Of Friendsters and Foes


Much is being made lately of the FBI’s phone call to the Whitney Museum in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks requesting access to Mark Lombardi’s drawing BCCI, ICIC & FAB (1996-2000). This piece, the last work the artist made before he was found dead in his studio in March 2000, an apparent suicide at age 49, represents the tangled web of power and influence that comprised the largest banking scandal in history—in which an impenetrable network of holding companies, affiliates, subsidiaries, and banks-within-banks laundered billions of dollars while supporting terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, and prostitution. The names of Saddam Hussein and George H.W. Bush, among many other high- and low-profile world figures, are connected by a network of delicate, yet potently insinuating, pencil lines. The FBI agent who called was informed that the work was on view in the museum’s galleries, where he was welcome to see it during it during regular museum hours. A visit to the current Mark Lombardi exhibition at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, through December 18) by an affiliate of the Homeland Security Agency has also raised eyebrows in the art world.

The typical response to these incidents has been one of startled indignation: We don’t want Big Brother snooping around our museums, galleries, and studios. Yet wafting about these protestations is a hint of relief and even pride. Attention from the feds accomplishes, for some, what so many of us have had trouble doing. It proves that art really matters . . . even to national security! Surrounded by constant reminders of our vulnerability, some may feel, albeit unconsciously, the need for art to do its part and so imagine that Lombardi has arrived just in time to secure the place of the fine arts in the emerging national paradigm of surveillance, paranoia, and control. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the claims being made for Lombardi’s relevance to the war on terror are rather overblown. No one knows if the FBI ever made it to the Whitney, and the Homeland Security guy was not on active duty. In fact, Lombardi’s drawings don’t reveal that much. According to his own iconographic code, a line with an arrow, for example, simply signifies “influence.” So, a series of arrows leading across the BCCI, ICIC & FAB drawing from Bush to Saddam does not necessarily mean that the two were in cahoots, as conspiracy theorists might wish to deduce.

What Lombardi’s works tell us is not the specifics of the connections between people, but simply that such connections exist. His drawings play across the surface of scandal and intrigue. This is not the sort of thing America’s spies really need. Indeed, as far as tools for unraveling the networks of evil are concerned, they may already have the biggest and best at hand. Under the guidance of John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame, the Defense Department developed the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program last year, a vast computerized database that, according to the official TIA website, utilizes “topsight”—a term coined by tech guru David Gelertner—to enable users “to see the whole thing.” (TIA’s funding was stopped by Congress in September.) What is the “whole thing?” It’s the same territory explored by Lombardi: the network of individuals, organizations, deals, transfers, and transactions that constitute the de facto architecture of global power. Unlike Lombardi’s beautiful but superficial diagrams, TIA goes wide and deep, providing big-picture scenarios while simultaneously zeroing in on individual players and their possible motives in the emerging global-terror drama.

Lombardi’s drawings lack the specificity and attention to pattern needed to be useful as true investigative tools. On the contrary, it is in their very aimlessness, their sprawling attention to surface incident, that the works’ purpose unfolds. In a recent article published by Clear Cut Press (clearcutpress.com), the Office for Soft Architecture, based in Vancouver, explores the Pacific Northwest’s invasive alien plant species the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) as a figure by which to understand the attraction of surface as opposed to deep structure. “The limitless modification of the skin is different from modernization,” they write. “[S]urface morphologies, as Rubus shows, include decay, blanketing and smothering, dissolution and penetration, and pendulous swagging and draping as well as proliferative growth, all in contexts of environmental disturbance and contingency rather than fantasized balance.” They go on to say, apropos of architecture itself, “Superficies, whether woven, pigmented, glazed, plastered, or carved, receive and are formed from contingent gesture. Skins express gorgeous corporeal transience. Ornament is the decoration of mortality.” In Mark Lombardi’s work we have just such an expression of the smothering abundance of ornamental information.

In cyberspace, the architectural parallel to Lombardi’s work is not to be found in the utilitarian, “drill-down” salt mine of the Defense Department’s TIA, but in the burgeoning blackberry-bush tangle of Friendster.com. For the one or two of you who still don’t know, Friendster is an online network in which members can connect to friends, as well as to friends’ friends, friends’ friends’ friends, and so on. As a result of having 32 friends in my immediate network, I am automatically linked to a larger network of 441,710 individuals. I can search this database by gender, age, locale, and interest. Unlike some more purposeful sites, such as the business network LinkedIn, or any of the many cruising spots online, Friendster is notably open-ended. In addition to identifying oneself as looking for a “friend,” or a “serious relationship,” one can also present oneself as “just here to help.” It is in part this indirectness that suggests a parallel to Lombardi’s indeterminate fields of “influence.”

When you can count nearly half a million people as your friends, your social circle ceases to have a recognizable shape. The absurdity of scale is another parallel between Friendster and Lombardi’s drawings, especially the monumental works like BCCI, ICIC & FAB. A financial scandal this huge is no longer a scandal, strictly speaking; it’s a way of life. Unlike TIA, Friendster never resolves into a gestalt, never exposes an “underlying rationale.” Rather than betraying an a priori, deep structure it expands rhizomatically into a contingent structure of its own based solely on temperament and loose affiliation. Similarly, Lombardi’s drawings are shapeless, infinitely extensive webs of innuendo.

Curiously, in the last year of his life, Lombardi created a series of works that suggest he was leaning toward a more Platonic conception of the networks his research had uncovered. In these pieces, the pattern of lines resolves clearly into perfect or near perfect spheres. By indicating the existence of a unifying gestalt, Lombardi edges toward the conception of networks articulated by the philosopher and theologist Teilhard de Chardin. Credited by some with conceiving the Internet avant la lettre, Teilhard postulated a kind of global consciousness that he called the Noosphere. Recently, followers of his theories have launched the Global Consciousness Project, a worldwide effort that draws on the Internet’s extraordinary capability for synthesizing vast amounts of information drawn from remote locations. Computers worldwide feed into a central database information concerning human behaviors on a massive scale (e.g., strikes, armed conflicts) and attempt to measure a cause-and-effect relation—energetically speaking—among them. Their efforts are intended precisely to discern the kind of background pattern revealed in so many of Lombardi’s final works.

For some, Mark Lombardi is the natural inheritor of Hans Haacke’s distinguished mantle. In the early 1970s, Haacke (who appeared with me recently on a Drawing Center panel concerning Lombardi’s work) pioneered a no-frills approach to using art as a means to analyze the complex, money-infused relationships among individuals, corporations, and institutions. Haacke’s works of this period combined texts, photographs, and diagrams to create evidentiary-like displays. These two artists have much in common, to be sure, and yet something in Lombardi’s work exceeds Haacke’s straightforward approach. Curiously, it was during the past several weeks, while installing the Whitney’s mid-career survey of John Currin’s idiosyncratic figurative paintings that I began to sense that here was perhaps a more apt comparison. Currin, like Lombardi, enjoys telling us both more and less than we need to know: His models may be super-abundantly sexy, but their eyes are dangerous black holes. Is it possible that Lombardi’s drawings really have more to do with the Mannerist excesses and creepy lacunae of Currin’s paintings than they do with the methodical investigations of Haacke to which they are so often compared? I suspect that Lombardi falls someplace in between the two—a place that is difficult to imagine but that, in its very incongruity, may be emblematic of our complicated times.

Lawrence Rinder is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art.