Frooty Loops

When I feel the need for inspiration (more accurately the need to avoid working on my projects) I turn to the handful of artbooks I own. More often than not I end up feeling rewarded for taking myself so far afield of what I “ought” to be writing and studying, as this reading tends to detonate new thoughts that help unlock whatever I’ve been stuck on.

In that sense I need to single out the work of Alex Potts. His writing offers a compelling understanding of modern art that takes us away from common narratives of an easy realism vs. modernism polarization. His book The Sculptural Imagination strongly argues that while modernist sculpture deflated the old ideal of the “whole” work, its own petty-bourgeois libetarian illusions of autonomy were brought into question by the Minimalist sculpture trend. And it’s this movement in particular that Potts helped me to appreciate, in particular this passage about loops and looping.

At issue here is also the rhythmic inflection, or lack of it, in the kind of viewing invited by Minimalist work. When Fried describes the sense of ‘duration’ involved as ‘something endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example’, he is drawing attention to a sense of looping central to the conception of Minimalist sculpture. Any viewing of a three-dimensional work involves some form of repetitive looping—as one moves right round a work back to the position where one was first standing, or moves in closer and gets absorbed by various local effects of surface shaping and texture and shadowing and then steps back again. The rhythm of such viewing has something of the sense of passing through repeated circuits, which may be more or less regular, more or less expansive, more or less open or closed. A Minimalist work tends to foreground the sense of looping because there are not many variegated incidents in the circuits one traverses, and because the work’s relatively simple spatial configuration invites a similarly simple structuring of one’s pattern of viewing.

Potts’s argument makes a great point later on that, yes, the loops of Minimalism can become boring, but maximalism (like in a Pynchon meganovel) can lead to its own kind of boredom. The “arbitrarily rich variety of incident” actually achieves monotony as all the patterns get flattened into a homogenous flow of sensations. 

Looping is located in the temporal dimension of communing with a work of art. Imagine walking around one of Andre’s heavy metal grids, noticing how the specks reflected in the gallery’s spotlight change in the square units on the floor as your angle of sight gradually shifts. The horizontality of these sheets is quite radical compared to the traditional Venus on a pedestal, but the reduction helps you to appreciate these teeny-tiny variegated incidents, produced by metal units that simply exist as material, without pretending to be anything else. Eventually you may imagine yourself as the artist who laid down these tiles into an array—does the work still exist as such when it is disassembled and in storage?

These circuits that are fundamental to sculpture & 3D art must be present in other media as well.

Minimalist music is an obvious candidate, both the Steve Reich style of overlapping looped phrases that incrementally phase into a new arrangement, as well as the “Holy” minimalism of Arvo Pärt, like the famous Spiegel im Spiegel whose sparse composition for piano and a string musician demands absolute perfection (and traditionally no vibrato for the violin, but perhaps on the cello it can’t be avoided). The “heartbeats” of the piano’s outlined major triads paired with the “long breaths” of the bowing may constitute units of loops.

Erik Satie’s La Socrate premiered the same year as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and it also apparently caused a riot. The piece is an experimental recitative with a soprano singing continuously over a series of riffs from either a piano or an orchestra. People didn’t even want to consider it music at the time! (I’ll link to the third movement only because it’s my personal favorite and I think it the best showcase.)

Even with the drone tones of ambient electronica or doom metal, it’s as if my ears could periodize their stretched out notes with the peaks and valleys of the long oscillations of the various filter effects.

What about film? Looking back on MEMORIA, there is a sequence late in the narrative that is so decisively dead in terms of on-screen action or narrative incident (a character “dies,” or decides to be temporarily dead), sending the audience into a kind of sympathetic collective rigor mortis. We were entranced, yet aware that every second was irrevocably passing by. I seemed to turn my attention back to my own breathing as I sat in the theater. And yet, that scene still cuts between a few views of the scene and ambient sound effects played throughout. 

Bela Tarr’s movies often keep the camera position fixed while the landscape empties itself of any agent, and I’ve noticed that in this situation I like to make “loops” with my eyeballs, and trace clockwise circuits around the inside of the frame, since there are no pretty actor faces to direct my gaze. SATANTANGO has an engaging plot, almost like a crime caper, especially at the beginning, but it is also at the frontier between narrative cinema and video art—some of these moments of dead time and dead space could be clipped and shown in a gallery on continuous loop.

Finally, there is one cultural area where the operation of loops is obvious and crucial. Let’s turn away from high culture and dive into kitschy paperback horror.

I contend that slashers, creature features, and horror stories of the FINAL DESTINATION type are based on loops, specifically, the string of kills. In Michael McDowell’s THE AMULET, the titular piece of jewelry ends up switching hands (sometimes via comical rube-goldbergian mechanics) and people who find themselves wearing it become emotionally dysregulated and at the slightest provocation go on a killing spree, usually by weaponizing a household item. This pattern repeats itself until a whole Alabama small town gets leveled. Similar is Graham Masterton’s GHOST VIRUS, though the mechanics are a little more elaborate: a haunted article of clothing can take over the personality of the victim who wears it, and the victim takes on the ghost’s resentments and antipathies—and acquires a hunger for flesh. You can guess there’s plenty of room for variegated effects in all of these steps and elements.

Quite a productive understanding of art, thanks to Potts.