On the top floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a printer is printing the news.
As the printer groans and stutters, long loops of paper gather on the gallery floor. It prints slowly, pausing every few minutes, as the paper grows into an endless ribbon over the course of a day. From a distance, it looks like a recycling heap. Close up, it looks like a Tara Donovan sculpture or the graceful curls of intricate origami.
There are RSS feeds coming in from all over the world, in English: Reuters, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, Haaretz, Der Spiegel, Fox News, the Times of India, others.
You’re invited to pick it up and read it. “Legendary Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, 84, reveals he survived bite from poisonous spider.” “Anthea Hamilton review—gourds move in mysterious ways at Tate Britain.” “Detroit-area girl, 3, wounded after AK-47 accidentally fires.” “Lindsay Lohan named the new face of Lawyer.com.”
This is the German artist Hans Haacke’s News, part of SFMOMA’s broadly conceived new show “Nothing Stable Under Heaven” (open until September 16), which deals with tech, surveillance, resistance, and instability of all kinds.
“It’s Twitter!” a visitor joked on a recent afternoon, dropping the article he was reading back into the paper pile and walking away.
The first incarnation of News was born in 1969, out of Haacke’s desire, he said, to break down “the barriers between what is presumed to be this secluded and holy sphere that we call art, from the rest of the world, which is dirty politics.”
A few days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Haacke, then in his early thirties and living in New York, gave a scheduled talk about his work. “I had to say, well, these works and what I’m involved in unfortunately does not take into account what happened the other day,” he said in a video interview with SFMOMA. “That was a shocking realization.”
In 1969, he took a telex machine and put it in Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition called “Prospect 69.” It was continuously receiving wires from the German press agency DPA. The next month, he showed it at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, where it spit out English wires from UPI. In 1970, at the Jewish Museum, he set up five different Telex machines, which simultaneously spit out the news.
The Vietnam War was escalating. So were the protests. Nixon was president. The news of the day—today’s history—flowed into the gallery. This was far faster than most Americans got news, which was then delivered at predictable hours on the radio, on broadcast TV, or on their doorsteps.
Haacke’s News preceded the cool of protest art. “In the early 1970s, the art world was not dominated by the avant garde scandal aesthetic which was redesigned in the 1980s with the provocative stunts deployed by artists like Jeff Koons,” Walter Grasskamp and Molly Nesbit write in their book on Haacke’s work.
Haacke was one of the members of the Art Workers Coalition in 1969, which organized to bring protest into cultural institutions. At MoMA in New York, he exhibited MoMA Poll, asking visitors to cast ballots on the question, Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November? The Rockefellers were some of MoMA’s biggest donors. Haacke’s work was not shown there again for decades, Grasskamp and Nesbit note.
After Haacke took aim at the exploitations of the real-estate industry, his first major international solo show at the Guggenheim was canceled six weeks before it was supposed to open. Haacke’s work was not bought or shown in U.S. museums for twelve years.
News was less shocking, maybe, but it was the most literal realization of his desire to break down the boundaries of the gallery space.
But now, forty-nine years after it was first shown, those boundaries seem essentially broken. For instance, almost all of us carry the news in our pockets. As we try to step away for a few hours to look at art, New York Times news alerts buzz in our pockets.
News is a repeated interruption, a moral necessity, an unhealthy addiction, a requirement for a free society, a hard thing to live with. It is also the mundane fabric of our days. News is the traffic on Highway 101. News is the president’s personality. News is that a journalist was killed in South Sudan, and it is also that there is civil war there. News is the weather tomorrow, yesterday, today.
There are many kinds of compressions that happen in the news, but one of the strangest is this pairing of different kinds of information. In a newspaper, they run alongside each other. Any front page might feature the distilled news of a murder next to the account of a parade. Online, they are not even separated by column space. They interrupt each other, inseparable, unintentionally intertwined.
I am a reporter, and I spend a large portion of my day passively on Twitter, the ultimate compressor. In its accumulation of the news, there is a flattening. Scales and geographies are crushed into single lines. Commentary is added. “lol dying,” someone writes with a laugh-crying emoji next to a celebrity interview. Elsewhere, an unidentified person is shot and killed, and no one knows why, not even the reporter, who dutifully records the time and place of death. Elsewhere, the ice caps melt and melt and melt.
One afternoon, I watched News for two hours straight. I also watched people watching it, sitting to read it, circling around it, or snapping iPhone pictures of it while barely stopping to look.
I wanted to know: What is the point of News in 2018? It isn’t radical in the way that it was in 1969. One has to walk only a few feet away from it in the gallery, into Arthur Jafa’s astounding video installation, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, to see something more provocative. He stitches together footage of the civil rights movement, boxing matches, shaky cell-phone videos of police shootings, and people dancing. Watch Jafa for thirty seconds and it is clear that News is not the most lively, challenging, or powerful way to relate to the dirty politics of our day.
Perhaps, too, the gallery has become a place to escape the bombardment of breaking news, as much as we can. (While I was there: “NYTIMES: President Trump’s national security adviser is out. H. R. McMaster will be replaced by John R. Bolton, a hard-line former U.S. ambassador.”)
When the visitor observed that News was like Twitter, I thought, immediately: He’s right. A physical Twitter printing itself into the gallery.
And yet what was once a radically fast way of getting the news seems slow today. At the end of the first hour, I was restless, frustrated by the printer’s pauses. The first time I had visited the exhibit, the pile of paper was much higher. I wanted to see the loops of newsprint grow faster, evidence of events across the world happening and accumulating.
“I read this one earlier,” a teenage girl said, reading the sports headline out loud. Someone pointed to the date on one of the articles: March 21, yesterday’s news.
The printer churned and wheezed. People often congregated around the printer with a kind of delight. Wow, it’s printing the news! How charming.
There were people—a middle-school-age boy in an Oakland A’s sweatshirt—who sat cross-legged on the floor and finished entire articles. He picked them up and put them down with intense focus. A girl in overalls stood and did the same.
But mostly, people seemed charmed by the analogueness of the piece. “Wow, it’s a real article about Bethlehem,” a teen exclaimed, astounded that such a thing could be connected to reality.
News, in 2018, feels like a reminder of when the news was an object. It looks, in its moments of stillness, like the sculpture it is.
Sophie Haigney is a writer and journalist based in San Francisco.