Spencer Longo’s TIME
This book illustrates what it is like to live in a crumbling empire
(Inpatient Press & King’s Leap Editions, 2022)
Spencer Longo’s new book of collages, TIME, is about what it feels like to live in a crumbling empire, in an era widely regarded as “the end of history.” That phrase was first popularized in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama, who argued—from a right-wing triumphalist position—that with the fall of the Soviet Union, Western liberal democracy had established itself as the “final form of human government.”1 Sure, there would be challenges, but democratic structures were more than equipped to handle them. More recently, “the end of history” thesis has been revived on the left thanks to the work of Mark Fisher, who claimed that Fukuyama was right. We had witnessed the end of history, but it had ushered in an age of political hopelessness and social malaise in which it was impossible to imagine any kind of alternative to capitalism. Let’s just say that recent events support Fisher’s prediction that slow catastrophe and capitalist authoritarianism would become the global norm.
While Longo doesn’t cite either thinker in his book, Fisher’s vision of the end of history as an ever-unfolding apocalypse provides a useful framework for understanding TIME, which was published by the Brooklyn-based Inpatient Press in conjunction with a show of its contents at King’s Leap Gallery. The book uses unstapled pages from Time magazine as the bases of its collages. The first pages date to 1979, the early phase of neoliberalization under the Carter Administration, and include images from the Iranian Revolution. The last, in which a photo of Osama bin Laden practically beckons the magazine’s readers, are from 2002. In between we are treated to a parade of historical horrors: ecological disasters, refugee crises, the Waco massacre, right-wing militias, religious fundamentalism, the Oklahoma City bombing, and United States politicians.
Because Longo has unstapled and decollated the magazines, these stories appear juxtaposed against fragments of fluffier pieces from earlier or later in a given issue—anodyne articles about museum exhibitions, the discovery of cave art, and the rise of Apple computers. Longo’s further innovation of using an XY plotter loaded with gel ink pens to layer text and graphics onto the pages weaves these threads into a millenarian zeitgeist. Collectively, the works convey a sense of “suspended annihilation,” a phrase that Longo’s pen plotter inscribes across a collage entitled Apocalypse Now (2022). The book’s plain yellow cover stamped only with the staid Time logo belies the unsettling art within. It’s a travel guide for the end times.
In Longo’s hands, the collage form becomes a forensic instrument for investigating the paranoid epistemology of the last several decades. As Fisher notes, even Fukuyama acknowledged that his exultant end of history would be haunted by the specter of Nietzsche’s Last Man, a figure of “detached spectatorialism… who has seen everything, but is decadently enfeebled precisely by this excess of (self) awareness.”2 Incapable of real political action, the media-saturated American iteration of the Last Man spins conspiracy theories. Accordingly, in The Ayatollah’s Hit Parade, the book’s opening work, images featuring the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran are overlaid with a networked image resembling an evidence board from a police procedural drama.
Taken from sources like evangelical Jack Chick tracts, survivalist publications, and PC clip art, the layered gel pen graphics serve as the twine connecting seemingly disparate characters and themes. In God’s Messengers, an image of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh is juxtaposed against an article about ancient South American rock art. Longo gives Koresh, who considered himself a prophet, a third eye and transposes an image of military snipers onto the cave art. The text “HUMANS: DO YOU KNOW WHAT CHRIST REALLY CAME TO TELL US?” spills across the page. A flying saucer, which also has a third eye, hovers over the scene. The work sets the viewer on the edge of a revelation. We may learn that the death of Koresh and seventy-six of his followers during a federal government siege was foretold long ago, if only we can see the pattern.
In keeping with the overarching theme of American Armageddon, flames, American flags, and skulls are the most common motifs in TIME’s churning vernacular. But the works also comment on the crack up of monoculture (represented here by the once-ubiquitous Time magazine) as a source of our current cultural predicament. Here and in his other work, Longo uses American subcultural iconography, such as tribal tattoo imagery and crosses, to underscore the ever-fragmenting nature of American culture. Over The Edge places a Punisher skull, a pentagram, and a Star of David over an article about the rise of right-wing militias after Waco. In a swirling constellation of images, TIME obliquely reconstructs the recent history of right-wing extremism. Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, which appears just a few pages later, in retribution for Waco. Longo sketches the breakdown of shared political reality that has continued into the present in the form of cultural phenomena like QAnon.
TIME is as much about the present as it is about the past, which is reflected in the basic materials used to create it: a digitally controlled plotter collides with a glossy magazine. A feeling of calamity pervades our current moment, but Longo shows us that this is nothing new. For Walter Benjamin, this was the task of the historian: to show that “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”3 If we recognize that history is one long catastrophe, we’ll be better equipped to make a different world. After all, Revelation might bring annihilation, or it might bring salvation.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 4.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books, 2009), 6-7.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.