Something Untranslatable: A Digital Homage to Smithson’s “Monuments”
In 1967, Robert Smithson took a bus from New York City to Passaic, New Jersey, to investigate the definition of the word “monument.” Instead of any grand structures meant to mark history and stand the test of time, Smithson found significance in the mundane: a bridge, a parking lot, a sandbox. Nearly 50 years later, curator Joseph del Pesco from The Kadist Foundation in San Francisco asked photographer Jason Fulford to read Smithson’s essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” and visit Passaic to make photographs, using the essay as a point of departure. Fulford invited writer Hernán Díaz to join him and to create Monument (2015), an online, multi-media photo essay presented on The Kadist’s website.
Fulford’s photographs demonstrate a masterful ability to illuminate uncanny correlations and bizarre banalities of vernacular culture through sequences of otherwise unrelated images. In Monument, the combination of Fulford’s imagery with Díaz’s words exists in a translational loop, where information transitions back and forth between visual, textual, and abstract forms. Whatever manifestation the information takes, it remains anchored to the concepts of codes and ruins. The final sequence in Monument begins with an image of a pharmacy’s façade where an awning and a wall sign both read “Lucy’s Pharmacy.” While one sign is clearly worn and the other is newer, they create an almost perfect redundancy — a visual stutter. Beneath the image, Díaz’s words appear onscreen, typed letter by letter, as a female voice reads a Spanish translation of the text. A few slides later, a question in Spanish types onto a black screen as the same female voice recites the English translation. On the next slide Morse code beeps as it types below an image of a two-dimensional black dog on a stake casting its two-dimensional black shadow on the lawn it ornaments — another visual stutter. The Morse code answers the previous slide’s question:
Q: ¿QUÉ ES LO QUE QUEDA CUANDO NO HAY RUINAS? [trans: “WHAT IS LEFT WHEN THERE ARE NO RUINS?”]
A: … ___ __ . _ …. .. _. __. .._ _. _ ._. ._ _. … ._.. ._ _ ._ _… ._.. .
The next and last slide is black and silent, then the whole sequence starts again in an infinite loop of its own.
Monument functions much like a book, albeit a digital one, though without the tacky skeuomorphic designs like animated “page” turning. Instead, Monument translates the qualities of a book into the digital, multi-media platform. In general, reading a book and using a computer are solitary, private pastimes. They can occur in public, but the reader/user focuses on the book or computer, and not her surroundings. Books and the Internet can connect us with billions of other people, and they can freeze time, existing in a temporal limbo when they are closed.
With the seemingly endless torrent of artist websites, blogs, and online magazines, it is easy to ignore — or at least be ambivalent about — the majority of art displayed on the Internet. In almost every case, viewers experience the work through some kind of standardized manner, such as an image carousel, slideshow, or grid. When we click, scroll, and swipe through countless images, how many truly affect us? On its most basic level, Monument is a digital slideshow of images, text, and sound. In this iteration, however, Fulford, Díaz, and Pesco elevate the format’s stale viewing experience to a method that is both novel and nostalgic. As an alternative to the monotonous click- or scroll-through presentation pervading the web-based photo world, Fulford, Díaz, and Pesco developed a dynamic and interactive method that necessitates greater participation and offers a greater reward.
Monument requires decoding, both literally and figuratively, and in this way the project takes full advantage of its digital existence. Fulford and Díaz insisted that the Morse code be copy-pastable so that viewers could translate the anachronistic cipher. Reading Smithson’s essay alongside Monument amplifies the project’s process of re-contextualizing the past within the present, making the essay’s online presence in PDF form a valuable asset (unless you have a copy of the 1967 Artforum lying around). In his essay, Smithson writes about a landscape by Samuel F.B. Morse, and remarks on its lack of finitude: “A little statue with right arm held high faced a pond (or was it the sea?). ‘Gothic’ buildings in the allegory had a faded look, while an unnecessary tree (or was it a cloud of smoke?) seemed to puff up on the left side of the landscape.” Fulford and Díaz continue Smithson’s line of questioning comparison of fabricated binaries: pond/sea, tree/smoke, dots/dashes, zeroes/ones, monument/parking lot. And they propose “Samuel Morse put an end to vastness. With the telegraph, immensity became a ruin.” The telegraph imploded our notions of size and speed in the 19th century. Today, we can carry infinity in our pockets and the instantaneous speed of digital technology erases the present: the future is immediately translated into the past, a ruin. Monument asks, “What is left when there are no ruins?” A more appropriate question may be “what is left when there is nothing but ruins?”