Assume Vivid Astro Focus: Chaos Bound

Gean Moreno


Rizzoli, 2010
228 pgs.

New York-based collective, assume vivid astro focus (avaf), has attempted to translate their signature symphonic chaos into a book. While a monograph may seem a good place to explain in ordered pages and disciplined layouts avaf’s excessive accumulation of graphics and objects, its charged atmospheres and clubby decadence, and its dissolution of structures, the move may have been counterproductive, ironing-out the very entanglements that charge things up. What avaf seeks to achieve in this first monograph is to recreate the immersive experience of their spatial practice in book form, to elicit from the reader the same kind of attention and confusion-delight that is elicited from those who get caught in the net of avaf’s installations and projects. It’s an attention that has to do as much with the body as with the eyes, with feeling a charge through the spine as with reading the signs. The semantic is at the service of the affective.

The first few, neatly organized pages double as a kind of decoy or cover for what is coming––an avalanche of images. The later pages range from installation shots and wallpaper designs, to video stills, graphic composites and detachable masks. Pages filled with collages and drawings are slipped in at different intervals. These don’t offer much reprieve. In fact, they compound the healthy disorder by showing yet another outlet that avaf employs in its production. These collages and drawings remind us that the impulse at the heart of avaf’s project is to re-skin space, all space, everywhere. avaf’s aims to graft its aesthetics and ideology onto every architectural structure––and non-architectural ones, too, as in the case of this book.

The further one sinks into these pages, the less sense it makes to expect any respect for the structure of the artist’s monograph. Once one is deep in the book, the “index of works” page, for instance, seems like a joke that is being shared with the reader. If it answered expectations for a moment, it did so only to pull out the rug from under such conventions. I keep thinking there is a telling hierarchy in the unreadable avaf logo on the cover. Swollen to ten times the size of the font that clearly spells out “assume vivid astro focus,” the very title speaks to the agenda of the book. (The fact that the cover is a detail from an avaf installation, enlarged so it looks like a sublimely messy Nuno Ramos painting, is a wink to knowing initiates that further underscores this agenda.)

So, what to think of Cay Sophie Rabinowitz’s essay in light of all this? It is, of course, a perfectly competent essay, self-reflexive and insightful. It relocates avaf’s practice from the uncritical space of the psychedelic, where it is often ushered by critics and curators, to a more political and complicated one that operates in the wake of the Situationists International. It’s the sort of essay that any artist would want to have in his or her first monograph. Then, why do I feel a certain ambivalence about it? Or not about it, but about the kind of closure that the essay signals.

Lately, I’ve been reading everything, perhaps unfairly and militantly, through the frame of a book that knocked me on my ass a few months ago: Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island. The gist of Benítez-Rojo’s proposal is that a Caribbean aesthetic is by necessity double-coded. There is a code that signals to the West. It speaks in the vocabulary of its methods and disciplines. And then there is that other code available to those who are reading from the “inside.” This other code is not the opposite of the first. It finds its form in the counterpoint between them. It’s embodied in the rhythm of a movement between antimonies. It reconciles and fuses––or finds articulation in attempting this. It should be clear that this Caribbean extends, beyond the archipelago of tropical islands, from Louisiana to Bahia, from the novels of Ishmael Reed to the songs of Tom Zé. It’s the Caribbean of the supersyncretic.

Where is the reading of avaf’s “internal” code? The code that avaf projects outward has been picked up. It’s there in the texts that relate avaf to the psychedelic, to camp, to relational aesthetics, and, as in Rabinowitz’s new reading of avaf, to the Situationists International. These readings are fine, some even insightful. I have contributed to this line of interpretation in previous texts. But one begins to yearn for a reading of the work that will come from another direction, a reading that finds the rhythm of a counterpoint between these art historical and queer precedents and that other thing that the work channels or embodies.

What is this other thing? I’m not exactly sure, but it seems to be what allows one to propose that avaf’s overloadings and overstimulation may also be an extension of the Tropicália collage-song, of polyrhythmic music, of the movements of bodies during carnival, of the rhythms of the corner bodega with its plastic furniture and blasting radio and excitable clientele, of the conviviality that characterizes the collective courtyard of the Caribbean solares, of the crackles that bleed into the brilliant instrumental onslaughts on old Fania All-Star vinyls. The goal is not to link avaf to the double-coding of Caribbean culture as a gesture of appropriation or recovery. It’s not about bringing avaf home. (New York, after all, once you leave the sterile spaces of Chelsea and Wall Street and the Upper West Side, is also part of the Caribbean. avaf is already home.) It’s, rather, that a call needs to be put out for an effort that will view avaf’s practice of supersyncretism in relation to a culture that is supersyncretic at its core; an effort that will find in avaf’s secret connection to this culture the rhythm of a counterpoint between art historical discourse and the complicated constructions that happen beyond the discipline’s purview.

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