Safe Mode


My MacBook Pro kept freezing up on me. All the forums suggested that sorting out whatever was wrong would initally require me to start up my computer in Safe Mode. Once running in Safe Mode all non-native software would be disabled so that I could diagnose the problem and with some luck fix it. From Safe Mode I could remove the malware, or whatevers the problem, because the computer's anaesthetised state would make it less hostile to my operations. Was there some affinity, I asked myself as I restarted my MBP holding down shift (which is how you put your MBP into Safe Mode), between the work in Ghislaine Leung’s recent show ‘The Moves’ at Cell Projects Space (which I had recently seen) and the 'diagnostic functioning' of Safe Mode?

You would only go into Safe Mode when there is a problem with your operating system; you would be able to do little else whilst in this mode (software will not run here). As such, Safe Mode is a bit disconcerting. If you use your computer round the clock, then you turn everything on to find that all looks the same but somehow is not the same (because nothing works on it), you may get (as I did) glimmers of that DMT experience from 10 Christmas’s ago, where for 15 minutes I was in a parallel reality despite it resembling exactly this current one in great detail. Though this is what perhaps distinguishes the effect of Leung's exhibition from an unheimlich experience, or, an acid trip. There is not really that wonky familiarity, déjà vu type epiphany, rupture to the symbolic fabric of apprehension etc but more like a kind of cobbled together verisimilitude or a #failed realism.

Apple support describes the operating system within Safe Mode in the negative:

- You can't play movies in DVD Player.
- You can't capture video in iMovie and some other video apps.
- Some audio input or output devices might not work.
- Some USB, FireWire, and Thunderbolt devices might not be available.
- Wi-Fi networking might be limited or unavailable, depending on the Mac and macOS version you're using.
- Accessibility features like VoiceOver might not work as expected.
- File sharing is disabled.

If we were handed a laptop to use with the above restrictions placed on it we might struggle to find a use for it beyond a kind of deadly prop (like an anvil) in a Roadrunner cartoon. When bodies and its various symbolic representatives (like art) go into Safe Mode because a threat has been unleashed upon it, a new idea for it appears because the body and its representatives now suddenly have no obvious function or use within the dominant habitat (the body becomes redundant). In this sense, Safe Mode as a hypo-metabolic mode initiated as a response to a dangerous environment, is also critical. It survives in a register that veers towards it’s own disabling. But, its faculties in suspense followed by an irresistible zoning in on itself (a shrinking from its environment) brings into view as a fiction the (dominant) habitat that it formerly belonged to. In this sense Safe Mode is critical because it operates as a denaturalizing agent.

Something like the hypo-aesthetic register of Safe Mode pervades Leung’s exhibition. It is experienced initially via the installation of neutral-density lighting gels that inhibit the wattage normally emitted by the gallery’s strip lighting, functioning thus as a kind of critique on unchecked visibility. The exhibition as a whole seems in fact to be composed of a series of set-pieces similar to this light inhibitor work (titled Gloam), that invoke expectations in order to deflate them. Parts feel slapstick. Though these comedic “bits” don’t give the impression of being overly rehearsed - they are unfinished, offhand and eccentric. But they might also be the result of too much rehearsal - laboured on to the point at which they start to fail as stable conduits for meaning. Like the work Shrooms; a series of night-lights in the shape of mushrooms plugged into the power points of the gallery space. They are things you might find in a child’s bedroom to deter total darkness in a friendly bedtime-story kind of way. They are also the sort of kitsch tat you might find in and amongst tangled wires and outmoded electronics at a jumble sale. Perhaps to emphasise their kitschiness Leung has them mediated by socket adapters for foreign electronics. The adapters feel like an insult to the Shroom’s autonomy. They spoil their decorative fantasy by sucking them back into a gritty register of mass production from which they originate. The adaptors may also be meant to skewer notions of ‘naturalness’ - as literal growths and/or prosthesis grafted onto the sides of these adapters they seem to insert the binary of natural/unnatural into a kind of Mobius form, with one proposition continually dislodging the other ad infinitum.

The ambition of the various objects in the show to resemble something familiar (a mushroom, a house) seems always to be in some way at odds with the materials used to make them. The smell of the rubber flooring from an installation at the rear of the gallery - the rubber existing to effectively frame a proportionally diminutive maquette sculpture - is at most willfully overbearing and in the least just distracting. The strip lighting is forced to contend with the Gloam-ing light inhibitors and the text works, presented on large glass screens (nb. works with text in tend to have the effect of signalling the presence of very important content), have a casual coincidental feel to them (there's a ton of empty space around much of them) providing them with just the right lack of buoyancy (they press release describe them as" glutted omissions...truncated emissions”) to pull the drab industrial materials (the glass panels on which they are displayed) away from their raw, factory Safe Mode setting and into a discursive textual space (and perhaps the onset of an all consuming textuality would be the ultimate reason to trigger Safe Mode). The prose on one of the panels seemed to show a text message from the perspective of just one of the recipients. You cannot work out exactly what is happening, whether this is an invented conversation, text pooled from a various ones, overheard on the bus or pilfered from a book. As such they have a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry-y style feel to them. A close reading of these pieces is satisfying to do in the gallery because they yield more amongst the nascenty feel of the objects in the show (as well as amongst the exhibition design more generally) than if you were to abstract them onto a page and read them as you would 80’s nouveau poetry. Suspended at the top end of one of the large glass panelled text works is the statement AH, THOSE CLOWNS italicised in a slightly cartoonish font. Perhaps the most fully formed of the texts because of the art world's perennial infighting/bitching that automatically fleshes the piece out (or maybe I was just able to quickly flesh it out with my own petty grievances.) Though it could also just as well be a reference to the recent spate of clown attacks immortalised by generation vine. Whatever it is it feels a pop moment in the show, contrasting slightly against the stymied, elliptical teenage dramas, fleeced from school kids chatter on a bus, or the like - “..You know when you get highlights/But it’s all over/Like, blended in//Like, of course/She was like yeah, of course/And I was like, literally, ready//Ahhhhck! Eeeeeer!//Friday/Still/Okay/James has got one..”

My favourite two works were the maquette structure on view behind a false wall at the rear of the space and a sound work (though the mushrooms are probably the unsung heroines). The sound work Huh was a mix of chopped up musical themes (I was told by the curator) taken from romcom tv, like the escalating flute or violin that signals an upbeat moment or narrative progression. Employed to manipulate good-feeling in the audience in tandem with a character’s success or in affirmation of some life decision they have made (to create minimum viewing friction for a supposedly fragile audience, though actually by now it's probably just a bloodless convention of the genre), Leung has these musical snippets suspended in a kind of Cagean vacuum into which she has spliced sounds of doors slamming shut – an insertion of negativity into this smiliest of genres. Perhaps it was because of the low-ish volume or that these sounds also resemble Disney musical themes that along with the mushroom lights I read the space initially as a child’s bedroom (the space is also carpeted). On finding out what the soundtrack was actually composed of and that Leung was approaching something akin to RomCom Concrete, the work became more formally fun for me.

Hidden behind a false wall at the back of Cell’s exhibition space, elevated by a few steps and ‘carpeted’ in rubber flooring (this rubber floor section is titled Pictures) is the installation Push to Shove. This raised section is somewhat conspicuous if you know Cell's usual layout. At its centre is a model for some sort of structure – a house or a gallery, or house with gallery (it’s pretty non-descript). The purpose of the structure is left largely undefined, though there are half-baked signifiers that point to things. A hodge-podge of carpet samples - some neutral, others loud 70’s decorative kitsch - line the floor of the different rooms, off-handedly suggesting (but by no means insisting on) aspiring middle-class domesticity. On the walls are images taken from Leung’s mobile phone that are either unremarkeable or of poor quality (i guess they are maybe a bit funny - funny like a meme is funny). They are also tricky to see because the structure obscures easy visual access to them (there's a good pic, taken guerilla-style on the tube, of someone with gnarley manicured nails sporting a keychain with a bottle of hand santiser looped on to it). They are accompanied in most of the rooms by what I guess are supposed to be flatscreen televisions, but which are actually iphone (4’s?) fixed to the foam-board walls.

Looped on these screens are video clips. Again, untreated/unremarkable footage that exist just marginally above a threshold of data. The structure itself is made of foam-board held together with coloured tape. Similar electrical tape has been used to block evidence of the iphone’s body and tightly frame the glass portion of the screen – it all seems like it’s meant to look crappy, like the pragmatic concerns of making the object hold together have trumped all aesthetic concerns (which is of course a highly refined aesthetic choice - as John Waters has observed when has has said that only those with the best taste can produce something as originally authentic as that which is of poor taste.) Adding to this growing aesthetic fiasco Leung decided to add yet more night-lights (a mushroom one and a large house shaped one) inside the structure, which is itself already a house of some sort.

Around the maquette white extensions cables snake along visibly and it’s tempting to begin to see the whole exhibition as a kind of exercise in inversion with each objects' circuitry always placed externally. There is this literal quality to much of the work; a failure to symbolize, a stress on its manufactured ‘thingness’, on its circuitry. The title of the carpet work that covers nearly the whole show In the Pudding follows this logic. An abridgement of the expression The proof is in the pudding, (or The proof is in the trying), suggests a privileging of physical actuality over abstraction. But the pleasure of the show for me at least was in the vibrations between these two registers; the hum of the lights metamorphosing into mushrooms then back again, the fighting/yeilding Gloaming , the house increasingly resembling a poorly carved pumpkin glowing on halloween or the texts flickering between the different manias, which is a view that seems to somewhat make sense of the show's title The Moves.


Kazimierz Jankowski, 2017