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Never Bring a Labor-Saving Device to a Labor-Saturated Place: On Catherine Sullivan’s “Triangle of Need”

Matthew Jesse Jackson, Assistant Professor, Departments of Visual Arts and Art History, University of Chicago


Passing bodies interrupt your view. Abandoned headphones clang on the benches around you.

You try to acclimate yourself to the four video monitors and Dr. Patrick Obi’s e-mail, but it is impossible not to ignore some part of the work. You grow frustrated.

The peripheral presence of the skater–teenage girls throws a monkey wrench into your viewing. There is always this other situation of acumen, celebration, enjoying, learning, participating, perfecting, and testing that plays no role on the three main screens. Call it a sidebar, a footnote on skill and intimacy. Intruding into the corner of your eye, it irritates you.

You try to perform the appropriate interpretive labor, but you grow increasingly dissatisfied with the results. The familiar segues, the tried-and-true patterns of plot development melt away before your eyes. The action follows the hairpin turns of Ionesco logic, leaving you wondering, confused. You think: “I do not want this job. I’m not up to the task. Let someone else do it.” You contemplate putting down your earphones and searching out greener interpretive pastures in another gallery. But you . . . you push on.

Triangle of Need puts pressure on standard exhibition practices. One could say that the contemporary art museum aims to be a labor-saving device: it attempts to make “art experience” maximally consumable while requiring of the spectator a minimal investment of time and effort. This is not the case with the present work. Yes, the accompanying wall text talks about a “primal scene of capitalism,” framing Triangle of Need as a “research project,” a complex rearticulation of historical economic forces. However such a description hardly prepares you for the labor-saturated viewing at hand. In fact, this information nags at you, demanding that you find a way to break the code, solve the puzzle, make the action add up.

Anyway, you sit. You scan the screens like a predator tracking prey.

Before you is a group portrait, some kind of odd, high-tech genre painting. Landscape becomes stage set, exuding the preciousness of something tended in the tropics. Nature in a human situation. Humans in an unnatural situation. And somewhere in the background, a constant, pluridirectional wave flows from screen to screen, uttering two virtually inaudible syllables: “Money.”

Someone called it the root source of all representation in a capitalist economy.

“Economy” is one of Catherine Sullivan’s favorite words. Her “economic” art flummoxes the calculating mind, the financialized thinking of the typical viewer of contemporary art. To state the case succinctly: Triangle of Need aims to shatter the armature of everyday reasonableness that constantly naturalizes the demands of economic necessity.

And when this shattering begins, the sound is all labials and fricatives.


The glossolalia of primitive accumulation.

The human voice takes on the character of something visual: sound penetrates the viewer’s ears the way the visual customarily dominates the viewer’s eyes. This allover merging of sound and vision produces an infernal machine of displaced emotions and unplaceable relationships. On the screens, proximity without empathy breeds impaired intimacy. So many people. So little personality. Omnipresent movement and zero development. Beginnings and Endings hover in the corners. Cradling arms and deathbeds. The repetitive actions suggest the mutuality of recognition, but not really. Gestures balance on the cusp of meaning, then slide back to nothingness. Clothing functions as costume, historically dis-specific. Gender, ethnicity, and class arrive in complex situations. Interpretation must start again and again.

Creative Destruction meets Shock Doctrine.

The high-end texture of the videos compels a lazy conviction. Their televisual lushness cohabitates with the landscapes of mediated desire, the cosmologies trapped inside your VCR and DVD player. The actors’ actions culminate in profusions of awkward zigzags and slow-mos; the staccato configurations of fast-forwards and rewinds run amok. Nothing on the screens moves inward or outward. Everything is panning and horizontal. Nothing produces, yet everything moves. The camera and the bodies that it captures embrace a dogmatic, hyperbolic non-fixity that never leads anywhere in particular. This is the space-time continuum of money-culture. A zone that operates according to Triangle of Need’s implicit, elemental equation:

Social Darwinism = Social Dadaism.

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