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On Paul Ryan's Sign(s)

With the commercial introduction in the mid-sixties of decentralized portable television recording/instant-playback technologies, a veritable melange of attitudes and subsequent practices ensued—all embedded in the novel properties intrinsic to this unique hybrid medium. Several camps—conflicting, contentious, and occasionally aligned—immediately emerged. Springing up like mushrooms out of their respective mycelium, divergent views as to the proper application of this revolutionary technology were rife. The crush and grind that followed pivoted around three essential positions, to wit: a) The new technology should be, must be, employed to invade, or at least infiltrate existing broadcast TV, offering alternative programming to a bemused though reluctant establishment, b) To set up alternate “networks” for the dissemination of counter-cultural information by way of tape distribution, and c) By forgoing a & b and concentrating on the equally revolutionary aesthetic attributes that could be leached from the new technology by various ways and means; e.g., idiosyncratic compositions on tape harboring no interest or intent whatever in being broadcast, and/or by utilizing the multi-channel capacity inherent in the decentralized medium towards site-specific installation formats, complete with time-delay systems, live (real-time) and recorded feedback, as well as magnetic-induced distortions, analog and digital overlays, and vitrines of biological specimens under electronic observation.


Into this rather dicey mix, enter Paul Ryan. Present at the creation, so to speak. Ryan's seminal contribution tends to span, in varying degrees, a, b, & c. Nevertheless, it is with his contribution to the medium within its aesthetic dimension that brands his work with a significance beyond and above this synthesis. Beginning with his installation Everyman's Möbius Strip in the Howard Wise Gallery's pioneering show “TV as a Creative Medium” in May of 1969, Ryan has consistently, if not relentlessly, forged an oeuvre that integrates explicitly social and ecological partisan concerns with participatory formal innovations. Therefore, situating Ryan's perch in the art world is not a simple matter of merely determining and locating the importance of his inclusion of the social-ecological sphere as it intersects with formalist discipline. Instead, in balance, it provides us with a conundrum as to how this wobbly combination could possibly work—satisfying aesthetic and didactic responsibilities simultaneously. No small task.


Thus the singular relevance of Ryan's ongoing project resides in bridging the trenches dividing social-ecological activism from the aloof preoccupations of art for its own sake. The undulating flux of formalist propositions holds down and maintains an utterly different ontic status than the advocacy and constancy of urgent issues swirling around social-ecological imperatives. Once successfully intertwined, however, they represent a peculiar fusion between the techniques of aesthetic con-jury with methods alerting us to the undeniable bald-faced facts of a rapid and exponential dismemberment of the natural world.


Impudent, strident, blithe Philistines seem to possess the firmest of grips on the policy-making mechanisms that effect all of us-from whales to bats to snails. What can art's agencies possibly do to counter-state, resist and deflate this perverse, toxic hegemony? This is the gravitational question, the crux, the heart of the matter Ryan's work addresses.


His proposals run the gamut from real-time monitoring of relatively pristine natural sites situated in the very midst of urban settings (a contemporary version of the traditional landscape genre; to utilizing portable video technology as a perceptual tool to inculcate respect, even reverence, for the natural world; to the relational practice, essentially an extended performance piece, in which participants interact in triads, generating inter-relations that are perforce simultaneously volitional and mutually dependent for a successful outcome. In a curious sense, the relational practice is the inverse of the Prisoner's Dilemma.


From biosphere to semiosphere, from Rene Thom's catastrophe's to Klein's bottle, from cybernetics to C.S. Peirce's logic—Ryan's array of interests and experimental research tends to focus upon the daunting task of radically altering perceptual behavior and, as a consequence, instituting a distinct kunstler's epistemology. Such an epistemology proceeds at full bore to establish an interactive knowledge of the world inaccessible by other means. Though vastly different in other respects, Ryan's attitude of mind in this regard is comparable to Joseph Bueys's concept of sculpture as social action. With Bueys, an animist, neo-shamanist stance was bred in the bone; offering himself, his body as both catalyst and lightening rod for absorbing, thus naturalizing, the lingering menace of social/ethnic intolerance of every stripe, as well as counteracting accelerating ecological dissolution. With Ryan, the function of the artist, at this historical juncture, is grounded in creating operational contexts in which awareness of the environment's precarious state is clarified, expanded, and complemented with social action.


The successful entrenchment of the post-modern ethos, pervading virtually all domains of cultural activity, has opened wide sluice gates to every feasible sensibility—intermixing all possible stylistic combinations of cross-reference, mixed codes and contextual overlays. Palimpsests of meaning now peel away revealing themselves within ahistorical terms and parameters never anticipated by their initial intent. Hither and yon value itself is now exposed, deconstructed and subject to random (if not nihilistic) interpretation, to incidental and capricious connections, to the whims of political and/or arbitrary association. This is the current milieu within which serious art is now made, whether the artist is in sympathy with the post-modernist position or not.


For Ryan, this condition cuts to several quicks at once. Firstly—with the modernist's boundaries either dissolving in swift retreat, or holding down the rear-garde—it permits the widest latitudes for incorporating diverse ideational elements and performance maneuvers. Next, the trans/multi-cultural impetus promulgated by post-modernist theorists plays into Ryan's long-held view that artistic production must encompass a global dimension. And finally, functioning within an omnibus of strategies and flexible tactics, it embraces aesthetic practices, procedures and materials that are an anathema to whatever remains of the strictly “formalist” canon.


This is emphatically not to maintain that Ryan is a typical post-modernist. On the contrary, his polymath position began evolving at least a decade prior to the term's critical application to the plastic arts. Instead the defining moment, the etiology of his mature development stems from Peirce's doctrine of signs, where semiosis involves an irreducibly triadic relation among a sign, its object, and its interpretant. It was this confluence of Peircean logic and the urge to make art with an unmistakable social-ecological context that set Ryan off on his course.


The Eco-Channel project is the most cardinal, generic and ambitious of Ryan's work to date. If fully implemented, it may very well make a difference which makes a profound difference. For, contrary to pedestrian assumptions that art is a cavalier luxury (a sort of fluffy dessert after one's fill of meat and potatoes), art is a necessity—one upon which the survival of this species probably depends. Hence, the principle of the Eco-Channel is, in medieval terms, aliquid stat pro aliquo, that is it represents or refers to something, some capacity, to which we (excluding sociopaths and their ilk) can all relate. Cable or “dish” television channel(s) would permit anyone, anywhere, anytime, to monitor a multitude of natural sites in real-time. Uroburous-like, it would link our most sophisticated communications technologies with unfolding views of primeval nature.


Given the intricate spectrum of Ryan's discourse, it is doubtless that certain swaths of the wheezing art world gerontocracy will cluck with snide disapproval at his proposals. “What does it have to do with art?” they will ask? Without palpable objects, why not approach anthropologists, communication specialists, naturalists and environmentalists with your ideas—why us, they will intone. The appropriate response to such queries is from none other than Giordano Bruno: “Rules are not the source of poetry, but poetry is the source of rules, and there are as many rules as there are real poets.”

Frank Gillette


1993 / New York City 

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