Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spaceship Earth Does Not Move

The movements of the stars have become clearer; but to the mass of the people the movements of their masters are still incalculable.
Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo

Spaceship Earth is not Static

Stand up and look down at your feet.

I’m going to assume that you’re not travelling, which is increasingly likely these days. But in any event it doesn’t change the main point. The ground beneath your feet is not moving; at least not in relation to your body. The sky above, outside, is not so fixed.  The sun and moon and all that other stuff up there travel above us on their daily and annual and other cycles within the cosmic system. But the ground is different. It’s a fixed base. This fixity is important both literally as it’s where your feet are planted, and metaphorically too, as it’s a foundation for our experience. Experience begins with and on the earth.

Yet squaring this experience with what we know creates something of a snag. It’s not what’s happening in reality. Spaceship Earth is not static. Scientific observation tells us that the motionless planet of experience is actually hurtling through space; spinning not only around its axis but also around the sun. Freud recognised the trauma that this scientific knowledge potentially causes and spoke about the two outrages to humanity that modern science provided; a third being presented by his own psychoanalysis:

Humanity, in the course of time, has had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages against its naive self-love. The first was when humanity discovered that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system hardly conceivable in its magnitude. This is associated in our minds with the name “Copernicus,” although Alexandrian science had taught much the same thing. The second occurred when biological research robbed man of his apparent superiority under special creation, and rebuked him with his descent from the animal kingdom, and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-valuation, under the influence of Charles Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, was not accomplished without the most violent opposition of their contemporaries. But the third and most irritating insult is flung at the human mania of greatness by present-day psychological research, which wants to prove to the “I” that it is not even master in its own home, but is dependent upon the most scanty information concerning all that goes on unconsciously in its psychic life.”

Crucially, the scientific Copernican Revolution of modernity not only involves the astronomical modelling of the cosmos but also a shift in world-view. What emerges is a theoretical awareness, developed also by Galileo and Descartes, that fundamental features of nature can be described as a system; mathematically. Hence the world, by virtue of its capacity to be modelled mathematically, is understood to be separate from human consciousness and is independent of thought.

Copernican Revolutions

Actually, the so-called Copernican Revolution has two meanings. There is its literal sense in the emergence of a modern, scientific and heliocentric world view. And there is a metaphorical use in philosophy. In this second sense it is often used to name the so-called transcendental turn taken by philosophy from Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century onwards and which the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently named Correlationism. This Correlationism (of which Meillassoux is critical) claims that any thought about the world independent of that thought is impossible. That is, we can never know what the world is like in-itself. This philosophical use of the Copernican revolution as a metaphor originated from a comment in the second preface to The Critique of Pure Reason (1787) where Kant proposes to do for metaphysics what Copernicus had done for cosmology, namely effect a sudden revolution leading to a paradigm shift in thought itself. In On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system that reversed the commonly accepted Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe. Kant states that whereas previously it had been assumed that knowledge conforms to its objects he will develop a metaphysics that begins from the supposition that objects conform to knowledge. From this emerges the transcendental turn that modifies metaphysical questions directed toward things in-themselves, which is claimed to be impossible, into questions of how knowledge of the world is possible.

However, this is the violent contradiction that leads to these ‘outrages’ of modernity. So, whilst science allows for the possibility of a mind independent of reality, philosophy insists that thought about that reality in-itself is impossible. The metaphor itself is paradoxical as it positions humans at the centre of their philosophical systems yet at the edge of their scientific ones.

And yet, to not accept this and to deny scientific revolutions positions one as a crank, crackpot or conspiracy theorist. The snag is going to be, then, how to reconcile those two domains: knowledge and experience. And there, perhaps we have a model of what can do.
[From an essay on Niamh McCann's work]

Saturday, 24 October 2015

“Art World Systems: Network, Medium, Platform,” Francis Halsall, Kris Cohen, and Johanna Gosse in Conversation, DXARTS, Seattle

“Art World Systems: Network, Medium, Platform,” Francis Halsall, Kris Cohen, and Johanna Gosse in Conversation, DXARTS, Seattle

In this public exchange, art historians Francis Halsall (National College of Art and Design, Dublin), Kris Cohen (Reed College) and Johanna Gosse (Columbia University) will discuss the art world in terms of systems. They take as their starting point three recent books on the state of the contemporary art world: Pamela Lee’s Forgetting the Art World (2012), David Joselit’s After Art (2012), and Lane Relyea’s Your Everyday Art World (2013).

After brief introductions of each text, the speakers will embark on a conversation tackling issues such as the art world’s embeddedness in a networked, global system and shifting conceptions of the artistic medium, from specific materiality to technical support to platform.

Questions they consider will include:
*what specific forms of knowledge does art continue to offer as its historical definitions, categories, and criteria have transformed, and often, faded into obsolescence, much like the technologies it would critique?
*To what extent should art and art discourse, as resources for getting our bearings in the present, mesh with and respond to technological change?
*How are the interconnections between art and technology inevitable within networked life, part of the very structure of destablizing change;
*and if they are inevitable, and if art and technology are not opposed but forced together in the medium of history, where does critique begin and what shapes should it take?

Friday, November 6th, 5:30 PM
DXARTS Media Lab
Raitt Hall 205
The University of Washington, Seattle

This event is sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and hosted by the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington.
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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Out There, Thataway (curated show at CCA Derry)

From the press release:

CCA is pleased to present Out There, Thataway, a group exhibition curated through dialogue between Francis Halsall, Declan Long, and CCA that includes work by Stephen Brandes, Nathan Coley, Aleana Egan, Fergus Feehily, Kevin Gaffney, Rana Hamadeh, and Merlin James.

Out There, Thataway has two conceptual starting points: 

First, a concern with imagining or navigating territories that are ‘beyond knowledge’;
Second, an interest in ways that metaphors of geography shape thinking and behaviour.

The exhibition takes its title from the last words spoken at the end of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’: they are Kirk’s vague but determined directions as the Enterprise begins to venture further out than ever before beyond known frontiers.

Out There, Thataway opens Saturday, August 8th at 7pm and runs until 26th September 2015. The exhibition will be accompanied by commissioned playlists and a public programme of events.

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

See here for more detailed information on the show

And download a conversation between the curatorial team on some themes here at Academia.edu  

Image: Stephen Brandes, selected slideshow
still from The Last Travelogue of Albert Sitzfleisch.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Wasteland: Poetry and Collaborative Systems

“The strange, the surprising, is of course essential to art; but art has to create a new world, and a new world must have a new structure.”
T.S.Eliot, ‘London Letter’, (Published in The Dial Magazine, 1921)

Collaboration always comes with a threat. But this risk is also the source of its richest reward. The threat we face when we collaborate is the loss of identity.

By necessity any working relationship will involve the emergence of a new creative agent that no-one will have full control over. This is the collaboration itself; a system with its own volition, direction and tastes. This system requires its partners to negotiate with it; perhaps yield to it. It asks them to test their aesthetic decisions and justify their choices. By necessity, collaboration forces new ways of thinking and making. It pitches participants into a situation of creative antagonism in which everyone cajoles each other into producing what nobody is quite expecting.

Between 1921 and 1922 TS Eliot and Ezra Pound worked together on the poem which would become the signal work of modernist poetry. The Wasteland was produced by the creative antagonism of two writers working together. Eliot acknowledged his debt by dedicating the poem in 1925 to “Il miglior fabbro” (“the better craftsman”).

The annotated manuscripts make for astonishing reading.

They show how the poem developed from a negotiation between the multiple comments of Eliot and Pound (with additional editorial comments from Valerie, Eliot’s wife and editor.)  Under Pound’s guidance whole sections were cut, moved around and re-sculpted. The title changes from “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” The whole first page goes – cancelled by with a single pencil line. Throughout we can see how the verses took shape by being meticulously crafted into a self-contained world where everything works together with elegant precision. What is left over from this conversation is a poem in which it’s unclear as to who deleted or added what; and who should take full authorial credit. We can’t be sure where one writer’s voice begins or another ends. The manuscript can be seen variously through different perceptual modes. Its a visual tabula rasa embedded with the multiple scrawled indices of poetic creation and a collage overlaid with the scraps and fragments of reality that have been pasted onto its surface. But it’s also a refrain of multiple voices that sometimes negate each other and yet sometimes reverberate in a brittle chorus. Much like the final poem itself there is a deep-seated ambiguity of authorship and identity as multiple voices clamour to be heard. What have been rendered uncertain are the relationships between the idioms of: high and low-brow; classical and vernacular; modernity and tradition.

Something of the spirit of the authors’ relationship is revealed in a note by Pound on a handwritten section which reads: “Bad- but can’t attack until I get typescript.”

It reveals an interlocutor who is eager to engage but also pass judgment and “attack” the weakness of their friend. Pound slashes out Eliot’s use of the word “perhaps” and writes “perhaps be damned” and “if you know, know damned well or else you don’t.”

A lot of the text is dismissed as flabby or unnecessary with comments like: “verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it.”

Pound both consoles and chastises Eliot with the various “OKs” and “Echts” scrawled thorough the text. He takes him to task for the “demotic” use of words like “abominable” and challenges him to resist cliché and commonplace. “Too easy” Pound warns of a phrase too easily reached. Another is “too loose.” Laziness, it seems, is not to be tolerated. Pound takes Eliot to task for using the word “may” with the scathing comment: “make up yr. mind” and is contemptuous of the equivocation suggested by the use of the word perhaps: “perhaps be damned” he pithily notes. Elsewhere we can see that Eliot rewrites and rewrites until he gets the comment “OK”

The poem, clearly, would not be anything like its published version without these conversations. In a different context it would be easy to read such cajoling through the logic of power and authority. Such language could be read as hurtful and unproductive; undermining and antagonistic. However what we can see instead is them both using language to build a new world around themselves which only they inhabit.

Much of the vocabulary is incomprehensible to outsiders. For example one comment seems to be about the rhythm of a line: “3 lines Too tum-pum at a stretch” a further comment asks: “Why this Blot and Scutcheon between 1922 and lil.’”

Another remark warns that the line “Filled all the desert with inviolable voice” is “too penty” which is ambiguous and the contemporary reader can only hazard a guess as to what it really means. Is it a recommendation to disrupt the pentamic beats of repeated syllables perhaps? Or is this a warning that the “inviolable” voice mimics the stridency of the Pentecostal imagery of renewal that Eliot used elsewhere but is rejecting in The Wasteland. We can never be sure. This is the private language of intimate communication. It talks of shared values and practices. It is a new system of communication that is being brought into being through their collaboration. This is the system of The Wasteland; a system that is also a world unto itself.

[quotes from T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Ed. Valerie Eliot, (London: Faber and Faber, 1971)]

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Systems and Containers

The container ships that frequently dock in Dublin Port are representative of the biggest moving objects that humans have ever produced. Yet despite the almost sublime mass of these ships in general they are but tiny elements in much bigger systems. They provide the necessary physical connections in the virtual networks of global communication and control. Without these ships the world system would stutter and atrophy. Without the objects they transport modern environments and lifestyles would be untenable. As Rose George puts it “nearly everything” comes to us by sea: 

Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: a least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship. The beads around the woman’s neck; the man’s i-phone and Japanese-made headphones. Her Sri Lanka-made skirt and blouse; his printed in China book. I can always go wider, deeper and in any direction. The fabric of the seats. The rolling stock. The fuel powering the train. The conductor’s uniform; the coffee in my cup; the fruit in my bag. Definitely the fruit, so frequently shipped in refrigerated containers that it has been given its own temperature. Two degrees Celsius is ‘chill’ but 13 degrees is ‘banana.’” [Ninety Percent of Everything, (Picador, 2013)]
 There are two often repeated commonplaces about the conditions of contemporary capitalism: its virtuality and its speed. This is understandable. In general the move to a post-Fordist economy is explicable as the shift from manufacturing to information; that is, from infrastructural to informational systems. Now a lot of communication takes place in spaces that are de-materialized; online. Interactions are often performed rapidly in which vast global spaces are collapsed with either a swipe/click or another plane journey. It’s easy, therefore, to assume that the two icons of the world system are the tokens of this virtuality and speed: the screen and the jet-plane. Yet just below the surfaces of the swiftly digitised world a lumbering mechanism of docks, cranes, containers and vessels grinds and shudders.

The modern container was invented in 1956 and adopted in the subsequent decade. It standardised shipping according to a module that could be easily transferred between ships, trains and trucks. Before then it didn’t make sense to manufacture things in other places to avail of cheaper resources and labour. Containers rendered everything transferable in a global system: raw-materials; products; people. The container ship made capital truly migratory on a global scale. But these massive ships are weighty, cumbersome and slow. The immediacy and speed of day-to-day living is only guaranteed by the irresistible inertia by which these ships move. The container ship is, in short, both the necessary mechanism and emblem of post war capitalism. That which lies manifest within their manifest is the very apparatus of our lives.

 In that famous line from The Communist Manifesto Marx predicted that in the stage of capitalism brought about by the Industrial Revolution all that is solid would melt into air. Relations that were concrete and human, he feared, were being effaced by the immateriality of economic ones. But, it transpired, all that is solid didn’t melt after all but was instead broken down to its component parts, boxed up and shipped out in container ships. These behemoths criss-cross the planet drawing their own occult patterns. The intricate traces they leave in the foam of the sea only hint at the mostly hidden migration of capital in the global system.
[This was the beginning of a longer response to Cliona Harmey's Dublin Ships project]

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Mel Brimfield and cosmic jokes

I recently responded to the artist Mel Brimfield’s work for the forthcoming Quantum Foam project in Ireland. My text can be found here http://quantumfoam.ie/ along with details of the project and examples of her work.  
My main point is “Perhaps there are metaphysical chickens out there waiting to peck at us. And they don’t know we think they don’t exist.”

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

This isn't some kind of metaphor. Goddamn, this is real

Here are some thoughts on the recent work of Kelley O’Brien; they were published elsewhere but I'm happy to post them now as they raise some points I’ve been thinking about regarding metaphors, axis and what Hugh Campbell refers to as "locative systems" that I hope to unpack further.
You can find examples of her work here: cargocollective.com/kelleyobrien

“This isn't some kind of metaphor. Goddamn, this is real”
Shellac, ‘The Squirrel Song,’ 1000 Hurts, (Touch & Go, 2000)

What we are concerned with here is not texts but texture. We already know that a texture is made up of a usually rather large space covered by networks or webs; monuments constitute the strong points, nexuses or anchors of such webs. The actions of social practice are expressible but not explicable through discourse: they are, precisely, acted – and not read.
Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Production of Space’

1: Steam

On certain winter days, when it’s cold and wet enough, the walkway outside the library and museum at Cranbrook Academy of Art steams. Quite literally. The Knoll Walkway, named after designer and Cranbrook alumni Florence Knoll, is so well heated you could walk on it barefoot even when it’s 20 below (I know; I tried).

A short walk away is Woodward Avenue, the near 22 mile highway that runs from Detroit in the south to Pontiac in the north-west. It was the first road in the USA to be concreted when a mile was completed in 1909. It begins in Wayne County and ends in Oakland County where Cranbrook is situated. On the way it passes numerous sites of historical importance including the Detroit Institute of Arts and Henry Ford’s factory built in 1910 where the Model T was first produced and the assembly line system was invented. Both cities at either end of the highway - Detroit and Pontiac – are bankrupt and currently under emergency administration.

Two thoroughfares, two situations, two axes. It’s tempting to read both as metaphors. This means to ascribe to them the status of the symbolic or the poetic; to bring them within the systems of art. On the one hand the steam at Cranbrook speaks to both the energy that fizzes from the members and guests of its very special community and the (perhaps obscene) power that cultural and financial capital can mobilize. On the other Woodward Avenue can serve as a convenient image for the history of 20th Century America. Whilst once at the heart of the Fordist model of industrial, automotive might, Woodward Avenue now joins two ailing, derelict, post-urban sites that have lost their previous functions and identities.

But these are not mere metaphors. They are hard, concrete realities. And this, I think, is what Kelley O’Brien’s work is about. It seems motivated by a fierce, stubborn refusal to allow the work that she does to become subordinated to hegemonic hierarchies of metaphor.

2: Refusing Armchairs

Yet, with O’Brien’s refusal comes a double risk. A sweet gamble perhaps, but a tricky one nonetheless.

The first risk is that tiresome, un-answerable question will rear its head once more: “but is it art?”  As if that bureaucratic clarification had any heft right now.

One, seductive, way of thinking about art is through the inherited legacy of Modernist rhetoric of defining art as a means of escape from the messy exigencies of reality. In its most decadent form this means thinking like Matisse who said:

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”[1]

This, seductive, way of thinking about art is also a way of thinking about art schools too. This approach conceives of art schools as zones of relative autonomy detached from their environments. Such autonomy requires preserving places like Cranbrook as those where aesthetic practices can be abstracted and protected from the outside world. A place of privilege and luxury perhaps. A place of good armchairs. Yet, thankfully, this autonomy can take a dialectical form. The armchairs can be refused (or at the very least made uncomfortable).

For, the luxury and privilege of autonomy can also create a space where experiments may take place without any guarantee of success; a place where values can be questioned and tested even if it’s not known where this questioning will lead. Adorno opens Aesthetic Theory in the spirit of such doubt: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist”[2] he writes. This lack of self-evidence has consequences not only for art but for art schools too. It calls their activity into doubt. Yet it’s precisely this uncertainty that is important. Art and its schools provide spaces where questions can be asked that either might not be asked otherwise or that probably don’t have answers.

The lack of answers is the second risk that O’Brien has committed to. The risk comes from embracing this lack of self-evidence so wholeheartedly that it becomes necessary to leave both sites of art and the academy. O’Brien’s refusal to design armchairs - even though she’s in one of best-known places for furniture design there is - is not a symbolic gesture. Instead it’s a discomforting, embodied choice. Her move from the safe studio spaces of Cranbrook to Pontiac exemplifies the hazard she’s taken on which – let’s be clear – risks failure that is actual, not metaphorical.

3: Axes & Bodies

A path may or may not be a metaphor, but it can form an axis too. And things can turn around an axis and become aligned. In their collaborative meditation on architecture, Chambers for a Memory Palace Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon discuss how Saarinen created an axis at Cranbrook in the “broad artful passage” that leads from the gates past the reflecting pool to the steps up to the museum and library. This axis, by the way, bisects the steamy Knoll Walkway. The effect created is that: “an observer moving through these spaces is almost always aligned with something: an arch, a gate, an entry, a playing field.”[3] The effect is the creation of a space of deliberation and of action where the participant is positioned between the library to their left and the museum to their right and can choose. Obviously, this is not a simple spatial choice. This axis is, Lyndon observes, not neutral, it is: “a relationship across space, not simply a path.”[4] Both the Knoll Walkway and Woodward Avenue are also not simply paths. They are also situated within a system of alignments that are geographical, historical, economic and political. But they are not, I’m arguing here, reducible to mere metaphors either. This is because axes are inherently relational. Axes create relationships in space and time, between things and people. Lyndon continues that:

“[Axes are] an extension of being face to face; when you want to be certain to give your full attention to someone, or to signal that you are doing so, you position yourself opposite them, your bodies roughly aligned, your eyes attending to theirs.”[5]

With sign-posts, lights, paint and whatever material she might have to hand O’Brien makes new axes, besides streets, along rivers, between people. With each new axis new relationships are brought into being. What she shows is that our relationships have an architecture. This is a concrete architecture. It will always exceed whatever clumsy metaphors we design around it.

[1] Henri Matisse, ‘Notes of a Painter,’ (1908), trans. Flam, in Harrison & Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990,  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pg. 76
[2] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Hullot-Kentor, (London: Continuum, 1997) pg. 1
[3] Donlyn Lyndon, Charles W. Moore, Chambers for a Memory Palace, (Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), pg. 7
[4] Ibid. pg. 7 emphasis added
[5] Ibid. pg 7