Is it Too Wild to Say That Channa Horwitz Predicted Internet Data Mapping in 1980?
By Cal Tabuena-Frolli
Commanding and delicate, the never-displayed drawings at Ghebaly Gallery’s “Structures” by Channa Horwitz reveal the human side of an artist too easily described as a mathematical minimalist. Her signature web-like carts drawn on teensy-format graph paper buzz with prescience. In a year punctured by stories of hidden structures— of influence, of finance, of data— this exhibition recognizes Horwitz as an artist of the immediate present. It is her first solo show since her death at 80 in 2013 and it is elegant and tight.
Horwitz’s works are visually light and conceptually dense and they read like the blueprints of an industrial designer’s acid trip. The smaller pieces squeeze confounding ideas in graceful form. The larger pieces engulf and can come off as intimidating (when was the last time you were excited by a wall of calculus?). But Horwitz— and Ghebaly, by selecting annotates and “mistake” pieces, works to lay bare the artist’s mind.
Over three generous groupings, Horwitz’s point is clear: beautiful structures grid the relationship between everything and every thing. A big statement? Yes. But Gallery One, which focuses on Horwitz’s visual vocabulary, is a convincing introduction. They present her rigid and sometimes spontaneous process while also serving as cogs in later, larger works. Though these contained structures are digestible, what they map we aren’t told. They’re clearly figurative, (side question: can anything drawn on graph paper be abstract?) but looking at the cryptic shapes, our natural desire to understand the work butts up against Horwitz’s choice not to disclose units, axes and variables. Frustrating as it may be, we have little choice but to follow Horwitz’s lead.
Perhaps it’s a way to get us to appreciate the art form without trapping us in details. In a parallel universe where she shows us fully-explained versions of these pieces, the free-thinking American in me would probably see them as academic and stiff. These works remain approachable and lively because she doesn’t burden them with figures. Still, the curiosity lingers like a half-finished sudoku, a half-bit annoying.
Despite the mystery, the exhibition does provide some intellectual treats: with a few pieces Horwitz reveals her craft in full. Slices and Structures, for instance hides nothing. Every line is tracked, every unit is accounted for with little circled numbers. We learn— rather, Horwitz teaches us, that her formal process involves incremental growth, directional change and structural evolution. Surprise twist, despite the dryness of that fairly accurate description, the graph isn’t wonky at all. It’s supple, airy, the exterior of a futuristic opera house. 8 Shapes Explanation for Flowing and Numbers (1980) is presented with the clarity of a tasteful physics textbook diagram: formal art up top, diagram of formal art in the middle, and formal art’s data backbone serving as the fine print. Like Slices and Structures, the concept it maps is hard to intuit. But that’s okay! What is clear is that everything is mappable, somehow able to be known.
To over-generalize, Horwitz’s graphs chart invisible but measurable objects— say, for instance, the position of a sound in space, and further slice these invisible objects into cross sections. Her graphs atomize their paths, stretching them through time. If this sounds heady, buckle up. Gallery Two’s application of Gallery One’s vocabulary provides Horwitz a master of dissection. Standing under the 12-foot cascade of morphing graphs in Variation and Inversion on a Rhythm IV, the eyes blur and the brain fizzles. It’s too much information entirely. Here’s where the interactive beauty of her work comes in. Take 10 steps back and look up again with the entire piece in scope. The collection whispers its secret: an ethereal mega-ripple whose clarity grows with distance. It’s satisfying, timeless and baffling.
Gallery two is filled with such wonders. A very special shoutout to Canon Series #10, Black/White (1982), which I can only describe as a magnificent headache. Let’s cut in with this enlightening Horwitz quote, “I feel that through chance comes structure, of that if chance plays out long enough it will become structure. That is we cannot see the structure in chance we are too close to see it.”
Horwitz with the work in this show as well as the extensive work she did remapping her self-referential ideas— remind us that we live in a midst of data. To translate this idea into something we can all experience, imagine if you will, the next time you walk the block, the shapes your steps make in the air, or the logarithmically increasing size of the telephone pole you’re approaching, or the doppler wave of the bus roaring by. If only we had the mind to map these things, we’d probably find them beautiful. Horwitz does have the mind, and these things are beautiful.
In a practical subconscious way, we’re already deeply familiar with these structures. The football player catches a Hail Mary just like the speeding commuter weaves through traffic just like the brave home cook flips a pancake. In simply moving forward, we’re all processing reams of spatial data a second. We just don’t have the time to ponder this data à la minute, or rather if we did we’d likely fumble that pass, crash that car, drop that flapjack. Always we are too close to the action to be amazed by (and proud of) how many things we compute without “thinking.” Horwitz does the leg work to map these computations for us and then gives us the distance to appreciate them. The effect is rattling: why and how have we let this “data sight” settle to the bottom of our psyche? Maybe we’re better off this way, more time to focus on developing language, reading emotions, watching movies? I don’t know, ask an evolutionary scientist.
To focus on the internet for a minute— for I think this is the clearest example of Horwitz’s artistic foresight, what is it but a cloud of invisible connections linking everything with every thing? To echo Horwitz’s point about being too close to a structure to see it, the Internet is too big and too splintered to inspire effective art. What one oeuvre can capture the joy of Shazam-ing a song, the fear of getting doxed, the thrill of getting any flavor of porn you want? It’s impossible, I say. Therefore, the best chance we have to understand this invisible structure that scaffolds our lives (social, economic, cultural, you name it) is to break it down and understand its anatomy. And how do we do that? By applying Horwitz’s lesson that anything, as impossibly abstract as it appears, can be laid out plain and simple. If Horwitz could unravel the space between sound and time, why can’t we, if only we just had the mind, unstring every link of the web and render its infinity by byte-size chunks.
As tech obsessed as that sounds, Horwitz wasn’t strictly a data nerd. She applied her structural language to the personal realm. “My life and how it evolves appears to be determined by chance, but in reality it is a structure determined by my desire, both conscious and unconscious,” she has said. With this quote in mind, it’s easy to see one’s own life, the food we like, the things we know, the friends we have— as a mile-high pachinko board, each peg a decision to bounce off, hopefully in favor of personal happiness.
Although this idea rings true in the heart, Horwitz’s description of a life structured by personal desire needs an asterisk— especially in 2018, the year of the data scandal. If you can, please agree to my premise that the web— specifically our personal web habits, the news sites we internalize, the online stores that curate our taste, the social sites that project our personalities, is a decent adaptation of the idea of “life’s mile-high pachinko board.” Since we can find anything we want on the web, desire is mappable; we just call it our browsing history, or our stash of pinned articles, or our collection of “liked” photos.
Those maps of desire, it’s increasingly understood, are used by companies to mirror back at us the form of personalized ads. That’s just the way the web works and it’s fine, we get it. Google’s got to pay the rent somehow. But, where does personal desire fit in to all of this if we know that somewhere along the line it’s being molded by a company? Netflix, for instance: I have the absolute, nostalgia-driven desire to watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri. And for a while, I could (and did). But Netflix, doing the thing it does, saw that I liked that show, removed it and replaced it with its own facsimile of a crass, big dude telling me how to eat messy food: Ugly Delicious with David Chang. Close, Netflix, but wrong.
Granted, I know this isn’t exactly how Netflix works. But here’s how I think it works: it spent the first 10 years of its life providing us all the content we wanted, mapping our desires through its DVD mail service and eventually its streaming of network content. Then, it used those maps of desires to make its own versions of that content. And now, as anyone currently browsing the site knows, it’s bombarding us with shows we didn’t ask for but kind of resemble the stuff we went to Netflix to watch in the first place. Are these things we truly desire? I’m not sure.
This tension between a person’s autonomous desires and the raft of outside forces trying to massage those desires into $$$ isn’t new of course. Advertising was alive and well in Horwitz’s lifetime. It’s just never been this murky: ads are sometimes better than TV (Smart Water’s perfect web series Seriously Distracted); newspapers— newspapers, are buying into sponsored content; and it seems that all of a sudden, every brand from General Electric to McDonalds has a new podcast to shove down our ear holes. This blending of brand we’re neutral about with content we’re thirsty for makes a mess of defining desire. Is desire real if it’s in part manufactured by a company?
Regardless, in revealing the complexity of invisible structures, Horwitz gives her audience power, since companies that rely on data also rely on our ignorance of (or indifference to) how it’s being used. Case in point: when I get a new app and want to use it right away, what better way does a company have to get me to sign away my data rights than to show me the impenetrable swap of legalese I have to wade through to understand exactly what this product is doing, and then, with a beautiful blue “Accept Terms” button prompt me to make that swamp disappear? The feelings that follow: 90% joy at being able to use the app, 10% muted acceptance that something probably a little shady went down. Whatever, lol, I got a new app.
To return back to the physical show, Ghebaly is wise to let the work speak for itself. And, after wowing us with Gallery Two’s beauties, it warms us up to Horwitz the human being. It’s not obvious at first but looking closely at the smaller pieces in Gallery Three reveals mistakes and aborted compositions— a remarkable inclusion for an estate whose artist’s legacy is almost synonymous with the formal precision of a TI-85.
Pointing out a grouping of these rare “mistake” pieces-- Canon “Red Violet Wrong” (1982), Canon Untitled (1983), and Canon Untitled (1983)— Gallery Director Gan Used explained to me that the colors spill the tea. Unlike the trademark 8-color pieces in Gallery One, these pieces seem stuck on 5 or 6. It must have been that somewhere deep in the graphing process, Horwitz notices she was off by a count and deemed the piece unfixable. We’re lucky to see these, since apparently she burned a lot of her “un-showable” work.
Besides the empathy that Gallery Three builds between the artist and her audience (who doesn’t love an artist who can puncture her own ego?), they subtly wrap the show with a big bow. Horwitz’s mistake pieces point to the countless other that didn’t make the cut, that in their incineration remain invisible data points in her lifetime of artistic growth. Without these imperfections, there are no perfections. Without ordering the world, there is no order. This showing should warm the skeptic’s soul. For Horwitz, disorder was an illusion, just data ready to be mapped.