“Antiquated Piece of Shit”: Andrew Lampert at UTVAC
Dispatch from Austin, TX
Andrew Lampert: Don’t Lose the Manual at the Visual Arts Center, University of Texas at Austin
September 19 to December 6, 2014
2300 Trinity Street (at San Jacinto Street)
Austin, 512 471 1108
The meatiest portion of Andrew Lampert’s “Don’t Lose the Manual,” at the University of Texas’s Visual Arts Center through December 6, commences with a blunt shot of a middle-aged man in a crumpled red shirt. He waxes lyrical on the technology of potato chips. This is Charlie, a recurring character in the stream of short documentary videos (all from 2014), who recalls the odd pleasure of chancing on charred potato crisps as a kid (back when fallible humans sorted through the starchy masses whizzing by on conveyor belts). Adult Charlie laments the “bank of cameras” looming over the process now, which feed images to insatiable computers sending 0s and 1s to air pistols that gun down unsuitable snacks into a gulf of oleaginous waste.
Next, the two sexagenarian stars of Cave of Wonders bow over in quarters so cramped and overflowing with books that before the first Ludditism can emerge from their mouths, I’m overtaken with longing for an erstwhile, rent-stabilized Manhattan. Lampert’s voice inquires over his whirly hand-held camera, “Will you always adapt to technology, or will you stop?” A brittle, scarlet copy of Sun Ra’s This Planet is Doomed (2011) beams down over the couple and their bookshelf garret as they reply that they were “isolated… pushed into email… forced to continue” updating and upgrading, until both eventually succumbed to a pricey laptop, which they admit to fussing over like toy-greedy children.
Newish technology is conversely embraced in Citizens of the Wider World, the next video fragment, which follows a group of seniors studying digital photography and the World Wide Web at “@ Senior Planet,” where the mission is “aging with attitude.” Lampert’s lens spends about a minute with each unnamed student as their reasons for attending are reported: “feeling less scary about [the Internet],” traditional photographs’ susceptibility to moisture and age, whereas “in the computer they can last maybe forever.” A lattice of platitudinous images — lopsided sidewalk trees, shadowy mannequins in hazy windows, grinning friends mid-gait — project onto the classroom wall and frame the students’ monologues. In the final scene of this six-minute video, the seniors smile quietly over their crisp A-4 paper diplomas, glad, I think, to have something tangible in hand.
The nostalgia that accompanies the hand-wrought continues in the next video segment, Typewriter Tony. Here we meet a purveyor of the “abandoned technology,” who notes how the pre-online and post-world are differentiated by the ability to be alone: the Internet “infringed on our lives so much… [the typewriter] puts you in a different state.” Could the distinction here be between the art of being alone and just plain, albeit distracted, loneliness?
And what does “losing the manual” signify anyway? A beclouded experience of technology? A technically astute, but ethically unsound use and disuse of gleaming machines? The whole of Lampert’s exhibition doesn’t quite make a call but rather functions much like the gadgets and contraptions it puts on display — as a list, or a grid, or the coolly scanning gaze of a security camera.
Our first character pops in again in Charlie’s Future Technology quoting the futurist Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As Charlie speaks, I notice I’ve gone beyond recording snippets in lieu of scrawling notes, and am now plainly watching the monumental projection through my iPhone. The camera app is insisting I don’t have sufficient storage to record. The gallery is closing soon and I worry that I’ll forget the details of the video on the way from doing something I love to doing something that earns a wage.
The subsequent video, Actual Real Cameras tracks a lovely girl fumbling with an old 35mm Minolta SLR in a singular, aesthetically engaging portion of the exhibition. That SLR is the same model that was passed down to me for my first photography class. The taut click of the open shutter startling the onscreen digital-native was just one enchantment in a sensual process of image-making that was already in its death-throes when I got my hands on my first Minolta. I shot exclusively on Kodachrome and by chance managed to get through most of my college courses before the remaining three labs in the world still processing the film were shut down. Like Charlie, I had a weird childhood fascination that remains, but mine was with brightly colored images, and I imagined the world had once been Kodachrome-bright and had subsequently faded like a husk from the flush of its Technicolor glory.
It’s banal to discuss nostalgia and dead technology, and somehow it’s become trite to talk about degrees that become obsolete sooner than they’re earned. A heavy wordlessness looms around the issue.
On the other side of the gallery, past Lampert’s photographic grids of everyday people who tread Manhattan gaze-down, iPhone aloft, there is a little dirge that takes place at Jonas Mekas’ New York institution, Anthology Film Archives — where the artist is also Curator of Collections. The video DCP/Steenbeck documents in a plain, split-screen composition the removal of a 16mm Steenbeck editing bay from Lampert’s residence on the right, while in the left frame the Anthology staff hoists, by yellow cord and lever, a new DCP (Digital Cinema Package) projector into place. The pale-blue, formica Steenbeck is carried out to the trunk of car and covered with a black blanket. Charlie’s potato chip insights and skepticism still linger at the end of Lampert’s exhibition: “Somehow this is more economical.”