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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Art Fund Curator Talk #2 – “On Responsibility” (19 February 2015)

The second of this eight part seminar series with the title On Responsibility will concentrate on Roland Barthes’ seminal text entitled To the Seminar, investigating the contents and discontents of the current cultural production of art institutions and their modes of audience engagement.

Text of Barthes’ “To The Seminar”: http://www.betalocal.org/pdfs/barthes-totheseminar.pdf

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I have a favourite nerdy joke in which a mathematician, upon being challenged to use the smallest possible amount of fence to enclose a herd of sheep, encloses himself in a small fence and declares “I define myself to be on the outside!”

In her second Curator Talk, “On Responsbility”, Fatoş Üstek led an attempt to apply the ideas raised in Roland Barthes’ 1974 text “To The Seminar” in a discussion of how curators approach their responsibilities to the artists they work with, the artworks themselves, and the audience that experiences these works.

This is important because the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. Bad curation can result in the distortion of meaning via the imposition or implication of an order that is misleading, which has been described as being “comparable to a teacher in the classroom using outdated secondary sources for a lecture on physics.”

Barthes’ work tends to embody and perform its ideas, rather than simply framing and explaining them. This makes it, depending on your view, enigmatic and rich in possibilities for discussion, or just hard to follow. “To the seminar” opens “Is this a real site or an imaginary one? Neither. An institution is treated in the utopian mode: I outline a space and call it: seminar.” — I declare myself to be on the outside!

I’d like to ask, even if the answers are neither real nor imaginary, what we can learn from Üstek’s attempt in her seminar to apply the notions embodied by and expressed through Barthes’ text to the realm of curation, with particular regard to curatorial responsibility, and to ask: was she successful?

Seminars are necessarily small, intimate. To Barthes this safeguards the seminar’s complexity, its potentiality or capacity to generate ideas and discussion. This is a kind of Bolshevik notion that cuts against certain popularising notions that have seemingly held sway over the way that art is curated by institutions like the Tate, who lay on blockbusters of over-familiar work, ostensibly as part of their public service remit but at the cost of not bringing the unfamiliar to a popular audience. This is often seen as deeply cynical, money-grabbing, but also conversely as a demotic and democratic impulse.

In a 2001 symposium, Kathy Halbreich expressed concern that “the popular is the most significant sign of our [curatorial] success. I’m happy when our numbers are good, but I’m happier when the engagement is repeated and deep.” Critic Dave Hickey (ibid.) went on “Let’s get smaller places with better art. […] Small is always okay. In a puritan republic like this one, where there is little interest in the visible arts, it’s perfectly rational.”

This is arguably why seminars are important: as forums for discussing at a specialist level issues that can be expanded at a larger level to work toward managing the conflict between the mandarin and the demotic in art. Does this matter? Were I to be glib (and, believe me, glibness is my default mode) I could say that when an event happens, it doesn’t matter if only two people turn up as long as one of them doesn’t know what’s going on and the other one writes about it. This is one peculiar form of elitism, familiar from such formulations as are applied to the first Sex Pistols gig or the Velvet Underground, that only x people were there but they all went and formed a band. Blockbusters don’t produce anything new; it’s the niche, the cutting edge, the mandarin that generates new directions. Or is this view elitist and pretentious?

If Fatoş Üstek is right, then reading Barthes can help us formulate a response to such controversies. Let’s go into his writing a bit more. In Image, Music, Text (1968) Barthes wrote “We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. This is a formulation of Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the author’ but let’s see what happens if we think of a literal multi-dimensional space (the seminar, the exhibition space) as a text in which a variety of ideas blend and clash. This could be useful in interpreting “To the Seminar”, and indeed it corresponds to Barthes’ third formulation of space, the three being institutional, transferential, and textual. Textual not just because it produces a text, but because “it regards its own—non-functional—practice as already constituting a text: the rarest text, one which does not appear in writing.”

What is this nonsense, a text that is not written? A text that is textual by virtue of just being, or being performed, even if it finds no final form? We can look to oral poetry for confirmation that such texts can indeed exist, though they differ from the modern trope of the text in their lack of final form. This is a fruitful comparison for the seminar or curated space where the conversation (to which Barthes devotes a passage), the discussion, rarely produces a final ‘text’ but embodies textuality by virtue of its discursiveness.

The curatorial conversation results in an exhibition, a show, which is essentially the text that is produced. But it is ephemeral; its documentation is another text discrete from the text itself, which is the show, which must end (even the achingly long blockbuster shows at the Tate eventually end, even if they seem to go on forever). Barthes talks about the production of knowledge from the seminar, but, similarly, notes that “Knowledge, like delight, dies with each body.”

Barthes’ essay then moves from discussion of knowledge and on to teaching it, the transmission of knowledge. But how can that happen if knowledge dies with the body? Clearly some knowledge is transmitted, even if it is a facsimile like the documentation of an exhibition. Barthes revels in the paradox: “To teach what occurs only once—what a contradiction in terms!”

Üstek concluded with a quotation of Barthes’ quotation from Michelet, “I have always been careful to teach only what I did not know,” and in a sense she was right, not in terms of her understanding of the Barthes text or the discipline of curacy, but in her quite brave decision to apply the one to the other. In a Barthean act of incompletion, foregrounding meaning-making as a process rather than an end, she installed in this seminar a conversation as a space for discussion, without resolving it into a final meaning, a final decision or ultimate morality of curation.

It is a fruitful analogy: curating as seminar, as a space for discussion involving multiple competing perspectives and decisions, given that, as I said above, the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. While the show must end, and the seminar must end, the questions raised in the specific context of a show will continue through all other subsequent shows.

This is why the curator is like Barthes’ first educational roleplayer, the teacher, with the teacher’s responsibilities to making meaning accessible, even if it is not final. Üstek shares Barthes’ implied view that the master-apprenticeship relationship attempts to transmit such finalised meanings, which is impossible, and finds in Barthes’ third educational practice, mothering, a more valuable way of thinking about the curator’s role: to support rather than transmit individual meaning-making. The Tate tells us what is canonical in art historical terms: to say ‘this is what art is’. Art dealers tell us what is canonical in financial terms: to say ‘this is what is valuable’. The curator is not like an art dealer, but more like a carer, whose responsibility ultimately lies in making a space available in which we as an audience can experience Barthes’ notion of jouissance, where we can find gratification but also experience the danger of disappointment, allowing us to find our own meaningfulness and turn against “an aggressive destiny.”

Further reading

On Barthes: http://jsheelmusiced.pressible.org/jsheel/roland-barthes-%E2%80%9Cto-the-seminar%E2%80%9Dhttp://sweb.uky.edu/~jri236/pleasure/syllabus/https://www.academia.edu/224463/_The_Paideia_of_the_Greeks_On_the_Methodology_of_Roland_Barthess_Comment_Vivre_Ensemblehttp://www.frieze.com/issue/article/barthes-after-barthes/

On curation: http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/themes_4.htm http://www.giarts.org/article/curating-now-imaginative-practicepublic-responsibility