Pictures by Dinis Santos
THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE
Lorenzo Sandoval’s first exhibition with Lehmann+Silva has a lot to do with abstraction — in an economic, aesthetic, and material sense. Picking up on the histories of industrial lace-making in the 19th century as well as the links between textile manufacture and early computer technology, Sandoval is interested in the ubiquitous present-day consequences of these two historical phenomena.
Global industrialisation and the automation of labour on the one hand, and the digitalisation of the social sphere on the other have engendered the new era common to us: we work, interact, and define ourselves within its terms.
By way of his own gestures of abstraction (applied to sculpture, photography, painting, and performance), Sandoval’s first gallery exhibition Shadow Writing (Lace/Variations) entangles these histories of economy, technology, fashion, science, and art. The Lace Heritage group in Nottingham, England, and its collection of intricate ornamental lace — designed and produced in the town and exported worldwide at the height of the Victorian Empire — provide the backdrop for Sandoval’s project. Apart from the post-industrial chic of converted warehouses and factories in the East Midlands of the United Kingdom, and long after all industrial-scale textile production has migrated to the sweatshops of the Global South, the archive in Nottingham has become the main repository for the material traces of the social upheaval and technological innovation that came along with textile industry: the fundamental rearrangement of living and working conditions, family structures, of wealth and its global distribution.
The elaborate patterns of lace and fabrics used to embellish the ornate fantasies of Victorian domesticity are, however, also at the root of the first algorithmic calculations as well as early photographic practices: in the mid-19th century, Charles Babbage used punched cards adapted from the French Jacquard loom to feed Ada Lovelace’s algorithmic programmes into his computational devices, while at the same time William Henry Fox Talbot was making some of the first photogenic images using Nottingham lace as his motifs. Here, textile manufacture, fashion, computation, photography, and their respective markets and labour conditions merge to form a complex whose effects we have collectively come to embody today.
A century and a half ago, Marx described the post-productive labour of the cultural worker as a “higher activity” with socially transformative powers. While industrial production continues to be the reality for large parts of the world’s labourers, taking place far beyond the attention span of (but delivering the commodities for) consumers in the West, the reality of contemporary artist-entrepreneurs seems to have anachronistically and inadvertently reintroduced the terms and conditions of the pre-industrial cottage industry production, which the introduction of automated production had expunged. Increasingly following the model of the fashion industry’s cyclical nature (the accelerated circulation of fetishised commodities), today’s art market trades in upscale abstractions while providing the pioneering paradigm for 21st-century labour conditions that have long begun to seep into the gig economy of the general public. Spearheaded by the art world, the Marxist project has been resurrected in the shape of a neoliberal revenant.
“[T]he final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their ownmovement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create.”
(Karl Marx, Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism [Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie], 1857–58)
At Lehmann+Silva in 2018 on occasion of Sandoval’s exhibition, some of the walls have been painted blue, reminiscent of a chroma key backdrop or a Suprematist stage set but specifically referring to Facebook’s azure corporate identity (originally chosen by Mark Zuckerberg due to his red-green colour-blindness). The walls foreground a metal construction, the framework that supports the three aluminium plates of Software for a Choreography for Machines and Bodies as well as a translucent printed chiffon flowing from the structure. The plates are perforated by repetitive cut-out patterns, moving across the breadth of the aluminium sheets like jittery frequencies of varying wavelengths.
These patterns make numerous reappearances throughout the exhibition: they serve as the templates used by Sandoval to produce his series Social Factory and Soft (Ware) Output, a repetitive painterly gesture (or rather the painted gesture of repetition) also recorded in the video Protocol Training. The series of paintings for Desktop is based on the same pattern, but is adapted from screen shots of the digital files used in Adobe’s Illustrator.
Sandoval originally discovered the patterns at the Nottingham archive and photographed them being shown to him by the resident archivist, whose pointing hands and varnished fingernails can be seen in Immanent Chances (A Visit to the Nottingham Trent University Lace Archive) as well as the images incorporated in the series of chiffons titled Soft Capital. These patterns originally served as hand-made programmes, the intermediary step between the floral and ornamental lace motifs created by textile designers, and the punched cards that were fed into the automated looms. The designs were adapted by highly trained draftsmen (educated at the newly founded Nottingham Government School of Design, the Royal College of Art in London, or the other English design schools established in the first half of the 19th century with the primary function of setting up the nation to compete on the international market) who would translate them onto enlarged and abstracted grid diagrams which indicated the movements of the beam and the warp as well as every waft thread of the loom.
These wavy transitional non-designs permeate the exhibition but never quite become legible as the mimetically decorative botanical motifs of Victorian fashion, instead remaining stubbornly abstract in a modernist sense avant la lettre. Accordingly, Sandoval approaches them like a truly post-modern user, embracing their abstraction and reformatting them into an ever-expandable array of visual media (or artistic genres) that even extend into a musical paraphrase, the notational score for two drummers, whose phase-shifted rhythms are, at times, audible throughout the exhibition. Thus is the nature of post-industrial, post-labour and algorithm-driven production and consumption: it allows for the eternal translation of content, to be shared by typing, scrolling, and pointing hands across the flowering landscapes of platform capitalism.