Remember the Being John Malkovich scene in which John Cusack’s character discovers the portal to the inside of Malkovich’s head? He’s at work in that 7 th floor office, surrounded by floor-to-low-ceiling rows of filing cabinets filled with index cards.
It’s his job to put the cards in order. Then, in one leap, he’s in the interior of another man’s brain.
Something similar happens when walking among the 2,000 cardboard boxes that make up the installation Archive, in which co-creators Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson are living until June 20. Each of the carefully but imperfectly stacked boxes is nearly identical—painted orange, sealed with packing tape and adorned with a black-and-white label sticker—except for the presumed contents, which are scribbled on the labels. Purposeful, even earnest in its efforts to corral the chaos of life, the archive is put together just as our homes and offices are: Boxes are smudged and contents are written with different pens; some of the words are circled, blacked out or changed. The piece seems to be a meditation on how we organize our lives.
Then I read the labels and am propelled into an entirely different kind of space. It is a much wackier, more random, personal space, ordered by concepts like “plans for my next confrontation,” “nail biting: suggested causes of” and “King, Burger.” And it sends me away from my questions about how we order our lives, straight to the point that the structures by which we do so are very, very different from the way we order our minds.
Human memory, it’s suddenly obvious, isn’t anything like filing cabinets.
It’s more like a Google search—but a loosey-goosey version in which nothing is verbatim. Everything is mediated by emotion and made up of clusters of thoughts, feelings, and associations that can form and dissolve so fluidly we barely notice them.
The labels, utterly out of place in the stacks, starkly display how complete the difference is between information and memory, and use language to reveal what is rarely stored as language. It’s a strange space where the two meet. It’s even stranger to observe the confounded ways they generate thought and action. With the artists living and moving inside their loose maze of boxes—literally existing within a structure built of their own ideas—these telling connections emerge. On a platform, table and drafting table set up within the piles, the artists go about their daily business: writing emails, listening to the radio. This is life in the Information Age. Information is being ignored, yet it’s still there, the stuff of the walls themselves, passively directing our movements through them. Ideas generate, shape and limit our actions. Of course, such walls are necessary; what’s disturbing is that they’re so often invisible.
On the drafting table, an inprogress diagram attempts to map the concepts—each in a bubble with arrows pointing to others and connecting them to meta-categories such as “philosophy” and “minutia.” This will be transferred to mylar and painted, forming one of the colorful bubble diagrams for which Shelley is known. Several of these are semi-concurrently on view at Launchprojects, in an exhibition of Shelley’s finished paintings.
But despite their graphic dynamism and wit, these pieces pale beside the encompassing experience of the installation, somehow seeming too glib and too polished. It’s as if something had been distilled so thoroughly that it disappeared completely. Pieces like “Rock Genres,” an array of colored ovals that link all manner of modern music forms to one another, and even the visually stunning “Chelsea Girls,” come off like magazine quizzes. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.
The failure to record experience is inevitable, no matter how adeptly we map, order or categorize it. Maybe, in capturing the particular way in which American culture fails at this effort, Shelley succeeds in shifting a few boxes in the pile, opening a space to walk through and see something new.