in the representation of reality. The title clearly references video techniques but the image is a digital image printed on canvas: the characteristic support used for painting. Cordero often seems more interested in the problems his representational presentation/ solution poses than in the image itself. Yet, in this instance, he gives us what might be called an “ironic temporal cliché”: an image of the pseudo-relationships that litter our world, of calculated or affectionate embraces, of self-interest at any price, of an infinite “Hello/Goodbye”! Love here endures as long as the embrace. Like Keb’ Mo’s “there is nothing wrong with Texas but I’d really love to go to France!” We are people who come and go and when we arrive we are already leaving. The photo impressions are playfully installed on a moving canvas as if to suggest that the painting itself wishes to become a video, a moving image. He offers the solution of a cranked up movement, as if the images were being played in an archaic camera. I recall Charles Olson’s remark that what is common to us all is change, we are organisms in process of constant change. Or, to put it another way, nothing that is alive stays still; what most closely defines our animal condition is movement, or what Olson termed move-meant.
It is possible that Cordero introduces here a kind of slanted and reversed reference to Ulay and Marina Abramovic’s work, where the two artists run headlong at and crash painfully into each other. Cordero prefers a happy but cynical ending of “yeah, maybe” to this classic and endlessly referenced piece that ends up in contact between the two bodies but also bruises. Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 (1974) is a partici – patory work with a decidedly confron tational nature, where the gesture to engage takes the form of a dare in which the audience is confronted with the burden of a buzz in the day of all of us, people talking to no real purpose but with real emotion! It also seems like a transferred take on Nam June Paik’s multiple TV screen installations and it was this same Korean artist who declared that “as the collage how to act, with potentially serious — and violent — consequences for the artists. In Cordero’s piece the act, the pantomime of a momentary coming-together, has a bitter- sweet aftertaste, whereas in Abramovic the piece raises the issue of performance and audience involvement through a theory of ethics exploring the nature of “acts” that are extreme in their potential consequences.
QUIZ NO. 25 (12 DIFERENCIAS) (1998)
This work is related to a later work, Un video con dos defectos (2001), where Cordero returns once again to the problems of the painted image and the video image: the limitations and limits of the medium. The two defects of the video are lack of texture and lack of smell. It yearns somewhere in its history for the live body of paint, for the sensuality of touch, and for material presence.
Quiz no. 25 is like a newspaper or TV game for kids on Sunday, or those puzzle books that people read on their way to and from work in the dead hours of the metro or bus. It is like Van Morrison singing “What is wrong with this picture!” Pick out the differences (answers on the back page). Cordero takes the rules of the game and then plays them his own way. The two images, the same but different, are shown on a loop. There are, as the title tells us, twelve diffe – rences. The spectators watch and attempt to solve the problems, maybe, or look up the answer before starting. The answers are presented behind their backs. It is a tongue-in-cheek approach, a decon struction of a code and its transformation into another language.
This is an intriguing piece that touches upon an argument that is still an active issue today, the distinction between documentary and the so-called art work. Where are the frontiers between the two? Are they relevant in any way as a distinction of worth or quality? What is it that constitutes an art work? How are we to distinguish between the different forms of narration, framing and intention that characterize the document? Cordero seems to make his own position clear enough: “An artist is not merely the slavish announcer of a series of facts, which in this case the camera has to accept and mechanically record. Art has to go beyond reportage”. It is like a standard position. Art is different and that is where its price comes from. But it would be a huge mistake to associate Cordero’s work with standard positions; there is always a twist waiting in the wings, or more than one twist.
Mailyn Machado throws a different light on this situation when she recalls a remark of Nicolás Guillén Landrián made in 1966, at a time when Cuba was in the midst of an immense structural, social, and ideological change when the documentary was supposed not only to reflect what was happening, the truth of an event, but also the interests, ideology and intentions of the State if the truth of the event failed to assert and affirm the same. Thus all narrations are ideological, like it or not, conscious of it or not:
Reportage: an information genre that occurs at the end of the XIX century and that has
an enormous importance today. It usually deals with a true story about a fact or reality that
is being told or analysed3.
The implicit question here is, of course, how and from what angle. Cordero is committed to revealing the mechanisms and all that lies behind what we apparently see. He discloses ways in which seeing is constructed.
In this instance the work records a quarrel that takes place on the street between a man and a woman. The man has, in all probability, committed the classic mistake and is trying to weave his way out of the problem. The woman is in no mood for apologies and is clearly sick of the repetitions. The man im plores, goes away, returns running, becomes momentarily violent, em braces her, as if holding on to what he may well be on the point of losing, with all his strength, and kisses with a clumsy fervour as a form of conviction. The woman is not convinced and sets off in the opposite direction. Somewhere within herself she wants to be persuaded but is not, or is not willing to be yet; she goes through the whole pantomime, relents enough to agree to accompany him, yet remains unconvinced and with the situation likely to ex plode again at any minute. Such is life, we all might say! Little more than a cameo sketch of love and betrayal, another minor cliché from the myths of Cuban sexuality, of passion spilling over onto the street.
But then the doubts start to set in. Is this cinéma vérité that the camera picked up as it was happening outside on the street, a casual event caught by the everattentive camera eye? Or has Cordero hired actors à la Jeff Wall to produce a simulacrum of reality at the moment when he was ready to shoot it? Is that the decisive factor that turns reportage into art — that reality does not matter, what matters is if it looks real?
But, as I have just said, there is a second twist. What Cordero has done is to appropriate the title of a work by John Baldessari, An Artist is Not Merely The Slavish Announcer (1966-68), not, as one might expect, from Baldessari’s video work but from the title of a painting in acrylic and oil. It is the kind of appropriation that characterizes his work. Baldessari’s approach is indisputably relevant and covers many of the fields of interest that preoccupy Cordero — the challenging of the convention of different media to address the construction of meaning through the interactions of words and images.
Let me refresh our memories a little. After the mid-60s Baldessari broke with the traditional trajectory and convention of painting with series of texts and photo-text canvases produced by sign painters and photomechanical processes in which the canvas became the sole conventional painting or art signifier. Baldessari himself noted:
I was weary of doing relational painting and began wondering if straight information would
serve. I sought to use language not as a visual element but as something to read. That is,
a notebook entry about painting could replace the painting. And visual data less as
pleasing artistically than as documentation as in a store catalogue or police photograph”4
The photographic sources of these works include snapshots by Baldessari and others, as well as reproductions of existing images from art magazines, children’s books and instruction manuals. I am referring here to such works as A Work With Only One Property (1967-68), Composing on a Canvas (1966-68) and A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (1968), which literally incorporates into its form its exhibition history, from its first public presentation in a one man show to the present.
What Cordero has done is to lift Baldessari’s text into a moving sequence and question the language content through visual illustration, leaving us not only to decide but also to decipher what might have been different.
As Jeff Wall puts it, commenting on work from this period, “the gesture of reportage is withdrawn from the social field and attached to a putative theore tical event”5.
And he continues: “The introversion or subjectivization, of reportage was manifested in two important directions. First, I brought photo graphy into a new relationship with the problematics of the staged, posed, picture, through new concepts of performance. Second the inscription of photography nexus of experimental practices led to a direct but distantiated and parodic relation with the art-concept of photojournalism”6.
HERE AND THERE (1999) / HELLO/GOODBYE (2005-2008)
I am particularly drawn to the works of Cordero that open themselves to multiple readings and to a certain perverse poetry constructed from a conceptual simplicity. Here and There seems like an exegesis of Robert Creeley’s equally short poem:
that suggests that life’s energies are always here, available in the moment, and
that there is simply a temporal difference. I wish I was there means you are
not here and if you are not here you are nowhere!
Cordero’s work involves a simple change of place of the individuals located in the two horizontal bands. There is a constant interchange of the people’s positions, they move for no apparent reason between the two bands, they are both here and there. They come and go but they keep on waving “goodbye” or “welcome”. It’s an ambiguous message, even if Cordero argues that it is a graphic image of his own life, a constant coming and going. He is a vocational nomad. Yet these images cannot but be ambiguous in the specifics of the Cuban context that has been an endless coming and going, with or without permission, a willingness to leave at the first opportunity or simply the desire to do so, as well as the torrid and complex reasons behind the welcomes at the airport. Life is not an easy event and we spend more time than we have, more time than we want, saying these words that sometimes imply a natural temporal separation or a dramatic exit. Cuban history, like the history of all the Caribbean, is a history of diaspora, of a long and endless goodbye.
This work is presented out of focus, as if it were a memory. It deals with the desire to recall, or perhaps with a wave of sadness, given what is on the point of happening. Here is what is and what is about to happen and there is the threat of the unknown and of what might be going to happen. Nor should one overlook the fact that Cor – dero presents this through a manipulated image where the characters move endlessly through scenes they never fully comprehend.
Hello/Goodbye is a related work in terms of gestural content. We are confronted by Raúl Cordero and Ana Steidlinger tirelessly waving at us. It is a simple but intriguing procedure that involves making a fixed image move: firstly, a lenticular photo is moved by a motor; secondly, a video camera takes a live feed of the image; and finally, the live feed is transmitted on a screen outside. It is a simple matter of emitting the image, recording it and then reproducing it. This series is repeated between 2004 and 2007 when variations are shown in Hamburg, La Havana, and Jyväskylä.
This piece picks up specifically on an earlier work on canvas with the same title, but it is also part of an ongoing series that stretches from 1998 to 2001 and includes Tratando de recuperar el tiempo perdido (1998), Forward and Rewind (1999) [p. 20], Here and There (1999), La experiencia Varadero/Las Vegas (2000) and The Rolling Landmark (2001) [pp. 66-69]. All of these works are based on the fact that Western man uses the same physical gesture to say hello as he uses to say goodbye. In other words, it is a gesture of affection that makes no attempt to distinguish between situations that embrace very different emotions: arrival and departure.
Cordero tells us with regard to La experiencia Varadero/Las Vegas (2000) and The Rolling Landmark (2001) that he was intrigued by the signs he saw on the highway when he was about to enter a town:
In the specific case of La experiencia Varadero/Las Vegas, produced for the VII Habana
Biennale, I concentrated on that generic kind of boarding or sign boards that can be seen
on the highway close to any town or village. This kind of board usually welcomes the visitor
(Welcome to “A”) on one of its sides, and says goodbye to him (Drive carefully. Come back
soon) on the other. As far as I am concerned these boards constitute the most symbolic
expression of the “hypocriti cal object”, that can sustain, just as people do, one attitude
— or the opposite — depending upon the perspective from which it is seen7.
He takes the symbolic “Welcome to the Fabulous Las Vegas” as almost the stereotype of an invitation to the middle of nowhere, to a town stuck out in the desert and alive with neon lights. He sees it as a global invitation to anywhere that is nowhere or simply as a sign that derails us by appearing in a context where we would not expect it. These are empty gestures that have consequently become clichés. He goes on to note:
Meanings – like landmarks or symbols – are always provisional. The idea behind this series
is the provisional nature and disposability of such symbols that can modify themselves
according to how they adapt to new conditions, imposing their personality on the new
context without losing their condition as symbols8.
Cordero takes this language of fabulous welcome as a transportable sign that he can recontextualize wherever he likes.
I recall a remark by Gilles Deleuze in which he questions the possibilities of producing a resistant art in the age of television:
The artist is always in the situation of saying simultaneously: I claim new methods, and
I am afraid that the new methods may invalidate all will to art, or make it into a business,
a pornography, a Hitlerism…9.
In Superpainting [pp. 76-77] Cordero seems to suggest with a smile that there is not much that can be done, since the screen and a button can change the colours of an artwork to respond to mere caprice. We can, however, resist from within, using technology to question itself. What Cordero has done here is to paint a kind of superman image and alongside it set up an installation with the same image produced on the screen where the spectator can introduce his own choice of colour, as a conscious suggestion of improvement, out of curiosity, or from sheer indifference. It is an open-ended, multiple-choice painting that we have all, maybe, dreamed about. Literally a superpainting!
As always there is an ironic after-taste, since as we compare the two images we find ourselves confronting the possibilities of the two media: the texture and subtlety of paint and the flatness of the screen image along with the flexi bility and invention of the medium. Cordero includes in the painting a text that appears categorically to state that “this is a superior painting”, but as the text is repeated in the monitor image we are left with the dilemma unresolved, or at least the artist’s own inclination remains ambiguous. He also raises questions about the originality of a work, if it really matters who does it, and to what extent colour, as opposed to form, is interchangeable and insignificant.
PERFECT WOMAN (2001-2002)
This is a delicious piece that clicks together perfectly, fusing technology, narration, fantasy, humour, and linguistics. Perfection, as James Lee Byars insisted across his life, is ephemeral, a matter of a moment in tune with itself. Are we still capable of creating, doing, making, saying something that is perfect? Byars also observed at a point in his life “no more white women”. It is an overtly dramatic phrase but one that Cordero might have done well to take into account during his prone musings on the ideal woman! As a metaphor on the erotics of love or desire, we see Cordero lying down on his bed in a hotel room fantasizing about his perfect woman, about her physical features. Each day, a different woman! Man’s endless projection of his macho self. And miraculously she materializes as a drawing, embodied not as flesh but as image. The language of desire is converted into a representational fact. What he sees as dream is given concrete form.
Yet, what is actually happening is that Cordero is coding instructions that will be fed by an expert to a robot drawing machine that the police use to create an identity-kit image of suspects. Cordero’s descriptions were recorded on tape and then handed over to a physiognomist in the police department who processed them through a highly sophisticated machine. The police specialist has to adapt himself to the vagaries and peculiarities of the witness’s testimony whose des cription inevitably carries a heavy charge of subjectivity. There is a heavy degree of complicity between witness and specialist. Cordero’s ideal woman is little more than a recognizable assemblage of standard details: a cyborg or a mechanically produced image. In the same way that Cordero is himself filmed by a machine, so his ideal woman is produced by one. It is truly a fictional reality. Yet what really lifts the work into another dimension is the ironic emphasis on desire as a condition where something is “wanted” and the insinuation that “wanted” has criminal associations that may well lead the pursuer and the pursued to appear in court and that the purpose of drawings of this kind is indeed to do so.
What is also clear is that Cordero pushes into a Baudrillardian territory and provides us with a classic postmodern simulacrum in the sense that the French philosopher argues, namely that the mass media has neutralized reality for us and it has done so in stages: first reflecting, then mask ing reality, then masking the absence of reality, and finally, bearing no relation to reality at all. This is the simulacrum, the final destruction of meaning. Cordero’s sense of “perfect” is not that of Byars; it is sceptical and mined by disbelief. Yet Cordero, as distinct from Baudrillard, does not accept this destruction of meaning but he does seek to problematize the whole question of the representation of reality.
Cordero is once again involved in demythifying the artistic process by focusing upon the nature and essence of the creative process, the whole issue of the author of the work, the author-ity of the same, and also perhaps on a secondary level the place and role of beauty in contemporary aesthetics — whether it can still respond to the idea of Kantian sensus communis or whether it is merely a fashion that can be endlessly imitated and reproduced. In other words, is it something that we can recognize but cannot describe in words, or is it merely a polished image flashed out from a billboard as the lowest common denominator?
THE ZOOMING EXPERIENCE (2000)
Here is a work that literally “represents” its text and a technique. This had also been a major interest for a number of experimental film-makers in the 60s, such as Brakhage, Sharits, Mekas, or Godard. Cordero’s text reads: “After going into the problem we get to the point where everything becomes a matter of size”. The camera zooms into three white objects, three eggs, which reduce to a larger two, and then finally to white screen. Simple, graphic, and communicative. He makes his point, reveals the process, and affirms the precise nature of a technology. He also makes it abundantly clear that our understanding, or specifically perception of reality, is relative. In other words, what we are able to see does not take us to what is, and what is does not lead us to what can be seen. I think of Come Out, a work by the Argentinian artist Narcisa Hirsch, with a score by Steve Reich, that consists of the reverse process, of zooming out from the needle-head of a record player until we finally come to perceive what the object is!
I mentioned Brakhage and Sharits not because there is a similarity between these two exceptional directors but rather because they represent two poles of operation that Cordero also takes into consideration although he remains, perhaps, closer to Sharits’ position. Fred Camper pinpoints the essential difference in an article in Soho Weekly News on Sharits’ film Word Movie where he observes:
He is trying to create a cinema in which films do not achieve their meaning only via their
optical effect on the viewer, but rather to create films that demand that the relationship
between screen, image, projector, film and viewer be considered10.
Cordero is constantly concerned with the way in which machines present or represent reality, the kind of framing devices through which they “arrange” and “modify” it. He explores their limitations and their representational bias. Perhaps he returns us towards McLuhan’s catch phrase “the medium is the message” — an awareness that new technologies not only pose new questions but also incite a mixture of reactions.
Cordero belongs to a theoretical postmodern climate that sought to question what Christoper Norris calls “the kinds of wholesale explanatory theory which would seek to transcend their own special context or locali zed conditions of cultural production”11. (I emphasize here production not content). He never becomes paralyzed by the very postmodern realization that his own discourse has no absolute claim to any ultimate foundation in “truth”. Indeed, he feels totally at ease amidst uncertainty. If we accept that all is provisional and historically conditioned, we will not stop thinking. The accept ance of the former guarantees the continuity of the latter, and thus also assures a rethinking. Cordero knows that assumptions about art involve assumptions about its lan guage and about meaning, and these in turn involve assumptions about human society. Art has no full autonomy; it is a constant dialogue with its viewer.
This is a highly pictorial work, a triptych of three unrelated parts that stand together without disturbing us. We have learnt how to be comfortable with what Heisenberg called the “principle of uncertainty” or Keats’ more romantic “negative capability”. We are accustomed to living amidst images that do not mesh into a secure narration but force us towards readings where we establish loose meanings that never fully satisfy but serve as a form of temporary relief. In short, things can live happily against each other without having to resolve themselves into a coherency.
I say pictorial because Cordero’s images flashed paintings through my mind: the first episode evoked Richter’s out-of-focus paintings, Eric Fischl’s swimming pool and terrifying stories of middle class and mid America with their swimming pools, barbecues, and complacency; the second episode, American Realism from the 30s; and the third, Kabakov’s clouds of hope for a better life. I am not suggesting that these were sources for Cordero but his images are evocative and at pains to create textures. This triptych could come together in the same way as Salle’s or Polke’s works in the 80s frequently did without feeling any need to establish relationships with the elements that make up the work: enforced cohabitation is a common event. We have all developed systems of mental zapping and the three sections juxtapose easily in our imaginations.
The first of the three sections, For All Those Who Once Did Not Understand Something, begins with an idyllic romantic shot of the “good life”, Hockney style, of two people, out of focus, sitting in sun-chairs at the edge of a pool. The peace is interrupted by a Hitchcock style attack from flying ducks. Cordero, however, is not trying to establish a cinematic narrative but simply to create an enigmatic situation. The image of the ducks is rewound and repeated. It is a world of artifice where techniques deceive and where the real is not a problem.
This first section is itself divided into three parts and in the second we have the man in the pool in his shirt contemplating the ducks. The shot is out of focus, slow, with a kind of lyric tension. It is simple but a little disturbing.
In the final part of this section the man submerges himself in the water and the action is repeated. Cordero is clearly fascinated by the image and plays with the technical possibilities to separate the work not so much from narration as from the real. Nothing is resolved in terms of the narrative. The image goes out of focus and fades into an abstraction and finally into a patch of light. It is a potential that all recorded images carry within themselves. Reality, as we all know, does not exist, it is the construct of each one of us. Cordero presents us with self-conscious simulacra aware that illusion is impossible because the real is no longer possible.
The second section of the triptych is dedicated to Jan Hoet, the inventive curator who once surprised us all with Chambres d’Amis: it is a drunken pub-story told over several glasses of beer. It is like a realist painting where the foregrounded protagonist is the beer glass and where the drinker remains slightly out of focus. There is a voice that runs over the dominant saturated colours — the golds and the browns of the drink and the bar. It belongs to a raconteur who wants our attention at all costs and has probably told the story many times. We wait for the last line that will send a ripple of guffaws around the table. It is a befuddled, stumbling telling that befits the alcoholic haze. The voice tells us that he was once told to deliver a present to Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and that he had three days to complete the mission. It was an imposs – ible request in the midst of the Vietnam War. But it was an order and he was supposed to leave the following day. There could be no excuse for arriving a day late and if he did not get there in time he would be shot. It was imperative to be there on the day because … and here comes the punch line… the present was an icecream! We can follow the story but the camera stays focused on the glass and on the way it shakes when the narrator makes his points by banging on the table. Stories are stories, what we see is another matter. All is a question of focus; at root we don’t see until we focus. Yet, at the same time, there is a strange beauty in what is out of focus.
The final section is an image of clouds. We think of Magritte, of Kabakov etc. We find ourselves before an endless cumulus of white fluffy things floating in sky blue. The sky is the sky and that is one context; measurement is measurement and that is another. Everything, Cordero quickly shows, depends upon scale and context. You can’t measure clouds in the sky but you can measure them on a camera. As always, Cordero makes things crystal clear but plays with quirky rules — rules that are visually convincing and proven but, from any other perspective that is not that of a video camera, absurd. He measures the clouds with a large thumb and tapemeasure, and his conclusions are that from a camera almost all clouds have approximately the same measurement. In other words, the camera has its own language, its own reductions to a kind of scale or perhaps, to put it more succinctly, its own way of seeing things! And as an ironic aftermath he dedicates the section “to all those who have ever had to measure anything”! Cordero exploits the pun in this phrase that could also be read to mean “take a drastic decision” (“para todo el que al – guna vez tuvo que tomar medidas”) “Like, say, measuring clouds!” We return again, from a different perspective, to the disturbing slippage of reality and the even more ambiguous relationships that technology has with the same.
This work is also related to the idea of measurement but from a very different perspective. It succinctly dovetails wry humour, curious facts, and the production of art, taking us again into one of Cordero’s favourite territories: the ground between painting and video. He sets out, on this occasion, to measure the amount of energy spent while making art, calculating the calories by strapping to his wrist a pulse metre that registers according to the pulsations the number of calories that are being burnt.
He sets himself a series of basic tests, commonplaces in the production of art, either in terms of the execution of a typical genre (seascapes or still-life) or of the completion of characteristic exercises related to the practice of paint ing (size of canvas to be painted, number of elements to be included, the repetition of a work, the use of colour as opposed to black and white).
His conclusions are as follows: painting in colour uses more calories than painting in black and white (he paints the same image twice: one in colour and one in black and white); the more elements introduced into a work the greater the number of calories used (he paints a still-life with 3, 8, 10, and 14 elements); a repeated image burns fewer and fewer calories the more you repeat it (he paints the same seascape once a day for a week); the bigger the size of the work the higher the number of calories used (he paints the same picture in three different sizes).
There is a companion piece that looks at the energy spent in the production of a print, once again using the heart rate monitor, the transmitter, and the wrist receiver. Some activities raise heart rate whilst others slow it down but burn more fat. When the final prints are pulled, the number of calories used is different in the case of each individual print. The record becomes the title of the print and it is silkscreened onto the work.
It is difficult to know how to classify this piece. Is it a documenting of pictorial procedures? Is it a statistical commentary on art production? Is it a game situation where Cordero plays with expectations? Is it a mocking de mythification of the figure of the artist? Is it a humorous take on On Kawara date paintings where the artist succeeds in turning abstract, temporal measurement into the concrete reality, since the numbers and letters function as forms and symbols simultaneously? Or is it simply one more ironic twist on how we can read our world?
One can’t help wondering if the amount of energy spent also affects the price!
LIVE SESSION (2008)
Ideas expressed simply have elegance. Simple ideas dance! Cordero’s constant musings on the possibilities of technology bring him almost inevitably to this project.
Most questions have answers, their problem is whether they manage to convince us? How to drive a car? How to get on in life? How to make video art? What is at issue in this last question is the word “art”. How and when does video become art? This is an issue that has been with us for a long time. One thinks of Baldessari’s Composing on a Canvas (1967-68) where he lists questions to help us study the composition of paintings, or of Michael Asher who has used his work as a means of institutional critique but at the same time as a model for its own economic reproduction. Cor – dero adds his own humorous inventive touch and produces art by appropriating a download in Google that seeks to answer this very same question of how to make video art. His piece follows the process of his question and films the answer as the finished work.
The work tracks the process from the point of sitting down at a computer and putting the question into Google. The answer is shot back immediately with a website belonging to the artist David Rowland, who offers a series of techniques capable of lifting video recording into the desired status of art. The Google search provides this short piece found on YouTube, and Cordero sits back in his chair to watch it!
Rowland instructs and amuses. The exemplary rules he proposes are as follows: jump around a bit in your garden; cut all the frames except the highest parts of the jumps; loop the remaining footage; look at how grass and surroundings shake; use an Image Matt to get rid of all the contact points between the jumper’s feet and the ground; use the Image Matt to put the spinning footage over the garden footage. Once those steps have been completed Rowland tells us “it should look like this”. And if it does, you then have a piece of video art! He signs off with the exhortation, “Now you try”.
Cordero, however, does not try it out in his own terms; the filmic appropriation becomes the work and also ironically the guarantee that it qualifies as art. From my own context in Spain it looked like a parody of Sergio Prego’s work, and perhaps even of its prices! Is the nature of video to be endlessly reproduced? Who, apart from the Cabbalists, can explain seven as a magic number? What does a signed video mean? Would it not be better to sell five hundred for twenty euros each than one for ten thousand?
Yet his own piece, of course, now accumulates its own questions on the way. Is it in fact art? Can you make art with what is a minimal intervention? Is an act of simple appropriation enough? Cordero knows that most of these questions have been answered favourably since the late 60s and what most strikes us is, perhaps, the laid-back humour through which he produces a work for a show, throwing the invitation to produce a work back into the court of the organizers and of the spectators.
This work, I feel, has overtones of Fluxfilms. It is childlike and cunning. I recall Jonas Mekas talking of the tendency in “Nam Paik, Peter Kubelka, George Maciu – nas […] (to do) away with the image itself, where the light becomes the image.”12.
In other words, to make the medium itself into the subject of the film. And one thinks of Paik’s archetypal film, Zen for Film, that took a roll of 16mm clear leader and projected it as a film. All subsequent screenings would collect new scratches and dust particles. I am not, of course, suggesting any direct comparison, since Cordero makes his point through a kind of Keystone Cops comedy situation, but there is a certain parallel disposition to find the questions and make the media do the work.
Cordero’s video pieces use and abuse, install and then destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing back to their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality. They implicitly contest such concepts as aesthetic originality and textual closure, offering a new model for mapping the borderland between art and the world, a model that works from a position within both and yet not totally within either, and one that is still capable of criticizing that which it seeks to describe.
Cordero is, therefore, part of the tradition of the postmodern and the postminimalist. He is part of a context where projections and video screens are presented on and around the walls of the gallery with a clear intention of decentring the viewing subject and pushing him towards an analytical and more distanced viewing. Cordero’s work asks the viewer to become aware of the physical mechanisms and properties of the moving image. Yet, beyond this, there are a number of constants that characterize his video work (closely linked to his painting on many levels in a fluid interchange: his paintings are sometimes constructed as a cinematographic sequence of frames or they deal with the same conceptual idea that he is exploring or has explored in video, and his video images often seem seduced by their painterly quality): firstly he is a conceptual artist engaged with a wide range of imaginative ideas; secondly, he is an artist who consistently emphasizes and evidences process, and shows us again and again how things are done; thirdly, he ques tions both truth and reality; and finally, his work is deeply concerned with human behaviour, with small narrations that reveal who we are, and with the signs and codes through which we interact. There is no wastage or excess to his work. It is succinct and concentrated. It provides food for thought and indulges in what I have called a perverse poetry. Cor dero, like Acconci, likes to tease us into thinking. I am thinking, for example, of Acconci using MoMA as a place to have his mail delivered throughout the duration of the Information show, or his Proximity Piece where he followed people around in the Jewish Museum intruding on their physical space. Cordero ironically subverts and thus creates.
- M. Machado, photocopy from the author (2008) ↩
- Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Boise and Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005), p. 561. ↩
- Op. cit. ↩
- J. Debbaut (ed.), John Baldessari (Eindhoven: Municipal Van Abbemuseum and Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1981), p. 6. ↩
- Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Reconsidering The Object of Art: 1965-1975 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), p. 253 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Raúl Cordero 1996-2002 (University of Salamanca, 2002), p. 61. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- G. Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 266 ↩
- F. Camper, ‘Paul Sharits’, Soho Weekly News, 22, April 1976, p. 32 ↩
- C. Norris, The Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory after Deconstruction (London, Methuen, 1985) ↩
- J. Mekas, Village Voice, 25 June, 1964 ↩