Mark Sladen on information flow in the work of Aaron Flint Jamison

from the September 2014 issue

By Mark Sladen

Courtesy Veneer

The work of American artist Aaron Flint Jamison explores the secret life of information. One recent exhibition, at Cubitt in London, included a Jacuzzi turned into a sculptural object and exhaling air. Another show, at Artists Space in New York, featured a 3D scanner mounted on a tripod, surveying the gallery and accumulating massive files. Meanwhile, Jamison’s work in the current Liverpool Biennial consists of an array of hugely powerful computer circuits in air-conditioned boxes, linked to a control room that only the most dedicated visitor will discover. In all of these cases, the projects – which also feature plinths and other structures made from purpleheart wood, as well as highly crafted artist books – were mounted without explanatory text, and have been surrounded by clouds of hearsay. These projects appear to follow the flow of information through disparate systems, most obviously those of computers, bodies and books.

The identity of Veneer comes less from its editorial than from its particular, even bizarre qualities as object or as institutional project

However, such gallery works are only one aspect of Jamison’s practice, and perhaps not even the best introduction to his work – as it is often in his longer-running and more ‘institutional’ projects that the artist’s distinctive treatment of information is at its most apparent. One such is a magazine, Veneer, which Jamison launched in 2007 and which is projected to run for 18 issues. Veneer has featured a variety of contributors – including artists as well as figures from science and technology – and has also reproduced content lifted directly from textbooks, trade journals and promotional literature. However, the identity of Veneer comes less from its editorial than from its particular, even bizarre qualities as object or as institutional project. Indeed, Jamison says that he gets to “ask questions each issue through the magazine’s production and administration”.

Every edition of Veneer is accordingly distinguished by lavish combinations of different paper stocks and production techniques, as well as by curious elements of performance. For instance, issue four features a section reproduced in an ‘unprintable’ blue, as well as a page rubbed with Brut deodorant, and was apparently launched with a yoga class on top of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Other strategies that Jamison has tried out include ‘reverse advertising’ (reproducing adverts without permission and then attempting to bill the companies concerned) and ‘reverse shoplifting’ (secreting copies of the magazine in bookshops as a form of distribution). The artist has said that it’s important to him that “bodies interface with production”, and this principle appears to extend from the printing of the magazine itself – the bulk of which is done by Jamison and his associates – through to its elaborate rituals of publication.

Since issue six Veneer has been produced at Yale Union (YU), an arts centre in Portland, Oregon, that is one of the other long-running projects in which Jamison has been involved – he launched the organisation in 2008, in collaboration with music producer Curtis Knapp, shortly after moving to the city. YU is housed in a historic laundry building that occupies half a city block, and in the first couple of years, Jamison and Knapp installed a recording studio, as well as the print workshop in which Veneer is now produced. Since then other facilities and functions have been brought on line, including a huge floor of extraordinary gallery space; and other colleagues have been added, such as the designer Scott Ponik and the curator Robert Snowden. The philosophy of YU has always been to add or resolve things as they are needed, resulting in an organisation that evolves over time.

Jamison says that he does not believe in generalised answers, and it seems that this refusal to package information links all of the projects in which he is involved

The programme of YU is similarly responsive. For example, the organisation is currently mounting a George Kuchar retrospective, one film at a time, a project that began in 2008 and which is projected to run for eight years. Meanwhile, for a recent Yuji Agematsu exhibition, YU helped the artist develop display systems for his work – which is based on archives of trash that he collects from city streets – with results that included a table top featuring an array of cigarette butts pinned like beetles. This interest in developing particular strategies of presentation for particular projects also extends to the organisation’s attitude to documentation, and exhibition records have included deconstructed publications as well as huge one-to-one image files. YU explores the paradox of a noninstitutional institution: an approach that is signalled most clearly in its ‘identity’, which employs an often highly eccentric first-person voice – presented in a graphic style whose bookish understatement is a parody of neutrality.

While YU, particularly in its more recent years, is clearly a group project, it can also be seen as a manifestation of Jamison’s singular working strategies. The artist says that he does not believe in generalised answers, and it seems that this refusal to package information links all of the projects in which he is involved. Sometimes information is withheld (like the issue of Veneer sealed with expanded foam). Sometimes it is flooded (like those churning data engines in Jamison’s gallery work). Sometimes it comes through proxies (the artist often asks others to speak on his behalf). And sometimes it comes through hearsay (there is a river in the basement of Yale Union, apparently). In all of these projects, information is treated as the odd, adaptive, unpredictable property that it is, and is encouraged to find its own level.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue.