Double or Nothing: John Miller on the Art of Douglas Huebler

By Miller, John | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Double or Nothing: John Miller on the Art of Douglas Huebler


Miller, John, Artforum International


IN RETROSPECT, Douglas Huebler seems to have framed the scope of his work (or at least the general reception of it) with two irreconcilable declarations, the first being Conceptual art's most oft-quoted pronouncement, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." Despite its laconic tone, Huebler's remark, initially put forward in a 1969 artist's statement for a show at New York's Seth Siegelaub Gallery, mercilessly lampoons the expectation that artists be prolific. It implies a cessation of production, not because the world is particularly wonderful, but simply because it meets a minimum standard: "more or less interesting." It hints at a certain ecology as well. To make more objects--particularly, boring art objects--would be redundant. Why bother?

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As Huebler later complained, these words would come back to haunt him. During his lectures someone inevitably pointed out that he had gone on to add more things to our more or less interesting world. And, in fact, just two years after renouncing object making for good, Huebler seemed to double back, emphatically proclaiming his intention "to photographically document ... the existence of everyone alive." Although this proposition, from the prospectus for his Variable Piece #70, (In Process) Global, 1971, 1971-, clearly telegraphed its own inevitable failure, it still invoked a kind of frantic and imperious hyperproduction whose purpose, even so, was murky. Document to what end?

However confounding and diametrically opposed Huebler's two statements seem, together they amount to a binary proposition that redefines the role of the artist. What links them is the quandary of an individuated subject confronting "the world" as an indifferent, globalized system. Rejecting production in the usual sense, that subject responds by systematically reproducing this uninflected world--or at least images of its inhabitants. This formulation is blase and fatalistic. It is also discreetly Utopian. The world itself is to remain as it is; the point is simply to recognize its completeness. Everything that need be known about it is known already.

Yet with these disarmingly provocative declarations--and the body of work that is keyed to them--Huebler, perhaps more vividly than any other artist, registers the drastic sense of ideological liberation and foreclosure swirling around photographic technology both then and now. What he grasped was the camera's force as an economic and social agent. He saw that its ability to produce an instant and objective image implies a process of continuous reproduction, that its ability to disseminate images widely, cheaply, and immediately implies a degree zero of democratization bordering on complete devaluation.

These prospects are tied to a nascent postindustrial logic and ideology: the information economy. Huebler's work stands at the crux of that epochal shift. In a statement accompanying the 1969 group show "Prospect '69" at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, he wrote of his working method: "I use the camera as a 'dumb' copying device that only serves to document whatever phenomena appears before it through the conditions set by a system." Mike Kelley points out in his 1997 essay "Shall We Kill Daddy?" that, here, Huebler seemed to contradict the gist of his own work, simply repeating the Conceptualist mantra that photos are transparent. Clearly, none of the photos featured in his Location, Duration, or Variable works are transparent. For example, on March 17, 1969, Huebler took a walk in Central Park. His goal was to shoot ten pictures in a ten-minute period: When he heard an "individually distinguishable" birdcall, he would point his camera in that direction and shoot. The resulting photos, coupled with a short explanatory statement, became Duration Piece #5, New York, 1969. Obviously, the camera cannot capture what Huebler is after here; the birdcalls elude it. …

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