Taf Hassam: The Invention Factory
Mentor: Alena Alexandrova
Independent reviewer: Dick Hebdige
This thesis is the first penning down of ideas i have developed over a long research period into the history of The Edison Motion Picture Company and the beginnings of image and sound technology. The paper traces the developments of two factories: The Invention Factory, the name Thomas Edison gave to his complex of factories, and the later day development of the Warhol Factory in New York. Through a historical mapping of these two phenomena and the subjects surrounding them, correlations began to appear in my research that began to link the two. The paper argues through comparison that The Invention Factory was the true ancestor of the Warholian factory, and a source for many of the works produced by Warhol himself. T.H.
The thesis is well researched, cleverly composed, and highly original both in its central contention- that Thomas Edison, the 'Father of U.S. Pop culture' and Andy Warhol, the 'king of U.S. Pop' are parallel figures in a pattern of (a)historical repetition and in the manner in which this comparative study is undertaken (aka the methodology). To elaborate this latter point: rather than being argued directly in an expository fashion as in a conventional scholarly thesis, the comparisons and alleged continuities are sewn into the text materially/suggestively for the most part through visual documents (e.g. images of Marilyn Monroe, electric chairs, scanned pages of the New York Times, Forbes magazine and the 'For Sale' section of an Architecture and Antiques magazine). The 'illustrations' take over the argument at key points e.g the 'Niagra' publicity stills that punctuate the 'War of the Currents' section on the Edison-Westinghouse contest, the sequence that leads from Marey's photographic gun to the opening (or closing) still from The Great Train Robbery followed by Warhol's print of Elvis with the revolver, the juxtaposition of the still from Warhol's Empire and Edison's shot of the Statue of Liberty or the 'demonstration' stills of kissing and the photograph of Warhol kissing Philip Johnson. The style of argumentation is, in other words, absolutely of a piece with both the 'invented'/ 'inventive' subject matter and the Deleuzian theoretical framework on which the analysis in large part rests (though I should add the text is so actively composed and ingeniously reticulated that 'rests' hardly seems the right verb) the reader is relentlessly teased and prodded into making bold associative leaps that substitute the sometimes plodding rhythms of conventional art or design historical narrative at the graduate student level for something altogether lighter, faster, more evocative and less constrained by the received wisdoms. However this does not mean the thesis is in any way fanciful, whimsical or overly abstract (e.g. it is neither an exercise in provocation for its own sake nor a passive or abstruse 'illustration' of 'High Theory'). Rather the writing is driven by a consistently inventive (that word again) intelligence that adroitly brings together big ideas, incidental historical detail, pointed anecdote and (reproduced) archival material in a mix that places pressure on (most of) the relevant established historical paradigms (modernism/postmodernism etc) while being solidly grounded in documented historical and empirical 'fact'. This thesis is a real page-turner: the narrative races along from Menlo Park to Manhattan via Muybridge, Monroe, Marey and Tessla yet the genealogical/ideational connections always seem sound and are consistently persuasive. I found the thesis a pleasure to read: the particulars are so densely stacked alongside and within Mr(?) Hassam's overarching concern with repetition (in the history of invention, early photography and cinema, art and architecture etc) that the text goes on cranking out new connections in the reader's mind long after the manuscript itself has been put down. (In this sense, the thesis title is, of course, self referential).
To be nitpicky for a moment, there are no doubt some points where the historical background seems a little thin e.g. in the description of Jesse Strang's execution in 1827, Mr Hassan seems to overlook the extent to which the gallows confession, far from being a singular event had been a long established tradition of popular oratory and had become an integral component of public executions in both Europe and the U.S since at least the mid 18th century. However this is a minor oversight and hardly detracts from the achievement of the dissertation as a whole. In a similar vein I found myself wanting to see where P.T.Barnum (particularly as depicted in James W. Cook's study, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum) might fit into Hassam's 'Invention Factory'. However it makes no sense to bemoan the absence of still more potentially fruitful lines of inquiry when so many have been pursued to such great effect in such a (relatively) short space and time. (Speaking of which, the concision with which some of the points are made is very impressive: the section on capital punishment, humanism/humanitarianism, the 'march of civilization' and the rise of 'humane' forms of execution packs an extraordinary number of salient arguments into a few pages). As is appropriate in a thesis of this kind- an exercise in writing/thinking on a series of pages undertaken by an artist, the conclusion draws everything together nicely without spelling anything out or tying up loose ends. Instead the ends are further loosened at the end and are allowed to fly or lie where they will. I note in the criteria for the thesis mentioned in John Heijmans' original email to me that the written dissertation should relate in an integral way to the candidate's art practice. As I'm not familiar with Taf Hassam's art work I can't make an informed judgment on this score but I feel confident, given the quality of this thesis and the energy to make/fabricate an argument that so vividly animates it a) that the research showcased here has found its way by one means or another into the artwork and b) that the art work itself, whatever it is likely to be interesting, not to say inventive. The thesis is very good indeed. Having been left hanging (and electrified) by that Conclusion I look forward to reading more on this subject/these subjects from Taf Hassam in the future.
Dick Hebdige has published extensively on popular culture, media and critical theory and contemporary art, music and design. He is the current Director of the campus Interdisciplinary Humanities Center while holding a joint faculty appointment in the Department of Art and Film Studies. He has been teaching in art schools since the mid 1970's, having served as the Dean of Critical Studies and the Director of the experimental writing program at CalArts before coming to UCSB. Hebdige has published numerous articles, reviews and catalogue essays and is the author of three seminal books on art and popular culture: "Subculture: The Meaning of Style", "Cut'n'mix: culture, identity and Caribbean Music" and "Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things". His research interests include transmedia performance and the integration of critical thinking into art practice and teaching. He received his Master of Arts degree from the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, England.