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The Style of the Obsessive Detective: An Interview with 23E Studio's Lee Pembleton

In Gallery 400's current exhibition, I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE: THE LEGACY OF HALFLIFERS, the members of 23E Studios accumulated information under the guise of a global research team, 23E Laboratories. Given a finite amount of data, their team worked to uncover the connections between the world of HALFLIFERS and our own. Synthesized, layered, and connected, the findings are presented in evidence webs, not unlike those seen in crime dramas. In We Can’t Evolve You: 23E Laboratories’ Research Into The Missing Dystopian Future, the information has continued to grow and expand through the exhibition, creating a master web of connections that attempt to reveal an underlying pattern into who—or what—HALFLIFERS is, was, or will be. Wanting to learn more about the installation and the collaborative behind it, Gallery 400 Curatorial Assistant Karen Greenwalt spoke with Lee Pembleton, one of the original members of 23E Studios. Read on to learn about 23E Laboratories, Obsessive Detectives, the impossible, and much more!

23 E Labs
Image: 23E Laboratories, We Can’t Evolve You: 23E Laboratories’ Research Into The Missing Dystopian Future, 2013, mixed media installation, dimensions variable.

Karen Greenwalt: What—and who—is 23E Laboratories?

Lee Pembleton: 23E Laboratories is an independent aesthetic research association with participating members around the world. Our primary interests are noological explorations and aesthetic philosophy. In We Can’t Evolve You, 32 of 23E Studios’ 90 members spun off a research lab and are attempting to decipher the motivations and identities of the HALFLIFERS, engaging their DVD retrospective as an artifact of the past or future. When we were approached by Gallery 400, Elise Irving, 23E Studios' co-director, suggested we bring to bear the style of the Obsessive Detective to try and reveal what rattles at the heart of the HALFLIFERS: what gave or will give them life as well as what sustains, inspires, and drives, or will someday, sustain, inspire, and drive them. The HALFLIFERS' 20 years of work is pregnant with their time, with the generations that came before them and formed them. We drilled down through their artifacts to discover their time and the times that birthed them.

KG: How is 23E Laboratories related to 23E Studios?

LP: 23E Studios was established in 2008 to fulfill a request from Fringe Exhibitions curator Susan Joyce. In an attempt to alter the future of human consciousness, it united the forces of several other collaborative arts groups: Thinghol Assembly, the A/V Club, Terminal Projects Group, Forever What?, My Daddy Ate My Eyes, and Nightmare City, among others. The first project, Disembody, was a film that was intended to contribute to the movement in contemporary art debunking the myth of the genius, the cult of the individual. The neo-feudalist future depends on the pyramid scheme of hope embedded in the genius, the superstar, the lottery, the genius succeeding against all odds. This is, of course, a story tiresome and old, calcified into a bony, undying “truth.” 23E stands in foolish, absurd, eternal opposition to this truth (though, admittedly, many of our members do not necessarily stand with us). Once we finish the damned editing, Disembody will be one more document of the social, collaborative nature of life.

Born of this film, 23E Studios has drifted through a handful of other collaborative projects. Each iteration of 23E has honed the group a little more. When approached by Gallery 400 to find the soul within the collaborative of the HALFLIFERS, we dove deep into the spirit and nature of our subject to decipher their portrait, bringing their joie de vivre into solid form. To do this we created the research branch of our collaborative, 23E Laboratories.

Disembody
Image: 23E Studios, Disembody, 2008–, film, approx. 73:00 min., with mixed-media installation (still).

KG: What is your relationship to the HALFLIFERS?

LP: Several members of 23E Studios attended California College of the Arts. Anthony Discenza [one half of HALFLIFERS] was the mentor to 23E founding member Elise Irving. Others, such as myself, came to know him through her enthusiasm and respect for his vision and humor. After we executed Disembody, Anthony introduced Torsten Zenas Burns, the other half of the HALFLIFERS, to our work. This led to 23E Studios proposing a residency program to Parsons Hall Project Space in 2009. Parsons is Torsten’s Holyoke, MA arts space that is run in cooperation with Kari Gatzke. 23E’s most active progeny, Earthbound Moon, was born during that residency.

KG: Your installation posits the HALFLIFERS as an entity from a distant past, alternative reality, or some other unknown world. Your team of researchers have, in turn, been asked to uncover the connections between the world of HALFLIFERS and our own. How did you conceive of this project?

LP: We cannot answer this question. I suspect you would need to ask those who know us the question were you seriously seeking an answer. Although not all members agree on this, I do not believe in the ability to know one’s self. Self-knowledge is after-the-fact justification.

KG: How do you see We Can’t Evolve You engaging with the history of the HALFLIFERS?

LP: As to the history of the HALFLIFERS, only one or two of us knew that history. The others watched videos or explored catalogs and then provided their Obsessive Detective webs based merely on that material. To reach a deeper truth, the conscious mind needed to be disengaged, obliterated, negated. We did this through the style of the Obsessive Detective. We exposed ourselves to the relics of the HALFLIFERS’ history. We then extrapolated individually the larger history, the deeper history of their time. We then layered those extrapolations, looking for the places and times of convergence in all of our webs, believing that those loci might allow a penetration of time.

23 E Labs2
Image: 23E Laboratories, We Can’t Evolve You: 23E Laboratories’ Research Into The Missing Dystopian Future, 2013, mixed media installation, dimensions variable.

KG: Your project has continued to grow and change throughout the course of the exhibition. What has been your process?

LP: We aim to distill HALFLIFERS' essence and display their soul in our office. To accomplish this, we don’t believe the work itself can ever be static, we must animate the soul by inhabiting it with ourselves. Perhaps it is a golem, or a horcrux, or a vehicle for our combined katra…

Truth be told, though, this is the most static project we have created. Previously, every project included at least one member onsite at all times, working to create the world we are building.

I think our goal is that all 23E projects be public actions; that all 23E projects be living inquiries. The nature of the group is to attempt an aesthetic study publicly. We don’t think any project we create has an end point, necessarily. I suppose it ends when we lose interest or grow distracted. Truthfully, none of them ever end, in my mind. All of them are spellcastings into a collective unconscious we will gladly pour ourselves into with joyful and absurd souls.

If we have a process, I suppose it is trying to imagine the impossible; curiously investigating how we fail. We are a worldwide group of friends, lovers, admirers, bandmates; a churning community of seekers. Our practice is musk and lust and passion and frustration and laughter and tears and love. It is all the joy of community expressed as art.

The style of the Obsessive Detective is our process for We Can’t Evolve You. It is a method of searching for truth through the interrogation of seemingly-unrelated facts. The eponymous Obsessive Detective (OD) assembles evidence into groupings and then looks for the pattern that will reveal the identity exposed by all of the assembled information. In this way, the OD attempts to expose a hidden truth, a mystery identity. We took the oeuvre of the HALFLIFERS and asked each of our members to apply the OD technique to it. However, because one of our foundational beliefs is that the conscious mind is a betrayer, we then applied a sort of collaborative filter to the gathered information. No single OD will ever be able to interrogate information down deep into its hidden heart. Thirty-two ODs working independently can provide the 23E Laboratory with 32 misinterpretations, 32 different visions of identity. These visions overlaid atop one another we hope will reveal moments of truth, clusters of identity. We hope that a visitor to the office at Gallery 400 can find within it an Aleph for the HALFLIFERS, a point in space wherein everything happening everywhere at that moment can be experienced simultaneously. Or, conversely and similarly, a point in time wherein an entire existence can be experienced in a moment.

It is like when you travel to a new city and ask your host to take you to that one place that—for them—collapses time in their city; that one place where you stand still and see the past, the present, the future all simultaneously; where space penetrates time making itself the arrow and time the expansive panorama.

23 E Labs4
Image: 23E Laboratories, We Can’t Evolve You: 23E Laboratories’ Research Into The Missing Dystopian Future, 2013, mixed media installation, dimensions variable.

KG: Do you have a solo practice outside of your work with 23E Laboratories/Studios?

LP: I do, but I believe I am irrelevant to this conversation. If you could interrogate us all and then erase all of that information, scatter the erased particles to the high skies, to the universe as radiation, as background wave information, then you could perhaps find something useful about us. If you can find the space and time to speak to every one of us, I guess maybe you could learn something about us. Five minutes with a friend, a spouse, a vengeful ex, will tell you more about any one of us than an eternity chatting with all of us. Self-awareness is self-delusion, if we may be trite and sloganeering. The moment 23E is about any one of us rather than the joy of creating worlds together, it ceases to exist.

Earthbound Moon
Image: 23E Studios, Earthbound Moon, 2009, site-specific installation in Bledsoe, Texas.

Postscript/LP:

I was speaking with another 23E member today, and she reminded me of one of the central tenets of 23E that I neglected to address. The truth is, of course, that for us there are innumerable central tenets. This one, however, is one of the founding themes, and one that I think worth addressing.

One of the founding principles of 23E is to attempt the impossible. When offered a chance to create a work, we try to imagine something so big, absurd, curious, and organic that no curator in her right mind would accept the project. Occasionally someone will accept what we propose. More often they collaborate with us to create a project that we can attempt in their space, one that doesn't impose on them too much but is still unachievable. Most often we just never hear back from those who inquire.

We do this for the same reason we collaborate, because projects are most interesting and enjoyable for us to execute, and hopefully for an audience to experience, if no one involved really knows where things are going or how they will end. We want to create a controlled chaos. It is world building that challenges us at each step and gives audiences a broad range of responses without any expectation. Every project attempts to engage all of the senses, while building an evolving environment where no two people can have the same experience. Attempting the impossible is our preferred method for this way of sharing thoughts, laughter, and consternation with other people, strangers, and friends alike.

And, I just received, moments after sending my thoughts on the impossible, this article from my father, also a member of 23E (he got his Associates Degree in Fine Arts at age 67). Hirschman is an economist he knows I like. In fact, I was going to be an accountant with a minor in economics if I didn't get accepted to the one grad school to which I applied. Economics is my favorite branch of anthropology, which was my major with a philosophy of religion minor as an undergrad for awhile.

This reminds me of the quote which lives in my wallet, and which I attempt to personify with every single project, personal, 23E, or collaborative-elsewhere. It is from Dean Kamen, an incredible engineer and inventor:

"You know, you have to be optimistic. If you weren't, you'd never start a really difficult project. That's why other people didn't start it—they're rational. So I start these big projects. And in my heart of hearts, I know, boy, a lot's going to go wrong. You just have to be willing to fail a lot and somehow keep your optimism."1

For me, that is probably the most beautiful and inspiring thing ever said. It explains so clearly, and simply, and powerfully, everything you could ever need to know about me, my work, and the work of 23E Studios.

1. Adam Higginbotham, "Dean Kamen: part man, part machine," The Telegraph, October 27, 2008, accessed 20 June 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3353906/Dean-Kamen-part-man-part-machine.html.
Karen Greenwalt is currently a PhD student in the art history program at UIC and a Curatorial Assistant at Gallery 400.