SETH LOWER: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
If you always wanted to know what is actually going on in Downtown L.A.’s high-rises and corporate buildings–apart from struggling mortgage dealers and bankrupt banks–go and see artist Seth Lower’s latest show “Diamonds Are Forever.” What starts as Rohrschach test-like riddle turns into a reflection about living and, most notably, working as artist in L.A. that is as dry as entertaining. Turn on the old Shirley Bassey song and read about his stance on abstract desires, romantic concealments and apophenia. This Interview by Claudia Slanar.
A lot of your work is based on personal observations, strange encounters, and surprising coincidences. How do you get into these situations? Do you think you attract them?
I have to think about how the work develops over time according to a trajectory, and I’ve got these previous projects dealing with the uncanny, so now I tempt fate a bit in order to gather material, almost as a researcher. Despite that, I do feel like some mystical forces naturally surround me, more so than most people I know. This magnetism peaked in 2008, just in time for my thesis show, when I had a series of encounters revolving around a raccoon t-shirt. There are words for this sort of personalization of external or unordered events. Some people refer to it as being in the zone, which is also a great basketball term, but basically it’s a state of mind from which freaky things naturally happen. There are also “apophenia” and “patternicity,” which are the processes of applying meaning to random or disconnected events. It’s human nature to make these connections, in the same way that it’s difficult not to see a smiley face in two dots and an arc. It’s easy to let that consume you, too, so I try to focus on the ways in which meaning is constructed, with a somewhat detached perspective. More recently I started to see the invitation of chance as a way of giving up control in the creative process. And because I often walk around with a blank look on my face, maybe people project odd energies onto me. But the questions of sustainability and intentionality are always there, as an artist. For example, how can I consistently make work about coincidences and still maintain a balance of objectivity? At a certain point it has to become self-aware, because ultimately any grouping of disparate photographs or art pieces relies upon many of those same tendencies toward meaning-making.
Can you describe the particular situation that led to the Diamonds Are Forever project/show?
The diamond project was possible because I wanted to make the issue of coincidence less of a personal problem and more of a global side effect. In other words, I have a feeling that uncanny encounters are coming more quickly and more often, thanks to globalization and blanket capitalism, not to a divine source. I also didn’t plan to get involved in the diamond trade, I just needed a job, so I started working for this company trading diamonds, watches and jewelry in Downtown L.A. I’ve been trying to get out of it for a year now. What got me interested in doing a project was thinking about the history of particular diamonds, and everything involved in locating, extracting, cutting, transporting, buying, and selling them. But the freakiest aspect was something I didn’t expect at all: the physical overlapping of the immigration courtrooms with the showroom, as well as the miraculous appearance of the Rauschenberg ring.
What’s that story about Robert Rauschenberg’s ring?
Occasionally the company buys used jewelry, including rings worn by famous athletes who have gone broke. I overheard one of our buyers talking with an affiliate of the Rauschenberg estate, who compared the artist to Picasso, and the company ended up buying a diamond ring that was apparently owned by Rauschenberg himself. It’s a cheeky move but it was too synchronous of an acquisition to ignore, so I did my one-up move by erasing that piece from the photo.
The Removal pieces as well as Erased Rauschenberg basically show empty silhouettes of precious objects (jewelry, diamonds), voids that can be filled with various fantasies and desires about the missing object(s). Through erasing these, you make the libidinal relations with these objects in our capitalist society only more present. Is this something that interests you?
The blankness of the removals does invite a kind of projection, I think, following along the lines of romantic concealment or veiling, not to mention imagination. And what is the appeal of sparkles, if not as tiny, passing seeds of potential? As for the images themselves, when the things go from physical objects (representations of the abstract desire) to images (representations of both the object and the abstract) to abstracted image-objects, they take on a new set of weird presences (and, yes, even absences) that seem to house many different imbalances. And maybe part of that is the translation process into art. I initially viewed them as telling accidents that spoke of human error, in opposition to industry. Later they became proxies for the distribution of wealth and the desiring of luxury objects.
Are there other artists dealing with these things whose work you like?
I was thinking a lot about Walead Beshty’s X-ray pieces (Passages, A.N.), about Sophie Calle’s L’Hotel, about Amanda Ross-Ho, and also the tendency in late American Modernism to intentionally stunt expression. For example Ryman’s or Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, and all of those denials which were not intended as such, but inevitably became as much in the eyes of the public.
Diamonds Are Forever stages the tension between a very playfully narrated personal story and the attempt of almost vigorously structuring your visual environment? How did you balance these elements?
I didn’t really intend to make a playfully narrated story. I’m always afraid of sounding too truthful or cathartic in these text pieces, so I often fudge them a little and include dialog or texts from other people, without necessarily giving them credit. But, I guess maybe part of that move toward lightening, or cheapening the text comes from a fear that people won’t read it. So I’m slowly trying to find ways of making text digestible, through music and movement and quickness, both in the use of language and in the actual presentation. It’s always hard for me to represent conceptual frameworks visually, and conversely, to figure out how the things I’ve responded to visually may relate to objective information. The ultimate goal is to lump them together almost seamlessly with an economy of means, while still preserving something that isn’t there.
Another contrast is that of these framed fantasies and the images of your workplace, its economies of production, labor, corporate power, and control. Do you like to explore the boundaries of these structures?
Well, the company isn’t corporate, it’s essentially a family business, but it’s one that certainly makes up for it in terms of mind games. I do like to play into that, but I have a feeling that once the show comes down my tolerance for it will diminish. My somewhat subversive inquiries there stem from thinking about how the company plays into the larger, more nebulous industry that both reiterates and necessitates these problematic economies and power structures, to say it in the broadest and blandest of terms. There’s an implicit coding in the security systems of the office, in my case, which is one of either entering into or being denied from a certain lifestyle. But more importantly, there’s a coded understanding, or acceptance, that success and intelligence aren’t personal qualities, but rather learned behaviors used to dominate. I guess it’s the constant cycle of becoming the man, by which you fight to pull yourself up, accept the norm, and then become the norm.
The video piece seems to play an important role in the overall installation as it “activates” the other parts and almost creates a dramaturgy for the audience?
Yes, the video is the key. I needed to translate the back-story, as well as the conceptual frameworks for each piece, into some kind of text, without just laying out an artist’s statement. At first I thought I could do interviews with people on location, follow the thread of conversations I’d had in the elevator, or collect artifacts from the courtroom. I even thought of breaking into the dumpster and stealing the scraps of paper that had been swept up by the cleaning crew. But at some point I felt like that was trying too hard to prove something, and then I had the idea of making really bad jokes, ones without punchlines, that could present some of the challenges of the project in a somewhat less haughty way. So that became the basis for the video. I also wanted to use music that might be heard in the actual showroom, to place that feeling. As I started to curate the video with other pieces it began to have a nice dialog with the floor sculpture and the photos of the office. It also started to deal with time in a way that was interesting, time being so crucial to the job itself, both in terms of punching in or out and also in terms of staring at watches all day.
So the uncanny-ness of some of your encounters is also triggered by spatial relations?
One of the strangest spaces I’ve ever encountered is the foyer that leads into the showroom. When you stand between the two locked doors you see video cameras, convex mirrors, a rock garden, and fake orchids on a polished black flooring. It’s a very psychological space, and it makes the antiseptic lushness of the showroom that much more astounding and bizarre once you pass through the final door. So I wanted the video to get at that space a bit, to give the viewer just an approximation of that feeling, and also to lay out all of these conceptual frameworks and information overlaps.
Diamonds Are Forever is also the title of the 6th James-Bond-movie starring Sean Connery as the agent, Do you feel like a secret agent-artist now?
I do feel secret, yes, but more like a secret non-agent. Sometimes I hum the theme song while I’m formatting my memory card. Incidentally, I dated a woman named Tiffany Case… .