About Looking #2 (a)

Tinfish Press began collaborating with visual artists in 1997. Through hand-crafted journal covers and centerfolds, and experimental book designs, visual art has since been an integral aspect of Tinfish's production. About Looking was initiated in 2007 to feature writings on art.

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About Looking : Issue 2
on Michael Arcega’s Walnut Traverse V3

Tales of an Un-conquest by Jaimey Hamilton

I have made attempts to climb Michael Arcega’s Walnut Traverse V3. All have been pretty much futile.

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Michael Arcega’s Walnut Traverse V3

I admit it; I’m a “gumby” (what rock climbing aficionados call an inexperienced climber. This is in contrast to Arcega, a self-described “wall-nut”). But Arcega did not make the climbing route easy either. The “route” was actually an enticingly simple sculptural installation consisting of a flat white gallery wall scattered with small walnut plaques acting as hand and foot holds. The plaques (the kind usually inscribed with words of memorial or historical fact) were drilled with holes for a better grip. Even with the added holes, the walnut pieces were small and slick, and placed just far enough apart so that a climber usually only had three out of four limbs anchored to the wall. From the anecdotes I’ve collected, I’m guessing that the average climb was less than two seconds.

Walnut Traverse V3 is an exercise in what Arcega calls Futilitarianism (this was the name of the show at the Nu’uanu Gallery in which Walnut Traverse was featured). The term invokes the productive possibilities of incompletion and delay, of creating a little moment in which to reconsider the usefulness and purpose of our activities. Take the placement of the plaques as an example of “futulitarianism”. Spaced few and far between, they required more agility, strength, and balance than I had. But in my moment of un-conquest, I noticed that I kind of liked hugging the wall, getting to know its vast white space. After these initial caresses, things changed. The wall surface became a map, each plaque an island. The scuff marks that surrounded each piece, from my intimate view, became boat wakes or other human traces of comings and goings across Arcega’s strange archipelago. Hanging on, or better, trying to hang on – of feeling my weight, and attempting to stretch my body in new geometries – was a way to experience geography, and the cultural incommensurabilities that come with it, in a refreshingly tangible, concrete, and material way.

Incommensurable experience as a space of both confusion and creativity runs throughout Arcega’s work. Often his pieces use disjunctions of language to humorously express darker global issues. His anagrammatic play with maps of Spam (2007) is one example. But Walnut Traverse V3 is also particularly successful because it speaks the metalanguage of globalization. “Traverse”, as a rock climbing term, simply means climbing in a horizontal direction rather than ascending directly to the top of the peak. Metaphorically, traverse implies lateral connections, circuitous economic and cultural forces, and the circumstantial quixotic drift often at work in the history of colonialization and globalization.

Indeed, the participatory experience of climbing Walnut Traverse V3 becomes an allegory for the moments between swashbuckling adventures, the moments before the triumphal claim. In attempting to traverse the gallery wall, I hang in passages of immense solitude — days and days of seeing nothing at sea. No land on which to pin my body, my hope, my future. My frame feels too heavy and too small as I try to inch slowly across the great vast cartography of time and space.

By making seemingly easy gestures extremely difficult, Arcega asks us to take a step back and reconsider situations and objects that we usually “conquer” every day without a second thought. In this playful way, he uses our small activities to draw attention to larger asymmetries of power in a postcolonial context. The plaques at the bottom (the easiest and therefore the most exploited launching points for further exploration) are surrounded by the heaviest traces of shoe marks. If the plaques are islands, this means that as we step on them, pressing onto them with all of our weight and force, we abuse them relentlessly to get to the next strategic position. In this scenario, our climb has aggressive, perhaps even violent, undertones.

But this trampling could also be read in an opposite way if we take the history and meaning of the plaques into account. These seemingly innocent pieces of wood were chosen by Arcega to obliquely refer to the activity of claiming place. Their surfaces usually give authority to dominant narratives, which elide the real complexities of historical traversals. In the usual museum or gallery context, plaques are part of the invisible infrastructure of cultural conquest, laid out at eye level in neat uniform patterns. However, in the context of Walnut Traverse, we can imagine ourselves climbing on these potentially falsified discourses of discovery. We disrespect the pristine beveled edges of Western history by using them as jungle gyms. We don’t really have to make it across the wall to participate in the erosion process. Each time we attempt to mount one of the plaques, we scuff its surface a bit more. (Just as a side note: It’s funny that the gallery makes climbers sign a risk release form – its as if to say, go ahead show us what you’re made of. How global is your reach? But don’t come crying when you scrape your elbow. We will memorialize your successful conquests, but ignore your embarrassing failures.)

So really, Walnut Traverse in not about “succeeding” or “failing” to climb up the wall. Instead, it is a visual, symbolic, exploratory piece that beautifully evokes the tragicomic history of colonial exploration and our mixed up attitudes towards that history. It offers us an experience in which we can take a bit more accountability for our small actions and efforts. Arcega invites us to activate our bodies, to put energy into motion. How we respond to this call is up to us.

For me, meeting the gallery wall inspired two contrasting, but equally productive lines of thought. I could confront the formidable entrenchment of high culture as it participates in legitimizing stories of globalization. I could also fantasize about that blank space of the wall as a place for possible future stories of globalization – stories that would talk about the mishaps and struggles of individual actions.

For the people watching me flirt with and explore the wall, I hope their curiosity took hold. Perhaps this inspired them to have their own tragicomic romance with Walnut Traverse. I am imagining that even though their actual climbs might have been futile, they would have appreciated having had the opportunity to try. And in reflecting on their own moment of unconquest, they would understand that failure is sometimes a very useful way to encounter the world.

Michael Arcega’s website

Jaimey Hamilton is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Hawai?i at M?noa where she teaches on topics related to contemporary visual culture, transnationalism, and consumer subjectivity. Currently, she is working on a book about the development of commodity appropriation in art called The Canned Universe: Global Dimension of the Readymade.


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