Jason Lazarus and Sean Ward started the PDF-OBJECTS project in 2016 as a collective experiment in meta-art, where art practices, processes and methods of research-based artists are sportively studied. The instructions for PDF-OBJECTS are clear: “Participating artists are asked to submit a PDF of a text that significantly informs their practice, along with a description of a commonly available object (valued at $20 or less), and instructions on how to sculpturally embed the PDF and object together.”
The accessibility of readymades parallels what Lazarus describes as the “lightness of the PDF within the Artist PDF economy.” The project is, in part, an exploration of PDFs as ubiquitous symbols of accessibility and exchange in the art world. Lazarus describes the “art by instruction” exhibition series as a generative “sculptural field,” which exists as an online library.
Retaining its pedagogical nature, the pared-down digital exhibition “PDF-OBJECTS, Shelter in Place,” facilitated by Mana Contemporary and curated by Lazarus, reads like a self-directed online course. In comparison to previous “PDF-OBJECTS” exhibitions, “Shelter in Place” is intimate, featuring only eight artists: B. Ingrid Olson, Bahareh Khoshooee, Caroline Woolard, Jake Troyli, Legacy Russell, Lise Haller Baggesen, Shana Hoehn and Sheida Soleimani. The gallery released one artist’s project per day, over a ten-day period beginning on May 5. The exhibition’s digital opening on May 15 functioned like contemporary art-theory Zoom class, where viewers from across the world gathered virtually to witness a performance by Khoshooee as well as readings from Hoehn and Baggesen.
The exhibition’s home page on Mana’s website features a lattice of cropped images of the PDF-OBJECTS, each of which links to a discrete web page. Without physical exhibition space amidst social distancing, the sculptures are unrealized, subsisting as web pages to form a digital framework. The objects’ instructions read like personal invitations, and once a viewer is on their respective web page, it’s easy to imagine the hypothetical sculpture in a gallery setting, at the artist’s studio or at your desk at home.
Woolard’s object plays with that potentiality. Her work places Adrian Piper’s 1973 critical essay, “In Support of Meta-Art,” atop a bed of ten to 10,000 marbles, viewer’s choice, upon which the text is meant to balance so that it appears to levitate. Her instructions detail how the essay be printed, stapled and placed. They further specify in a series of conditional statements how the text and marbles be replaced in order to maintain this levitation. Woolard describes this buoyancy, “Does a PDF respond to gravity? Of course, in the wires and labor that make our networked information age possible, but the direct experience of a visitor downloading a PDF online makes it feel otherwise. I wanted to bring that sense of levitation—of a space between—to this work.” The scenario contends with the reality of potential material conditions which encompass artists’ production today. The work asks: If the marbles function as support within the PDF-Object, what potential conditions might they represent?
Moving from the hypothetical to the virtual, Khoshooee materializes her PDF-OBJECT in cyberspace. The viewer is directed to feed a folded pink paper-strip of Nora Khan’s exhibition essay, “Moving Past Eyelessness,” an essay which addresses the machinic eye, into the HSTYAIG Money Saving Bank. The bank has two artificial eyes and a mechanical mouth that leads to a compartment. After feeding its face, viewers are instructed to read the PDF on their phone via a QR code. During her live Zoom performance, Khoshooee repeated this collaboration with the machine, where a video feed depicted Khan’s essay fed to Replika, an AI chatbot. This was done in tandem with a portrayal of AR deep-fake videos of the artist, which she does in protest against machinic face recognition.
“The cyberspace provides a platform for marginalized communities for expressing their voice, and additionally liberates them from the logistic restrictions of physical space, distance and time,” Khoshooee writes of virtual space. “This idealistic platform… is becoming more and more unethical since the rise of market-driven data-mining algorithms.” Khoshooee’s object, taking notes from Khan’s text, encourages the viewer to speculate on what a reconciliation between cyberspace and the human mind, one which approaches a more egalitarian way of seeing, might look like.
Digital exhibitions, virtual artist talks and Instagram takeovers flourish as galleries and artists find ways to support themselves and their extended communities. This exhibition’s cerebral request for contemplation offers something different, a slowed-down and intimate space for reflection. The PDF-OBJECTS-turned-web pages are in many ways just ideas made manifest, each a foot in the door to understanding the respective artists’ practices. Through its digital framework “PDF-OBJECTS, Shelter-in-Place” contemplates the potential of cyberspace as an equitable platform, while acknowledging its boundless phenomenological dangers, it endures as a valid option for intimate social exchange and learning. (Amanda Roach)