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April 10, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Ignore, defer, and move on?

Maddy Plimmer, Congratulations


My first reaction to Maddy Plimmer’s Congratulations, like (I suspect) many others, is to try to close the window and move on. This is clearly spam; just one of the dozens or hundreds of claims to my attention that I dismiss every day. Ignore, delete, move on.

Then, on a second look, I recognise that there’s more to the image than there first appears. It does resemble an example of the vapid flotsam of the so-called information age — but it’s been rendered analogue, stamped imperfectly. The graininess emphasises the image’s singularity, and while the stamp presumably still exists, this iteration is flawed in ways that other iterations will never exactly match. All of this stands in opposition to the perfect replication of the digital image.

Out of context, rendered subtly human through error, I encounter it as a small human gesture in the face of a society saturated in digital noise. It draws my attention to the effort of ignoring that I put into navigating that society, effort which I do my best to not notice. It suggests a desire for authenticity frustrated through only having access to mass-produced material — a problem which is particularly suggestive if extended to the society as a whole. If all cultural production is sampling and remixing, how could anything be truly innovative? On the other hand, cultures clearly change. Is that purely a consequence of changing material conditions? Is it enough to turn this pop-up into a stamp, or is that just mashing together past and present, preserving the problems of both? How do we get to a future?

Even this more critical and interested reaction, though, feels empty. The initial impulse — to ignore, defer, and move on — has been extended into a new generic response. Rather than categorising the piece as spam, I’ve categorised it as “art.” To do that, I’ve mobilised only knowledges which were familiar. I haven’t learned anything from this experience in its specificity; rather, I’ve taken a set of expectations and fitted the territory to the map. Just like my initial reaction, I’ve minimised my costs.

To learn something or to have an experience that respects the specificity of the piece, perhaps I have to take it entirely seriously. I have to entertain the possibility that I am in fact the 100,000th visitor — that this isn’t a joke. I really am being congratulated. I’m able, through some effort, to make myself feel a vague sense of happiness at the prospect of winning something. Looking again, though, I realise I’ve misread the message; it isn’t actually promising me anything. It’s just congratulating me. There’s no prize. Somehow this doesn’t bother me, which is suggestive. Is it that I’m more interested in success for its own sake than the rewards it might give? Perhaps being singled out from the crowd of 100,000 is itself the reward. Looking closely at the thin sliver of joy I’m feeling, I think it probably does subsist on that desire to be special.

I can only sustain the feeling for a moment before the utopia falls apart. There’s a persistent sense of silliness to my attempt to read the picture naively, and it eventually “kicks me out” of enjoyment. Practical issues also quickly intrude; what about the other 99,999 visitors? Do they know that they’ve missed out? Perhaps the message is haunted by the ghosts of 99,999 other messages: “Condolences! This is not a joke! You are not the 100,000th visitor!” Look closely at the image of the happy face, and you might detect a guilty edge to its otherwise blissful expression.

Still, I’m determined. I eventually settle into a kind of equilibrium, oscillating between a sense of success and the realisation of its meaninglessness. By now I’ve been looking at the page long enough that the looking becomes its own object; look long enough at anything and it turns into a mirror. My sense of meaninglessness in itself raises an interesting question; why is it meaningless? If it’s pointless because it doesn’t feel good — if I try to justify my disinterest on the basis of sensual pleasure — then I’m faced with a challenge. This is the experience I’m having. If I want to maximise my happiness, should I discard this moment and move on to the next, or should I plunge further into this moment and try to extract the most from it as I’m able? The question seems to turn on my expectations of other experiences, but there’s always an element of uncertainty in prediction. Perhaps I’ll discard this moment, feel disappointed, and move on to the next, only to feel the same sense of disappointment and continue on. One could spend a life doing that. Eventually I have to linger over an experience and decide to feel good about it — so why not this one? Like the haunted happy face, the casting of anything as ‘meaningless’ conjures the inevitably spectral figure of ‘meaning’.

In the end, it’s impossible. The equilibrium doesn’t resolve into anything positive; instead, I gradually lose hold of it, and am forced to go elsewhere in search of meaning. Perhaps this is the point; by registering the utopian potential of the image, we’re brought into contact with its impossibility. Perhaps I have to learn to appreciate the process of searching for meaning; turn the search for something into its own object. Viewed in those terms, Congratulations might be recast as a stop along the way — a stage in an endless search.

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