Trash (Empirical)

By Martina Goldner
Published in Kunstverein Hannover
May. 1, 1998

Mostly it lies there for days, sometimes even for weeks when the sanitation workers go on strike again in New York City. In the meantime Tony Oursler's trash photos pile up like so much garbage carefully piled on the street, the result of four years of garbage photography.

In 1992 Tony Oursler ended his two-year commute between Boston and New York, and finally settled in New York, a city whose mythology has filled many books and films. Any claim to have the full potential of the city in one's grasp is a dangerous one. It is a bastard in the best sense of the word; it calls for decisions, but often not lifelong ones. Oursler loves this city, and at the same time curses the dirt it brings into his studio. His move back to the city coincided with an invitation from Elizabeth Janus to contribute something to a memorial issue of the magazine "Furor" on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Voltaire's birth. This was to be the connection for the beginning of the trash photos.1

In the course of his encounter with Voltaire, Oursler became less interested in Voltaire's critique of the eighteenth-century class system - although even here there were some common points - than in the ways Voltaire founded his critique, specifically in how he derived the structure of the various social classes from his observations: what those who belong to a particular class do, how they deal with each other within their own class and between classes, the activities in which they participate, the places they frequent, the modes of speech or dress they cultivate, the kinds of things they use, and what they talk about. Voltaire's social critique was based on the empirical nature of these outward manifestations, and consequently he took the way a situation was expressed into consideration in his inferences about that situation.

A similar empiricism lies at the basis of Tony Oursler's work. "The early videotapes were designed to mirror a thought pattern or process .... My work is designed to work with the way we really see, which has to do with a very complicated referencing system full of memory, conjecture, and a multi-voxed narrative", as he has stated.2 The videotapes can thus be seen as "an outward manifestation of signs" that serves as a "reflector," a second expressive level admitting feedback from the third position, that of the viewer, back to the first, that of the thought pattern and processes. "The way we really see" to which Oursler reacts in his videos and sculptures with narrative structures, acquires a new form in the Trash series. The latter tell no stories, but are documentation of some arrangement. But one may ask questions about what is in the photographs; the presumed answers will become stories that, to go back to Voltaire, then permit inferences about the arrangement.

If at first the trash photos could be considered a formal exercise, a way of subjecting this kind of idiom to empirical critique, they soon expanded into an ongoing work. Oursler conceived (and still conceives) the photographs as tropes for compositions or arrangements people have made in nearly unconscious fashion, the result of a long chain of events. He calls the trash piles "unconscious sculptures," determined by the two things that make up a sculpture; the material it is made out of, which one chooses (here things one is about to throw out) and the way the material is used, which one decides (how and where the material is to be arranged). Why and how the material was selected and the reasons that led to how the material was arranged are a part of the story. But what role does the artist play in all of this? He neither determines the choice of the material nor decides the arrangement. His role is that of a flaneur, one who observes, finds, and "truly sees" within the complex relational system of his experiences, memories, knowledge, and artistic work, who documents his observations and gives them form, who allows them to be considered a reflector of his seeing, and who incorporates these observations into his complex relational system in order to test them against it, "Empirical as I understand it means, if you see something, you study it."3

In the meantime, Oursler's material has grown to over a hundred photographs, most of them taken in New York, some in Boston, Europe, and Asia, on different kinds of stock, slide- and color-negative film, just as one would expect. Oursler's first presentation of Trash (Empirical) in an exhibition turns the archive snapshots into a series of images of 59 x 98 cm / 23.3" x 33.5" each, mounted on aluminium. A new formal solution to a new situation. The quality of the pictures' spatial presence changes as they are put on view. Furthermore, the sculptural character of the trash formations undergoes a certain intensification, while our distance to such sculptural forms is clarified through the emphasis on picturality.

If one knows Oursler's work, there is something in these photographs that seems familiar, almost intimately so. But this seeming familiarity comes not only from the details through which so many formal parallels to other of his works can be established. The system of signs and language in which Oursler moves is a complex one, and the trash photos are an integral part of that system. The three mismatched sofas lined up neatly along the sidewalk make one involuntarily think of Judy, and the piece of lumber lying diagonally across the middle one does its utmost to remind us of its alter ego in the Salzburger Kunstverein in Austria.4 Likewise, the mismatched furniture and the mattresses remind us of all those free-standing but dislocated decors throughout Oursler's installations, and could also be considered "unconscious sculptures," along with the rag dolls, the plastic store-window dummies, or the broken video camera. Among the most striking of the signifiers are the floral decors and patterns, whether functioning as such, or used for mattress- or furniture-covers, as decorative covering for boxes or a crib, or wrapping or skin (for which plastic garbage bags are also used). One frequently finds flowers in Oursler's work. They are used as a motif in Flowers Undermind) from 1994; we encounter flower-covered cushions, mattresses, furniture and pieces of clothing in a range of works -Insomnia (1996) and Getaway II (1994) are representative - from folksy decor in Two-May Hex (1992), to a homemade paper flower in The Loner, a video from 1990, standing in the middle of a fork in the road where the protagonist of the story no longer knows which way to go. Is the flower at a crossroads toxic, or is it a cure for negative emotions, for "the home's sanctuary in turn poisoned and replaced with the perverted security of delusion."5 Oursler says of the flowers in Judy, "Tracy and flowers, which are everywhere - a sort of mock camouflage or skin - are the unifying aspects of the installation."6 Oursler's interest in the question of how people decorate their things is as significant in this respect as his interest in pop culture (What kind of patterns does someone have painted on the hood of his car, and what do the signs in a supermarket look like?), and in the question of "high" and "low" art (What is high art, where does it begin and where does it end, and what are the borders of low art?).7 This question runs through the whole of Oursler's work, and attaches itself to each recurring sign. Flowers are one of them.

Another is garbage. In the trash photographs, as we have noted, Oursler conceives of garbage as an empirical experience of unconscious sculpture. But as early as 1989, a huge pile of garbage was the central piece of Oursler's installation Spill chamber.8 The Dump, as the cone-shaped heap was called, was at the same time a surface for the projection of a video that showed water bubbling in a pool, and on which various scenes were projected, along with film reviews, computer-graphic animations, and other stagings. In the present exhibition, garbage emerges in another setting, but not as sculpture. Since 1993, Oursler has been working with writer Constance DeJong and musician Stephen Vitiello on Fantastic Pravers. The result of this collaboration, originally laid out as a performance project, is now a CD-ROM.9 Nine primarily static environments offer the spectator, now a user, the possibility of entering them and accessing a second level, that of stories,10 What the photographs offered as a statement in photographic and simulational (simulacrum) space, is here connected to narrative structures. There are rock concerts playing in a mausoleum in The Graveyard. On Ludlow Street there are some trash photos, part of the story of the street. Another environment is Lost Things, a pile of lost objects that, judging from the materials, could also be considered a trash heap. It is only the title that informs us that these things were - or are - lost, and not intentionally discarded. Every time someone "opens" an object with the click of a mouse, another small private world opens up. An old lighter is the occasion for Vito Acconci to reminisce about his last cigarette; a rag doll starts to choke; and with another click a curious compendium of tiny objects starts to file by, the "Chevalier Jackson Collection of Objects Inhaled or Swallowed", an archive scrupulously maintained by a certain Dr. Jackson, a physician who at the beginning of the century specialized in operations to remove swallowed or inhaled objects which had lodged in the throat, esophagus, or stomach. We see a "Perfect Attendance" button removed from a four-year old child. Time: 12 minutes, 29 seconds. Result: Extraction. Death.

The trash photographs do not tell stories like these. Photographs stand still. They do not develop the narrative potential built into them, but allow us, in Voltaire's sense, to infer who or what generated the arrangement.

One of the trash photographs shows the garbage in front of a one-family home in Boston. Several small cartons and a garbage bag are piled on a bench with a warped backrest close to the street. Just to the left are two huge cartons piled on top of one another; cut branches stick out of the bottom one, while the top one is a container for another large black garbage bag. Likewise, in front of the bench going toward the house there stands another large carton, and for good measure under the bench there is a small neatly raked pile of dry leaves. The path to the house is kept clear, as is the neighbor's driveway.

This is a description, but not a story. The answer to the question about the long chain of events that led to this result might become a story. The latter would not only be the mirror of a structure that states something about the people who live in the house in front of which the garbage is standing, or about the person who put the garbage out, or about the whole process. It would, like all those untold stories, be the one the viewer told himself, and become a mirror of the structure of the viewer.

At this point, I would like to bring up an issue that to me seems important in connection with the way Oursler's work, especially the trash photographs, has been received. I have in mind the early videotapes from the late 70s and early 80s, where Oursler, in stories that are as thoroughly worked out and thought through as they are banal, develops the themes that came to define his later work: violence, television, the mass media, sex, drugs, mental illness, good and evil, the construction of the personality, love, chaos, pop culture, religion and Catholicism, pollution, etc. That is the first point. The second is that a great deal of the work's expressive potential is already rooted in the early video works, which are an expression of Oursler's most characteristic interests. They are rough and raw, in the best sense of the word {as in raw materials), and extraordinarily complex. Oursler's own body, or parts of it, are mixed in with props made out of simple materials, and sometimes with simple objects like a telephone receiver or a glass. There are no categories from reality; there is only what one sees, as in the photographs. It is this lack of "categories from reality" that makes many of the photographs seem like sets for Ourslerian videos. He says of his early tapes, "These inner worlds were very much a psycho-landscape, and I thought a lot about the nature of places, sets, landscapes and how these could be made to talk."11 In the videos "making them talk" is often overlaid with someone speaking, either a storyteller or someone in a speaking role. Things occasionally speak, a dollar bill, for example, in Jovride (1988), or, as early as 1983, the streetlight in Spinout that, in addition to its human voice, uses its own power of speech, the flickering of the light.12 Tony Oursler looks for that power of speech. That of flowered wallpaper, of various kinds of boxes and their decorations, or (and we find this in the trash photographs) of liquid and the appearances and images bound up with it, like hydrants or washing machines, puddles as mirrors, water destroys streets and landscapes constructed out of paper, washing machines as "the door to a new world" in Spinout. Liquids can be dangerous, as when they spill out from barrels of Kepone.13 We have no way of knowing whether the liquid flowing out through a hole in one of the very clean plastic garbage pails we see in a photograph is just innocuous water or something else. Not knowing means asking questions. Questions want to be answered. Many an answer is a story. And we should remember that it is the choice of material, its arrangement, and how one sees it that effects speech.

In his work, Oursler is not only concerned with "inner worlds." As dummies and other objects began to take the place of the screen as a projection surface, the direction of the video projection began to change from "inward" to the "exterior world."14 Being outside or inside is a matter of definition. To Matthew Ritchie's question as to whether he felt himself part of a generation that has gone from being outsiders to being insiders, Oursler answered, "It's been interesting to get more acceptance in the heart of the art world. One of the things that's a little saddening about the world is that the so-called "inside" doesn't realize how many other spheres are occurring at the same time, that don't think of themselves as outside. I have always worked and felt part of a dialogue."15 In the trash photographs, inside and outside can be clearly recognized; the garbage is standing on the street or on the sidewalk in front of a house. But it once belonged to the "inner" world of the houses. And now it stands outside, put out by someone from inside on the edge of the street. The trash photos are an empirical study of a world in-between, a world between outside and inside, a study conducted by someone who permanently moves between the defined worlds of "high" and "low," "in" and "out."

Translated from German by Warren Niesluchowski

1. Furor. Geneva, no, 20, 1994. Oursler's contribution was a series of ten photos entitled Empirical Trash.
2. Quoted by Elizabeth Janus, "Towards a Psychodramatic Grammar of Motiving Images; A Conversation with Tony Oursler" in Tony Oursler, exhibition catalogue, capc Musee d'art contemporain de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, 1997, p. 119.
3. Interview, January 19, 1998,
4. Tony Oursler. Jon Kessler. exhibition catalogue, Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg, 1994, Cf. also Tony Oursler: Dummies, clouds, organs, flowers, watercolors, videotapes, alters, performances, and dolls exhibition catalogue, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; Les Musees de la Ville de Strasbourg; Centre d'Art Contemporain, Geneva; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1995. Pg. 15
5. Simon Morrissey, "Tony Oursler; Lisson Gallery, 19 January-24 February" in Creative Camera, issue 339, April-May, 1996, p. 35.
6. Tony Oursler on his work Judy, and on the alter egos Horror, Boss, and Fuck You. performed by Tracy Leipold, in the Salzburger Kunstverein exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p. 7 (English) and 11 (German).
7. An issue that also plays an important role for Voltaire with respect to society and culture.
8. Cf, the Portikus exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p. 72-5.
9. Ibid., p. 32-3. For Tony Oursler on collaboration as a strategy, see Janus, op. cit., p. 122.
10. The nine environments are: 1. Ludlow Street, 2, The Graveyard, 3. Entropy, 4. Empathy Wheel, 5. The Jacket, 6. Water, 7. Walls that Speak, 8. Lost Things, 9. Bale. 11. In Janus, op. cit,, p. 120.
12. This phenomenon, functioning between the inner and the outer world, became a work in its own right in Talking Light (1996) and the Streetlights for Muenster in 1997. 
13. Cf. Kepone Drum. Portikus exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p. 66, and the video Kepone. (1991).
14. In Janus, op. cit., p. 121.
15, Matthew Ritchie, 'Tony Oursler - Technology as in instinct amplifier," in Flash Art, vol. XXIX, no. 186, January-February, 1996, p. 79.