An Essay for Paul Jeanes, David Kelley, and Hong-An Truong by Marcus Civin

An Essay for Paul Jeanes, David Kelley, and Hong-An Truong

This essay has five parts: Line, Form, Color, Production, and Giving-It-Away. These are five subjects I am thinking about, five subjects somehow, I think related to a poster project I am working on. One of the posters says: “With Hidden Noise.” Another says: “Reversible.” You can download a poster or two here and place posters anywhere you feel they need to go.


In 1916, Marcel Duchamp made a small sculpture called: “With Hidden Noise.” According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (“Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” 2000):

“For this piece, made on Easter Day 1916, Duchamp set a ball of nautical twine between two brass plates. He then asked his friend and patron Walter Arensberg to place an unknown object inside before he clamped the Readymade shut with four long screws. The title alludes to the rattling sound the hidden object makes when shaken. Duchamp requested that Arensberg never tell him what the secret thing was, preferring to remain blissfully ignorant of his work’s content.”

I was visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art with some art students. I was drooling over the Duchamps. One student asked me why I liked Duchamp. I had never really tried to put this, my own personal like into words.

I think I love Duchamp and I think I love Duchamp by association. To love Duchamp is to love a big armful of Art History. For me, for instance Duchamp’s twine can become Fred Sandback’s yarn. Much younger, much later than Duchamp, Fred Sandback made these sculptures that are there and not there, outlines, shapes drawn with tight yarn lines, attached at points to the wall, the floor, the ceiling. I see Sandbacks at the sides of my eyes: a series of acute triangles two-people-high; the triangle bottom lines hover over the floor, the triangle sidelines quiver lightly but somehow solidly too–solidly quivering yarn, just along the wall; one line connects the other two lines through the air, a sculpture of a triangle made only of string.

I imagine showing up at Heiner Friedrich’s house in Germany, 1970‘s, finding subtle Sandback variations, a parallelogram of yarn, for example, leaning out from the wall. Other times tight rectangles, other times, Sandback’s yarn is red, yellow, or blue.

Why did I go from Duchamp to Sandback? Because of string, because of line.

Make an elaborate abstraction from string. Do it now.

I almost forgot to tell you: In 1942, in New York, for the “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition, Duchamp strung up the galleries with a tangled spider’s web of string–it took a little army of spider artists actually. 1942, to look closely at the paintings (Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Joan Miro), in this one instance at least, in Duchamp’s hands, you would have to get really caught up in lines and lines of string. (See Pierre Cabanne, “Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp,” 1971)

Duchamp and Sandback unwind Duchamp’s gift, find some noise, making lines.


I am balancing a toy car on my finger. I made the toy car. The toy car is sculptural, but I made it not just to make it, I made it to use it, to balance it on my finger.

Try this: balance a toy car on your finger. Now, while you are balancing, sing a big, boppy pop song.

If you were to sing a lullabye while you were balancing a kid’s toy, this would be too sugary, an illustration, a compliment to the car. We already get “childhood” from the toy car, so what happens when you shove something else up against the toy car? The balancing you are already doing, balancing the toy car, it already speaks to fragility, it already speaks to childhood, memory, and balance. Who know’s exactly what will result from this collision–this pop-song-toy-car mash–this collage?

What can we learn by smashing unlikely objects and ideas against each other?

I am a prop-based performer. Objects happen to me. They are everywhere, they get into my pockets, the more common the better, the rougher and more used the better, from the kitchen cabinet, from the toy chest, I get stuck on them.

I am fascinated by objects’ ability to carry meaning. I interact with potentially hundreds of strange, little objects every day. I wonder how the broom was first invented, the salt shaker, the dust pan?

Alternately, you could balance a credit card on your finger while standing on top of a table. Sing… How does that feel?

Think of an object which is meaningful to you… Think of it now…

The whole history of art is a history of giving value to objects.

Think of an art object–an oil painting, a gold earring, a vase, a Readymade. Think of it… now…

I pictured a collection of early American dinnerware, silver, of practical design. The dinnerware set was in a studio, it was in a shop before it went to a museum. Someone at some point may have been unsure if these dishes were any good, if anyone would find them useful, valuable. Now the dishes are in a museum. They’re important.

Image a 17th Century Dutch still life painter were to come across your breakfast dishes left on the table, the crust of the end of your toast still on the brown and green plate, the jelly knife, the juice glass, the skull and cross bones coffee cup, the soy milk. These are objects. Paint your breakfast objects in your head the way a realistic painter would. Imagine that… now…

An artist need not make objects, or even have them fabricated to certain specifications, an artist can just pick out an object and use it.

I want objects to move. If I make something I don’t want it to sit on it’s ass in a museum. I want the objects I make to move. But, how do you let the objects speak? How to build meaning around the object?

Here’s how.

First, break the object. More than the object functioning correctly, the hobbling object speaks more to what the object is supposed to do. The perfectly functioning object we take for granted.

Second, use the object wrong. Use a brick like a mirror. How do we know there is not a mirror buried under the surface of a brick? So, use the brick like a mirror. And, maybe there is indeed a mirror in there. Break open the brick. There’s no mirror in there? Oh well… You thought you needed a mirror. You tried.

Third, work with intention, and relatively slowly. Sew like the universe depends on it. Stick your head through the hole like something really might happen on the other side of that hole, your whole perception of sky might change if you stick your head through that hole.

Fourth, After all the breaking, pick up the pieces and try to do it right, if that is at all possible, whatever that means for you, use the object correctly. There is nothing more pleasurable than success–a little bit of water making it through a pipe, an improbably balanced balance.

Fifth, question the object. What has the brick been used for, historically? A brick is a built unit that builds. And, a brick can be thrown through windows. Bricks have been thrown through windows. Every brick is a builder and window breaker. A brick can say: This is your house, your home, you earned this and the people you love or have to provide for, or avoid showing your tattoo to… all those people live here, also surrounded by bricks.

And, the brick is a breaker. People used to break windows with bricks–thugs–when they didn’t want new folks in their segregated neighborhoods, they’d throw a brick through the picture window in the living room and squeal off in their cars.

What else functions this way, the way a brick does? Depending on where you are and where you come from, bricks look different. Which bricks? Depending on your history, bricks have different histories, and there are related and diverse objects that relate to these histories. What about these histories… of bricks and brick-related objects?

In my neighborhood where I’m living in Baltimore, there are a lot of brick houses. Some of the brick buildings are bulging out and crumbling. Some of the homes are homes that are empty.

The buildings’ bricks are lumping out, bulge as building bellies. Third floors, like heads to balance bellies, lean back two feet.

I am looking seriously… more seriously than I should, perhaps…

I think with my hands. My experience is largely twisting things and getting them to the point right before they break, seeing how they balance on top of other objects. Other people think without their hands. I need to hold a brick or a toy car to think about a house or to think about transportation. That’s me. Are you like that? I tinker.



A color appears. At first sight, a very trivial thing, easily understood, color. Hold up a color. Analyze this color. The color is, in reality, a very strange thing. Color is mysterious. The social character of your self appears stamped upon every color you perceive. The character you give the color has no real relationship with actual color.

I would like you to think in your head of the color yellow. What do you think of immediately after you think of the color yellow?

This second thought about yellow is an association. You have jumped from yellow to an unconscious association you stamped on the color yellow.

On three, shout out what you thought after I asked you to think about the color yellow.



1… 2… 3… _____________________________________!




We take color and we make color useful for ourselves. Like a child with a box of crayons, we draw sunshine with yellow, we draw the queen’s necklace. Yellow has nothing at all to do with sunshine. Yellow has nothing to do with the queen’s gold.

Yellow is altered when you see it, when you make it work for you. No matter what you do, yellow continues to be yellow. But, as soon as you imagine yellow, yellow becomes everything you imagine, yellow steps out. With your help, with your imagination, yellow grows, yellow dances around with its tongue out. Yellow is far more wonderful with its tongue out than yellow ever was before. Yellow is a searing sun ray. From a box of crayons, the whole grotesquerie… From a box of crayons, the whole wonderful universe…

Now, make a yellow brick. Unwind a ball of yellow yarn.


I’m imagining everything I used was something I made. I can make a lot of things, but I don’t make everything I use. A lot of what I use, someone else makes. I buy what I use or someone buys it for me. I didn’t make that pencil. I didn’t make that cup. I didn’t make that telephone. I bought that pencil. I’ll recycle that cup. Who makes that telephone? Nowadays, I bet even a lot of people who, for a living, make telephones, still buy telephones. These days, telephone-makers still buy telephones to use, to call their mom.

Enter Karl Marx’s massive mega-work, “Capital.” The year is 1867, Karl Marx is trying hard to understand the economic system of capitalism. And, he loves to write. He loves to write about workers and work, about the work that we can take for granted when we want things, when we want objects. Volume One, “The Critique of Capitalism,” Karl Marx writes:

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties… It is as clear as noon-day, that humans, by their industry, change the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common everyday thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity [a table for sale], it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands on its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than [seances] ever were.”

Make a table. All of your labor making the table, all of your work is in there, in that table. The work is invisible in the finished object, but the work is there. All of your un-recorded thoughts and efforts, all of your torn up calculations and sketchings, your goings to the hardware store, all of your little changings to the design of the table, goings back to the store for more screws, all of your saw-dust sips of coke by the saw between cutting the table legs, the lotion for your dry hands, the clamping the corners, the glueing down the tabletop, the re-checking right angles, all of this, all of your activity building the table, I might argue, all of this activity you secret into the table. You color the table.

Now, take some sheets and show us what it takes to make a bed. Color the bed. Make a spider web.



What if the object you make, what if it moves? I’m thinking about gifts, about the movement of gifts. I want to think about gift-giving. What do I give away for free? Why? What wouldn’t I give away for free? Why not?

Give something away. Do it. You might get something back of greater value or maybe someone needs what you have to give away more than you need it.

There is Reciprocal Gift Giving. I give you a gift. You give me a gift. This is a line, back and forth.

Lewis Hyde, in his 1983 book, “The Gift,” reminds us that there is also Circular Gift Giving. Here, the gift moves in a circle. Gift giving in a circle to the left or gift giving to the right. No one receives a gift from the same person they give the gift to.

Objects grow as they move from hand to hand. For an event in 1966, Yoko Ono wrote: “This Line is part of a very long circle.” (The event was called the “Blue Room Event.” The writing was a drawing.)


–Marcus Civin, April 2012


Marcus Civin grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, earned a BA in Theater
from Brown University (1999), and an MFA in Studio Art from University
of California, Irvine (2009). Marcus is a co-founder of New Urban
Arts, a non-profit in Providence, RI, and a co-organizer for 2 years
of Perform! Now!, a  performance festival in Los Angeles. Marcus
teaches Art History, Curatorial Practice, and Foundations at Maryland
Institute College of Art. He is working on Act II of a play, “A Play
Called Scenes From a Love Story.” Marcus is the proud owner of a 2001,
bright green, hybrid car.