by Patrick Langley
ICA LONDON |OCTOBER 4, 2017 – JANUARY 7, 2018
The title of Seth Price’s solo show at the ICA, Circa 1981, suggests that Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which began that year, provides the thematic framework of the exhibition as a whole. Reagan’s transition from screen presence to President, his contempt for federal government, and his aggressive program of financial deregulation have come to seem, in 2017, like a dress rehearsal for the gaudy horror-show of Donald Trump’s first term. Yet Price’s engagement with this historical touchstone, as evidenced by this exhibition, is superficial. Throughout his career, Price has pursued an interest in what he has called “the flatness of the image” in the digital age, both in terms of formal qualities, such as pixelation, and new modes of distribution. The cultural and political ramifications of this technological sea change are serious and far-reaching. Price’s preoccupation with surface appearances, however, has resulted in a body of works that can feel glib in isolation, relying on a scaffolding of theoretical texts—such as his very own influential 2002 essay “Dispersion” on the subject of internet distribution—to achieve any depth of meaning.
Although Price has worked in sculpture, video, music, text, performance, textiles, web design, and drawing, Circa 1981 is a survey of his film and video works. With its array of screens hung from ceilings and mounted on walls, the show has the feel of an idiosyncratic YouTube channel translated into three-dimensional form. The result is a show that favours medium specificity over thematic unity, with alternately engaging and frustrating results. It features music videos collaged from ISIS propaganda and home movie footage; filmed lectures spliced with CGI animations and stock photography; off-the-cuff experiments in digital video manipulation; flickering 16mm films of computer-animated waves; a hypnotic materialist video of a squid’s skin filmed in extreme close-up; and playthroughs of retro computer games. Price performs scripts for several of the films. In them, he adopts sardonic personas that manage to be amusing and annoying at once.
Price’s most successful videos track a shrewd course through his chosen strata of media history. The transition from analogue to digital formats accelerated during the 1980s—the Commodore 64, the biggest selling single-model home computer ever made, was released in January 1982—suggests that Price’s interest in surface images, corralled beneath the rubric of the exhibition’s title, belies a deeper concern with the societal changes such technologies have wrought. Industrial Synth (2000) is one example of this media-critical bent. In the video, Price soundtracks the rudimentary graphics of an early role-playing game with a script rich in Romantic imagery of the pastoral sublime and allusions to Manifest Destiny. “You must be the first person to ever have discovered this place,” Price intones. Industrial Synth’s pairing of video games and nativist imagery feels prescient. It predates by several years the massive popularity of the “Let’s Play” genre of online video game playthroughs, which have turned YouTube vloggers such as Pewdiepie, who is fond of making “edgy” racist jokes, into multi-millionaires.
Triumf (2000) again explores the connection between right-wing ideology and the mythic authenticity of pastoral life. In this parody of a Republican campaign advert, Price plays an impish caricature of Midwestern machismo: a Paul Bunyan-esque, axe-wielding woodsman who claims to be Reagan’s “drinking buddy.” The video strikes a more alarming note than perhaps it once did, not least because its title reads like a garbled spelling of “Trump,” and that the script could so easily be referring to the current president. “I’m not talking about some shyster who besmirched the name of this nation’s highest office,” says Price. The deeper question, now that Trump is president, is whether Price’s approach, which thrives on a sense of ironic detachment, is adequate to tackling such weighty subject matter.
An issue with Price’s weaker videos is that they reproduce, rather than offer, meaningful critiques of the numbing abundance of images in the digital age. The imagery he selects is often crude and degraded and presented in half-baked, rudimentary ways. Modern Suite (2002) comprises a bleary slideshow of low-resolution images of children’s playgrounds. Rather than offering an incisive critique along the lines of Hito Steyerl’s influential 2009 essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” the film underscores the class-clown immaturity evident in other aspects of Price’s work. In the transcript of his video Redistribution (2007 – ongoing), published online to coincide with Circa 1981, Price declares: “I’m like a person who makes things. You do it one after another, unending. […] Such a lot of things!” The studied flippancy smacks of pre-emptive defensiveness, as though Price, in art-world prankster mode, hopes to neutralise critique by claiming he was joking all along.
The extent of the artist’s investment in his own work is therefore brought into question. Throughout Circa 1981, Price takes found images—many of them produced by other artists or photographers—and re-presents them with minimal context, attribution, or alteration, as though the act of appropriation speaks for itself. In Two For One Piece, aka “Global Taste, A Meal in 3 Courses” (Element 1, by Martha Rosler, 1985) (2002), Price re-presents one channel of the titular Rosler work, which was originally a three-channel video installation. Rosler’s piece is a delirious (not delicious) collage of hundreds of food commercials. Price knowingly appropriates a work that itself appropriates existing material, inviting the viewer to question how video distribution networks and the institutional frameworks that rely on them can disrupt the value of artistic authorship. This is a risky strategy. I was left feeling more impressed and unsettled by Rosler’s original video than Price’s conceptual re presentation of it.
In his written work and performance lectures, Price justifies his kleptomaniacal approach by framing it as an interrogation of authenticity and originality. He belongs to an artistic lineage including Sturtevant, Richard Prince, and, more recently, “copyleft” activists such as Kenneth Goldsmith. In Dispersion, Price lists the artistic opportunities offered by the internet: “contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur.” Fifteen years later, however, these words read less like an electrifying ode to digital liberty than a confession of misplaced faith in a system that is seriously flawed. In an era of fake news, filter bubbles, and the rise the alt-right on social media, the internet seems less a carefree playground of cultural iconoclasm than a swamp of toxic politics. In contrast to the heady democratic ideals of the internet’s early days, Reagan’s libertarian bent finds its ugly apotheosis online. The title of Price’s exhibition—with its nods to Reaganism and the dawn of the digital era—hints towards a useful and timely analysis of how America wound up in the state it’s in, but it never quite delivers on that promise.
Patrick Langley is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.