Lynn Richardson: Inter-Glacial Free Trade
Women and their Work, Austin.
October 8 - November 12, 2005
by Barna Kantor

One of Austin's oldest non-profit spaces, Women and Their Work, focuses on spatial and time-based works. In a harsh town for art, W&TW is celebrating its 26th year as a venue for non-traditional media. The gallery has been particularly successful at exhibiting large-scale installations. Lynn Richardson: Inter-Glacial Free Trade Agency (IGFTA) is a show that was perfectly suited for the mission.

Richardson's exhibition is a rare experience, an installation of intense subject matter, imagining strip malls of global warming with a playful, almost obsessive attention to detail. The overall "design" quality of the installation reflects a future with a lot less material wealth -- as if the current consumption and marketing standards themselves have slipped into the rising sea. One display specializes in the housing market of the southern territories. The synthetic food production facility offers Kool- Aid flavors to sweeten glacial run-offs. The remaining half dozen displays sell various emergency goods necessary to support life on the top of drifting ice sheets.

A few outstanding items include:

-a life jacket collection, which combines synthetic fur coats with heavy-duty flotation collars -floatable cups

-a Human Transporter, an inflatable rubber boat Ñ made cozy with a custom synthetic sheepskin lining

-a personal hygiene kit complete with fashionable eye shadows with names like "Black Ice" and "Frozen Fire"

-and my favorite, a mass-produced plastic suitcase of prepackaged vaccines and a passport issued by the "IGFTA" of the show's title.

The goods are sparingly displayed on shelving systems made of translucent plastic sheets stretched over rectangular PVC pipe frames. These rectangular "ice" sheets are also arranged as structural elements of Richardson's clumped installation, which turns the gallery into an intentionally cheap dystopian strip mall where IGFTA's vaccine, plastic, and synthetic food production facilities represent the highest-tech manufacturing potential. The above mentioned real estate company represents the service sector of Richardson's outfit: the displays list Latin American countries with hot real estate investment opportunities. The laminated brochures could be straight out of the portfolio of a present day realtor, except that the oversized IGFTA logos tell us that the Agency spread well beyond the confines of the northern ice fields. For instance, the Ecuadorian beach resort on saleoffers such amenities as coconut trees, a 400m sandy beach and a "bus stop on paved road" and has features such as a laundry room, pool, patio and ocean view
-- a steal for just 230,000 USD.

Climate historians, geologists and archeologists use the word "interglacial" to mean an estimated 100,000-year warm period between shorter glacial periods or ice ages. Today we are 10,000 years into our new interglacial period. Richardson's Inter-Glacial Free Trade Agency sounds, for all its irony, like a force of nature, a physical law that is here to stay until the next ice age. The term "interglacial" not only provides the ultimate cohesion for the displayed industries and goods but it also expands the scope of the issues raised by the exhibition.

The Agency logos give the installations a cohesive brand. The same color scheme used in the logo -- black, white, and light blue -- clearly informs most of the purchases Richardson made for this show. Objects like waterproof matches, light sticks, campsite gas burners, hand warmers and slow burning candles are familiar outdoor goods. Richardson's imaginary societal landscape recodes these objects as icons of emergency consumerism by framing them through the narrative of raised waters and the ubiquitous operation of a trade monopoly. IGFTA controls all aspects of commerce and life; forcing a new identity onto each object, its logos appear aggressively on all displayed goods.

Much of the brilliance of the show is tied up in the way Richardson gives us the right number of clues about the anatomy of IGFTA. She manages to focus our attention on the central question: what is the nature of IGFTA and what is our relationship to this dystopia?

In addition to the obvious references to NAFTA and CAFTA, the Inter-Glacial Free Trade Agency reads like a totalitarian, low-tech regime. Remaining government functions are not only contracted out but completely dissolved into the production and marketing structures of this trade monopoly. Richardson's installation suspends us in a moment of regular interglacial strip mall day and reveals clues about the operation of the IGFTA regime:

1. Humans have specific needs in crisis;
2. IGFTA provides for those needs using materials, industrial supplies and goods that further exacerbate the crisis;
3. IGFTA will continue to maintain, unchallenged, this vicious cycle until the last interglacial customer is alive.
4. Alternatively you may leave for Latin America, but IGFTA controls everything there as well.

One of the most important achievements of the exhibition is that this runaway operation pattern is coded into the objects, design elements, and symbolic gestures such as the show's title. The less life supporting the planet, the more correct her icons become. The translucent vinyl sheets framed by PVC pipes reference melting ice sheets, the ingenuity of end times marketing, and a destructive industrial agenda (PVC found both in the pipe and in the vinyl has an extremely toxic life cycle). But most importantly, they point out the frame of vision, or rather non-vision, of people with decision-making powers. A similarly complex gem is the IGFTA's logo itself, which idealizes interglacial life with images of half-melted icebergs floating in crystal clear, sweetened water on the background of a loose, unraveling triangular grid.

Richardson, for my taste, seems to suggest that the violent consolidation of governmental and corporate structures into a single super-state could go down without resistance. I think her proto-fascist state has to be maintained by both a massive military force and a weatherproof ideology -- and there is no trace of any of these in her work, let alone references to what everyday life is under these circumstances beyond shopping. But the bigger problem is that Richardson's energies are consumed in weaving a tight dystopia through masterfully combining readymades with her own objects and blending them in a common narrative, as if a barrage of artifacts, conceptual props, design and installation elements could hold up a vision of humanity transcending her theater. Her impressive energies would be better spent on zooming in on a few carefully analyzed objects, materials, surfaces and colors and unpacking their psychological potential in a spatially more convincing manner.

Nevertheless, Richardson accomplishes what she set out to dom and recreates a commercially successful yet morally bankrupt and unsustainable world. Her dystopia is based on the inherent void of open communication and negotiation of individual needs and systemic services: all that matters is to maintain a service monopoly for its own sake. This world does not have nor require feed back mechanisms to correct its operation in a natural environment. Every issue is controlled by a single "ruthless industrial agenda," as her artist statement describes it.

Barna Kantor is an artist, writer living in Austin.