“Ask the Stone to Say”

On February 21, 2017, I published a conversation with artist David Horvitz in Triple Canopy about the standardization of time, space, communication, and the rhythms of our bodies. The conversation began in earnest in the summer of 2014 and was conducted via email, text message, telephone, postcard, and word processor, as well as in person. We cover ancient Egyptian astrology and atomic clocks, the auditory landscapes of nineteenth-century villages and the contemporary landscapes offered by geostationary satellites; we ask how to recover forms of experience and interaction that now seem antiquated or implausible.

What follows is an excerpt; read the entire conversation here.

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“Just Words”

In the summer of 2016, the artist Paul Ramirez Jonas mounted Public Trust, an interactive artwork hinging on promises made by participants (and circulated via billboard, rubbing, photo, and social media), at three sites in Boston. For the ensuing book, Paul Ramirez Jonas: Public Trust (APC, 2017), I wrote an account of the work—a report on the experiences of the work by others, a reflection on my efforts to come up with a satisfactory oath, an essay on the relationship between language and reality in the so-called post-truth era.

The book can be purchased here, and the essay can be read in full below.

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“What Do We Know?”

In the February–March 2017 issue of Mousse, I published “What Do We Know?,” an essay about art in the so-called post-truth era, philology in the op-ed pages, the comparative merits of The Purge: Election Year and Hamilton: An American Musical, the likelihood of political promises being enforced via blockchain, and what might be lost if we strive to Make America Ancient Greece Again. The essay considers works by Victor Klemperer, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Zoe Leonard, Adam Curtis, Paul Chan, and Giorgio Agamben. The essay is currently only available in the print edition, but here is the beginning (and here is a PDF):

Late last year, following Donald Trump’s promotion to the most powerful office on the planet, the artist Paul Chan published “New No’s”, a postelection free-verse “protest against the drift of American society towards what is most un- American.” He wrote: “No to clickbait as culture / No to news as truths / No to art as untruths / … No meaning without meaning / No means no.” To me, this signaled a tectonic shift in culture as a response—perhaps the only viable response— to the desecration of language and disregard for empiricism that are Trump’s hallmarks.

Perhaps battle lines are needed. But can we decry dissimulation in general without giving up the right to fabricate, falsify, impersonate, and otherwise use words to deform and disfigure the world? After all, we can’t quarantine politics—which ideally hinges on the credibility of speech—from brands of art and entertainment that are inclined to skewer popular notions of sincerity, transparency, and, well, “meaning.” Instead of striving to Make America Ancient Greece Again, I wonder, as I skim the torrent of articles questioning the role of art and artists, if we might seek a balance between premodern politics and postmodern sensibilities.

“Unknown Makers”

In the October 2016 issue of Art in America, I published “Unknown Makers,” an essay about how, as digital technologies enable increasingly accurate reproductions of artworks, museums—as well as artists and lawyers—are grappling with the complex aesthetic, legal, and political implications of copying. The essay ranges from the Met’s copyist program to Courbet to the “piratic Enlightenment” to Oliver Laric to legal dilemmas regarding 3-D printing to Mahayana Buddhism to Nefertiti to Duane Linklater. An excerpt:

I may enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sketchbook and pencil in hand, and walk through the stately hallways until I arrive in gallery 811, where Gustave Courbet’s The Source (1862) hangs. I may take a seat on the glossy wood bench, place the sketchbook on my lap, train my eyes on the nude woman whose arms thrust into a cascade of spring water, and attempt the most perfect copy. I may not use ballpoint pens, ink, markers, fountain pens, or watercolors, but I may use crayon, pastel, or charcoal if I’m on a supervised tour that grants permission. I may not photograph the painting, even as I witness visitors momentarily pause between me and The Source, elevate iPhones, and blithely jab thumbs into screens. I may have to fight the urge to hiss at the offenders, such is my concern for this institution being turned into a classy Instagram backdrop.

“The Sound of Digital Spaces”: Interview with Kunstkritikk

On November 15, 2016, the Nordic online art magazine Kunstkritikk published an interview with me, which focuses on my recent sound work Subjective Assessment. Below is the interview in its entirety.


Alexander Provan, writer and editor of the web journal and publishing house Triple Canopy, recently visited Oslo on the occasion of Norsk sakprosafestival (the Norwegian Non-fiction Festival). At a panel debate at Litteraturhuset Saturday 29 October– alongside writer Ola Innset and the artistic director of Kunsthall Oslo, Will Bradley – Provan addressed questions such as how our social relations and patterns of behaviour are shaped by digital technology. The discussion highlighted the pressing need to reflect on the problematic aspects of this technological development. One of the key questions for Provan is the way digital file formats govern how we perceive the world. In connection with this discussion he presented the sound work Reality Formatting (2015–2016). The work explores some of the problems caused by digitalization, but also its positive aspects – such as the improved opportunities for distributing and accessing various forms of content.

In Reality Formatting we follow a so-called expert listener as he assesses audio material that has undergone various forms of compression. The work documents the process that sound undergoes when it is digitized, thereby foregrounding how digital standardization, which claims to be neutral, independent of all politics and ideologies, actually encompasses a considerable social component. Who decides what the sounds we are presented with should sound like? Provan identifies the ideal listener who has been a key factor in the creation of widespread audio formats: the audiophile, middle-aged Western man. In what ways does his cultural background and preferences affect the spectrum of sensory experiences available to us?

After the event, Kunstkritikk met Provan for a talk about standardization of sound and the technical, historical and social conditions that govern it.

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Review of the Eleventh Gwangju Biennale

On October 7, 2016, I published a review of the Eleventh Gwangju Biennale in the online magazine 4Columns. An excerpt:

Like so many exhibitions and publications in the past several years, the eleventh Gwangju Biennale—The Eighth Climate: (What does art do?)—assesses the agency of art at a time when artists seem at once to be newly powerful and notably powerless: as avatars of the creative class, their social stature and economic function are impressive, yet their ability to shape the world beyond MFA syllabi and investment portfolios remains dubious.

Maria Lind, the curator of this gargantuan exhibition—101 artists in twelve venues, not to mention two catalogues, a school, a blog, a bookshop, and several forums, meetings, and other events—approaches the question of art’s agency from a number of complementary angles. The show’s title comes from the twelfth-century Persian philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, who conceived of an “imaginal” realm that exists alongside the intelligible, spiritual, and material ones; those who are sufficiently wise can enter this “eighth clime” and gain powers such as prophesy, as well as access a fund of images that sits between the physical and mental universes. The implication is that art might see and show us the world differently, mold minds in doing so, and ultimately reshape the world without directly acting on it.

“Getting Closer to the Source”

In the second issue of Accessions, the online journal of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, I published “Getting Closer to the Source,” a project that consists of a narrative and two videos and has to do with audiophile culture and the pursuit of realism in the reproduction of sound. An excerpt:

You’ve never heard anything like it. You hear the whole sound first. And when you catch your breath you search for words to describe the depth, the detail, the etched precision of the music. That stunning pair of three-way speakers is sending clean, undistorted sound to every corner of the room. At every frequency. At every level. Loud or soft. High or low. It doesn’t matter. The energy is constant. You’re experiencing three-dimensional imaging: vocal up front. Lead guitar two steps back and one to the left. Drums further back. The piano closer, almost at the edge of the sound. Suddenly you’re aware of a fullness in the music that you’ve heard before but never associated with recorded sound.