Essays & Media

What do you want?

Matilda Fraser, 2013

Quandary Phase (live)

James R Ford, Quandary Phase, 2013

What do you want?

Do you want to get ripped? Do you want a car that goes fast? Do you want perfect hair? Do you want a modernist oasis, tucked gently into the hills, with a dishwasher and gaping ocean views? Do you want to live off the land, one man alone, embodying all that is good about our great nation as you hack down trees and skin rabbits, and brood upon your meaningful thoughts?

Or are you the gambling type? Would you prefer to make your fortune off a horse, and retire, never to work again? Is it relaxation you crave, a tropical getaway – would you like to stretch out your bare feet in a hammock as a riot of frondescence gently sways above you?

Or do you want to get laid? These are the things that can get you laid: mascara, frozen yoghurt, Dior Homme, burgers, interior decoration, European beer, aerosol deodorant, iPhones.

What is the structure of your mode of desiring?

This is the work:

Status Quo is an exhibition of new kinetic artworks by James R Ford, displayed sequentially week by week. The works all feature an item of play paired with a motorised household object; including a pull-along toy on a treadmill (Road to Nowhere, 2013), an inscribed cricket bat on a record player (Quandary Phase, 2013) and a pair of dice in a foot spa (Total Paradise, 2013).

The work confuses me. There is movement, and some flavor of black humour in the pointlessness of these displays. It’s necessary, of course, to consider the setting in which we find this show. When I trekked down Courtenay Place to view, it was about 9pm on a weeknight and I was surrounded by people doing their usual sorts of things that you would expect in this area: there are those on the way to various bars at the other end of Courtenay Place, those passing through – office-workers out late, catching buses to the suburbs; and those who are stationary: buskers, teenagers loitering outside the cinema complex as they are wont to do, that guy who is always asking for bus fare. It is a little late for window shopping.

I’m interested in what James R Ford is hawking. There is something on offer here, but I can’t immediately pin down what it is. These dreams and aspirations don’t take the form of something I recognize, although the framework is familiar. I am used to shop windows promising me an alternate vision of life, something better, more opulent than the existence I already lead; but what, exactly, am I being promised?

Status Quo is situated in a small prism of space in between a fast food restaurant and a convenience store. It is dimly lit. The floor is concrete and the walls are unpainted chipboard. A pane of glass separates the work from the gum-splotched pavement.

How perfect, I think. Total Paradise. I have always wanted a foot-spa (that is, now I finally realise that I have always wanted a foot-spa). And clearly this one can lull me into a trance-state to better choose my winning Lotto numbers. Or perhaps I could contemplate probability theory, whilst in a state of relaxation?

An aspect of this show that I take particular pleasure in is the fact that it could so easily not be art: it blends into its surroundings so well. As consumers we have become used, dare I say it desensitized, to our leisure time being packaged and sold back to us by retailers. And I think this is evident in the way it is viewed by passersby: the eyes of walkers slide from left to right, straight over it, like another window display. It is only the futility of the gesture that is, in this instance, more pronounced. This offering has no price-tag, no branding. It is out to perturb.

The exhibition is available both day and night, but it is not available to be touched. Here is Road to Nowhere, a car (or something like a car) trundling on a treadmill, an alternate suggestion of purposing objects. How perfect. I can work out while sitting down. I can travel while staying in the same place. I probably didn’t really know what I wanted, until it was pointed out.

This gets me thinking about pointless labour, Sisyphean pursuits. Yes, you can improve yourself, but I daresay that it will only be a temporary fix. Confronted with the perpetually revolving Quandary Phase and its message of “Live. Work. Live. Work. Live. Work. Live.”, I’m reminded of a particular saying: “Find something you love – and do it after work and on weekends for the rest of your life.”

James R Ford is offering us an alternate reality, a flipside – or perhaps a sarcastic hyperbole – of typical consumer culture. One in which no money changes hands. Because there is something deeply wrong with our dreams being re-packaged and sold back to us, our leisure and interests commodified, our emotions being traded.

This is a bleak picture. But like anything else, it is only temporary. It’s okay – James R Ford knows what you want. He can see through you like a window. Work, then play, then leisure. Repeat.