A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.
A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.
It’s that time of year…
when ghosts return…
Guy Debord turns over in his grave…
Rosa Luxemburg wonders just what it is we don’t understand…
Jacques Derrida would like us to dwell on insidious terminologies…
Sylvia Plath decries the plague of toadstools overnight…
and Virginia Woolf reminds us…
…that you cannot find peace by avoiding life…
Violence haunts. It haunts all but those who are psychically defended against it – defended against it by fear, by the pleasurable intensity of vested interest, or by the emotional short-circuiting that is psychosis.
But more often than not, and certainly more often than cultural representations would like us to believe, the emotions precipitated by violence are complex and individuated, even for the basic neurotic personality. Violence is primal and simple, but also lousy with politics and discourse, and with repressed suffering.
Yet the more complex everyday violence becomes – rife with globalized power imbalances – the more stripped down and un-nuanced does American film-acting style become in American narrative films that directly involve violence. Instead of acting, we get acting-out. Often in such films, spectators are offered the comforts of being able to identify with a surprisingly deadened style of acting. Of course, it may have something to do with the reductive, one-note nature of the scripts of most American films. Or with the amount of botox that gets syringed in Los Angeles. But that desire to not have the face be an emotional, affective register is not simply motivated by a youth-crazy consumer culture. Nothing happens for a single reason.
In the last few years, it’s become evident that if you’re looking for subtle, layered, nuanced acting style, you have to look beyond American actors. This phenomenon generated a long Atlantic article a while back, though not a very enlightening one.
Recently, I watched the first two films in the Pusher trilogy. I was in the midst of moving home and studio, and unmoored from my digital connections, I watched them on my i-pad, able to pause and fast-forward when I wasn’t able to cope with the brutality of the violence it represents. I hope to watch the third film in just the same way, in spite of being re-connected to my domestic digital empire. The digital fast-forward mechanism allows me to see thumb-nail images at whatever speed I choose, and it’s only in that tiny form that I can tolerate the most violent seconds.
But in the midst of all that violence are the faces. Actor’s faces that register several emotions at once. Faces that manage to register both machismo and fear at the same time. Humiliation and brutal impassiveness. Pleasure, panic, horror, redemption, and resignation – all at once. Such is the face of actor Mads Mikkelsen in the last moments of the last scene of the second Pusher film- With Blood on My Hands- from which these gifs are drawn.
And in taking in the simultaneous affective registers that Americans tend to think of as mutually exclusive, the spectator is thrown into an identificatory conundrum. Something we should be thrown into more often these days, when politicians, journalists, and media producers and editors encourage reductive thinking about violence.
In part, this much-needed identificatory conundrum depends on the kind of remarkable actors you find in The Pusher trilogy. But of course, those actors depend on scripts written and funded by those who see subtlety, nuance, and contradiction as more than pesky obstructions to the bottom line. Without that attitude, it’s like being stuck in an endless gif loop…
This year, the little that I experienced of the Venice Biennale came through social and digital media. An intriguing post on my Facebook feed drew me to the project produced for the Polish pavilion. I searched for the project online and read about it on a few sites. There aren’t that many art projects of subtlety and complexity that travel and translate well through social media, but this project seems to be one, and it made me ponder why.
The project is Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” by the artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz. In brief, the project entails the recent staging by the artists of a production of an 1858 Polish “national” opera – Halka – in a village in Haiti in which reside descendants of the Polish soldiers who, brought by Napoleon to put down the anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti, are thought to have deserted Napoleon’s troops to fight alongside the Haitians who defeated the French in 1803.
In the curator’s catalogue essay, Moskalewicz has written a fascinating account of the histories of the opera and its place in the Polish imagination, and of the histories and mythologies that have grown up around the possible role of the Polish soldiers in the revolutionary event in Haiti. The account is fascinating because of the subtle intricacies of Moskalewicz’s argument, which she develops as a backdrop to the work, but also because Moskalewicz chose to write very little about the project she selected to curate for the pavilion. Even in an official video, she doesn’t really explain the project to spectators. The table of contents in the catalogue for the exhibition indicates that there are interviews with the artists and some statements by the participants, as well as a few other historical texts. But Moskalewicz devotes the great majority of her text to an analysis of the national mythologies that underpin the project; for example, the national identity role that the 1858 opera – stylistically retardataire even at its arrival – has persisted in playing for so many decades.
I don’t know why Moskalewicz chose to address the project this way. Perhaps she felt that the project could represent itself. Inversely, maybe she felt that the project needed a historical backdrop in order to represent itself. In any case, her choice creates a kind of respectful space around the project. By sticking largely to questions of how histories play out in the national imagination of the present, she allows the work to take on its separate role as art. She neither inflates nor underestimates its political and cultural role. Ultimately, she makes a case for questioning “nation” in general, which is a way of looking at the larger picture of an exhibition based, as she points out, on the very idea of the nation.
But why does the project itself succeed in traveling so well in such a condensed way through social media? There’s no question that being present in the space of the exhibition must have produced a different affective spectatorial experience of the work than reading about it and viewing images. But it’s unique when a work conveys the depth of its layered meanings through a several-sentence description and a few photos, unique when it can work at opposite scales without losing subtlety, and while still resonating and provoking thought.
Some of it must have to do with the sharp contrasts that the parameters of the project create. The inclusion of indigeneous and non-indigenous participants, for example (the opera is sung by professional Polish opera singers). But even there, the issues involved are complex. Because some of the indigenous Haitian participants in the project are descendents of the Polish soldiers who are thought to have aligned themselves with the revolt of the colonial Haitian subjects in 1803. And the insertion into that contemporary context of an opera that has been popularly and stubbornly accorded the status of Polish national representation – when Polish “nationhood” has been so historically fraught in general, and with a narrative about class disparity, no less – foregrounds how troubled the notion of the nation is once the colonizer’s ships hit the water, or soldiers cross national land boundaries or, for that matter, once money travels along digital signals. Even the word itself, indigenous, is ambiguous. It doesn’t depend on a definitive temporality of origin.
If we’re going to be subject to the dispersal of art by digital media, would that many other projects would travel this well. In this instance it’s especially important that the work travels well, because it’s discourse applies to so many contexts, while being intensely specific to one.
In the “overture” to her essay, Moskalewicz sets the scene by describing the anxiety felt by the artists and production team at the start of the filming of the project, due to what looked like impending rain that would have ruined the scheduled performance and filming. I wonder whether filming the project through the chaos of rain wouldn’t have added a fortuitous dimension to the project, given its allusions to the traumas of imperial and colonial legacies – in Haiti, in Poland, and elsewhere. Because the performative event that is just history, not art, is usually subject to chaos.
We may be closer than ever to Warhol’s contention that everyone will achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but the focus of mass voyeuristic interest is still reserved for the few and the particular.
Sometimes mass voyeurism is dreaded and feared by its objects for its capacity to break down the ego’s fragile borders, as with singer and musician Amy Winehouse, made clear in the frighteningly explicit documentary, Amy.
The film has to be seen to grasp the level of sadistic media hysteria that dogged her every move. Sadistic because the mass media (those who took the photos and those who displayed them) saw a ready opportunity to exploit the very deterioration they helped to precipitate. See the film to understand why drugs were the least of her problems.
Sometimes mass fixation and voyeurism have the quality of being attached to a particular person, but in part as a displacement from a related figure, as I experienced when I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at MoMA and encountered the artist herself, coming out of the exhibition and being mobbed by hyper-excited fans.
Not to diminish Ono’s own accomplishments and talents, but she may be the only conceptual artist in the world who could be mobbed by museum-goers. She will eternally be the object of displaced cathected energy directed at John.
Thinking about both the Amy film and the encounter with Yoko Ono’s hyper-excited fans brought to mind the new video by Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art student who accused a male Columbia student of raping her and held that the University did not take her accusation seriously. Sulkowicz subsequently set in motion an art work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved carrying a dorm mattress around campus, with the intention of carrying it, or having supporters carry it, until the subject of her accusation was expelled from or left the campus.
In the new work, a video called Ceci n’est pas un viol, Sulkowicz seems to literally enact what took place on the night of her alleged rape, captured in the form of a surveillance camera split-screen. In addition to what appears to be a literal enactment of sex, unforced and forced, the work’s website directs viewers as to how to perceive the video.
Why would thinking about Amy Winehouse and Yoko Ono, about the Amy film and the attention directed at Ono – or even the attention sought by mega-media-stars – make me think about this video? Because all involve being placed in the position of voyeur. There are cultural and political questions raised by all such gazing. But Ceci n’est pas un viol raises different cultural and political questions than viewing paparazzi shots or videos because it is an artwork, and not a cultural phenomenon per se. The main question raised for me by the work (and its 444 posted comments) is whether the work isn’t strongly compromised by its literal enactment by the enunciator of the accusation, the artist herself. Her own didactic interpretation aside, the work remains a literal enactment.
At the level of the law, a literal re-enactment is beside the point. On a political level, we should not need a literal enactment, a viewing of an actual sex act, to arrive at an assessment of whether we believe that someone could have conceivably been raped in a situation where the accused claims the actions were consensual. Language should suffice.
On a cultural level, shouldn’t the work contend with decades of distance from literalism, distance from verisimilutude in art? Because to make work that elides that challenge is to skirt the significance of why genealogies of aesthetic form have crucial meaning. Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, comes to mind, though significantly it was not her own rape that Mendieta was physically enacting in her art work, and that distance is a crucial aspect of that work for the viewer. Hopefully some of these issues will be explored in a future discussion posted to the blog.
A young male programmer employed by a Google-esque company wins a contest to spend a week in the paranoically secluded abode and laboratory of the company’s grandiose and manipulative CEO. The programmer is to assess an artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful young female robot invented by the CEO, an A.I. generated through the culling of data from millions of company user searches (desire and knowledge) and images taken from masses of phone data (affect). Can it pass muster as human, with human defined as having complex intelligence, decision-making skills, and individual personality? This is the narrative schema of the new film, Ex Machina, a film that ventures into the under-examined territory of the algorithm with a degree of criticality not found today in most artworks or even discursive texts.
In a recent article about artificial intelligence in the Science section of the NYT, the journalist’s discussion of how unlikely is the possibility that we could create the kind of autonomous A.I. robots pictured in the film could not be more wrong about what is really at stake in the discourse and imagery of the film. The journalist reads the film concretely and reassures readers that we are far from achieving A.I. in robot form because the most advanced robots in the U.S. today are “glacially slow in accomplishing tasks such as opening doors and entering rooms, clearing debris, climbing ladders and driving through an obstacle course.” Robots, according to the article, are dependent on human operators to guide machines via wireless networks, though some are semi-autonomous. They are “largely helpless without human supervisors.”
Yet that is precisely what we have to fear.
A lot of the anxiety doesn’t come from any real situation that A.I.s are about to take us over or the world is about to change because of A.I.s in any fundamental kind of way — not at the moment at any rate. It’s got more to do with big tech companies and the Internet and search engines and social media and that kind of thing. I think there’s a sense in which we feel that we don’t understand how our cellphones and our laptops work … but those things seem to understand a lot about us. Now that’s not really about artificial intelligence, it’s about tech paranoia. So somewhere in this I think I’m trying to look at that, too.
Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015
What the algorithm achieves today is set in motion by humans, but once set in motion by humans, algorithms collect data on populations at a speed and with an accuracy unachievable by the human mind or hand. The A.I.s of today are not housed in attractive “fembots.” They are housed in microchips and abstract mathematical formulas that are unsexy…to most.
The other thing I was interested in was the way tech companies present themselves. So Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan talks in this very kind of familiar, pal-y way. He uses the word “dude” and “bro” a lot. And I felt that this was sometimes how tech companies present themselves to us. They’re kind of like our friends. They say, “Hey pal, hey dude,” like we’re kind of mates, you know, “I’m not really a big tech company, I’m actually your friend and we’re hanging out sort of at a bar or at the beach and we’re sort of part of each other’s lifestyle, but at the same time I’m going to take a lot of money off you and I’m going to take all of your data and rifle through your address book” and that kind of thing.
Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015
The critical dimensions of Ex Machina depend on a synthesis of the visual, the visceral, the aural, and the scripted. But like a lot of great films, Ex Machina achieves visually what cannot be enacted through language. Yes, the storyline is creepy, and its arc is that of a moral tale about A.I.s taking over the world. But the visual and affective aspects of the film draw in the spectator in ways that go beyond that of a repressible moral tale. The film’s subtle visual effects, the decisions made about just how close to hew to the visual realism of human skin and features and affect, and just how far to veer from that realism and at which moments to do so- these create a spectatorial engagement semi-separate from that of the script. Just as an utterance or an exchange or facial expression in the psychoanalytic setting can have reverberating effects on consciousness and on the unconscious, so can the unscripted aspects of film, independent from a story line, independent from its narrative ending.
Granted, it’s a common trope in science fiction or cyberpunk fiction to create a frisson of sameness/difference where the human and the robotic meet.
But Ex Machina deploys the visual trope through a deeply intelligent understanding of how to manipulate it to critical ends.
I will admit to spending a good part of the film trying to figure out just what special effects they used to achieve the creepy elision of space between human and robot in the Ava character; the physical interface between human and robot in Ava is fascinating. I was able to attend to this throughout the film because of its pacing, and I think that musing on that intermittently was actually one way of experiencing the film. I was only able to find an explanation of the effects employed through the accretion of information from a few articles after the viewing. Garland’s script is allegorical, something the science writer didn’t pick up. It’s not about A.I. per se. It’s the throwaway lines that haunt – the references to the CEO’s access to the memories and desires of hundreds of millions of us; Ava as the encapsulation of that access. Ex Machina‘s particular ways of blurring the space between human and A.I are what gives the story its significance and its affective pull. And this is best achieved visually, so as to leave the viewer with the question (a visually composed question) of just how large they’d like that space to be.
The “Dadaist Manifesto” [Berlin, 1918] alludes to World War I as “the explosions of last week” and “yesterday’s crash,” asserting, simultaneously and almost paradoxically, both the war’s presence and its historicity, its belonging at once to the moments of the manifesto’s production and presentation and to a more or less immediate past. The manifesto calls up the overwhelming physical and psychological effects of the war. In so doing it means to insist on the necessary subjection of contemporary artists to the collisions that produced those traumatic effects, as well as the necessary recognition, on the part of artists and their audiences, that those collisions had a history, that they belonged to the present as well as to a past that could be mapped, even if that past had taken place only yesterday, or last week…Thus Dada art emerged, at least prospectively, as an aggressively paradisiacal (kindheartedly malicious) counterpart to the exactness of photography, a new kind of art that would at once mimic cinema and instantiate the “real situation,” that is to say, the bodily disposition, of contemporary viewers…
Brigid Doherty, “Berlin,” in the catalogue for the exhibition Dada, curated by Leah Dickerman, 2006 [all illustrations from the catalogue.]
Trouble roils the land. Weak safety nets fray. Suffering displaces into rebellion. And we’re not talking about 1918. In such circumstances, the thorny questions of art’s imbrication in political and social change (not to utter the unspeakable challenge to capitalism) make their ghostly return. In the week after September 11, 2001, I was sent a few questions by a European art journal, asking whether I thought art and artists would be changed by the events of 9/11; would they change to be more politically relevant? In other words, how were artists subject to the “collisions” that produced the traumatic effects of that week.
My response was that if an artist’s work was politically relevant on 9/10, it would be politically relevant on 9/12. Relevant, of course, is a word that is always open to questions.
There is a sense in which Herzfelde’s introduction makes the case not only for the dadaists’ destruction of the cult of art, but also for their invention of a new kind of artistic production that refuses to “emancipate itself from reality” or to “disavow the actual,” a new art, or at least a new way of making pictures, tat seeks to intensify “the pleasure of the broad masses in constructive, creative activity (gestaltende Beschäftigung),” for example, by taking “the illustrated newspaper and the editorials of the press as [its] source.” Montage is the technique the Berlin dadaists deployed.
Brigid Doherty, “Berlin.”
The last few decades have seen rampant growth in what is commonly called “mainstream” art. Mainstream art- that term may not be descriptive of the work itself, but of its location in/distribution via the museum, the gallery, the market, the media, the art fair, the biennial. There has also been dramatic growth in smaller venues and nonphysical ventures, and an exponential growth in self-identified artists
More museums, bigger museums, more galleries, bigger galleries, more artists, bigger artists, more art media, bigger art media, more art fairs, bigger art fairs, more MFA programs, bigger MFA programs, etc. As determined as I am to avoid a declinist atttude, the diffusion of effect, and the dissipation of focus are unavoidable side effects of this growth. You don’t need to uphold the questionable form of the manifesto to wonder what has been lost of collective pronouncement when the numbers grow so big and the din is so loud.
I feel it is imperative to point out that in her introduction to Herzfelde’s argument, Brigid Doherty notes that “the affirmative attitude toward the production of a new kind of art that Herzfelde adopts in his ‘introduction to the Dada Fair’ represents a position the Berlin dadaists did not hold for long. In September 1920, Grosz, Hausmann, Heartfeld, and Schlichter renounced in their manifesto ‘The Rules of Painting’ the principles of montage on which Herzfelde’s conception of Dadaist pictues rested.” …Note, however, that the difference between Herzfelde on the one side and Hausmann, Schlichter, Grosz, and Heartfeld on the other had more to do with whether the Dadaisten were striving to recuperate art itself or whether the very idea of art had been so vitiated that it should be jettisoned and something new, wild, and life-affirming should take its place.
R. Bruce Elder, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 2013.
What artists making “relevant” work have to be satisfied with is the incalculable nature of such work (if it doesn’t slip into the unfortunate but common trap of attempting to instrumentalize political policy, which is better left to other realms of action). This is the nature of work on representation that doesn’t have the benefit of the kind of institutional dialogues that create a discursive context for academia, another arena that works on representation. Artists, unlike historians and critics, tend not to respond directly to the work of other artists through their own work, particularly when the “bigness” demands – still, even, in 2015 – originality. But artists have done so in moments where aesthetic arguments and efforts and individuals coalesce publicly enough to be heard. The incalculability of aesthetic practice is arguably a very good thing, but shouting – disjointedly- into the wind is another. Eclecticism is identified with openness and freedom, but more often than not it masks disconnection.
…unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, [the space of appearance] does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men — as in the case of great catastrophes when the body politic of a people is destroyed — but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves. Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever.
The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, 1958
The non-declinist question is whether one can dissent from the cult of art in the age of the Klout score. What would I not give to hear Hannah Arendt’s take on the Klout score…