Catalogue: The Series Program

 

Semiotics of the Living Room: A Catalogue of Desire

The eye, at first, would glide over the grey rug of a long corridor, high and narrow. The wall would be cabinets, whose copper fittings would gleam. Three engravings … would lead to a leather curtain, hanging from large rings of black-veined wood, that a simple gesture would suffice to slide back … It would be a living room, about twenty-one feet long and nine feet wide. On the left, in a sort of alcove, a large couch of worn black leather would be flanked by two book cases in pale wild-cherry wood, on which books would be piled helter-skelter. Above the divan a nautical chart would run the whole length of the wall panel. Beyond a little low table, under a silk prayer rug attached to the wall with three copper nails with large heads, and balancing the leather hanging, another divan, perpendicular to the first, upholstered in light brown velvet, would lead to a small piece of furniture on high legs, lacquered in dark red, with three shelves that would hold bric-à-brac; agates and stone eggs, snuffboxes, jade ashtrays … Farther on … small boxes and records, next to a closed phonograph of which only four machine-turned steel knobs would be visible …[1]

—Georges Perec

On reading Dana Berman Duff’s synopsis of her film series Catalogue, I am struck by the overt assertion that the duration of each film clip is based on the ‘desire of the filmmaker’; her interest in and attention to the represented objects. She writes that these films are ‘documentaries of her experience of looking’ – they catalogue her desire. Thereby, Catalogue, this semiotic gesture through the language of film, is constructed and framed by the artist’s own desire.

Included in this complex act of doubling, and sometimes tripling, Duff’s Catalogue is a visual lexicon based on the 2014 catalogue from Restoration Hardware – since re-named RH in 2016 – owner Gary Friedman’s re-invention, a double in its own right.[2] The company calls it a ‘publication’, likening it to a published artwork, or a ‘source book … offering tours of the brand’[3]. It is a multi-volume sumptuous piece of advertising, thick as an old New York City phone book weighing in at 17 pounds and with a depth of 5 inches. It presents a ‘premium luxury brand…. (of) home design together with lifestyle view’[4] Of course these (obscure) objects of desire are metonymy, they are ‘an abstraction or image and not a presentation of any lived possibility.’[5]

The rugs, linens, chairs, sofas, tableware, and lighting fixtures are photographed within a desaturated palette, depicting subtle tones of beige and pale mint. These reproduced settings portray domestic spaces of luxury, comfort and ease, evoking old film stills. They are presented in such a way to suggest more than just a place to sit comfortably, they aim at access to a life of leisure and security. They signify an historic link to privilege and prestige. This is a desire for, alongside the inaccessibility to, perfection – where objects are replaced by a nostalgic myth of a kind of lifestyle experience.

It makes perfect sense that these rooms describe a fictional luxury, a narrative of affluence and contentment as pictured in films from the past. The abiding style of RH favours the men’s club look of old movies.  This is cultural nostalgia propagated by Hollywood – what could be more desirable?

However, more than mere leisure class entrée is on offer here. The RH catalogue displays ‘authentic reproductions’[6], knock-offs in Duff’s terms. In 2014, the sign of class and taste in the US was decidedly mid-century Modernism – and that is what was on offer in the RH catalogue. Objects referencing iconic modernist mementos that carried familiarity and the caché of fine art.[7]

Duff explores this desire through her own set of reproductions, duplications, and repetitions.  Just as RH employs the reproducibility of the modern chair, Duff re-presents their photographic documentation with her film camera. Mechanical reproduction’s forfeiture of aura redeemed by democratic access is interrogated through its own resurrection. ‘Quotation thereby leads us to a set of terms bound up in this double process of restoration and disillusion: the image, the reflection, and, above all, the repetition.’[8]

But these films are no simple exercise in undermining the futility of consumer capitalism through re-signification. There is homage here, there is pleasure. Catalogue’s jouissance lies in its materiality, its illusion, its quotation and its narrativity.

Alongside the use of exquisite black & white, the scratches, dust marks, flashes of light-leaks, the jittery displacement of the frame as the film strip uneasily advances through mechanical sprockets, Duff avails of the oversized grain of 16mm film. Even as her static camera resists the motion of a moving image – ‘the picture is moving, just not the things in the picture.’[9] The material quality of her film stock creates ever circulating particles of light and shadow. This surface interruption of continuous movement, emblematic of the molecular stuff of life, undermines the Barthesian moment of the photographs.

A playful confusion ensues; a photographic representation, itself a reference to the past and death, of an object signifying an unattainably desirable life, is now reproduced as a still-moving-image consisting of nothing more than projected light. This is materiality that is immaterial – all that is solid melts into air.[10]

The spectacle of Catalogue wears its humour lightly. Viewing the films is an experience of continual revelation. What is thought to be an interior domestic space is revealed to be a photograph. Folded catalogue leaves reiterate the folds of linen and in so doing create Hannah Höch-style surreal collages. Gravity defying chairs slowly float through space like Stanley Kubrick’s ape’s bone-cum-satellite.

There is further interruption as well. These moving films of course don’t really move, but are constituted of nothing more than a series of still images, that portray a series of still images. And with this stillness the flow of time is disturbed, holding the viewer in suspension, and calling attention to the very manipulation of temporality.

As Perec’s description of ‘things’ from the Story of the Sixties pauses the diegetic narrative of viewing to name each object, Duff’s films isolate still moments in space to expand them over time. In fact, Catalogue Vol. 7 has been presented as a 7-hour long gallery installation. Watching these films is an experience of the pleasure of looking at images, rather than objects, and looking in time.

The referred signification to an ‘original’ is replaced with the value and pleasure of gazing. The narrative is transformed from the dulcet language of advertising; from the future oriented, ever delayed promise of pleasure, the promise of the object[11] – which is really just a substitute, a semantic sign of lack, that which is not there, what we don’t have – to a present moment, one that luxuriates in the visual pleasure of the image. This becomes narrative of emancipation – it is ‘the miracle and the violence of representation.’[12]

Duff continues to develop additional films for the series corresponding to the entire 13 volume RH catalogue, but as of the time of this writing, coincidentally as I sit on an Arne Jacobson Series 7 knock-off, there is only one existing, and two planned, exceptions to the adherence of the films’ internal logic of relying solely on the RH catalogue photography.

In Catlogue Vol. 3, this same Jacobson Series 7 chair becomes the hero/protagonist of the film. In this narrative, the chair has its own direct experience. The film portrays transitions in the life of the object. There are layers of invisible resistance and emergence, sometimes literally. At one point, there is a chair-point-of-view sequence as the object surfaces from underwater after falling/floating down from the sky – this chair sits nicely within the Kubrick reference.

The Series 7 chair was the instigator for Duff’s project after having become aware of iterations of its presence everywhere.[13] Calling it the (qualified) “most successful object in the world”. Through Catalogue she demonstrates her interest and attraction, seduction and attachment, to the object.  Karin Knorr Cetina writes of “objects of knowledge,” that they are “the goal of expert work; and … also what experts, scientists, etc. regularly profess themselves to be interested in, attracted by, seduced into and attached to.”[14]

Sounding like a definition of much contemporary art, Cetina goes on to explain: “objects of knowledge being characteristically open, question-generating and complex … they are processes and projections rather than definitive things.”[15]

In encountering the chair we are appreciating a stand-in, a representation to compensate for a more basic lack of object. “…this lack corresponds to a structure of wanting, a continually renewed interest in knowing, that appears to be never fulfilled by final knowledge.”

“Accordingly, wants are always directed at an empirical object mediated by representations, through signifiers, which identify the object and render it significant. But these representations never quite catch up with the object, they always in some aspects fail (misrepresent) the thing they articulate. They thereby reiterate the lack rather than eliminate it.”

For objects of knowledge such as Duff’s chair, “they suggest which way to look further, through the insufficiencies they display. In that sense one could say that objects of knowledge structure desire, or provide for the continuation of the structure of wanting.”

And as is apparent through the Catalogue film series, Cetina notes: “Since objects of knowledge are always in the process of being materially defined, they continually acquire new properties and change the ones they have. But this also means that objects of knowledge can never be fully attained, that they are, if you wish, never quite themselves.”

Further illustrating the desire unmet and the object unattained, Catalogue Vol. 3 uses a digitized version of the 1955 Jacobson Series 7 chair for a CGI digital animation. This numeric representation of the chair, freely sourced from the internet, only ever exists as binary information. Yet again, there is only image – no chair object. Duff continues the transformation and permutations of object/image and image/object as she then uses the same data to output miniature plastic chairs on a 3D printer for the live action digital video of the forthcoming Catalogue Vol.10.

The chair object, itself already a substitution, has been done away with for its own image but it is not the only thing missing. From the outset of Catalogue, we have been presented with rooms devoid of human presence. Interiors without bodies.

These are settings for bodies that never appear. Even though they are sometimes apparent – evidence of presence through footsteps and voices, at times even the movement of shadow across a tufted velvet surface, these spaces are only preparation for people that might arrive, or trace of those gone past.

Catalogue Vol. 6, is a study in abjection. The domestic settings now carry the soundtrack from horror films – they too, like the images, are only parts of something else, something before. There is the sound of crashing and falling, muffled laughter, a scream, a sting of ominous music. And like all the previous imagery from all the films – no one is visible.

The sensuality of the images, the emphasis on texture and haptic experience, the physicality of desire that has gone unfulfilled, are finally given voice; “I am home I am home.” The journey is complete and the body is the objects, the objects are the body.

There is only one other instance of corporeal presence. In Catalogue Vol. 2, Duff includes the audio of the time and space of the film’s production; studio noises, outside traffic, a brief excerpt from a pod-cast. Here Duff adds her narrative of making to the nostalgic fiction of the objects and the fantasy of the photographs. She claims her subjective experience – she is the desirer par excellence.

In this way, the filmmaker’s subjectivity is a politics of desire; it is female, it is critical, and it shifts pleasure from that of being directed towards the object represented to the representation(s) of the object. In Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey refers to a scene from Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman in which photographs are presented on screen: “Creating another distance, another time, the photo permits me to reflect on the cinema.”[16]

[1] Perec, G. (1967) Things: A Story of the Sixties, New York: Grove Press, pp.11-12.

[2] Donoghue, K. (2016) Gary Friedman, Whitewall Contmeporary Art Magazine, [online] Summer 2016 Issue, p.68-67  Available at: https://www.whitewall.art/design/gary-friedman-has-reinvented-retail-at-restoration-hardware [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]

In 2009 the company was purchased by Gary Friedman who rebranded it from a mall merchandiser of tools into an upscale lifestyle brand. Furthering the reproduction/repetition theme, RH stores, called “galleries”, are organized to look like real rooms including real windows and light.  RH also has real galleries and represents real artists.

[3] From the RH website copy; https://www.restorationhardware.com

[4] Furio, J. (2011)  Pieces of His Mind. San Francisco Magazine, [online] April Issue, p. 82-94. Available at: https://images.restorationhardware.com/media/press/2011/2011_04_SF_Magazine.pdf [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]

[5] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, The Souvenir, The Collecion, Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 306

[6] From the RH website copy; https://www.restorationhardware.com [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]

[7] Problematically, the catalogue is full of stolen designs from mid-century designers (Arne Jacobsen, Mies Van der Rohe, George Nelson, et al) that were still being produced by the original manufacturers. Big companies like Herman Miller were constantly suing Restoration Hardware but smaller ones couldn’t afford to. Gradually these stolen designs have disappeared from the catalogues as they’ve moved to more traditional designs and used more of their own designers.

[8] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, The Souvenir, The Collecion, Durham and London: Duke University Press, p.27

[9] From conversation with Duff over email correspondence: “I discovered in working with the 16mm film that the picture is moving, not the things in the picture—it truly is a ‘motion picture’.”

[10] Howarth, D. (2006) Space, Subjectivity, and Politics, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, April 1 Issue. “All that is solid melts into air” refers to a passage in the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. They referred first of all to the fact that capitalism by its nature is constantly expanding and therefore needs to constantly revolutionize itself in order to create new markets, leaving nothing solid or permanent in its wake, They were also speaking of the way that capitalism reduces everything to the shadowy abstraction known as money. It also is the title of Marshall Berman’s 1982 examination of social and economic modernization and its conflicting relationship to modernism

[11] Describing the Modern line of furniture: “The sense of “less” makes you feel like you have more time.”–Gary Freidman, Chairman CEO of RH

[12] From conversation with Duff over email correspondence: “Everything I’ve made after seeing his chairs as a grad student (Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs”) (OMG chairs!), with few exceptions, continues to ponder the miracle and the violence of representation.”

[13] From conversation with Duff over email correspondence: This work with the chairs started when I noticed that versions of the mid-century Jacobsen chair were everywhere and started calling it the “most successful object in the world“. That trophy really goes to those awful white plastic jobs. But I’m still interested in what that success means for an object.

[14] Knorr Cetina, K.(1997) Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Post-Social Knowledge Societies. Theory, Culture and Society 14, (4) pp 1-43. Available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/026327697014004001?journalCode=tcsa [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]

[15] ibid

[16] Mulvey, L. (2006) Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London. Reaktion Books. P. 185

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