On Seeing Cindy Sherman in the Subway; Or, the Velocity of Representation

By Stephen Squibb
  • Stephen Squibb
    Stephen Squibb’s work as a writer and/or an editor has appeared in or online at Artforum, e-flux journal, Modern Painters, Monthly Review, Jacobin, n+1, and Art Agenda, where he is a contributing editor. He has produced, with Woodshed Collective, 12 Ophelias by Caridad Svich (McCarren Park Pool), The Confidence Man by Paul Cohen (SS LILAC) and The Tenant by Bekah Brunstetter, Sarah Burgess, Paul Cohen, Dylan Dawson, Steven Levenson, and Tommy Smith (West Park Presbyterian Church); and, for Martha Rosler, Untitled Helsinki Garden in Singapore, (2011 Biennial) and meta-Monumental Garage Sale, (MoMA). He is editor, with Khalil Rabah, of the Summer 2011 newsletter for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, with Keith Gessen, of City by City, Dispatches from the American Metropolis (FSG), and, with Adam Pendleton, of The Black Dada Reader (Mousse, Forthcoming). He is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Harvard University, where he recently directed Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist as a visiting director for the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club. He was formerly the wine critic for Time Out: Istanbul.

There is a concept in economics known as “the velocity of circulation,” which refers to the number of times a unit of currency is exchanged over a given period. Imagine the number of stops the average dollar makes on its annual circuit through the economy and if this number is high, the velocity of circulation is up; if it is low, it is down. Like most things in economics, the significance—even the meaning—of this concept is vigorously contested. What is the effect of higher velocities on the growth of productivity? Who benefits from low velocity? The answers are as numerous as the interests they represent. These questions are currently relevant for two reasons. First, because the typical method of increasing circulatory velocity—the United States’ Federal Reserve injecting cash into the economy—is not having the anticipated effect, and has not for some time. Second, the invention of the computerized trading of stocks, bonds, and similar assets means circulation now takes place at speeds far past all historical comparison. In the time it has taken you to read this, numerous computers will have proposed, agreed to, and consummated more exchanges than the average person is likely to make in a lifetime.

The idea is folded into the word “currency” itself, which comes to us from the Latin currens, which means “racing” or “speeding,” and which only later evolved into the Middle English curraunt, which—like today’s “current”—signifies “in circulation.” From velocity, to circulation, to the velocity of circulation. But since all circulating currency is, at bottom, a form of representation, the concept expands. The velocity of representation is then not exhausted by the speed of money, but can also be measured in the amount of time it takes a given work of art to be reabsorbed into the flow of everyday images. If the advertisement for the Whitney Museum’s new building in downtown New York is any indication, that amount of time is roughly thirty-seven years. That is how long it took Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #23 (1978) to move from a vanguard image of the ‘postmodern’—the copy without an original—to an iconic one; now available for duplication in order to advertise the presence of an original photograph within the museum space itself. “American art,” the ad copy reads, “is now at home in the Meatpacking.” If there was a moment when Sherman’s work might have been considered not only homeless, but constitutively so, that moment is behind us. As a result, this Untitled Film Still now appears as a kind of tracer or dye, introduced into the gallery system thirty-seven years ago and which has only just resurfaced, having completed its task of illuminating its own movement through the veins and capillaries of the art world. In a clever feat of Photoshop, #23 has even been inlaid into the landscape of the Whitney’s new neighborhood, signaling its absorption into our collective architecture and diagramming the completion of the cycle I am describing.

It is difficult to account for such a process without falling into the time-worn (over-circulated!) tropes of romantic anti-capitalism. 1So, for example, it might be asked how the concept I am proposing differs from the process the Situationists described as “recuperation.” It does so only in the way that the concept of respiration differs from the process of drowning. We have known for millennia that drowning is something that happens, but we have only relatively recently created the idea of respiration, which, in its further elaboration as the transport of oxygen from the air to the cells within tissues, and the corresponding transport of carbon dioxide in the opposite direction, is what has allowed us, with time, to create means for breathing underwater. The Situationist armed only with “recuperation” confronts the image the way our ancestors confronted the water: as a home for evil spirits. And it is true that one cannot drown if one refuses to get wet, as surely as not making images is a way to avoid “recuperation,” but though this material abstinence might recognize and avoid the danger, it cannot overcome it. So deep is our faith in singular expressions of singular individuals that descriptions like “co-option” or “absorption” function as evaluations in advance, relieving us of the responsibility for further judgment. And of course this is a double difficulty—not to say a delicious irony—in the case of the Untitled Film Stills, which, assuming they were works of art at all, were certainly designed to draw our attention to exactly this sort of problem. Can the ongoing, clandestine affair between our circulating images and our self-understanding be represented? Is it possible to make the image economy visible as an economy, that is, as a system of private laws? Is making it visible the same thing as making it political? These are delicate questions. Unlike Mapplethorpe, say, or, in a different direction, Kruger, whose transgressive images were designed to be clearly visible as transgressions, regardless of, or even despite, the frame of their appearance, the Film Stills relied on their location within the framework of the gallery for their critical and artistic legibility. It is our inability to distinguish these pictures, at the formal level, from actually existing slices of cinema that makes them so effective. To this end, Rosalind Krauss begins her essay on Sherman’s work with an anecdote about an art critic who insists that each Film Still is a meticulous recreation of a scene from a ‘real’ movie. This is untrue, of course, but we can understand the mistake: we must understand it, for this ease of misrecognition is the source of the series’ undeniable power. It is the speed with which our mind connects the image before us to a larger, shared archive of representation that allows Sherman to draw our attention to that archive’s existence in the first place. We see ourselves in her self-portrait of desire. If the films depicted in Sherman’s Film Stills do not exist—and they do not—it is because we have already invented them, each of us, by necessity, somewhere within the psychodrama of our everyday mimesis. The complement is Martha Rosler’s 1976 installation She Sees in Herself a New Woman Every Day. She Sees juxtaposes twelve photographs of the artist’s feet in different pairs of no-longer-fashionable shoes with an audio recording of a daughter recalling her education at the hands of her mother in the everyday slights of being female. For Rosler, the shoe is where the rubber of the inherited feminine meets the hard road of contemporary patriarchy. Sherman’s Film Stills are examples of the way this conflict is narratively ameliorated: they are portraits of the imaginary superstructure that is generated from the contradiction between the painful forces of Rosler’s shoes, and the relations of gender discipline. Sherman sees in herself a new movie star every day, and the film still is the necessary document of this projection.

It is this creative capacity to embed ourselves in the collective cinematic unconscious that Sherman locates both for us and within us, precisely by demonstrating her own hopeless, endearing, and overwhelming unoriginality, which, we realize, turning away, was ours already when we walked in. But this peaceful reconciliation of the ‘for-us’ and the ‘in-us’ requires the proscenium we call the gallery; that frame-space which is nothing other than a dis-alienation machine by means of which we address our own images and artifacts directly. Un-frame the Untitled Film Still and send it out to compete with working advertisements, and it will contribute to that very process of interpolation its dislocation was designed to draw our attention to in the first place. Nothing could be less surprising than a Cindy Sherman becoming iconic; it was iconic to begin with, if it was not, it would not have been a Cindy Sherman. In this respect, #23 has come home at last, not to the Meatpacking District, but to the place where it was lifted from initially, that ambient spectacle where human shapes flit on and off the stage of our perception, dropping by our brains as we pass to remind us to look more like they do.

But how, it will be asked, is this at all different from any museum advertisement, many of which feature works of art far younger than an Untitled Film Still? The answer has something to do with photography, which, in order to be considered art, must be concerned with the mechanism of its presentation, lest it coincide with all the other photographs we encounter in a given day. This is why many other great works of Pop include one unmistakable signature to distinguish themselves from what they depict—think of Andy Warhol’s lurid palette or Claes Oldenburg’s unusual size—whereas the power of the Film Stills is to refuse even this consolation, to blend in seamlessly with all the other pictures moving inside of our heads. Perhaps an entire generation had to be taught to see Sherman’s photography as art—as an image that somehow distinguishes itself from its appearance, and so sells itself, instead of something else—in order for the Whitney to reintroduce it to us as advertising. “You remember the American artist Cindy Sherman, don’t you?” the subway ad says, and then, as her portrait snaps back into its newfound place in the background, “She’s been here all along.”

And that, finally, is why the appearance of #23 as an advertisement makes it such a good benchmark to stop the timer and record the velocity of representation. (*click* thirty-seven years! Pretty good for a postmodern artist!) Precisely because the only thing that prevented the Film Stills from advertising cinema was their presentation as art, so when they appear, once again, as an ad, the art cycle is over. We have returned to the beginning. And the perfect clarity with which the movement of the Stills diagrams this process is what allows us, especially now, to see them as uniquely successful works of art, ones which reveal not just the velocity of representation, but the length of its orbit: how long it takes to disappear behind the sun, and how it looks differently to us at different points in the course of its revolution.