From the Tunnel Mouth: Notes on Conceptual Car Art Apropos of the Work of Timsam Harding
Javier Sánchez Martínez
In her book Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art (2013), the American writer and educator Charissa N. Terranova posits a theory about the central, though often overlooked, role of cars in the construction of the contemporary subject and in art from the 1960s onward. In fact, this new subjectivity is most evident in the field of what we call “conceptual art”, particularly those practices that make use of automotive technology in one way or another. The author refers to these types of works as “conceptual car art”, a slightly humorous and irreverent syntagm that combines two seemingly opposite cultural spheres: conceptual art, known for its radical and serious propositions, and “car art”, the more garish, kitsch art of decorating and customising motor vehicles. However, “the automobile does not exist exnihilo: the car is part of an ecology of infrastructure. “The car is culturally and functionally embedded, and thus implies a landscape and space, be it urban, suburban or rural, of roads, highways, architecture, zones and coding.” This essay aims to interpret the work of Timsam Harding and, specifically, the exhibition titled 28m/s, in light of this alternative genealogy of art.
Automobiles first entered art museums over half a century ago, and since then there have been myriad exhibitions devoted to the different aspects of this mode of transport. In most cases, the car is presented as an object of contemplation and enjoyment whose symbolic function and design is analysed from different historical, theoretical or aesthetic perspectives. However, another less common approach regards the automobile less as an isolated element and more as an apparatus or device, as the web which, by inseparably linking cars, bodies and infrastructure, transforms our experience of the world and, consequently, ourselves. Terranova identifies two different ways of interacting with a car: looking at and looking from or through the automobile. This indirect or metaphorical approach to the car—indirect in the sense of involving suspensions and mediations, but also in the sense of exploring both the effects and affects it elicits—defines conceptual car art. On the other hand, the use of cars implied integrating art in the mediation technology of everyday life. Like documentary photography, the automobile acted as a trope denoting amateurism and ordinariness, two elements that attack artistic autonomy.
Therefore, in order to explore the ignored centrality of the car as mediation technology in conceptual art, an alternative history had to be written, one that would defy the conventional discursive frameworks which described it as a question of dematerialisation of the work of art and of its replacement with linguistic statements. The effects of photography and the recent cybernetic conception of art developed by new media converge at the heart of this new historiography. Rosalind Krauss fingered photography as the source of the technological implosion in traditional artistic media, as photography replaced the artistic medium with mediation, understood as a system of knots and vectors linked by technology. However, in Krauss’s post-medium condition, photography is just one of a series of “remediation” strategies, a central concept in media studies that refers to the ability to represent one artistic medium via another, the car being a case in point. At the same time, Terranova’s reading of conceptual art links the dispersal of the medium to Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetics, Mars- hall McLuhan’s media theory and Gregory Bateson’s ecology of mind, all examples of the transition from an object-centric culture to another centred on cybernetic systems. In fact, the reason why the automobile has been forgotten in conceptual art lies in its hybrid nature—that is, in the fact that a car is both an autonomous machine and a cybernetic ecology of forces and interconnections between man, machine and urban infrastructure, a definition in which the term “cybernetic” refers to a feedback-loop system of interactions.
In addition to systems aesthetics and cybernetics, the third element in Terranova’s pop car phenomenology is the logic of the automotive prosthetic, as expressed in the strategies of looking-through or from a moving vehicle. This theory is based on the fact that we always see the world through the technological assemblages available in each historical period. In the mid-20th century, the new urban condition derived from the transformation of the land into a road network, driven by mass oil drilling and recent industrial production strategies, as well as the suburban explosion around major cities turned the car into the ultimate mediation device. After all, driving is a process whereby subject, machine and road are joined to form a kind of nomadic vector characterised by mobile perception. The car, as a prosthetic, displaces the unit of the ego, the mirror in which a person recognises his/her self—in other words, as a subject identical to the self, giving rise to the cybernetic subject or cyborg, a subject technologically connected to the world. This subject is revealed as something exogenous, made and conceived from its own bio-technological environs. This subjective cybernetic position emerges precisely from the mobile perception of the road on which works of conceptual car art are staged. The car filters reality and, at the same, constructs and is constructed by reality, so that information is experienced via a loop structure. In this sense, we might say that the automobile, like computers and other digital technology, has modified the modern sensorium, thereby contributing to the emergence of the post-human subject.
In Automotive Prosthetic, Terranova not only analyses the fundamental role of the car in conceptual art, but she also revisits another maligned aspect of these works: the representation of a certain type of space. American photoconceptual artworks show the new model of time and space constructed from automotive devices after World War II, a model rooted in the centre-periphery dichotomy but homogenised due to the distanced view from the road. In Robert Smithson’s writings on the Ame- rican landscape, this centrifugal force of the city, this capacity for infinite expansion and connection, is identified with entropy. The outward spread of the city or its connection to nearby territories via infrastructure networks creates multiple zones that could be termed “entropic” given the energy drain they produce. These are the leftover spaces of capitalism, interstitial zones like the central reservation that separates lanes on a motorway, the wastelands that crop up alongside roads or even the verges themselves. These superfluous spaces also include the vast car parks of abandoned shopping centres, the fenced-in areas around major infrastructures or the paths followed by tunnels. In these entropic zones, the presence of urban planners and architects disappears, and the result is a surplus landscape devoid of both nature and culture, a series of places whose only purpose is speed and whose scale is not human, as they are only seen in the car mirror.
Timsam Harding’s work ties in with this forgotten history of conceptual art unearthed by Terranova, in part because of the centrality of looking through the automobile in his creations, but also because of his emphasis on technologically embodied perception. However, in his work the car is never presented or understood as an isolated element; it is always part of a system of fluxes and interconnections. This explains why, in his praxis, driving is just as important as being in the studio. In his 2019 exhibition Entre talud y cuneta, for instance, the sculptures made from bits and pieces found on his daily commutes have the same significance as the commutes themselves. Nor is it a coincidence that photography, the pioneering medium of mediation technologies, plays a central role in his projects, which generally originate with a photographic image. Similarly, in 2020 Harding presented Bajo la rueda, sobre el asfalto, a show where the spectral logic of photography resurfaced in a series of lead impressions of tyre tread patterns. 28m/s, his latest project, explores the dizzying sensations and paradoxes of that mobile or moving perception experienced on the road, whether driving or on the verge. At a speed of one hundred kilometres per hour, we are covering twenty-eight metres per second, a statement of which we have absolutely no experience, as it falls within that post-human scale derived from the driver’s union with automotive prosthetics. By interpreting conceptual art, and more specifically photoconceptual art, in terms of automotive prosthetics—in other words, based on the body and perception—Terranova argues that the vision of the road in these works expresses the temporality of the human being’s automotive becoming. When driving we experience a bifurcated sense of time, a spatial movement that is at once effective and affective, causal and linear but also emotive and nonlinear. If the time of the car’s wheels is a matter of the linear beeline of getting-there, then that of the steel cased womb to which the post-human subject is attached is a matter of several nonlinear emotional expressions of the now. In order to address the spatiotemporal paradoxes encountered while driving, in 28m/s Timsam Harding has appropriated a typical roadside element, the crash barrier or guard rail, and turned it into a basic unit of measurement for the exhibition. The sculpture installation presented in 28m/s consists of seven barriers that add up to twenty eight metres, longitudinally divided into three hundred and one 10-centimetre W-shaped sections that form different compositions throughout the gallery. In using a material process to break down and compress a spatial magnitude, Timsam Harding echoes the work of artists like Walter de Maria and his Broken Kilometre (1979). Although 28m/s uses the absence of composition typical of serialisation, the relationships between the pieces are based on both repetition and variation, a rhythmic aspect that the artist underscores by introducing audio and video in the show.
In a short text written prior to and as a meditation on the exhibition, Timsam Harding described one of those epiphanic experiences that often occur in adolescence and are remembered with dreamlike clarity. One summer day, on one of his regular outings to adorn roadside structures with graffiti, he approached a tunnel. As he came closer to the entrance, he was awed by the magnitude of its scale. He then decided to walk through the tunnel. As he made his way along the verge, step by step, he began to realise that this anonymous vaulted space, which he had zipped through hundreds of times by car in a matter of seconds, was a place whose true size he had never truly appreciated. Upon emerging from the tunnel, he observed that a few seconds had become half an hour, and that a tunnel is a dusty, monochromatic place filled with echoes. When I venture into 28m/s, I experience a thrill similar to what that teenage boy felt as he plodded through a vast tunnel with a backpack full of empty spray cans slung over his shoulder.