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Un Magazine 5.1

Monkey Business: John Vella’s HANGBANG (nightshift)

Kit Wise

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Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania, Hobart
30 October – 21 November 2010
Kit Wise

John Vella must be one of Tasmania’s, if not Australia’s, most anarchic contemporary artists. HANGBANG (nightshift) presented Vella’s work to date at Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania (CAST), Hobart, but was no ordinary mid-career survey show. Vella took his entire artistic output of the last sixteen years (everything produced since moving from Sydney to Hobart), minus that held in public and private collections and rammed the gallery with several hundred objects. Artworks new and old, damaged and dismantled, as well as raw materials and maquettes were numbered and assembled in a way comparable to Kurt Schwitter’s famous Merzbau: a colossal, sprawling, architectural archive of his practice.

John Vella, <em>HANGBANG </em>(<em>nightshift</em>) (detail) 2010, Image courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Photo credit: Peter Angus Robinson

The numbering of objects was a crucial aspect of his methodology. Like in a game of I-Ching, their cataloguing was combined with numerical data, collected according to the daily functioning of the gallery space and offices, to mathematically generate random interactions between Vella’s objects. Thus, interest in the exhibition affected the numbers: more visitors, emails or cups of coffee meant more intercourse between elements in the archive. The automated, and often violent, mechanised acts of interaction between elements were enacted at night, when the unfolding narrative could be viewed live through a slot window inserted into the external brick wall of the gallery. The artist slept in the gallery each night, but could be woken and summoned by viewers anytime from 9pm–5am, to set the installation in motion via ropes and pulleys, although he remained out of sight. The gallery and adjacent offices became a self-reflexive machine for directing what seemed to be an absurdist performance: a kind of dadaist supercomputer.

Things go bump in the night. The viewers of Vella’s nocturnal activities found themselves peering through an aperture, like David Attenborough looking on as the wild beasts perform their most intimate activities. They were not disappointed. Vella’s career has long involved the concept of frottage, the quasi-sexualised application of friction and here, paintings were thrown against each other, sculptures dragged over storage shelves or dropped from great heights and video screens covered with studio detritus.

The show changed daily — works nominated by each of the previous day’s individual activities (eg. number of the exhibition officer’s emails in) were ‘hung’ — placed in the CAST offices where the actions occurred, whilst works selected by various collective actions (eg. the number of all emails in) were ‘swung’ — tethered to ropes to be smashed together when approached from the window by a nocturnal visitor…1

Vella describes this methodology as ‘rape by context’: no caged monkeys abusing each other out of boredom, but something not far off.2 This archive-zoo-machine was replete with not just biological, but also psychological experimentation. As Vella commented:

the archive of artworks — good and bad — and materials collected are present like omens and friends. […] Like bringing all your ex and current partners, entire immediate and extended family, together into one space and subjecting them to a collective, physical and visceral experience…3

Each night, the factual and material histories of Vella’s oeuvre, as well as any hierarchy of value in the assembled art works themselves, were literally destroyed to be made anew.

How, then, are we to understand this compacted space of Vella’s psychologised, biologised archive? Giorgio Agamben notes that in Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, the archive is situated between langue and corpus, the system of speech and the body of ‘speeches’ that have been said or written.4 The archive is consequently neither of these things. It is instead everything that could have been said, as a possibility of enunciation: ‘it is the dark margin encircling and limiting every concrete speech act’.5 As such, it refers to the past, the sum of all possible past speech acts, but not what was said — hence, it refers to the ‘outside’ of language. Vella’s incoherent warehouse presentation of the history of his practice approaches this position, seeking the ‘outside’ of his own discourse.

Agamben’s conception of the archive can also be related to Lev Manovich’s description of the digital database. Manovich describes the database as ‘a new symbolic form of the computer age’.6 He develops this idea to describe a tension between the logic of narrative and the logic of the database, such that, for computer software, ‘a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus narrative is virtual, while the database exists materially’.7 The database represents a digital manifestation of Agamben’s archive as ‘systematic matrix’, a generative mechanism, and here we find Vella’s project similarly prioritising the elements of his narrative to self-generate, at the expense of the narrative itself.8

HANGBANG then approximates the ‘dark margin’ of the unsaid: a haptic, visceral database capable of generating new narratives from the history of Vella’s oeuvre, both supercomputer and supernature. While eschewing new media, Vella’s practice is of the computer age in its aspiration and complexity: it borrows the symbolism of the database, if not its medium. In this, it knowingly challenges our definitions of the narrative of practice by substituting the art institution as a random (rather than reflective) output generator; as an alternative system for the genealogy of art works. In this ‘automated’ manipulation of the artist’s own work, the institution, and his agency in relation to it, the project was clearly successful. Vella raises the bar by sacrificing his own authority and the integrity of his work in a way that is much more than an act of either jouissance or vandalism. As a manifestation of the potential of Agamben’s ‘dark margin’ of the archive — operating in the space of what could have been, rather than was, said — the work also succeeds in testing the stability of the narrative assumed in the generation of any artwork. Vella’s monkey business follows in the footsteps of Able, the first primate to survive space travel and to live to tell the tale: his work chooses to boldly go to the outside of language, narrative and history, beyond the art stratosphere; and returns to speak of strange new worlds that could have been.9

Kit Wise is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning) at the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University.


  1. John Vella, artist’s notes, 2010. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A M Sheridan Smith, World of Man Series: Routledge, London and New York, 1989. 

  5. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books, New York, 1999, p 144. 

  6. ‘Following art historian Ervin Panofsky’s analysis of linear perspective as a “symbolic form” of the modern age, we may even call the database a new symbolic system of
    the computer age (or, as Jean-François Lyotard called it in his famous 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, “computerised society”.’ Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA and London, 2001, p 219. 

  7. Ibid., p 231. 

  8. Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2009, p 287. 

  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkeys_in_space, accessed 7 February 2011.