Slow Stretch
Sarah & Joseph Belknap and Eileen Rae Walsh
Mana Contemporary Chicago
February 21 - April 3, 2016
Extended through April 24, 2016

Publication

Press
NewCity
Chicago Reader

I find myself sitting in my room, watching the sunlight on the floor, and I’m in the state that I reach after hours and hours of concentration…a calm and delightful ecstasy, a oneness with everything, so that a flower in a vase is oneself, and the slow stretch of a muscle is the confident energy that drives the universe.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Near the end of Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Ana, finds herself in the middle of a life in disarray. The idealism of her political activism has crumbled. Her lovers disappoint and betray her. Her career as a writer is in jeopardy. She will descend into a temporary madness, but as she sits on the precipice of this fall, her mind locks on the room around her in a state of total concentration, watching the sunlight on the floor for hours in “a calm and delightful ecstasy, a oneness with everything, so that a flower in a vase is oneself, and the slow stretch of a muscle is the confident energy that drives the universe.”[1] The frustrations of her creative and political labor induce a unity and a projection, assembling her surroundings into a slingshot that propels her consciousness into totality.

Creative frustrations can do that to us. Limitations and collapses frequently open up new avenues of collaboration, new allies that give an unexpected leap into the universe’s energies. The exhibition Slow Stretch is the culmination of such a process. Like Ana watching the sunlight, the three artists of Slow Stretch are propelled by a concentration and an exploratory fervor that dissolves their boundaries as singular creators. Sarah Belknap and Joseph Belknap, in fact, have long demolished that line within their shared practice. A united team, their work revolves around material experimentation, restless free association, and zoomed-out perspectives on human, geological and astronomical activity. Eileen Rae Walsh, a photographer and writer, creates images that, in a sense, operate collaboratively. Affixed directly to the wall in spatial arrangements, Walsh’s pictures work together in chorus, the process of visual association supplanting the discrete autonomy of the individual photograph. 

Brought together for this exhibition by a shared interest in capturing and creating moments of absolute absorption into an experience of awe or discovery, the trio unified their approach around the premise of touch. It’s a prominent dimension in both of their practices, sometimes flickering at the edges, as when Walsh shows the hint of a grasping hand in a layered pile of photographs, and other times front-and-center, as evidenced by the manifest sensuality of the Belknap’s tactile sculptures. For Walsh and the Belknaps, touch serves a propulsive function by acting as a metaphor for a broader epistemological reaching and grasping. 

Like the other senses, touch can be understood as a channel of transition between the world and the isolated sensing being. Yet sensations of touch can also be shared, and as a zone of separation and mixing, touch can be read in a broad sense as an interface. Alexander Galloway’s theorizing is helpful here: he describes the interface as “an agitation or generative friction” between different mediatic layers.[2] To use an interface is to move between one medium experience and another, toggling the medium effects of each.[3] Crucially, Galloway proposes that all media evoke a “liminal transition moment in which the outside is evoked in order that an inside may take place.”[4] For a window to exist, it must connect an outside and an inside, otherwise it is merely a wall. 

This consideration of interface serves us in two ways. It illuminates the dynamics at play in the artists’ work, and also speaks to the nature of collaboration as a function of the interface. At the core of Walsh’s practice is a search for the sensations that accompany states of emotional, psychological or intellectual intensity. She has described photography as a stabbing or an opening, where an experience is grabbed and translated, allowing for her to steal away with traces of a sublime experience. Her pictures are lush and fleshy, but they also always carry their own critiques of the limits of photographic representation. Often, they are mediated in layered ways, as when she photographs an image on a computer screen, or as a reflection, or reproduces an image through the static of an office photocopier. These levels emphasize the initial interface of photography, which, as Vilém Flusser and other media theorists have long noted, has a role in pre-structuring contemporary human vision.[5] Walsh diminishes the individual, autonomous photograph, emphasizing instead the relations between images. In other words, she approaches the image as a process rather than as a set of distinct qualities, producing photographs as interface effects along the way. 

Because collaboration is a transition from a singular inner world to a shared outer world, the space of collaboration acts as an interface itself.[6] Over time, the shared outer world of the collaboration becomes written inside as a shared inner world, where the procedures of the cooperative labor become internalized. Galloway has called this the “fertile nexus,” a shared zone where the individual finds definition through confrontation and difference, but where the individual ego is also subverted through the rules of the shared world.[7] Sarah and Joseph Belknap have certainly passed this threshold of internalization. They rely on one another as sounding boards and as the first line of critique for fresh ideas. Further to Galloway’s notions, their concerns have shifted to a focus on translating their shared language, which consists largely of an insistence on play and unyielding inquisitiveness in the studio, to the outside, through the objects they make. The Belknaps actively refuse stagnation in the studio. Their work in layered, seductive and ever changing media is a reflection of how these two artists want to be in the world, and their sculptural work attempts to incite some of those same feelings in the viewer. A shared interest in geological sciences directs their research, and yet the objects produced in their studio register on an emotional level. The works are intuitive, joyful, bodily and materially beguiling. For this exhibition, the Belknaps and Walsh integrate their work into a sprawling field-like installation that privileges the interrelations in their practices, finding points of contact and friction between the objects and images on display. 

As a means of concluding, it may be useful to elaborate on the collaborative process these artists shared as the exhibition developed. Consisting primarily of a long-running image exchange on a group message thread, each artist shot quick photos of their own and each other’s hands and shared them in a rapid-fire swirl. These low-barrier, intimate exchanges were a way of staying in each other’s minds while communicating “I was here,” “I touched this,” “I created this.” There was a repetition and rhythm to the exchange, and it allowed the hand itself to become a stand-in for the ideas unfolding in their works, representing a prolonged process of grasping at the elusive. As the motif of the collaborative hand developed, a passage from Moby Dick sprang to mind as a rich allegorical parallel. In this scene, the crew of the Pequod stand around a barrel of fresh sperm whale oil, breaking up the clumps with their hands to homogenize the liquid. In euphoric prose, Melville describes “a strange sort of insanity” where the men begin grabbing each other’s hands, locking eyes, aspiring to “squeeze ourselves into each other.”[8] Arms and oil intermixing, the men find themselves in a sensual sublimity of communal endeavor. Like these whalers, Eileen Rae Walsh and Sarah & Joseph Belknap are guided by hands busied, ecstatic, in the effort of mutual creation. 

This publication serves as the first of three issues to precede the exhibition Slow Stretch at Mana Contemporary Chicago. The second, mailed one week after the first, contains interviews between Third Object and the artists on the topics of teamwork and how this exhibition fits into their broader practices. The last installment, mailed one week before the exhibition opens, is devised collaboratively by the three artists. In this slow extension of the exhibition catalogue, the ideas of the exhibition will be unveiled bit by bit, less a documentation of the exhibition than an introduction to its curves and facets. 

Third Object would like to thank Sarah, Joseph and Eileen for their openness and dedication, Ciara Ruffino and Mana Contemporary for the opportunity to present this work to Chicago, and Nelly Agassi, Andrew Schachman & Merav Argov of Fieldwork for their support in the development of this exhibition. 

  1. Lessing, Doris, The Golden Notebook. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999 [1962]), 536.
  2. Galloway, Alexander, “The Unworkable Interface.” New Literary History, no. 39 (2009), pp. 931-955, p. 936.
  3. See Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” in McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Boston: MIT Press, 1964), p. 1.
  4. Ibid, p. 938.
  5. Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Trans. Anthony Mathews. (London: Reaktion Books, 2006 [1983 as Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie]), p. 9.
  6. For an art historical lens on collaboration, see Green, Charles, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
  7. Galloway draws this term from the French author François Dagognet. See Dagognet, François, Faces, Surfaces, Interfaces. (Paris: Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1982). Cited in Galloway, p. 938.
  8. Melville, p. 292. See also Claire Denis’s 1999 film Beau Travail, a loose adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd and a significant illustration of collaborative bodies at work.