What have cars done for us lately? Only everything. They know us now, in fundamental ways that go beyond our tastes in music or the contacts on our phones. Lane assist gets that we don’t always see that thing in the blind spot on the left. Personalized climate control understands that we prefer to freeze at the same time our passenger likes a nice dry heat. Adaptive cruise control knows we’re the impatient sort that will eat the bumper in front of us if given the opportunity. And they all probably speculate that before the backup camera, we couldn’t parallel park for shit. One television campaign for Nationwide Insurance suggests that when we look at our own car, we see a helpless, adorable baby that we fiercely need to protect. Perhaps that’s how the car now looks back at us.
In Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art (2014, University of Texas Press), Dr. Charissa Terranova considers this fraught, integrated relationship that humans and vehicles create with each other, examining the car’s ascent in American culture and its mercurial aesthetic as object, subject, and mobile viewfinder. Terranova argues that the auto’s function as an extension of the body and a kinetic device capable of mediating time and experience has been largely overlooked in art history, especially when it comes to work that challenges the definition or ethos of conceptual art. She recently met up with Robin Myrick in Dallas, Texas for a conversation about the book.
RM: I’m obsessed with cars partly because I grew up in Houston, which is a gigantic car culture city, but you’re from Nashville, which I don’t necessarily think of as a car culture city.
CT: Nashville is a car town. Everywhere in America, every place, the infrastructure of every urban and suburban and meta-urban complex is automotive. It’s the way the country runs.
The United States is a car nation. I don’t even know if I would say it’s default, but the primary form of identification we have for people is the driver’s license, not the passport, right? So you get some variation of the driver’s license…your ID form either is the driver’s license or modeled after it. So you’re given a surtax on your citizenship in many ways because you have to own and pay the insurance on a car in many ways to be American.
RM: In the book you talk about the rise of the automobile and the rise of suburbia coinciding with the first conceptual turn, with conceptual art coming up the same time.
CT: Conceptual art is now a grammar, but it was the moment that conceptual art emerged after World War II. The seeds were planted with Duchamp, the setting was ripe, the grounds were really full of nutrients, the soil was ready. Probably because of a kind of affluence, a cultural and national affluence. Something goes along with that in terms of development: irony. To do away with old paradigms of authenticity. Yeah, it’s interesting, suburbia and conceptual art rise really in the same years in terms of becoming a normal condition in which we live and by which we make art. But you know, conceptual art wasn’t really normative at that moment. It is now normative. My point in this book is that conceptual art was not about language, but about the lens through which we understand language, which is technology.
RM: And of course when you have the rise of any form of mass culture, you’re immediately going to have artists reacting and responding to that.
CT: Well the funny thing about it was that the car is so naturalized, that’s why I developed the idea of the automotive prosthetic. So many artists were using the car but not thinking that it meant anything other than what became later/more recently identified as a kind of amateur trope, by taking pictures through your car it’s devaluating the work of art. And then nobody ever looked at the fact that the car was a tool or the lens.
RM: Right, the difference between the car as an object and a tool, seeing it vs. seeing through it.
CT: We see through cars so much in America. Unfortunately and fortunately, they make life easy. It’s not the greatest thing on the environment, but they’ve really created a situation where they make life easy.
RM: You also characterize the experience of being in a car, and driving a car, as a feedback loop with driver-as-cyborg. Or does any passenger in the car use it in the same fashion, seeing through it, as a lens?
CT: I think anybody in the car gets into a feedback loop, it somehow extrudes mind, makes material who you are because it becomes such a part of your body. But I don’t want to degrade or lessen the special nature of each person’s place in the car. Because a driver is different than a passenger, and the passenger in front’s different than the passengers in back…this is the beauty of any kind of technology, but the car in particular. There’s singularity to the experience.
RM: But the idea of the cyborg is really the concept of integration with the machine.
CT: Yeah, and this idea that we’re somehow separate from technology now…in the writing of this book, it comes out of this idea of technesis, which comes from this guy Mark Hansen, who is a lit professor and new media theorist out of Duke…he identified in his earliest work [that] we have all of the poststructuralist thinkers that make us brilliant and we read their work and we learn how to be a lawyer or deconstruct things brilliantly, but a lot of it is built upon always seeing technology as a problem, right, and as a negative thing. It’s kind of a platonic nihilism to negate technology, because it’s so present. When you’re on medication, you’re technology. When you take birth control you’ve been technologized. So it’s a denigration of yourself, in a way.
RM: This concept of the driver being one with the car is one that has long been promoted through advertising too.
CT: These ideas in this book are very sophisticated and philosophical, but really what I was trying to do too was to kind of glean them in this kind of omnipresent relationship and marketing and pre-construction of a car-based reality. What’s interesting about [advertising] is that in that kind of rubric, often even if you’re “one with the road,” it’s based on a kind of a fetishization of the car as an object. I was trying to offer up a kind of ecological theory of the car. It’s no small feat the very invention…do you ever think about the miracle of the automobile when you’re driving it? It’s crazy. And they’re so great and so seamless now, the prosthetic relationship feels realer than it ever has, because it’s so smooth.
RM: That’s why the Google self-driving car seems so odd to me, it severs that relationship.
CT: It does. I think the Google car is a folly a little bit. It’s definitely a product of Silicon Valley. It does avoid or ignore the importance of a car, people like to drive their cars. But it’s based on an automation of labor. So it would do away with a large portion of the labor sector because a lot of people make money driving. But also, if anything’s automated, the more automated life is with our phones and computers, the more people work. Either way, it tailorizes time.
RM: And it’s replacing one form of labor with another. If you’re not performing the labor of driving, then you have more time to work.
CT: I agree completely. I wrote a piece called “Auto Auto” about the Google car and tailorization and automation, and what it does to the labor force. It’s really not good for people.
RM: You argue in the book that the car itself is a device of mediation, again, not just an embodiment but a lens.
CT: This is the thing about technology, is that I think it changes us, organically who we are, eventually. I think it transforms us in a feedback loop. So every kind of application of technology you use introduces something new to you. It would be remiss of me to say that it transforms evolution, or we could say, less remiss, it’s a matter of epigenetics. Definitely automotive and other forms of technology, such as pharmaceuticals that we put into animals and we put into the earth and we [use to] manipulate food, this technology does epigenetically, quickly, change evolution rather than over gradual millions of years. So cars and computers do something to our concept of who we are that we didn’t foresee happening. Just like any mode of art, like Renaissance painting or music or literature, and technology, does this too really. It changes our concept of self, which is not deep, hard, genetic transformation, but who’s to say at what point it doesn’t become that. That’s the theory of epigenetics, which is my new work.
RM: Jonathan Schipper, the artist whose work appears on your book’s cover, has a great quote about the car representing ego, but something more; he says that we react to a car crash as if we’re experiencing our own death, not the death of our car.
CT: The ecological paradigm in which I try to contextualize the car is all about understanding that there’s not a Cartesian split between the mind and the body. Knowing is not simply rational and of the brain, knowing is deep and emotional. So we experience this in the car. There’s a chapter on time, and what we learn when we look at the automobile in this frame of the book…through conceptual art we see a realm of relations rather than binary mind/body split. Emotions we know through emotions, we don’t just know through rational cogitation. I mean, that itself is emotionally connected and even circumscribed. Knowing is not cold, knowing is hot and emotional. The point of the book is that we know this through our technology as well. We extend this way of knowing by way of technology.
RM: We’re also constantly extending ourselves to meet technology in some way, even though it seems like the relationship is the other way around.
CT: Well we do everything, we create it. Its vitality is our cathexis, our projection into it. Humans are finite, we’re not going to be here forever, and the technology will disintegrate when we go. Robots are not going to take us over, unless corporations make them take us over. A few people on the top will control us all.
RM: When a car is totaled, it may be functionally dead, but it continues to exist. It becomes salvage and parts, it’s an organ donor, metal that becomes something else perhaps, but it doesn’t go away.
CT: I love that. Exactly, I think so.
RM: For the book you chose to show and discuss a range of conceptual artists working with the car, including some that are lesser known or have yet to be recognized.
CT: There were two things at work here. To show something within conceptual art that is overlooked, because I think it’s considered by people who dictate what conceptual art is…they consider the car to be politically incorrect. So to say look, the car is here you just don’t look at it, is a thumb in the eye of the doyennes, the people who control that world of what is art and what is not art, what is conceptual art and what is not…conceptualism happened and it became the grammar, and it didn’t stop, and it didn’t die, it just kept going, and by now in the 21st century, the turn into the new millennium, it started to transform painting itself into something called conceptual painting. The standard in schools is to be conceptual, to mediate through technology or to mediate through irony, or deconstructive analysis of the medium itself.
RM: Thinking about what you mentioned earlier, regarding the unique experience of driver vs. passengers, I’m curious about how some of the conceptual photographers that you discuss demonstrate the idea of the feedback loop. For instance, John Baldessari shot his National City Series and pieces like The Back of All the Trucks While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara through the car windshield or out of the side window, while Ed Ruscha shot the images for Every Building on the Sunset Strip using a camera mounted outside of the car, not shooting from the perspective of the passenger cabin. You also discuss folks like Dennis Hopper and Paul McCarthy who were taking their own photos of Sunset and the Hollywood area through the windshield, and like Baldessari at times, there might be additional visual information present in their images due to a rear or side view mirror being in their shot. So Ruscha’s physical camera position is different (outside vs. inside), and with other artists you may have a multi-view perspective happening (front-side-rear), but they all use the car as a tool or apparatus, though their relationship to landscape differs in the vehicular assist.
CT: I guess in answering this question I would simply say that the car offers much more complexity of perception than we think upon first blush. We think of the car forthrightly as a utility tool, to get us to work and back. But it can be a maker of photo-conceptualist art, offering a view from the side of the car out directly onto the built landscape as with Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip or the vicissitudes of perception offered through shots made by a handheld camera from the side window as with Baldesarri’s National City Series. There is less regularity in the images within Baldessari’s National City Series. Boiling it down to a nub, the difference between these two figures and these two projects concerns landscape aesthetics. The currency of both sets of images is the conceptual trope of the amateur and meaninglessness…but my feeling is that Ruscha actually finds the roadside architecture of the Strip to be formally alluring, even beautiful, while Baldessari’s series distills the banality, even the ugliness, of the American built landscape…one focuses on the lush form of utilitarianism while the other its negligibility…both creating an (perhaps unintentional) lyricism. The other point here, concerning the great well of complexity at work in the car, is how it functions as a fount of existential possibility…so much expression is possible via the car. I think how they shot their images — shooting from the side of the car by way of a stationary camera (with Ruscha) and the randomness of shooting from the driver’s side or passenger’s side window (with Baldessari) — gets at this, the multiple possibilities of emotional expression too.
RM: You also argue that the car has been instrumental in creating the landscapes for which it was made, filling the occupant’s windshield view with suburbia and highway, or even the desolate or unappealing territory we can now use it to reach. So it makes sense that the book eventually moves toward the idea of film as another prosthetic form engaging the car. Driving is a cinematic experience we create for ourselves, and of course film is a medium that allows us to vicariously access things only it can make possible. Do you feel like film has helped create this more integrated relationship we now have with the car, or has it just documented our desire and speculation about the car over time?
CT: Yes indeed — the car in Hollywood and art films alike has fostered the prostheticization (if I may) of technology — both the automobile and film. They are prosthetics precisely because they mold our identities. The prosthetic extends outward while reciprocally molding and creating our sense of self. Even moving beyond the car, it is likely cinema has encouraged comfort with a broad range of interfaces.
One of the things I did in this book, when I was researching it, I was like okay, I’ve got to know about car movies, I’ve gotta know about all the road movies…there are like, hundreds.
RM: I love that you mention Duel.
CT: Yes. Love Duel. Which is an overlooked movie. I remember once or twice being in a motel on the way to Chicago with my family in the 70’s and that would come on in the middle of the night. In some cheap motel on the side of the highway, and it would terrify everybody in the room.
RM: When I was a kid, I think one reason I liked that movie is because my dad was one of those drivers who was really competitive. He would see a truck as his nemesis on road trips.
CT: This is the thing about guns too, right. Cars, when you’re behind the wheel, become an extension of your body, and whatever emotion you’re having, intuitively, unless you’ve taught yourself in a disciplined way to stop that, you’ll compete with it to the point that you’ll dent it, even if it’s a Mercedes, because it’s part of your body. This is the thing about open carry, which is a similar thing. Guns are not cars, they’re not mechanical pencils or computers, but they’re treated like that. Depending on the mechanization of your tool, they have varying degrees of danger. And if you’re angry, and you have a gun, even if you’re not the kind of person that would shoot it, you’ll shoot it, because it’s ready at hand. It’s a kind of facility and a prosthetic relationship that becomes magic, empowering, and dangerous. Like a car and your father.
That’s one of the places I have really habituated a discipline, I drive really slow now. Because I didn’t drive for years, because I was in graduate school and traveling for almost two decades. Then I came here. There’s a scene in the book I write about in the film Nashville, where a couch falls off a truck…that happened to me two summers ago on 75 [in Dallas] and it dented the side of my car. And I was so exhilarated by it because it was like my book. And it was just so creepy and weird and didn’t kill anybody, and it could have.
RM: I think the car allows you to have that sort of cinematic near-death experience all the time, that thrill of it, and survive it.
CT: Yes! Things are so crowded, people are moving back into the cities, so the city center is even more stressful with the car.
RM: Even the smallest thing like threading the needle between two big trucks, or like you say, the unplanned obstacle in the road.
CT: Or playing chicken trying to get down the street over in my old neighborhood. It’s an existential experience, up and down and emotional. It’s like being in the jungle I guess, or replaying it in some kind of safe way.
RM: It’s like video games.
CT: Only a little more dangerous, I think.
RM: Do you ever talk to your car?
CT: No, but I love her. Do you talk to your car?
RM: I do.
CT: What do you say?
RM: I’m like in those commercials where the person is begging “please please start” or “just get me there.” But my thing is that I’ll run over a curb and always say “ohhh, I’m sorry” to the car.
CT: I read books about computers and the kind of integration and interface we have. Humans are quick to anthropomorphize or give human qualities to technology. My sister used to love her Roomba. They move, they have parts like we have parts, like a cell has parts. So they’re likenesses, they’re living likenesses that we have created. They’re complex, and some of them are automated. What they extract from us, emotional responses, that’s to me where the real vitality exists. Because we’re either elated, or sad, or angry with them, like a pet. My cats and dogs are more deserving of any of that energy, but we give it to cars and other devices…the will to make life or to see life in things where it’s not is an interesting conundrum, or phenomenon. This will to make a robot or to make a clay figure and think it’s living. This interesting closeness between the mechanical and the living.
Charissa N. Terranova is Associate Professor of Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas. She lectures and teaches seminars on art and architectural history, theory, and criticism and media and new media theory. She is a scholarly writer and freelance curator and critic working both nationally and internationally. In addition to Automotive Prosthetic, she is the author of Biolux: Biology and the Digital Image in Art, 1920–1970 (forthcoming from I.B. Tauris, London).