In 2008, artists Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe and Alexander Singh collaborated on the project, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, for Ballroom Marfa. In 2009, the installation travelled to Deitch Projects in New York. Renamed Black Acid Co-Op, the piece lost a few rooms, added some new ones and dropped artist Alexander Singh. Black Acid Co-Op spanned fourteen rooms and three levels of the Wooster Street Deitch Projects gallery. The installation spans the entire gallery space, but transforms it into a winding labyrinth of interconnected hallways and rooms.
These spaces are meticulously decorated to recreate a sense of used, habitus space. Every detail is carefully orchestrated. As the viewer wanders through this material wonderland, the narrative flows through cinematic genres from a kitschy ‘60s B-movie to psychological thriller. The viewer is folded into the scenario.
The installation effectively recreates a cinematic environment in real time, allowing viewers to transform into actors, or detectives, investigating the remains of a narrative and piecing the roles and characters back together.
Like watching rain fall outside a window, you can choose to focus either on the smallest detail (cigarette butts crushed into an ashtray) or on the bigger picture. Beyond the careful attention paid to visual material, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun reproduces senses of the olfactory and tactile, reproducing a complete and totalized scenario.
The installation explores cultural referents through implicit visual cues. Allusions to hippie commune counter-culture, narcotic production, consumer culture and cinematic genre are packed within the dense installation. This visual shorthand, coupled with the compulsive attention to detail, produce twisting allegories of culture and counter-culture throughout the installation, fueling a more resonant response from the viewer as they fluctuate between roles.
The installation unfolds like a film; the characters are simultaneously absent and present. The meticulous detail implies the memory and archive of past-tense tenants. While you wander, you are left to pick up the pieces, to inflict your memories and histories upon the narrative framework.
Hello Meth Lab in the Sun collapses collage, performance, set design, sculpture, and installation into a coherent theatricality that staggers between fine art and the living cinema, or “film in real time” (a phrase coined in Postproduction by ol’ Nic Bourriaud). Bourriaud calls artists and exhibition designers to arms to collapse the categorical taxonomy of fine arts practices, writing: “the exhibition is no longer the end result of a process, its ‘happy ending’, but a place of production… the exhibition space is a space of cohabitation, an open stage somewhere between décor, film set and information center” (Bourriaud 2002).
What is truly at stake in destroying the binary between fine art and the cultural vernacular is a relationship between metonymy and meaning. As long as fine art operates in the realm of representations of reality, and vernacular culture operates in the realm of lived experiential reality, the gallery and exhibition site can maintain a privileged status within the economy and within the larger social structure. Immersive environments like Hello Meth Lab in the Sun collude lived reality, fine arts practices and history/memory matrices into a singular coherency.
Working simultaneously in the idioms of set design and cinematic narrative, art installation and performance, Lowe, Freeman & Singh covertly enlist the viewer as actor in their semi-scripted play. In the style of “Choose your own Adventure” novels, the viewer is caught between roles and temporalities.
Simultaneously performing as detective, art critic, and spectator, the viewer transitions between suspension of disbelief and their desires as voyeur. They fluctuate between their present, walking through the piece, and the past characters that the installation implicates.
Like a good film, the installations are captivating, but after the dust settles and the polish fades, the reality of the installation begins to creep in. We’re left with social issues: narcotics addiction and production in rural America, class hierarchies inherent in leisure spending, community production and consumption. The material environments reproduced by Lowe, Freeman and (sometimes) Singh unfurl in lateral systems: one, the glamour and psychological thrill of the cinematic fiction, and two, the social implications of distinct communities as made manifest by the haptic realism of the installation.
The viewer is left to navigate the two realms, fluctuating between a performer, dazzled by the polish of the Deitch Project production, and a participant, implicated by their belonging to the larger social fabric.
I’d like to leave off by responding to Claire Bishop’s “The Social Turn: Collaborative Art and its Discontents”. Bishop works through two polarities on which the contemporary art scene is dependent, on one end is the purely aesthetic, and on the other is pure social praxis. The problem, she succinctly deduces, is based “on a confusion between art’s autonomy (its position at one remove from instrumental rationality) and heteronomy (its blurring of art and life)” (Bishop 2006). She continues, “Untangling this knot—or ignoring it by seeking more concrete ends for art—is slightly to miss the point, since the aesthetic is… the ability to think contradiction: the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change…the aesthetic doesn’t need to be sacrificed at the altar of social change, as it already inherently contains this ameliorative promise.” (Bishop 2006).
Although Black Acid Co-Op & Hello Meth Lab in the Sun tease through borderlines between mediums, genres, and viewer relationships, ultimately the artists created a pure aesthetic wonderland, a set design of magnified proportions. The artists produced a material environment, and any narratives brought to the installations are purely external. The relationship to social issues is bred from the viewer’s implication as a participant in the broader context of contemporary culture and community.
Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum, February 2006: 179-185.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction. New York: Lucas & Sternberg, 2002.
—. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses Du Réel, 2002.