Capurro AMPEdS Talk 2004/09

A Little Too Much Time on My Hands: the (un)making of 'Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette'

Violent men are generally sickly, 'brokendown'. They live in perpetual combustion, at the expense of their bodies, exactly like ascetics,
who in the discipline of quietude erode and exhaust themselves,
quite as much as the furious.

E.M. Cioran

This it is

Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette is a project in two parts: the initial five-year period between 1999 and 2004 when the magazine, the central piece of this work, was erased and reinscribed; and the subsequent public presentations of the magazine-artefact and associated works. The presentations are usually accompanied by what I (loosely) refer to as the 'response' program, where invited contributors address the work directly or 'at a slant'. This open-ended 'response' component is ongoing and evolving. In the first two seasons of public presentations—nine locations in Melbourne throughout 2004/5 and six occasions at the 2007 Venice Biennale of Art—the contributions took the form of talks, discussions, and performances. In Leuven in 2009 a program of twice-daily shortwave broadcasts replaced the 'response' element. There is a growing text, image and sound archive of this material online (, which is also sometimes materially part of the work's exhibition-state; plus a small number of associated works that have been created within the project. The most important of these works being the 2004 Signatures poster, the photograph Coda (Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette) 2005-07, and the shortwave broadcast recordings Dead Reckoning 2009.

The mass-collaborative erasure and reinscription of the magazine involved asking around 260 people to completely and anonymously erase with a rubber, a page (the next page) of an intact magazine: a Vogue Hommes, September 1986, #92. Additionally, each person was asked to write in pencil on the page both the time it took them to undertake this act of erasure, and whatever monetary value they currently received for their time, translated into an hourly rate (or rates). Not what they thought, nor wished, their time was worth, but what they actually received in agreement with another party for their time, skills, the labour of their body, their creativity, or, for their intellectual or affective work.

Taking into account these two indices of expenditure, each page nominally has a value based upon their sum. The shortest time taken to erase a page was nine minutes, while the longest was in the vicinity of three and a half, to three and three quarter hours. The value accrued 'on' each page ranges from nothing in a number of instances, as some contributors were receiving no calculable money for their time (while a few chose not to state it), to one page 'worth' over USD$1,000. These disparities are important to the work. The sum of the value of all these pages proposes a value, a 'certain' value of sorts, for the magazine as a whole. Due to possible oversight, inadvertent post-erasure erasure (the notations are in pencil), or wilful neglect on the eraser's part, some pages have no inscriptions of time or value or both. Those contributions can't, as such, be fully accounted for then within the arithmetic of the work, much like the activities in our daily lives that fall 'outside the ledger'. Hopefully, these lapses (in attention? in performance? of presence?) forestall the urge to read this work as a closed book. And that is why the three dots of elision appear after the combined totals of time (267 hours, 49 minutes, 5 seconds...) and of monetary value (AUD$11,349.18...).

Aged between ten and eighty years, the people involved in the erasing stage of the work came from a range of backgrounds and occupations; most lived and worked in Melbourne, some were passing through there, while a smaller number were in the European cities the work travelled through in 2001/2. As noted above, their work was anonymous. No individual is associated with any particular page. In all presentations of the work they are instead acknowledged as a group, separate from the magazine itself. It is also important to point out that none of the eraser-collaborators were paid.

Can he believe that the wreckage of his existence is unentailed!
No liens, no creditors?

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

The equally important second stage of this project has involved the reconditioned magazine-artefact going back into the world — back into circulation for other encounters and for others to encounter. Part of the purpose of doing this has been to develop and open-up to a wider audience (than the eraser-collaborators) some of the ideas, perhaps some of the fantasies and, even, the doubts and troublings that emerged from the conversations and in the interactions which took place in the five years of its (un)making. I wanted to explore what 'the work'—material presence, social, intellectual or aesthetic proposition, affective encounter or touchstone—might allow us to say about, or to do with, some-thing of the following: our hold on the values ascribed to our time and our labour, whether by us or by others; the exchanges, material and immaterial, we make; and, our investment in the images that surround and absorb us.

The locations the magazine went to, particularly those in Melbourne, were chosen with the thought of contextualizing aspects of the work either related to the path it took becoming what it is or the undoing of what it was. A further consideration in determining the sites was that, where possible, they intersect spatially and temporally—sometimes directly and other times obliquely—with the private and working lives of the eraser-collaborators.

The sites in Melbourne in 2004/5 included a hairdressing salon, a local public library, a church 'opportunity' shop, the trade unions' headquarters, an optometrists, the home of an eraser-collaborator, an exhibition tracing 'utopian' practices and lines of endeavour in contemporary art, a Greek Orthodox Church, and a private psychiatric hospital. Some of the themes and ideas addressed in the site talks involved the following: the place and workings of the image in the life of the Orthodox Christian faith (Fr. Dimolianis); considerations of the erased magazine as drawing, proposition and trace of action (Tom Nicholson); as an overcoded body (d)riven by a culture of waste (Ross Moore); as emblematic of an historical and ongoing struggle between labour and capital over the surplus of our production (Adam Bandt); from a psychoanalytic and philosophical perspective, as part of a tradition of aesthetic effacement (Justin Clemens); and, with an inclusive, poetic, and critical zeal, a riff on the project as something that emerges out of, and that generates, very particular individual passions and passionate encounters (Elizabeth Brown/Tony Perry/et al.).

In Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense at the Venice Biennale of International Art in 2007 Tom Nicholson expanded on his 2004/05 ideas to include a specific analysis of the political and economic circulation of pictures via Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's two versions of The Banquet of Cleopatra (the fresco version is held in Palazzo Labia just metres from the location of his talk in Campo S. Geremia), while Jonatan Habib Engqvist in the Cloisters of the Seminary of San Nicolo, Treviso, beside Tomaso da Modena's Sala del Capitolo dei Domenicani fresco cycle of monks working with manuscripts, spoke on the relationship between remembering and forgetting, and the sometimes necessary work of a productive 'forgetfulness'. The English artist Ti Parks enacted his quietly affecting 'performontages' across Venetian public spaces twice-daily over three days in June and, with similar poise, the young Ensemble l'Arsenale musicians took up positions amongst the Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette installation in the Corderie to perform 'in response to the work' a challenging occupazione sonora/sonorous occupancy for the final Saturday swarming Biennale crowd. In the concluding week there were also talks at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. One by Islamic scholar Biancamaria Scarcia on 'thinking, saying, producing images' from a 'partial' Islamic perspective, and the other by Roger Cook, a humorous and touching personal account of his life as a "1980's commodity fetish" into which he wove philosophical and aesthetic musings on the differing values of a life in and out of 'the picture'.

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
Henry David Thoreau

Before This

Thinking back to the late 1990's and the context of the emergence of this work, I think it is worth recounting a situation that arose where my work as a photographer intersected in a challenging way with what I do as an artist. The occasion, and the considerations it generated, played on my mind quite a bit back then—troubled me deeply it would be fair to say—, as they still do today, if to a somewhat lesser extent. Before proceeding a qualification is advisable. Though pertinent and certainly revealing of important issues, this anecdote, and how I retrospectively came to understand its place in the narrative of the work, should not be thought of as the guiding rationale for the work or its direct impetus — it wasn't. The beginning was much cloudier and more complex than that.

I was employed to photograph works of art in a private collection, including some of my own work that had not long before been bought from my first solo show. It was something of a bonus — having sold the work I would now be paid to photograph it. While undertaking the work I came up against what I felt was a glaring discrepancy — remuneration-wise the value of my time to the collection was much, much higher as a photographer than it was as an artist. I surmised, correctly as it turned out, that the collection would probably not have purchased the works if the time it had taken me to make them—they were small and labour intensive—had been factored into their price. When I raised the issue in passing, the collection advisor made it quite clear that the works had been chosen, in part, because of their reasonable price. And besides, as he said, they needed to have the works photographed for the archive whereas they didn't necessarily need to buy them (or at least mine). Having worked as a photographer and as an artist for some years already by this time such 'news' perhaps should not have been so surprising, however, some revelations only come belatedly—when you are very close to things—and they are all the more confronting because of it.

This experience set me thinking about the shifts, the accommodations, and the (de)formations that take place in the image you have of yourself when you are having to re-evaluate, over and over and over again, the value of your time and your labour in the eyes of others. Furthermore, there was the question of whether a stable self-image is perhaps a viable or even a valuable thing to have, let alone aspire to, in an age that demands 'flexibility' and 'mobility' from its workforce and its consumers (not to mention what our psychological needs may be). For the majority of people whom no longer work full time, let alone in the same job all their lives, this dynamic is part of the reality that has to be negotiated whenever there are the work questions: what? where? when? how? how long? how often? for how much? at what cost? and too what end?

But they weren't compulsions... rather a response to death and nothingness, fixing things and times, establishing rituals and passages in opposition to chaos, which was full of holes and smudges.
Julio Cortazar, Summer

Why This, to This?

So how does one begin to do justice in pictorial or material terms to this shifting ground without resorting to illustration or merely reiterating easy, well-worn resemblances?

Early on I had a strong sense that somehow (what became) the Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette project needed to embody those things in our lives that, in a sense, resist picturing: the time spent, the identifications and investments made, and as easily lost, the mediations and the exchanges. Then, gradually, it became clear that certain conditions needed to be met, conditions that would shape the form and process of Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette's coming-into-being and, to an extent, my subsequent thinking about it. I determined that it should be a mass-act on or against a mass-market object. One that was discrete enough in size to allow it to be easily be passed around, yet also having a certain volume and density to it that would require a persistent and drawn-out engagement with it. It was important that it be a complete and intact thing; not just to necessitate its passage one person at a time, but also so that when each person did their work it was undertaken (and understood) in the context of what others had done before them and what there remained to do.

Why did I choose an edition of French Men's Vogue from the mid 1980's? As a representative of a particular order of 'aspirational' consumer lifestyle that proliferates so successfully in tandem with the mass-mediated image? There is sense in that. After all, it is all there on the (to be erased) glossy surface: succinctly pictured, nice to touch, and easily consumed, with little doubt or confusion as to what is at stake — or so it seems.

Significant here is the question of the quality of attention that gets paid to things, how it is elicited and to what ends. The magazine as a form or catalyst of engagement is to me (but certainly not to magazine industry hucksters) emblematic of a type of localized, distracted attention. It is something one picks up, glances at, dips into, or browses through in in-between times or in-between places: on public transport, while waiting in line at the supermarket or for an appointment with the dentist. To invest this one Vogue magazine with such (perhaps) disproportionate attention—as the process of its unmaking and its subsequent presentations has entailed—, towards manifesting something of that investment as an absence at the heart of the thing seemed an appropriate, even necessary (though certainly not unproblematic), treatment.

Oftentimes it has crossed my mind that perhaps at work (or play) here is something akin to a wilful confusion of looking with a direct physical act: Where the body puts the image-object under pressure, (trying) to make-it-away as if it were some corrosive or, even, erosive gaze: And, in a fantastical situation where, just possibly, the look outlives, outdoes, or undoes the object of its attention.

It should be noted that there were also more pragmatic decisions which influenced my choice of magazine. At around 250 pages it is a substantial volume. Plus, it is made of high quality paper, seductive to the touch; but also paper that I felt sure could withstand the robust handling it was going to receive. It was also in French. This, I reasoned, would alter the way most people engaged with the magazine, perhaps limiting the time they spent reading it as opposed to rubbing it; in the hope that I might get it back from each one of them that much sooner — every little bit sooner over 260 people meant a hell of a lot sooner.

In asking people to erase—'rub-out completely'—a page, I had envisaged an undertaking that would breach the magazine but not compromise its physical form, leaving its identity intact for the most part. It was to this end that the covers were not erased. I also felt it needed to be a physical act of economical means that did not encumber the object by being materially additive (perhaps Jasper Johns' phrase 'additive subtraction', coined in reference to Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing, is applicable here). Significantly, the very nature of this act meant that the more someone worked on 'their' page the more they removed the traces of their effort. In a sense, a double-effacement took place: As the image and text under erasure became indistinct and was lost, so did the distinctiveness of their contribution. As one participant in Berlin who found this dynamic especially disheartening remarked: "There came a point when the more I worked on my page the more it became like everyone else's!". Anecdotal evidence led me to think that this may well have been a determining factor in a number of the abandoned pages. In those instances, where someone else completed an abandoned and unfinished page, two sets of times and hourly rates were inscribed on the one page.

If we worshipped the wood of the image, should we not burn the icon when the representation grew faint?

Them and Us

Leaving aside the relatively anonymous eraser-collaborators and the certainly less anonymous presence of (myself) the orchestrating artist, I want to briefly touch on three personae, personages, or figure(head)s that have a presence in, and are important to, this project in their own ways. One is pictured, one is named, and one is buried in the work.

Featuring prominently on the cover of Vogue Hommes, September 1986, #92 is a portrait of Sylvester Stallone (b.1946) looking suave in a 1980's corporate sort of way, with his suit, high starched collar and gold tiepin. It is certainly an iconic image and an oddly compelling one to my eye. How important this feature was in my choice of that particular magazine I can't say, but I do remember thinking at the time that it was a face I felt that I could countenance every day (or most days) over the—then unknown—years that the project would take to unfold. There was something solid about that picture. It seemed like he (the magazine) could withstand what was going to be dealt him (it). Curiously, the more scuffing and inadvertent erasing Stallone's image 'took', the more dignified, even classical-looking in his three-quarter profile, he became. As someone generously remarked, he came to look a little like a 'Florentine prince'. Another, this time more unnerving, observation regarding the cover photograph was made by one of the last eraser-participants. What was said took me aback. It rather abruptly asked of me what other unspoken or unacknowledged identifications may have played their part in the formation of the Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette project and the selection of its material. In her opinion there appeared to be an uncanny correlation of resemblances between that face on the cover of the magazine and my own. It was an observation that at the time I couldn't totally discount, nor can I today.

Another persona that (I have told myself) played its part in my choice of this magazine is an Antipodean one. His presence is only alluded to on the un-erased front cover and all but obscured by the erasure of the magazine's interior. Taking pride of place in an article on the defence of the America's Cup (to be held that year in Fremantle, Western Australia) was, naturally enough, Alan Bond (b.1938) — that once iconic but now almost forgotten great Aussie gatherer and squanderer of wealth in the 1980's. An English migrant sign painter who made it good beyond all measure in the imagination of the day before losing it all and more, Bond's affiliations with economies both financial and aesthetic, which were often marked by more than a little excess, are in a curious way echoed and inverted in the person of Etienne de Silhouette (b.1709/d.1767). Our third 'presence', de Silhouette was Louis XV's deeply unpopular Controller General whose fiscal 'tightness' was matched only by his private passion for—equally 'economic'—shadow portraits. It is from this man that we have, thanks to the popular conflation of his economic and artistic personae in his day, acquired the word 'silhouette' in its current usage — and to whom I turned, with the same 'confusion' in mind, to be my project's titular persona. Returning to Alan Bond, and putting the 1983 America's Cup victory aside (not to mention Swan Lager beer or a wildly overpriced buyout of the Channel Nine television station), he was perhaps most internationally renowned for his 1987 'purchase' of Vincent van Gogh's Irises for US$54 million. A then world record price for any painting, it was, however, an even more financially dodgy painting transaction from that period (involving Edouard Manet's La Promenade) which eventually led to his jailing in 1996 and, perhaps appropriately, to the subsequent revitalization of his artistic vocation. While 'doing time' in the West Australian prison system he took up the brush again, reputedly with a passion, and now, apparently, 'specializes in watercolours and oils'.

This mass erasure, inscription, and 'response' work began with a magazine, some questions, a few sceptical yet willing accomplices and an instinct to fashion something, if not true, at least with its own vital and resistant life. Something that was informed by the exchanges we make in our lives of material and immaterial things—the looks we give and take, the objects that pass between us, the trading of our time and our energy, the values that accrue and the losses we incur in the process—and distilled in a spectatorial culture fascinated with ideas of visibility and identity. I would like to think that it gives due critical and imaginative consideration to such encounters and, in its own small way, asks that it be given and desired elsewhere too. Perhaps, finally, this document of 'magpie earnings' gleaned from other people and from worldly things is but a necessary, if provisional, rendering of accounts.

Christian Capurro