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William Eggleston: Democratic Camera at the Whitney

Or, The Curious Condition of Democracy in the Age of Obama

This retrospective of William Eggleston’s photographs opened at the Whitney on November 6, 2008. It is remarkable for the high-caliber of the image-making, no doubt; it is relevant to artists now for its fountainhead-like power of influence; and it is unsettling for the calendrical uncanniness with which it presents its myths of democracy, coming as it does in the same week that Barack Obama turned American political consciousness on its head.

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William Eggleston / Memphis / 1968

Eggleston is roundly acknowledged, along with Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, as standing at the beginning of American color fine art photography. This trio wed the new chemistry with a particular brand of “beat” image-making (”beat” in the Kerouac sense rather than the “beat journalism” sense, although there’s a dash of that too). This show justifies the acclaim. Nonetheless, there is a sense of being a victim of his own success. As the decades pile up, and his photographs come only occasionally to the fronts of our minds, the ubiquity of his aesthetic invention threatens to swallow the particular degree of accomplishment that he brings to the photographic image.

That is, the oblique, saturated, odd-cropping detail of daily life is now mundane. It’s not challenging, on its own, to be confronted with this type of image. Its penetration into the vernacular of our image-culture is complete. That is not to say that his own photography is indistinguishable from the general method. Quite the contrary, in fact: seeing again the specifics of Eggleston’s subjects and techniques is a reminder of his uniquely attuned vision.

Which brings us to the curious myth of the Democratic Camera. “Democratic” cuts in two diverging directions here: there is the sense of all those details out there in front of Eggleston, and all of them equally potent for the task of generating meaning; and then there’s sense that, per the democratic imperative, anyone armed with a camera can do it, too.

I posit that both these directions are wrong.  In the first place, a group of images of this sort draws its power from the context of all the other images surrounding it. Once the viewer is inside a clearly-drawn world, individual images unfurl the beauty of their blossom, or their decay. But that world of images owes as much to an exacting editing process as to creating the exposures themselves. Editing - selecting, building, excluding, juxtaposing - could hardly be less democratic in that it depends entirely on the refinement of a heightened sensibility for its success…heightened, that is, relative to the base urges of the hoi polloi.

And if this is true of the set of images within which any single frame is articulated, it is doubly true within each single frame. It’s not the case that the camera can be pointed literally anywhere, and just because Eggleston pushes the shutter it comes out meaningful. Instead of the even field of “one detail, one vote”, the democracy of details is revealed as merely a comforting fiction.

From there the possibility that you, too, could be William Eggleston, and hey, aren’t we all William Eggleston, collapses. A quick browse of Flickr proves this. (Flickr is an utterly fascinating repository: in fact, a follow-up to this post could be written to argue about an alternate nature of the democratic camera, with Flickr as Exhibit A. But so far as I know, the Whitney has yet to mine that particular website in search of future subjects for comprehensive retrospectives.)

And so we come to the uncanniness of this myth playing itself out in public two days after the election of Barack Obama. We the American people ratified our core beliefs to a degree that left us stunned and amazed. It DOES matter if the people are engaged with the process, and if they understand that they have a stake in the outcome. And furthermore, enacting the truth of these core principles inflects our history with a type of meaning we couldn’t really assign to it before Tuesday night. It wasn’t possible to walk through this exhibition and understand images from the American South in the 1970’s without the knowledge that these particular threads are woven into the blanket of American life that warmed us Tuesday night. Such a thesis is disastrously pre-Post-Modern, I know. But if the “Democratic Camera” has any meaning, it must be found in the ability of the lens to create documents whose full story is not told at the moment of their creation: the democratic quality is that their stories are connected in a living way to our own, and that we all have a role to play in shaping the arc of their narrative, in determining whether it bends towards justice.

Group Show in Marfa, Texas, opening 10 October 2008

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Roe Ethridge, “Rockaway Redux” at Andrew Kreps Gallery

There has always been an elusive quality to Roe Ethridge’s exhibitions, a quality made all the more disorienting by the definitive clarity of his photographs.  In his current show at Kreps, Ethridge tightens the thematic reins but does not choke off the sense that the narrative may go careening away at any moment.

Photography (be it fine art, journalism, hobbyist, commercial, or so on) always seems to exist in modes:  there are broad categories, such as were just listed, but much more important are the modes existing on the “molecular level”, so to speak.  The modes tie one individual picture to another. The modes are what really allow viewers to make sense from a group of images.  So even when one enters a gallery and sees photographic content that is jarring or unexpected, in general the idea that the images hang together as a group is not at stake:  “a bunch of pictures of subject x” or “photos printed with technique y” or “images drawn from a cross-section of circumstances z.“  Each of those modes begins operating almost immediately, out of sight, out of mind.

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Ethridge’s photos in “Rockaway Redux” ostensibly are governed by the pictures-thematically-evoking-a-place mode.  There are nautical knick-knacks, waves crashing on the boardwalk, sunsets, a crusty clown sailor.  And yet, making one’s way around the gallery, the sense of clarity so present in each image (both in a technical sense and in terms of confidence in the rightness of the image) gives way to uncertainty, first, then confusion, then disorientation.  One begins to think that “Rockaway” isn’t really the issue here; after all, there must be more direct ways to get at that than contrived still life shots, or sunsets from the Caribbean, or views of the Williamsburg Bridge.  The thematic mode threatens to give way to the horror vacui of the arbitrary. 

The press release for this show is a very winning example of the genre, insofar as it presents Ethridge’s own rationales for choosing each image in straight, simple language.  It is devoid of obfuscatory intent, or ironic detachment.  In the end it aligns with the general timbre of the show, which is a good faith effort to construct a narrative, in images, that can capture the cascading emotion initiated by the personal symbolic experience of a specific place.  The privacy of that experience can be difficult to penetrate, and that is reflected in this show; but that difficulty is not criticism of the show: in fact, one feels that the difficulty is an accurate view of the artist’s own experiences of the place and of putting together the narrative, and the inevitable influence those two things will have on each other.

So what of modes?  The most fascinating aspect of Ethridge’s work, broadly speaking, is his effort to stretch the molecules until they threaten to fly apart.  In so doing, the “connective tissue” of photography becomes the subject, and the tensile strength of our visual intelligence is put to the test.  This only works because of the gut-level instinct a viewer has that he is not being toyed with, that the effort is not one-sided.  The net result is not necessarily the unbridled visual pleasure that his individual images seem to offer, but something more displaced and complex, something taut in the psychic space between the frames.

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery

This show garnered much props earlier this summer, with reviews in all the major media outlets. I suspect that a second wave will arrive with end-of-the-year roundups in a couple months, so I humbly inject my two cents during this liminal pause in the dialog.

The elements that combined to create this exhibition – the personalities, the artworks, the histories, the references – amounted to a kind of artworld perfect storm. The stories behind each of those elements, as well as detailed descriptions of the show, can be found elsewhere, so I just want to focus on a couple interwoven themes: the photographic dilemma and the perfection of superficiality.

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For the better part of a quarter-century, artists have mined Continental theory in search of guidance. There is something irresistible about the content of that theory – perhaps the ultimate absolution of responsibility it offers? – and like everything irresistible, there is much to be suspicious of. Baudrillard, for example, has always seemed too facile, too untested by actual experience, and at the same time, too widely applicable to really be false.

Furthermore, in the intellectual discourse surrounding any field – I’m thinking here of both art and politics – there is a tendency amongst the learned to feel that once an idea has made the rounds of their rarefied counsels, and once a consensus has been arrived at, then the issue can be shelved in pursuit of the next “problematic”. But the penetration of their conclusions into “mass consciousness” is a different story, later in coming, or never. Political talking heads seem to have a tighter grasp on this, and as a result we consumers of political news get bludgeoned by repetitious talking points in the hope that their psychic blunt trauma can elide their way into, as they say nowadays, “truthiness.”

Because tastemakers in art are so much less beholden to anything analogous to the electorate, there is little need to tighten and streamline declarations of theory, quality, and historical importance. Intense debates about the nature and role of photography, for example, have gone on now for decades, but really, neither the arguments nor their conclusions have had any discernable effect on mass culture or the worldview of your average Joe Sixpack with a point-and-shoot.

All of which is intended as a lead-in to thinking about the excellent, destabilizing photographic situation presented at Shafrazi Gallery. It is quite one thing to summarize and dismiss, while operating in the domain of verbal description, the “simulacrum” created by Urs Fischer; to be in the space and experience the installation, to try to “get your footing” and decode the visual field, amounted to quite something else.

The displacement was total. The actual artworks hanging over the wallpaper were visible almost exclusively in their relationship to the images they were obscuring. The depicted artworks had resonance primarily through the effectiveness of the illusion, negating any focus on the role of those actual works to function in either aesthetic or historical narratives. Technical questions of production and architectural support asserted themselves as the subject of theme-park entertainment. Each viewer in the gallery became a detective, taking pleasure in unraveling the little puzzles that inevitably marked a gesture at once so simple and so intricate. Photography was expanded to envelope itself, as nearly as possible, and its condition of always being primarily about its own surface has rarely been so clear.

With that realization in place, the next logical step is to suggest that the content of the exhibition, conventionally understood as the artworks depicted and exhibited, didn’t really matter.  I think this is true, with a caveat:  the mix-and-match, the 80’s graffiti scenesters, the whole edifice of artists skimming the surface of pop-culture waste-products in the hope of being the next Rauschenbergian savant, is the perfect content with which to fill this deeply contradicted container of an exhibition.  It was superficiality raised to the level of the profound.  There was a cost, of course, with everything subsumed, drained of what it only barely had to begin with.  It seems sweetly unnatural, in a historical sense and an economic sense, to claim that both Keith Haring and Francis Bacon are fully realized once they can be celebrated for the utter emptiness of their presence.  And yet, something raw, something terribly “truthy,” was to be found by giving form to this nothingness.

That something, to this viewer, was not located in the theoretical underpinnings one can easily identify.  It was not located in any updated notion of the “inconsequential” in the guise of existentialism.  It was, rather, that the pervasive itch that you can never reach was given a soothing scratch, and it was done with a blend of conceptual wit and theatricality that meant its appeal was broad, understandable in a multitude of inter-related ways…a mirrored signpost in the fork of the road, its directions written in a riddle, for all passers-by.

On Wade Guyton at Friedrich Petzel Last Winter

The cover article in the Summer 2008 issue of Artforum is about Wade Guyton, in particular the exhibition he mounted at Friedrich Petzel Gallery during November - December 2007. The article is written by Johanna Burton, the young and prolific art historian. I visited this show last year with the intention of writing about it, but opted not to; the publication of this article prompts me to briefly revisit some of the thoughts I left unresolved six months ago.

First, a short summary: this show consisted of a group of large, mostly black inkjet prints on canvas that were stretched and presented as paintings would be. The floor was covered with plywood and painted a glossy black. Both rooms of the gallery were occupied by these works.

Wade Guyton Installation at Friedrich Petzel Gallery

The premise of the work, as I understand it, is contemporary and unobjectionable. The works are “paintings” because they occupy the space and function of painting; the material that constitutes the work (in this case ink, and not paint) is secondary to its status as painting. They are made at a remove: folded canvas fed through an inkjet printer, often multiple times, resulting in a number of “unpredictable” flaws in the printing process. These flaws (mis-registration, clogged printer heads, scuffs and the like) mark the surfaces as a place demanding of inspection rather than a purely symbolic reference to well-trodden theories.

I put quotes around “unpredictable” above to mark the difference between unexpected and not precisely controlled. After all, an essential character of the work is the effect of the flaws; steps are taken to ensure their presence. They’re neither unexpected nor unwelcome. Decisions about how to use the tools (the printer, the ink, the canvas) establish a measure of control, inside of which the affect of imperfection operates. Furthermore, these decisions indicate a set of values that declare the position of the these works relative to The Discourse, such as it is. And that position is neither unexamined nor accidental.

So I want to take up a couple points from Burton’s analysis now. First is her dwelling, at length, on the phrase “ostensibly black monochromes” in the press release for the exhibition. Ostensible, for Burton, is about something not quite being what it purports to be, in Guyton’s case both “ostensibly paintings but not paintings” and “ostensibly black monochromes but not black monochromes”. Both directions are, in my reading, red herrings. The expansion of the field of painting to include objects not made of paint, or by actual hands, is definitive and not contentious. It’s just a fact, and Guyton’s “inkjet prints on stretched canvas” have no trouble finding purchase on the cliffs of painting. Secondly, I see nothing about these that’s qualitatively different from every other monochrome that is, in perceptual reality, “not monochrome”. Her list of predecessors to whom these paintings gesture includes Rothko, Reinhardt, Stella, and Marden. I’m unaware of any paintings by the first three that could even qualify as ostensible monochromes, and I take it as uncontroversial that what makes Marden’s monochromes thrilling is their shortcomings within what appears to be a good faith effort to make The Monochrome.

The other major point threading through Burton’s text is the idea of the Neutral, especially as articulated by Roland Barthes in a series of lectures in 1978. I’m not equipped to comment on her reading of Barthes, but this amounts to the idea that the Neutral is the assertion of desire (in this case, for artistic production) crippled by the reluctance to be constrained by anything easily categorized within existing models of understanding. Whatever already has a clear meaning is a trap. The desire for an active neutrality is the imagined way out of this dilemma.

I think this is an absolutely critical phenomenon in contemporary artmaking, and it is not merely theoretical. It strikes at the heart of an artist each day in the studio: the incredible contradiction between a powerful, idealistic urge to make a report on one’s experience of the world by means of an artistic practice, and the paralyzing fear of co-optation, repetition, banality, and so much else that threatens to render one’s fruits unpalatable to society’s maw. (As Edith Wharton would have it, this is the “modern symptom of immaturity”.)

But this viewer’s experience of Guyton’s show was less about the Neutral and more about the Dull. For an artist, the positive attributes of flatness, affectless, and uninflectedness are only arrived at with great effort. That is, bringing the elements that constitute one’s picture into proper alignment, such that a viewer’s experience proves the embodiment of those qualities, demands immaculate calibration. The calibration can be the removal of one’s self to a degree previously unimagined, or the injection of the self to the opposite degree; but on this occasion, this viewer felt merely indifferent. The flaws are there in the prints, but were neither so subtle as to amount to a pea beneath a stack of mattresses, nor so assertive as to conjure any sort of envelope-pushing experimentation. In the end, the canvases were very prescribed, in keeping with their undeniable presence as a desirable commodities. And the black painted floor just did nothing, other than make one think of that annoying artist - what’s his name? - who does the salt and rock stages and gets so much love from the Whitney.

I find Guyton to be an interesting artist. The torn magazine pages with the overprinted X’s carry that static charge of relevance. The principle of operating at a technological remove is a good one; giving voice to the wariness of investing in images is a good path. This most recent show did not quite get it right, and to this viewer, no amount of rhetorical bolstering can stand in for seeing the artwork and understanding that the gaps in one’s experience can be filled with the “trembling desire” so profoundly named by Barthes. It’s not just that it’s possible to have this experience; it’s completely necessary to be endlessly reminded that the articulations and rhetorical excess must always flow downhill, as any plumber will tell you.

Posting

has obviously been slow. And is likely to continue to be slow as I devote energy to a couple projects. But I’ll try to get some new reviews up…

“Gut of the Quantifier” at Lisa Cooley

This group exhibition at Lisa Cooley on Orchard Street was impressive for its delicate curatorial step, treading sensitively into areas where others often stumble. Much of the work here functions by suggesting what it is not, by implying the meaningfulness of what is missing; the leftover materiality is inert, sensuous, and longing. The exhibition title, taken from a song by The Fall, sets the dynamic up: “gut of the quantifier” points towards the visceral power within abstract ordering systems, and yet the phrase remains ambiguous since its literal meaning can only be a nonsensical dead end.

The best work here splinters in two directions at once: simultaneously dumb in its literal simplicity and sophisticated in its shifting layers of consequences. Matt Sheridan Smith contributes a five-part work titled “According to speculative logic (five portraits)”, in which engraved portraits from international currency have been enlarged to approximately life-size, and the prints covered with the same silver ink that one finds on lottery tickets. The works are completed when the artist scratches off enough ink to reveal the portraits beneath. The scratching hand creates a drawing, but in a cunning reversal of the Johnsian-Twomblish impulse, the free scribbling removes the silvery layer, and is meaningful for what it reveals, rather than what it obscures. These works cohere very tightly, drawing together the paradoxes that inform the institutional enshrinement of great national figures on currency, and what that ultimately means to a citizenry reduced to games of chance in pursuit of said currency.

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Matt Sheridan Smith
According to speculative logic (five portraits), 2008
inkjet prints and scratch-off ink
5 parts framed individually, 12 x 9 inches

Lisa Oppenheim’s slide projection work “The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else” takes a humorous gesture and twists it into an elegaic tribute. The viewer sees a collection of slides of a lone arm holding snapshots of sunsets up against a real landscape, aligning the images so the photograph replaces the actual setting sun. The absurdity is winning, demonstrating both the desire to capture a beautiful natural phenomenon on film, and the utter inadequacy of the resulting image to function as a stand-in for the real experience. But the twist comes with the knowledge that these particular sunset photos were all taken by soldiers in Iraq, and Oppenheim is re-enacting the setting suns in a New York landscape. The humanity that embeds in these images is effective, while steering clear of any clumsy political declarations.

Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez shows four collages, made by cutting out auction catalog photographs of furniture and layering the resulting negative spaces. They dissolve into abstraction, pictures of “the context of no context”; however, for this viewer, they hew too closely to similar collages by Matt Keegan, whose technique is more complex and rewarding for its inclusion of the human figure, and all the accompanying psychological trauma that brings.

Barb Choit includes five photographs on plexi, which document the gradual illumination of a space that results from turning on lamps. In each image, another lamp goes from off to on, and the picture passes from darkness to “blown out”. Together they amount to a poetry of the literal. It takes a specific intelligence to recognize how nearby the logical conclusions of some thought processes are; the idea that a photograph is about capturing light (or more keenly, capturing just the right amount of it) is played out with the dumbness of scientific discipline, to compelling effect.

As a whole, the exhibition maintained a humility in its scale, materiality, and themes that was very inviting, allowing one to dwell on the missing modifiers that ultimately gave this show its charge. After all, we all know that quantifiers are all brains and no guts, and yet something in our experience tells us the infinitesimal gaps between numbers hold a universe of truth.

Nicholas Knight, “Depictured”, at 65GRAND, Chicago

March 21-April 19, 2008
Opening Reception: Friday, March 21 (7-10)

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Nicholas Knight, Register: Domino Light Brown Sugar, 2008,
collage and pigment print on canvas, 11 x 8.5 inches

65GRAND is pleased to present Nicholas Knight in his first solo show in Chicago. His discursive blend of image and language, color and grayscale, and 2-D and 3-D work takes the form of smart, tragicomic photo-sculptures, existential abstractions and in-situ sentence diagrams.

Knight’s series of Registers focuses on the color test patterns found on the bottom of  commercial packaging, like Domino’s Sugar box flaps. He scans the flaps, creating color prints, which unravel the work of the registers by producing faulty color replicas of them. Knight then collages the actual box flap onto the prints, concretely exposing the futility of this process. Reveling in the disconnect between representation of a thing and the thing itself, Knight’s heady, mimetic work is tempered by witty playfulness, like the transformation of utilitarian sugar packaging into aesthetic eye candy. From there, the show caroms to antique picture frames, electrical outlets, grammatical wall drawing and Marcel Proust.

Knight Holds a BFA in Fine Arts and a BA in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. He has lived and worked in New York City since 1998. In 2007 he was Artist in Residence at the Domaine de Kerguehennec in Bignan, France. He has had solo exhibitions at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco, California and Eugene Binder, Marfa, Texas. Knight will be present at the opening.

The inaugural pair of 65GRAND issued archival pigment prints, in an edition of twenty, will be available at the opening.

65GRAND
1378 W Grand Ave at Noble St. (entrance on Noble)
Chicago, Illinois
312-719-4325
65grand.com
EL: Blue line to Grand. Bus 65 Grand.
gallery hours Fri-Sat. Noon-5:30pm

“Accidental / Coincidental” at Snug Harbor Cultural Center

I have several works in an exhibition at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, opening next Saturday, March 15.  A catalog will be available during the show, but it has not been published yet.  I hope those of you who are local can pay a visit.  Pertinent info follows!

ACCIDENTAL / COINCIDENTAL
Chance, Occurrence, and Intention in Contemporary Art
curated by Frank Verpoorten

March 15 - April 27, 2008
opening reception:  March 15, 3 - 5 pm

Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art
Snug Harbor Cultural Center
1000 Richmond Terrace
Staten Island, NY  10301

click here for directions
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(image: Nicholas Knight, Method of Coincidences, 1999 - 2002, oil on 13 canvas panels, 8×10 inches each)

“Enantiomorphic Chamber” at NurtureArt

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published an essay titled “Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery”, in which he argued how the factors in the general milieu of a field of scientific research make it possible, and even likely, that multiple researchers will make the same “groundbreaking” discoveries at nearly the same time. That is, all of a sudden, a phenomenon is everywhere, waiting for diagnosis, and thus integration into the knowledge pool.

And so one comes to “Enantiomorphic Chamber”, the exhibition at NurtureArt in Brooklyn co-curated by Kevin Regan and Christopher Howard. Drawing both its title and its organizing principle from the eponymous work by Robert Smithson, himself an example of simultaneous (re)discovery, the exhibition presents a selection of artists working with asymmetrical, reflected figures. In their Smithsonian essay for the exhibition, Regan and Howard make some delightfully far-flung interpretive claims about what joins these works other than a common formal device. Most broadly, they identify two themes: sex/fighting/dance, and the “transcendental…grotto of miracles”. They marshal the support of Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and Mobius (he of the famous “Strip”) in constructing their analytical edifice. It’s great fun, and persuasive in its own idiosyncratic way.

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Marc Travanti, East Siders X, 2007

Analytical edifices aside, what struck this viewer was the sudden awareness gained of the ubiquity of these types of images. Regan and Howard have kept a blog as a complement to the exhibition, in which they have posted nearly 250 artworks that fit their criteria. Furthermore, one can’t make it through a single commercial break in prime-time without seeing an ad (usually for cars, but then most ads seem to be for cars) that has divided the screen along an axis and flipped the image over it. Many of these are quite creative, and I wonder whether there is a place for them here. (The “grotto of mileage”, perhaps?)

There are three types of simultaneity at work in the show. And to accede to the ideas of Regan and Howard, I’ll willingly equate simultaneity (time) with ubiquity (space): after all, the point is the fourth dimension:

1. Smithson. His time has come (again). In fact, this show may arrive at the back end of the rediscovery of RS. Nonetheless, the dispersed practice he championed seems particularly well-suited to contemporary, mediated living. Recently, many artists and institutions have noticed this.

2. Reflected Figures. As noted above, this formal technique must carry a great deal of symbolic power for it to appeal to so many, across so great a range of visual arenas.

3. Everywhereness. The conceptual heart of the issue is that the enantiomorph wraps itself into a fully enclosed world. The visual implication is that there is nothing outside the picture’s edges. This suggests that its popularity is a defense against the decentralized, networked condition presently dislocating the identity of each individual: as if to say, “here’s an axis, in front of me, and the world spins around it.”

Back to Kuhn. Kuhn is flirting with the uncomfortable idea that personal discovery is still primarily socially determined. Such a notion seems particularly incongruous with the ideal of scientific truth (that is, the counter-intuitive claim that scientific truth is dependent on social conditions), but that was the particular genius of Kuhn’s thought. “Enantiomorphic Chamber” plays on this discomfort by suggesting that the impulse of the artist to place oneself at the center of an enclosed and self-confirming reality is the group-simultaneous reaction to being disconnected from the group itself.