TBA:11/Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen, ‘Don’t Worry We’ll Fix It’: Editing power

Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011.

Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011. PICA TBA:11


It is an office of cultural production whose subject is the mutability, the unfixed nature, the vulnerability of the cultural product. The artists behind Don’t Worry We’ll Fix It at PICA’s TBA:11 Festival, Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen, employ the metaphor of editing to get at the alteration (and preservation and destruction) of the cultural product, be it a work of art or otherwise, as well as the archive in general and the history that’s made from it. So an editorial gesture may be a black marker redaction of a word on a page, it may be an act of god, e.g. fire, or some combination of the two. And the point is that what we see, whether in the pages of a book (K-12 history books in the state of Texas, for example) or in a museum, say, and what we (think) we know as a result are all the result of an ongoing meta-editing process (comprising ten thousand gestures large and small) that leaves any real knowing that isn’t based on direct experience in a tenuous position. 

Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011. PICA TBA:11

Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011. PICA TBA:11


In this office (complete with desk, filing cabinet, printer, wastebasket), which is part installation/performance and part exhibition, the objects and images reflect edits of greater and lesser consequence, the latter including a photo of a massive tattoo on a man’s arm, a solid rectangle that must obscure some earlier tattoo, and a sculpture of a stack of oversized Rolodex cards on which the numbers have been erased and rewritten. Moving from the personal to the institutional, the artists address the archive with a brown file cabinet whose open drawer full of blank file folders and white papers printed with the desktop icon for a generic document crazily extends halfway across the room. What to do with the glut? Three rubber stamps on top of the cabinet suggest, “TRANSFER,” “KEEP,” “DESTROY.”


Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011. PICA TBA:11

Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 2011. PICA TBA:11


The nearby sculpture of a row of burnt books suggests the latter. I asked the artists about it. It is meant to represent the fact that the Dutch National Archive destroys 90% of what it takes in to preserve 10%. Among the “edits”-lite (such as the Rolodex or the over-sized photo of a page from a book in which a reader has underlined two words beginning with the same letter with the note “illiteration,” ha ha), this burnt thing stands out for its gravity and the beauty of its charred edges. It doesn’t need to be scaled larger to make its point. Even without knowing the backstory of the Dutch archive, the burnt book is a powerful symbol of the fact that the universal cultural archive, amalgamation of all human cultural production, be it architectural, literary, scientific, etc. is subject to the whims of power and ideology (let alone well-meaning archivists). Witness Ceasar’s torch and the Ancient Library of Alexandria or Taliban dynamite and the Bhuddas of Bamiyan.


Graham Bell and Ryan Wilson Paulsen.


Throughout TBA, the artists worked in this office, among these objects, “editing” the broadside publication, September (with a wink toward the influential art theory journal, October). And here I will tell you that I write this from inside of this aspect of the project having been asked to contribute an essay alongside others including Mack McFarland, Julie Ault, Matthew Stadler, Sam Korman, and Garrick Imatani. But who wrote and what was written was not the point. Each day the artists would modify these broadsides, by excising Mack’s swear words with an Xacto knife, for example, or pasting a label reading “Removed due to copyright infringement” over an image accompanying Graham Bell’s essay.

The writing was simply words to be printed to make an object the artists could modify. The objects that resulted confused more than one viewer as only some of the broadsides were modified, given the time available each day, so the stacks of each days’ broadside that line one wall of the space left the viewer to wonder just what the project was meant to be or say (as the content was all over the place from quantum physics from Krystal South to communities of thought by Ariana Jacob). A friend visited at a time the artists weren’t working and found it difficult to situate the publication’s purpose within the context of the other objects in the room as the content of the publication never addresses the edit.

The stronger aspect of “September” was the performance itself, suggesting as it does the insidiousness of the minor edit, the slip of the copyist’s pen, in the grand scheme of cultural “preservation.” It asks, whose edit? Who gets to choose, and the answer is that it could be ANYONE (on the day I visited, Paulsen was joined by Bell…see what I mean…ANYONE), there’s not necessarily a reliance on authority, experience, or whatever criteria we might like to think is in place.

If individual agency is addressed via the photos of tattoo and marginalia, it’s perhaps best embodied by the the most enigmatic object in the room, one that’s come to be my favorite though I didn’t even notice it on first visit, and when I did notice it, I didn’t know what it was. Black 2×2’s of various lengths leaned in one corner of the room. Paulsen called them “portable strikethroughs.” And I immediately liked the performance suggested by the strikethroughs and the sense of power they suggest for the individual. [ASIDE: Is it a problem that I had to ask? Yes. That’s what titles, lists of works, and wall labels are for.]

This also in my mind is connected, and not just because of the language, to Claire Fontaine’s notion of the “human strike.”
But it does suggest that the individual only has power in the negative, power to excise or erase, to throw a brick perhaps. It’s a pessimistic view, reinforced by the tackily gold-leafed laser printer (a possible symbol of cultural production on the individual level) in close proximity, and so one supposes, in a very nearly closed loop with, a gold-leafed paper shredder, as if to say, what’s the point? It’s certainly an interesting issue to raise in the context of one of the city’s more important visual art exhibitions of the year, one that draws together culture workers and lovers of all stripes in celebration of contemporary cultural production.

On the floor the artists have painted in large letters “[sic]” which is to say, as it always does, “You know, we know you know, and we just want you to know that we know, too.”

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