Preliminary Descriptions: Germaine Koh


4w 2d a/c


[Parallel rows of silver car lot tinsel span McMaster Museum's largest gallery. These rows are slightly skewed in relation to the room's grid, as though the built architecture were intersecting with some more expansive spatial system. Watching the lengths of tinsel flutter overhead — continuously below the air output ducts, just barely in other areas — one also becomes aware of the sound of the air circulation system in operation. This tinsel is used by car dealerships to discourage birds; that is, its shimmering effect is a tool for keeping things in motion. In this case , its movement makes visible some of the building's hidden systems while also conflating the ceremonial, ecstatic, expectant character of exhibition and commercial spaces.]


One presumes workers in the tinsel factory are impish and content, always singing. After all, workers in the candy factory hum and sway and smile as their pudgy fingers work the simple machines, and tinsel is merely visual candy, candy by other means. (At Christmas-time our mother would tell us that the tinsel should be applied to the tree strand by individual strand. But this seemed unlikely, and impossible. When she left the room we'd toss handfuls, 'til clumps of the stuff dripped from almost every branch.)  But tinsel is not merely decorative — it is used to control static electricity in many industrial processes — and so the workers in the tinsel factory are more properly morose.

Architecture tries to be a serious thing, but everyone knows it has become a ridiculous endeavour: pompous, morally bankrupt, sleazy. Any child can arrange rooms in rows and stacks. But not even a prodigy (not even Mozart) can install a ventilation system.  Engineering is serious business. It takes expertise. When people with expertise tell us about their specialty we tell them it's fascinating, by which we mean possibly fascinating to someone, but not to us. This false claim of fascination is an apology for our boredom, our rejection of complexity, and of process. Now we are nodding and smiling. Later we'll complain of the noise and inefficiency.





[Pledge is an edition of copper tokens, each bearing the words "I WILL". The tokens may serve as an alternate form of currency, a sort of promissory note for recognizing non-commercial exchanges, particularly social bonds of trust that elude quantification. These coins have no "flip side";  instead, astract intentions may be concretized by actually putting them to use. The tokens circulate quietly, formalizing personal gestures and marking moments of individual interaction — small changes.]

Jacques Derrida has lived too long. In recent photographs his head is tilted forward and down, but his gaze is pushed forward and up. He looks at the camera, his eyes receding  behind huge, feathery eyebrows. He resembles an owl — his little beak seems to be smiling — but really he has become a vampire. A vampire in Paris and the Pacific cliffs of those huge California universities. He doesn't read any more. He carries all relevant texts in his head and accesses them as speech rather than writing. No books, and no menus.  At restaurants others order for him, though he has not much of an appetite. (Sometimes he eats mice and other small rodents. Still, he is not an owl for he does not spit up the bones.) He doesn't read and he doesn't write. He mumbles elaborately. He writes his name over and over. His pen is filled with the blood of other people: Plato, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze. It's a fountain pen, and the fountain is endless.

To give what one does not have. How can one give what one does not have?  Give conditionally: give as another, give something which does not really exist, or exists as an abstraction, eluding all wrapping paper. No refusal is possible.





[A counter embedded in the wall responds predictably, reassuringly, when the button below it is pushed.]


A machine that counts is an intelligent machine, though not, I guess, in the sense Turing meant. A machine that registers nothing but the deployment of its own (counting) mechanism is a self-reflexive machine. And, unless one's diction is very refined, self-reflexion might as well be self-reflection. So Koh's machine must possess, if only in some limited aspect, consciousness such as puppets possess, and pebbles if they are shaped like something else.

Forget interactivity and remember Skinner. B. F. Skinner: experimental psychologist, behaviourist, box-maker. Lawful behaviour: behaviour that under the same experimental conditions occurs again and again; predictable future behaviour. Like a rat in a box pushing a lever to get a food pellet.No more free behaviour. Freedom of choice comes with the installation of a second lever: chocolate or raspberry. Engineered behaviour. One becomes a happier rat, self-actualized.

A button is pressed, the machine records the event as a numerical sequence (x+1): counting. The machine counts and we count, too. We must verify that the machine counts us in, acknowledges our behaviour, records it. Closed systems are the most rewarding. Behaviours with predictable outcomes can be relaxing, as therapeutic as little miracles.





[For several months, a metal post is planted in the middle of a well-worn walking path. During this time the path splits, wearing two smaller streams around the pole and flowing back together on the other side. An island of grass might even begin to grow at its base. When the post is removed, the path finds its own place again. Like a primitive poll, the pole is a measure of popular movement.]


Is Poll part of this exhibition? I don't know and I don't care — I'll write about it anyway, because, like many public interventions, Poll's existence as an artwork is problematic. It exists in two separate, competing instances. The first instance is the physical deployment of the piece, which posits a hapless viewer, unaware that art is in the vicinity. It appears along a common path, as enigmatic as some stranger's practical joke, and causes our hapless viewer to change their path. In the second instance the piece is not physically present and is apprehended in retrospect. Those who apprehend the work in its second instance know what is going on. They are not hapless but, possibly, savvy. (Sometimes, people refer to works like this as "conceptual.")

The work asks that it be experienced — impossibly — as if it were not an artwork. As soon as we know it exists as an artwork we become savvy and must posit a hapless, ignorant surrogate and experience the work speculatively, through them. Its physical manifestation becomes secondary to its conceptual. It circulates as an idea, a rumour. It is best enjoyed, like most things, at a remove. The art-lover's experience of the work is necessarily parasitical, and the parasite always condescends toward its host.





[Begun in February 1992, Knitwork is a life-long piece made by my unravelling used garments and reknitting the yarn into a single continuously growing object. As it records the ongoing passage of time and effort, the work becomes a monument to the very artifacts that comprise it. At the same time, it is a public manifestation of mundane activity and a confirmation of the massiveness of everyday labour. As a visual record of the passage of time, the details of the piece incidentally register variations in my process, and through these one can retrace a history of decisions. Although the slow accumulation of layers of obsolete goods might recall geological processes, the limits of the piece are actually human; the work will be finished when I cease (to be). It is both sublime and resolutely absurd, both excessive and banal, both rigorous and formless; in other words, it is a practical test of the imagination.]


Odysseus has been away — lost — for years. Unwanted suitors have become impatient and are pestering Penelope for an answer. One complains to her son Telemakhos:

Here is an instance of her trickery:
she had her great loom standing in the hall
and the fine warp of some vast fabric on it;
we were attending her, and she said to us:
"Young men, my suitors, now my lord is dead,
let me finish my weaving before I marry,
or else my thread will have been spun in vain.
It is a shroud I weave for Lord Laertes,
when cold death comes to lay him on his bier.
The country wives would hold me in dishonour
if he, with all his fortune, lay unshrouded."
We have men's hearts; she touched them; we agreed.
So every day she wove on the great loom —
but every night by torchlight she unwove it:
and so for three years she deceived the Akhaians.
But when the seasons brought the fourth around,
one of her maids, who knew the secret, told us;
we found her unraveling the splendid shroud.
She had to finish then, although she hated it.


Penelope uses labour — making publically, unmaking in secret — as a deferment, to buy time. Her three years' labour, despite the fact that nothing was produced, cannot properly be termed non-productive. She deferred her husband's death. Penelope's labour parallels Sisyphus's. In this light, it seems he didn't have it so bad after all. (Camus was wrong about everything.) When the rock rolled down the hill, it gave him a nice break.  Imagine instead an infinite incline. If Penelope were a god and not a mortal, she could've kept working on her burial shroud forever. She wouldn't've had to bother with the nightly unraveling. The tapestry would grow until large enough to shroud (enshroud?) all the dead. (Life project.)


Does she intend to keep us dangling forever?

She may rely too long on Athena's gifts —

Talent in handicraft and a clever mind;

So cunning —

— Homer, "Book II," Homer's Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald