I recently posted some thoughts on the work g by the British artist Jack Strange. It was pretty much of a cold reading, without the benefit of having done any research on Strange or his work. Since then I’ve done some googling and discovered some useful commentary. Not to telegraph the punchline, but no one echoed my thoughts about g being (at least in part) a symbolic reenactment of the literal act of falling—which means that either I had a unique and valuable critical insight or I just pulled something out of my rear end. (I suspect the latter.)

The announcement for Strange’s “Wallowing” exhibit at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery describes g as follows:

Simplicity of means and materials used to evocative ends . . . characterizes “g,” a white laptop with a large ball of lead sitting on the “g” key, creating an endless string of the letter, which will continue until the laptop fails. The effect is ghostly and hypnotic.

I consider this pretty much first-order analysis, not much advanced over my own “OK . . .” stage.

An ArtSlant Berlin review of Strange’s exhibit at Maribel Lopez Gallery mentions g in passing and contains another comment relevant to it:

In works such as g (2008) or Study group (2008), Strange’s humour turns menacing and suggests the break-up of the ego and loss of meaning. . . . An illuminating way of assessing Strange’s overall project might be to turn to the idea of invocation. Invocations do not draw on reasoning, but on thoughts cut short and unfinished sentences - they do not try to explain anything, but rather seek to create a mood conducive to portent and magic. This mood is best achieved by repetition.

I think the “menacing” comment is spot-on; g does induce a sense of foreboding, analogous to that caused by a ticking bomb—you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know when or what. The second part of the sentence seems to draw an analogy between the “ego” and the ordered rational operation of the laptop application; I can see that applying as well. However I think any “meaning” in the laptop’s “mind” is superficially simple and bare; hence the analogy to an invocation made more forceful via repetition.

Finally, Strange himself spoke about g in an interview conducted by Ryan Gander:

When I asked him if [g] was durational, his reply was that the work was as durational as the space on the hard disk, and at some point, of course, the application would crash or the hard disk would be devoured. He also pointed out that, physically, and in a very real sense, this laptop—which was then being hailed as a revelation in product design—had been made defunct by this primitive-looking lead sphere, because the glowing LCD screen lid could no longer be closed. He’d transformed it into a spasticated clamshell.

The latter comment echoes my previous comments about the contrast of a heavy dull gray lead sphere pressing on a lightweight shiny white laptop—antiquity (op)pressing modernity. The thought of the laptop as a clamshell is interesting; note that early models of Apple’s iBook laptop were actually referred to as “clamshells.”

As for the work being durational, this is certainly true. It would be interesting to do a classification of the possible types of durational artworks, drawing on ideas from mathematics and elsewhere. For now I’ll limit myself to noting that g falls into that class of works having finite duration but for which the beginning and ending are relatively undetermined in time: Looking at the work, one doesn’t know if the ball started its “fall” a minute ago, or an hour, or a day; the ending time is equally uncertain, though (as Strange notes) we know it must come sometime.

We can make a Fermi estimate of how long g will run. On an Apple laptop running OS X the preference values for keyboard repeat rate can normally be set from 2 to 120; the preference value is then multiplied by 15 milliseconds to get the actual times between the key being repeated. The default value (which I presume Strange used) is 6, corresponding to a key repeat every 90 milliseconds, or about 11.1 key presses per second (1,000 divided by 90). This corresponds to almost a million key presses per day (960,000 to be precise, or 86,400,000 milliseconds per day divided by 90 milliseconds per keypress).

At what point would the repeated key presses cause a problem? The maximum size of the text in a Word document is apparently 32MB. At almost a million key presses a day g would thus run undisturbed for over a month before encountering this limit and causing an error. If we view g as symbolically enacting a literal fall (as I’ll stubbornly continue to do until someone tells me to stop) then this is a rather long one, about four times longer than the nine days Satan fell from heaven in Paradise Lost (starting perhaps from somewhere around the orbit of the moon).

But let’s let our imagination run free and hypothesize that we’re limited only by the size of the hard disk. Since g was apparently created in 2008, we’ll assume that it uses the early 2008 model of the MacBook, which in its cheapest version had a 120GB hard drive. If we assume that the laptop has about 100GB of free disk space after allowing for the operating system, Microsoft Word, and other content, then the disk space would be exhausted in about a hundred thousand days (about 100 billion characters divided by about a million characters typed per day), or almost three hundred years.

This is a fall of much more than Miltonian dimensions; the closest physical equivalent is that of a long-period comet ejected from the Oort cloud and falling toward the Sun from the outer reaches of the solar system. Though apparently such objects pose only a very small risk to Earth, they exemplify the various threats, from asteroids to global warming, that the future might bring. From this perspective g can be seen as a modern memento mori, not for ourselves but for our technological civilization, reminding us that as g sits in a museum counting the days away, our destroyer may even now be departing on its long journey to meet us.

A final note, before I’m done with g for good: The folks at the Museum of Modern Art apparently liked g enough to acquire it for the MoMA permanent collection—certainly a major endorsement of Strange and his work. Not that anyone cares, but I’ll second that endorsement.

Santiago Gala - 2009-08-05 20:19

Thanks for sharing. I liked a lot both the photo and references to this art piece and your comments on its qualities. Three hundred years is more than, but in the same order of magnitude, than what you can expect a building or open air sculpture to stand without needing a heavy restoration, so I guess this is fairly reasonable as a goal, in scope or even more advanced than current “real world” art pieces.

hecker - 2009-08-05 20:28

Santiago: Thanks for your comment. I find it interesting that if “g” were really limited by the size of the hard drive (rather than Word’s limit on maximum document size) then it would likely take longer to complete the piece than the laptop would actually last. In that case the appeal of the work would truly be in imagining the end, not actually experiencing it.