Week 33 – El Ultimo Grito – August 17-23

“Genius is an error in the system” – Paul Klee

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe Birth of the User is two inflatable sculptures in one: a figure, called the User, within an outer womb: a space within a space (within a space). As the outside structure inflates with air from the machine the pressure of the environment compresses the User and a struggle occurs between them which is only resolved when the mechanical air inflow switches and the structure within starts to inflate, which causes his uterine environment to start to collapse around him. This creates a glitchy ecosystem of one against the other: fighting for air, or fighting because of the air. Balance is not consistently maintained.

People going into the gallery can’t help but touch it, which adds another feedback loop. You can feel the inflatable structure resist your hand as the air pushes back against your fingers or when it bucks and yields to your prodding.

Fig-2_33_50_1Design duo El Ultimo Grito is Rosario Hurtado and Roberto Feo, who have created this sculpture The Birth of the User during Week 33 of Fig-2. Rather than displaying finished works at the start of the seven day show, they set the ICA studio space up as a workshop in which to improvise and develop ideas and create a unique Open House setting in which the public could interact with a production environment.

ultimo_mexico_04A fantastic illustration of their working methods is their account of creating a public seating installation in Mexico City. It’s fascinating to see the skeleton-and-muscle structure made of bubblewrap and foam taped over plywood that looks like junk (“when we left the first day [they asked] ‘are you going to leave this here? for how long? what is this for?’”) transformed by the addition of a skin of circular stickers into something bright and brilliant.

ultimo_mexico_03Their spidery fantastical sculptures are colourful and tangly and semi-organic looking and are often designed to be sat upon and interacted with in public spaces. The use of ‘packing materials’ comes from a decision they made to create a design and manufacturing system free from “traditional methods of production” using their hands and bodies and readily available inexpensive materials: a DIY aesthetic or rather a design aesthetic with a DIY implementation.

File 17-10-2015, 18 41 39‘El Ultimo Grito’ apparently means ‘all the rage’. Literally translated it’s ‘the last cry’ which I think is from the phrase ‘the last cry of fashion’ which makes ‘all the rage’ make sense: this season’s show-stopping be-all-and-end-all (until next season). Their use of ‘El Ultimo Grito’ as a moniker is clearly an ironic comment on the transience of fashion.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby“It was a week of work in progress. Mainly to develop ideas and works that explore the idea of glitch, glitch as a malfunction in the system that allows you to see the structure in the system, how the system works,” El Ultimo Grito explain in their audio interview with Fig-2. There is a day-by-day written account by El Ultimo Grito on the designboom website.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe show included a number of digital prints developed from images created by encountering ‘glitches’ in Apple Maps while walking around London. This is similar to Clement Valla’s project documenting ruptures in Google’s Universal Texture mapping system: those images of melting bridges when the texture mapping has gone wrong. We encountered this in Fig-2 Week 12 (part 6) and one of Valla’s ‘Postcards from Google Earth‘ was on show in Week 29. The phenomenon has clearly struck a nerve.

valla-5In Clement Valla’s work ‘glitch’ exposes the algorithmic principles involved in how our digital realities are constructed. El Ultimo Grito are more interested in the political and social factors exposed by ‘glitch’: the historicity of glitch. We are in the middle of both a housing crisis (caused by our rich keeping supply of housing down to boost what they can charge us to buy or rent) and a migration crisis (caused by our rich selling weapons to indiscriminately arm every side of every conflict worldwide, which leads to people trying to flee these places to survive).

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe construction and reconstruction of our cities is a document of political will. There’s no social housing, but ugly cheesegraters keep springing up in the city. Estates are knocked down, and spring up again as megastructures of gentrification. Sometimes our maps won’t update in time, and we will experience ‘glitch’: an uncanny sense of displacement, walking through two different realities at once, two different periods of history.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyWith the accretion of vernacular building in a city we in fact find countless levels of periodicity simultaneously. A new glass structure bolted to a medieval wall dominated by a prefab made of ugly. Each layer reveals the ‘ultimo grito’ of its period. Currently everything is glass that is largely flat, the next fashion will probably find this bending and twisting as new technologies develop, and then there’ll probably be some rage for sixties style stone cladding.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThese architectural paradigms (fashions) are temporal but internationally uniform, and part of El Ultimo Grito’s method in their week was to render a number of different but recognisable styles together to create the forms and surfaces of a single United Estates conflated from images of London’s ‘iconic’ Brutalist housing block Trellick Tower, other buildings in Montevideo, and London housing estates. The United Estates sprang up over the week as a number of structures representing a glitched dystopic city that you can’t live in, just as you can’t live in a city without housing or a country refusing to accept immigrants.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyEl Ultimo Grito‘s fictional character The User is intended to represent “when the consumer becomes a citizen”. The sculpture’s rise and fall that dramatizes the pressure of an environment over the individual. El Ultimo Grito developed their DIY approach to the construction as well as just the design of their works. If each of us is ‘The User’ it is up to each of us to try to take a more active role in it, becoming a citizen rather than a consumer Otherwise the larger structure will crush us all.

The Fig-2 website gives a day-by-day photographic account of the work in progress, in which you see the elements of plastic and wood used to make the nascent sculptures. When I visited on Friday night there was a smell of paint so strong that even I could smell it, Rosario and Roberto working and another guy making things in the fire escape. They had just about finished making a camera obscura, which they demonstrated to me.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura projects an image upside down on a screen. Vermeer probably used one when he painted and there’s a good one in Bristol that let’s you look at the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge without having to go to the effort of looking directly at them (you have to go to Bristol though). It’s another form of mapping, another way of projecting a 3D reality onto a flat screen.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura is a kind of ‘real time cinema’ in which a moving image is antique Chinese erotic porcelain depicting a couple rutting, which doesn’t look dissimilar to the Birth of the User sculpture. In the logic of the show it bridges between the scale of the third day’s large inflatable sculpture and the comic strips they made on the final day in which they synthesised all of the glitch mapping of the digital prints and the three-dimensional sculptural forms of the United Estates, with the User character ultimately triumphing and creating a new reality: “If you control the glitch, you control reality itself” — el ultimo grito!

In Iain Sinclair’s lecture Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime the earnest psychogeographer describes how there is “a love of the fabric of this multidimensional city and also a cynical despair at the changes now being wrought … New enclosures, blue fences and razor wire topped with surveillance cameras, have sealed off enormous tracts of terrain along the eastern margin. We see the dominance of the virtual over the actual, the computer-generated version over the particulars of locality … What you are creating, in effect, is an electronic Golgonooza. A system predicated on affectless gazing. Therefore Los stands in London building Golgonooza,

Compelling his Spectre to labours mighty; trembling in fear / The Spectre weeps, but Los unmov’d by tears or threats remains. “I must create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s. / “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.”

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POSTSCRIPT: I made a mistake and accidentally posted this while I was tagging it with “glitch” with the result that the title came up as Week 33 – August 17-23 – El Ultimo Gritoglitch, — a meta-glitch I’m tempted to reinstate.

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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?

Week 12 – Tom McCarthy – 23-29 March – Satin Island

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Present: Tom McCarthy (author, installation artist), Fatoş Üstek (curator, mathematician), Clémentine Deliss (curator, researcher), Alfie Spencer (Flamingo Group Head of Semiotics), Mark Blacklock (author)

Apologies: Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Levi Strauss (businessman), Bronisław Malinowski (anthropologist), Guy Debord (situationist), Paul Rabinow (anthropologist of “the contemporary”), Alain Badiou (thinker), Roland Barthes (semiotician), Jacques Derrida (deconstructionist), Douglas B. Holt (author on brands), Daniel Defoe (novelist)

  1. The Book

I find myself in the position of the narrator, U, in Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island, surrounded by screens and data, trying to synthesise raw unconnected toomuchinformation into narratives. There are four elements: the Show, the Book, the Think Tank, the Company Report, and the Interview. There are five elements.

Satin Island is “a book about the general impossibility of writing a book about the general impossibility of etc.” U (a poor man’s Ulrich from Musil’s Man Without Qualities) is a corporate anthropologist who has been tasked with creating The Great Report, “the First and Last Word on our age.” To this end, he scrolls through countless images, circling around various obessions: oil spills, cargo cults, ethnographic objects, critical theory, the transport system in Lagos, the mysterious death of parachutists. Like Shakespeare’s Autolycus he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. The book documents these obsessions but can’t unify them.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether the artistic success of the book at representing (even dramatising) the unassailable rag-bag nature of information/knowledge while revelling in curious and interesting detail, is achieved at the cost of the literary failure of the book, inasmuch as we are given a plotless novel with no proper characters or satisfying meaning. What are novels for, anyway?

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  1. The Show

I wondered if it was just a marketing exercise, turning the book into an installation and having the whole text read aloud (flatly as a “Company Report”). It turns out that Tom McCarthy is no stranger to the gallery space, and the book itself grew out of a 2010 residency projecting oil spills. In Satin Island, U creates vast dossiers from unrelated material, sticking them up on the walls of the offices of the Company and trying to find connections, like Beuys diagrams, or Benjamin’s Constellating Dots. Stage designer Laura Hopkins designed the space, littering it with U and McCarthy’s source texts, images and scrawled connections. It was an effective representation of the book, maybe with a cheeky viral bit of marketing thrown in.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether in fact all the work that takes place in any gallery space is in fact just a marketing exercise, and ask whether what is being sold is an idea, or the work, or the career of the creator of the work.

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  1. The Think Tank

The Think Tank aimed to trace anthropology through corporate culture and literature through a ‘brain-storming session’ that was actually somewhere between a lecture and a seminar. A “golden triangle” was postulated combining literature, corporate culture, and anthropology. This was an exposition of the book, but interesting in itself as an interrogation of meaning-making and information gathering in several different spheres. Fatoş Üstek (who as an undergraduate studied topology) mind-mapped the event on a huge wall mirror, “curating in a semantic sense”.

Clementine Deliss (curator, researcher, publisher) discussed anthropology and ethnography, and asked probing questions about the impulses of ethnographers and museums. The anthropologist is a ‘bug chaser’ a collector writing everything down in detail, but Levi-Strauss himself advised that we should forget objects and study culture and behaviour: the oilspill of modernity.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider what is the nature of hoarding, classification and acquisition, and whether it can be subversive when there is also immaterial culture. If authenticity refers to a local identifiable product of one culture, how do we refigure authenticity in the context of globalisation?

Alfie Spencer (the amusingly titled Head of Semiotics at the Flamingo Group) presented a theory of branding in relation to the meaning-making. Beginning with his self-definition “I brand (verb) the way an author says ‘I observe, I interpret’” and that his position (which is analogous to the central character of Satin Island) is at an intersection between production, commerce/business and capitalism. He helps corporations make money by analyzing what it is to brand versus write versus interpret. There is a confrontation between how objects resist language and can be made to ‘speak’ via branding. Writing remakes, interpretation asks what it can do within a form of life, and branding makes a future for it. In this sense, branding is a process of closure, whereas writing is open.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether writing would love to be branding, whether interpretation lusts after branding’s finality, and to consider this in relation to a novel whose open form resists closure, and further to consider whether the ambition of branding is the same as that of propaganda, and whether Alfie Spencer is therefore a tool of The Company, a footman for the Ruling Class Apparatus, forcing final forms on us.

Mark Blacklock offered up literature as a site for “speculative anthropology” and discussed Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a corporatist, a bookkeeper, reducing everything to information, just like U in Satin Island. Information gathering becomes the central theme of Defoe’s novel too, which is also tied to the acquisitive research methods of ethnographers in putting together collections of objects that create narratives about societies.

ACTION: The reader is invited to consider whether to answer Blacklock’s call for “an anthropology of solitude” with regard to Robinson Crusoe, bearing in mind Alix Mortimer’s priceless tweet: “To get your New Paradigm name, take your real name and put An Anthropology of… in front of it”

Mark Blocklock also reported that “Robinson Crusoe spends three years using his craft to craft a craft – a boat – which when finished can’t be moved, so it becomes a sculpture.” I love this in and of itself, but this is also a teleological point that reminds me of one of the paradoxes of ethnographic objects: that whatever their original purpose was, once they are put on display they become art objects.

ACTION: The reader is further asked to consider whether this pipe is or is not a pipe.

  1. The Company Report

The reading of the complete book out loud was a homage to On Kawara’s One Million Years, in which huge ledgers filled with all of the dates from a million years ago to a million in the future are read slowly and neutrally, monotonously. Perhaps McCarthy intended this to draw attention to the contrast between vast empty timescales and the overwhelmingly data rich present.

ACTION: The reader will consider the meaning of alluding to On Kawara in the performance of Satin Island being read out loud in the style of a ‘company report’ and whether this is a comment on timescales or the sheer implacableness of data.

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  1. The Interview

The author Tom McCarthy claims that authors are byproducts, that to think the author is the source of meaning is like saying a plastic bottle is the source of the water it contains: it’s a straight-up category error. The author is a byproduct of literature. There are author patches swirling around the Pacific Ocean as we speak, redundantly and useless. Yes, meaning is a bundle of relations that goes back centuries and forward too, but in Barthes’s seminal essay he announced the death of the author and even now people act as if it never happened. What digital culture pushes to the forefront is not even the death of the author or even the redundancy of an act of writing, but the question of which routes to pursue, the methodology of navigation. This is what the Situationists were asking; they saw things as simple as walking the ‘wrong way’ round Paris as an act of resistance and as an artistic practice. Not for nothing does the book Satin Island share the same initials as Situationist International.

ACTION: The reader is called upon to consider what writing is, and what writing would be if everything is already written. How can we understand a writing or literature that would operate differently? Can we imagine a form of writing as resistance to grand narratives, devoted to opening up ambiguities?

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether Tom McCarthy is a byproduct.

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  1. Any Other Business

Grand narratives are back. Okay so there’s no codex unlocking the master meaning of the age, but there is a master programme, and it is being administered by Apple and Google. The Company. The Corporation, Leviathon, processing vast amounts of data. Every keystroke is sold to the NSA. Apple’s locked-down battery-flattening PC-poisoning products now fill me with as much dread as the horrific self-belming output of Microsoft, the tech equivalent of those dreadful Hollywood movies that are obviously stamped out by committees rather than creatives. Is Google’s motto still “Don’t be evil”? I can’t even remember.

The world is literally being remade: the Universal Texture is a rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider the question “Who might inhabit these landscapes?”

How do the totalising corporations get away with it? Satin Island’s Koob-Sassen Project is explained away thus: “It is… a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you: in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it is secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.”

In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King we also learn about the efficacy of ennui to make invisible, to stifle politics: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)

U’s relationship to media is almost gnostic, pursuing a deep secret that is forever elusive, a Godhead beyond the veil. It is fundamentally a literary relation. The whole world is an encrypted text. McCarthy notes that we can trace this back to a theological impulse – the world was a script for god. Not to mention structuralists, and he notes that Walter Benjamin’s and Jacques Derrida’s epistemologies come out of Jewish mysticism. Digital figurations are fascinating but not categorically new.

ACTION: The reader is thanked for reading, and invited to have a lovely day. Do comment!

Date of next meeting: Wednesday 22 April, London Review Bookshop, Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nick Lezard

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Week 11 – Beth Collar – 16-22 March

I must be obsessed with liminality. It follows me around like a fog, or I move through it like a ghost. Neither one thing nor another, everywhere and nowhere, I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be.

Liminality in general usage is variously employed to mean ‘between two things’, kind of both and neither. The state between caterpillar and butterfly; the periods of adolescence and twilight; where you are during a spiritual vision or in an airport, in No Man’s Land or at a crossroads. Non-heteronormative sexualities and genders are liminal. Angels, centaurs; Lear’s wise fool, Lear himself; spies, ethnographic researchers; writers and artists. Consciousness itself seems to exhibit an ineffable liminality, existing between the past and the present, between rationality and instinct, between free will and determinism.

Liminality as a concept was originally developed in anthropology, specifically to describe ambiguities in the middle-stage of ritual activites such as initiation ceremonies, where participants stand at a threshold. It also came to refer to periods of cultural and political change during which social hierarchies are questioned, traditions ruptured, the future thrown into doubt. Basically: ENDTIMES… but thousands of years ago…

Over three hundred bodies have been found in bogs in Ireland. These ‘bog bodies’ date from as far back as the Bronze Age. The oldest is the Cashel Man from 2000BC. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the bog bodies found in Ireland were ritually murdered. The Cashel Man may have been a Bronze Age king murdered by his tribe to appease the goddess of fertility, following the failure of crops. The inauguration of a king was a symbolic marriage to the land itself, with a responsibility toward the future of the tribe. So if a harvest failed, the tribe might replace him – through a ritual killing.

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What they couldn’t have known was that a climatic shift was happening during the Bronze Age, with increased rainfall and lowering temperatures. The increasing evidence of bog bodies from the period could stem from the fact that such conditions are ideal for the formation of bogs, but also because these conditions created a liminal period during which times became harder, and ritual tribal activity to appease the gods of the elements became more marked. What is theorized here is that the ritual killings evidenced by the prevalence of bog bodies were a prehistoric response to climate change. Which is an amazing thought. Imagine if we ritually sacrificed our oil-friendly climate-change-denying political leaders so we could cross the threshold into a greener period of history. Imagine bog-workers in four thousand years uncovering the immaculately preserved bodies of the leaders of the G8.

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Bog bodies are a beautiful collaboration between human ritual actions and natural processes. Following their very violent death and deposition, the bodies have been preserved because of the acidic composition of the bogs. There is water but not oxygen. This contrasts with the human efforts of cryogenics to remove the water from the body in order to preserve it (because water expands when frozen, destroying corporeal cells). The bogs themselves are of peat formed from the dead bodies of plants. The bog forms a record of history (not unlike the rings of a tree), both climatic and social. The stratified layers in a metre of peat can contain a millennium of history which can be ‘read’ in a laboratory: the presence of varieties of pollen can indicate farming activity; ash and birch are evidence of intensive human communities.

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Thus, the human is written into the landscape. This is literally the territory of Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 of fig-2, developing themes she began exploring during a 2014 residency in Bristol using not peat but mud as a starting point, making shaky videos of mud and water and silt — liminal substances — in the New Cut, a man-made cut through the River Avon in the middle of Bristol. In her interview with curator Fatoş Üstek she compares this to the Andes where she discovered similar landscapes that in the films (exhibited at fig-2) are seemingly devoid of the trace of the human. But are they?

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Theodor Adorno said that form is “sedimented content”. I think of this as I look at the work. Videos of tea and milk in water forming beautiful clouds, then the clouds over the Andes and the silt brought up into water as the tide comes in. The use of dehydrated turnips as part of the framing of the drawings on the walls, presenting pencil landscapes, one of which was actually a vagina, or rather labia. The human drawn into landscape or the other way round? The drawings presented with stratified layers of wood and paper, framing but also integrally part of the content: layered, suspended, sedimentary.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was an uncanny water feature involving a disembodied head-like sculpture that degraded over the week owing to the action of the water being pumped back round from the pool. This mimics natural processes of erosion and decomposition, as well as reflecting the ephemerality of the installation itself. The show is over, the victim of water and time, whereas the destructive forces of nature have a paradoxical creativity: nothing is lost, only changed.

Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 forms a reflective exploration of liminality through transformations in matter and through substances that can evoke multiple states – like the undead status of the murdered bog bodies, discoloured by the peat but still distinguishable as themselves, the product of both ritual action and natural process. There is a compelling poetry in the connections between all of these substances and states, bodies and landscapes, that is both alien and familiar, profound and full of emptiness. Then the stratified layers of the bog revealing history, and the ‘sedimented content’ of the bog bodies: dead kings ruling over a kingdom of rain.

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I am indebted to this BBC Four documentary on ‘bog bodies’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03js0gf

Week 7 – Claire Hooper & Maria Loboda – 16-22 February

This week, guest writer Alix Mortimer discusses art and archaeology.

I’m still not sure whether I should have gone to see this with two archaeologists (proper archaeologists, that is, as opposed to a dabbler like me). Possibly one can either approach art in an experiential sense or an analytical sense, and you don’t get to make the same approach twice (not for the first time, at least) and that night, the night of the sloe gin with warmed apple juice, we were all wearing analytical hard hats.

Week 7 was a collaboration between Claire Hooper and Maria Loboda, apparently originally titled “Atheism”, which seeks to “capture the atmosphere of the archaeological dig” and examine the relationship between objects, human interpretations and reinterpretations of them and the elusive movement of all these things through time. As Hooper points out in her accompanying interview, it is our extraordinarily structured brains that allow us to conceive of past and future – the only thing that actually exists in our direct experience is the “Now”. What this means is simply that we can have no firm idea about the meaning an object held even last year, never mind millennia ago in eras when writing either did not exist or was used solely for recording the delivery of sheepskins. The reality in which an object held a particular meaning no longer exists, and is at best only partially recorded. Our brains irresistibly tug us towards the desire to know what we cannot know: how other (dead) people feel about Things. Archaeology, and art that plays on and is inspired by archaeology, is the ultimate optimistic challenge to this troublesome limitation of our tediously locked-down space-time dimension.

Space can also be tricksy. Experiencing the space where ICA holds Fig 2 several times over now, I am slightly more accustomed to what is the Art and what is not, but my friends were seeing the space for the first time. It occurred to me that in approaching the thing as archaeologists we were in essence trying to decode a space from scratch, exactly as you would in the field. Part of field archaeology is about making decisions, often snap ones really. What am I looking at? What else does this look like? What are the things that matter here? Nothing comes out of the earth labelled, and fine art exhibitions generally aren’t labelled either. In archaeology and in art therefore, your ability to decode a space grows with practice.

photo 3The whole exhibition is built around a sort of temple, Claire Hooper’s evocation of a “god storage unit”, a place for storing old idols that was created in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk when the great temple of Inanna was rebuilt with new statues and fixtures. Hooper’s re-imagination of the storage room is lined with watercolour wallpaper, elegant both artistically and archaeologically in that it is based on stratigraphic drawings from the site report, which have their own complex beauty. Hooper was intrigued by the idea of objects that were felt still to have some power, but which were no longer in active use. Nobody wanted to throw away these superseded objects which had once been so powerful. Against one outer wall of the God Storage Unit lean two paganistic-looking bound straw crooks. These are Inanna’s “Gates of the Underworld”, and to be precise one of them was leaning against the temple and the other was on its side, in a way I actually found faintly shocking once I realised what they represented. Is this the Gates of the Underworld “in storage” after a lifetime of use? What happens to the magic space between them, the entry to Underworld presumably, if one of them is lying on its side? Does the wave collapse? Is it dangerous? In this way, Hooper’s work gets elegantly at the idea of investing objects with power and narrative and then outgrowing that narrative and discarding the formerly powerful object, which is essentially what human beings have always done and what archaeologists seek to reconstruct.

fig2_installation_07-Claire-Hooper--Maria-Loboda_08Sylvain_DeleuAround the God Storage Unit, other artefacts littered the space. The lustrous brown plait peeping tragically and tantalisingly from under one of the shelving units was one of the objects that spoke most directly to archaeology – something half-hidden, newly exposed, waiting to tell a story, or rather have stories imposed upon it. The artists apparently spent eight hours wandering the British Museum in preparation for this exhibition and got a shock from the beautifully preserved hair of a young woman buried in the great death pits at Uruk. At intervals in the walls around the space and away from the God Storage Unit itself, Maria Loboda had set tiny dabs of gold, a reference to the gems set into the walls of the Alhambra palace apparently with the specific purpose of impressing distant future generations should the unthinkable happen and the Empire collapse. This is a ruler reaching forward in time, trying to avoid the fate of Ozymandias by facing the probability of collapse head-on. Loboda in her interview points out that there the actual physical works she has created are in some ways superfluous to the art itself – the story of the gems is what matters. Another piece that is pure story were her Samurai swords on a distant wall – stored as they were in Japanese households “for an uncertain future”. This is an evocation of what you might call living archaeology (or anthropology, as an anthropologist would put it), the study of objects that are used in a particular way contemporaneously. As archaeologists we can watch modern spaces and actually see objects being deployed to create meaning, and the fond idea is that this informs our practice in the field, where the deployment occurred millennia ago and is no longer visible.

10954581_614674401966352_1335988916_nOne of the things that blows your mind very early on as an archaeology student is the realisation that you find objects where they ended up. And that might be “in use”, captured in the act of being deployed so that interpretation seems deceptively simple – Pompeii is the classic example – but it might also be after several lifetimes of other use. It might be repurposed, and in fact I am being disingenuous about Pompeii, because plenty of the material and objects there will have known multiple lives. It might be curated – there is at least one example I remember of an Upper Palaeolithic “antiquarian” who collected and curated a set of objects dozens or hundreds of years old and stored them together, where they were found. It might be rubbish, and you might find it in a midden, in a context that says little about the life of the potsherd, or coin, or discarded tablet before it became rubbish. Or, like the objects in Uruk’s original God Storage Unit, it might occupy a space somewhere between rubbish, repurposing and curation.

In the sense that the works referenced all these possibilities, I felt the exhibition was a success. The artists’ point was that Things can (figuratively) outlast their own lives and (literally) those of their owners. People, and their views about their Things, are really pretty ephemeral. Recalculation and reinterpretation occur continuously and come up with new temples, new gods, new meanings. As such it was fitting that one outer wall of the God Storage Unit was painted with the Colour of the Universe (Erratum), the rather jolly turquoise blue that enjoyed the distinction of being the distilled colour of the universe for a whole week, before it was realised that there had been an error in the calculations, and the colour of the universe was reset tragically to a beigy off-white.

photo 2Hooper and Loboda have thought deeply about archaeology and become immersed not just in individual stories and sites, glittering and alluring though these are, but in the theoretical context. Being aware of the pitfalls of interpretation and the difficulty of reconstructing meaning is a core concept in post-processual (by which I mean, oh, the bit after 1982) archaeology. Did it teach us anything we didn’t know in theoretical terms, or prompt us to think differently about the things we did know? Nope. I wouldn’t have said so. If anything it was rather comfily reinforcing. And this is where the analytical hard hats come in, because I suppose what I was hoping for was to be shown something new. There is a whole seam of co-operation between art and archaeology which can be very fruitful and spark new approaches to “doing” archaeology. This exhibition didn’t make it into that category. Maybe it wasn’t quite for us.

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