Week 17 – Charlotte Moth – 27 April-3 May – The Story of a Different Thought

2015-04-27 18.25.20When Max Ernst was six years old his beloved pink cockatoo Hornebom died on the same day that his youngest sister was born. Max Ernst believed his fascination for birds came from this early event. He described his “feeling of nothingness” and also during a bout of measles experienced hallucinations of “a menacing nightingale” that was to recur throughout his work.

159829His sculpture Habakuk, constructed from casts of awkwardly stacked flowerpots, is a bug-eyed and beaky totem pole. The sculpture has a third eye, a supposed comment on artist as visionary or prophet, which is foregrounded by its being named after Habakkuk, one of the junior prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Habakkuk condemned the makers of idols, that is, sculptors: “What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?” Thus by naming it after the prophet Habakkuk, Ernst’s sculpture ‘Habakuk’ is in a sense a response to Biblical art criticism.

Habakuk appears repeatedly in Charlotte Moth’s installation ‘The Story of a Different Thought’. She describes the body of work as existing through three mediums – film, silkscreens, sculpture. Across these there are three aesthetics – mythic, essayist, diagrammatic.

GMA-FIAC-2014-010-800x1200A BIRD WITH THREE EYES
THREE VERSIONS OF THE SAME NAME
THREE WAYS TO TELL A STORY?

Leonardo’s Prophecy “The Shadow” is quoted as a frontispiece to the film treatment: “Many a time will one man be seen as three and all three move together, and often the most real one quits him (of our shadow cast by the sun, and our reflection in the water at one and the same time).”

Let’s take the three main elements of the show one at a time.

The film The Story of a Different Thought” uses voiceover and a mixture of visual techniques to explore three different spaces The Rathaus Marl, Twin Beaches, and Oberste Organe and how these buildings represent Flotation and Suspension.

450px-Rathaus_Marl_02The Rathaus Marl is a ‘suspended tower’ you can think of like a reinforced concrete mushroom from the top down with office floors hung doiwn from the building core. It was completed in 1964 as a new expression of identity for the town of Marl, which had grown wealthy in the 1920s for chemical engineering and coal mines, but following the war initiated a change in infrastructure, with the centralisation of the town and the creation of this new town hall, which was conceived so it could in principle serve as a building core that could be expanded on. However, the fortunes of the town deteriorated, as did the materials used to construct the building. In the 1980s the towers had to be reinforced, at great expense to a town down on its fortunes.

11169950_809023855835275_733661968465303452_nTwin Beaches is an unfinished house on Lake Manatoba, the world’s third largest glacial lake, which can fall to temperatures of minus fifty — colder than Mars. On the shoreline a small experimental architecture firm called DIN Projects has constructed a building which has floors that can rise when the water level rises. This means you could call it cybernetic, in that it responds and adjusts according to stimuli that it monitors and feeds back in. Oberste Organe is a civic building with essentially a floating roof which is also cybernetically managed by a mysterious “ring balance equation”.

22725_808356299235364_2468193614526650773_nCybernetic architecture sounds rather science fiction but it has been around for a while. Bridges are constructed with certain gaps to allow for expansion in hot/cold weather. Earthquake proof buildings flexible, they are in a sense less rigid than conventional buildings so they can shift when the earth does. The concepts of stability and flexibility are interlinked: to be strong, a building must give way. The three structures the film presents all express suspension and flotation whether in a cybernetic way as here or in a more monolithically modernist way as in the Rathaus Marl.

The film also shows us Donatello’s statue of Habakkuk, which is part of the Santa Maria Cathedral in Florence, another building which is seen as a landmark of Renaissance architecture for its “rhythmic, geometric unity” ie. balance, which is another configuration of flotation/suspension. We also also see footage from Florence of workers marbling paper, a process employing flotation and suspension.

GMA-FIAC-2014-014-800x1199The second element of the show is five large silkscreens that present different outlines and formations of the themes, beautiful Renaissance concepts and other demonstrations of ideas, physical locations, the story of Habakuk and its inspiration in Max Ernst’s life. The silkscreens chart links between the various configurations of Habakuk – Ernst’s sculpture, Donatello’s, the prophet Habakkuk, and also our third variant spelling Habbakuk, which was an ice warship from the Second World War used as an emergency landing platforms in the Atlantic. In those days sophisticated computer modelling hadn’t been invented so testing would involve going somewhere and blowing shit up, and the place where this technology was tested happened to be Lake Patricia right next to Lake Manatoba, adding another connection between Habakuk and flotation/suspension and the buildings.

10600525_810074382396889_8253089921417061757_nThe third element of the show is the sculptures. These “maquettes” are not conceived in relation to any one space, are the hardest to understand in the context of everything else. They’re these little open boxes on stilts, one with sort of disappointed candles without strings. Moth seems to intend them to be “experiential” ie. that you explore them as you do spaces in buildings. They don’t present a structured view or narrative in themselves but allow another approach to the themes. In her fig-2 interview Moth explains “Not everything can be said through a film or through a photograph or just one way of seeing.”

In considering notions of suspension and flotation we are exploring balance, and another way the show explores this is via Habakkuk and the notion of chiasmus.

18193_810065269064467_4298429106165295772_nIn rhetoric, the classic example of chiasmus is Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Chiasmus can be represented as an ‘x’ structure of four points, one for each topic, wherein the top left topic is repeated as the last, and the other two repeat to form the ‘AB-BA’ structure (country, you, you, country). This criss-cross structure existed in the ancient world but was especially appealing later to Christians, though perhaps not so much for the ‘cross’ structure (which might be me labouring it) but because of the articulation of the balance of order within the structure of text itself.

GMA-FIAC-2014-011-800x1199Rhetorical chiasmus is found extensively in Milton and (less obviously) in Shakespeare, and in the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible and throughout the Book of Mormon. Habakkuk’s book of prophecy is said to have a chiastic structure “in which parallelism of thought is used to bracket sections of the text.” It’s not that words and phrases repeat, but that the whole structure on a higher level of motifs, turns of phrase, or passages, employs chiasmus.

In examples like Kennedy’s statement chiasmus creates two sides of an argument or idea for a reader to consider, excluding all others and leading you to favour one. It is a fake presentation of options, narrowing an agenda and leading an opinion. This is what rhetoric does, and why rhetoric is so important to structuring and leading political discourse. Right wingers use it intuitively partly because it works but mainly because there ideas really are that simplistic. Left wingers tend to be policy wonks and get bogged down in complexity. Interesting then that in UK politics it was Prime Minister Tony Blair, or at least his Head of Communications Alastair Campbell, who didn’t invent the ‘soundbite era’ but whose rhetoric immediately came to embody it.

11182049_810065679064426_2747283788480373188_nI notice in the notes I made at the show I’ve inadvertently committed chiasmus (I think) in a note about a shot from the Twin Beaches section of the film in which,

There is snow indoors; and outside the walls are white as snow, and snow is all around, burying the house, which is already burying itself, and being buried from within.

The thought/sentence moves from the inside of the house to the outside, then to the outdoors and its irruption into the indoors; the sentence turns round on itself but while the initial image is surreal and amusing the conclusion is darker.

GMA-FIAC-2014-013-800x1199“The Story of a Different Thought” is truly impressive, making astonishing connections between disparate elements. The show works as a poetic system of interconnections from which you can take what you like. That’s what art does, how it differs from more meaning-hungry deterministic forms such as conventional essays such as the one you’ve almost finished reading, which may or may not mean nothing at all.

GMA-FIAC-2014-012-800x1199The connections are disparate but not difficult to notice and to begin to slot together in your mind. The show was obviously put together with much thought over a great deal of time. It’s not a fig-2 show as such, it’s not created in response to the overall project, it’s just staying over for a week. The connections aren’t overdetermined but are solid, aren’t as ad hoc and experimental as those in for example Week 5 (Young In Hong) or Week 11 (Beth Collar), as Francesco Dama’s review/wrap of fig-2 a quarter of the way through pointed out.

11148611_810065985731062_3031555285054830484_nMoth says “It was a very luxurious thing to able to research a project for a year, and when you have that possibility it becomes more and more layered.” This is far from the method of Fig-2’s one project a week. Then again, behind even the most hastily conceived project is a lifetime of preparation.

The show is a mapping of different ideas, but you could very well find or infer a central message or moral if you wanted to. You could get really cosmic about it and say that there is a representation of the balance of evil and good in the world, expressed through Habakkukian chiasmus, architecture as ideology and cybernetic systems.

11169959_810065055731155_5236401543579776879_nIt’s in the exploration of the ideological impetuses behind architecture that we can learn something for the future. The Rathaus Marl is an explicitly ideological construction borne out of the post-second world war structural changes in society. This contrasts with Twin Beaches, which is an experimental building more like a piece of art work that expresses a need to a need for environmental responsiveness, “an architectural solution to a specific geography of instability.” Buildings like Twin Beaches might be able to respond to the rising sea-levels of global warming, but most of our architecture will do an Atlantis. There is a war going on between different ideological positions, whether you view them as Good and Evil or not, with global warming in the middle, and the very future of humanity hanging in the balance.

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Week 16 – Jacopo Miliani – 20-26 April

11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oEach morning during Jacopo Miliani’s week at fig-2 he rearranged the presentation of the light blue fabric rolls suspended from the skylights, and added another bunch of flowers. The idea was to create “a choreographic score as exhibition.” A choreographic score is a set of instructions for dancers. How can an exhibition, a presentation of ‘things’, function as a score? There are incredibly wacky examples of musical scores that rely wholly on the interpretation of the musician. A dancer entering a space could interpret the space, but it relies on a very loose definition of what a score is. It’s a prompt really.

Marketa Uhlirova’s Birds of Paradise is a beautiful book that documents costume in 1920s and gay 1960s film as a production of spectacle for its own sake rather than as is more usual an expression of character in narrative. The cover image is a still from dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, and this might be the sort of thing that Miliani was trying to ‘choreograph’ by repeatedly installing the fabric and flowers.


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The exhibition was lovely to look at, light and airy, but I’m not sure it really presented “the triumph of the spectacle” in the way that Louie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance does. In the Thursday evening talk ‘Uttering the Spectacle’ (the title following the fashion for verbing the abstract noun), it was hard to understand what he was trying to do. His ideas seemed impossibly quirky and hard to share. It seemed to make sense to him but I felt I was missing certain connections about the processes and symbolism in fashion and dance that seem to be assumed: the changes in the show’s arrangement, and in the play of light during the day, the creases in the fabric that “memorise tensions”, the purported symbolism whereby fragility is expressed through the fabric and flowers. The absence of any dancers from the choreography was intended to represent (unpresent?) an absence at the heart of the exhibition. Having an absence at the heart of your presence is very fashionable.

“There is nothing in the room because God is dead”, says mummy.

“Oh dear,” says Peter.

1926298_806467849424209_9142822375522577561_oIt’s know what to make of an attempt to “bring temporality and introduce impossibility to understand choreography in the setting for the audience, or for an aftermath as in film and image” and to evoke Japanese Noh Theatre’s precision with an admittedly impossible “movement of the space” (thinking of space as space rather than as an architectural property). I love the quirkiness and impenetrability of his thought – so overspecified, arising from a lifetime of thought and work I’m not party to. In that sense the real absence at the centre of the installation is a reflection of that disconnect, which resonates with fashionable artistic practice more widely and the inability to access someone else’s thought process. It’s impossible to enter in another’s subjectivity but isn’t this why we have art? To communicate something unknown? An unfashionable idea, I suppose.

11077778_806467766090884_2731059377912460545_oFabric has fragile qualities, but fragility is not its defining characteristic. In fact fabric is pretty robust, robust enough to make clothes out of. So to base a show on the fragile quality of fabric is a mistake, because that fragility is neither inherent (and therefore obvious) nor transmitted to the viewer. In this sense there really is an absence at the heart of the show, because the meaning that is sought is not apprehended by the show itself, never mind its viewer. The flowers don’t have water, so they’re dying, but you can’t see the water to know that. He describes himself as “sadistic”, a murder of flowers, but, mate, they’re just flowers.

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I kind of get it, but it’s kind of nonsense. This sort of missing semantic connection has been analysed as a criticism of conceptualism. Works themselves frequently don’t include the necessary information required to understand how they function as meaningful art works. Necessary biographical information is explained on sheets of A4 or on wall commentary which without having read you would almost certainly be none the wiser. This is true of so much YBA art.

It contrasts with so much great art where there’s a transformation that occurs somewhere between the deeply personal circumstances underpinning its creation, and the independence of what is created, where it takes on a life of its own independent of its creator. I’m not saying Mandy by Barry Manilow (whose name it amuses me to pronounce like ‘manilla’) is a great song, but how many of his audience realize it was written about a dog? Or am I thinking of the Rolling Stones ‘Mandy’? To think about it, most of the great songs of all-consuming love are actually about dogs.

Communication is impossible. There’s always too much or too little of yourself, of form, of content, of meaning, and everyone wants something new but what we really want is something old, that we already understand. You don’t read a sonnet to see how well they can write a sonnet, you read it to see how cunningly they vary the sonnet form while profoundly retaining it. You demand sameness with a twist of personality, not just personality. Personality is boring. Personality is interviews, not form, not art. There’s no world record for running 85 metres, even if you’re faster than Mo Farah over 85 metres but then slow down over the last 15. We value mavericks like Harry Partch (who invented a 43-note musical scale and built his own instruments) who create their own 85 metre sprints or 15 mile marathons, but there isn’t a sense of ‘achievement’ in just doing what you feel. Anyone can pass their own exam paper. There’s a Peter Cook character who proudly boasts “I speak thirty-seven languages – thirty-six of my own invention!”

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Week 15 – The White Review – 13-19 April

Izzy-McEvoy-still-from-Linear-A-2015-video.-Image-courtesy-the-artist

The quarterly White Review publishes photography and art (decide for yourself what and means in that sentence) alongside the usual shorter literary forms from essay to poetry. It is named after and partly inspired by La Revue Blanche, the French art and literary magazine run between 1889 and 1903, which was strongly associated with Marcel Proust in the days before he became an ultra-marathon runner.

For Week 15 of fig-2 the editors Jacques, Ben, and Harry, wanted to think about how to present what they do as editors and commissioners of printed work transferred to a spatial setting. This is arguably more challenging than print because there are fewer limitations. Instead of printing costs, page size, ink, and a final printed form read by an imaginary reader, you have to interface with 3D people moving around through time. It’s much easier to present ideas in a magazine than in a space, and this is one of the problems of gallery presentation. It’s almost impossible not to either over-explain and sound pretentious or to under-explain and leave your audience baffled.

Their initial idea was to have writing going on in the space, which would have recalled Will Self’s week during fig-1 in which he wrote about the people going in and out of the Fragile House in Soho (now demolished and presumably coffeeshopped or oligarchised into a non-residential safety deposit box). Then they decided to start with Eduard Levé’s book Ouevres (Works), which is extracted in the thirteenth edition of the White Review.

Levé’s Works is my new favourite book. It’s a collection of unrealized ideas (works), the first of which explains: “1. A BOOK DESCRIBES WORKS THAT THE AUTHOR HAS CONCEIVED BUT NOT BROUGHT INTO BEING.” This is playfully self-referential and enacts a kind of Cretan paradox in that it is part of just such a book, and has therefore successfully been realized, meaning that the book it describes contains at least one work that the author has conceived and brought into being. Believe me, I’m lying.

Works has been called a lampoon of conceptual art. It includes some incredible imaginary projects, many of which are impossible, but naggingly possible. I really especially really want to make “15. A leather jacket made from a mad cow” or the Grayson Perry-esque “24. A house designed by a three-year-old is built.”

The White Review first approached film-maker Patrick Goddard about executing some of Levé’s works, and he freaked out. To him, realizing them would be merely illustrative. Reporters report, but artists in the contemporary mould are supposed to be foremost makers of ideas. Your Hirsts don’t sully their hands cashing their own cheques, they’re project managers. The Great Masters were the same, which is why we’re never sure which bits of a Rembrandt were actually painted by Rembrandt or his massive team of assistants on below minimum wage.

Patrick Goddard didn’t actually end up making any work for the fig-2 show, apart from his film A Reverse Gun Shoot, which is hilarious and consists of video footage of his conversations with The White Review about his problems with what they’d asked him to do. It’s kind of like the fine art equivalent of Stewart Lee’s radical deconstructions of comedy as comedy. After an idea is raised of “digging up Margaret Thatcher” and making the aforementioned leather jacket from a mad cow, they discuss leather, one of them realizing that “I can’t tan! The exhibition is in ten days, we can’t do that!” with a detour via The Silence of the Lambs whereupon Goddard notes that it was in fact Buffalo Bill who did the tanning in that film (NB), before announcing that this is all “Not curatorially relevant.” I intend to use this phrase at every opportunity. Salt an vinegar on the chips? Thanks. That would not be curatorially relevant.

If I weren’t going to Warsaw on a jazz junket next month I’d be looking forward to Cally Spooner’s forthcoming Whitechapel event discussing “art that adopts the language of its own production as its content.” This probably means stuff like Singing in the rain, but it made me think of Patrick Goddard. The product of the film is its process. This sort of thing is why people hate contemporary art, but I thought it was a blast. Well, I’m a twat, innit, and every bit as white as the White Review. Around the ICA studio space, they’d already pre-empted us on this, fixing texts in unlikely locations, including “The sound of my own voice narrating aloud the sounds I can hear. (annoying)” which is presumably a comment on criticism (hai guys!), and then at length the final inevitable FML printed on the wall above the fire exit:

The sound of the middle classes applauding their own guilt distantly echoing from somewhere in the ICA.

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Week 14 – Suzanne Treister – 6-12 April – HEXEN 2.0

Have you ever wondered what the connection is between Diogenes of Sinope, Anarcho-Primitivism, the Unabomber, and Science Fiction? Me either!

Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 is a compendious project that brings together technology, philosophy, politics and literature to discover dystopic and utopic futures for humanity.

There are five vast charts that visually map connections along the following themes:

These five histories are presented as a big historical picture partly intended educationally, to illustrate Treister’s research into histories, movements and ideas that people might not be aware of, or might have been less aware of during its gestation (2009-11). It began with her interest in cybernetics or “feedback loops of control” in society and how Web 2.0 feeds back into that.

The term “cybernetics” was introduced by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Cybernetics isn’t just about cyber- stuff like in sci-fi or “Captain Cyborg” Kevin Warwick’s imagination. The American Society of Cybernetics gives about 200 definitions but it is centrally about feedback loops. Feedback is simply defined as something that is led back to modify a process of production.

A thermostat is cybernetic in that it measures temperature and uses this measurement to change the temperature. This is surprising to the newcomer to cybernetics who might think feedback relies on “understanding” in a human goal-oriented sense. It doesn’t. The thermostat “senses” the temperature via a thermometer and adjusts accordingly. That’s all. But it’s hard to get away from the metaphor: a system can be said to be cybernetic if it has an “understanding” of something else (including itself), which it modifies and reacts to.  Scientific method is cybernetic in that it aims to model the universe, but it then pokes the real universe to test these models and updates them accordingly. Science is constantly updating according to the outcomes of its latest pokings.

In 1943 Julian Bigelow, Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenbleuth published Behavior, Purpose, and teleology, which developed a theory of “circular causality” via feedback in which cause and effect are mutually referrent. The paper described ways in which mechanical, biological and electronic systems could communicate and interact. So called First Order Cybernetics is still largely intact in its use in our understanding of impossibly complex more recent systems of the world internet, economics and the brain at a neurological level.

Excitement about the new field of cybernetics led to the establishment of the Macy Conferences (1946-53) whose primary goal was to “set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind” by developing cybernetic theories in order to prevent such circumstances as might lead to another World War or atrocities such as Nazism. With a core of thirty, its members came from a wide range of disciplines from hard to soft sciences – anthropologists, computer engineers, psychologists, physicists.

It was a dynamic moment. Macy alumni went on to do some astonishing things that changed the world. anthropologist Margaret Mead founded the World Federation for Mental Health, mathematician John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project, invented game theory and developed the idea of neural nets, the conceptual forerunner to the internet, and he influenced US scientific and military policy.

HEXEN 2.0 documents the Macy Conferences using phototexts and crudely photoshopped images of ‘cybernetic séances’. From Science to Séance… damn, I wasn’t gonna say that. The original conferences were not minuted so these form a kind of alternative imaginary proceedings. The séance brings us to another element of HEXEN 2.0 that blurs ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ elements, including the paranormal. Science, of course, begins as magic.

The next part of HEXEN 2.0 is its tarot deck. The 78 card deck takes aspects of the five historical diagrams and presents them in an interactive, that is, cybernetic, form as an analytical tool. It’s not a fortune-telling exercise, but neither is tarot. In modern practice, away from the husky voices and mysterious caravans of movie tarot, a tarot reading is closer to psychoanalytic practice. It’s a way of structuring the narratives of your life and re-presenting them to gain another perspective on your past and possible futures. The HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck playfully broadens this into an analytical tool to understand our entire world metasystem.

HEXEN 2.0 presents an obsessive interest in the cybernetic feedback loops of the internet and how they manifest themselves in terms of social control — Card XV The Devil is “the Control Society — in essence dramatising the ongoing struggle over ‘who owns the internet’ (and by extension our minds). There are cards for the dread forces of US CYBERCOMMAND, ARPANET and DARWARS, Google, and Intelligence Agencies, as well as countercultural examples of CLODO, Grass Roots Internet Communities, Hackers, and Networked Revolution. This struggle is informed by disparate ideas including Anarcho-Primitivism, Transhumanism, Ethics, Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness, and voiced by a super-influential cast including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, the Macy participants, Thoreau, Rousseau, Lewis Mumford, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Bob Black, Heidegger and William Blake.

The Five of Chalices, H. P. Lovecraft, could contain a comment on the purpose of HEXEN 2.0 and cybernetics more broadly, and their relation toward futures of epistemology, futures which are deeply ambivalent: the battle over who controls the internet, the intellectual burnout of information saturation allied to its ecstatic availability: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”

A great example of how HEXEN 2.0 projects backwards and forwards simultaneously is the ternary computer, as depicted on the Eight of Pentacles card. Ternary computing calculates using -1, 0, and 1 and is said to be more efficient than binary. The Soviets were developing it in 1958 but by ternary was so over. The Betamax to binary’s VHS, ternary became a fascinating what if because mass-produced binary components dominated the global market. It has been speculated that it could be important in the future, though this might have been profoundly overtaken by the bright future-present of quantum computing (though these calculations are encoded into binary digits, so ternary could conceivably be substituted). Greater understanding of the brain is also influencing how we think about design computer systems and computers.

On the other hand, some electronic systems are becoming more wild and inhuman, and dominating the  world. Everyone thinks economics is about numbers, but it is in fact a branch of semantics. What human agency remains is reactive, based on subjective readings of numbers that are generated electronically. The majority of the trading in most major stock markets is carried on via machine algorithm without human involvement: cybernetic feedback is automated and detached from traditional physical economies and from ‘real life’. To Treister this is “one of the evil outcomes of cybernetic theory” creating a hallucinatory unreality. Economic Cybernetics is represented in the HEXEN 2.0 deck by the King of Pentacles, which seems ironic; Gardner has this: “An earthly easy going type of man, or when supported by suitable cards in the spread, a man of wealth. When involved in the world of finance he becomes dull, hard and unimaginative.”

HEXEN 2.0 presents all of this knowledge as a cybernetic world model. It is clearly meant as a warning about the dangers and possibilities of cybernetic interconnectedness on a world level as it manifests in changing power dynamics. The capacity for information gathering by governments is unprecedented. The UK government is pushing ahead with its ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and the US is debating Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Who owns the internet? HEXEN 2.0 has the curious status of being a seemingly post-Snowden work created pre-Snowden. It wasn’t really until his revelations in 2013 that we realised just how fucked the NSA (in the US) and GCHQ (in the UK) are. Thanks to Google they can even now mechanically transcribe phone calls. This is a story of the triumph of technology being perverted that Treister’s work curiously prefigured.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, whom she spurned romantically and so who cursed her so her warnings would never be believed. She would know the future, but never be able to change anything or convince anyone. Maybe this is how conspiracy theorists feel. HEXEN 2.0 contains a lot of material familiar from conspiracy theory, though this doesn’t mean it necessarily creates conspiracy theories, despite its cards about drones, the NSA, electronic surveillance.

The Knight of Chalices card quotes Lawrence Jarach (post-left anarchist, Berkeley, b. 1961)

“‘Conspiracy theory’ acts as a derisive dismissal which serves to characterise counter-narratives as falsehoods or fantasy. Conspiracy is the normal functioning mode of government and other hierarchies”

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HEXEN 2.0 has proven to be prescient, but is she a Cassandra whose curse was unbroken? How good is she at predicting the future? Or even predicting the past? The final element in Suzanne Treister presentation of fig-2 at the ICA studio was a kind of ‘world tarot reading’ aiming to reconfigure history and project possible futures of humankind in terms of technology and society, so directly cybernetically applying HEXEN 2.0’s method to itself.

Mark Pilkington led the reading on a Wednesday evening, asking the audience participants to “Think of nothing. Shuffle with a clear mind. Think about what came before the void.” The significance of each card that was drawn was explained in terms of both tarot and HEXEN 2.0. The significance of the connections between the cards was treated discursively and cybernetically with a pleasing level of engaged discussion about politics, technology and culture.

The Hanged Man, Stewart Brand, kept coming up. He was both the first and last card. Spooky! Brand and cybernetics forms a link between counterculture and technology. Brand is a futurist, but one obsessed with the past, a method familiar from HEXEN 2.0. The plot randoming, one audience member happened to know Stewart Brand, and was about to go visit him. Brand’s card has a mammoth on it, because he is investigating reverse-engineering mammoths, like real life Jurassic Park. These mammoths used to get discovered but then rot, but now the hunters have mobiles, and they helicopter the specimens out. What they do with them, I can only imagine.

After several ‘group tarot’ readings we had a cheeky little consult of the HEXEN 2.0 Tarot drawing a single card each for the UK and US elections. This was a month before the UK election. This is the card that came up:

The Emperor (tarot) = Diogenes of Sinope (HEXEN 2.0)

“The Tarot Speaks” describes The Emperor card thus: “The Emperor represents consolidation of manhood. A man of being or power, promotion, honour, worldly knowledge. Father or father figure, one in authority. Negatively an egotistical power hungry intolerant man.”

The HEXEN 2.0 card overviews Diogenes of Sinope thus: “Greek philosopher — Civilisation is regressive — Artificial growths of society are incompatible with happiness — Morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature — Wisdom and happiness belong to the man who is independent of society”

It feels so long ago. History is now what happened this morning is the future. By lunchtime I’m already bored of all the tweets about whatever, and the evening news is sheer torture. Perhaps that’s what Fatos meant when she tweeted me “what is more fearsome is the meta-condition of cybernetics that we are in – and we dont know what it really means!” — but I don’t know what it really means.

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With thanks to Andrew Wyld, Mike Freedman, Alix Mortimer, Donald Newholm, Mark Pilkington, and Fatos Ustek.

Further reading/viewing:

HEXEN 2.0 is published as a book. This is totally essential. BUY YOURSELF.

Ernest von Glaserfeld’s “Cybernetics and the Theory of Knowledge” is a great overview of cybernetics. TREAT YOURSELF.

Adam Curtis’s three-part documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is recommended:

Part one’s about Ayn Rand’s influence and Alan Greenspan and money etc https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353

Part two’s about ecology and mathematical modelling https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799352

Part three’s about the selfish gene and the monkey in the machine http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2eku4s_all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace-3-3-the-monkey-in-the-machine-2011_animals

Art Fund Curator Talk #3 – “Politics of Display” (16 April 2015)

The third of the eight part seminar series with the title Politics of Display will investigate the charged liminal space between a work of art and audience, and the art institution. Bringing forward Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine’s publication Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Display, the seminar will focus on the relationship of representation and the cultural relics within participation.

The term “politics of display” refers to how we can describe the considerations and decisions that motivate collectors and curators and museums and galleries when they come into contact with artefacts of non-native origin that they wish to present to the public. It addresses issues of cultural assumption, distortion versus representation, ideology versus impartiality and neutrality, how value systems are expressed through curatorial decisions.

In her third seminar for fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek led a discussion of politics of display starting with a number of conceptions that we find in Karp and Lavine’s 1991 volume of essays Exhibiting Culture, and exploring how these ideas have been developed in the intervening two decades. I’m going to dip between the texts, the seminar, and my own responses.

The introduction begins “Every museum exhibition, whatever its overt subject, inevitably draws on the cultural assumptions and resources of the people who make it. (p1)”; in dealing with artefacts taken from other cultures the challenge to museums is to present those cultures in a manner that doesn’t falsify or degrade them. This has not always been the case. At earlier points in history museums have deliberately set out to create ideologically programmatic narratives in their presentation of cultural artefacts.

Üstek describes museums as “post-Enlightenment examples of rational epistemology”; the way they construct the knowledge they present is guided by the principles of philosophical rationalism, as an expression of underlying truths apprehended via the intellect. This sounds laudable enough, but contains its own danger: it is explicitly ideological. It is a narrative, foregrounding reason, which risks overlooking messy, irrational and contradictory elements.

In Curationism David Balzer describes how in 1793 the Louvre was created as a symbolic part of the body politic, to showcase the values and aims of the emerging French Republic, under Napoleon becoming a propaganda display of spoils of war. After Waterloo the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. To gallerist Karsen Schubert “The museums presented their political masters as custodians of world culture. In effect, the museum became the handmaiden of imperialism.” The actual qualities of the objects are subsumed by the narrative.

In “Objects of Ethnography” (Ch. 20) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett makes a fascinating post-structuralist point about how ethnographic objects are not defined by their inherent properties but by their presentation. I’d like to quote it at length: “Ethnographic artifacts are objects of ethnography. They are artifacts created by ethnographers. Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers. Such objects are ethnographic not because they were found in a Hungarian peasant household, Kawkiutl village, or Rajasthani market rather than in Buckingham Palace or Michelangelo’s studio, but by virtue of the manner in which they have been detached, for disciplines make their objects and in the process make themselves. (p387)”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that ethnographic display is “guided by a poetics of detachment, in the sense not only of material fragments but also of a distanced attitude.” This refers not just to the process whereby displays are curated, but how the viewer is (or was) encouraged to read these displays. In the intervening twenty years since she wrote this we have seen much more effort on the part of museums and galleries to involve the viewer in what is presentated. This has been facilitated in part by technology (such as the interactive iPads scattered around the Grant Museum) and partly by a growing shift in emphasis regarding the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, a shift that began in the 1990s whereby artists began to be talked about as creators of situations rather than objects, and the audience not as the viewer or beholder but repositioned as a co-producer or participant.

Steven Lavine proposes that museums have a moral responsibility to promote conversation rather than their own monologue. This is to address the ideological narrativization of display, but also the problem of aestheticization: that by taking an object away from its origin and resituating it in a gallery it becomes, to Svetlana Alpers in “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” (Ch. 1) “an object of visual interest” (p25) – that it becomes an art object. This is a double detachment, not only in terms of taking objects away but also via that distanced attitude: this is the key to what a “poetics of detachment” means.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett goes even further in drawing an implicit comparison between pre- and post-Enlightenment display in the example of showing people as living rarities. In 1501 live Eskimos were exhibited in Bristol (p402), kicking off five centuries of audiences flocking to displays of ethnic groupings from Aztecs to Zulus. The nineteenth century is famed for ethnographic displays staged and billed as theatre, often dramatising an Imperial duality about its ethnic subjects: their Otherness is framed by the twist-in-the-tale that they also demonstrate familiar attributes of humanity. Today we marvel at the ability of chimps to do human things like communicate or mourn, but in these displays the Victorians were marvelling at human beings appearing human. In the twentieth century, emboldened by Victorian hierarchies of savagery and civilisation, eugenics arrived as “the self-direction of human evolution” applying Enlightenment approaches to the ‘improvement’ of the human, with horrifying consequences.

Fatoş Üstek finds that contemporary display practice is, or should be, concerned with the way that audiences produce knowledge rather than how curators do this for them. The previous fig-2 curator seminar discussed this at length, where in the context of ‘meaning making’ there are the didactic and pedagogical approaches, as well as what Roland Barthes calls “mothering” where learning is supported but not imposed: the analogy is learning to ride a bike; someone can steady you but only you can be on the bike.

I don’t know how persuasive this is in the context of ‘politics of display.’ Surely at some point there has to be an authority when an audience is looking at an unfamiliar object? Otherwise how do we learn what it is? The problem is, as Svetlana Alpers says “we know that any order we place on material is ours and not necessarily theirs [the people who made it]” (p7). Best practice would seem to be to address this directly by, as Üstek argues, creating responsive communities rather than passive audiences. It is a question of engagement.

Society is more hybridised than it used to be, and following the postmodern displacement of grand narratives, we are more informed by a multiplicity of responses to the world and ways of being. Museums nonetheless embody certain assumptions of culture – such as that culture exists at all, and furthermore that there are a multitude of cultures that are different from each other. The act of display recontextualizes the nature of what is displayed – it becomes an art object, it becomes part of a narrative, it is taken away from its maker and given to the viewer. Who is the insider and who the outsider here? If an artefact is taken from a specific country or continent and re-presented in England, are you as someone from that country or continent, or with that background, looking at it in England, on the inside or the outside? Both the object and the viewer have been subject to distance, in both relocation and re-presentation, and the representation of the relocated culture is subject to the implicit or explicit narrative imposed by its display.

The question for an artist is how to relate to the production of your work of art within the assumptions of its recontextualisation by curators in a space and how to regard its new identity – is it yours or not? From the point of view of the organiser/exhibitor, how do you respond to this while producing a ‘spectacle’ and accepting the fact it is a re/-presentation. For an audience, the encounter is situated in a context that you know is not real but is given. Old-fashioned folkloric displays are passé, and the Disneyland-esque spectacle of the recent Bjork show at MoMA has been universally panned. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes “The question is not whether or not an object is of visual interest, but rather how interest of any kind is created. All interest is vested. (p434)”

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Postscript: On crypto-relics and universalism

Matthew Bown in a recent article ‘Traces of the holy’ in the TLS traces a compelling analogy between the trade in saints’ relics in the past and art in the contemporary world. Despite the dominance of the Duchampian model of conceptualism, that supposedly defies aura and authenticity, aura and authenticity are what is sought by audiences and collectors alike. If an individual work loses its attribution to an artist it’s still the same work, but it isn’t: it’s not just its value that will plummet, but it will lose that special magic that comes via its association with a name.

There is a ‘holiness’ of the objects that are displayed and sought and bought. In ‘Resonance and Wonder’ (Ch 3) Stephen Greenblatt examines two related concepts: resonance, where a work evokes a larger world to the viewer, and wonder, where the object has a sense of uniqueness to evoke an exalted attention.

Wonder seems very like what Matthew Bown describes: “[Simon] Schama’s test for Rembrandt – you stand in front of a painting and just feel its miraculousness” which is no more plausible than the tests employed in the Middle Ages to gauge the ‘miraculousness’ of an artefact.

Resonance on the other hand I would see as something that the curator can manage by good display practices. Toward the end of the seminar one member of the audience gave an example of a work that she saw that was one erased wall. It resonated with her directly as speaking to the occupation in Istanbul, and the reason she mentioned it was because she acknowledged that it would not have such a resonance to anyone without that experience. As we have discussed, this is not unique to such examples from contemporary art practice, but it is a factor in considering the ethnographic object too (that they are defined relationally rather than by inherent qualities).

Fatos Üstek asked whether in order to engage with other ways of seeing, we would need to reclaim the notion of resonance. I would ask if this is not a mechanism by which we universalize the precise experience of otherness. If we look at an object we find strange, we understand it by recognizing aspects of it that correspond to our experience. In western culture there is a universalizing impetus that assesses the aesthetic value of work, but what does it mean to be universal?

As Bown notes, it is the Mona Lisa’s blandness that has made it iconic. Vasari didn’t see any resonance, wonder or miraculousness in la Giaconda. Furthermore “from the point of view of discourse, the more impoverished, inarticulate, or mysterious – the more rubbishy – the art-object, the better.” Saints’ relics are rubbishy – foreskins, fingernails. The most precious ethnographic objects are not those which have been attributed value in their day, that have not been deliberately preserved; instead the more commonplace and quotidian objects tend to perish and vanish from history, and whatever survives achieves value through its scarcity centuries later.

Value is relational and applied from without. The auction house, the blockbuster big name brand museum or art institution, the individual curator, the artist or maker of objects, all pursue their own notions of value, and, in conclusion, it is this relativism that defines the workings of a ‘politics of display.’ What we find more than ever today is that ethnographic display and art curation are being influenced by the revision of western points of view to include a wider world on a more level playing field: art from China, Russia, Africa, are viewed through the contemporary mirror. But what is the contemporary mirror? Art might aspire to the universal, but whose universal?