Fran Mohino’s exhibition entitled Suck it in and Get into Your Level at the Wolf Vostell Museum consists of overlapping sections composed of intertwining components – indeed, the sections and components overlap and intertwine to such a degree than any enumeration of them risks endangering a faithful rendering of the whole. In simplified terms, “1,150,000 cm3 of ‘What’s Your Level?’” is a sculptural installation of colorful digital drawings mounted on modular plexiglass panels that are arranged in a rectilinear configuration atop a bed of sand; “I Can’t Get Your DEPRESSION Out of My Head” is an interactive installation of lap-top computers placed on plastic children’s furniture and connected to an on-line computer program, the whole littered with a detritus of empty candy wrappers; “What’s Your Level?” is an internet project -- complete with official documentation, a registered trademark and the like (all of which is also on display in the exhibition) – that provides the program to which the computers of “I Can’t Get Your DEPRESSION Out of My Head” are connected, and that furthermore generated the modular sculptures of “1,150,000 cm3 of ‘What’s Your Level?’”; “Suck it in #1” is a video recording of a site-specific intervention of the same name that took place prior to the exhibition’s opening.
Even such a schematic description reveals Suck it in and Get into Your Level to be structured around an intricate layering of formal and conceptual and verbal elements functioning simultaneously on different levels. In fact, the repeated use of the word “level” in Mohino’s titles alerts us to this operative technique, a technique based on a layering of levels of meaning, a carefully orchestrated sequential development from conceptual ground to conceptual finish, analogous to an oil painter’s studied layering of levels of color that achieves a final surface effect unattainable by any other means. It is a process that begins with the word “level” itself. When phrased in such a deceptively straightforward locution as “What’s your level?”, without further clarification, the “level” in question might refer equally to level of experience, level of accomplishment, level of understanding, level of education, level of security clearance, level of antibodies in the blood, level of enlightenment, etc. etc. But more than any or even all of these individual questions, the question itself, the ongoing fundamental question, the question that underlies the questioning, is something we all must and indeed do deal with, overtly or covertly, consciously and subconsciously, every day of our lives.
At the same time, the specific organizational structure of “What’s Your Level?” establishes the presence of another, related conceptual element, another technique operative throughout the whole, another level: that of games. Games (notably, although not exclusively, video games) often have recourse to an ascending structure of levels in order to lend the ongoing activity a sense of sequence, and “What’s Your Level?” is quite literally such a game -- a fact attested to by the copyright filed by Mohino with the Spanish government, exhibited in a nearby vitrine. Using a customized computer program, participants in “What’s Your Level?” select pieces from a pre-established template of units, uniform in size, each bearing a line-drawing (generally abstract, although infiltrated by the occasional graffiti-like, vaguely-obscene scribble) set against on a color-coded background. These pieces can then be made to fit together, like pieces of a puzzle, via interlocking nodes at some of their edges; where pieces interlock, the line-drawing extends from one piece to the next -- or rather, where the line-drawing extends from one piece to the next, the adjoining pieces can interlock, creating a continuous drawing that extends across the sum surface of the assembled pieces. However, on some pieces the line-drawing does not reach the edge on all four sides but rather circles back onto itself, and on those edges that the line-drawing does not reach there are no interlocking nodes. The presence of these pieces brings the configuration as a whole to a finish, closes the drawing’s circuit, and ends the “game,” with the participant having reached a final “level” or score as determined by the number of assembled pieces.
“What’s Your Level?” is a game, an interactive computer game; it is also a way, likewise interactive, of making art. Each virtual piece of the game “What’s Your Level?” represents a potential physical unit of a variably-dimensioned artwork entitled “What’s Your Level?” composed of modular plexiglass panels measuring 50,000 c3 and available for direct purchase from the artist. A simple combination of two panels would become a work entitled “100,000 c3 of ‘What’s Your Level?’”, while the 23 panels assembled in the Wolf Vostell Museum become the sculptural installation “1,150,000 c3 of ‘What’s Your Level?’” Thus “What’s Your Level?” represents a genre that might be considered do-it-yourself or mix-and-match art, art-as-bricolage, an Ikea-style way of furnishing oneself with art that is specifically configured by one’s own needs – and by one’s own means.
In thus approximating the structure of a game, while simultaneously generating works of art that do not shy from their inherent commodity aspect, “What’s Your Level?” again touches on a complexly layered metaphor. Games belong to that category of activity known as play -- and play is rarely playful. To the contrary, play is usually of the utmost seriousness. As Johan Huizinga so convincingly argues in Homo Ludens, the play-element, cutting inexorably through every level of human affairs, is a defining element of all human culture and perhaps even of human nature. Play is commonly associated with childhood, for obvious reasons, but it is not limited to childhood: it extends into our adult realm, in business, in politics, in sex, in law, in society, in technology, and – how could it be otherwise? – in art. Furthermore, like an art museum or an art gallery or any consciously determined exhibition space, a playing field is a transformative place, a place at once ideal and at the same time utterly rigid, utterly dominated by inflexible rules – and, significantly, it is a level place. Even a playground, or even playground’s sand-pit – to which Mohino explicitly alludes in the sand-filled installation of “1,150,000 c3 of ‘What’s Your Level?’”, just as the association between childhood and the play-element is alluded to by the tiny furniture and candy-wrappers of in “What’s Your Level?” -- while not the proper site of any specific, pre-ordained game, is nonetheless infused with tenacious and deep-rooted rules of social behavior, as a few minutes of observation in one’s local playground will prove.
These concepts, reiterated among the formal elements, permeate the entirety of Suck it and Get into Your Level, accumulating vertically – the levels of meaning at any given point -- while also connecting horizontally -- from element to element, piece to piece, concept to concept – linking like the interlocking pieces of “What’s Your Level?” into permutations determined by the viewer/participant’s understanding. Indeed, this connectivity is a key aspect of Suck it in and Get into Your Level, and, despite the degree of complexity of the project as a whole, is emblemized by the exhibition’s simplest yet perhaps most suggestive element: the line, the connecting line, the line that represents connectivity itself. It is the line of the continuous line-drawing of “What’s Your Level?” It is the line of the on-line character of “I Can’t Get Your DEPRESSION Out of My Head”-- which moreover makes no attempt to disguise the cables that connect the computers to their power sources in the ceiling, heavy black cables hanging vertically vine-like and adding an imposing visual element to the installation. It is also the line that metaphorically connects to the work entitled “Suck it in #1”
“Suck it in #1” refers both to an intervention in the landscape -- a site-specific digital animation that was projected outside the museum on a moonlit winter night prior to the exhibition’s opening -- as well as to a video recording of that intervention, a 22-minute video that is replayed on a monitor within the exhibition space. The animation itself is again a simple line-drawing, a single white line in left-to-right movement, projected via a high-powered laser onto Los Barruecos, a wall of rock behind the museum that endows the museum with one of its most prominent physical features. Los Barruecos – the word itself signifies ‘sphere-shaped rocky nodules’ -- are an outcropping of geological strata exposed to the eroding forces of rain and wind, to the leveling process of the passage of time, that greatest leveler of all. Separated from the rest of the museum complex by a small, placid body of water plentiful with life -- croaking frogs, busy fish, migrating birds – Los Barruecos are particularly striking in the crepuscular light of dawn and dusk, when the line of their blackened silhouette edges across an indigo sky. It is with this dark line of rock, eroded and eroding, that Mohino’s dancing line of white light forms a two-part counterpoint in “Suck it in #1,” a counterpoint that, in contrasting the different rates of change, serves ultimately to highlight the linear constancy of change itself.
With “Suck it in #1” Mohino reinforces yet another connection, a connection that closes the circuit of the entire exhibition project, tying together its intertwining elements, bonding its overlapping elements: this is the connection between his own work and that of Wolf Vostell.
Vostell’s work is in fact literally cited in Mohino’s “I Can’t Get Your DEPRESSION Out of My Head”, where the title makes explicit reference to Vostell’s “Endogenous Depression”, and where Mohino’s installation, with its collection of flat computer screens, alludes to the accumulation of television monitors in Vostell’s pioneering video installation (while the scattered refuse and detritus recalls Vostell’s hurled blobs of cement). It might even be found in Mohino’s intervention in Los Barruecos, the signature landscape of Vostell’s chosen home, what Vostell himself referred to as “nature’s work of art.” But in Suck it in and Get into Your Level, Mohino’s connection to Vostell’s art goes beyond these literal, direct and surface citations. Vostell, like his Fluxus peers and colleagues in Happenings, was dedicated above all to connecting art and life, to glorying in the art that is in life as well as in the life that is in art, to an artistic stance expressed by the motto “Art is life = Life is Art.”Mohino, too, connects art to life – but with a darker vision, more critical and less epiphanic, more analytical and less beatific. Where Vostell employs televisions and automobiles, Mohino employs computer games and insidious consumer philosophy: where Vostell salvages fading customs of local villages, Mohino scratches at the surface of the hidden political customs of the globalized village; and where Vostell exalts the idea of ‘transhumance’, Mohino gives form to deep-seated doubts about the assumptions embedded in our trans-national political system. Everyday life lies not only in everyday objects. It also resides in everyday actions, both those we enact, and those that are enacted upon us, in our passivity-inducing political system, in our confused sexual mores, in the hypocrisy-ridden economic tyranny to which we consent, in our sublimated societal aggressivity. These are the levels on which Fran Mohino’s Suck it in and Get into Your Own Level bridges the gap between art and life.