Dear_Tony (2013) is an unauthorized, distributed retrospective of the public sculptures of Tony Smith by Christian de Vietri and A.E. Benenson. Addressed as much to the deceased sculptor and his practice as our contemporary audience, Dear_Tony rethinks the artist's historic investigations into modular construction, phenomenology, and public space within the contexts of digital fabrication, interactivity, and networked communication. At the same time, Dear_Tony is a means to reflect on the form of the retrospective and how its requirements may be adapted to contemporary conditions of viewership.
Dear_Tony consists of this digital sculpture by Christian de Vietri which is composed of models of every Tony Smith public sculpture, as well as the following text by A.E. Benenson on the public disposition of Smith's sculptures in contemporary digital culture.
Over the course of nearly two decades (1961-'79), Tony Smith made forty-seven public sculptures using an iterative process for arranging monochrome, modular triangular units into different configurations. Smith made very few advance drawings of these sculptures, instead designing them ad-hoc with three-dimensional models in his studio space, often times borrowing pieces from an earlier sculpture to begin or finish the next. Despite the fact that Smith's experimental approach to modular, triangle based design precisely predicted the tenets of polygonal computer modeling, there has been no attempt, until now, to critically evaluate his practice's relationship to digital technology. For his part, Smith had almost no contact with the then emerging field of art and technology besides an ill-fated partnership with a corrugated box manufacturer organized by LACMA in 1967. This despite the fact that many of the relevant CGI techniques were being developed by contemporaries at Bell Labs (Murray Hill, NJ) less than fifteen minutes away from where the sculptor lived and worked.
There's a sculpture I think you should know about. It's not exactly one of yours, but then again it's not not one of yours either. I came across it by accident, going 70mph on the highway one day. This is really the only way you can see it. There's no signage and except for a listing in the Smithsonian Archives, and a few, old newspaper clippings, it's not recorded anywhere. If you want to find it, it's just before exit 37 on Rt 15. (northbound) in front of the gas station. Ideally, the vectors of the highway and the car will press it into a gun-metal smear for you. But you could get out at the gas station and walk up to it and take a longer look or you can inspect it on Google street view for as long as you'd like (+41° 7' 14.26", -73° 28' 44.37": http://goo.gl/maps/f6Mco). I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, though. Even though the side of a highway is a crazy place for a public sculpture based on peripatetic viewing, a certain speed lends the piece the fitting aspect of an apparition.
It turns out the roadside sculpture was made after your death as a sort of homage by a local graduate student, Robert Tinch Jr.. Local newspapers report that he petitioned the highway council to erect it there temporarily in 1982, and then, apparently, they forget to take it down. The sculpture is made up of a distorted, ramshackle combination of some of your early works: the overall shape was copied (ironically) from Free Ride and the slanted cap was made after similar parts in Amaryllis and Duck. Passable from a speeding car, it suffers up close: the proportions are totally wrong and there's also a bizarre, unnecessary gap between the rising L-shaped finger and the recumbent U-shaped base. It was probably too difficult or expensive to for Tinch to use a single length of steel or join them properly as you did.
Maybe Tinch set out to make a totally believable Tony Smith sculpture and failed, or maybe he recognized his limitations--material, creative--from the get-go and never attempted to hide them; either way Tinch gave physical form to the otherwise ineffable, subjective experience at the core of your public works. In doing so, he manifested the essence of your public sculpture project in a way that none of the more respectable or authorized retrospectives have since ever managed to duplicate.
It has to do with the way in which your public sculptures express their publicness. Part of the "publicness" of your sculptures obviously comes from their being sited in public spaces like urban plazas, and museum courtyards and campuses. But the other part follows from how they address their viewers as much as their location. Moving past their sheer physical place, I would call this instead their disposition. This now strikes me as the most radical part of your sculptural project, their disposition to the viewer; that is, how open they are to be viewed by anyone in anyway whatsoever.
I'm not the first person to recognize that your sculptures do very little to proscribe the viewing experience; that they have no front or back, no ideal vantage point spatially or intellectually from which they suddenly reveal their hidden meaning. This is the classic read of your work, inspired by many of your own words. There is nothing to "get" with your sculptures, except what a viewer happens to discover through the chance co-ordination of the variables of experience. To engage with your sculptures in space and time is to participate in their extemporaneous construction; they are formed and reformed every time they are viewed, and undone again as soon as one looks away.
You'd probably just call this "phenomenology" and to a point you'd be right. But think about how this defines the publicness of your sculptures, too: you allow everyone to remake your work at every instant and in this way, the forms of your works belong to the general public as much as to your intentions or any institution that happens to "own" one in a conventional sense. This makes your sculptures more public than most of the other sculpture that is sited in the same kinds of public spaces. Most other sculpture--political, classical, high modernist--imparts a single idea to a heterogeneous group of people, i.e. its goal is to persuade a public into "sharing" something in the sense of coming together to all take hold of the same thing. Your sculpture on the other hand brings people together for a kind of communion-through-multiplicity, a sharing predicated not on a responsibility to be alike to one another but on a right to maintain difference. That other kind of sculpture propagates a certain idea amongst a crowd while asserting a proprietary control over its meaning, and so it's only public like a public service announcement intended to have same effect on everyone. On the other hand, your sculptures make no demands to be understood in a certain way and instead give themselves over to be reformed, at will, by that public.
Before Tinch, this was an abstract, cognitive process. You gave your sculpture over to the public inside the space of their minds, through the interface of the senses. Shared public ownership was established at the level of experience--phenomenology worked as an immaterial, cognitive solution for solving the basic problem of public sculpture, i.e. how to distribute control over a single, rarefied object freely amongst an ever expanding and diversifying community of viewers.
Intentionally or not, Tinch took the next logical step: he translated this abstract cognitive model for public sculpture into a concrete form of praxis. He assimilated your sculptures through his own personal frame of reference, (re)making them his own, and then he rematerialized his personal vision as sculptural form. This is why I said at the beginning Tinch's piece both is and isn't a Tony Smith sculpture; if a Tony Smith sculpture is constituted by the experience of relating to it (phenomenology), Tinch's sculpture simply manifests that experience in material form. If anything this might make a work like Tinch's the most important kind of Tony Smith public sculpture insofar as it practically realizes the public dimension of your work--in public, nonetheless--in such a clear and convincing way. Essentially, Tinch took you up on your offer to the public in a way that no one before him and few after have ever done.
The question remains: what's the value/point of translating your public practice from a cognitive model to a practical one?
The Short Answer: I think it suggests a new way for your sculpture to operate in a contemporary field of digital aesthetics that seems so antithetical to your formal necessities.
Strange thing--Tinch's method for rematerializing your practice would make it better suited for an increasingly immaterial aesthetic culture.
The Long Answer: The most important "problem" re: your sculpture and the digital is that digital interfaces are predicated on eliminating the unpredictable zone of interaction between a specific body in space and time and the content on offer, aka phenomenology. Digital subjects are eyeballs--and sometimes fingers and ears-- orientated in strictly orthogonal planes towards surfaces, i.e. keyboards and screens (increasingly these are becoming the same surface). In this context, phenomenological experience simply becomes a sign that some part of the user interface design has failed; any sensation of one's body during a digital experience is considered an ergonomic problem that needs to be fixed.
Nevertheless, a crucial part of the phenomenological experience abides and is even intensified in digital experiences. Beyond establishing a bond between a body and a space/time, phenomenological art depends on deferring the moment of creation until the moment(s) of reception, shifting the construction of the art object into the representational domain of the viewer rather than the creator. This phenomenological shift has only recently found a viable technological metaphor in the mechanics of digital (re)production and communication.
Unlike most analog systems, all digital systems rely on the ubiquitous and continual process of copy-making. To look at an image on your screen, your computer must first make a copy; type a word, and your computer makes a copy; send an email, and the recipient doesn't take sole possession of your note as if you handed it to them, instead they receive one of the many copies which were made along the chain of communication from you to them. While every digital copy is identical to its original (so much so that these terms don't even logically apply), any digital representation also remains permanently flexible or unfixed. As a mutable combination of 1s and 0s, a digital copy is always subject to be edited, reformatted, recopied, etc. by the recipient with as much flexibility as was available to the original creator.
In this way, the digital experience is distinctly phenomenological: anything and everything that trammels a digital interface is continually offering itself up to be formed and reformed by anyone who has even the most fleeting point of access. The composition of any digital representation is always open-ended, dependent on the variable choices of the receiver. To this point, the media theorist Alexander Galloway argues that digital experience is not constituted by ontologies but instead by ethics; not by stable definitions of being, either of subjects or objects, but instead by the actions those subjects and objects are capable of performing. Galloway's theory hints at the potential of Tinch's approach for our contemporary moment.
Tinch turned your ontological premise for public sculpture into a practical ethics. You had designated a certain ontological state for your sculptural ideas: that they could be available to the public's bodies, eyes, and minds in such a way that that public could come to possess those forms through their personal impressions and experiences. Tinch took those abstract impressions and literally reformed them, expanding the ontological disposition of your sculptures into a practical method--an ethics--of reinterpreting and redistributing sculptural forms in public. This ethics of public sculpture is perfectly suited to the conditions of digital representation and communication, which allow, demand even, everyone to reform and redistribute anything that they come across.
If digital culture denies your sculpture all the resources (space, materials, bodies) necessary to establish an ontic public presence, it provides them instead with the opportunity to realize their fundamental disposition as public sculpture through Tinch's ethical model. I keep using the word "disposition" because I think it's gets right to the heart of this analogy through a kind of wordplay: the Latin root of the word is the verb disponere which means "to distribute", but it can also be broken down nominally as dis-positus, literally meaning anti-location. This simultaneous, double aspect binds your sculptural forms and those of digital communication into a single ambition: to allow for a process of distributing forms to a public within a virtualized non-space.
All this isn't just an opportunity for your sculptures, it is a requirement if they are to remain relevant. Your sculptures can only continue to exist as public sculptures if they recognize the fundamental affinity between their phenomenological disposition and the mechanics of the new public spheres of digital representation and communication.
Your sculptures no longer qualify as public by virtue of their existence in a particular public place (a park, a campus), but now only by their ability to move and to be distributed throughout a public. That is, to remain public, your sculptures will need to circulate as open-ended digital forms, making their constituent parts available to anyone to be copied, reformed, and redistributed without restriction. The young Tinch stumbled across this more than a decade before technology could furnish him or anyone else with a means of understanding precisely what he was proposing or why-- but it was there all along, a solution waiting for its problem to arise.
Last week, I reread that famous story you used to tell about your epiphanic conversion to sculpture-- your Saul/Paul of Tarsus moment. Sometime in the early 50's, you snuck some of your students from Cooper Union onto the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike one night and you said that when you guys got out there, it was just a big black ribbon (they hadn't painted the lines in yet) running all the way in either direction. And on the skyline were the inky black cutouts of smokestacks and factories punctuated by colored lights. All artificial, carefully composed by people. And yet even though there was no way anyone would call what you were seeing "Art", this great aesthetic feeling was welling up in you just the same. You described it as being "something mapped out, but not socially recognized." All of a sudden, there on the highway, you realized that were looking at the death of art and its future rebirth, all at once.
Is Dear_Tony a retrospective or a work of art?
Both. Dear_Tony explores how the forms of a retrospective could be used as critical and creative tools for generating new works and ideas. In this case,"retrospective" does not just designate a container for showcasing historical works, but also a medium in and of itself.
How do I view/access the 3D Dear_Tony model?
To download, click the link at the bottom of this page. You can view a fully rotatable model at http://sketchfab.com/nl4hg20ba.
Can I have my own 3D printed version of the Dear_Tony model?
Yes, follow the links at the top right of this page where you can choose your material and have the sculpture delivered to you.
Where are all of Tony Smith's sculptures? I don't see individual files.
This single digital sculpture is composed of all forty-seven of Tony Smith's public sculptures.
Am I really allowed to copy, change, and distribute versions of these files?
Yes. Dear_Tony is licensed under a creative commons attribution and share-alike license which means you have the freedom to do what you want with all these files as long as you attribute the original authors and share your work under the same or similar licenses. More information about the license can be found here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
What is the point of addressing a deceased person?
The ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom (c. BC2600-2100) are thought to be the first culture that wrote letters to their dead. They believed this had a strictly practical function. According to their beliefs, the recently departed had crossed over to the side where everything important got decided and meted out--weather, pests, sickness--and they wrote the dead asking for help, asking them to intercede on the problems of world for the sake of the living. Taken as an abstract rhetorical form, we believe this practice could be adapted to aesthetics. In this context, letters to the dead suggest the possibility of supplicating the past to act upon the present (and the future). Therefore, these dead letters don't have anything to do with supernatural communication, but rather with experimenting with a certain rhetorical reversal (prolepsis) that could reorient historical works of art to address issues which came after their own creation.