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The Seen Journal

Michael Rakowitz, Backstroke of the West

Installation view at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2017

Photo by Nathan Keay, Courtesy of MCA Chicago

Deeply enmeshed political milieus that hover around the Middle East often share space with action figures, cheap packaging, and radio hits. Across these disparate histories and cultural productions, Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz has deployed clever substitutions and subtle comparisons in his work, to either shift contextual meanings, or simply to demonstrate the ways contextual meanings can shift on their own. In his survey exhibition, Backstroke of the West, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rakowitz reconfigures an array of objects and cultural reference points, from ancient monuments such as the Babylonian Ishtar Gate to Saddam Hussein’s dinnerware and Western Pop mythologies. Curator Omar Kholeif’s statement characterizes his practice as dealing with “translation, restitution, and re-constitution,” terms that overlap in spirit with the field of Information Theory.

Although commonly associated with communication technology, Information Theory concerns itself with a much broader question of how form of any kind is identified and transferred. “Information” itself is defined by Marcia Bates as “the pattern of organization of matter and energy,” and by Hans Christian Von Baeyer as “the communication of relationships.” More narrowly, there is the  question of what types of information can be identified and what modes of interaction they exhibit. Bates lays out a comprehensive glossary in Fundamental Forms of Information, ranging from somewhat obvious examples as recorded (“communicatory or memorial information preserved in a durable medium”), to more esoteric categories such as embedded, enacted, embodied, and trace/residue. Those of us steeped in the vagaries of even the most rigorous art theory will be forgiven for finding the dry precision of these categories somewhat refreshing: recorded information must have communicatory intent, otherwise it is likely a form of embedded information, which is any object or other durable result of action: “the spider makes its web, the bird builds a nest, the human being makes tools, utensils, and other artifacts.” Embodied information is always the result of some encoded information—the blueprints that dictate the form of a house, the genotype that conditions what range of phenotypic features an organism can display, or a cake recipe that encodes the embodied outcome in a set of instructions that produces it. Information is by definition “meaningless”, but can act as a kind of scaffolding upon which meaning is built and transferred.

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