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Reality

Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative

I would like to pick up discussion from my last post about McLuhan’s “medium.” I realize that by pointing out the twofold perspective on “media” I do not address their importance to try to verify the applicability of the famous imperative “the Medium is the Message.”  Objectivity of the physical medium and cultural media does not simultaneously stress their importance. Important for whom, when?

The 21st century, and notably, the second decade of it has really started to take the Western world out of its comfort zone. And one of the questions is about the kind of cultural practice we need. We live in time of ongoing wars and anticipation of catastrophe – whether ecological or economic, when we can visually correlate all these phenomena – wars, capitalism, environmental destruction. This time is filled with a lot of confusion but also thinking, and reconsideration of values. I will not discuss here the new wave revolving around the theme of climate change that we hear in cultural institutions on daily basis; more interesting is the question about what should now be the philosophical formula for art if it is considered as cultural work.

This formula, in my opinion is a balancing act. This means a cross-over of philosophical perspectives. If we go back to McLuhans medium as total interconnected world – even if it may not be necessarily interesting or even immediately relevant from the position of subjective experience we need the view of objective world to start understanding the relationship between the human and environment: to seriously address the stakes for sustainability. Environment which is physical and cultural as McLuhan’s media. On the other hand, contemporary art has been traditionally, in the postmodern era, getting its inspiration from phenomenology, linguistics, structuralism. I believe that the idea of “the extensions of man” in McLuhan’s sense has something in common with phenomenology / studies of perception but they seem to have different purposes or perhaps practical implications.

The balancing act seems to be needed between the subjective and objective in order to be able to extract meaning, the particular meaning which works in current conditions. I cannot resist mentioning the politics of media art and fine art that have built two different camps for art histories. One of these camps is new media art, which through the means of technology or social practice, considers and confronts environment – physical and digital. Until recently this has been perhaps too “unhuman” for the governing mindset in fine art. Of course, in fine art also the artists have played with the “absence of subject” as something that has been produced by the Anthropocene condition (see my earlier post about art in the Anthropocene). My point is that the aspect of objectivity-as-environment (although imperceptible at its extreme) is required for the subject to mirror oneself or mark a distance – impossible as it seems – necessary for reassessing the values.

If we consider the interrelation – human-environment then “subjectivity” which was the focus of Félix Guattari, indicates this dynamics and possibilities for practice. Guattari purposefully excluded the term “subject” from his theory – and dedicated his whole attention to the matter of subjectivity production. It was about mutation, shifts and imagination, which pushed human existence out of scientific reference system towards other ecological horizons [1]. And finally McKenzie Wark has been expressing a similar thought to what I mean by balancing between philosophical perspectives and inclusion of the aspect of objectivity-as-environment. In Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene he suggests that the early 21st century critical thought has desire for life in two main ways: one is a kind of “revolutionary subjectivity” – the other is a kind of “speculative absolute, a theory purified of any merely human phenomenal dimension” – in other words, radicalized subject and absolutized object; yet he further seeks the middle cut, the media which mediates between and delineates object from subject [2].

 

Image: Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative.

[1] See – Guattari, Félix. Chaosmosis: an Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, 1992 [translated by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis]. Sydney: Power Publications, 2006.

[2] McKenzie Wark. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, 2015. London, New York: Verso, 2016, 122.

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Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

The post-human thinking at the time of Anthropocene is not only an accelerating direction in art but also an influence on art museums. Comprehending the connection between humans, objects, animals, technologies and nature is an issue that moves into the center stage of art. The key requirement for this critical thinking and practice is the position outside of predetermined conceptions of existing  knowledge and social value mechanisms. As Keith Armstrong distinguished, when it comes to the realm of “ecological art practices” – it is not about “management” , but a completely new image of the human or rather a form of self-realization as part of broader processes that will then guide our engagement with the world. [1] Ecological disasters and the concrete effects of global warming make it urgent to feel and to operate within “the real,” – and the last years have seen art production that is occupied with the material environment.

New media art cultures and public art practices take up active and problem-based positions in order to re-orient human knowledge – to make sense of the human interrelations with non-human agents on the basis of praxis and empathy. It is useful now to apply imagination derived from science-fiction and tales such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to be able to sometimes expand and sometimes – shrink the perspectives of the human. With their project “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human” the Council followed this wisdom while bringing together experts and non-experts for one-to-one dialogues with the goal to create multi-dimensional and “hallucinatory knowledge space.” [2]

When we look at the classic exhibition format within art institutions, it is interesting that representational aesthetics grounded on inquiries for new knowledge enter these social institutions that have their conventional role to embody and transfer humanity’s knowledge. Nicolas Bourriaud claimed that human consciousness literally left forms of representation in the event of Mark Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) and Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou (2013). [3] Bourriaud discussed these two major exhibitions with respect to the theme of art in Anthropocene. According to him, Leckey related to the objects without human mediation in order to connect with them sensually, whereas Huyghe proposed a “world without humans.” [4]

On the one hand, these practices are reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional project Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department  (1968-1972) that, through its perfect system of object gathering and classification, achieved elaborate and sophisticated deconstruction of institutional knowledge systems (in the frames of the museum itself). On the other hand, Leckey’s systems of objects that may produce “weird complexities” [5] and Huyghe’s interest in constructing situations that “take place within reality” [6] resonate with contemporary cabinets of curiosities, a widely celebrated trend of self-reflection and re-interpretation following the model of MONA in Hobart (as predicted in my blog post back in 2013).

Strictly speaking, the perspective of Anthropocene eliminates the existence of museums as we know them, yet of course they will exist, and the state of Anthropocene comes with opportunities for museum interplay with antithesis.

Image: Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

[1] Keith M. Armstrong. “Grounded Media – Expanding the Scope of Ecological Art Practices Within New Media Arts Culture.” QUT Media-Space-Journal (2008). http://eprints.qut.edu.au/8802/.

[2] Council. “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human, 25/4/2015.” Council,  http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/115_on_becoming_earthlings/737_on_becoming_earthlings_737.

[3]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[4]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[5] Kathy Noble. “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey: in Conversation with Mark Leckey, 2013.” Goldsmiths – Research Online, https://research.gold.ac.uk/9375/.

[6] Contemporary Art Daily. “Pierre Huyghe at Centre Pompidou, December 30th, 2013.” Contemporary Art Daily: a Daily Journal of International Exhibitions, http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2013/12/pierre-huyghe-at-centre-pompidou/.

Joseph Kosuth. One and Three Chairs. 1965. Image sourced from MoMA’s website.

Last night I read – with keen interest – transmediale’s article called Turtles All the Way Down- Or, Escape from Infrastructure by Fiona Shipwright. This piece has been written after the author had followed the usage of word “infrastructure” during transmediale 2017. We assume we’re talking about the same things—but are we? Everyone knows that if you repeat a term often enough, it starts to sound absurd”, is said in the introduction, and – by the end of reading – I experienced a moment when I had lost the usual meaning of “infrastructure” installed in my head. Perhaps that was the purpose of the article but I was also curious about the link between infrastructure and tunnels touched in this article through an art project example. Because of “infra-” (meaning “below”) the tunnel is such infra-structure. “Tunnels” have been in my thoughts in relation to my freshly started 3-year postgraduate research project by (exhibition) practice as a concrete place (military heritage island South Channel Fort – that I see as a metaphorical reference to “human structures”) and as an image – allegory. I feel the tunnel as something that leads through different modes of existence, towards the void. The image of the tunnel resembles the image used for the narrative of the article – showing turtles stacked on each other with the smallest on top.

As I progress with my research project I have to annotate a range of relevant sources of literature. There are certain models of “good practice” as to how approach this task. This is based on the principles of critical assessment and relevance to particular research. Yet it may not be unreasonable to take a historic text of interest and interpret the terms by placing into a selected logic – new (present) context, if you like. Such practices are not strange in relation to writing. When we say “writing” the usual assumption is that it means writing down ideas clearly, for others to understand, in the electronic document or on paper. But writing can also mean that you hit the keyboard deliciously to exercise the very act of writing. This kind of writing will be in most cases legitimate experimentation in the frames of training for writing.  The academic research field – Media Aesthetics – in Norway is – as I understand – engaged with such analysis – the aesthetics of something. A shape on white background evokes one understanding, but if the background is black – this renders a different understanding of that same shape.

What comes in mind as an example of perceptual perspectives is Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965 (see the image), the famous instance of Conceptual Art. The three chairs are: a real thing, a photographic image and a dictionary definition of  “a chair.”  Recently, I was in audience for a presentation which was a detailed analysis of this work. All the way it seemed that the speaker maintained a viewer’s perspective based on seeing this work in gallery setting. But why not consider, as part of the analysis, that the audience is looking at a photo image of this piece; perhaps also the fact that this work can be seen in numerous photo versions online upon typing “one and three chairs” in Google search? By using analogy, Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs is like a room with a group of researchers interacting – all use the same words but speak different languages. With different research projects (regardless of whether they are “interdisciplinary”) – are we dealing with different universes, or one? Clearly, both phenomena are happening at the same time.

This pure materialist strategy of looking at “things” by stepping back and further back, and playing with intermedia transitions or view positions seems to produce nothing else but the immateriality. The tunnel reality. Why not look at notions/things with contextual awareness, and the understanding that we are heavily coded on daily basis yet these codes do not necessarily match?

What about “art”? Whenever we use this word it is rather difficult not to imply, in conversational situation, an art object of some kind  which is then a widely understood quality of art – the way it appears. This is taken for granted. However, unlike the time when I was a first-time university student, I now almost always view painting works by approaching what I see in terms of a painting (therefore, I always observe frames with curiosity since they seem to be placed in that gray zone between different perceptual modes – is it a part of “art” or not?). Another example to problematize the situation around “art”. From time to time, I get into discussion about “contemporary art” with a lovely friend of mine – a retired man for whom art-making, in particular, creating of sculptures, drawings and paintings is one of his hobbies. Regardless of how much I would try to “broaden the horizons” on the subject of “contemporary art”, he would assert that a pile of some sort of crap (or something similar) would always be a pile of crap – nothing else – not “art”.  It seems that my friend would not change his mind even upon suggesting (and referring to Boris Groys) that what makes something “art” is the museum. When I was based in Latvia in 2000s, a new contemporary art organization was set up with the focus on question – what is art? It took the abbreviation for this question in Latvian  – KIM? (Kas Ir Māksla?) as its name. My friend’s opinion necessitates to read this fundamental question the second time. And so, to start answering “what is art?” it is relevant to ponder the status and meanings of “is” in this enquiry. We always seem to be dealing with some human “structural” coding in our minds – the case of me and my friend make it obvious.

Art also seems to be an entrapment. It was already decades ago when Jack Burnham wrote about the paradigm change: the transition from the object to the system. [1] Giving a multitude of examples of art works, he drew attention to how art manifests as a system; it usually only seems to be an object. It appears that Burnham thought of art as systems that magnify systems (actual environment and context). For example, he talked about “art system” noting that it did not need the art object as it was sustained by information. Systems are characterized by data/information flow. The statement about the dematerialization of the art object  in the late 1960s and early 70s is certainly in line with the direction manifested by Jack Burnham. But, strictly speaking, from a different angle (and the usual way of treatment), we still deal with art objects. If systems were really systems and not objects – can art be identified? How to position the issue of artistic representation?

 

 

[1]  See Jack Burnham Systems Esthetics (1968), https://monoskop.org/images/0/03/Burnham_Jack_1968_Systems_Esthetics_Artforum.pdf and Real Time Systems (1969), https://monoskop.org/File:Burnham_Jack_1969_Real_Time_Systems.pdf.