Thursday, May 11, 2017

Crit: Lewis Bush, The Borderland

Lewis has a work-in-progress up on a tumblr blog, entitled The Borderland. He's experimenting with animated GIFs and satellite imagery, to document certain things.

Let me begin with the disclaimer. I think Lewis isn't very good, and I don't like this sort of thing. Still, I am going to do my best to give him a fair shake here. If I don't arrive at the identical conclusions I have on less-considered looks, I will summarize my prior thoughts (i.e. the thoughts I have as I type this now, rather than after I finish my re-examination) at the end.

Bush is gathering up satellite (or high altitude?) imagery of various border and border-related sites. Actual border fences, refugee camps near borders, ports of entry, pieces of ocean across which people (refugees in particular, I think but I'm not positive this is Bush's point) pass, from one nation to another.

Where possible, he gets multiple images over time, and creates an animation that illustrates the changes. We see refugee camps growing (or, possibly, shrinking), we see border fence infrastructure expanding, we see boats coming and going from ports and on chunks of ocean.

In terms of the basic structural material, well, the work certainly hangs together being more or less the same visual methods, and closely allied content, over and over. It is in that sense balanced, because it's all more or less the same thing. Visually, there is some variety, some interest, as he's selected various kinds of landscapes and seascapes for this project. The conceptual drumbeat, though, is clear, it's all borders, it's all about expansion of infrastructure aimed at keeping people out. Or at any rate, that's what I assume. The format allows one to read it as the shrinking of infrastructure aimed at keeping people in, but that strikes me as unlikely.

As for sequence, there's not a lot of wiggle room here. He mixes things up to avoid visual monotony, here's a refugee camp, here's a fence, here's an ocean, here's an office building and, here we are back at a refugee camp. tumblr does not exactly allow sophisticated sequencing, to be fair, and tumblr is probably the best available choice for animated GIFs, so I can't fault Bush here.

So, I'll stipulate that structurally this is pretty good. It flows tolerably, it's interesting enough to look at, it hangs together. Even though these things are not in and of themselves which are either Good or Bad, we can say that the work possesses these qualities, and that they make it more or less interesting to look at, structurally.

So how does this extend outward, how does it fill itself in to create a larger picture? I guess it does a solid job of expressing the idea of an expanding mission to contain people. The ocean pictures are a little vague, but I think they add both visual interest, and also lead us conceptually outwards to the bigger idea of the nation-states of the world are expanding their structures for containing/excluding people (refugees? other?) so I think they work, even though they're a bit of a puzzle when you first see them.

So far, so good. Bush has captured and expressed a pretty Big Idea.

But what is he trying to say?

This is where I get stuck. He doesn't seem to be saying anything beyond these structures are expanding. We can guess, if we know a little bit about Bush, that he silently adds and isn't it awful! afterwards, but this doesn't really read in the work itself, that I can see. We're free to project our own ideas, and perhaps that is all I am doing here. I think an isolationist Le Pen supporter might look at this work in-depth and read ... and that's a terrific thing! just as well.

Bush doesn't want to make a stand, he declines to take a position. Or, perhaps, he hasn't worked out how to insert a position into this work, how to make a more definite statement.

I suspect, but do not know for sure, that he is indulging in a fetish current among documentary types to just show the facts. No judgements, no positions, merely the facts. This forces, I suppose, the viewer to engage critically with the work or something, but ultimately reads as simply weak and lazy. By being unwilling to say anything beyond the bare facts of the case, the artist need not do the artistic work of making work that speaks. The documentarian, under the current fetish, can simply assemble any random jumble of facts, visual or otherwise, and leave it at that.

Bush, to his credit, has done somewhat more than that. He has assembled a set of visual facts that support the idea of an expansion of certain aspects of the state, which is more than a random jumble of facts. Still, while he has done a little more than a random jumble, he has not done a great deal more than the random jumble does.

Distinguishing this kind of work from conceptual laziness is, I think, literally impossible. While Bush has clearly done an enormous amount of technical labor here, and has clearly come up with an idea he wishes to express, his conceptual work seems to have simply petered out early, and if my suspicions are correct, that is on purpose, by design.

And coming back around to the beginning. I was surprised to see how visually interesting the work is, and how well it hangs together, structurally. My early impressions were of a monotonous bunch of nothing, and it's not that.

Conceptually, I didn't find any surprises. Bush simply doesn't have much to say here.


  1. I think he is saying a bit more than 'these structures are expanding'. Isn't that the function of the photos of Aleppo, Cairo and Ghadaffi's compound?

    1. Good point!

      I dare say you can treat those first three GIFs as a source, or at any rate standing in for the source. It ties the whole thing more closely to "refugee" than I was thinking, now that I look one more time.

      I'm still not getting much more than a collection of facts, but the breadth is wider than I said. By.. some degree. I hesitate to say "slightly" but it doesn't feel like a lot.