Originally Published In:
by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo
Siracusa, Italy, 1989.
Double Talk.
Quantity and Immanence.
Allan McCollum
in a conversation with Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo

Allan McCollum.
Over Ten Thousand
Individual Works.
1987/88. Enamel
on Hydrocal, hand cast.
Average 2" x 5" each.

Allan McCollum.
Perpetual Photos.
Silver Gelatin Prints.

Allan McCollum.
Surrogates on Location:
Photo from TV with Painting.

Silver Gelatin Prints.

It should be noted that each of Allan McCollum's Perpetual Photos is based on or derived from a parallel series of works, Photo from TV with Painting. In other words, the latter works serve as the source (or source-situation) for the former works. The Photo(s) from TV with Painting are literally just that: photographs of scenes from TV shows or news events that include a painting or paintings in them. It is this painting or paintings, which usually go unperceived or unnoticed in the 'scene', that are then isolated and magnified to become the presiding element or focus of the Perpetual Photos. In effect, the secondary or background material of the Photo from TV with Painting, which, in a sense, functions as the latent or subliminal content of the image, is transformed, through this process of hyper-isolation and magnification, i.e., 'refamiliarization,' into the primary or foreground material of the Perpetual Photo, which becomes now the manifest, de-sublimated content of the image. This procedure objectifies the experience of looking more deeply or closely at the stream of phenomena and 'values' that are being presented to the surface layer of perception. Even where such examination yields, in its specificity, ambiguous results (witness the amorphous forms that constitute the content of the Perpetual Photos ), nevertheless it emphasizes, in general, the principle that perception constitutes itself as a social construct, a mutable percept that is not only the outcome of facts but is subject to the process of facts, interpretation, the exigencies of temporality, and, more often than not, a hermeneutic that is generated by special interests. In this regard, the Perpetual Photos serve structurally and specifically as a telling comment upon the source situation of the 'original' photograph (Photo from TV with Painting). The fact that the 'commentary' yields generally an opaque content speaks to the absurdity of the 'situation-comedy' of the Social, and ultimately, to the threshold-conditions of the mortal predicament. (C. & M.)

Whatever specific meaning the artist puts into a work, it will always retain its promise as a gift, its destiny as a keepsake. This is the artwork I am interested in making: an object filled with the absence of certain meaning, and yet rich with the quality of meaningfulness in and of itself.

— Allan McCollum, 1989.

COLLINS & MILAZZO: What role does the human element play in relation to the commodity or to commodity art in the contemporary world?

ALLAN McCOLLUM: We have come to consider "human" to mean all that we are which is not mechanical: spontaneous, expressive, passionate, and reflective. When we require of our art that it embody such humanity, we are asking the machine to not only determine for us what art can be, but also what it means to be one who looks to art for meaning. It doesn't make sense to do battle against the imagined encroachment of the machine into the human soul with an art that depends upon the machine to determine its qualities.

COLLINS & MILAZZO: If ''quality" was the seminal issue in the Greenbergian model, perhaps 'quantity' is the critical dimension for our generation. Could you comment on this notion?

ALLAN McCOLLUM: It is not only through the arts that our culture expresses itself. It is through all its efforts: its laws and its wars, its marking of class boundaries and its distribution of goods. The methods of mass-production, for instance, are an elaborately choreographed expression, a grand dramatization of an intimately shared wish: a wish to be as productive as nature, to procreate and replicate as well as the natural world which bears us. Art holds its mirror up to nature, yes, of course. But commerce also performs this mimicry in an equally energetic way.

COLLINS & MILAZZO: Could you explain briefly, in the most general way, the concept, or rather, the function or value, of a "surrogate" work of art?

ALLAN McCOLLUM: In a world without mass-produced symbolic objects, we would have little need for the contrary concept of the unique artwork. But in our world, we are always working to protect the integrity of the unique against its debasement by the replica, to make defense against the threat of plenitude by retreating into the solace of scarcity. But if we could come to embrace the mechanisms that drive our passions, and understand these along with the passions that animate our machines—maybe then we could begin to look for an art which is both repetitive and expressive, both copy and original, both abundant and precious: an art to embody both the horror and the promise of modern life, without shrinking from either.

COLLINS & MILAZZO: What relation, if any, obtains between desire and meaning in today's culture?

ALLAN McCOLLUM: It's fascinating and touching that people work so hard to build an imminent meaning into things; that they pursue their desire to produce symbolic objects for themselves to keep, and to exchange with others. In our culture, an artwork is an object of this kind; and whatever specific meaning the artist works to put into it, it will always retain its promise as a gift, its destiny as a keepsake. This is the artwork I am interested in making: an object filled with the absence of certain meaning, and yet rich with the quality of meaningfulness in and of itself.

What comes across in a lot of your work is an unabashed optimism for the potential of art. At the same time you have enthusiastically supported certain younger artists regarded by other critical thinkers of our generation to be devoutly cynical in their outlook. What is your view of those who see only cynicism in the work of today's younger artists?

COLLINS & MILAZZO: In certain situations, cynicism can function as a generative principle in culture—a mode of self-effacing, or rather, self-critical, critique. The line dividing the meta-dimensions of critique from a form of self reflexive, tautological nihilism, is perhaps negligible. But, then again, neither are we opposed to nihilism, or at least, to certain 'working' (non) models of it. The point is, however, that we do not view our "optimism for the potential of art" as being in opposition to cynicism; or, more accurately, we do not view this potential as being antithetical to actuality, to the actualities of desire, Value, and closure in the 'late' world. In this scheme, 'late' worlds and 'recent' worlds are constantly colliding. However, there are all kinds of 'cynicism, ' and perhaps what you are referring to is more a product of projection on the part of certain critics or of a certain kind of 'critical ' intelligence. But this mentality has more to do with the critic's own feelings of passivity or incapacity to effect a vision of their own or to deal honestly with the facts of a situation as it goes down. There is also a great deal of resentment in relation to the art and artists who are able to effect paradigmatic changes. Usually, critics get stuck in one place, usually a very moralistic place, and then burn out. Part of this (resentment) is 'natural, ' but part of it is simply the outcome of standing 'outside' and looking in, pretending, or worse, believing, that they have objectively distanced themselves from the art and the artists, and that somehow they are standing in the center of a very special place—a distanced, objective world. But, in fact, they have simply internalized or sublimated their incapacities to deal with experience and the actualities of the world—which they then, after the fact, justify ideologically and morally. The clean, minute world of distanced objectivities that they have constructed for themselves is actually elitist in character, ironically self-privileging, but ultimately, ineffectual and littered with false projections and empty, impertinent values.

ALLAN McCOLLUM: Your writing has always been marked by an exaggerated attention to style. Recently, critical texts have been looked at from a literary model—with a view to the ideological implications of their rhetorical devices. Can you talk about how the way you write reflects your underlying concerns about art, how your writing style impacts on the issues you deem important to you?

COLLINS & MILAZZO: There is a pragmatic and a theoretical answer to your question. Pragmatically, when we started to write 'art criticism' (in 1982), if this is what it can be called, much of the art we sponsored or supported, either had no audience, or was unknown, unappreciated, or simply, ignored. We, on the contrary, were inspired by this 'new' work—and, quite frankly, allowed that work to un abashedly infect our "style" with new possibilities. While it is unfashionable in the art world to speak of new possibilities, inspiration, vision, creativity, and especially, originality, or basically a generative, or what Lucio Pozzi calls a ''regenerative,'' approach, this was the case at the time—and still is, at least for us. Artists are constantly constructing new situations for themselves, trying to find a way out of certain discourses, or a way into others, even as they get trapped trying, ultimately, to find a way into their 'own' discourse. But no discourse is fully one's own, nor is there any excuse for not trying to reinvent color or the alphabet. Convention and desire play into each other's hands. Both win and both lose. The only thing you can be sure of is that you will be both brutalized by the process and inspired by it. But it is incumbent upon the critic to become engaged by the process, at the very least—either reflexively, which is usually the case, that is, where the art and the artist lead the way, or absurdly, and more unusually, where the critic, or rather, ''critical thinker,'' dreams that he or she is helping to construct a dynamic 'critical' (in the sense of 'crisis') situation, where in art may thrive. The latter involves a form of willful, even violent, innocence—if it is to survive against the odds of the status quo, fashionability, 'politics,' and general cultural inertia. A theoretical, and far less 'honest, 'answer to your question is that we never believed in art criticism. It is too academic, too removed, too falsely objective and objectifying, too discreet and subsidiary and yet too self-deceivingly and passively opportunistic. It is a form of 'graduate schoolism,' especially as it is practiced by right-wing Marxists. But ultimately, it is simply too inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. It has even less of a chance to matter than art itself in the larger world of the Social. Perceptively, you have not referred to us as art critics, nor to our work as art criticism; instead you speak of ''critical thinkers," and simply of "writing." In the past, we have referred to ourselves as 'advocates' and to our critical work as 'anti-criticism.' This was partly due to a blatant rejection of the given (as described above) critical and art historical models, that is, the small-worldism [sic] of professional agendas, and, in part, to a personal fascination with setting a precedent for other, less legitimate and legitimizing, and more active modes of perception and criticality. A personal fascination that was steeped deeply, and, in part, generated by, the 'impersonal' or expansive beauty and innovation of the art we proudly advocated. Rather than comply with the 'model ' for these things, for meaning and ethics, we have always chosen to test the limits of the rational, to try the de-stabilizing thresholds of meaning, rather than accept the lure of meaning per se and its reifications, and to adopt, when confronted by the conscience and consciousness of a moral code, an absurd ethic. And ultimately, to chance the actuality of closure over the rhetoric of correct positions.

Exchanges between Allan McCollum,
Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo
made in 1989, New York.

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