The Personal Effects of Seth Price

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Personal Effects of Seth Price

Griffin, Tim, Artforum International

THE VOLUME IS SLIM AND BLACK and, measuring just six by eight inches, clearly designed for portability. It would slip easily into a coat pocket or knapsack. And that, if the simple phrase adorning its cover is any indication, is precisely what the book is intended to do: How to Disappear in America, reads the title, whose throwback proposition, evocative of so many open-road, bohemian rambles and countercultural undergrounds--at once Emersonian and desperately on-the-lam in spirit--is only amplified by the presence on the dust jacket of a dancing figure that bears a vague resemblance to the logo for an American knock-off of that British purveyor of inexpensive classics the Everyman's Library. (Recall the fifteenth-century morality-play lyric that serves as the epigraph for each of the imprint's titles: "Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.") Inside, passage after passage of this handbook is devoted to clearing any obstacle that a person might face in seeking to leave his or her public life behind, whether that warrants something so simple as changing the color of one's hair or, more ambitiously, opening a bank account offshore. And yet, after a few pages, a creeping sense of inconsistency arises. Over time, the prose accumulates contrasting tones and perspectives, moving from bureaucratic to colloquial phrasing and back again, and employing different vocabularies belonging to entirely different eras--pontificating about 401 (k) plans and sophisticated satellite tracking systems at one moment, decrying "The Fuzz" the next. In fact, the text's increasingly skittish quality starts to prompt some skepticism about the character (or characters?) behind the book's various recommendations--that one should, say, destroy all photographs of oneself, or get to "know the people in motorcycle hangouts [and] New Age dance studios," or find some low-level job in data entry, in order to survive anonymously under society's radar. (1) Over time, that is, the presence of a puppet master directing things becomes increasingly palpable, but only as the absence of any firm, consistent program becomes clear. (Someone, it seems, is telling readers how to tell stories, forge false trails, or cover up old ones, but only while also telling stories, forging false trails, or covering up old ones--showing by doing.) Paradoxically, it is in the very act of "disappearing" that some figure in the background begins to come forward--or, more precisely, that readers begin to look for that figure, or to imagine one in its absence and then project that subjectivity onto the written word.


The question of just who this narrator is inevitably circles back to the individual who ostensibly produced the book: the artist Seth Price. According to Price, the material in How to Disappear was actually culled from a handful of different sources, ranging from a decades-old mimeographed pamphlet to a contemporary text found online (and anonymously authored, he says), and edited together to produce the printed document--hence the disarray of voicing and vernacular under the cover of what would otherwise seem a single text. But even the slightest research into Price's own extensive writing--placing this volume in the larger context of his work, so to say--implicates him further, starting with this treatise's very first line: "As if with a twist of the kaleidoscope all would become clear, splinters join, new scapes hove into view." (2) These words, which might at first seem the cryptic utterances of some Virgil for the prospective fugitive, will instead prompt those familiar with Price's work to consider another of his essays, "Dispersion," which has to some degree catapulted him to the forefront of younger artists currently writing on art (and, more specifically, on its tenuous engagements with a broader culture radically impacted by new media). (3) Recalling in that earlier text previous generations who sought to elude the strictures of art and its institutions, Price argues that their attempts to find "alternatives to the gallery wall"--which often entailed moves into the circulatory and distributive systems of the mass media, whether in the open marketplace or specialized magazine--were nevertheless totally arid, demonstrating dry theories and critical postulates that were all too easily decoded and reinscribed within the arcane realm of art by a highly sophisticated infrastructure of critics, curators, and historians. …

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