Artsdesk: Unboxing Clever

Posted January 28, 2018 in Arts & Culture Features

Multi-media magazine Aspen came in a customised box filled with materials in a variety of formats. As part of a new exhibition, this seminal art publication is being reconsidered and reinterpreted for our times.


In 1965, a woman called Phyllis Johnson, former editor of commercial magazines Women’s Wear Daily and Advertising Age, conceived an ‘unbound’ magazine. Titled Aspen, each issue came in a box, with contents that could be consumed in any order. I say ‘consumed’ because issues of Aspen contained not only text but drawings, audio recordings and films, harnessing the latest technologies of the time. Unconventional in form and content, and financially impractical (the ads meant to support the magazine’s production were included in a folder at the bottom of each box), Aspen managed to bring together in one place some of the most influential and groundbreaking thinkers and makers of the twentieth century from art, music, literature, dance, psychology and beyond.

Contributors included Andy Warhol, John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, Susan Sontag, Robert Rauschenberg, Timothy Leary, John Lennon and William Burroughs, to name a few. These were individuals who were unravelling the forms and the norms of their time, reframing our understanding of the world, whether it was Timothy Leary’s accounts of psychedelics or John Cage’s groundbreaking 4’33”, which gutted composition of notes altogether.

As part of its Coast-Lines exhibition (13 October 2017 – 30 September 2018), IMMA has been reflecting on issues five and six of Aspen, published together as a double-issue in 1967. Aspen 5+6 was edited by Brian O’Doherty (also known as Patrick Ireland, among other aliases), an Irish artist and art critic living in New York in the ‘60s, and included Roland Barthes’ seminal essay The Death of the Author.

This was a key text of postmodernism which stated that the reader didn’t need to know anything about the author’s personal context in order to understand their writing. It was a significant moment in interrogating power structures and democratising meaning-making in art. To connect this critical moment in the history of art and the history of thinking to a contemporary context, IMMA last year invited the Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG), a group of artists and researchers at Trinity College, to respond to Aspen 5+6 and create a contribution to the Coast-Lines exhibition.

“OMG is a group that brings people with different disciplinary backgrounds together, and it does that in a way that aims to create productive tension between technology and society… [questioning] technology and power, and the power relationships that emerge because of how technology interacts with the world,” says Linda Doyle, outgoing Director of CONNECT, the institution at Trinity that OMG has embedded itself in. CONNECT (funded by Science Foundation Ireland) is a group of engineers who are researching the future of communications technology. OMG has placed itself at this coalface of technological innovation to try to introduce a different way of thinking into the inexorable drive to innovate. Among the chorus of voices asking ‘Can it be done?’, OMG adds the questions ‘How should it be done?’ and ‘Should it be done at all?’

“Making a response to Aspen 5+6 is like making a response to the twentieth century, though obviously from a Western perspective,” says Dennis McNulty, artist in residence at CONNECT and member of OMG. “For me, art is a tool for thinking. I’m interested in it as an ongoing conversation I can be part of.” Dennis and Linda see OMG’s response to Aspen 5+6 as the continuation of a conversation about art, power and language that began fifty years ago. One of the trademarks of Aspen was its use of the latest technologies of the time – Super 8 film reels and flexi discs with audio recordings were commonly included in the ‘box of delights’ (as an early advertisement described the magazine).

For their response to Brian O’Doherty’s issue, OMG has looked to contemporary technologies and formats to reframe the ideas contributors were grappling with in the ‘60s. After much deliberation, the group landed on Twitter and, the YouTube classic, the unboxing video. (If you’re not familiar with ‘unboxings’, they’re a video format wherein an individual, usually a technology enthusiast, ‘unboxes’ (opens) a newly purchased item. YouTube is brimming with these videos, breathless narrations of a filmed first encounter with, for example, the latest iPhone — how it looks, how it feels and what new features it has.)

For their Twitter-based response to Aspen 5+6, titled Placement as Language, OMG has married its interests in language and algorithm to produce two Twitter feeds. The first feed, ‘@aspen_ordered’, breaks the three essays in the issue (Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, George Kubler’s Style and the Representation of Historical Time and Susan Sontag’s The Aesthetics of Silence) into tweet-length chunks, spitting them out once per hour. The second feed, ‘@aspen_reordered’, uses an algorithm to reorder the words of the essays to create a whole new text. The resulting tweets, generated by a computer, are uncanny but make a sort of elusive sense, sometimes offering up surprisingly insightful gems (example from 11th December, 3pm: anxiety – like speech – has its styles: no actions or products escape style).

For Linda, there is a very clear motivation for using algorithm in this way: “A lot of the concepts you deal with in technology these days are so invisible. There are all sorts of algorithms working in your phone and on you, or working in the ‘smart city’. A lot of what I’m trying to get to personally is how you can equip the public in general to be able to talk about things as abstract as algorithms and to be able to become aware of them.” Apart from exposing the mechanics of algorithm, the genius of Placement as Language is to take texts that interrogated the structures of our world in 1967 and subject them to the effects of an increasingly pervasive structuring mechanism in our world in 2017 — algorithm.

OMG has its own room in the Coast-Lines exhibition, where Placement as Language is installed among the contents of Aspen 5+6 arrayed beneath and behind vitrines. The distance this creates between the viewer and these objects that were designed to be handled and interacted with will be lessened this month with the addition of the group’s second response to the magazine: an unboxing video. For this, OMG have invited NYU Professor Melissa Rachleff and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) Director Julie Martin to Dublin to unbox a copy of Aspen 5+6 on camera. Both women have strong connections with the energy and thinking of the decade that birthed the magazine. Melissa is the author of Inventing Downtown: Artist-run Galleries in New York City, 19521965 (2017), while Julie heads up E.A.T. Founded in New York in 1966 by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, E.A.T. has resonances with both OMG and Aspen. It was an experiment in bringing engineers and artists together, seeking to break down the boundary between the ways of thinking in these two different worlds to create new possibilities.

OMG’s decision to bring Melissa and Julie into contact with Aspen via an unboxing was motivated both by the contemporary nature of the format, but also its highly personal and intimate quality. As Linda say, “An unboxing has the ability to bring some emotion into the situation and some kind of tension, in the way a talk or just looking at the objects wouldn’t do.” It’s a way of finding a chink in the, as Dennis describes it, ‘monolithic’ character that well-known and highly revered artworks acquire. “Aspen is almost heading into Ulysses territory in the sense of becoming an iconic phenomenon that has an official take on it. And one of the things that always interests me is to question the official take on things, as the official take often comes about for quite arbitrary reasons. When you encounter a well-known artwork, there’s a friction between its public profile and your personal engagement with it.”

OMG’s response to Aspen 5+6 looks both backwards and forwards — it is an extension of the convention-breaking conversation that began in 1967, but it is also an intervention in the conventions of today.


As part of their response to Aspen 5+6, OMG will develop a series of talks and workshops for maths teachers in collaboration with IMMA’s Engagement and Learning Department. If you are a maths teacher, please feel free to contact OMG at for further information.


Invited to respond to Aspen 5+6, the Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG) is a group of artists and non-engineering researchers based at CONNECT, Ireland’s research centre for future networks and communications based at Trinity College Dublin. Here OMG draw together two projects from 1967: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) founded by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver and Aspen 5+6 edited by Brian O’Doherty. Aspen’s three essays become source material for parallel Twitter feeds in the work Placement as Language (2017), replacing Aspen’s original communication platform (a magazine in a box) with a contemporary one (Twitter). Two feeds are printed onto streams of paper in the gallery and are available to read online. @aspen_ordered – Divides the three essays into Twitter-sized 140 character chunks, transmitting them one by one into the world. @aspen_reordered – Employs an algorithm to create new variations on the original texts. These variations are generated by a statistical algorithm called a Markov Chain that generates sentences based on the probability of one word following another in the original text. Read the full programme for the OMG installation.

Words: Rachel Donnelly

Image Credits: Melissa Rachleff and Julie Martin unboxing Aspen 5+6 during the making of Unboxing Aspen.

Seven Translucent Tiers by Mel Bochner

The Maze by Tony Smith


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