Week 40 – Una Knox – October 5-11

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fig-2_40_50_2When you enter the room the first thing you see is that all of the walls have been drawn into the centre of the space and bound together. The Fig-2 mobile wall structures and book shelves that usually delineate a space within the room have been wrapped up together, and there is nowhere to hide.

fig-2_40_50_4Whether deliberately or intuitively Sylvain Deleu’s photos don’t zoom in on the the central structure but show it surrounded by the exposed space of the studio — balancing the tight compression at the centre with the openness around it. This arrangement has an unsettling effect. Artist Una Knox notes that in drawing things together you illustrate the potential for, or the inevitability of, the opposite: all things will break apart.

unaknoxpvThis is the context of coming to Fig-2: these shows are brought together for seven days and then blown apart. For Week 40 of Fig-2 Una Knox has bound together elements of film, photos and sketches within a specific spatial configuration that introduces specific tensions into how you perceive the work.

“In previous works the question has come up: how does a particular architecture have the potential to dictate a conversation?”

Una_Knox_fig-2_teaser_image_2015Whether it’s an elevator shaft or a small room full of tape and paint like the ICA studio, depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest objects you can perceive) has a profound effect on you. In cities we can get wound up and depressed by the closeness of everything, and feel relief and elation at emerging into a wider perspective like a park. Conversely, in the countryside we can feel overwhelmed by the distance of everything and long for our homely corners.

fig-2_40_50_6In Una Knox’s Fig-2 installation the objects are brought into intimate relation with each other through proximity, and looking at them all cramped together feel like we’re clambering through them, unearthing them like old manuscripts in a library.

fig-2_40_50_7The small monitor screens play video archives of the artist’s father David Knox, himself an artist, at work in the 1980s. He’s making ‘surface studies’ in which he introduces cuts to large pieces of paper. This work doesn’t survive except in these grainy flickering video documents.

There is also a notebook hidden away that contains preparatory work from both father and daughter, work you wouldn’t normally see when looking at a final work. It presents us with one dynamic of a relationship we can only imagine, and sketches for works that might or might not exist. If there’s a depth field of meaning we’re coming towards a wall here.

CQkwUroWEAMYwXwExploding the plane is the most colourful part of the exhibition, the three large trichromatic images, semi-abstract photos of Una’s own absent cutouts. You see these from the outside, from the open space of the room, whereas with the other works you have to almost clamber into the central structure. These large photos are made using pre-colour photography processes, with three sequences shot one after another and different tones of grey creating different densities of red, green and blue.

fig-2_40_50_2This paradoxically creates much more vibrant colours out of gray than using colour does. You’ve seen films shot in Technicolor. Their rich saturated image palette comes from using three separate film cameras each with a different filter to capture red, green and blue. It’s nostalgic and also, such complex methods of image creation are akin to the workmanlike methods of artists. So there’s another connection between the processes of Una’s photos and David’s physically cutting into paper.

fig-2_40_50_8It’s about “history and how things taken from the past are modified and reshaped and retain something of what they were and become something else and how two things that are the same can become unique.”

Cutting into paper breaks the two-dimensional plane, which is quite a radical act in artistic terms. It’s violent. Interplay between two and three dimensions is an abiding feature of op art, which creates three-dimensional effects through manipulating and tricking the cognitive processes that read the information of the world: optical illusions. The vase keeps popping into a face.

“I was interested in the way that we look back in history and what we see through these different layers of media, these practices of artists who we can only see through documentation and what happens in that filter, so I wanted to bring those filters to the foreground, in accentuating the quality of this old video but also in the photographs splitting apart the materiality of photography but also of vision and how these things come together, sequences in time collapsing in and becoming dense. So you see that in the structures and also in the materiality asking you to look through the shelves.”

There’s nothing on the internet about David Knox. The show is about someone we as strangers can’t hope to know about. When you click on @UnaKnox in @fig2london’s tweets it says “Account suspended” — the correct handle @unannox has protected tweets. In the absence of the internet, or getting to know Una Knox, all we can know about the relationship between the two is mediated through the work.

This seems to echo a psychological truth that sets up an unresolved ambiguity in the work. Sometimes we can fail to understand something because we are ‘too involved’ as well as too far away: ‘clinical distance’ is another kind of knowledge. It’s a problem of perspective, of depth of field: everything is either too far away, in time or space, or so close up to you that you can’t see it. Art breaks the surface plane so we can try to peer through.

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All quotations from Una Knox are taken from her audio interview with Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek.

POSTSCRIPT

The Sipsmith gins at the show opening were apparently a “Trichromaticism mix” but I have a photo in which it’s distinctly referred to as “Smoke & mirrors”. Smoke and mirrors: certainly I’m now beyond confused not only about David Knox, but also Una Knox, and even the drinks.

One artist bio of Una Knox says “She is inspired by instances where an absence defines a presence” which we certainly encounter, or don’t encounter, or do we, through her work. It’s also a central idea in contemporary art practice that I’ve had hours of fun mocking. For once I’ll just leave off the jokes and think about Jazz. Simpsons did it:

PUNTER: Sounds like she’s hitting a baby with a cat.
LISA: You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.
PUNTER: I can do that at home.

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

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