Seven Days of the Los Angeles Times (on Carter Mull)January 2014
Carter Mull: Typist
Paris: onestar press
I must confess I haven’t bought a newspaper in a long time, which makes my short walk to the Valero gas station in Palms on August 26, 2012, something of a special occasion. When Carter Mull invited me to write an essay for him—or “on” him, I suppose— I decided that his relationship with the Los Angeles Times, which resulted in a substantial body of work, warranted further investigation. I had written about that work a year or so earlier, and Carter’s use of the newspaper—which he has referred to as a “complex chronometer”—but until this moment it never occurred to me that I should buy a newspaper again, to see what I might have been taking for granted as a “relic of the mechanical age.” Inside Valero, I look at the front page of the paper, above the fold, and see a picture of Mitt Romney against a washed-out American Flag—more of a photo-illustration airbrushed with pixels, rendering an “empty suit” even emptier. Mitt floats above the all-too-appropriate, all caps headline: “IMAGE GAP.” I look to see how much the Sunday paper costs. How long has it been since I’ve purchased a newspaper?
This isn’t to say that the newspaper is irrelevant to me. I was, after all, editor of my high school newspaper. In fact, I’ve remained fairly obsessed with news—or the news, obsessed with information and, perhaps to an even greater degree its circulation and its relationship to power. I ingest a lot of it on a daily basis, though it’s typically not through a paper I’m ingesting, and more often than not it is not this paper, the Los Angeles Times. The news structures my day, in ways seen and unseen, like faith, or a narcotic. I often get my fix well before the paper version—more an artifact of the news than its revealer in the paradigm of the present—rolls off the presses.
Last year, after a yawningly generous trial offer expired, I begrudgingly subscribed to The New York Times online. I initially tried to withdraw for a few weeks (or only days, perhaps?), but quickly came to terms with my addiction. I needed my dose. This year the Los Angeles Times online switched to a subscription service, too, though I have not followed suit. I simply moderate my intake, limiting the number of articles I read on their website. If I look at too many, they cut off my privileges for a month. It’s only happened once so far.
Everybody needs to make a dollar. This I understand. The shift from print to digital has represented a transcendental (or cataclysmic—take your pick) upheaval in the news industry, and its economic viability. The truth, however manufactured, comes with a price. And at some point I decided I would only pay for one newspaper, one version of the truth, and that’s The New York Times. “All The News That’s Fit to Print.” It’s hard to beat that motto, if you’re in the business of news.
When I moved to Los Angeles, seventeen years ago last month, I was on the cusp of that upheaval, which is to say I arrived without an email address. It seems hard to believe there was a time before email, and that I belonged to that time, considering the ridiculous swell of my inbox on any given day, but in 1995 I was a lonesome cowboy on the technological frontier. And to better grasp the terrain, I read the newspaper. I read the Los Angeles Times.
My first job in Los Angeles was as an assistant to Peter Spirer, a documentary director who was in the midst of completing a hip-hop film called Rhyme and Reason, which was eventually distributed by Miramax in 1997. When we weren’t on location—say, in a Lynwood backyard with Sen Dog, or in Ice-T’s studio in the Hollywood Hills— we were working in Peter’s garage on Crescent Heights. But usually when I’d arrive in the morning, Peter was still in the house—a house formerly belonging to Peter Lorre, whose headshots and production stills lined a hallway—sitting in his courtyard patio in a tattered bathrobe, drinking coffee and orange juice, reading the Los Angeles Times. He always seemed eager to talk, but also slightly irritated that I had interrupted his routine pleasures. It seemed like a casual ritual, but he was doing a very “Hollywood” thing: charting power, following narratives, estimating the relative rise and fall of all things newsworthy. I soon developed my own ritual, biding time across the street at Buzz Coffee, watching other players on the make, fueling.
More than giving rhythm to my days, the Los Angeles Times helped situate me—which is not necessarily to say situating myself—in a place I generally found bewildering. I really liked to watch the news on TV, too—particularly because the anchors, sportscasters, and weather forecasters were extremely attractive people. Amusingly attractive, at least in some Hollywood sense, which is to say telegenically handsome—at least far more so than the hick anchors I was used to seeing growing up in the Midwest. These were all aspiring actors, presumably, with frankly concocted names like Johnny Mountain, Dallas Raines, Christine Devine. For attractive people, if the big studios don’t bite, it dawned on me, there is always news. Or porn.
I arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of O.J. and “The Trial of the Century.” I had watched the infamous white Bronco chase from the considerable remove of Madison, Wisconsin, a few months before my westward plunge. Months later I actually met “Bronco Bernie,” the guy who towed O.J.’s Bronco and was called as a witness. A friend of a friend, Bernie lived a few blocks from my first Los Angeles apartment, and claimed to watch Scarface almost every day. Speaking of daily rhythms. Years later, I also met a former TV cameraman, who had worked the trial, day-in day-out. He had since become a taxi driver, and was, at that moment, taking me to LAX. Narratives, subplots, spin-offs are always emerging.
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, I realized that I was in a place where the news actually happens—is made, not simply received. And if one was reading the paper, the Los Angeles Times, in the summer of O.J., one would have also realized the absolute collapse of the categorical distinctions previously separating sections marked “NEWS,” “SPORTS,” “ENTERTAINMENT.” (Here the last of these is called “CALENDAR,” but that’s a different story.) The collapse of these categories, through the metonymic vehicle of O.J. Simpson, arrived on the cusp of digital news and what’s referred to as “the 24-hour news cycle”—calling to mind Borges’s map that’s the same size as the world it represents. Recently, I heard—in the news or on the news—that the global stock exchange has rendered sleep obsolete, at least for those most closely involved in the circulation of capital.
But isn’t “the 24-hour news cycle” really less of a cycle than a relentless churn of instantaneity, an oceanic expanse of digitized information without the clear beginnings and endings, insinuated by the finitude of a printed artifact? Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference. Or perhaps this is why Carter Mull still buys a newspaper—the Los Angeles Times, specifically—every day and frequently uses it in the images he produces.
So, when was the last time I bought a copy of the Los Angeles Times? The last time my name appeared in it? Perhaps. The embarrassing probability crossed my mind. I set out to purchase the local paper of record on this particular day, August 26, because I’m compelled to think about Carter and how the daily arrival of this printed, folded object structures his time and his work in the studio—and not just the photographs or other physical residue of that work, or even his own publishing efforts, produced in collaboration with Jesse Willenbring and Aram Moshayedi under the company name P & Co., but the larger project of being an artist in the world.
My initial plan was to buy not just this newspaper on August 26 but an entire week’s worth of the Times, accepting the value of that standard temporal unit as a worthy measurement of my investigation. And I did buy a week’s worth of the Los Angeles Times, though on several occasions I came close to forgetting the new task I had assigned myself, and ran out late at night in search of that day’s long-stale news. Perhaps I was too consumed in my own habits, following the week’s narratives (the Republican National Convention, Hurricane Irene, the Death of Neil Armstrong, and so on) at the accelerated pace of the 24-hour infoswirl, monitoring it all throughout the day from my laptop. In any event, the task never settled into routine.
I had planned to connect Carter’s work to the work of other artists, past and present, via this industrial relic—many of whom to which he has referred, either implicitly or explicitly: On Kawara, Al Ruppersberg, Larry Johnson, Amanda Ross-Ho, Paul Sietsema, and many others crossed my mind. Most of the art historical precedents are obvious: Picasso, for example, first situated a fragment of an actual newspaper on a canvas otherwise covered in paint, and then Warhol and Rauschenberg, respectively, further signaled the implications of a material (the newspaper) that is at once an image, mechanically and infinitely reproducible, but also an object, a thing with physical presence that yellows with age and exposure to light. On August 26, I purchased my paper from a metal box, relishing the four clinks of my quarters dropping into the slots, and the crinkled texture the paper had so quickly accrued in the summer sun, and thought of Rauschenberg.
And I thought of Leo Steinberg on Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane” images: “Any flat documentary surface that tabulates information is a relevant analogue of his picture plane—radically different from the transparent projection plane with its optical correspondence to man’s visual field.” Carter’s images of the paper are still life images that reiterate and exacerbate the picture plane. Spread open to reveal the front page and the back page of the first section—which is to say advertising—he reveals the logic of newspaper and the way it gives structure to the circulation of information. It’s a logic of beginning and ending used to structure an experience of a world without beginning or end. How much that logic still reflects our world is a lingering questions—it’s a question I believe he’s asking.
Defying calculated objectivity (which isn’t possible anyhow), Carter inserts himself into the structure of the newspaper’s logic—he often collages a photograph he’s taken over the lead image of the front page above the fold—and in this sense closely mirrors Steinberg’s notion of a “freely associated… internal monologue—the outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world…” Carter has referred to his tactic of inserting a small C-print, an image-object taken from his confrontation with the world, onto the mass-produced, publicly available (which isn’t to say public) space of the Los Angeles Times—and onto the flatbed—as an “I/we” gesture.
When I return to that first newspaper I purchased for his project, my project, I am amused to find a small image of the Los Angeles Times, situated on the page, en abyme, next to Neil Armstrong’s obituary: “WALK ON MOON,” dated July 21, 1969. The news becomes the news, perpetuates an endless circularity. Then, I am dumbstruck (all over again) by the reflexive headline: “IMAGE GAP.” The gap is one that exists between the “I” and the “we,” but also between the image as an image and image as an object, both with different circulatory systems—of commerce, of power, of meaning: One, the image, is the domain of media; the other, the object, is the domain of art. Looking at Carter’s images, I realize these are gaps that can be exploited, but not necessarily filled.
1. See my “Openings: Carter Mull,” Artforum, February 2011: 210-213.
2. See Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria (London: Oxford University Press, 1972): 55-91. Steinberg further notes that “it seemed at times that Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself—dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue—the outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.”