The Swing of the Real
If you take the term literally, "synchromaterialism" simply reflects on the physical coexistence of things (from Latin: 'materia') at the same time (from Greek: 'Σύγχρονος'). This implies that basically everything that is now is 'synchromaterial.' To turn this into an 'ism' is almost as radical as Duchamp's promotion of a mundane bottle rack to a work of art. Almost – because ever since Duchamp and Dada proclaimed that any reality could be experienced and interpreted as an artistic object, art is "synchromaterial" by its very nature. So why stress this fact?
I guess because "synchronous" has come to mean much more (or actually significantly less) than a mere congruence of things and time. It indicates a specific congruence of objects or actions in time, within a specific context. It entails the meticulous craft of organizing things and contexts in sync. At first sight this seems to exclude apparently random configurations like the famous proto-surrealist "fortuitous encounter on an operating table of a sewing machine and an umbrella."1 Synchronous suggests a meaningful correlation, not a chance meeting. We know, for instance, from film and television that the synchronicity of sound and image is crucial for the realism of the combination of the two. The sight of a mouth that speaks after or before the audible words that it is supposed to utter is fatally alienating. On the other hand, as we know at least since Bertolt Brecht, this alienating effect can be employed meaningfully in artistic work that is set on disturbing the recipient's routine modes of interpretation. Breaking through the illusion of 'realism' can provoke a heightened experience of aspects of reality that otherwise remain hidden – the reality of interpretation, of projecting alternative or associated meanings onto things, events, places that seem either self evident or not related at first sight. A re-imagination of things from another vantage point, a shift of perspective that cuts through 'normality.'
Synchromaterialism, one might follow, is the visual equivalent of swing. The seemingly chance encounter of odd things turns into the experience of agreeable correlation.
Another thing: we are inclined to interpret any combination of things, events or sounds as potentially meaningful. This is hardwired in our sensorium, prone to recognizing patterns and testing our visible and audible environment for potential links between things that may look uninteresting separately, but in combination may be cause for alarm or amusement. This "ars combinatoria," the art of putting things together in a meaningful way, has a long history. From our intuitive parsing of stimuli since prehistory, via the systematic description of the mechanisms of reasoning in Leibnitz' "De Arte Combinatoria" from 1666, to the aleatoric procedures that were developed in music, literature and the visual arts, we have been constantly looking for "a system in this madness" of synchronous sensory incentives, which is our world. A basic procedure in such systematization is dividing the stimuli into syntactical categories, which produce meaningful sequences, as in correct sentences. Once the correct structure is established, an endless array of variables can flow into it. Until some variables disrupt the system and force it to reorganize itself. Syncopation is such a disruption of the soothing synchronicity of our daily reality. Interestingly, the disruption heightens our awareness; more actively than before, we start looking for "new links of association" as Dickens called them, correlations which may not be obvious at first sight, but which may be all the more eloquent.
Thus, what is exceptionally rare by the very unlikelihood that its constituent parts will ever be found or brought together, becomes significant just because of that rarity. Lautreamont uses this act of mental syncopation very effectively in his now famous metaphor to describe the extraordinary beauty of a young lad ("of sixteen years and four months"): "... and most of all, [as beautiful] as the fortuitous encounter on an operating table of a sewing machine and an umbrella!" Most of all, because the boy is also as beautiful as the retractability of a bird of prey's claws and other remarkable but in themselves not very rare things...
On Jim Rick's table, Lautreamont's description of the boy's beauty could become a carefully arranged display of an eagle's paw, an anatomical illustration of the musculature around the soft tissues of the posterior cervical region, a specific kind of rat trap, a pile of straw and, of course, the umbrella, the sewing machine and the operating table. Around it would be pictures of the crossing of Rue Vivienne and Rue Colbert in Paris at nightfall, an owl with a broken leg and the sound of the bells of La Bourse – all things, sights and sounds that Lautreamont has selected and edited together in order to evoke the feeling of utter and exceptional bliss which befalls the poet when he sees the drab reality of a dusky street broken – syncopated, one might say – by the passing of an unusually pretty boy. The system in this bizarre amalgamation, of course, while prepared by the curating hand of the artist, is ultimately constructed in the mind of the reader or beholder. I, for one, read into the mention of predator's claws, nervously trembling muscles around a sensitive part of the neck, and rat's traps that the poet's elated sensation of beauty is tainted by repressed desires. But what is the link between the boy's beauty and the three unlikely companions of the famous metaphor, apart from the oddity of their being together in the first place? Here, Lautreamont himself suggests an answer, a bit further on in his litanic poem, when he speaks of an anxiety "of which he and you vainly seek the cause." This is what the Dadaists and Surrealists admired in Lautreamont, the fact that he dared conjure up things through incongruous correlations and leave it at that. And not just the more or less anti-art sections of the avant-gardes of the 1910s and '20s celebrated the unknown, the enigmatic, the incongruous. A dedicated modernist like Arnold Schönberg, the composer who systematized "a-tonal" music in a meticulously structured new harmonics, wrote to his fellow revolutionary, abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky: "We should become aware that there are mysteries around us. And we should develop the courage to face these mysteries, without cowardly asking for 'the solution.'"2
So Jim Ricks' synchromaterialism stands in a by now venerable tradition of simultaeously offering a new, syncopated, reading of reality and forging "mysteries in the image of the mysteries that surround us" as Schönberg formulated it somewhat enigmatically. Synchromaterialism, therefore, although Jim Ricks' version of it certainly wants to point us into interpretational directions, is not about giving answers. It is not a didactic tool to warrant the correct way of critiquing mass consumption culture, for instance, although it does trigger such critique – it aims to raise questions on the potential patterns of meaning, interpretation and exchange that lie hidden within the chaotic mesh-up of our vernacular visual culture. Next to opening associations with the musical meaning of syncope, Ricks' synchromaterialist displays also mimic the grammatical meaning of the word: the leaving out of unaccentuated sounds or words in sentences. The result is a visual variant of "run-on sentences," strings of objects without structuring punctuation that swirl on rhizomatically, yet remain 'readable' by their recognizable syntactical organization. Red slippers branded "USA" next to a folded and wrapped US flag associate geographically. Until one reads the "made in China" line below the brand name on the slippers. That's a syncope, I'd say. It shifts the context.
Synchromaterialism, in sum, beyond stressing the obvious fact that the now is principally in sync, reflects on the inconstant nature of this synchronicity. It takes a careful curator of the frenetic flow of hysterically diverse objects that make up our quotidian environment to edit system into such madness. Ricks succeeds in doing that by using two of the most ancient strategies of making sense: syntactical (re)organization and syncopation. Synchromaterialism may not solve all the riddles that keep leaking through the cracks of our frantic attempts at imposing meaningful structure onto the world of simultaneous stimuli. But by his thoughtful selection and curation, Ricks makes the mystery manifest and gives us the tools to interpret it, while essentially leaving it intact. That, I would hold, thinking of Bruce Nauman's dictum, is the work of a true artist.