Summer 2011

– Summer 2011

Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions

Propositions and Publications: On Dexter Sinister

Saul Anton

Tags: Dexter Sinister

Dexter Sinister, A Primer for Visual Literacy, 2009. Courtesy of the artists

Dexter Sinister, A Primer for Visual Literacy, 2009. Courtesy of the artists

Issue 7 (Spring 2004) of Dot Dot Dot magazine offers the following articles: ‘The Problem with Posters’, ‘Mexico 1968/ Rotterdam 2003’, ‘Forum Magazine’, ‘"Landy’s (Failed) Gesture" and the General Intellect’, ‘The Every Day Story of Flesh- Eating, Blood-Sucking Freaks’, ‘Eno and the Long Now’, ‘Revolutions’, ‘Writing on Money’, ‘Group Theory’, ‘Lazy Sunday Afterthoughts’ and ‘The Boy Who Always Looked Up’. You might wonder what links posters, bloodsucking freaks, Brian Eno, revolutions and lazy Sunday afternoon thoughts. Whatever it might be — and I’ll come to that — this alphabet soup of possibilities and projects could very well be the purest emblem of the wide range of activities — writings, lectures, perfor­mances, exhibitions, publications and more publications — that make up the work of Dexter Sinister, a two-person collective of designer-artist-printer-publishers Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt. This is all the more so, I would add, because I have merely listed these articles one after another, whereas in reality they exist as a grid of block-faced titles — authors and page numbers suspended on the page not as a succession of items to be perused but as a constellation of terms whose relation to one another on the page is open. The point might seem negligible, but I have taken them out of the serene simultaneity of their spatial configuration and translated them into the successive movement of critical and analytic language, negating in the process the way these titles call out to one another on the page. In doing so I have created a field of resonance that is neither simply graphical nor semantic, but operates at the intersection of the one and the other as the unadorned fact, if you will, of type and the space of the page.

I didn’t quite realise it then, but back in my twenties I dreamt more than once of opening just such a periodical and chancing upon a table of contents exactly like the one in issue seven of Dot Dot Dot. Not this exact one, of course, but a comparable one — a utopia of topoi conforming to no aesthetic or editorial ideal — that put the negative space of the page to work to create juxtapositions and resonances between otherwise heterogeneous material. Doubtless, such indeterminate relations can easily collapse into the random innocence of a grocery list. Here, however, they clearly retain the intimation of potential that German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel envisioned in his theory of the fragment — a part that was complete, finished and somehow possessed the unity of a system, yet was irreducible to a form, a formula or a concept: ‘As yet no genre exists that is fragmentary both in form and content, simultaneously completely subjective and individual, and completely objective and like a necessary part in a system of all the sciences.’1 For Schlegel, the fragment represented a modern analogue to the mythological totality of the Greco-Roman cosmological system, and incorporated into itself the infinite potential of science as a piecemeal model of knowledge.

It would be a mistake, however, to merely inscribe Dot Dot Dot in the circle of Romantic theories of the fragment or Literature with a capital L, or the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde traditions that derive from them. Although Dexter Sinister’s work intersects with and engages these predecessors in important ways, their inspiration and sources come from another sphere of activity — that of graphic design and typography. Originally founded by Stuart Bailey and IDEA magazine editor Peter Bilak in 2000 as a semiannual periodical concerned with the broad sphere of graphic design, Dot Dot Dot was published by Dexter Sinister from 2006 to 2010 as a project in which the graphical and the linguistic, the theoretical and the visual, are incorporated into one another at the fundamental level of print production and publication.2 First proposed as a print workshop to handle publications for Manifesta 6, which its curators had envisioned as a ‘biennial-as-school’ to be held in Cyprus in 2006 but that never took place due to mainly political issues, the team of Dexter Sinister as it exists today is in one respect the result of that Manifesta’s cancellation. Having made the proposal to work together for the biennial, Bailey and Reinfurt chose to pursue the idea in a basement on New York’s Lower East Side. Thus they founded the Just-in-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore. They also chose to keep the name Dexter Sinister — and the heraldic shield that they’d created as its logo — as the umbrella for their activities. In issue 18 (Fall 2009), for example, the artist Louis Lüthi’s text ‘Self-Reflexive Page’ takes up the relation of art, literature and typography by looking at a canon of literary figures that stretches from Laurence Sterne to W.G. Sebald by way of Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Broodthaers and Georges Perec. In doing so, Lüthi points to the manner in which Dot Dot Dot explores the interplay among the graphic mark, language and art at that crucial node of the contemporary art world: the magazine.

Yet what does it mean that Dexter Sinister’s work takes the form of or can be expressed as a table of contents and a magazine? At first blush, it is hard to get excited by yet another ‘small magazine’. The history of the avant-garde is littered with small-scale, exclusive publishing ventures. Most of these, however, served as the organs of movements, such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Situationism. Rare is the instance, as is the case with Dexter Sinister, in which the publication is itself the work and the latter is dissolved and disseminated ‘into’ a publication. Is it possible that not only the gallery and the museum can be objects of ‘critique’ but also the art magazine, which is, after all, generically identified as the very institution of criticality? Although the gallery and the museum represent the basic and dominant structures of artistic modernity since the mid-eighteenth century, broadly speaking, insofar as they constitute an essentially spatial possibility of public exhibition, these have been accompanied by the rise of modern art criticism, that is to say, a discourse — whether belettrist, journalistic or academic — that converts the immediate perceptions of the crowd into the currency of aesthetic, moral and social perceptions that can be exchanged and debated in the public sphere. Is it possible, in other words, that the very organ and voice of the ‘now’ that critical judgement implicitly establishes and defines as a critical turn away from whatever preceded it can become the basis for a radical shift in art away from the very idea of contemporaneity? Does modernity survive, in a dialectical, Hegelian manner, in a moment of self-sacrifice that is also, at the same time, a realisation of itself in another guise?

One need read Dot Dot Dot for only a short while before it becomes clear that the answer to these questions is ‘yes’. Issue 16 (Fall 2008), for instance, features a short piece by writer and critic Michael Bracewell on the increasing homogeneity of small British towns, Lüthi’s reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and curator Larissa Harris’s ‘Stanislaw Lem’s Short Story “The Seventh Voyage” as Recalled While Flying over the Atlantic from Moscow to Newark, July 2007’. At first, this seems to be merely an eclectic mix of opinion, literary criticism and essays lacking the mainstream magazine ideal of an ever-unfolding heroic present to be documented and consumed as content. Yet these articles also systematically rework and re-mix the generic codes of the art magazine, academic literary criticism and the newspaper opinion piece, not to mention the roles of the writer, critic and visual artist that art magazines reproduce and trade in. What must be immediately noted is that with the magazine-as-form, ‘institutional critique’ returns, so to speak, to its native soil — the domain of language and print, where it does not resemble the ‘institutional critique’ of the gallery and the museum. In the expanded field of language and type, text appears to operate in a directly descriptive or narrative mode no longer bound to the duties of critical judgement, periodisation, etc. The articles I note above seem to question the historical and temporal positioning that can be said to characterise periodical literature in general. Dexter Sinister basement space, Lower East Side, New York, 2009, showing the Occasional Bookstore and a temporary hang of prints. Courtesy the artistsThe tone of Dot Dot Dot is cut through with a sense of its own evanescence and temporary condition, so that the reassuring soil of the ‘now’ of the modern periodical gives way to a hovering feeling of being simultaneously now and never, always already and always to come. In Mark Beasley’s meandering discussion with musician and artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in issue 16, for example, Dot Dot Dot foregrounds the unlikely overlap between 1970s mail art; the technology-inspired music of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and others; and the mecha­nisms of transmission that make William Burroughs an influence on pre- and post-punk culture. Retrospective pieces such as this one upset the historical assump­tions that govern modern publications and challenge the vision of modernity as a series of succeeding historical moments that remains a powerful leftover of the previous century. Is Psychic TV part of our past or a still unrealised future for art and music? What is the genuine historical actuality of an author like Nabokov? Has he already ‘happened’, or does he also represent something still undigested and thus some past potential future? Modernity as a series of moments gives way here to a landscape of possibilities that are renewed and repeated without, for all that, being actually realised.

We arrive, thus, at a number of fundamental questions concerning contemporary art: what is the status of modern works once they have become no longer entirely fresh or ‘contemporary’? Where does the modern end and the contemporary begin? Does the split between the ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ point to a deeper structural issue in our vision of art and history? For Dexter Sinister, it is clear, publication as form has served as a way to gather the energies of writers, artists, designers and curators in order to examine and begin to transform one of the most important relationships in the sphere of modern art and culture — that shared by the periodical, what it chooses to publicise and its public.

It would be easy to dismiss yet another ‘relational’ or ‘collective’ turn that looks back on what has long been a well-defined modern literary tradition that examines and plays with the materiality of the letter. Yet Dexter Sinister renew, I would suggest, a dialogue between literary modernism and the art world that came to an end with Clement Greenberg’s rhetoric of purity, and, in a different way, with Marcel Broodthaers’s Poèmes Industriels (1968— 70) and the creation of what he described as a ‘fictitious museum’, the Musée d’art moderne, Département des Aigles (1968— 72). In affirming the impurity and intermix­ture of the domains of word and image — which hearkens back to the classical tradition in Europe as well as to the highly impure Asian and Near Eastern forms of writing and calligraphy — Reinfurt and Bailey have reopened an early quality of Western art. Since the 1960s, contemporary art has moved away from a Greenbergian insistence on the purity of media. This, however, is true only at the level of form, where Conceptual art, performance, video and installation have reintroduced what Michael Fried referred to famously as ‘theatre’ in art. At the institutional level of galleries, museums, publications and the ‘independent’ curator system, the separation between word and image and its rhetoric of purity has remained powerfully operative, underwriting a generalised model of criticality that is anchored in an otherwise mute art object. This ideal of criticality — by which I mean a general potentiality of art to serve as the basis of a critical theory of culture in general, whether such a discourse is formalist, academic, political, etc. — continues to hold the teleological position occupied in previous centuries by ideals such as imitation (of nature), imagination, society, flatness, etc. With the abandon­ment of the specificity and purity of modernist form, criticality has come to unite a wide array of artistic genres and practices by turning the modernist divide between word and image or language and object into a ventriloquism in which the institutional discourse of the museum, the biennial and the exhibition in general is legitimated as speaking the truth of the work — rather than, for example, one’s individual and immediate, subjective reaction. The expansion of the expanded field that has characterised contemporary art since the 1970s, in other words, has been authorised by folding the claim of purity and the separation of the arts that Greenberg insisted upon into the very structure of the contemporary art world and its ability to sustain an ideal, which I would simply term ‘criticality’ ‘itself’, as the knife-edge of historical becoming. The effect of this crypto-purity distinguishing the art world’s institutions from its works has been a bubble in the former, best typified perhaps by museums that are themselves works of art. Even in the post-bubble era, artworks are increasingly exemplary of biennialisation, museumification and globalisation — the three modes of the reification of ‘criticality’ into an ultimately conservative paradigm of art historical significance. One might recall here Benjamin Buchloh’s observation that Broodthaers, though he actively distanced himself from 1960s political and cultural critique, ought not be read as a return to a conservative ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ mode of artistic practice, but rather as a reflection on the intractable commodi- fication that even the most progressive, Conceptual art readily undergoes.3

By contrast, an operation such as Dexter Sinister’s charts an interstice involving type, word and picture that Criticality has come to unite a wide array of artistic genres and practices by turning the modernist divide between word and image into a ventriloquism in which the institutional discourse of the museum, the biennial and the exhibition in general is legitimated as speaking the truth of the work.suspends the basic institutional operations of the museum — the work’s description, evaluation and critical judgement — and thereby repositions the exhibition as a subset within the broader frame of publication. The exhibition becomes, perhaps, not so much resistant to commodification as an embrace of its mechanisms. Whereas Buchloh saw Broodthaers resisting reification through the reduction of the visual and verbal sign to muteness (yet how does one say that something is mute?), Dexter Sinister actively embrace publication and distribu­tion as being part and parcel of the work of art. In this view of the relation linking art, exhibition and publication, criticality operates at the level of the graphical and typographical, as well as the interaction of publication with dissemination, distribution and social networks in general. Criticality is thereby redirected away from the present toward a quasi-messianic horizon that is, in fact, the true horizon of the institution itself (does the museum have an end?). It achieves a historical framework that can no longer be specified (when has one finally read a magazine?).

Dexter Sinister, True Mirror Microfiche, 2008, a composite microfiche with icons representing each of the items made during the True Mirror project, produced for and projected as a backdrop to a lecture performance at The Kitchen, New York. Courtesy the artists

This was made most evident in True Mirror, a project developed for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in which Reinfurt and Bailey organised and ran an alternate press office out of a back room at the Armory building that published texts and events by writers, curators and artists such as Margaret Wertheim, Walead Beshty, John Russell, Raimundas Malasauskas, Alex Waterman and others (including this author). In doubling the normal publicity and press operations of the museum, it would be easy to suggest that Dexter Sinister engaged in an act of institutional critique. It would perhaps be more accurate to say, however, that True Mirror engaged in a fictional intensification of the institution, taking over one of its most fundamental mechanisms: the museum publication office. Rather than speaking against the institution from a position outside of it, Dexter Sinister’s output overflowed the institution’s basic publication materials, taking them to their logical and at the same time entirely irrational conclusions. The press release, the critical account and journalistic commentary all mutated into forms that the museum could neither interpret nor control. In producing a myriad of texts (available at sinisterdexter. org) that failed to conform to the generic constraints of criticism, publicity or journalism, Dexter Sinister engaged in a ventriloquism that was at once adoration and betrayal, creating, in effect, an expanded museum where people sit around reading — a library or a bookstore — and where they engage in acts of writing with no place in the well-policed genres of art discourse. Asserting the priority of publication over exhibition, Dexter Sinister affirm and transform the institutions of art, yet they also point them away from the accepted public sphere model towards one that is participatory yet always temporary and passing, a public that cannot institu­tionalise itself and its mode of relation to the object.

Broodthaers spoke of his work as a fiction ‘that allows us to grasp reality and, at the same time, what it hides’.4 In Rosalind Krauss’s reading, this conception of fiction acknowledges an inherent fragmentation and incompleteness that attention to the specificity of a medium allows to become evident, whether such specificity is the ‘flatness’ of painting or the ‘criticality’ of the art magazine. In Dexter Sinister’s fictional practice, ‘criticality’ goes from being a historical operator and theoretical ideal to a dream stretched between type on a page and reproduced images, photographic and otherwise. In ‘Design and Crime’ (2002), Hal Foster suggests that the explosion of design that accompanied the development of postmodern art and cultural discourse in the 1970s and 80s represented a retro­grade movement that neutralised the liberatory ideas these movements advanced during this period. Critical thought thus needed to grasp the dialectical relationship between the evolution of consumer capitalism and these critical ideas in order to sustain the cultural possibilities opened by postmodernism:

Contemporary design is part of a greater revenge of capitalism on postmodernism — a recouping of its crossings of arts and disciplines, a routinisation of its transgressions. Autonomy, even semi-autonomy, may be an illusion or, better, a fiction; but periodically it is useful, even necessary, as it was for [Adolf] Loos, [Karl] Kraus and company a hundred years ago. Periodically, too, this fiction can become repressive, even deadening, as it was thirty years ago when postmodernism was first advanced as an opening out of a petrified modernism. But this is no longer our situation. Perhaps it is time to recapture a sense of the political situatedness of both autonomy and its transgression, a sense of the historical dialectic of disciplinarity and its contestation — to attempt again ‘to provide culture with running-room’. 5

An assessment of the situation of postmod­ernism, as desirable as that might be from a political perspective, would nevertheless prevent the transformation that Dexter Sinister envision of the relation between criticism and its objects, and might be said to be a still unrecognised achievement of postmodernism. In Dexter Sinister’s practice, the ‘fiction’ of design represents an untapped potentiality in what Foster calls postmodern art, though it cannot be said to situate the dialectic of transgression and repression within a distinct historico-aesthetic framework. Instead, it folds the discursive position of criticality itself into the movement of fictioning that prevents its commodification as art history and contemporary art, which has certainly happened to every wave of artistic moder­nity, even the neo-avant-garde. Instead of situating work, fictioning, as we are defining it here, entails inscription and production that do not lend themselves to exhibition and display — even historical exhibition and display; rather, they demand a form of interpretive recall that resists historicist reduction. Fictioning, in other words, calls for a relation between exhibition and interpretation realised through new publications, a self-differing practice that undermines the logic and possibility of collection. The logic of description that art history brings to bear on works beginning in the eighteenth century gives way, here, to a logic of repetition, traumatic and otherwise, that represents one of the most radical and still potent sources of modern culture.

Publication, consequently, is conceived as a general process that incorporates the museum within its purview rather than serving merely as its handmaiden. This is particularly evident in that True Mirror went on to become a microfiche live-performance lecture; a ‘Cubist Variety Show’ staged at The Kitchen in New York in 2008 and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2009; and a short film version and email response from Kodwo Eshun. In this sense, True Mirror posits something like a general economy of publication that moves beyond exhibition, revealing the latter to be a restricted economy that depends not merely on the production of objects, commodified or not, but on a process of critical evaluation that asserts criticality as a symbolic value for art.

What, then, does it mean to publish something in the sense that Dexter Sinister give to this term? Does publication turn everything into language? These questions lead beyond the realm of print into the general sphere of production as a kind of fictioning. In 2006, they began the long-term project The Serving Library, which will operate as a reference library that also, among other things, serves drinks. Dexter Sinister collaborated with Christoph Keller, the founder of the German publisher Revolver, to begin production of a twelve-year Black Whisky. Perhaps cryptically recalling the fictional ‘Black Tulip’ of Alexander Dumas’s romance of the same name about seventeenth-century Dutch tulipomania and revolution, Keller’s Black Whisky reminds us that the domain of design has always potentially encompassed the gamut from artisanal production to philosophical discourse. Why do we not drink whisky in a public library, and what would it mean to do so? How does a beverage develop a social role that it never previously had? This is the domain of popular culture at its most elemental level, where individuals and groups appropriate objects to create ultimately idiosyncratic practices, cultures and activities. Keller, Reinfurt and Bailey underscore the role of pure invention in what grow to become cultural tastes and habits, an irrational yet irreducible factor. They further elaborate the idea of Black Whisky, which ceased to be made, it seems, in Scotland due to the vagaries of its production and its failure to turn a profit. By looking at what whisky had been, could have been and might be once more, Dexter Sinister revise and rewrite an unrealised historical possibility, for the library and for reading as much as for a particular style of whisky. Yet this rewriting is a fiction, perhaps the science fiction of a Black Whisky, that enables us, as Broodthaers had hoped, to ‘grasp reality, and, at the same time, what it hides’.

Publication, then, does not merely serve a critical purpose, nor does it constitute a public sphere by exhibiting works demanding aesthetic judgement. It implies the re-articulation of previously calcified relationships and the creation of new networks of communication and production beyond the structure of exhibition, critical judgement and historical situation. In their Portable Document Format (2009), a small edited volume sporting a typical beige twentieth-century library binding, David Reinfurt published ‘Post-Master’, a panegyric to Benjamin Franklin, the celebrated early North American Renaissance man and inventor of the first lending library in the US. In this short text, Reinfurt recalls that Franklin was a printer-author-publisher-inventor-diplomat, who also happened to be the nascent republic’s first postmaster. Franklin is exemplary in that he recognised no boundaries separating the fine, the liberal and the mechanical arts, nor ultimately the spheres of philosophy, business and social policy. The reason for this, Reinfurt suggests, was that Franklin grasped, implicitly and explicitly, the central role of distribution in modern democratic and social life: ‘Successfully working in the margins, an individual within a massive network, Franklin realised an exquisite understanding of the power of distribution.’6 Although from the outside there is only an accidental or biographical link between Franklin’s life as a printer, the trade in which he started out, and his eventual position as postmaster of the fledging United States, his profound grasp of the role of distribution allowed him to see the fundamental continuity between the realm of typography that the printer inhabits and the mediation that modernity gives rise to in placing the exchange of signs, knowledge and information at the heart of all relations. In a society no longer hierarchically organised and structured, Franklin becomes an early avatar of what scholars have come to call the ‘end of the book’;7 print ceases to be the medium of salvation and becomes the medium of the social relation. Yet type — letters — cannot be reduced to the status of a specific medium that can serve to turn that relation into a public capable of seeing and knowing itself. Language escapes, as we know, the structuralist reduction of it to semiosis. Instead — and this is the specific domain of Dexter Sinister’s activity — print, as the representation and dissemination of letters, serves as a self-differing, inherently distributable, genuinely multimedia condition that goes from painting to the internet. Here, Franklin the librarian-author-postmaster-inventor becomes a latter-day Leonardo, who dissolved the limits between media and forms passed down from the traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture, but only through an intense focus on the magazine as form. It is in fact possible to draw a line from Franklin to Mallarmé, who published La Dernière Mode, a fashion magazine, and who, in Les Loisirs de la poste (1894), composed quatrains that incorporated the addresses of their addressees into them:

Leur rire avec la même gamme
Sonnera si tu te rendis
Chez Monsieur Whistler et Madame,
Rue antique du Bac 110.

In holding Benjamin Franklin up as a model, Dexter Sinister present a uniquely North American figure of revolutionary transformation anchored in pragmatic, operational practice. In this, they point to the boundaries of an art system that is overflowing in its abundance of production and, as a consequence, has perhaps become a victim of its own success. In adopting publication as a general condition of art, Dexter Sinister flatten the hierarchies between writing and exhibition, installation and publication, art and non-art, that have calcified over the past three decades and underwritten the expansion of a biennialised, historicised and globalised spectacle. Yet this is not so much an endgame as the beginning of the return of the very culture industry that capitalism seems to be in the process of liquidating and abandoning: in the magazine, the book and other suddenly ‘low-tech’ media, we find the detritus of obsolescence that makes these media available to ends other than those of maximum return on investment. Reinfurt recalls the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin imagined for himself at the age of 22. I find its evocation of the spectral an apt description of the possibilities that Dexter Sinister have opened:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be wholly lost;
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect edition,
Corrected and amended
By the author.

  1. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments (trans. Peter Firchow), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p.27. Fragment no.77.

  2. Dot Dot Dot finished its run with issue 20 last year to make room for a new publication, Bulletins of the Serving Library.

  3. See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Open Letters, Industrial Poems’, October, vol.42, Fall 1987, pp.69—71.

  4. Press release for ‘Musée d’art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Sections Art Moderne et Publicité’. Quoted in Rosalind Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers, New York: Michael Werner, 1991, p.227.

  5. Hal Foster, ‘Design and Crime’, Design and Crime, London and New York: Verso Books, 2002, p.25.

  6. David Reinfurt, ‘Post-Master’, in Dexter Sinister (ed.), Portable Document Format, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, p.25.

  7. On this, the literature is enormous, and spans the period from the Enlightenment to the rise of social networking. Perhaps one unavoidable reference is Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1974, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, a work that explicitly takes up the theme of the ‘end of the book and the beginning of writing’. It is significant, however, that the act of fictioning I have been describing aligns in many ways with Derrida’s resistance to affirming the ‘end of the book’.

  8. Their laughter with the same range / Will toll if you bring yourself / To Mr and Mrs Whistler’s / At 110 Rue Antique du Bac.’ Translation the author's.

  9. Quoted in D. Reinfurt, ‘Post-Master', op. cit., p.26.