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…
In the 1960s there was a catchy American tv commercial for Canoe men’s cologne that ended with the homonymically and metonymically suggestive tag line, “canoe canoe?” As with most scent ads, it’s clear that the “message” was not about cologne. “Understanding” is a complex activity.
The other night, when I walked into the lower east side art gallery where French philosopher/playwright/poet Alain Badiou was giving a talk, I wasn’t surprised to see an overflow crowd, more than half of which was quite young. He has his critics within the worlds of philosophy and art, but he also has a surprisingly strong following in the art scene, maybe because, as I remarked to a friend, not many others are taking on the really big art subjects today, particularly in a face-to-face setting. The subjects that beg to be addressed through broad arguments, which can have an impact even when they are not transparently understood.
The source of Badiou’s considerable appeal lies in the understanding of philosophy that he defends. He writes that ‘Philosophy is something that helps change existence.’ Philosophy is neither technical and largely irrelevant logic-chopping nor is it deconstructive, melancholic poeticizing, what Badiou calls, ‘the delights of the margin.’ On the contrary, philosophy is an affirmative, constructive discipline of thought. Crucially, this is thought ‘not about what is, but about what is not.’ Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the ‘febrile sterility’ of the contemporary world. this is what he calls an event, and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name event.
Badiou has an uncanny ability to swing from the abstract to the concrete referent and back. When he is abstract, he is unnervingly, intensely so. But in the talk the other day, he created a kind of complex clarity by repeatedly framing his argument about the potential “infinitude” of aesthetic practices of the future with references to the finitude of our capitalist regime, in which everything has its literal price. I looked around the audience during the talk and wondered how many were following closely his abstract argument. And the questions that followed the talk did reveal a chasm between two extremes. There were the arcane and myopically off-topic questions articulated from within a philosophy-specific discourse, which Badiou reservedly answered. And there were the extremely basic (overtly apologetic) questions asked by two young people who were likely artists. Those two questions, in fact, generated the most interesting responses from Badiou, as well as one’s own reflections on the talk.
The e-vite blurb had included the following:
Under new conditions, the arrival of the twenty-first century faces a technical challenge comparable only to the invention of the printing press, or to the emergence of oil painting: the ability to digitize, including basic creative gestures, affords a sort of independence to the term “art” from the notion of “craft.” Artistic contexts of a semi-industrial type have appeared, and moreover, the systematic occupation by artists in the West of wastelands left by deindustrialization has become a major symbol of the period: creation nowadays takes place in old automobile factories and workshops, in outdated giant cold storage warehouses, in the huge debris of assembly line labor, in sawdust, tar, and gasoline. What will come out of this? Let us make a few assumptions…– Alain Badiou
Interestingly, this blurb is itself somewhat outdated in relation to the title of the talk. Surely the most urgent questions about art and technology do not concern the taking over of the debris of assembly line labor. But Badiou’s talk was much more mind-expanding and challenging than the blurb suggested it would be. Attendees received a page of points that he was going to address, some of which he addressed directly, though interestingly not in a linear way, and some of which he spontaneously chose not to address. Those omissions were perhaps performative, and they had their transferential effects in that regard – his talk was presentation, as much as meta-discourse.
As with a lot of Badiou’s writing, there was a radicality in his projections of a future art. These were large propositions, and when asked later what art or artists of today he thought exemplary, he rightfully refused to answer other than to say that philosophy should not have to play the role of critic.
The other day, a young artist told me that some of his colleagues had been arguing, in the context of today’s vertiginous social disparities and global conflict, for the futility of the small “critical” art gesture as against the direct action of what is defined as political activism. This is an argument that crops up repeatedly in the realms of critical art practice. The most cogent argument against such positions is the one that recognizes public realms as existing at all scales; the argument that recognizes that both harm and change are enacted at all scales and temporalities, with elusive quantifiability.
But Badiou’s projections that day so stretched ideas about a future art that they took it to another scale, a scale at which the status of art today (market fetish or critical endeavor) would be unrecognizable. Regardless of how extensively one understands Badiou’s work and the many arguments surrounding it, that form of projection is breathtakingly crucial in opening up definitions of art, and re-casting the importance we accord to today’s conventional art institutions and aesthetic production. It made, for example, the current chest-thumping proclamations for “collective art” seem ridiculously overblown. Here are some notes that I jotted down:
Art will become collective and anonymous in the way that science is today. We don’t herald or fetishize individual achievements on a personal level in science (except for every 50 years or so – Darwin, Einstein, etc.), and the future art will occupy the same status.
Art must position itself near politics and near science. Numerization is the organizer of knowledge and power today. Art must be the master of númerization. Art must have something to do with science.
Art will (must) become more like what poetry is today – an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism. That is the definition of freedom. There are rich arts and poor arts – art will be a poor art.
In order to be an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism, the future art must be a surprise. The surprise of the infinite. The modern form of finitude is the market in which everything has a price and the price is always finite. The exception must resist this finitude. Must not be distributed along the structure of the everyday. It will not be distributed as we know it.
It is necessary to have a strong knowledge of the structure of power, politics, science. Nothing in politics that is not a surprise is of interest.
The law of permissiveness…Freedom today is defined as adequation to the existing capitalist system. We need to organize ourselves through interdiction and other methods to resist the adequation.
The third and last phase [of repression] is the ‘return of the repressed’ in the guise of symptoms, dreams, parapraxes, etc. What does repression act upon?
From the definition of repression, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis
The fact that an idea’s emphasis, interest or intensity is liable to be detached from it and to pass on to other ideas, which were originally of little intensity but which are related to the first idea by a chain of associations.
From the definition of displacement, The Language of Psycho-Analysis
Censorship takes many forms – juridical, personal, cultural, economic, authoritarian, legislative, social (within which resides the religious). Recent world events exposed, as always, national biases for defining acceptable censorship in a democracy. Satirical cartoons defying authority: acceptable; linguistic venting of reactions to events or groups of people: often a crime. But into what does something like so-called “hate speech” transform when it’s sent underground? How does it travel? Who does it meet along the way? Onto what is the censored expression displaced? And does the original object of uncensored hate speech suffer less as a result of censorship? In the short run? In the long run?
Without welcoming a return or increase of the blatant misogyny of decades past, for example, in some sense I found it easier to navigate earlier obvious misogyny in the world in which my work as an artist circulates, than to navigate the more insidious version that exists now, intended and unintended. I have yet, among other issues, to see significant effacement of the masculine as the privileged artistic “type.” And yet little mention is made of the resiliency of such types. Misogyny, though rife and palpable to many, is no longer so easily turned into evidence, other than when played purely as a numbers game.
Walking through the Zero exhibition at the Guggenheim recently, I blinked and missed the work of the one woman considered to be related to the group, Yayoi Kusama. From the online synopsis, it seems the curatorial intent was to look at the group directly, and indirectly. To identify materials and processes used, general as they are. To locate the aim of the artists as that of “transform[ing] and redefin[ing] art in the aftermath of World War II.” The exhibition is organized around “points of intersection, exchange, and collaboration that defined these artists’ shared history.” Would this online description of the show rule out tangents and associations that are historically readable but were perhaps not historically overt? Must a shared history always be interpreted literally? Curatorial parameters are not set in stone, but they are shaped by conventions that appear to be reasonable and incontrovertible. As much as I love the Guggenheim building, that ramp can become a schema for a particular kind of curatorial approach. You can move forward; you can move backward. Sideways is more precarious.
This from the one of the exhibition’s wall texts: In 1958 Heinz Mack and Otto Piene held a one-night exhibition in their Dusseldorf studios and released the second issue of their coedited magazine, ZERO – both revolved around the idea of vibration. The publication’s mesmerizing frontispiece, with nine irregular columns repeating the word vibration, illustrates the concept and speaks to much of the art of the emerging ZERO generation. …For Bury and TInguely, electric motors offered a means of activating elements affixed to the surfaces of wood boards…Soto’s preferred technique involved superimposing forms to generate the optical impression of vibration…Like Mack, Gunther Uecker and George Rickey recognized metal’s viability for creating the impression of vibration. …exploring dynamism in art.
There was something about walking through that show, after reading that comment, with its scintillating vibrations…
More scintillating vibrations…
Its pliable rhythms…
Its strokings…its strokings…
Well, somehow something of the female and feminine seemed to have come through after all.
Contemporary labor has introjected into itself many characteristics which originally marked the experience of politics…Politics, according to Hannah Arendt, has taken to imitating labor. The politics of the twentieth century, in her judgement, has become a sort of fabrication of new objects: the State, the political party, history, etc.
A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno, 2004 [all bold type throughout; somewhat tweaked].
I maintain that things have gone in the opposite direction from what Arendt seems to believe: it is not that politics has conformed to labor; it is rather that labor has acquired the traditional features of political action…I maintain that it is in the world of contemporary labor that we find the “being in the presence of others,” the relationship with the presence of others, the beginning of new processes, and the constitutive familiarity with contingency, the unforeseen and the possible — those talents and qualifications which, according to a secular tradition, had more to do with political action, but are brought into play by post-Fordist labor.
…this explains the crisis of politics, the sense of scorn surrounding political praxis today, the disrepute into which action has fallen. In fact, political action now seems, in a disastrous way, like some superfluous duplication of the experience of labor, since the latter experience, even if in a deformed and despotic manner, has subsumed into itself certain structural characteristics of political action.
The sphere of politics follows closely the procedures and stylistic elements that define the current state of labor; but let us note: it follows them closely while offering a poorer, cruder and more simplistic version of these procedures and stylistic elements. Politics offers a network of communication and a cognitive content of a more wretched variety than what is carried out in the current productive process. While less complex than labor and yet too similar to it, political action seems, all the same, like something not very desirable at all.
The inclusion of certain structural features of political praxis in contemporary production help us to understand why the post-Ford multitude might be seen today as a de-politicized multitude. There is already too much politics in the world of wage labor (in as much as it is wage labor) in order for politics as such to continue to enjoy an autonomous dignity.
The subsumation into the labor process of what formerly guaranteed an indisputable physiognomy for public Action can be clarified by means of an ancient, but by no means ineffective, category: virtuosity—defined as the special capabilities of a performing artist, the activity that finds its fulfillment in itself and exists only in the presence of an audience, without an end product or object which survives the performance,.
One could say that every political action is virtuosic—shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency and the absence of a “finished product,” the immediate and unavoidable presence of others. On the other hand, all virtuosity is intrinsically political. Think about the case of Glenn Gould.
This great pianist paradoxically hated the distinctive characteristics of his activity as a performing artist; to put it another way, he detested public exhibition. Throughout his life he fought against the “political dimension” intrinsic to his profession…declared that he wanted to abandon the “active life,” the act of being exposed to the eyes of others. (note: “active life” is the traditional name for politics.)
In order to make his own virtuosity non-political, he sought to bring his activity as a performing artist as close as possible to the idea of labor, which leaves behind products. This meant closing himself inside a recording studio, passing off the production of records as an “end product.” In order to avoid the public-political dimension ingrained in virtuosity, he had to pretend that his masterly performances produced a defined object independent of the performance itself.
Where there is an end product, there is labor, no longer virtuosity…But in post-Fordism, labor requires a “publicly organized space” and resembles a virtuosic performance (without end product).
And now, to complicate matters further, there is Miim—both product and virtuosic factory of sound and movement. Happy new year, readers!
To all the readers of this blog, a thanks for sustaining the writing by reading it over the past year and a half. I hope the posts have been of some value.
Many thanks to the staff and this year’s committees at the Artswriters Grant Program at the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation for the 2014 grant I just received for this blog. It will help me continue to tweak this platform to refract events through words and images.
Originale, composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s 1961 music and theater work, written in collaboration with artist Mary Bauermeister, is typically called a response to the “happening.” Placing Stockhausen’s infamous composition Kontackte—music both pre-recorded and live that breaks conventional musical structures and tone and textures—at its physical center, Originale uses a written “score” of rudimentary timed instructions to give form to spontaneous enactment in place of familiar theatrical modes. Music and actions are performed by professionals and non-professionals, and observed by an audience free to move around during the production. Re-staged infrequently, it recently turned up in a two-day run in New York, co-produced by The Kitchen and the Goethe-Institut, 50 years after it’s New York performance.
What questions arose in deciding how to re-stage something that depended on improvised enactment of brief directives tied to a temporal structure, re-staged from a time when “happenings” resonated to a current moment when they don’t at all? What survived of the original and what didn’t? More importantly, what should have survived? Might a more “authentic” re-staging have involved some sort of reproduction of the original, based on extant documentation, rather than an updating? Would a “dated” reconstruction have actually been more “true” to the original? Or does the improvisational aspect of the work preclude the option of a “vintage” re-staging?
Some period photographs and film footage and descriptions and reviews of the 1964 New York production survive, but in any case, a time-based, partly spontaneous work in-the-round can only be elliptically captured on film, even with a roving camera and montage editing. To wit the beautifully evocative little black and white film (Peter Moore and others) of the 1964 New York staging directed by Allan Kaprow at New York’s Judson Church. How much the audience moves around in the 1964 production is impossible to ascertain, especially since the camera seems to try to represent mostly performance activity, rather than audience. But you can peruse the audience’s affect and hear their titilated laughter at several points, like when a costumed character walks through the space with huge dangling stuffed penis and balls.
Laughter and a kind of joyful dismay can be heard when various performers indulge in the absurd, or at least what registered as absurdity in 1964, such as when one character retreats into a space under the stage. Absurdity depends on the presentation of the unexpected, and in 1964 that inversion was not predictable. At The Kitchen, this space-man- or bee-keeper-like flasher seems to have been brought into the present through other kinds of excess – physical volume that distorted the body, screechingly surreal statements, mental instability, gender indeterminacy…and no audience reaction was audible or visible to me.
Decisions seem to have been made in the recent staging to insert into the space of The Kitchen four symmetrically-placed stages paired with large elevated screens that showed continuous real-time video recorded by figures directing video cameras at the four stages or, less frequently, at the musicians in the center of the space.
The physical staging at Judson Church in 1964 seems to have been less organized, more amorphous. In fact, the stage at Judson is occupied fully by part of the audience. Not having witnessed the original Cologne staging, it’s hard to say whether this is a deviation from the original, but the symmetrical distribution of the four stages at The Kitchen seemed to be a strangely rigid spatial organization at odds with the music and ideas behind the project . Even though the “actors” left the stages periodically to rove around the central setting of musical instruments and musicians and amongst the audience, usually replaced by others on the stages, those four stages rigidly anchored the space and rendered symmetrical the movement and placement of the audience. That one staging decision set the tone for spectatorial perception in general. Among other things, it seemed to privilege panoptic visibility.
And what was accomplished in the recent re-staging by allowing spectators anywhere in the space to view on the elevated screens almost every action taking place on every stage in a given moment? This is in contrast to the Judson Church setting, where multiple vantage points were offered by the vertically layered space, in addition to the use of various ad-hoc “vertical” stages, and a greater use of the floor as a “stage.” A small TV monitor showing mostly abstract bands can be seen in the Moore film, as well as a brief projection of a montaged film, but these mediums don’t overwhelm other activities.
Although there is one working clock in the Judson space, on which the film camera lingers, there is nothing in the documentation of the early productions to indicate that the audience was to be made aware at all times of the exact minute and second of the duration of the production, which in this instance were continuously registered on the screens, so that the possibility of a distorted or open-ended perception of time was foreclosed. From what the Moore film shows, the clock could act as a reference for spectators, or not. At The Kitchen, it was overbearingly present.
Oddly enough, my most resilient memory of the “counter-cultural” in the late 60s was that of a transgressive attitude toward time—the experience of time without the enforcement of schedule, plan, or goal produced a visceral feeling of inhabiting the fringes of the normative world.
What was this re-staging trying to say about time-structure and technological simultaneity and omnipresence? The time-codes in this staging might have been meant to make a point about the distracted and infinitely trackable present, but the question is whether the point couldn’t be more critically made by not updating the production, and in that way establishing a visceral difference for the spectator. A visceral difference, for example, from today’s taken-for-granted aspects of technology’s ability to pinpoint us.
Giving a re-staging, 50 years after the fact, a contemporary “look” is not equivalent to giving a work contemporary value. It’s clear that the attempt was to avoid a fly-in-amber approach to a work composed decades ago. Hence the transposition of “characters” and spectatorial activity into generally more contemporary images and imaginaries, such as the trans quality of a lot of the characters – human or animal, gender-amorphous. And transposition is an interesting strategy for a temporal re-staging, if the logic goes something like “how do we transpose the fringes of 1964 into the present when such historical fringes no longer have any relevance?”
Sometimes – as with so-called classical or traditional ballet choreography – a more heightened awareness of historical genre and trajectory can be created through a lack of temporal revision. In the 1964 New York Originale, the characters called “models” dress and undress by taking clothes from racks surrounding the musicians, and primping and parading around the space like models on a runway or in a department store, selling both merchandise and femininity. The “models” in the Judson Church production fit the period’s Euro-American conventions of model femininity -slim, white, and beautiful by the standards of that moment.
In the 2014 production, two different figures play the “models” (who I think are now generically called “performers”) – on one night it’s the black singer Bishi, who has described her body as “extreme” and “unacceptable to the fashion world.” On the other night, it’s a grey-haired Mx Justin Vivian Bond, a trans writer, painter, singer, and performance artist who has written “For me there is no opposite sex. For me there is only identity and desire.”
The transposition of the 1964 “models” into these two figures seems to be an attempt to point to new “models” of femininity or sexual “identity,” and also to incorporate a shift from generic to particular models, to figures whose bodies are the support for work that is not passively offered up to the gaze. That move has all the hallmarks of the critical, but at the same time it passively retains the structure of the model – in particular, to performative figures who circulate through social media – when what we may be looking for in an update is a critique of the structure of the model itself. Could that point not have been made in a more radically nuanced manner by reproducing the anachronistic look of the 1964 “models,” and allowing spectators to judge them as models of femininity through a retrospective gaze?
Walking by the Manhattan Barnes and Noble on Union Square the other day, I encountered a demonstration about surveillance. That’s nice.
No, wait, what’s with the clean coordinated outfits and chants and signs? What’s this, some PR stunt to advertise the new documentary about Edward Snowden? Really, Laura Poitras?! How could you? Guy Debord is turning over in his grave.
Ah, it’s really for some obscure Hollywood film trying to ride that vast crest that is the Snowden documentary. Trying to selfishly skim off the massive American criticism of the US surveillance apparatus. Shame on you, mediocre Hollywood film. I’m not even going to put a link here for you. Well, at least these young people have jobs. They must be making good money as fake protesters. And the hours are good.
And at least this demonstration is real. Whew. RIght? I mean, who wouldn’t march for Free Freedom. Or Be Different!! Or for Ladies First. And Women’s Rights are more than Alright! And the press turned out. Yay.
And an ageless Gloria Steinem was marching. Feminism is HOT!
But…wait, there’re an awful lot of people sitting on the sidelines. At least they’re clapping, but… Oh, wait…
…in French-speaking Switzerland where I live, in the Vaud canton, “Farewell” also means hello…
Jean-Luc Godard in Jean-Luc Godard talks to Canon Professional Network [about his new 3D film Farewell to Language], 2014
The ceilings are high and the machines stretch city block after city block — this one tossing around bits of cotton to clean them, that one taking four-millimeter layers from different bales to blend them.
Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand — like moving half-finished yarn between machines on forklifts.
…truth be told, labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid American workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.
“Most of our costs are power-related,” said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive.
“U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People,” by Stephanie Clifford, New York Times, September 19, 2013
Composition is the contemplative approach of the artist. Technique and Industry have confronted art with the problem of construction as an active process and not reflective. The ‘sanctity’ of a work as a single entity is destroyed. The museum which was the treasury of art is now transformed into an archive.
Varvara Stepanova, text from 5×5=25 exhibition, 1921, Moscow
Thenceforth the picture ceased being a picture and became a painting or an object. The brush gave way to new instruments with which it was convenient and easy and more expedient to work the surface. The brush which had been so indispensable in painting, which transmitted the object and its subtleties became an inadequate and imprecise instrument in the new non-objective painting, and the press, the roller, the drawing pen, the compass replaced it.
Alexander Rodchenko, exhibition pamphlet at the exhibition of the Leftist Federation in Moscow, 1917, cited in Rodchenko, by German Karginov, quoted in “From Faktura to Factography,” Benjamin Buchloh, October 30, Fall 1984.
Faktura also meant at this point, and not for Rodchenko alone, incorporating the technical means of construction into the work itself and linking them with existing standards of the development of the means of production in society at large.
Benjamin Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography”
Having decided to stop painting in the mid-1970s, for reasons of historical relevance, I had to devise a transitional medium for stopping, for coping with the anxious loss of familiar habit, but also with the loss of the tactile and olfactory qualities of painting that had been meaningful to me personally. A Winnicot-esque transitional object – a commercial paint-roller – took the place of my brush-bond, so to speak, with white and grey wall paint rolled on horizontal canvases. Once this transitional process had served its purpose, the canvases were thrown out. Had I been familiar with the artists of the Russian revolution, I might not have had to go the route of the roller at all; for those artists, if a transitional medium was needed, the tune of class equity and the death of bourgeois values sufficed as transitional objects. But I was a baby of the cold war, and the revolutionary period had been publicly repressed almost completely during my childhood and young adulthood.
Over the past 35 years, the subject of facture and faktura have intermittently preoccupied me. Not so much its aspects of medium self-referentiality as applied mostly in relation to, as Buchloh points out, European modernist art, but more so a persistent return to thinking about aspects of tactility, of the trace of the hand, of “the visual representation of material and constructional qualities.” Those qualities that revolutionary artists such as Stepanova and Rodchenko and others had moved beyond for historical and ideological reasons. That said, my work has become more and more attuned over the years to photography, video, film, and to the development of the algorithmic digital. Fields that do not register the hand indexically. But I was long put off by the compositing capabilities of Final Cut Pro, the non-linear video-editing software which for almost 15 years has allowed the hand, by extension of the mouse, to create “painterly” layers in film and video work, post-production effects that to me seemed a nostalgic throw-back to earlier aesthetic modalities and methods. (But perhaps even the temporally bi-furcated term “post-production,” still commonly used, is also growing obsolete.)
Structuralist and other film genres of the 1960s/70s did sometimes involve the indexical sign of the hand acting on cellulose, and so one could say that not too much had changed in the shift from mutilating the film strip to compositing effects in video-editing software. But 21st century Final Cut Pro encourages the solitary “painting” (with the mouse) that art could be presumed to have moved beyond.
Filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard have made their technological early-adoptor stances a kind of political credo, even if they did/do jerry-rig their low-tech processes rather than high-tailing it to Hollywood.
You can trace the development of editing software in the degrees of compositing and special effects found in Godard’s films after 2000, which may not consistently present the tech-critical perspective of Farewell to Language. This criticality I can only judge prior to the film’s commercial release by reading mostly between the lines of some reviews – the script, and montage, the visual/technical disorientation of the spectator (in addition to Godard’s signature aural disorientation), but also the inverting of the usual play with 3D – the pushing out rather than pulling in of the spectator, the use of fragment rather than heroic scenario in the 3D genre, etc.
In an early scene, Godard pretzels viewers’ eyes by overlaying one shot over another as a woman walks off-frame—and into a shot superimposed over the previous one, then returns to her original location as the images merge once more. (That scene in particular elicited a round of applause from the Cannes audience, which tittered when the technique surfaced again during a nude scene featuring both actors’ genitals.)
Godard uses up-to-date digital mediums (indications are that the 3D effects in his latest are mostly developed in post-production, by which is meant in the realm of the digital) but the digital also affords him a kind of aesthetic decision-making that is extremely close to the painterly, especially when compared with the breaks with that approach realized by Duchamp in his reliance on chance, or with the Russian Constructivists who moved toward factography. The number of references to Godard’s painterly techniques in popular critiques of his work is stunning for someone immersed in the digital world of image- and sound-making, not to say filmmaking.
There’s no difference between my life and my movies. I’m existing more when I’m making movies than when I’m not. That’s why someone might say to me, “You have no personal life; I can’t have a relationship with you. When we’re making love, you’re suddenly saying, ‘What a beautiful shot I’m thinking of!’ It’s like a painter only speaking of colors.”
But in this historical moment of Capitalism when the global means of production are all over the place in scale and modality – from sweatshops and cottage industry workers to massive assembly lines to the absence of workers altogether in robotic industries – why would facture be easily renounced…we might as well be living in pre-revolutionary Russia…
“Participant observation” serves as shorthand for a continuous tacking between the “inside ” and the “outside” of events: on the one hand grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically, on the other stepping back to situate these meanings in wider contexts. Particular events thus acquire deeper or more general significance, structural rules, and so forth. Understood literally, participant observation is a paradoxical, misleading formula, but it may be taken seriously if reformulated in hermeneutic terms as a dialectic of experience and interpretation.
The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford, 1988
In the 1980s and 90s, texts such as Clifford’s were formative for me as an artist and continue to resonate, to illuminate my art practice and everyday perceptions. In the ’80s, such writings dove-tailed with post-modern analyses of the authoritative voice as found in all cultural mediums and genres –literary, visual, aural, and discursive. And without them it would be impossible to disentangle the complex knots of American foundational myths and neo-liberal capitalism, or to parse the behavior and effects of the increasingly larger category of shadow politicians, those private individuals or philanthropic families – revered for their mega-wealth – who step into the vacuums created by the widening breaches of democracy. These days it takes political acumen backed by intellectual inquiry to analyze the authoritative voice of boundary-less mediums and commerce.
Locating the ideological knots of authority in globalized politics and culture is basically a survival test.
privileged informants, trained observers, participant observers, reliable informants— these are some of the terms questioned by ethnographic critical inquiry, and these are the terms that came to mind after recent screenings of Chris Marker’s films at BAM, specifically The Last Bolshevik (1993/1998) and Level Five (1996/2014).
Understanding how an authoritative voice is constructed in, for example, documentary (or a narrative film or even a newspaper), will always come up against the degree of a spectator’s identification with the voice – literal and figurative – in the work. When viewing a documentary on a subject about which one has limited knowledge, even a critical spectator will be caught between overtly interpreting the form of the work, and identifying with the filmmaker as an informant considered reliable. For me, even though I should know better, Marker falls into the category of reliable informant, transferential figure. Even as I follow the slippages of voice in Level Five (Marker speaking through a female interlocutor, through a male narrator, in the first or third person, in the plural; through a montage of found footage, digital screens, interviews, and studio mise en scene, etc.), I am willing to let him guide me through foreign territory – in this case, Level Five‘s exploration, through the language of video games and our digital counterparts, of what can be called the genocide resulting from The Battle of Okinawa during WWII.
I watch critically, but more often than not I am also absorbing, unquestioningly identifying with the speaker. I have the same reaction to watching The Last Bolshevik, his film about Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker, and his navigations of the utopian and dystopian periods of Soviet politics. A film about the reasonable and not so reasonable judgments one can make about left-committed filmmaking.
It’s not that Marker doesn’t raise his own questions about events and individuals. But his lilting scripts (usually spoken by someone else) have always made a fairly obedient student out of me. Oh, I’m deconstructing the montage even as I follow it, but often my regard for his “voice” – his intelligent observational mind, his poetically aphoristic rendering of political events, his combination of resignation and resistance – overwhelms my critical discernment, at least in the theater.
I got a glimpse into just how compliant a Marker viewer I might be when I viewed his 1977/1993 film about mostly French and Latin American left politics in the 1960s and 70s, A Grin Without a Cat, in 2001.
I found the film very convincing until it reached the section covering his assessment of American resistance to the Vietnam War. It’s excessive to call it an assessment; it’s really just a brief dismissal that takes a couple of minutes in a three-hour film. My identification with the authority of the film was punctured. Now, one can’t fault an essayistic filmmaker for getting the facts wrong in the same way one can a historian. Marker might have intended to give short shrift to that period of American politics for a reason. But had I not known that period very well through readings and personal engagement, I might have found legitimate and not worthy of question — in part due to a classic viewer’s transference — his dismissive and elliptical way of rendering it. I’ve always been grateful to A Grin Without a Cat for making me see through my own identification with Marker’s voice, because it has made me a more active viewer of Marker in general.
Writing this has also made me understand more clearly some of the points that Sébastien Pluot makes about translation in my interview with him for this blog. Because “translation” is the ethical interface between spectator and cultural interlocutor. And one could think of transference as an ethical interface…
Just when you thought it was safe to assume that the term “kitsch” had lost all meaning…this little plastic bracelet above, found in a children’s store in a seaside American vacation spot, challenges the concept’s obsolescence. It includes a black bead filled with mud from the Dead Sea- “the lowest point on Earth,” and a white bead with water from Mount Everest – “the highest point on Earth.” The plastic bracelet is touted as an aid to emotional and spiritual balance.
All the academic tenets of “kitsch” have lost their energy through the near-indiscernible boundaries of the pseudo, the retrograde, the sentimental, the tragi-comic, the diminutizing, the memento, and the tasteless in relation to the avant-garde, the cutting edge, the authentic, good taste, etc.
And, no, this is not a reference to Jeff Koons.
The Dead Sea lies about 11 miles south of the Allenby Bridge, the only route in and out of the West Bank for Palestinians. In the last months, this checkpoint has been subject to an unexplained and governmentally unauthorized Israeli ban on departures and crossings, through the imposition of an obscure “blacklist.”
Such fetishistic occlusions render a little trite many earlier obsessions with the fetish and the kitsch.