Week 31 – 3-9 August – Broomberg & Chanarin

“It occurs to me to somehow reimagine the bouffon week as a punch and judy show involving Trump, Berlusconi and Boris. How would that work?”

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Part one: Punch & Judy (I)

ENTER PUNCH

PUNCH    Mr Punch is one jolly good chap,
He left his baby in the back of a cab!
After a country supper he came back
But the foetus had turned into a pig!

PIG        Oink, oink, oink!

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER JUDY

JUDY    I’ve just seen the news on twitter!
Naughty Punch, you had better
Explain what it is you’ve had for dinner —
What have you done to my poor baby pig?

PUNCH    Calm down, dear! I’ve only done to this little victim
What I’ve been doing to the country since the election!

ENTER CROCODILE

CROC    Snap! Snap! Snap! goes the telephoto lens
Starving the poor to feed up our friends!
Let’s hope this party never ends!

THE CROCODILE EATS JUDY

CROC     Snap! Snap! Snap!
PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER SCARAMOUCH

SCARAMOUCH    Bunga! Bunga! What, again!
I’m not a Saint, you can tell by the tan!
It’s better to like beautiful girls than be gay
Ciao Pretty Polly, come stai?

PUNCH    Scaramouch, do you do the fandango?

SCARAMOUCH    Solomente for the love of Italio!
I had to a-save it from myself
Tutto for the love of obscene wealth!
The right-a man for the right-a jail!

ENTER THE DEVIL

PUNCH    There’s the Devil, Dodgy Vlad!
All his friends are in a body bag!
See him riding on a horse’s back —
Noone’s told him the nag is dead!

DEVIL    Spasibo! Now I am the Tsar!

PUNCH    Not so fast, you King of Vodka!
I’ve already planned for my successor
We’ve had cloned Margaret Thatcher’s Vagina —
Our mates did it cheap, it’s made in China!

MARGARET THATCHER’S VAGINA EATS THE DEVIL

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

Part Two:  The Bouffon

The establishment has always permitted a circumscribed degree of satirical attack as a means of enabling the downtrodden to let off steam. Historically, satire has always been bounded by either time (a certain day of the year in which “natural orders” were overturned) or person (only a specified highly ritualised figure is permitted to cross certain lines). The Romans had Saturnalia and the whispering slave on the triumphal chariot, medieval power structures had their jesters, King For A Day and Lords of Misrule.

IMG_0341Local permutations of the medieval jester vary, and for Week 31 of Fig-2, Ollie Broomberg and Adam Chanarin brought one of them back to life. The ICA studio became a ‘green screen’ studio inhabited by a bouffon figure, a grotesque lumpy hunch-backed clown. The Bouffon or ‘Dark Clown’ originated in medieval France. The undesirables of society, riffraff de l’autres, would be exiled from the town and forced to fend for themselves outside the city walls and starve in their own filth and destitution, much as benefits claimants and refugees are forced to by the Department for Work and Pensions. The beautiful people would allow them back for one day of the annual hock-tide celebration, when the Bouffon was invited to the Royal Court with explicit permission to ridicule the authorities. And this is where the problem begins, with regard to Week 31 and the problem of satire as a whole. The bouffon in its first incarnation is officially sanctioned satire, which is an oxymoron. The bouffon would have to be careful not to upset them too much. The pleasure of a pinch, but no blood.

Fig-2_31_50_1A camera filmed the bouffon and presented her on a TV screen with a background taken from the Imperial landscape that surrounds the ICA studio: the Mall, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace; an area characterised by daily military parades and other displays of state power. The bouffon mimed bumming the police and the Beefeaters, jumped in and out of traffic, and generally pratted about. A particular highlight was the bouffon pole-dancing around the Duke of York Column behind the ICA. You probably don’t need more than about twenty minutes of pelvic thrusting in any context comedic or otherwise but to its very great credit the performance went on for two hours. Was it funny? Yes, within the bounds of what we were there to enjoy, which was satire, and it has been long observed that satire doesn’t have to be funny to be effective. Not being five years old, we don’t actually find pratfalls funny, but we can contentedly agree to find them funny in the context of appreciating their implications in the company of a group of like-minded people who have come to appreciate the same thing.

Fig-2_31_50_8Was it effective satire? This is where we run into difficulties. Given the history outlined above, it is surely no coincidence that the bouffon’s style of ‘satire’ is limited to physical comedy. The bouffon’s comedy is literally silent, or rather, mute. The bouffon comes from a tradition of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it. For satire to be successful, for it to be satire at all, it can’t just be mocking. But the bouffon is limited to mocking, restricting to poking fun but unable to construct the ironies necessary for satire to occur. The word bouffon is appropriate; it comes from the Latin verb buffare, to puff, to fill the cheeks with air. It just gives us hot air. The bouffon is intended to be provocative, to poke fun at everyone in society and reveal uncomfortable truths, but I’m not convinced. Not incidentally, there was something very comfortable about being in the studio that day. The police officers and guardsmen representing the establishment were, of course, oblivious to the Bouffon’s presence; tucked up in the ICA’s cosy home on Pall Mall, we all pretended to be doing something a little daring in the very heart of the establishment, but the fact is none of what happened there was projected outside the walls. It was the other way round; the establishment was projected in.

Fig-2_31_50_7Interestingly, Broomberg and Chanarin’s new film work Rudiments (currently on display at the Lisson Gallery) develops the themes raised in the Fig-2 show adding the missing element of direct interactivity. Instead of poking fun at soldiers digitally overlaid via green screen, the film documents a group of military cadets whose rigorous training of martial codes is interrupted by the Bouffon’s comic pratfalls and play. The conflicted reactions of the young soldiers-in-training gives a better illustration of the possibilities of the bouffon than the green screen perhaps could.

Part Three: The Buffoon

File 03-10-2015, 15 46 54A few weeks after the Bouffon’s cavorting at the ICA, it emerged that the four-dimensional lizard-made-of-ham Prime Minister David Cameron“put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig’s head while he was at Oxford during an initiation ceremony for a drinking club called the Piers Gaveston Society. It’s the kind of revelation that will rot your teeth and straight up give you Type 2 Diabetes. My favourite thing about this story in a crowded field is that Charlie Brooker felt obliged to issue a disclaimer that he’d known about it when he wrote Black Mirror in 2011 in which the Prime Minister is forced to fuck a pig live on television.

File 03-10-2015, 15 48 29But even the pig is itself a blind, a sideshow, something George Osborne for one is quite happy for us to laugh at (witness his calculated snigger when asked about the revelations). Lawrence Richards (“What the British are really laughing about”) and Rob Fahey (“The PM, the Pig  and musings on Power” both quickly published impressive pieces that Joanna Walters (“Hazing, #piggate and other secret rites: the psychology of extreme group rituals”) also developed. They outline how Pig-Gate fitted into a tradition of “hazing” in networks of power. Throughout history exclusive and extravagant elites have bonded through rituals of humiliation. Revelations are held in check by a model of mutually assured destruction if anyone’s secret came out. The system is also upheld not so much by the threat of revelation as the curious fraternal bond of secret knowledge; possibly even a post-traumatic survivor’s mentality, particularly following instances of bestiality and homosexual rape in these rituals.

It has emerged recently that there was a rash of child abuse being committed by politicians in the 1980s, and that this was hushed up ‘in the interests of national security’. Richards examines how paedogeddon being committed by politicians was kept secret and how for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this was useful as a way of holding power over others by holding their dark little secrets over them. She was a real nice lady, the Baroness. As with the Pig Gate revelations, it’s remarkable how no-one has questioned the truthfulness of revelations of a cover-up about paedo rings in the upper echelons of the Tory political class in the eighties. It’s just accepted as a fact, with a bit of a tut, but it’s abstract. And it is all so, so much worse than any of us ever imagined. I mean, secret cabals of powerful men (and so far as I know we are mostly talking about men) colluding in concealing child abuse and murder? Really? The stuff of paranoia, surely. Well, no it seems not.

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What is satire to do in the face of such dementedly awful realities? The prurience of the general public as presented in Black Mirror was dutifully reproduced by all us lot in our glee over PigGate, which is the main thrust of that show: Brooker wasn’t really satirizing politicians (who can do that themselves, after all), he was satirizing us. We’re left bitterly and humorlessly maundering on the street corner or screaming into the void of the internet, irony evaporated, stuck with raw sarcasm. It’s not just the bouffon. It’s the mode of the age, borne out of resignation and the impossibility of outdoing reality at its own self-satirizing absurdism.

150820175214-banksy-dismaland-super-169[1]Dan Brooks, writing about “Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art” sees sarcasm as the dominant aesthetic of our age: “a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies”. He discusses a passage of ‘snark’ a ubiquitous form of internet writing that participates in sarcasm “typically by adopting the derisive tone of satire without the complex irony… There’s no insight here to raise this irony to the level of satire. There is only mockery.”

But poor old snark is all we’ve got left, isn’t it. Satire is once more the preserve of the establishment just as it was in the age of the Bouffon. Mark Fisher (“The strange death of British satire”) deals with satire’s history in the twentieth century (or part of it). He traces the emergence in recent decades of the sniggering, knowing-yet-adolescent non-humour which now defines political light entertainment like Have I Got News For You and This Week and roots it in the survival techniques of pupils at British boarding schools, “self-mockery… used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation”.

article-2182965-1453AD23000005DC-394_634x792[1]The star exhibit here is Boris Johnson. His antics are carefully calculated to look anti-establishment but serve to entrench it by neutralising criticism, dissolving it in mild self-mocking buffoonery shorn of issues of importance, full of a distracting power. The pseudo-satire of Bojo neutralises real satire. As in medicine, a little dose of the real thing helps us develop immunity. Boris is like satirical small-pox. Actually, to think of it, it was actually cowpox that Jenner injected people with to immunise them against smallpox, so in fact Boris Johnson is political cowpox.

slide_242179_1314827_free[1]Had Fisher cast his net further back in time to capture the likes of the bouffon he would have seen that the establishment have always taken a harmlessly low dose of satirical poison to inoculate themselves against true revolution. If it is true, as he claims, that truly satirical voices thrived as never before in the middle decades of the twentieth century, well, what we’re seeing now is nothing more than hammy, lizardy hands massaging it firmly back into its traditional box. The buffoon triumphs over the bouffon.

Satire as a force had eaten itself by the time Henry Kissinger, who as National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon had Vietnam napalmed, won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia, a country that practices sexual apartheid, religious oppression, summary beheadings, and is about to crucify a child, a country that doesn’t even drink, has won its bid to become head of the UN Human Rights Council. This is like putting Gary Glitter in charge of a children’s party (or David Cameron in charge of the pig-feed). This stuff is irony writ larger than it’s ever been writ. There’s a room full of comedy writers somewhere outside the universe trying to outdo each other, but they all work in politics.

Part Four: Punch & Judy (II)

12063476_920632064639976_3708738705272456345_n[1]Jeet Heer (“Donald Trump’s Comedic Genius”) describes how presidential hopeful Donald Trump isn’t just a joke, but is a serious comedic talent. He has mastered disruptive comedy and the stand-up takedown in the comedy of insult. He is a clown who acts perfeckly outrageous but who “suffers no punishment—indeed, goes from triumphant poll to triumphant poll”, a punishment evading Pulcinella (Punch) self-describing himself as a “non-politician” in order to inveigle himself into politics. Like our own Jeremy Clarkson, he deflects criticism of his bigotry and misogyny by maintaining that he’s not politically correct. It’s just a joke, like on top Gear! Broomberg and Chanarin’s Bouffon is described as a ‘dark clown’ but it’s really acts like Donald Trump who are the dark clowns, “using laughter for sinister ends” to voice bigotry rather than interrogate it. Satire eats itself and shits out establishment heterodoxies. Funny that.

IMG_1202Just as Trump’s ‘humor’ actually leaves establishment assumptions untouched, you know that BoJo wouldn’t take the piss out of the changing of the guard like the Bouffon did at the ICA. Whereas in Italy Berlusconi cocks more of a direct snook at establishment symbolism because bribery and bureaucracy are part of the everyday life experience of Italy, so people really do object to establishment symbolism. Whereas the UK as a nation will happily celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having unprotected sex.

Riotta_TheEnduringAppeal.jpg[1]Fisher describes the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Sylvio Berlusconi: “Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.”

In the not-quite-discredited-but-are-you-really-still-teaching-this Freudian structural model of the psyche based on the id, ego and superego the id is the pre-socialized instinctual impulsive driver of the libido and the dark slave of the pleasure principle that is held in check by the critical and rational agencies of the ego and superego.

Jheronimus_Bosch_011[1]Berlusconi and Trump are like Punch. Pure walking id, totally dissociated and always evading the consequences of their actions. I have to quickly tell you the synopsis of Harrison Birtwistle’s horse-scaring ‘60s opera Punch & Judy, because it is insane. Punch is rocking his baby, then throws it into a fire. Judy finds the charred baby and freaks out. He stabs her to death, then rides off on a horse to seek Pretty Polly who rejects him, and he murders the Doctor with a giant needle and the Lawyer with a massive quill. Polly rejects him again, and he murders the narrator by sawing him in half. He has nightmares about a satanic wedding with Pretty Polly. He goes to the gallows for his crimes but tricks the hangman into hanging himself. Pretty Polly reappears and they sing a love duet around the gallows, which is transformed into a maypole.

Like bozo BoJo, and the late Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump is an overindulged poster boy for the disruptive comedy of ‘plain speaking’ that prises apart but paradoxically reinforces the status quo. It does this by making politics look completely ludicrous and hopeless but without offering the possibility of better. In that sense it’s more related to Banksy’s sarcastic approach but coming from an establishment rather than anti-establishment perspective. How ridiculous it is, quoth-a, to aspire to change this leviathan. It is what it is. Let us laugh. Now vote, and we can promise you tax breaks for billionaires. The joy will surely trickle down!

Theirs is a comedy of disruption, not just that but Trump exactly fits the Borat model. Like Punch he is never punished for his outrages. Cameron too will make it through Pig-Gate largely intact and if he is remembered for being the Prime Minister That Fucked A Pig then history will have been kind to the PM that presided over the Bedroom Tax, taking away children’s school meals, privatising the NHS, tax breaks for billionaires.

IMG_1209Given that satire is now impossible because it’s been neutralized by buffoons and overtaken by events, we are going to need a sophisticated signalling system to tell us when satire is taking place. In Monty Python ‘SATIRE’ flashes up on the screen.  But if there is one thing we have learned from PigGate, and which Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle presaged in his satire of satire “What is satire?” it is that for any satire to be satirical it will require the involvement of an animal. “A toilet bowl full of goats? Satire. A limpet shell with a limpet in it? That’s doubly satirical to the point where it could almost be too serious. A crow inside a swift? Yes, that works: they’re two different animals. Sausages? Not on their own, no.”

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Postscript: STATE BRITAIN

Broomberg & Chanarin’s depicition of the Whitehall government area of London reminds me that the Whitehall area is suprisingly unfamiliar in art. I can only think of one other major example, but it is a masterpiece. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was a meticulous reconstruction a ‘peace camp’ that protester Brian Haw had built up in Parliament Square from 2001 until in 2006 the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibited unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square and Brian Haw’s protest was removed.

To my mind one of the greatest, most fist-pumpingly awesome Eureka moments in the history of art must be the moment Mark Wallinger noticed that the one kilometre exclusion zone exactly bisected Tate Britain. Marking this with a line on the floor of the galleries, he positioned State Britain half inside and half outside the border.

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Thanks to Alix Mortimer

Week 19 – Ruth Beale – 11-17 May

A fable inspired by Ruth Beale’s week at Fig-2

Young Penrose had reached his bottom. He was trying to write a book, but it wasn’t going well.  When he looked at the growing piles of notes he had amassed, he felt like crying, and he was crying now. The book was going to be called The Mythology of Keys. It was an attempt to reconstruct the underlying story common to all stories, to excavate the skeleton common to them all, to find the shared meaning that would make sense of all narratives from science to fantasy to homeopathy.

Having run out of cry tissues, he left his desk and went for another of his long walks to clear his head. On this occasion Penrose happened to take a wrong turning in between his garret study and the off licence, and he entered a street he had never seen before. The buildings seemed preternaturally outsized against Penrose’s small frame. He pushed up his spectacles.

He noticed with gothic curiosity that none of the buildings seemed to have doors. There seemed to be the pillars and steps of doorways but no means of entry within. He continued up the dimly lit street and at length found one building that did have a door. There was a brass plaque. He peered at the symbol of an acorn, beneath which were some words written in an unfamiliar alphabet, beneath which he read “THE LIBRARY OF EVERYTHING.”

Penrose started. He knew he had exhausted his own writerly resources in his garret with his smudged Routledge paperbacks and broken lipsticked coffee cups, and he wondered excitedly whether The Library of Everything could hold the key to his Mythology of Keys, which was, if nothing else, a book about everything.

He knocked on the door.

‘Go away!’

No two words are likely to have a more counterproductive effect in such a situation of rich curiosity than these, especially at the start of a story with the plot barely in motion. Penrose examined the huge wooden door for a viewing hole to indicate whether whoever was inside had even seen him coming. There wasn’t one, nor did the door have an apparent handle.

‘Hello,’ said Penrose to the door, ‘Sorry. I noticed your plaque. The Library of Everything. I’m a bit of a writer,’ adding ‘Trying to be.’

‘We’ve got enough books, thank you! Go away!’

‘Sorry.’

Penrose, pushing up his spectacles,  turned to go, ‘I could use some help is all. If this is a Library.’

A panel snapped open in the door, and an elderly face peeped through.

‘What do you mean, if this is a library? Course it’s a library, the plaque says so.’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude. It could be a library that’s closed down and become something else, like a bank or a shoe shop.’

‘A bank or a shoe shop? Does it look like a bank or a shoe shop?’

‘I don’t know what it looks like. It might have been resold.’

‘It’s not a bank, I’ll tell you that. Far from it. Oh the irony.’

‘I’ll be.. getting off then I suppose.’

The face in the door scrutinised Penrose.

‘It wasn’t you that wanted the Necronomicon was it?’

Penrose had never heard of it.

‘I’ve heard of it of course,’ he said, ‘But I’ve never read it, personally.’

‘Of course not. Why would you want to borrow it if you’d read it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Penrose reflected, ‘I might want to refer to it.’

‘Refer to it?’ The face groaned. ‘Writer are you?’

‘Trying to be.’

‘A lot of writers show up here. I always say to them they’d be better off getting some life experience. Then they come in and immediately look it up under ‘L’. Deplorable. So you write do you? What do you write?’

‘I’m writing a book. It’s called The Mythology of Keys. I saw your plaque that said The Library of Everything, and I thought that you might be able to help me out. See, that’s what my book’s about.’

‘What?’

‘Everything.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, it’s not going very well.’

‘Look, I can’t —’ The face in the door frowned, thought for a second, then said, ‘The Mythology of Keys, you say?’ He sighed, ‘You’d better come in.’

***

The face clearly belonged to an elderly librarian. The half moon glasses, worn hands, the apron, the shambling gait, and the face itself with its canyon lines that might have needed periodic dusting along with the books, all clearly belonged to the librarians of fiction. Penrose, being a reader, recognised them instantly. Also, this being a library meant that it was in any case more than likely that whoever it was would naturally be a librarian. Penrose also had a gift for logical reasoning.

‘I’m Penrose,’ said Penrose.

The Librarian sniffed, and indicated for Penrose to follow him. He tramped down among the bookless shelves of this corridor whose lighting seemed to have gone out. In pursuit of the Librarian through the dark Penrose tripped and splayed across the wooden floor with a resounding crash.

‘Shhhhhh. Do come along. The Library is this way.’

‘Sorry.’

***

The Library of Everything is so called because it contains every book that has ever been written and that ever will be written. In the Library of Everything, everything that has ever happened or that ever will happen or even that ever could happen, every tiny possibility is documented among its theoretically infinite volumes and stacks of shelves.

Library historians have marvelled that the reference system used to interrogate and navigate the Library is significantly advanced from the humble old Dewey indexing of the libraries of the past. Unfortunately for scholars the complexity of there being every possible history of everything means that the referencing system is as long as the actual volumes it references. It is in effect a 1:1 map and therefore of no use as a map at all because it is simply a life size replica of a reality. To previous generations of librarians this was the only way to chart the tiny differences between all the different documented realities, but librarianship has moved on.

Scholars have noted that a single ‘reality’ can in all respects be the same as another except that at some point, for example, a deuterium atom undergoes a radioactive decay slightly earlier than its counterpart in another reality. It has been noted in more recent discussions of modern librarianship that the most effective and simplest method of referencing would be an internal relative system – so for example the reference would be ‘the same basic universe as that other universe except that a deuterium atom deteriorates slightly earlier in this one’.

This saves having to replicate the entire universe in order to create a 1:1 reference for that universe. Another argument counters that this system of ‘relative referencing’ would set the reader off on an endless wild goose chase in pursuit of original references that the closer references are referring to, and that by the time you got to the reference you’d have forgotten what you were looking for anyway.

***

In 1941 the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges published a short semi-fictional account of the Library of Everything, renaming it ‘The Library of Babel’ and generally misrepresenting the fundamental workings of the Library, presenting a fanciful history quite obviously intended to draw attention away from the machinations of the Hermetic Orders, the shady groups who preside over the running of the Library. Since its publication Borges’s piece has tended to be viewed as definitive, a scandalous act of history being rewritten.

***

‘A scandalous act of history being rewritten,’ said the Librarian to Penrose. ‘As I already told you, it is quite impossible that an Infinite Library of Everything should be so shoddily constructed as Mr Borges makes out. Hexagonal rooms, he says! He even conflates the Library with the Universe, which is balderdash – the library is many times bigger than the universe.’

Penrose was puzzled.

‘How can the library be bigger than the universe? Surely the universe is all there is?’

‘Technically. But really what you’re thinking of is called the multiverse. All of the possible universes.’

‘Wouldnt it be simpler to just call the multiverse the universe?’

‘I hadn’t thought of that. Let me raise it as an Agenda item at the next Learning Technologies Committee meeting.’

The Librarian made a note. Penrose noticed that the Librarian also gave the note a reference, which he then made another note of, before stamping it with a stamp that printed the outline of an acorn.

The Librarian grew expansive.

‘The fact that the Library includes every possible book that could ever possibly be written would be fine, but there is a growing problem. The universe itself only includes some of the possibilities.’

‘Is the universe not just one possibility?’

‘No, you see you’re up against  have the Uncertainty Principle. Some parts of a universe comprise several possibilities all at once, you see. According to the Uncertainty Principle it’s not until you measure it, look at it, that the decision is made. At that point the universe branches off from all the others, but for a while it’s like several universes share the same space and matter, like a great cosmic timeshare.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘The problem is that because the Library documents every possible reality in all possible universes it is exponentially larger than the universe. Compared to the vast size of the Library the universe itself looks like a speck of dust, an atom, the amount of a goodness in a politician.’

‘Can anything be done?’

The Librarian looked tired. ‘The main problem is that we can’t afford to house the main library any more on site.’

‘In the universe?’

‘Just so. We’ve had to put together a business case for housing most of the library’s volumes elsewhere.’

Penrose balked, ‘Outside of the universe?’

‘Indeed.’ The Librarian waved his hands indicatively and mumbled, ‘There’s some very competitive non-Euclidean spacetime out beyond the northeastern arc of the universe that we’ve been discussing relocating part or all of the library’s contents to.’ More waving, ‘Several tenders are currently being prepared that look very promising indeed, and by promising I’m afraid I mean cheap.’

Penrose was having trouble following all this but nodded. The Librarian continued.

‘But I’m afraid we’re going to have to face facts at some point. The library is it was originally conceived was a Utopian project. It belongs to another world, I mean, another universe. In this day and age we simply can’t sustain that kind of data management, even with the great advances that have been made in bureaucratization. The Fines Service itself is now three times the size of the universe and the Digitization Project is simply unsustainable.’

‘What’s the Digitization Project?’

‘The complete scanning and digitization of all of the books in the library to make them into an accessible electronic format.’

‘All of it?’

‘The whole library is to be completely electronically searchable.’

‘And how long will that take?’

‘At current estimates and with the current deployment of resources and assuming there isn’t a major funding cut coming up, which,’ he sniffed ‘there most certainly will be, the whole library should be scanned, digitized and electronically searchable in approximately 10^100-1 times the total age of the universe from its beginning to its end.

‘That soon, huh?’

***

‘Are there any lavatories in this infinite library?’

‘This is a library, Penrose. It’s not Star Trek.’

***

Over several months, having been installed at his own desk in the Library of Everything, Penrose looked again at The Mythology of Keys. He had been working on the Semiotic Interoperability of Vs and Ws but he’d got stuck at V and his head was aching. He was beyond crying even. He stared wearily down at the figures on the page but the Vs would not resolve themselves into Ws. His mind vandered. Not to vorry, thought Penrose.

Penrose sat down for the thousandth time to resume work but the words wouldn’t come out. Here he was in the Library of Everything, bereft of words. Dictionary swallowing tends to constipate the flow of writing, which is annoying (troublesome, vexatious).

Penrose decided to work on the structure instead. The referencing was spiralling out of control. Footnotes of footnotes with endnotes, hyperlinks and nested references. At one point he realized he had misquoted himself, and he silently indexed it under “Errata”.

***

‘And how are we today young master Penrose?’

‘I’ve got a referencing problem. I rehearse a thought and then judiciously reference it, but then when I go back to check the reference, the reference has changed.’

‘You’ve changed the reference?’

‘No, the source of the reference has itself changed. It’s been rewritten. Every time, when I check in the Library, it says almost exactly the opposite of what I had it referenced for. It’s like every time I look away all of the texts I am using make a reversal, a shift from black to white or white to black. The sources keep changing and I have to keep finding new ones to replace the ones that have changed but then they change as well.’

‘You’re doing it all wrong,’ advised the Librarian, “Never write notes. Write full paragraphs, with repetitions and lacunae and whatever you need just to empty your brain onto the page. It doesn’t take much longer to develop the thought on the spot, but if you leave it you’ll spend eternities trying to remember what your thought was. Maybe you should just write what you feel. What you think.’

‘Noone is interested in what I feel or think. I need these references or noone will believe I have anything to say.’

‘But all you’re saying is what they say, boy.’

‘Admittedly I’m only saying what they say but I’m saying it in my own way.’ His face darkened. ‘Or trying to.’

‘Referencing is a canard, that’s for sure,” said the Librarian, “But don’t quote me on that.’

He paused to consider his wit. ‘Too clever by half’ said the Librarian.

‘What does that idiom actually mean, etymologically?’ asked the ever-curious Penrose.

‘It means,’ the Librarian sighed, ‘Llareggub.’

***

One of the quirks of infinity and infinite numerically irrational probability is that you can never find anything you’re looking for. It’s like a handbag. Every arrangement of letters and numbers, all language and literature and everything should in theory be there somewhere. Pi should contain every book every written — only it doesn’t. When you toss a coin, in theory you could get thirty or thirty thousand consecutive heads, but it never happens. There’s some kind of Law of Probabilistic Gravity whereby just because something can happen in theory it doesn’t mean it will. Except in the case of a miracle, but the universe isn’t that keen on miracles, and they almost never happen.

***

‘Phew. Hot in here.’

‘Air conditioning’s broken again.’

Penrose was about to ask, but the Librarian was pointing with some agitation at the desk.

‘What? What’s wrong?’ asked Penrose.

‘What’s printed on that rock?’

‘What rock?’

‘That rock.’

‘Thats a paperweight.’

‘What’s printed on it?’

‘Nothing. It’s a paperweight.’

‘It’s got lettering on it. Underneath it. What does it say?’

‘It says I Love Gibraltar.’

‘Is there a reference?’

‘A reference?’

‘A catalogue reference! Why isn’t it catalogued? My God, we’re going to have to start again. Back to aardvarks and aeronautics, re-catalogue everything through to syzygy and zephyr. Start again! I Love Gibraltar! My God…’

***

Over the coming months the re-cataloguing of the library began to visit a heavy toll on the Librarian. He began to dribble while he chattered, always chattering and rubbing his hands, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with an ink stained handkerchief while holding a pen and pencil in each hand to scrawl notes simultaneously with the left and the right, notes that then had to be catalogued requiring the creation and documentation of a higher level cataloging system, which brought with it its own notes.

***

It wasn’t just the referencing that was taking a toll on the Librarian. For some months he had been going from gallery to gallery of the Library inspecting the shelves with a specific purpose and a growing realisation that, in the Library of Everything, the books were dying. The people in the books were starving and noone expected them to survive.

***

The Librarian was grimly explaining to Penrose ‘It’s not just that the people in the books are dying, or that the pages are filling up with silence, it’s….’

‘What? What is it?’

‘I’m a Librarian. It’s not just my job to know where the books are, or at least who to point to to find out where the books are if I don’t know, it’s also my job to know what’s in the books.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘I’m starting to forget. Look.’

He plucked a volume from the top of his desk at random. ‘This is On Memory And Forgetting. A first edition. Now, I know that I have read this, but I don’t know what it contains. And it’s not just this one, there are whole shelves I know I must have read but… Perhaps I’ve been working too hard. Perhaps I need some time off. I look at this book and stare at its binding and the little flecks in the lettering and I recognize it intimately as if I’d bound it myself, but I can’t remember what it says inside.’

‘Everyone forgets things!’ protested Penrose.

‘I suppose so. But I’m… but it’s my job to remember, and I’ve started to forget.’

***

It had become noticeable to Penrose too that the texts in the books he consulted were corrupted. This was why his and the Librarian’s referencing and indexing were breaking down. He feared the worst. As the words vanished in the Library whole swathes of history would be lost and it would be as if they had never happened. Without the Library the events would never have happened. If noone intervened, then soon nothing would ever have happened. Cause and effect would become untied and so the cause of the universe, whatever it is, would cease to lead to the effect, the universe itself. There would just be cause without effect, forever waiting for nothing. It would be like trying to catch a waiter’s eye in a French restaurant.

***

‘You can’t save the Library, I’m afraid, Penrose. It’s doomed.’ His face hollowed. ‘Just doomed.’

‘But someone has to. The Library needs protecting.’

‘What for? Noone is interested in libraries any more I’m afraid. Penrose, when did you last see an actual reader in the Library?’

Penrose thought.

‘Excluding me?’

‘Yes’

‘And you?’

‘Obviously me.’

‘And the cleaners?’

‘The cleaners were laid off. We’re expected to do our own cleaning now.’

Penrose counted his fingers, and opened his mouth, but didn’t speak, still thinking.

‘And reshelvers, do they count?”

‘We’re expected to do our own reshelving now.’

Penrose clicked his fingers, ‘I think I saw someone browsing the Necromonicon, as it happens. A few weeks ago. Certain of it.’

‘Goth festival. Local thing. Obviously someone browsing the Necromonicon. Anyone else?’

‘But that counts. That validates the Library.’

‘How does it validate the Library, this incredibly unlikely occurrence of a good-natured goth wishing to peruse the Unholy Book for a few minutes in that book’s otherwise undisturbed life?’

‘Is that important? The popularity?’

‘To the Hermetic Holy Orders that pay for it all, it is, yes.’

‘I thought the Library was publicly funded.’

The Librarian snorted.

Penrose waxed, ‘But then what’s a library for? If the Necromonicon was being sold on stands at train stations and being given away with the tabloid papers, that good-natured goth wouldn’t have been here.’

‘Young Penrose, what you need to realize about libraries is that the Powers That Be have decreed in their infinite wisdom — and I’m not knocking it — that the only titles available for perusal should be those which have a proven cachet with the General Public, that will be read and enjoyed. It’s important that the Library reflects these proclivities, and only stocks books that are freely available elsewhere — because general availability is a surefire indicator of their popularity. It’s not the business of libraries to stock books that noone wants to read.’

‘But it’s the Library of Everything.’

‘Not any more.’

***

For his continuing work on The Mythology of Keys, Penrose needed to consult the Fables and Allegory section of the library. This, he discovered, had been shifted to an under-basement of the Library in order to make space for more trashy novels and economics textbooks.

Penrose, squinting into the poor light of the basement’s cold stone, failed to notice the shadow that fell behind him. A hand fell on Penrose’s shoulder, and stayed there.

‘All right sunshine. What’s your business here?’

His shoulder had gone cold. His body froze, he couldn’t turn to see his undoubtedly hefty interlocutor. He fumbled for a response.

‘I’m writing a book.’

No no no, terrible, terrible. Never tell anyone you’re writing a book. If you tell them then you have to finish the book. And noone ever finished a book, he thought, remembering the heaving shelves of the Library.

‘I don’t care what you’re writing, sunshine. Why are you here?’

‘It’s a Library.’

‘Library’s for reading, not writing. Plenty of books here already, don’t need more.’

‘But I just —’ He paused. ‘Reasonable point. You’re right. I mean, I was just looking for Fable and Allegory.’

The cold hand remained on his shoulder and a laugh he not unreasonably assumed was in some way attached to it rang out in the hollows of the dripping catacombs.

‘You’re having a laugh,’ said the voice, with a laugh.

Penrose felt cry-y. ‘Heh,’ he ventured.

‘Now,’ the voice boomed, ‘Why are you here?’

An obvious pause, succeeded by ‘And don’t even think about answering why are any of us here, or any of that philosophical Camusian crap about the only purpose of life being death, I’ll bloody lamp you I will. I’m allowed to, it’s in me job description. Part of the job, see. I’m paid for this. I have to stand here and stop writers getting in to look at the books.’

‘But it’s a Library.’

‘Not any more. Now, if you’re not buying anything, clear off.’

***

Penrose was, it must be admitted, making some kind of progress. The way a woodpecker repeatedly headbutting a tree will eventually invent paracetamol, or millions of years of genetic variation will eventually give birth to the appendix. The main obstacle to his work on The Mythology of Keys was no longer himself, but whether there would still be a Library in which to write it.

I’m going to write this book, he thought. I’m really going to. I must have been brought here, not by accident, but for a reason. To write The Mythology of Keys. I have to save the Library.

***

‘There must be something we can do!’

The Librarian eyed Penrose for several moments, making a show of weighing up options.

‘Penrose,’ he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this.’

The Librarian reached under the desk and clicked a switch. One of the bookcases (Section A23071^279-1 HER on Hermetic Architecture) retracted into the wall and slid aside revealing an opening.

‘Follow me,’ said the Librarian.

***

Like the Universe itself, the Library is thought to be almost infinite. Scholars have not yet successfully proven the that these two entities the Library and the Universe are not the same thing (in spite of what the charlatan historian Borges suggests), so perhaps establishing whether one is so will prove the case for the other. Philosophy really. In any case, like the Universe itself, most of the Library is completely invisible not only to the naked eye but to measurement and calculation, guess-work, wish-fulfilment and spellcasting. Most of the Universe is thought to exist as ‘dark matter’. Similarly, most of the structure of the library exists as secret passageways, catacombs and tunnels, none of which are accessible to anyone except those involved with the Secret Orders that preside over the infrastructural and budgetary workings of the Library.

***

As they passed through the secret guts of the Library, Penrose asked ‘Are these the Hermetic Order’s tunnels? Are you a member of the Secret Societies? The Acorn Order? Or the Secret Order of the Members of Secret Societies That Are Not Members Of Themselves? Are you?’

‘How would I know? It’s secret.’

‘You must know.’

‘Logically I might be, but I haven’t been told. If I knew, then it wouldn’t be a secret.’

‘You must be if you know how to get into the tunnels.’

‘Yes, I suppose I must be. I wonder when I joined.’

‘So,’ said Penrose excitedly, ‘Finally we can confront the Hermetic Orders and give them a piece of our mind about what they’re doing to the Library, how they’re killing the Library of Everything.’

‘Yes,’ said the Librarian, with a slight queasiness. ‘As you say.’

***

‘These are the Poets,’ said the Librarian. They were in one of the Secret Libraries in which they kept the writers. This room of the Library was devoted to the Poets.

‘But they’re all blind.’

‘All the Great poets are blind. Homer, Milton, Borges…’

‘But how do they write poetry if they’re blind?’

‘Obviously they dictate it.’

‘I mean how do they see all the poetic things – daffodils and such – You can’t dictate daffodils from touch alone, can you?’

‘I’m a Librarian not a literary historian. I don’t know how poets write. They probably just listen to radio documentaries and steal the most salient lines.’

***

There has been a great deal of speculation about the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order, and a great deal more about the imprecise vague notional and conspiratorial meanings of the Acorn symbolism. Scholars don’t know, and are not convinced that anyone really knows, least of all anyone in the Acorn Order itself. To the members of the Acorn Order, the Acorn is as far away as Christ is to Christian Fundamentalists. All that remains is a symbol emptied of meaning, a totem stretching off into nothing. A tattoo of a pictogram that you think means “love forever” but really means “stupid tourist”.

These ruminations on the meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order are in some way relevant at this point because Penrose and the Librarian have just arrived at an intimidating pair of solid oak doors that bear the largest iteration or permutation we have so far found in the Library of Everything of the frequent Acorn symbol.

‘What’s the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn order?’ asked Penrose.

‘How on earth would I know?’ replied the Librarian.

***

‘Penrose, I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.’

‘About what?’

‘You think you discovered the Library by accident one dark and misty night. That’s what everyone thinks. That’s what the Orders want everyone to think, because it gives each individual some sense of ‘agency’. Well that’s the theory  — and I’m not knocking it. It’s supposed to make you more productive. And you, Penrose, have been so very productive. In this case the Orders might have been quite right about you.’

‘How could they know? I mean, I don’t even know. Know what?’ Penrose was extremely confused.

‘The Library contains everything that could ever happen. It has all been foreseen. Your book is already housed in a faraway annexe of the Library. It always has been. The Orders have read it, and I understand they don’t like it one bit.’

‘I haven’t written it yet!’

‘You have, Penrose. That’s the problem, you see.’

‘Because the Library is infinite?’

‘The Library isn’t really infinite, Penrose. It isn’t even unknowably vast. It isn’t even as big as the universe. The Library is dying.’

‘The Library is dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘Because the people in the books are dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘We can save them. Can’t we?’

‘I’m sorry about this, Penrose. You see…’

A central spotlight switched on, theatrically. It was dazzling. Penrose’s eyes adjusted to fix on a large machine in the centre of the room. Along the walls he could discern a circle of hooded figures. Their faces were invisible and on their long cloaks each one bore the symbol of the Acorn.

‘It’s just that you can’t be allowed to finish your book. The Orders say so. They’ve read it in the Library of Everything, and they say it’s very bad news. It could cause no end of problems for the Orders. And, please understand, Penrose,’ admitted the Librarian, ‘If I let you finish your book then I’m going to lose my job. There aren’t any librarians any more, you see. They’ve promised I can keep the Library if I submit to their demands. Which are really not unreasonable.’

‘But you helped me. We were so near!’

‘It’s impossible, Penrose. I’m sorry. You must see that. It’s the only way to save the Library. It’s really the only way. You can’t write that book. There can be no Mythology of Keys any more.’

As the Librarian carefully strapped Penrose into the machine, the hooded figures of the Hermetic Orders chanted, but unlike any chant. Arrhythmical, a babble, all languages and none. Cacophany. A chaos of sounds and sound from the hooded faceless figures.

‘Really, Penrose. A Mythology of Keys, did you really think so?’

As Penrose’s body was drawn round and round and round on the slowly turning wooden wheel of the machine, as his sinews were stretched and his bones cracked and his body was shaken apart, Penrose realized he knew how to finish the book, that he had found the key to his Mythology of Keys. It was simple after all.

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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 13 – Shezad Dawood – 30 March-5 April – The Room

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Part 1: Art For All

The fig-2 openings are getting hectic. I think some bastard has been publicising them. This isn’t how counter-culture works. It’s more like.. in the year 2009 full-time Eddie Redmayne impersonator and occasional guest on Star Trek Professor Stephen Hawking threw a party for time-travellers. Afterwards he sent out the invitations. Nobody turned up. Nobody had turned up. He cited this as experimental evidence that time travel will not become possible. My own experimental evidence is more cynical: that we don’t remember the birth of Christ with a sponsorship placement on it. The Emirates Birth of Christ. Wow, that’s confusing. How about ‘The Barclays Birth of Christ – investing in irony.’

I’m kidding about counter-culture. Fig-2 is sponsored and paid-up and part of the mainstream, whether us hipsters like it or not. I’ve been to most of the increasingly popular openings on me tod, avoiding eye contact and scribbling in a notebook. Various people I know have to my surprise popped up there randomly, which has been lovely. This week, lucky Week 13, I must have been tired. I arrived and there they were, these two nightmares from one of my previous lives, suddenly manifesting at my pretentious gallery opening. Two poets, as it happens, representatives of a beaten tranche of the counter culture that has given up on political agitation and gone to nihilism, rejecting everything including itself. Why were they there? I’m not sure. There was the gin. In the truncated time I stayed each managed to knock back three or four of the free cocktails. I kept wondering if they were going to smash shit up. I hadn’t really realised that counter-culture can also mean anti-art. Immediately it was obvious they were not there in an accommodating positively minded spirit.  I gritted my teeth, ready for something embarrassing to happen in which I, by virtue of knowing them, would be implicated. Which publisher was it said he’d sooner have an armed robber in his office than a poet?

I’ll have to invent a term for this experience, when characters from one area of your life suddenly irrupt into another, the clang of cognitive dissonance. You’re at Torture Garden being spanked and suddenly discover it’s your line manager in the next sling. It’s interesting how we separate people and realms. Colleagues and friends. Friends and ‘friends’ (qv Facebook). It might be that, but as I said it’s usually lovely when you bump into people randomly. This felt like a clash of cultures, with me crushed in the middle.

Regarding the art, the crowd, the space, they were unfailingly rude; but had at least the good grace to be rude about every single thing they talked about. I’m not sure which of the creators of fig-1, Jay Jopling or Mark Francis, they meant when they referred to “Cuntface.” As for the ICA, it hasn’t been exciting since 1955. I got the strong impression they thought all art was shit. Everything, really. Just everything. I’m sure I even detected weird homophobic inferences coming out. One of them even drew attention to the university staff card hanging around my neck, and somehow inferred some kind of disapprobation, an obscure subtext of contempt for paid work that made me feel somehow lame for having a job. I suppose to nihilistic counter-culture this is being in cahoots with the capitalist machine. Like voting; with the election coming up, we’re seeing plenty of argument that voting is endorsing the whole sick machine, so you shouldn’t vote. And as for art…

Not everyone in New York will pay to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face. Not everyone is a critic. But, fuck it, everyone hates art. Everyone hates criticism. So… art criticism?!?!? Jesus. What am I doing? I mean, my pal Sid thinks I’m a twat just (well, not just) because I’m on twitter. Donald has refused to read any of my fig-2 blogs on principle because he is against any and all forms of Criticism. It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve always thought dancing about architecture sounds ace!

There’s a strong belief in the mind of the counter-culture that mainstream culture is dominated by cabals of powerful individuals working to exclude the rest of us. The art world is notoriously cliquey, so crony credence abounds. Unpublished novelists might become convinced that mysterious powers are suppressing their work. It was interesting to see the irruption of two figures from nihilistic counter-culturalism into the rarefied domain of fine art. Private Views are gurningly good-natured two-faced affairs. That’s what they’re for. Networking and stuff. They are exclusionary. Even when they’re open to the public like the fig-2 openings.

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Part 2: Who Rules The World?

For Week 13 of Fig-2 Shezad Dawood created an animation that nods to ideas about posthumanism and secret esoteric societies that decide the destiny of humankind. Two brothers in Saffron coloured hooded robes, reminiscent of Philip Guston’s cartoonized KKK figures talk about Shangri-La in a weird landscape inhabited by Maoi (the Easter Island heads).

In his fig-2 interview Shezad Dawood says the reason he chose to make an animation was because he wanted to “do something that would surprise people in terms of expectations of practice.” Now, artists should never do this. It’s the equivalent of a band you’ve never seen before announcing “This is a new song!” — darling, to me they’re all new —

Brother P wears an adaptation of the muted trumpet from the postal service in The Crying of Lot 49. In Pynchon’s novella evidence accumulates of a secret underground postal delivery service called the Trystero, which might be a conspiracy, a practical joke, or a hallucination, indicated by arcane references on bus windows and toilet walls.

Brother S has an adapted symbol of the Pharaoh Kih-Oskh in the Tintin book The Cigars of the Pharaoh. The Kih-Oskh Brotherhood is a vast criminal organization smuggling opium throughout Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and China, in fake cigars, with strong systems of communication and transportation and intelligence operating covertly within all levels of society.

In an amusing random continuity, Fig-2 Week 12’s Tom McCarthy has written an entire book analyzing the Tintin cartoons from a structuralist perspective. He notes that Hergé’s politics move from right to left wing during the course of the books. In Cigars from the mid-thirties the villains are “typical enemies of the right, key players in the great global conspiracy of its imagination: Freemasons, financiers…” and, of course, Jews. By the 1970s, as a consequence of World War II, the politics of the Tintin books has shifted over to the left to the extent that in Tintin and the Picaros the hero sports a CND logo on his moped helmet. McCarthy notes that “there remains the interesting paradox that, despite his political realignment, Hergé keeps the same villains in place: men in cagoules, the secret cabals of Cigars of the Pharaoh, serve as straw men for his leftist world-vision just as well as they did for his rightist one.”

In essence Lot 49 and Cigars of the Pharaoh are expressions of the question “Who rules the world?”

In his series The Secret Rulers of the World Jon Ronson goes behind the scenes of the Bilderberg conference, the annual grouping of the elite that has been accused of being a “secret government of the world”. According to the “American Friends of Bilderberg”’s press release “Bilderberg’s only activity is its annual conference. At the meetings no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued.” Highly mysterious. If it doesn’t rule the world, then what exactly does it do? Daniel Estulin’s The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club describes “sinister cliques and the Bilderberg lobbyists” manipulating the public “to install a world government that knows no borders and is not accountable to anyone but its own self.”

Conspiracy theories exist to address our fear that the world might be completely beyond anyone’s control. It’s a theological impulse, to combat the uncertainty that is inherent in supercomplex systems such as economies and societies. There are certain things we just know (echoing Rumsfeld). Scottish mineral water from Tibet: we know it’s tap water from Peckham. We know a ‘no reply’ means ‘no’. We know the Emperor is in the nip. We know. Look. It’s quite simple. Jewish Islamist Masons in the KKK built Easter Island. It’s obvious.

The world government is really just Capital: money markets that transcend national borders and to which states and governments are in thrall. As David Graeber notes the state is no longer a bulwark against capitalist rapaciousness, but works with it hand in hand. Let us also remember that fine art is capital; owning a verified Rembrandt is a securer investment than owning a flat in central London. In short, if you are not with the boorish anti-art vision of the counter-culture, you are propping up the whole capitalist system.

How do you win? You can’t. The game is rigged. Even your dissatisfaction has a dollar value. There’s that Clash lyric: “Turning rebellion into money.” Counter-culture is culture sold over the counter. I’m a sell-out and so are you. At least Tracey Emin is honest and happy about being a Tory voter. She’s happy because she’s won.

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