Monday, December 21, 2009



Classification of a Spit Stain by Ellie Ga
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2009)

Scientific presentations of data have become rote tactics in visual and intermedia arts. I'm thinking lots of things encourage this impulse at this moment: an organizing response to disordered “surplus information,” the library science boom, a generation of artists especially adept at meeting artworld/non-profit documentation demands, a belief that the ordering of information can flatten hierarchies palo alto style. I'd add to this the expanding definition of intermedia work toward including sense-making and transcription, and the increasing number of artists finding support through residency programs at scientific associations and research centers.

In Classification of a Spit Stain, the marks, stains and textural details of urban sidewalks are meticulously documented and photographed to surprising effect by Ellie Ga. Ga acts as a scientist/anthropologist/garbologist addressing human relics left on sidewalks.

The mundane subject matter is made beautiful via magnification and reverent art book context; some photos stand as abstract expressionist paintings, dark suns and Rorscharch spots, others a classification she lists as “kandinsky/calder”. "Monster" stains do look like monsters. A discarded banana peel on a dirty sidewalk is so abstracted in its grainy xeroxed photo it might be an ink blot or bad screenprint jokingly titled “banana peel.”

But with Spit Stain, the book's real pleasure is the transparency of its scientific pretense. Ga tracks the stain "types" with loyalty to the tropes of scientific method, down to the office-supplies of the laboratory (the gridlines of the lab notebook are reproduced with total clarity, even as the typewritten words smear and photos blur). But the application is lax. Aesthetically subjective stain types (spit, piss, round/raised, freeform, etc) are recorded with a legend for type, mo/yr, and hash marks tracking frequency.

The “spit stains” are presented without too much commentary so that the marvel of collecting becomes the only end, and scope is limited and precious. While photo-as-evidence is old as cameras, classification as technique also has more recent references with respect to human impact. Consider Sarah Sze's 1996 Soho piece, or Public Phenomena by Chicago's Temporary Services, ( )

Ga is a founding member of Ugly Duckling Press, and as an object Spit Stain is straight book-arts beautiful. It's useful as a map, as a laff, or as a jumping off point for data techniques: teaching us to lay down a new grid of observational criteria, and to try to see beyond the distracting prettiness of the grid itself.


Denise Dooley lives in Rogers Park, Chicago. She writes poetry and fiction; recent work can be found at,, and

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