THE MARBLE RANGE: FAQ
by Lance Blomgren
From the exhibition catalogue, Kristoff Steinruck: The Marble Range(Vernon Public Art Gallery, Vernon, B.C., 2013).
What is the Marble Range?
The Marble Range is a mountainous expanse of equatorial limestone that has been tectonically displaced into the western interior of the North American continent. In 2013, after years of field research, the artist Kristoff Steinruck presented an exhibition concerning the history, geography and mythology of the region, as well as the habits and rituals of those who visited it. The seemingly innocuous collection of images and objects left an indelible impression on the many of us who witnessed the exhibition, and in the days and months that followed—as our collective condition worsened, the Untenable Situation—the installation became a reference point, an article of debate, and a plan of action for many citizens who chose to found a mobile community in the relative safety of the hills. Some call it a social methodology, or a political action, others refer to it as an ethos of homelessness. For those of us who left, the Marble Range became more than an artwork: it was an escape route, or, as the more superstitious would claim, a portal.
What was the Untenable Situation?
The Untenable Situation was parking lots, lineups, communication devices and toxic air. It was also the realization that somehow the future was now out of date. The protests had been ignored, and the insurrection quickly lost its momentum. All forums of contestation had become officially sanctioned, and, as such, were stripped of its power. The cities were guarded by corporate militias, and we walked in groups to blend in. The new fear among us was not that anyone was breaking the law, but that there were no more laws to break. Our new sadness was that there was little left to cry about. Our bodies, collective and individual, had become debilitated. The Untenable Situation was the realization that we couldn't continue to consider ourselves as a part of society; the front lines of resistance were no longer entrenched down the centre of communal enterprise, they cut through through the centre of each of us. There was nothing left to buy, and nothing we could afford. We stood on the bridge holding hands and watching the river. On the far shore the skyline was aflame. Gunfire crackled. The Untenable Situation exists at the end of art, when its promise of reflection has become impossible.
What are the Time Cells?
At great heights, periglacial formations rise from the rockface like blisters. They start as pinpricks of permafrost in the stone and gradually grow to half a kilometre within their thousand year life cycle. Eventually the cells break apart, collapse under their weight, leaving cracks from which to gain entrance to these hollowed out tombs. The moist, pacific breezes are released from the limestone and the smell of rotten fruit fills the space. Edible jellyfish cling to the walls. Inside, we are rendered deaf. A perceptible feeling of immortality washes over those who discover the cells, a restorative tonic for those of us who wonder if we can bear the wilderness any longer.
What is Abandonment?
The aerial photograph was taken at night. Each blurred, infrared dot is a record of one of us who inched our way along the ridge. If you could zoom in, you would some of us struggling with bags of clothing and assorted items whose value could only be vaguely recalled. The majority of us had had already separated the trivial from the necessary and the routes were littered with stuffed animals, computers and purses. If you could zoom out, the incendiary glow of the townships in the distance would be visible. The steep incline of the path had our legs burning, and the shift in altitude made our lungs feel as though they were protracting from our abdomens, reaching through our throats in search of stray oxygen molecules. As the path levelled, and our blood steadied, words emerged in gasps that were as vital as breath itself. Abandonment is the name for this voice, the sound of loss killing itself. It is the failure of money. It is the name for a letter written to a loved one, then later memorized and whispered to oneself in the dark long after the paper has been used to light kindling. The letter says: You, my love, are a candle string destined to light the way for other men, burning away into thin air. It says: Captivity is borderless, the home is obscene. It says: I am sorry for everything I did. I am sorry I couldn't take you with me.
What are the Needles?
The seismic accretions of the mountain contain a series of recordings, voices imprinted in the limestone striata of the hillside that, theoretically, can be played back with the correct receivers. Some of us believe that iridescent crystals found in the geometric stones function as needles, with the ability to decode, or unearth, messages of revelatory power. Likewise, it is hypothesized by some that the needles themselves are recorders, functioning as a kind of blackbox of our journey. In spite of their weight, the needles are collected and packed along with us.
What are the Articles of Debate?
The articles of debate are artifice and experience; the article of debate is purpose. Somewhere there exists a gallery comment book containing an off-handed quip that, in spite of its apparent frivolity, has become a foundational myth. In a hasty scrawl, someone wrote: In the tradition of minimalism, Steinruck's medium is extra large. How true, we laughed, the vastness of geological time synthesized into an array of discreet pictures and objects. At the time, few of us thought much about it: we finished our wine and stepped out into the warm summer night. Later, a chill went through the air. Someone said, the Aesthetes are taking control. It is beginning, someone else said. We recall this night as we enact the articles of debate which structure our social interactions.
i) NATURE. For some, the Marble Range represents the liberating potential of nature, a series of inspiring, conquerable vistas from which to survey our domain. For others, the unpopulated expanse exemplifies the relative insignificance of all human perspective or endeavour; the range fills them with distress. Steinruck's work, we agree, revealed a distinct pastoral influence—the contemplative beauty of nature, the idea of “infinite longing” that E.T.A. Hoffmann long ago characterized as the essential trait of romanticism. But our reactions differ, as do our opinions. Some of us forage in the woods after dark, while many shiver in fear as they sleep. Some argue that Steinruck's landscapes suggested a world where the sublime complexities of nature have been drained by representation, its aura depleted during the era of postcards, tourist pamphlets and nature shows. They view the Marble Range as an opportunity to relocate an authenticity of experience. Others doubt this is possible. Romanticism is dead, say some. So is the death of romanticism, argue others. Aren't we just performing here, some might ask. Is this real? At the peak of summer, it is true that the moss we stew tastes surprisingly like cellophane.
We cannot help but note the artist's ode to what might have been called modernist in previous generations—a strategy of subtraction, the purification of form and concept to locate the terms for a kind of new beginning, a Tabula Rasa. Examples from history are commonly given: Malevich's “White Square on a White Background,” Duchamps' readymades, the sleek, warp-speed weaponry of futurism, minimalism itself. The dream of a finding a liberating force that is at once infinite, autonomous, and rooted in material experience. Indeed, as many of us note, for Steinruck the intricacies of narrative, myth, even nature, takes shape in the most primary of material elements, the simplest of human actions. But is his project and ode, or a critique, we ask. The search for essences always results in wild zones of terror, some of us argue, the Untenable Situation. How can the dream be preserved if the dream itself—the idea of the dream—is intrinsically rotten? For some, the artist's allusion to Robert Smithson offer the beginning of antidote, a way to envision our purpose, the consolidation of form and the entropy of form. Others argued that issues of structure return us to the same problems. Tempers flare, the stakes being what they are: so few of us, so far to go, the wet canopies of leaves, the howl of mountain dogs at the edge of the forest. When the arguments settle, become stale, or lazy, we devise ways to promote agonism. We tie ourselves together, we slap, we withhold meals.
iii) END PLACES
Our purpose is to keep moving. New terrains and passageways are our lifeblood, but it remains commonplace, if slightly taboo, to return to familiar grounds. For many of us, Steinruck's project exemplified problems of our existing structures and dead-end binaries while providing a metaphor for escaping them. The Marble Range, it is argued, offers a cosmological connection to our purpose. The dust of long-exploded stars that now comprises our planet linguistically connects us to our mandate: the word planet, from the verb “planao” means to lead astray, to wander, to seduce. Walking at an uneven pace, from one ridge to another, we are treated to a sequence of revelations, a drama of juxtapositions, as, with each step, the existing view gives way to an emerging view. The iridescent veins of Steinruck's limestone samples offer a similar, microcosmic experience. The debates centre on both the quality of this experience, as well as its agency. The needles provide some of us with a vague goal, while others understand that it is in our performance, our deliberate living out of an artificial act, that meaning is located. But where do we end up when one attempts to escape an end? We must sleep, some argue. The needles will guide us, say others. Utopia means literally “no-place” the dogmatists remind us. We can't stay here, we can't escape.
What is Intercourse?
Debates end with intercourse, a relatively silent period when we curl into one another and are no longer ourselves. We look into each others' eyes and consider their strangeness. Is this alien really outside of me, we ask. We warm our genitals in the reptilian mouths of the other.
What is Food?
We make our own meat from roots, soil, leaves and sap. Animals are eaten when they lay down to rest on our feeding slabs. Our most cherished delicacy is a recipe adapted from the northern territories. 20 forest gulls are stuffed inside the stomach lining of a lake seal and buried in the mud for three months. The resulting fermented paste is rich and salty. We spread it on thin strips of juniper bark.
Who is Kristoff Steinruck?
Steinruck is a fact, opinion and myth Many among us believe he will never join us, many believe he is already here. Did he believe in his own powers? Could he envision the results of his research? Speculation is rife, even by those who claim to know him from earlier days. He stayed in the townships, he got married, he was wounded in the urban skirmishes, he works for the central committee, he is a really the fabrication of another artist from the coast. For many of us, Steinruck is simply a catalyst, a small originating feature in a story that has left him behind. For others he is an inspirational figure. For others again, he is what they think of when they cast their gaze skywards. As everything moves, they assert—the earth, nebulae and black holes—one point remains fixed, an axis from which everything spins, a hinge from which everything expands. For these people, Steinruck is that point. He is the hook in the expanse that is the opposite of body, that is blind, deaf and mute, that is not form, size or weight, not gas, liquid or solid, that is not emotion, intelligence, quality or form. He is neither midnight nor noon, alive nor dead, error or truth, but all of them.
How can I join you?
If you are reading this, you already have.
Lance Blomgren is a writer and curator based in Vancouver. He is the author of the novel Walkups (2009) and Corner Pieces (2004), a collection of short fictions and urban proposals. His writings, exhibitions, lectures and text projects have been presented internationally.