JEAN-LUC MOULÈNE PYRAMID’OS
MIGUEL ABREU / FOREWORD
LOUIS ARAGON / LES POÈTES
K.R.M. MOONEY DEPOSITION C. (III)
ALAIN BADIOU / FIFTEEN THESES ON CONTEMPORARY ART
JACQUES DERRIDA / BRICOLEUR ENGINEER
ISA GENZKEN UNTITLED
LEONORA CARRINGTON / THE DÉBUTANTE
TRISHA DONNELLY UNTITLED
REZA NEGARESTANI / WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE ANYTHING AT ALL?
TISHAN HSU BREATH
TISHAN HSU / PUBLIC PARKING INTERVIEW
YUJI AGEMATSU ZIP: 11.01.18…11.30.18
ROBIN MACKAY / YUJI AGEMATSU’S CLUMP SPIRIT
FLORIAN PUMHÖSL WARPED RELIEF (UC)
ROMAN JAKOBSON / LINGUISTICS AND POETICS
JEAN-LUC MOULÈNE TROPHY – SOFT CORE 1
SAM LEWITT / CORRESPONDENCE WITH MIGUEL ABREU
JONATHAN LASKER UNIVERSAL AFFECT
JONATHAN LASKER / DENSE FICTIONS
JONATHAN LASKER / PAINT’S BODY
MICHAEL CAVUTO / POETRY AND THE POET-ENGINEER
LOUIS ZUKOFSKY / AN OBJECTIVE
GUY DAVENPORT / THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
FLINT JAMISON APPLICATE 3.1
NICK FARMER / LANG BELTA
NAIRY BAGHRAMIAN BIG VALVE
R. H. QUAYTMAN I LOVE–THE EYELID CLICKS/I SEE/COLD POETRY, CHAPTER 18
R. H. QUAYTMAN / I LOVE–THE EYELID CLICKS/I SEE/COLD POETRY, CHAPTER 18
R. H. QUAYTMAN / ALLEGORICAL DECOYS
PIERRE HUYGHE MIND’S EYE (L)
SAM LEWITT STOCK (BOMBYX MORI)
JASON W. MOORE / OUR CAPITALOGENIC WORLD
SCOTT LYALL TALENT 17
SCOTT LYALL / FROM “THE SURFACE OF DESIGN” TO THE POET-ENGINEER?
HELEN MARTEN KNOCKOFF VENUS
HELEN MARTEN / EUCALYPTUS, LET US IN
K.R.M. MOONEY RADIAL (I)
K.R.M. MOONEY STRIKE (I–III)
CHEYNEY THOMPSON DISPLACEMENT [32028, 6, 12]
CHEYNEY THOMPSON DISPLACEMENT
CHEYNEY THOMPSON / TO THESE ARCS, THOSE COLORS MEASURE THIS TOUCH, THAT TIME
WACŁAW SZPAKOWSKI C4
SAM LEWITT LOST CORE 05
AMERICAN ARTIST SERVER RACK (FOR PIGFORD)
AMERICAN ARTIST / COLORED TIME
JEAN-LUC MOULÈNE CATASPHÈRE
SCOTT LYALL NANOFOIL (SLSTUDIO.CLONE_1/16/2)
JONATHAN LASKER THE HANDICAPPER’S FAITH
JONATHAN LASKER / SLEEP AND POETRY
NAIRY BAGHRAMIAN SCRUFF OF THE NECK (UL 11, F)
HELEN MARTEN UNTITLED
HELEN MARTEN / CORRESPONDENCE TO MIGUEL ABREU
DEXTER SINISTER WATCH WYOSCAN 0.5 HZ
Or how to deploy an artwork’s truth procedure to contemplate its real effects
R. H. Quaytman
June 9 – July 24, 2021
In a world increasingly described and experienced as regulated by immaterial forces – the digital revolution – there exists a discrete counter force, one fueled by what can be referred to as a renewed materiality.
A tripartite condition of opportunity for artists has been in place for some time, but now might be the moment for an exhibition to focus on how 1. new materials, 2. advanced software, and 3. innovative fabrication techniques constitute a rare point in history in which, taken together, the availability of radical new tools offers the ‘Poet-Engineers’ working today a compelling invitation to explore unknown content and invent new forms.
Poet: a person possessing special powers of imagination or expression.
Engineer: a skillful contriver or originator of something: the prime engineer of the approach.
– New Oxford American Dictionary
Etymology of Poësis: to make / produce / composition
Some consider the advent of 3D printing, for instance, to be as momentous of an invention as what photography proved to be in the 19th century. As this new technology appeared and threatened painting’s centuries-old dominance of the realm of representation and image production, it also unleashed a liberating force that allowed art’s regal medium to start concentrating on its constitutive elements, and to address them, for better or for worse, as subject matter. Today, the artist can make the fundamental decision to print a photographic image or file in either 2D or 3D.
Consider: silicone, digital photography and printing, computer graphics, UV cured inks, aluminum alloys, new plastics, resins and rubbers, formal optimization software, CNC milling machines, laser technology, advanced construction materials, along with more traditional media and techniques such as drawing, painting, weaving, wood and stone carving, glass blowing, bronze casting – all are within reach of the artist working today.
Each work in the exhibition contains the ability to clearly reveal its articulation and constitute an adequate plastic solution to a more or less identifiable problem – the conceptual dimension – or comes across as generating and responding to its own inherent riddle. As we know, since Marcel Duchamp installed a urinal on a gallery wall over 100 years ago and called it art, a contemporary art object must be, at best, the material embodiment of an idea, whatever the idea might be. An idea, for instance, might emerge from considering and questioning the status of a given material or technique.
Here: idea = question = problem = riddle
In the search for the mark of the Poet-Engineer, an artwork’s display of spectacular fabrication and high production values can be misleading. It cannot simply embrace and fuse with the alluring capabilities of advanced engineering tools.
The Poet-Engineer is a skilled craftsperson, but does not specialize in a particular technique. The Poet- Engineer is a mindset.
The Poet-Engineer does not fetishize new tools. They tend to be a master of the oblique and of expression in the minor mode (Deleuze).
The Poet-Engineer is not interested in exploring for the sake of exploring. The Poet-Engineer, like Picasso once proposed, strives to discover and find solutions.
“Among the several sins that I have been accused of committing, none is more false than the one that I have, as the principal objective in my work, the spirit of research. When I paint my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for. In art intentions are not sufficient and, as we say in Spanish, love must be proved by facts and not by reasons…” (Pablo Picasso, Paris 1923).
The aim of the poetically-engineered art object is to reveal its inner workings as it asserts its achieved contours. This intimate, localized entanglement is the only basis for what might emerge as the work’s infinite truth, a factor upon which a faithful truth procedure can be initiated. As such, the crucial feature of this realized object is that it is addressed to all (Badiou).
One object, one solution at a time, poetically-engineered art is in search of singularity and against open- endedness and seriality. It does not circulate with ease and fluidity in the market place because its signature remains somewhat hidden, until it might appear in the last instance only.
The poetically-engineered art object does not find support in general ideas. It insists and relies on its internal operations, on its immediate shape and material facture to produce sensations. It radiates the unique intensity of its combined intellectual and material qualities. Assertions and beliefs emanate from the object; they do not descend upon it.
Because of its experimental nature and often complex material execution, the poetically-engineered work offers a way out of the impasse of today’s rigid aesthetics of the ‘face-off’ brought about by “hyper-expressionism” (Sohrab Mohebbi). As it immediately positions the self of the artist as an entity with direct access to truth, “hyper-expressionist” art tends to do away with the call for material and formal innovation. It is often anchored in conventional modes of representation and the use of traditional techniques, and therefore is prone to be the outgrowth of a certain lack of imagination.
The three-part condition offers the artist an opportunity to make ‘objective’ new work, the outcome of an unusual admixture of material and immaterial elements. New tools and materials necessarily contribute to the exploration of the unknown and to the attainment of potentially surprising artistic propositions. These rare circumstances constitute a genuine invitation to playfulness and to unleashing a degree of child-play in the artist.
Fascinating new fabrication techniques, mesmerizing materials, and vertiginous software tools exist somewhat outside the artist and as supplement to their immediately subjective impulses. They constitute a fresh environment that can be activated to innovatively solve age-old problems, in the same way that a hobbyist develops unusual crafts to fabricate new things. The resolved object exists in a space ‘between’ its maker and the viewer. As such, it contains a degree of autonomy, while it might also retain the subjective mark of its maker. It offers a generous and open invitation to be apprehended and contemplated on its own terms.
The newly invented object can be tested. It welcomes study and critique. It has the potential to produce knowledge because it is the repository of engaging and palpable qualities at the level of form and content.
The poetically-engineered art object proudly presents itself as decisive and distinct and is often unsettling. It produces sharp sensations and stimulates something akin to visual intelligence. This newly minted, crisp intelligence uses language to translate its inner logic.
The poetically-engineered object invites the viewer to indulge in its often sensuous surfaces.
What Alain Badiou writes of Jean-Luc Moulène’s objects could be said of any work of a Poet-Engineer’s:
“The artwork at hand rising up against the fatal violence of the world as it is, indicates the human spirit’s capacity to propose to all what we might paradoxically call an idealist materiality. ‘Idealist’ insofar as, in the works of the artist, certain entirely unknown forms impose upon disparate materials—through the use of images, scans, topologies, digital manipulations and complex tools—a sort of startlingly clear and striking self-evidence. And ‘materiality’ because, beneath the novelty of the form, beneath its mathematics and its digital glamour, lie the traces of old materials, timeless gestures—traces hidden by just a layer of brilliant color.”
The spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, the High Renaissance artist and polymath, is the guiding light of The Poet-Engineers.
This Reader will be regularly updated with new materials and live reactions during the run of the show. Following the close of the exhibition, a catalogue will be published by Sequence Press.
This exhibition project was developed in consultation with Reza Negarestani (philosopher / systems engineer), Sam Lewitt (artist), Leah Pires (art historian / critic), Michael Cavuto (Poet), Alex Kitnick (art historian / critic), Geoff Kaplan (graphic designer), Matthew Fanuele (developer), and Martine d’Anglejan, MDAC (producer).
The human body, its organs and its limbs constitute a lexical repertoire on which many tongues have drawn to form many picturesque expressions. From Leonardo da Vinci to Corbusier, the human body has also served as a reference, as a measure. It can be its own standard or part of geometry, or even serve as a unit in a space structured by its proportions.
Echoing this history and these uses, Jean-Luc Moulène has constructed a pyramid with the long bones of the four human limbs. The leg bones–femurs, tibiae and fibulae–join the arm bones–humeri, radii et ulnae–in the pyramid’s skeleton. Thus each of the four joints at the figure’s four vertices–elbows and knees–suffers a dismemberment to follow the laws of geometry.
The form erected by Moulène is empty in its heart. This absence reveals the margins to which the lower and upper limbs have been relayed, leaving to the heart, the lungs and the brain their dominant function. The artist defines his pieces as documentary sculptures. This composition bears witness to the representations that constitute our bodies.
— Balthazar Lovay
With his vast knowledge of materials and techniques, his long-established interest in geometry, topology and other branches of mathematics, Moulène is as much of an engineer as any artist might be, an increasingly befitting disposition to our epoch. The French call him “technicien libertaire,” in English something like an “emancipated technician.” What this means is that he is constantly and freely looking for ways to solve given problems by apprehending and redirecting instruments and techniques, from the smallest and lightest hand tool to complex software and large-scale industrial machinery, to produce innovative art objects. In his work, imagination, pleasure, and relentless experimentation are put to use with little or no pathos, I might add crucially, to confer the appropriate contours on the object at hand. Once a final outcome has been reached and tested, it is time to look for and identify the next challenge, to fabricate the next object. And that following piece will not look or feel like the previous, simply because it will pose a new question and propose a logically different solution. In this precise sense, Moulène forges ahead and directly engages the myriad opportunities offered by new technologies and new materials, in dialogue with more ancient ones such as bronze, ceramics or marble, and thereby fulfills the potential job of the artist today.
— Miguel Abreu
excerpt from the Foreword in Alain Badiou, Matter and Form, Self-Evidence and Surprise: On Jean-Luc Moulène’s Objects (New York: Sequence Press, 2019)
— Louis Aragon, Les Poètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)
Tentative English translation:
I thus said that all poetry is the being that leads knowledge beyond possessing, that is to say beyond the given of the direct experience of the enumerative knowledge and the poet, who creates by means of an image hypothesis perceives from reality a relation never seen before by a path that is both of musical invention and of the scientific imagination as if he were endowed with an unknown supplementary sense, and it is what I was trying to say earlier when speaking of the poetry radar.
Cuttlebone is a biogenic material. It is composed primarily of aragonite. Its chambered, gas filled shell is used for buoyancy control and its siphuncle consists of highly modified narrow layers connected by various upright pillars. The material’s early human uses include grinding it up for polishing powder, which was used by goldsmiths. The powder was also added to toothpaste and used as an antacid for medicinal purposes or as an absorbent. Today, cuttlebone is commonly used as calcium-rich dietary supplements for domestic animal species. As a carbonate rich raw material, cuttlebone has potential to be used in the production of calcitic lime. Because cuttlebone is able to withstand high temperatures and is easily carved, it serves as a mold-making material for small metal castings for the creation of jewelry and small sculptural objects. Jewelers’ prepare cuttlebone for use as a mold by cutting it in half and rubbing the two sides together until they fit flush against one another. Then the casting can be done by carving a design into the cuttlebone, adding the necessary sprue, melting the metal in a separate pouring crucible, and pouring the molten metal into the mold through the sprue. Finally, the sprue is sawed off and the finished piece is polished.
Cuttlebone as an integrated material in this new series of works takes on a center position. Using vertical forms installed to act as an environment or partial enclosure consisting of cold-rolled steel that is electroplated with silver. The result is an iteration of forms that indexes the multiple histories of their production while still sensitive to the future conditions of their display. Atmospheric qualities, the forms’ assembly, handling, exposure to light, air, moisture, subtly and continuously affects the unfolding of each surface. The dimensions of the channel are taken from vertical lighting ballasts. Silver electroplating is a large part of the energy and power distribution industries, which rely on plated surfaces to improve corrosion protection and surface conductivity, lubricity and solderability between forms and circuits. The channel, clip and cleats have been machined and fabricated as to be plated as all one piece — ensuring its total primacy, its assembly makes no distinction between sculptural form and the supports required for its display.
The integration of cuttlebone itself is derived from its use as a mold and formalizes the material as a diagram of flows, evidenced by metal throughways including notches and marks made for each dependent counterpart. Registration lines and keys, pouring channels, scaffolding which engages the natural structure of the form, breaking off shapes and fragments with a certain guide uses the inherited behavior of the soft, brittle, foam line nature of the cuttlebone versus its rigid and stable backing.
— K.R.M. Mooney
1. Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.
2. Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to all.
3. Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.
4. There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.
5. Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.
6. The subject of an artistic truth is the set of the works which compose it.
7. This composition is an infinite configuration, which, in our own contemporary artistic context, is a generic totality.
8. The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the
secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.
9. The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial. This also means: it does not have to be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.
10. Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense: it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.
11. The abstraction of non-imperial art is not concerned with any particular public or audience. Non- imperial art is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic: Alone, it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people.
12. Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.
13. Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art: the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.
14. Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.
15. It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.
Levi-Strauss will always remain faithful to this double intention: to preserve as an instrument that whose truth-value he criticizes.
On the one hand, he will continue in effect to contest the value of the nature/culture opposition. More than thirteen years after the Elementary Structures, The Savage Mind faithfully echoes the text I have just quoted: The opposition between nature and culture which I have previously insisted on seems today to offer value which is above all methodological. And this methodological value is not affected by its “ontological” non-value (as could be said, if this notion were not suspect here): “It would not be enough to have absorbed particular humanities into a general humanity; this first enterprise prepares the way for others … which belong to the natural and exact sciences: to reintegrate culture into nature, and finally, to reintegrate life into the totality of its physiochemical conditions” (327).
On the other hand, still in The Savage Mind, he presents as what he calls bricolage which might be called the discourse of this method. The bricoleur, says Levi Strauss, is someone who uses “the means at hand,” that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous and so forth. There is therefore a critique of language in the form of bricolage, and it has even been possible to say that bricolage is the critical language itself. I am thinking in particular of the article by Gérard Genette, “Structuralisme et Critique litteraire,” published in homage to Levi-Strauss in a special issue of L’Arc (no. 26, 1965), where it is stated that the analysis of bricolage could “be applied almost word for word” to criticism, and especially to “literary criticism.”
If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engineer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. From the moment that we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse breaking with the received historical discourse, as soon as it is admitted that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning decomposes.
This brings out the second thread which might guide us in what is being unraveled here. Levi-Strauss describes bricolage not only as an intellectual activity but also as a mythopoetical activity. One reads in The Savage Mind, “Like bricolage on the technical level, mythical reflection can attain brilliant and unforeseen results on the intellectual level. Reciprocally, the mythopoetical character of bricolage has often been noted” (26).
But the remarkable endeavor of Levi-Strauss is not simply to put forward, notably in the most recent of his investigations, a structural science or knowledge of myths and of mythological activity. His endeavor also appears – I would say almost from the first – in the status which he accords to his own discourse, on myths, to what he calls his “mythologicals.” It is here that his discourse on the myth reflects on itself and criticizes itself. And this moment, this critical period, is evidently of concern to all the languages which share the field of the human sciences. What does Levi-Strauss say of his “mythologicals”? It is here that we rediscover the mythopoetical virtue (power) of bricolage. In effect, what appears most fascinating in this critical search for a new status of the discourse is the stated abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archè. The theme of this decentering could be followed throughout the “Overture” to his last book, The Raw and the Cooked. I shall simply remark on a few key points.
Submission by Anya Komar
Genzken has created works of complexity that draw upon a rich body of autobiographical images culled from her entire life history. Her visage is captured in informal snapshots, more formally composed portraits, and staged, theatrical poses. Collaged and inserted among the materials and sculptural vocabulary that have typically defined her practice in recent years, these images and their inclusion seem to mark an accelerated interest on Genzken’s part in positioning, quite literally, her body, image, and, indeed, her self into her work.
This tendency has taken on a fascinating complexity in the very recent bodies of sculpture that Genzken started producing in 2012 that use commercially produced mannequins of various shapes, sizes, and colors as their elemental foundation. These Schauspieler (Actors) are stylized, humanoid forms that give structure to a parade of characters Genzken has costumed not only with her signature materials, including foils, plastics, reflective materials, eyewear, and fashion accessories, but in an ultimate act of self-identification and self-inscription, she also often clothes the models in spectacular garments from her personal wardrobe. Designer jeans and blouses and brilliant yellow and leather jackets custom made for Genzken and worn by her for years now take their place in her art as sculpture, alongside unusual garments she buys specifically for these works, each of which she identifies variously as characters, such as “Death,” “urban cowboy,” and “alien.” These powerful acts of autobiography, dense with physical and psychological significance, have escalated in recent years, taking on an increasing relevance as Genzken continues to dissolve the borders that separate the artist’s practice and her body.
— Jeffrey Grove, Isa Genzken’s Homage to Herself (excerpt), in Isa Genzken: Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013)
When I was a débutante I often went to the zoological garden. I went so often that I was better acquainted with animals than with the young girls of my age. It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way.
For the first of May my mother had arranged a ball in my honor. For entire nights I suffered: I had always detested balls, above all those given in my own honor.
On the morning of May first, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena. “What a mess of shit,” I told her. “I must go to my ball this evening.”
“You’re lucky,” she said. “I would go happily. I do not know how to dance, but after all, I could engage in conversation.”
“There will be many things to eat,” said I. “I have seen wagons loaded entirely with food coming up to the house.”
“And you complain!” replied the hyena with disgust. “As for me, I eat only once a day, and what rubbish they stick me with!”
I had a bold idea; I almost laughed. “You have only to go in my place.”
“We do not look enough alike, otherwise I would gladly go,” said the hyena, a little sad. “Listen,” said I, “in the evening light one does not see very well. If you were disguised a little, no one would notice in the crowd. Besides, we are almost the same size. You are my only friend; I implore you.”
She reflected upon this sentiment. I knew that she wanted to accept. “It is done,” she said suddenly.
It was very early; not many keepers were about. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I took a taxi; at the house, everyone was in bed. In my room, I brought out the gown I was supposed to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena walked with difficulty in my high- heeled shoes. I found some gloves to disguise her hands which were too hairy to resemble mine. When the sunlight entered, she strolled around the room several times—walking more or less correctly. We were so very occupied that my mother, who came to tell me good morning, almost opened the door before the hyena could hide herself under my bed. “There is a bad odor in the room,” said my mother, opening the window. “Before this evening you must take a perfumed bath with my new salts.”
“Agreed,” said I. She did not stay long; I believe the odor was too strong for her. “Do not be late for breakfast,” she said, as she left the room.
The greatest difficulty was to find a disguise for the hyena’s face. For hours and hours we sought an answer: she rejected all of my proposals. At last she said, “I think I know a solution. You have a maid?”
“Yes,” I said, perplexed.
“Well, that’s it. You will ring for the maid and when she enters we will throw ourselves upon her and remove her face. I will wear her face this evening in place of my own.”
“That’s not practical,” I said to her.
“She will probably die when she has no more face; someone will surely find the corpse and we will go to prison.”
“I am hungry enough to eat her,” replied the hyena. “And the bones?”
“Those too,” she said.
“Then it’s settled?”
“Only if you agree to kill her before removing her face. It would be too uncomfortable otherwise.”
“Good; it’s all right with me.” I rang for Marie, the maid, with a certain nervousness. I would not have done it if I did not detest dances so much. When Marie entered I turned to the wall so as not to see. I admit that it was done quickly. A brief cry and it was over. While the hyena ate, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said: “I cannot eat anymore; the two feet are left, but if you have a little bag I will eat them later in the day.”
“You will find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys. Remove the handkerchiefs inside it and take it.” She did as I indicated.
At last she said: “Turn around now and look, because I am beautiful!” Before the mirror, the hyena admired herself in Marie’s face. She had eaten very carefully all around the face so that what was left was just what was needed. “Surely, it’s properly done,” said I.
Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed, she declared: “I am in a very good mood. I have the impression that I will be a great success this evening.” When the music below had been heard for some time, I said to her: “Go now, and remember not to place yourself at my mother’s side: she will surely know that it is not I. Otherwise I know no one. Good luck.” I embraced her as we parted but she smelled very strong.
Night had fallen. Exhausted by the emotions of the day, I took a book and sat down by the open window. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It was perhaps an hour later that the first sign of misfortune announced itself. A bat entered through the window, emitting little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. Scarcely was I on my knees when the beating of the wings was drowned out by a great commotion at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage. “We were coming to seat ourselves at the table,” she said, “when the thing who was in your place rose and cried: ‘I smell a little strong, eh? Well, as for me, I do not eat cake.’ With these words she removed her face and ate it. A great leap and she disappeared out the window.”
Submission by Leah Pires
The term poet-engineer might be deemed as a pleonasm from a distinctly Platonic viewpoint. Furthermore, what does the figure of poet-engineer signify? A conception of poetry matured out of its extravagantly whimsical experiments in caprices of speculation and human imagination, or an idea of engineering tempered by teachings received from philosophy, literature, artistic practices, etc., such that when one talks about the figure of the engineer, one does not evoke the image of a mere technician doing nefariously repetitive optimization jobs to preserve the status quo? We can, of course, be more percipient and say that poet-engineer as a combined term is precisely the mutual tempering and augmentation of the figure of the poet and the engineer. But that doesn’t exactly work either because if we mean poet in terms of poesis and not merely poet in terms of what we ordinarily identify as a poet, then we should also extend the same courtesy to engineering: To not see engineering as a technique-shuffling optimization business, but to consider it in terms of what Plato has called demiurgen (a neutral word for craftsmanship). Yet once we do justice to the figure of the engineer as we have done to that of the poet, we no longer need, in principle, to use the combined term poet-engineer other than for the sake of a belated clarification. Why? Because engineering qua Plato’s idea of craftsmanship is already the ultimate form of poesis. It is the business by virtue of which reality is begotten into existence in the first place.
However, we should exercise a level of necessary caution here. The idea of engineering as Plato’s craftsmanship should not be trivialized in terms of what we today think of as craft and craftsmanship. This is because what Plato meant by craftsmanship is defined by the idea of participation (methexis) in mixture(s) (mikton). These two terms denote the principles of the mind as the organon of craftsmanship or structuration of nature or physis. We never have a purist encounter with things, every such encounter is a mixed one made of formal resources of logic and language, dialectics, mathematical models and their corresponding modes of epistemological inquiry, imaginative forms of phenomenological experiences, and sensory perceptions. In a sense, our encounters with things are with how particulars participate in forms, and how such participation are in their essence a participation in measurable and determinable mixes, and not as Socrates says, participations in ‘a miserable mass of unmixed messiness’.
In short, every form of making a world through our encounters with things is fully multi-modal. It is principally a mixture of modes of know-how (technê) and modes of know-what (epistêmê) with more complex combinations of the two wherein the hard distinction between technique and episteme collapses. Yet, the mixture of technê and epistêmê can also contain atechnos or nontechnical components which are routines or formulaic skills acquired through experience or empeiria which can be compressed into what can be called iterative recipes such as when the ingredient X reaches the temperature tempa, add the ingredient Y, let the mixture boil for t minutes, then reduce the temperature to tempb and add ingredient Z… (something like a cooking recipe). The nontechnicals, in this sense, primarily deal with skills or modes of learning by rote. As forms of rote learning, in their simplest forms they can merely involve repetition and recall, but in more advanced forms they incorporate record keeping of past procedures, inputs and outputs. Every new input or ouput will then be compared to the history kept and will be counted as an update of the record and a correction. An example of this update function will be something like dead reckoning navigation where every step will be counted as an update or rectification of an already formulaic or mechanical procedure of path finding.
Such routines or formulaic instructions that for instance go into algorithmic processes such as the annealing of a piece of metal in order to create a blade by the combination of hammering and changing the temperature in reiterating steps is an example of atechnos. If the techne is already a form of knowledge, atechnos does not intimate the lack of technê or know-how, but rather an epistemologically blind technique which is oblivious and imperceptive to its origin. Hence, atechnos or the formulaic instruction is not a primary ingredient of poesis or mixture qua the combination of arts and techniques of knowing (theoretical and practical). It is formal only by virtue of what we already know about the so- called techniques of nature (e.g., how such and such routines or algorithmic changes in temperature, pressure and cooling time produce this sort of rock rather than another). In so far as it is primarily based on what is being instructed rather than what is known or what is identified as a know-how that requires a justification by way of practical reasoning, atechnos in its essence is a non-technical—in a deep sense of technicity—ingredient of the mixture.
Non-technical ingredients then only serve the mixture belatedly, meaning they enrich the mixtute after theoretical and practical determinations with regard to the nature of things and how they should be approached. Any sort of prioritization of formulaic methods, accordingly, puts us back in the pre-critical picture of thinking and making things. It is only in the service of techne (know-how), episteme (know- what) and logos (dialectical relations between reasons), that the atechnos or rote methods of building— whether pertaining to a system of knowledge or the making of a concrete object—become necessary. And it is also as a part of mixtures whose primary ingredients are episteme and techne, that the negative and positive, disabling and enabling constrains of the atechnos are brought to light. To this extent, the art of mixture (knowledge and technique) which is the primary field of a poet-engineer as a whole stands in opposition to the prioritization of atechetonos or rote and iterative methods of knowing and building. Whereas the latter belongs to the domain of games in which rules of the game are already set, the former belongs to the horizon of playing where the play-vs-game approach shines through as the child receives a Lego kit for the construction of a gas station. The playing child who is the distillation of the idea of a poet-engineer will never follow the instructions, namely, the settled rules of the game, but instead toys around with the kit and its components. In that courageous suspension of the existing rules in favor of the open play or toy-approach to what is at her disposal, the child builds a new environment for originality, poesis and engineering.
For the time being, the poet-engineer is the one who theoretically and practically endorses the idea of play, rather than game as a set of established rules within which one can act and think. Whereas many choose to inhabit the world they have inherited and make changes within the set of its established rules (game), the poet-engineer opts for making a new world—not out of the caprice of making difference for the sake of difference—but out of the urgency of looking at the inherited world from outside. It is the crafting of an outside view of our existing world by playing (i.e., provisionally suspending the established rules) with its rules and constraints is tantamount to creating a different world or world-version to adopt Nelson Goodman’s lexicon. A concretely determinable and different world sheds light on the problems we have on our hand here and now. These are problems of which we are currently unaware because by virtue of inhabiting a world and its rules, all potential problems look natural, as if they are the intrinsic features of the world and not its cracks and pathologies.
All things considered, the poet-engineer is in the permanent state of childhood: Nothing is given, even the idea of being a child. To play, to toy around with what appears to be the totality of reality of ourselves and the world is the way of the child whose cognitive and practical glory is to be found in its infinite task of growing up. In growing, the child leaves its cradle-world behind by managing to make a concretely new world—new in the sense that the world made is the old world cognized anew.
We can say that Plato’s craftsmanship is also a mixture of reasons, and positive passions guided by the intellect. It is thus not a mere applied science, but rather the highest form of poesis which passionately begets and brings forth that which is true because it is beautiful, and that which is beautiful because it is true. From a cognitive perspective, it consists of four principal modes of cognition with their corresponding objects, (a) eikasia or sensory convictions whose objects are fleeting bundles of sensory images, (b) pistis or observation-based beliefs whose objects are sensible objects, (c) logos dianoia or discursive thoughts whose objects are mathematical or models which mediate between the realm of timeless ideas and the evanescent sensible realm, and finally (d) episteme or rational insights whose objects are time-general ideas which are prototypes, blueprints or paradeigma for making thus-and-so things of certain determinate kinds rather than others.
These four cognitive modes and their objects make poesis not as Aristotle would later claim an imitation of nature or physis, but as Plato states in the later dialogues, the building or engineering of nature, that is, all of reality. Yet this is a conception of reality or nature which is not given in advance but is a matter of poesis and craftsmanship by all modes of cognition, by the combined forces of know-hows and know- whats, and the passions for the true and the beautiful. Its ultimate goal is to conceive nature as the greatest mixture which is multiplicity-in-unity or the production of intelligible wholes where the relations between parts are no longer short-lived relations made by mere sensory presentations but the sort of relations which are that of logos. Logoi or intelligible relations between ideas, material parts, modes of cognition, etc. are traditionally in Plato’s dialogues and pre-Platonic works are considered to be belonging to the numerical sphere. Within the numerical sphere, numbers are not exactly digits in the modern arithmetical sense, but varieties of structured relations which make the relations between parts, and parts and wholes to which they belong theoretically and practically timelessly intelligible. It is precisely because of these sorts of structured relations that we can expect to reverse-engineer an Archimedean water pump and not get a wholly different machine. Or for that matter, it is because of these numerical relations, logoi or structures, that we can re-engineer anything including reality itself, systematically, from the structured relations we currently have to another configuration of such structures that results in new unities, new wholes and worlds. These are unities which are not exactly homogenizing unities, but unities which hold together in determinable and determining fashions many heterogenous elements in dynamically integral and integrating frameworks.
Reality in this sense is never given to us as a totalized whole because reality is the matter of taking part or participating in the poetic art of mikton/mixture: Making wholes out of disparate components— perceptions, phenomenologically conceived objects, epistemological models and different forms and ideas—while also analyze the existing wholes into new elements such that they can be mixed anew is the task of the mind as Plato says, but that is also the task of engineering. What is engineering really, other than participation in mixtures which is principally the highest form of poesis, an enterprise that goes through a long and disciplined theoretical and practical reflection on the nature of what it means to make things, anything at all, from an object to a world to reality as such? This is what engineering as an enabling mode of craftsmanship that works through mixtures of scientific principles, conventional and unconventional mathematical and computational techniques to bypass the problems of existing foundational theories of nature (i.e., physics) and tempers itself with the constrains of the current cultural, social and economic world—all things considered—looks like.
Yet in the spirit of poesis-engineering—which is that of increasing determination—we must exert a minimum effort to distinguish mixture as expounded by Plato from other similar products and concepts fashionable in contemporary philosophy such as assemblages. While an assemblage is a mere arrangement of elements such as actions, forces, bodies, power relations formed along the horizontal axis (machinic assemblages) and the vertical axis (territorializing and reterritorializing forces), mixture is a system of measurements and reasons. It is not about empeiria or ingredients themselves as such, but first and foremost about the determined and determining relations between such ingredients whatever they may be. The arrangement and what goes into it is not important, what is important is how and why—by what methods, modes of cognition, modes of knowing and doing—things begin to stand in such determinate relations with regard to another (or, how things being held together in the broadest sense). In short, what sets apart Plato’s idea of mixture from an assemblage is not the ingredients or the way such ingredients are arranged horizontally or vertically. What is primarily at stake is not empeiria or the stuff that goes into the arrangement or the assemblage, but the modes of know-hows and know-whats, synthesis and analysis combined. In making greater unities (which is that of synthesis), the poet-engineer makes more robust (i.e., error-correcting) forms of truth, bringing to the fore the determining relations we could not have otherwise. At the same time, in making such better wholes, the poet-engineer gestures towards fine-graining the sorts of relations and configurations we have and how they might be revised individually (the procedure of analysis) within greater unities or determining sets of relations. All in all, synthesis-cum-analysis as the core of Plato’s mixture is a marker for remaking the world: With a lot of rotten ingredients and a handful of healthy elements we have inherited, we can make an entirely new world in which not just the existing order of things will change but the very things which we recognize as the constituents of this world or any other world.
When it comes to many rotten ingredients and only few reliable elements within a whole, we are closer more than ever to taking seriously the metaphor of Neurath’s boat:1 Have you ever considered that many constructions are akin to the construction of a boat while sailing on the open sea as in the metaphor of Neurath’s boat? That the only way forward is to make the boat plank by plank while on sea? That is to say, perhaps the greatest import of this simile is how we can revise what we already understood and remake what we have already made. This emphasis on the process of revision and remaking is not as if we have the leisure of making such repairs on a firm ground. Most likely, we will be making such repairs on the open sea when everything is at stake. We always begin with a mixed situation. We replace the rotten planks by finding the few solid planks on which we can stand. In standing on what we provisionally consider as sturdy floorboards, we manage to repair the boat piecewise, from here and now onwards. In seeing the boat as a mixture of falsity and truth at the level of practice and theory, we have a better chance at improving the notion of truth and mitigating our ignorance so long as we see the mixture not as a mere assemblage of things, but a system designed to make increasinsly precised back-and-forth movements about various position or parts in a determinable whole.
The real difference is in the ways abstract and concrete determinations (logoi or reasons) make a difference among ingredients and their arrangements. Such that they mark a difference between these kinds of ingredients held together in such a way as opposed to those ingredients held together in another way. In other words, they determine the structure of the world: how things in the broadest sense are held together in the broadest sense things are held tohether as Wilfrid Sellars would have said.2
That is to say, we are only concerned with the question of structure,i.e., that which is not given to us by expriences, or materialist / empirical accounts of assemblages but by the global instruments of determination, that is to say, ongoing negotiations about ideas and methods in tandem with one another: what does make an object a real object from the perspective of facture which pertains to the amount and the type work goes into producing something such that the work it takes to make something in the broadest sense is at once an indication of the process and the final work.3
But what does a mixture as the product of poesis-engineering look like? Thus far we have been talking about the processes among the modes of cognitions, reasons and emotions, doings and knowings required to make anything at all. What we have not explicitly mentioned yet is that there is a system of ranking or ordering among such modes of processes and modes of cognition. Without an ordered system of ranking in cognition and methodology for using and applying such processes, the mixture will be ‘a miserable mass of unmixed messiness’. The ordering of methods and modes of cognitions in the production of any mixture ensures that to each specific level or scale of the mixture the right sorts of measurements, ratios, reasons (theoretical and practical), thoughts and practices are applied. The significance of level, or scale-sensitivity is mentioned in its most explicit way in Phaedrus through the figure of Plato’s ideal butcher who only carves at the joints rather than splintering the bones. Thinking of scale in the most concrete way requires us to take the metaphor of Neurath’s boat seriously: Have you ever considered that many constructions are akin to the construction of a boat while sailing on the open sea as in the metaphor of Neurath’s boat? That the only way forward is to make the boat plank by plank while at sea? That is to say, perhaps the greatest import of this simile is how we can revise what we already understood and remake what we have already made. This emphasis on the process of revision and remaking is not as if we have the leisure of making such repairs on a solid ground. Most likely, we will be making such repairs on the open sea when everything is at stake. We replace the rotten planks by finding the few solid planks on which we can stand. In standing on what we provisionally consider as solid planks, we manage to repair the boat piece by piece, from here and now onwards.
To put it differently, one should not overstretch the resources and the relationships held between the elements of a specific level of nature / mixture or between that level and other levels. Overextending the power of a model that structures specific relations and indexes distinct constraints, interpretive factors, range and scope of application is synonymous with splintering the bones. The problem of over- stretching or over-extending levels and their limits guarantees the weakness and fragility of the produced mixture insofar as one can now apply arbitrarily premises pertaining to one sector of reality to another, smuggling the conclusions derived from one set of premises particular to one level to another. In other words, one ends up with a model of nature or reality in which conceptual, descriptive and explanatory resources specific to a particular phenomenon, level or sector of reality can be overextended to another entirely different phenomenon or level. For example, conclusions drawn from biology and the Darwinian natural selection are being indiscriminately overextended to social and economic problems with no restriction or thresholds of application criteria to social and economic problems in terms of game-theoretic models of rationality and market competition.
However, the distillate of overextending biological principles to socio-political domain with no reservations and in complete absence of norms and criteria for moving from one level to another level, from one set of inferential links obtained between particular elements to another set is best displayed in the ideology of Social Darwinism. It is in Social Darwinism that the entire idea of scale-sensitivity of producing a determinate mixture or idea of nature/physis is completely leveled such that the entirety of nature takes the aura of laissez-faire capitalism, fascism, nationalism, eugenic cults and libertarian individualism, namely, fundamentally inconsistent and parochial phenomena claiming to be the hidden principles behind the machinations of the universe.
So to answer the question of what the mixture as a product looks like: It is a multi-scalar or multi-model level of reality. What is important here is to understand that the talk of scales or levels in poesis- engineering and the production of mixtures do not imply an ontological commitment of the sort espoused by the Aristotelian’s order of beings. Far from assuming that levels or scales are intrinsic features of nature, the multi-scalar model expands on and experiments with the concept level on epistemological, compositional and technical contexts. For example, specifying and distinguishing levels can be based on the criteria of compositionality, for example, how upper-level objects and processes are composed of lower-level objects and processes. Or they can be based on the sort of interactions existing among elements, processes and mechanisms, or how, for example, different theories, techniques and instruments can detect or intervene with certain sorts of relations and patterns, and not others.
An apt and oft repeated metaphor for multi-scalar models are science-fiction movies involving the protagonist becoming too small in size or too large. In such scenarios, we can witness a man with an average height and a normal life by any mundane standards suddenly because of some radiation, poison or curse shrink first to the size of a doll that can be fitted in a dollhouse, then the size of a mouse attracting the attentions of domestic cats, then a small insect, and so and so forth until the protagonist reaches a nanometric size at which his encounter with a pumice stone is akin to visiting a strange vision or version of Plato’s cave—labyrinthine, replete with bizarre crystals that shimmer in the most hallucinatory ways, and openings and dead ends with arcane patterns. What we witness in the saga of the shrinking man is a drastic and dizzying change in perspectives or modes of encounters with what we take to be nature. The shrinking man is precisely a multi-scalar model whose scale-sensitive encounters with what was always taken for granted as nature is a source of both tribulation and a constructive enlightenment. This is why earlier the protagonist’s encounter with Plato’s cave was identified as a vision or a version. The protagonist level-specific encounters with what he always thought to be flat normal suburban life now takes the form of different visions i.e., re-cognitions of what had been previously cognized. These visions or ways of re-cognizing what is already cognized are also versions of a world in which one feels at home. But the task of poesis-engineering or the art of mixtures vis-à-vis multi-level modelling is to undo the vision or the version of the world that is given to us, to disturb the established peace of this world in yet another way by crafting different cognitions and versions of it— perspectives from whose points of view the allegedly settled and accepted order of things are challenged and reforged on theoretical and practical, poetic and technical grounds.
Accordingly, the product of poesis-engineering is not just a model in the traditional sense of representing something that is already there, but the reforging and recognizing of that world. The modus operandi of this art of mixtures is to reframe what is given to us at different scales or joints: To understand the truth of these joints, their implications while cutting at them by means of technical and epistemic strategies so as to progressively find subtler joints at which reality can be revised and reconfigured—that is the task ahead. The long and arduous task of contributing to the truth of nature – being and thinking — not in terms of a totalized conception of nature or a thought set in stone begins with the realization that our modes of cognitions, our technics and episteme are contextual, that they carry with themselves negative and positive constraints regarding what they can do or cannot in theory and practice. That realization is the first step of the greatest drift towards truth and the good, towards a non-parochial conception of nature and hence all forms of poesis that make and remake it, cognize and recognize it.
Yet that critical realization that we must find the joints of nature and differentiate the dimensions and scales of a given reality is not an easy task. It is not the fruit of assuming x or y in advance for its tasks commensurate with the labor of dialectics as such, moving back and forth between determinacy and indeterminacy, synthesis and analysis, passion for truth and patience for the good in Plato’s terms.
If we were to understand engineering in Plato’s terms, we could summarize the task of engineering à la the highest form of poesis as a process of generation through synthesis and analysis—i.e., a process necessary for the production of any mixture, that is to say, anything that can be called the actual and concrete part of the reality that compels thinking and practice, conceiving and making. Yet in so far as the mixture—the organized gradient between the sensorial and the formal—is what structures or accounts for all of reality or nature, generating and making sense of mixtures is tantamount to producing an inclusive or mixed life which Plato identifies as the Good par excellence. To make sense of reality or nature in its ever-expanding sense (that is, rendering it theoretically and practically intelligible) and to make a life that precisely matures from such a revisable and expandable conception of nature to which it belongs is what the good consists of. The good is longing for the mixture in Plato’s words, and the mixture is the true exemplification of the good in that it dialectically captures the dynamics between what it takes to make a world and what it take to understand a world, the restricting and enabling constraints (epistemic, technical, methodological, etc.) it takes to make a world and the complete lack of such constraints.
The art of mixture which is the vocation of the poet-engineer displays the good in its purest form to the extent that it displays an interplay between negative and positive constraints for all thoughts and actions, the limiting and the enabling constraints, to peras (binding/limited) and to apeiron (unbinding/unlimited), that which freezes the flux of indeterminate stuff to make it determinate (see Theaetetus) and that which erodes our ambitions to determine what it is we are talking about, very much like an instance of capturing a specific moment (peras) in the flux of a torrid river (apeiron).
But what is the good in Plato’s sense of informed construction through mixtures (i.e., poesis) other than a striving for the good that quantifies and qualifies what exists and whatever can possibly exist: engineering as the production of not new things, but more intelligible worldviews and better worlds i.e., worlds from whose perspective, any existing world will be cognized anew, and from that re-cognition, there comes a passion for greater mixtures with broader multiplicities brought under more structured and thus more functional and pertinent theoretically and practically intelligible unities, better visions and versions.4 Such newer unities indeed suggest more precise and comprehensive ways the limited (the determining process) acts upon the unlimited (the undetermined flux) such that the latter becomes progressively structured and more hospitable to actions and practices which accommodate multiplicities in ever more robust and larger unities as if our objective was always about how things broadly speaking hang together by virtue of what makes a family of connections between them.
What goes on into the art of mixture is a fierce form of dialectics, not the kind that is merely historically situated but one that makes any conception of history. It enacts what the late Rosemary Desjardins has identified as the compressed activity undergirding dialectics:
(a) A continuum (apeiron), through (b) an application of limit (peras), and thereby “division” or “separation” into many and diverse elements, to (c) a generative “combination” that brings into being a new whole (to mikton). This constant progress through separation and combination gives us not only language and music, but the entire world of generation and decay—indeed, as Socrates puts it to Protarchus, this is the fundamental structure that underlies all beauty, all virtue, indeed the entire universe.
And thus, we are as always at the brink of divisiveness, accepting Plato’s version of the poet-engineer of the world in all of its methodological and pragmatic complexity, or just living a happy life in the world given to us. The answer is rather difficult because the poet-engineer has no established world or account of nature, for it has decided long ago to make its worlds at the cost of not the present but what a future born out of the greatest labors of thoughts and practices might look like. The poet-engineer is in a dialectical movement with the present and the past versions of the world it inhabits. It knows one thing and one thing only: to realize the actual problems of the past or the present, one must make a different future or counterfactual version of the world, and to see that in all clarity, one must not just believe in the future as the armamentarium of techniques and epistemes to come, but also in the past as what step-by-step systematically brought us to this dilemma which we call the sticky conundrum of the present. Thus dialectics as not only the engine of history but that which enables us to think through history as what enables us to remix, recognize and revision what we think as past, present or future.
For the last four decades, American artist Tishan Hsu has made a mark through his focused investigation into the embodiment of technology. His multimedia work exists in a terrain both familiar and unfamiliar, sublime yet accessible. From the early stages of his career in the 1980s, he’s been interested in technology’s impact on affect and its phenomenological implications. Making art was then an opportunity to respond to the accelerated changes of biological and digital infrastructure.
“I speculated that the world I would inhabit would be a technological one, for better or for worse. As a result, I wanted to get closer to technology, as a way of understanding it as a potential inspiration for creative production,” Hsu describes.
It is this desire to trace the corporeal conditions of the then new normal that has sustained Hsu’s unique visual language. From his choice of materials like tile, alkyd, ceramic, video and sound, he continually demonstrates an awareness of the rhizomatic trajectory of contemporary life. Much of this is heavily informed by his interdisciplinary education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 70s. And while at MIT, his studies in environmental design led him to seek linkages between film and theories related to artificial intelligence and posthumanism.
For Hsu’s first museum solo show, Liquid Circuit, at the Hammer Museum [and subsequently at Sculpture Center] which recently closed, curator Sohrab Mohebbi presented a survey of 30 key works ranging from reliefs to drawings and sculptures from 1980 to 2005. Like many of Hsu’s sculptures, the installation of the exhibition showcased a broad concern with the spatial dynamics of objects. It also focused on a prioritization of flow of concept as much as registering the technical aspect of Hsu’s elaborate and vatic body of work into a different frame. The exhibition highlights broad trajectories of Hsu’s career. This includes several drawings and works on paper that articulate a proximity to and a radical departure from the appropriation aesthetics of his contemporaries.
Hsu triangulates his interest in the formal yet idiosyncratic architectural techniques, cinematic, and spatial composition throughout the Hammer exhibition. Buoyed by the extra-dimensional sensorium of the brooding, harrowing breaths of the sound accompanying the roughly twenty-one minute video “Folds of Oil,” (2005), the physical space of the galleries were reconfigured to an almost augmented environment where visitors are characters in Hsu’s elaborate mise-en-scene. The vibrant, detailed and arresting color scheme of decadent yellow, deep red, teal blue, and blue streaks, resembling static transmission from CRT screens, resolves the palpable tension of wanting to view the installation as a constellation of grotesque forms as opposed to pleasantly fantastical and speculative objects.
Suggesting a personal and collective response to the shift in ontology engendered by introduction of a novel technopolitics, works like “Heading through,” (1984) and “Holey Cow,” (1986) voice an uncertain and acutely anxious disposition toward the velocity of progress. While “Ooze” and “Vertical Ooze” (both 1987) and similar ceramic tile platforms materialize chimeric, imaginative landscapes influenced by the fluidity and poetics of communication systems. The discrete quadrants of tile can then be viewed as units of data appropriated from the emanations of the screen’s surface. At the same time, alkyd, with its ability to hold color significantly better than other resins, now operates as a metaphorical substance for high fidelity images requiring ample processing power. Hsu obliges us to consider and imagine a world operating almost exclusively at the register of sensation.
With a background in environmental design, Hsu’s interest in biological structures is best reflected in the paintings “Cellular Automata 2,” (1989); “It’s Not the Bullet but the Hole 2,” (1991); and “Cell,” (1987). They also show the artist’s insight into just how deep our relationship to the hyper-accented networked culture permeates. Refreshingly, what Hsu excels in is his reluctance to embrace a reactionary criticality, instead opting to present the terms and conditions of a new reality through a personal, lived experience, free from contrived affects. In conversation, he admits that he “achieves meaning through the making of the work. And a lot of this is culled from an extremely personal place. It’s always about deconstructing and reconstructing the personal.”
Having studied art since the fourth grade, learning techniques of the American Realist, Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist style, the rigorous dedication to craft is excellently translated in Hsu’s paintings. The amalgamation of painterly knowledge, prophetic and interdisciplinary ideas, and use of industrial materials like steel in the titular work “Liquid Circuit,” (1987) images, we are reminded of the thresholds yet to be crossed and encountered in our digitally mediated life, even as much of his ideas unfurl in real time.
I never imagined I-Phone, I-Pad, or Instagram. I was focused on the changing nature of our relationship to the objects that surround us and that these objects would increasingly develop the affective qualities of our cognitive and haptic self. It was this transition that I wanted to capture.
With “Liquid Circuit” being your first museum survey in the United States, what was your process for the show?
Curator Sohrab Mohebbi wanted to focus on the earlier periods of my work ending around the mid- 1990s. Because I had not shown for a long period, where many people have never seen the work of the 80s and 90s, there would be a tendency to assume the show to be a retrospective. In contrast, the approach was to present the work as a process of exploration that is still ongoing where the focus is on the beginning. There is no culminating statement. He felt it was important to bring together several earlier bodies of work that had never been shown together and that I, myself, had never seen together.
Interesting. There certainly was a sense of each room being its own conversation, a snapshot of ideas in time.
The work at each step felt like a deviation from the previous work when I was doing it, a tangent to what I thought I was doing. I had always felt there were multiple tangents and singular explorations over the years and often felt frustrated, if not discouraged, by the lack of coherence or understanding that I could refer to, in generating newer work. Everything felt partial and in need of further clarification, and still does. If there are any concepts or themes that deviate, I feel it is that the work actually comes together or coheres in a way I hadn’t imagined. It was not about any one work or group of works, as I had thought or even intended, but rather the affective sense coming from seeing all of the work together.
The affective “sense” of the exhibition is something I could never have articulated in interviews like this and is only experienced by seeing the work, and particularly all together. The coherence has been the deviation from what I felt was a rather motley practice.
At what point did you begin to take an interest in the relationship between art and technology?
While applying to college, I speculated that the world I would inhabit would be a technological one, for better or for worse. As a result, I wanted to get closer to technology, as a way of understanding it as a potential inspiration for creative production, in whatever discipline that might be, in contrast to seeing it as alien, and opposed to a so-called humanistic position for cultural practice.
I thought the way in which technology was driving the world was new and would be unprecedented in its breadth and depth. This desire strongly influenced my decision to place myself in an environment that was involved in creating this technological future.
The sculptures make use of non-traditional materials (at least during its time). What marked this choice? Primarily, I’m interested in how these materials articulate your larger thematic ideas.
The choice of materials in much of the work derived from a desire for something organic and material- based, while simultaneously evoking, if not actually being of, the technological, including affects of the virtual, illusionary realm and the formal qualities of technology and the manufactured. I felt the affective quality of my experience was not going to be the end of the human and the dominance of the technological, but rather some kind of hybrid synthesis.
Part of the choice and handling of materials was finding a way of working that could seamlessly move between different realms of meaning and ontology. There was the object-filled, material world as one realm, the virtual, digital world as another realm and the bodily, organic realm as another. All of these seemed to be increasingly intertwined and inextricable, partly due to the digital nature of technology itself and how it was permeating and transforming everything. I could go into each material decision specifically, but that is a much longer discussion.
I’m sure! Also interesting is the hanging method. Some of the works seemed as though they were floating screen icons. Was this your intention? To reproduce the experience of the screen into physical space?
Yes, this was intentional. In the earliest work, I did not have “screen” in mind, but rather the media generated world of early computers, televisions and telephones. I never imagined I-Phone, I-Pad, or Instagram. I was focused on the changing nature of our relationship to the objects that surround us and that these objects would increasingly develop the affective qualities of our cognitive and haptic self. It was this transition that I wanted to capture.
From that, I wanted to emphasize in the installation that I do not see these works as “paintings and sculpture” but as objects that can be anywhere, and that arbitrarily occupy architectural space. A sense of floating contingency and ephemerality are affective qualities that I wanted to evoke.
These all come together to draw in all parts of the senses, arresting and obliging a dive into the represented voids.
The reflective color in the early works, the evolution of wheels in the sculptures, the large continuous flat surfaces of the silkscreens, and the ephemeral quality of the media work, were all part of a sense of something continuous, fleeting and in motion. The continuousness of the “Interface” wall at the entrance, which is an image of an organic surface that is continuous and only arbitrarily bound by the four edges of the entrance wall, is affectively similar to the hanging of the earlier works where there is a sense of their floating in any space, in any format.
When I am in an airplane, I am continually amazed standing at the back, by the spectacle of the multitude of small, screens floating in this aluminum fuselage floating, and simultaneously speeding, above the planet and these human creatures cognitively immersed in a distinctly different illusionary realm within the screens. It strikes me as stranger than science fiction.
In a New York Times profile published last year, you described your works as “personal”. Have you always viewed your work in this way?
The “personal” can have many meanings, much dependent on the particular critical or academic discourse that one happens to be in. In much of the time that the work developed, there was a lot of discussion about the personal and the political, and the personal being political. There was also discussion about the commodity and the subjective, that in a commodified world, we were losing subjectivity completely, and that the power of media and the corporate was literally determining our subjectivity. In that context, my work evolved out of my own “personal” experience, if you will, of what was in front of me at the time – my body and the technological apparatus I was engaging with, sometimes to support my practice. In that sense, I was not compelled to use media images, or adopt direct political and historical positions as a driver of the work. This was not to diminish the importance and relevance of these other discourses, but rather that being who I was, the questions I addressed were the most compelling for me and ones I felt could sustain my practice regardless of whether they had currency in the market or the critical art discourse.
Have you always considered your work as predictive or just another body produced in shifting times?
Work that in hindsight looks predictive is often not felt as predictive when created. The predictive implies the future, and I see the future as the present, where much of the world lives in the past. In doing the work, I always felt I was dealing with the present, or my present, what I was living through. I was surprised that so many in the art world found the work so strange and alien. But in “imagining” something, I suppose there is an implied future, where certain connections I saw in the present would evolve into something that I wanted the work to be able to describe and address.
Tell me a bit more about the work “Virtual Flow” (1990)? It’s one of the few works that make use of disembodied figures.
In much of my work, there is an in-between sense of the body, which is the beginning of dis- embodiment. After the initial response to the work in the 80’s, I felt a need to be clearer in my focus on the human body and moved into photographic media to evoke a clinical, recorded body that removed any ambiguity that the work is about the body. In “Virtual Flow,” the sense of body feels more literal and explicit, perhaps due to sculpture itself, that allows the work to break the body apart in physical space and to use materials that literally have the texture and form of human body parts.
“Virtual Flow,” by its title, was an attempt to convey a continuous body that moves through separate objects. At the same time, I was trying to connect this embodied movement through the electrical, which is the foundation of the digital and the virtual.
I was trying to convey through more traditional sculptural language, a conceptual sense of our bodies becoming bits and data, moving through conduit and becoming an embodied object in a wholly different format. There are the body like, organic forms embedded in glass, referencing a clinical, bio- technological sense of the body. There are multiple manifestations of an embodied object that I am experimenting with in the work. There were several works done in this format.
Do you remember some of the earliest public and or private responses to your work?
The first studio visit was in high school, which I can’t recall. The early response to the work in the 1980s was perplexed, but very positive. A few people got the sense of what I was trying to do right away. I recall being asked if I was from another planet. The work struck most as very strange if not incomprehensible for the lack of reference, not only in the world but in art history. The response contributed to doubts about my ability to capture the sense of what I wanted in the work.
The predictive implies the future, and I see the future as the present, where much of the world lives in the past.
How do you respond to critics and patrons who make the claim that the art world needs to catch up to your practice?
I never considered what I was doing as so far away as to be something needing to catch up to. I could not understand why everyone found the work so strange and alien. I don’t feel that way in my everyday interactions. Even now, many still feel the work is very strange. I have also been surprised at how much of the recent interest has come from those who are much younger.
If I step back, which I rarely did, and which has happened partly as a result of this exhibition, I see that the sense that was driving the work is now more a part of the world that we live in. There is an emerging context. At this point, I give less weight to responses in general, now that I have experienced having no response for so long. I am trying to focus on insuring the work continues to evolve on its own trajectory and not let external responses interfere, which is not always so easy to do.
The current pandemic has exposed the porosity and weakness of the structures and systems we’ve taken for granted. Interesting enough, conversations about labor, the body, and networked culture have taken mainstream prominence outside of academic and art circles. Where do you envision the entanglement of the digital and corporeal as it relates to current events?
The confluence of the digital and the body as a result of the molecular in the sudden emergence of the pandemic has been striking. Having been isolating for several weeks now, it is strange how the molecular and the digital have been running parallel, driving our bodies’ behaviours in ever more extreme ways. It is unprecedented. The 6’ distancing creates a bizarre choreography of bodies in public spaces that is haunting and strange. That a molecular virus could force the body to connect almost exclusively through the digital on the one hand, and, at the same time, attack the vulnerability of our organic existence in such a deadly way, is extraordinary.
At the same time, the essential aspect of human labor in fighting that attack, reaffirms the battle of humans against “nature” even in the 21st century. The pandemic has illuminated to an alarming level the extent to which we are still at the level of food, shelter, care, and the vulnerability of our organic existence. Paradoxically, the virtual is enabling us to maintain our human connectedness at a time when extinction seems ever closer. Imagine what this would be without the digital and the virtual. Things could so easily and quickly become “primal.”
What do you hope people take away from your show?
The work is asking a question about what is this change we are undergoing in which the technological is so deeply entering every aspect of human existence? What new affects are emerging as a result of this transformation? The work does not want to describe the external changes, but rather asks you to perhaps slow down, just to process how this change is feeling and to ask where are we in this change? How will we, as embodied humans, continue to be?
Public Parking, May 5, 2020
Are you also puzzled, Socrates, about cases that might be thought absurd, such as hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects? Are you doubtful whether or not to assert that each of these has a separate eidos distinct from things like those we handle?
Not at all, said Socrates. In those cases, the things are just the things we see; it would surely be too absurd to suppose that they have an eidos. All the same, I have sometimes been troubled by a doubt whether what is true in one case may not be true in all. Then, when I have reached that point, I am driven to retreat, for fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense.
Plato, Parmenides 130c–d
The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
In Katamari Damacy (2003), the strange and beguiling creation of Keita Takahashi, a trained sculptor who defected into videogame design, the player controls a five-centimeter-tall cylinder-headed cartoon prince tasked with rebuilding the heavens after his peremptory and all-powerful father King of All Cosmos carelessly destroyed them in a drunken transport of cosmic beatitude:
A sky full of stars…We broke it. […] So, so very sorry. But just between you and Us, It felt quite good.♥ Not that We can remember very clearly, but We were in all Nature’s embrace. We felt the beauty of all things, and felt love for all. That’s how it was. Did you see? We smiled a genuine smile. Did you see? The stars splintering in perfect beauty […] now there’s nothing but darkness.
Like a little dung beetle, the prince must push around a ball to which items in the game environment adhere, forming a tumbling clump whose unevenness lends the gameplay a peculiar tactility and physicality. As the katamari grows, it becomes capable of ‘rolling up’ larger and larger items: from coins, matchsticks, and batteries to furniture, trees, farm animals, pedestrians and policemen, cars, buildings, and finally whole cities. In the closing scene, the tiny prince, now dwarfed in scale by the katamari, rolls it across the globe, picking up continental landmasses as it goes.
We might imagine placing the contents of Yuji Agematsu’s ‘zips’ at the opposite end of the scale, in a prequel level prior to the initial 5 centimeter diameter domestic-scale katamari capable of gathering thumb tacks, candies, pachinko balls, hairpins, postage stamps, and chestnuts until, upon attaining 10 centimeters, it can roll out into the yard. Perhaps they make up the sticky stuff that forms the original core and lends the katamari its adhesive power? In any case, Agematsu’s daily assemblages of detritus, each exhibited in a cellophane packet, partake in the ‘clump spirit [katamari damashii, ]’ that imbues Takahashi’s game—a cosmic disposition which places great hope in the obsessional collecting of heterogeneous stuff.
A clump is less than a set, in so far as it is subject not to the selectivity of the concept, but to a principle of universal adhesion (fundamental glomtology) combined with a situatedness and a tempo of accumulation which dictate its singular composition. The clump emerges as a kind of abject eidos, a quintessence via processes of material selection and agglomeration rather than conceptual purgation and generalization—something like the piles of moss, litter, and animal bones that fall through a fissure to cluster on the floor of a cave, invisible except to the most intrepid speleologist capable of fathoming such a ‘bottomless pit’.
While the objects agglomerated in Katamari Damacy are counted by category at the end of each round, those in Agematsu’s zips have tumbled through the pachinko of categories and straight out of the bottom into the streets of New York City, formless anonymous materials, orphans of the Platonic eidos. And yet each presents a moment in the city’s idea of itself, an ulterior distillate, the final product ground out of a multi-scale machine, a snapshot in which the city dreams itself in microcosm.
Most children at some point make the precious discovery of this magical domain invisibilized by the regime of school, home and family, consisting of stuff that obeys none of the rules by which domesticated objects come to know their place. But the child who, inspired by clump spirit, brings home a mossy twig, some stones and a dead beetle in a discarded cigarette carton, reclaiming materials through which they’re able to express that part of themselves for which there is no place at home, will surely be punished. Don’t play in the gutter is an edict disobeyed only by wayward urchins and chronic flanêurs, for whom the street is not a purposeful route from A to B, but an infernal machine entered into with unparalleled pleasure: becoming-anonymous in a transmission channel that traffics bodies and things, pooling, buffeting and sorting them in huge, heaving collective tides of anonymity.
As the great ideologists of this urban Paradise maintain,
within that order, every nature has its bent, according to a different station, nearer or less near to its origin. Therefore, these natures move to different ports across the mighty sea of being, each given the impulse that will bear it on.5
There is no need to ‘demand the impossible’, no need to find a beach beneath the street, because the sidewalk is already a shoreline where jetsam is stranded, ready to be rolled up. Identities are lost and found in this gran mar de l’essere which takes in everything, even the ‘wretched refuse’, chews it up, and spits it out at the place its destiny allots, meaning that everything always ends up in the right spot at the right time, along with its consort.
But at the eleventh hour Agematsu overturns the cruelty of this fatal ordinance whereby everything tempest-tossed by the city gets what it deserves: the bum in the street, the trash in the alley, the banker in the tower, and the artwork in the gallery. Doesn’t Duchamp say that the readymade is an object that has ‘changed direction’? The zips are undoubtedly a kind of second chance saloon, a last-minute change of fortune for the lowest of lowlife.
Unlike the antiseptic Duchamp, however (there was always something too pristine about his lucky finds), Agematsu is not window-shopping for ‘proof of the existence of the outside world’ world outside of art, which the readymade folded back into art. His gaze is lower, and he remains unperturbed by the ‘inevitable response to shop windows’ – having to choose, purchase, and finally pay the ‘penalty’ of ‘cutting the pane and […] feeling regret as possession is consummated’.6 Everything he rolls up and bundles in, all those finds he describes as ‘desirable debris’, have already been consumed and consummated. Every element has been bought and sold, has been contiguous with mouths, sleeves, ears, hands, pockets, and worse. Used, fingered, chewed, discarded, spat out. In their assembled form they continue to testify to the unending flow of de(bri)siring-production and consumption. Even the container doesn’t manage to stand apart to politely display its contents: they glom onto its cellophane panes, making it at once support, podium, and picture plane. These are the readyconsumed, duckrabbits of the idea, calendrical packets of confatality which, even when set primly into their monthly cabinets like exclusive clutches arrayed in the window of a pop-up Dérélicte boutique7, flicker between ignoble intimacy and distanced contemplation.
Two ostinati impart recognizable structure and style to the zips, by virtue of this existing street-level distribution rather than by artistic design. Extruded keratin filaments whose varying tensile profiles offer an abbreviated portrait of New York’s multicultural inhabitants trace arabesques through volumes of chewed gum, that nutritionally-void oral shock absorber, chomped into formless saliva-softened embryos by legions of stressed-out molars. Absorbed in contemplating these microsculptures, one can easily begin to hallucinate parodic masterpieces, as if hair and gum made up the essential armature of art history: Is that tiny twist of newspaper poised atop segments of multicolor gum a Lilliputian Calder? Do Miro’s mobile elementary forms recur, suspended from hairs, within the trash stratum? Could that precarious parallelogram of oily stuff propped on stiletto-like points be a remake of Dalì’s Premonition of Civil War—or is it that Dalì’s melting forms mimic chewed gum…?
Anticipating a world in which a masterpiece will be praised by saying that it is ‘as beautiful as the meeting of a ring pull and a toothpick on a lump of Juicy Fruit’, in becoming monolithic, the diminutive parodies the exalted. Or perhaps there already is a world down there where everything fine and elevated finds its guttersnipe döppelganger. But which is the model and which the copy? Which way does the traffic really go?
And at what speed? Superimposed on the order of the street, there is the order of discovery. Although ‘each thing has its own rhythm’, the tempo of the zips’ syncopated heterogeneity-in-isomorphy is that of the everyday. The most modest vitrine possible, the cellophane wrapping from a cigarette packet, reminds us that their production is connected to daily habit and the perennial newness of repetition.8 No action could be more symbolic of this than the ritual breaching of this pristine synthetic caul for the first smoke of the day. Each evening’s walk adds a level of selectivity since, even in the same environment, depending on the route taken, the resulting clump will always differ. (This acute path- sensitivity, charted by the maps and notes accompanying Agematsu’s zips, also plays its part in the compulsive gameplay of Katamari Damacy, a game made by a fugitive sculptor in which, each time you play, you create an original sculpture.)
In the ’60s and ’70s, the period most crucial to Agematsu’s artistic development, contemporary art, especially in New York City, moved into everyday life, into the street, and into the realm of consumer goods so as to get a breath of fresh air, but also, perhaps more secretly, to drive the quotidian to excess. In serialist work, the imposition of strict protocols employs humorous repetition to overturn the law of modern life,9 to break through its stereotypies and Sisyphean accumulations in search of a ‘more profound repetition’, in the hope that ‘in concentrating on this boundless monotony we find the sudden illumination of multiplicity itself’.10 Agematsu joins the infernal production line of contemporary existence ‘in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death’.11 ‘I became an artist to be like a machine’, he says: without contempt, without judgment, and with monotonous regularity, processing the readyconsumed
to find within it a residual energy of transmutation.
A sky full of stars, we broke it… Each inorganic vivarium presents an absolutely singular world: fused hypercolor asteroids of boiled sugar candy, hair, fur and nails, grime corals, extraterrestrial fauna, and every so often a stammering shard of lettering or fragment of an image jutting out from the detritus like a billboard from the ruins of a devastated city, overshadowed by the dark chitinous claw of a giant insect bristling with cilia. A new world every time. At the end of each round of Katamari Damacy the clump of items that have been rolled up are hurled into the void where they finally coagulate, fuse, and explode, giving birth to a new star. And in the zips something is being reconstructed too, from whatever comes to hand. The serialist in the street is not just ‘a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise’. He is also an inchling Prince and King of All Cosmos rolled into one, forging new Ideas from whatever filters down to gutter level, stuff from which ‘a beautiful or mysterious object’12 may yet come forth… Oh! I feel it, I feel the cosmos!13 With these lowly constellations Agematsu rebuilds the heavens, clump by clump, day by day.
Originally published in Yuji Agematsu, Four Seasons, zip: 01.01.20 … 12.31.20 (Vienna / New York: Secession / Sequence Press, 2021)
This new large-scale, folded metal sheet relief is an advancement of Florian Pumhösl’s work with this material. He furthers his interest in abstract structures, which now suggest containers rather than graphic delineation. The exquisite hand-mixed color brings to mind a seascape merging with the greenery of marshlands. The composition can be seen, moreover, as invoking a sea crossed by field lines, such as the geographic formations of a coast. This aesthetic vocabulary marks a formal engagement with the nature of boundaries through the core interaction of the line and the basin.
[…] I have been asked for summary remarks about poetics in its relation to linguistics. Poetics deals primarily with the question, “What makes a verbal message a work of art?” Because the main subject of poetics is the differentia specifica of verbal art in relation to other arts and in relation to other kinds of verbal behavior, poetics is entitled to the leading place in literary studies.
Poetics deals with problems of verbal structure, just as the analysis of painting is concerned with pictorial structure. Since linguistics is the global science of verbal structure, poetics may be regarded as an integral part of linguistics.
[…] Linguistics is likely to explore all possible problems of relations between discourse and the “universe of discourse”: what of this universe is verbalized by a given discourse and how it is verbalized. The truth values, however, as far as they are — to say with the logicians — “extralinguistic entities” obviously exceed the bounds of poetics and of linguistics in general.
[…] Language must be investigated in all the variety of its functions. Before discussing the poetic function we must define its place among the other functions of language. An outline of these functions demands a concise survey of the constitutive factors in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication. The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message requires a CONTEXT referred to (the “referent” in another, somewhat ambiguous, nomenclature), graspable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a CODE fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee (or in other words, to the encoder and decoder of the message); and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. All these factors inalienably involved in verbal communication may be schematized as follows:
Each of these six factors determines a different function of language. Although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function. The diversity lies not in a monopoly of some one of these several functions but in a different hierarchical order of functions. The verbal structure of a message depends primarily on the predominant function. But even though a set (Einstellung) toward the referent, an orientation toward the context — briefly, the so-called REFERENTIAL, “denotative,” “cognitive” function — is the leading task of numerous messages, the accessory participation of the other functions in such messages must be taken into account by the observant linguist.
[…] The emotive function, laid bare in the interjections, flavors to some extent all our utterances, on their phonic, grammatical, and lexical level. If we analyze language from the standpoint of the information it carries, we cannot restrict the notion of information to the cognitive aspect of language. A man, using expressive features to indicate his angry or ironic attitude, conveys ostensible information, and evidently this verbal behavior cannot be likened to such nonsemiotic, nutritive activities as “eating grapefruit” (despite Chatman’s bold simile). The difference between [býg] and the emphatic prolongation of the vowel [bý:g] is a conventional, coded linguistic feature like the difference between the short and long vowel in such Czech pairs as [vi] “you” and [vi:] “knows” but in the latter pair the differential information is phonemic and in the former emotive. As long as we are interested in phonemic invariants, the English /i/ and /i:/ appear to be mere variants of one and the same phoneme, but if we are concerned with emotive units, the relation between the invariants and variants is reversed: length and shortness are invariants implemented by variable phonemes. Saporta’s surmise that emotive difference is a nonlinguistic feature, “attributable to the delivery of the message and not to the message”5 arbitrarily reduces the informational capacity of messages.
[…] A distinction has been made in modern logic between two levels of language: “object language” speaking of objects and “metalanguage” speaking of language. But metalanguage is not only a necessary scientific tool utilized by logicians and linguists; it plays also an important role in our everyday language. Like Molière’s Jourdain who used prose without knowing it, we practice metalanguage without realizing the metalingual character of our operations. Whenever the addresser and/or the addressee need to check up whether they use the same code, speech is focused on the code: it performs a METALINGUAL (i.e., glossing) function. “I don’t follow you — what do you mean?” asks the addressee, or in Shakespearean diction, “What is’t thou say’st?” And the addresser in anticipation of such recapturing question inquires: “Do you know what I mean?” Imagine such an exasperating dialogue: “The sophomore was plucked ” “But what is plucked?” “Plucked means the same as flunked.” “And flunked?” “To be flunked is to fail an exam.” “And what is sophomore?” persists the interrogator innocent of school vocabulary. “A sophomore is (or means) a second-year student.” All these equational sentences convey information merely about the lexical code of English; their function is strictly metalingual. Any process of language learning, in particular child acquisition of the mother tongue, makes wide use of such meta- lingual operations; and aphasia may often be defined as a loss of ability for metalingual operations.
[…] The set (Einstellung) toward the message as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language. This function cannot be productively studied out of touch with the general problems of language, and, on the other hand, the scrutiny of language requires a thorough consideration of its poetic function. Any attempt to reduce the sphere of the poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to the poetic function would be a delusive oversimplification. The poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent. This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects. Hence, when dealing with the poetic function, linguistics cannot limit itself to the field of poetry.
[…] As I said, the linguistic study of the poetic function must overstep the limits of poetry, and, on the other hand, the linguistic scrutiny of poetry cannot limit itself to the poetic function. The particularities of diverse poetic genres imply a differently ranked participation of the other verbal functions along with the dominant poetic function. Epic poetry, focused on the third person, strongly involves the referential function of language; the lyric, oriented toward the first person, is intimately linked with the emotive function; poetry of the second person is imbued with the conative function and is either supplicatory or exhortative, depending on whether the first person is subordinated to the second one or the second to the first.
[…] What is the empirical linguistic criterion of the poetic function? In particular, what is the indispensable feature inherent in any piece of poetry? To answer this question we must recall the two basic modes of arrangement used in verbal behavior, selection and combination. If “child” is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs — sleeps, dozes, nods, naps. Both chosen words combine in the speech chain. The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of with musical time. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence. In poetry one syllable is equalized with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assumed to equal word stress, an unstress equals unstress; prosodic long is matched with long, and short with short; word boundary equals word boundary, no boundary equals no boundary, syntactic pause equals syntactic pause, no pause equals no pause. Syllables are converted into units of measure, and so are morae or stresses.
It may be objected that metalanguage also makes a sequential use of equivalent units when combining synonymic expressions into an equational sentence: A = A (“Mare is the female of hose”). Poetry and metalanguage, however, are in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence.
[…] Measure of sequences is a device which, outside of poetic function, finds no application in language. Only in poetry with its regular reiteration of equivalent units is the time of the speech flow experienced, as it is—to cite another semiotic pattern—with musical time. Gerard Manley Hopkins, an outstanding searcher in the science of poetic language, defined verse as “speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound.” Hopkins’ subsequent question, “but is all verse poetry?” can be definitely answered as soon as the poetic function ceases to be arbitrarily confined to the domain of poetry. […] The adaptation of poetic means for some heterogeneous purpose does not conceal their primary essence, just as elements of emotive language, when utilized in poetry, still maintain their emotive tinge. A filibusterer may recite Hiawatha because it is long, yet poeticalness still remains the primary intent of this text itself. Self-evidently, the existence of versified, musical, and pictorial commercials does not separate the questions of verse or of musical and pictorial form from the study of poetry, music, and fine arts.
To sum up, the analysis of verse is entirely within the competence of poetics, and the latter may be defined as that part of linguistics which treats the poetic function in its relationship to the other functions of language. Poetics in the wider sense of the word deals with the poetic function not only in poetry, where this function is superimposed upon the other functions of language, but also outside poetry, when some other function is superimposed upon the poetic function. […]
Originally published in Roman Jakobson, Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1960)
This complex object manifests a body without organs, using a 3D scan of the interior of a wild boar’s ribcage to make negative molds by which the final sculpture is then produced. The ribcage’s cavity is turned into a volume and milled. “There’s one in which the rib cage is more developed and the belly is a little more contracted,” Moulène notes. “With the other, it’s the inverse. It’s a bit like the phenomenon of breathing.” Rather than creating an arrested object, the resulting forms constitute the embodiment of a process.
Sam Lewitt: Thank you for sending these notes on the show Miguel.
On some level I think you can anticipate what my initial response might be. The below are obviously the result of my own limiting assumptions and general inability to take on board certain claims that I don’t find personally useful. Regardless, this all might sound a little arid and hasty – it is – but maybe there’s something interesting for you.
I see that you’re trying to avoid the dead-end fascination with ‘new materials/tools’ as a positive, more or less technocratic, way of framing your thoughts, but there are moments where what you sent come very close to this… more on this below. There are of course other paths, but it’s important to avoid the priestly administrators hiding in the bushes along the way. These tend to jump out when subjective personifications of some general artistic right of access to these new(ish) materials and technical systems gets heroically invoked – which makes me a little wary of beginning with the outright figuration of a subject called the ‘poet-engineer’. I’m more curious about how far I can go in trying to reflect on the material conditions of the subject’s emergence, in an effort to potentiate alternative ways of imagining how those conditions currently or could otherwise organize perception.
Miguel Abreu: On this question, the key for me is to try to keep things unstable and in a state of flux, that is not take side and locate the source of authority either with the subjectivity of the artist or with the pure “processing of a material condition.” Yes in the end, the artist is the agent that decides to engage a particular material, a particular technical process that shapes the work in some way, or manifests a question, or a problem of interest inscribed in or inherent to the material or technical process itself. It is the balancing act, the friction between the idea – idea here = question = problem = riddle – and the engaged material or technical process that produces the subjectivity of the work and of the artist simultaneously – it doesn’t really matter. And of course, the idea can emerge from the consideration of the material itself, or the mere technical process at work. I’m interested in testing the proposition that any realized, compelling contemporary art work has a paradoxical “idealist materiality.” The artist “idealizes” a material, a process by simply starting to engage it, by beginning to extract it from its ordinary use and existence in the socio-economic sphere and by somehow redirecting it. One of the ghosts of contemporary art, besides the “mirror” and the “monochrome,” is that there must be an Idea at work somewhere in, or fueling the object, so we might as well try to identify it!
SL: As with the outright figuration of the subject so with the guiding light of the ‘idea’ as the determining moment in all of this. I’d rather ask how habits of making and behaving with the means available govern and constrain tendencies of thinking, and how to grope toward what drops-out in the process. Without these ways of making and behaving no form would be available to art making as a specific kind of cultural activity complexly linked to other kinds of activities. Here again, I would hesitate re-installing the figure of the poet as an ideal type (I’m really not sure what this means, because of course there is a robust and complicated contemporary discourse in poetry….) in favor of attentiveness to what Roman Jakobson called the poetic-function of language itself. The poetic in this case would be an effect of a certain insoluble structure of communication, which draws attention to itself by virtue of specific formal conditions of inscription, utterance and auditing. This is how I would want to understand sentences you write like “Ideas emanate from the object; they do not descend upon it.”
MA: My above response would apply to what you say here as well. I would agree of course that “habits of making and behaving” can be the source of the idea working itself out through the production of the work, or arrested and identified before beginning the production of the work. I would like to discuss Jakobson.
The only reason I introduce the figure of the poet, is to distinguish the art work from an “engineered only” object. The poet-engineer is a paradoxical agent.
SL: If the poetic is an insoluble function of communication under one set of circumstances, engineering is a rule based and conventional way of solving for communicability. By ‘communicability’ I mean mainly the interconnection of functionally cast parts within a purposive ensemble. Under very different political conditions there were obviously attempts to dissolve one condition into the other – Here I think of Maria – Gough’s discussion of Karl Iogansen as the one figure from the laboratory phase of constructivism that actually went into production, attempting to use constructivist principals to re-engineer the production process on the factory floor. Certainly the beauty of an engineer’s solution to a problem can be called ‘poetic’ in its imaginative precision and there are examples of poets directly using engineering language as a model. In addition to this just about every artist I know is constantly engaged in finding practical engineering solutions within their work: designing fastening systems, making something stand, programing, stabilizing a reproducible support, etc. The point is that on some very mundane level it is mostly socially determined presumptions about use that frame the division of labor and the disciplinary compartmentalization of knowledge.
I understand much of the history of artworks and practices that result from ‘engineering’ protocols (algorithmic, or other rule-based systems, etc.) as attempts to displace or at least complicate authorship, not reinstate it. The idea here was to come up with a more democratic form taken by the artwork. As many writers have noted, the irony is that these practices were paradoxically legible to many of its recipients not as democratic, but as elitist and opaque, from the New Novel to Conceptual art and also process-based work. This is a loose thought: but it seems like one of the features of the last two decades of re-examined process-based abstraction – with great market success – has come to sit very comfortably alongside received romantic ideas about inspiration and creativity. I suppose this is principally because the former provides efficient techniques for producing enormous quantities of constantly circulating goods for an insatiable market in need of differentiating proper names as vehicles for pricing.
MA: Nicely put, but the key for me here is to simply evaluate how well suited these “engineered protocols” are to the content and final contours of the work. How necessary are they, if you will? In this sense, the most challenging and successful work – the most poetically charged – is the one that manages to achieve the highest level of intensity and singularity in using such protocols, such fabrication techniques and materials in making them an inherent and active part of the expression itself. The result, or the clear solution can then be critiqued as more or less engaging and interesting. Questions such as, how does the work destabilize the established order of things can then be fruitfully posed? How does its specificity open up to an emancipatory image of the world? If the effect of this thinking is to re- introduce and affirm authorship as well as a certain potential for artistic agency, so be it. It might be a good thing after all under the reign of algorithms.
Yuji Agematsu, Jean-Luc Moulène, R. H. Quaytman, Scott Lyall, and Cheyney Thompson are the artists in the show who most evidently use self-imposed, predetermined rules in the making of their respective work. The crucial question for them in particular becomes: At what point does the repeated use of these pre-established systems of meaning start to become too much of an immediately recognizable, and therefore passive ingredient in the constitution of the object? At what point does this repeated use diminish the expressive potential of the work?
SL: I think it’s important where you mention the obliquity of the approach to means of fabrication, but this would foreclose its summation in the genius of a De Vinci (?!). Do you really need Picasso to say that artists look for solutions to problems that are self-legislated as subjects for their work? In this context perhaps Duchamp’s old remark “there is no solution because there is no problem” is a necessarily bitter pill.
MA: I only quote Picasso to provoke you and others, but more importantly for his unquestionable talent to cut straight to the point! But not to worry, I firmly stand on Matisse’s side of the equation… Ah yes, papa Duchamp, of course. But the basic positive premise of the show is that, precisely, “there are problems to be solved.” This is just as true and assertable as its negation. But thank you all the same for bringing this vertiginous phrase to my attention. It is most helpful to have in mind. Warhol would have said exactly the same thing, don’t you think?
SL: Regarding the technical dimension, of which there is far too much to say than will fit here, let’s take photography as emblematic: The 100+yr old debate around the artistic status of photography had very often located the medium’s most radical dimension as the emergent potential to liquidate the very definition of the artwork, its experiential coordinates, its form of distribution and thereby the composition of its audience as it had existed to that point. It offered the potential to remake art as a category, not merely what was subsumed under it and its existing institutions. On some level this history feels antediluvian, but I bring it up because I’m skeptical that anything today carries the same kind of promise. I’m coming to suspect that to insist that a technical operation on its own carries emancipatory potential that just needs unleashing usually collapses into sheer technocratic fantasy or worse a crypto-social Darwinist faith that the best possible technical protocol will win in competition with lesser options if just given the chance to fight it out in the market. Anyhow, something like 3D printing is not so much a new way of making, but a fusion that marries multiple imaging and CAD/CAM systems, and historically represents nothing like the emergence of the photograph. The latter still seems singular in transforming the time of representation and its proximity to the experience of reality in a still relatively early stage of industrial growth, introducing a totally distinct support system for the image. In some sense, the interest in the modeling operations at work in additive manufacturing systems is that they have no given support or dimensional existence outside of sheer calculation.
Similarly, the seeming novelty of most fabrication techniques or ‘new’ materials, when they appear in artworks, is often the inverted reflection of those techniques’ increasing saturation in manufacturing and services. This is as true for steel in early 20th century sculpture, plastic composites in the 60s, inkjet printing 20yrs ago or higher-level machine learning more recently. What consistently appears in the guise of a novel aesthetic resource coincides with the increasingly common technical infrastructure of contemporary work. Less and less however is the integration of industrial techniques into the field of the artwork a matter of anticipating or projecting a specifically public sphere for labor. I’m interested in the fact that one reason for this – not the only for sure – is that much of this technical media have very recently become extremely specialized and materially exotic on the level of engineering. As such these materials and protocols exert increasing fascination within the optically inclined sphere of artistic production. I understand this as partially papering over the emergence of those technical media with a particular organization of labor, and in the past I have tried to somehow bring this back into view: even if negatively, as intermediary components for ubiquitous technical systems attempting to enact a round labor savings. Anyhow I think this narrative is changing. On the level of the global economy, the source of the increasingly depressed global demand for labor is more clearly the result of decades of economic stagnation and plummeting private sector investment in new tech, not the triumph of automation’s ability to save on labor costs. As writers like Jason Smith and Aaron Benanav have shown, the dream images of the tradeshow floor should be held in tight contradiction with un-automatable underpaid service jobs, abandoned infrastructure and crumbling cities. Here I guess the engineer and artist come into a more tense relationship of legitimation, which really can’t be solved by either side because the functions are too alienated. I’m more interested in exacerbating the contradiction between the two than facilitating a union.
Painting has a unique capacity to illuminate how objects in the real world are experienced, because a painting, while alluding to a memory of real world objects and experiences, also conveys this memory through the medium of a very palpable material. A material which occupies its own space in the world and thus becomes itself a thing.
This is different from media such as television, film or photography, where the image is disembodied and there is nothing blocking the journey of the image to the viewer’s memory. These media function on a purely fictive level. The potential for the misappropriation of these media for the function of manipulating the viewer is great, so great is the tendency to believe the image presented. Only through the guidance of reason by the creator or the exertion of reason by the viewer, is belief in the image suspended and meaning extracted from the film, television program, magazine ad, etc.
Obviously, imagery of this nature floods contemporary life. So much so, that remembered images of real world objects and situations often supersede the actual experience of these objects and situations.
Since painting has the capacity to present the viewer with both a fictive experience and an actual experience simultaneously, it can examine the very mechanism of fiction as well as the urge of the human mind to attach random graphic marks to its memory of the real world.
By encouraging the empirical understanding of this medium (painting), hopefully, the viewer will be encouraged to be more investigative of other media, as well as encouraging a less fictive relationship to real world objects and occurrences.
Jonathan Lasker, Complete Essays 1984-1998 (New York: Edgewise, 1998). Written in 1984, and originally published in Effects: Magazine for New Art Theory, edited by Collins & Milazzo, No. 3 (Spring 1985/Winter 1986)
After reading the text by Rainer Crone and David Moos, I am confronted with the conflict of whether or not to play dead. Death being, of course, the ideal condition for the artist. Only once the artist dies can his work find its true place in culture, since the artwork must ultimately exist outside the realm of intent. It must, in the end, exist in the realm of effect, free of the artist’s manipulations in defense of his intent.
Nonetheless. because my desire as an artist is to have an affect, the quality of that affect is of vital importance to me, particularly in a social moment when so much seems to hang in the balance.
Art is currently facing a dilemma. Radicality in art is dead because its position has been usurped by the radical space of contemporary technology. The project of art today is therefore, as I see it, to locate the boundaries of the real in a world where meaning, space and even (in theory) the effects of mortality have been neutralized by technology.
When a society enters its decadent phase, as ours has, it eventually readies a zero point at which every sub- particle of each social component, each molecule, must be disassembled and analyzed in order to reconstitute an image of reality. At this point we enter “The Politics of Reality.” Reality is up for grabs. The ball is loose and each molecule is roaming free.
However our perception of reality is to be reshaped – if that is even to occur — it seems imperative to me that it shape itself according to the human metabolism, even if metabolic rate can no longer keep up with the pace of contemporary technology. Technology has expanded human flesh to the limit of endurance. Deep down we long to be the animals we truly are.
One of my intentions in making these paintings is to support the position of the human hand, and thus the integrity of human identity. It is true that these paintings freely ingest many aspects of our media- based and mechanistic society, but always as a foil for the expressions of the human hand and psyche. My work does not espouse the supremacy of the organizing force of intelligence — rather. it contrasts that force against the random effects of gesture in order to render the latter more affecting in the context of the former. As such, my painting is intended as an image of quintessential conflict.
Paint bears physical record to the expressions of the human hand. It conforms to the trail of the brush being driven by impulses of the psyche. In no other art medium is creation more permanently and intimately bound to the movements of the human body. Nowhere is the human more empowered to have a direct and immediate affect on the image of his world.
We are all, at present, more divided, less empowered, and certainly far less connected to the effects of our world than we should be. It is for this reason that I am deeply involved with the textures of a medium capable of universalizing so much lost intimacy.
Jonathan Lasker, Complete Essays 1984-1998 (New York: Edgewise, 1998). Originally published in Jonathan Lasker: Telling the Tales of Painting (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993)
Because of my involvement with poetry, in my conversations with Miguel around The Poet-Engineers, I’ve tried to consider the ideas of poets from the last century and how they might inform the concerns being developed throughout this show.
William Carlos Williams wrote in 1944 that a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words, affirming the objecthood of a poem, the materiality of language, and the cultural mechanics inherent to the notion of poetics. The two texts that follow—one by Williams’ contemporary and the other by his inheritor—extend, complicate, and enfold this key insight of American modernist poetry while making clear the investment by poets of his generation for open and evolving forms that seek poetry beyond poems and poiesis beyond mere poetry, or what Roman Jakobson calls elsewhere in this reader the poetic function of language.
The first text is Louis Zukofsky’s infamously oblique “An Objective,” written in 1930 and a version of which appeared in the 1931 issue of Poetry that he edited, which came to announce the vague movement known as Objectivist poetry. “An Objective” is a highly enigmatic proposal for the poem as an object bound up with, and acting on, the totality of its cultural context, an object that both emerges out of while also expanding the conditions of the present moment. While history is perhaps too nebulous a concept to be the explicit address of the Poet-Engineer—its submergence in the complex of the contemporary is taken up as the more immediate concern—Zukofsky insists that our desire for the objectively perfect is inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars, that our compulsion toward innovation is a thread that unavoidably knots the problems of the old and the new. The objective, then, is that each knot might also be its own solution, the key to its untangling and unleashing—an inclusive object lashed to reality’s unraveling.
Here: idea = question = problem = riddle
There are few thinkers who would understand the above equation as thoroughly as Guy Davenport. I’m not sure who reads Davenport anymore, but his incredible book of essays, The Geography of the Imagination, is on the shelf of any good bookstore. His encyclopedic and highly directed mind knew that when the riddle-solution of the knot is enlarged from a puzzle in the hands of an artist to its proper human scale, a vertiginous architecture of action, that the knot is just one node in an incommensurable labyrinth. What we’re calling here the Poet-Engineer Davenport would have called the Daedalian artist, named for the master craftsman Daedalus: architect, engineer, inventor, and artist. “The House that Jack Built” is his labyrinthine genealogy of the modern cult of Daedalus, a map that charts new paths while moving at the same time along an unfollowable route. He reads the figureheads of The Poet-Engineers—da Vinci and Picasso—alongside everyone from Homer and Dante, the aviators Wright, Blériot, Curtiss and Rougier, to Henri Rousseau, Tatlin, Stein, Apollinaire, Brancusi, Williams, Zukofsky, Ruskin, and most significantly, his idols James Joyce and Ezra Pound. The tension that defines the Daedalian artwork is between the prison of the labyrinth (the advancing brutality of the built world) and the perfect achievement of Daedalus’ masterpiece, an impossibly engineered honeycomb of pure gold that the bees returned to live in (the reunification of human inspiration with nature).
Davenport wonders What beast is there at the center of the labyrinth? Monsters return our gaze as much in this exhibition as they do throughout literature. Our understanding wavers between the labyrinth and the golden honeycomb. The lesson of Daedalus is the riddle of the Poet-Engineer: until we tread the maze wisely, it will remain a perplexity. It is alive. It will change from labyrinth to honeycomb only after you have seen its architecture and learned the harmony of its way.
An Objective: (Optics) — The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. That which is aimed at.
(Use extended to poetry) — Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.
It is understood that historic and contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events: i.e. an Egyptian pulled-glass bottle in the shape of a fish or oak leaves, as well as the performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion in Leipzig, and the rise of metallurgical plants in Siberia.
Omission of names is prompted by the historical method of the Chinese sage who wrote, ‘Then for nine reigns there was no literary production.’
None at all; because there was neither consciousness of the ‘objectively perfect’ nor an interest in clear or vital ‘particulars.’ Nothing — neither a new object nor the stripping of an old to the light — was ‘aimed at.’ Strabismus may be a topic of interest between two strabismics; those who see straight look away.
In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness. Parallels sought for in the other arts call up the perfect line of occasional drawing, the clear beginnings of sculpture not proceeded with.
Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion, which does not attain rested totality, the totality not always found in sincerity and necessary only for perfect rest, complete appreciation. This rested totality may be called objectification — the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object. That is: distinct from print which records action and existence and incites the mind to further suggestion, there exists, though it may not be harbored as solidity in the crook of an elbow, writing (audibility in two-dimensional print) which is an object or affects the mind as such. The codifications of the rhetoric books may have something to do with an explanation of this attainment, but its character may be simply described as the arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity — in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure. Granted that the word combination ‘minor unit of sincerity’ is an ironic index of the degradation of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each word in itself is an arrangement, it may be said that each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree; but that the facts carried by one word are, in view of the preponderance of facts carried by combinations of words, not sufficiently explicit to warrant a realization of rested totality such as might be designated an art form. Yet the objectification which is a poem, or a unit of structural prose, may exist in a line or very few lines. The mind may conceivably prefer one object to another — the energy of the heat which is Aten to the benignness of the light which is Athena. But this is a matter of preference rather than the invalidation of the object not preferred. It is assumed that epistemological problems do not affect existence, that a personal structure of relations might be a definite object, or vice versa.
At any time, objectification in writing is rare. The poems or the prose structures of a generation are few. Properly no verse should be called a poem if it does not convey the totality of perfect rest.
It is questionable, however, whether the state of rest achieved by objectification is more pertinent to the mind than presentation in detail: the isolation of each noun so that in itself it is an image, the grouping of nouns so that they partake of the quality of things being together without violence to their individual intact natures, simple sensory adjectives as necessary as the nouns.
The disadvantage of strained metaphor is not that it is necessarily sentimental (the sentimental may at times have its positive personal qualities) but that it carries the mind to a diffuse everywhere and leaves it nowhere. One is brought back to the entirety of the single word which is in itself a relation, an implied metaphor, an arrangement, a harmony or a dissonance.
The economy of presentation in writing is a reassertion of faith that the combined letters — the words — are absolute symbols for objects, states, acts, interrelations, thoughts about them. If not, why use words — new or old?
The several definitions of An Objective and the use of this term extended to poetry are from the sixth movement of A. The lines referred to read:
The melody, the rest are accessory —
. . . my one voice; my other . . .
An objective — rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective — nature as creator — desire for what is objectively
Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary
Assuming the intention of these lines to be poetry, the implications are that a critic began as a poet, and that as a poet he had implicitly to be a critic.
The graceless error of writing down to those who consciously want a something else from poetry — not poetry — as some stay for their own vanity; to ‘sometimes’ think that minds elaborately equipped with specific information, like science, must always confuse it with other specific information, like poetry. That may be the case with unfortunates. The point, however, would be not to proffer solemnly or whiningly confusions to the confused, but to indicate by energetic mental behavior how certain information may be useful to other information, and when the divisions which signalize them are necessary.
Such a process does not need to be accurately painful; rather it should be painlessly complete — as certain people are complete and ready to go anywhere but to the doctor.
A poem. A poem as object — And yet certainly it arose in the veins and capillaries, if only in the intelligence — Experienced — (every word can’t be overdefined) experienced as an object — Perfect rest — Or nature as creator, existing perfect, experience perfecting activity of existence, making it — theologically, perhaps — like the Ineffable —
A poem. Also the materials which are outside the veins and capillaries — The context — The context necessarily dealing with a world outside of it — The desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars — A desire to place everything — everything aptly, perfectly, belonging within, one with, a context —
A poem. The context based on a world — Idle metaphor — a lime base — a fiber — not merely a charged vacuum tube — an aerie of personation — The desire for inclusiveness — The desire for an inclusive object.
A poem. This object in process — The poem as a job — A classic —
Homer’s the wet waves not our the wet waves but enough association in the three words to make a context capable of extension from its time into the present. Because, there is, though meanings change, a linguistic etiquette, a record possibly clear to us as the usage of a past context — The context as it first meant — or if this may not be believed — an arrived-at equilibrium — or at least the past not even guessed by us arrived at an equilibrium of meaning determined by new meanings of word against word contemporarily read.
A poem: a context associated with ‘musical’ shape, musical with quotation marks since it is not of notes as music, but of words more variable than variables, and used outside as well as within the context with communicative reference.
Impossible to communicate anything but particulars — historic and contemporary — things, human beings as things their instrumentalities of capillaries and veins binding up and bound up with events and contingencies. The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference. It is not infinite. Even the infinite is a term.
Only good poetry — good an unnecessary adjective — is contemporary or classical. A standard of taste can be characterized only by acceptance of particular communication and concerned, so to speak, whenever the intelligence is in danger of being cluttered, with exclusions — not with books but with poetic invention. The nothing, not pure nothing, left over is not a matter of ‘recencies, 5 but a matter of pasts, maybe pasties.
It would be just as well then dealing with ‘recencies’ to deal with Donne or Shakespeare, if one knew them as well as a linguistic usage not their own can know them. And yet contexts and inventions seem to have been derived from them.
One can go further, try to dissect capillaries or intelligent nerves — and speak of the image felt as duration or perhaps of the image as the existence of the shape and movement of the poetic object. The poet’s image is not dissociable from the movement or the cadenced shape of the poem.
An idea — not an empty concept. An idea — its value including its meaning. The desk, i.e. as object including its value — The object unrelated to palpable or predatory intent — Also the meaning, or what should be the meaning of science in modern civilization as pointed out in Thorstein Veblen.
No predatory manifestation — Yet a manifestation making the mind more temperate because the poem exists and has perhaps recorded both state and individual.
The components of the poetic object continued: the sound and pitch emphasis of a word are never apart from its meaning.
In this sense each poem has its own laws, since no criticism can take care of all the differences which each new composition in words is. Yet criticism would hardly be different if musical notations or signs were used instead of words. Example: any piece of original music and the special criticism it produces.
The components of the poetic object continued:
Typography — certainly — if print and the arrangement of it will help tell how the voice should sound. It is questionable on the other hand whether the letters of the alphabet can be felt as the Chinese feel their written characters. Yet most western poets of consequence seem constantly to communicate the letters of their alphabets as graphic representations of thought — no doubt the thought of the word influences the letters but the letters are there and seem to exude thought.
Add — the core that covers the work of poets who see with their ears, hear with their eyes, move with their noses and speak and breathe with their feet. And yet lunatics are sometimes profitably observed: the core that is covered, the valuable skeptic knows, may in itself be the intense vision of a fact.
Intention must, however, be distinguished from accomplishment which resolves the complexity of detail into a single object. Emphasize detail 130 times over — or there will be no poetic object.
Or put the job of explanation up to cabinet-making: certain joints show the carpentry not to advantage, certain joints are a fine evidence; some are with necessary craftsmanship in the object. The first type — showing the carpentry not to advantage — is always present in a great deal of unnecessary writing; the second and third are rare; the second — which is a fine evidence — is rare to this time; the third — which with necessary craftsmanship is hid in the object — is, whenever craftsmanship is present, characteristic of this time.
In contemporary poetry three types of complexity are discernible: 1 — the swift concatenation of multiple references usually lyrical in movement — almost any poem by Donne, for example; 2 — the conceit — Shakespeare’s ‘when to the sessions,’ his working out of love as bookkeeping, or Donne’s ‘Valediction,’ his ‘two twin compasses’; 3 — the complexity of the epic — Byron’s Don Juan, or most of it.
The word complexity is perhaps misleading. Ultimately, the matter of poetic object and its simple entirety must not be forgotten.
I.e. order and the facts as order. The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention. A hard job, as poets have found reconciling contrasting principles of facts. In poetry the poet is continually encountering the facts which in the making seem to want to disturb the music and yet the music or the movement cannot exist without the facts, without its facts. The base matter, to speak hurriedly, which must receive the signet of the form. Poems are only acts upon particulars. Only through such activity do they become particulars themselves — i.e. poems.
The mind may construct its world — this is hardly philosophy — if the mind does construct its world there is always that world immanent or imminently outside which at least as a term has become an entity. Linguistic usage has somehow preserved these acts which were poems in other times and have transferred structures now. The good poems of today are not far from the good poems of yesterday.
From Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions + : The Collected Critical Essays (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000)
Submission by Michael Cavuto
A hundred years before the death of Ezra Pound, a week short the very day, John Ruskin sat down in his red room at Brantwood among his geological specimens and Scott manuscripts, to instruct the English working man in the meaning of labyrinths, the craftsman Daedalus, and the hero Theseus. He was writing Letter XXIII of Fors Clavigera, his monthly tracts against usury and banks. This incremental work, a splendid pottage of autobiography, pamphleteering, preaching, and haphazard digressions worthy of Sterne, gave lessons in aesthetics and economics, morals and literary criticism.
Fors is a kind of Victorian prose Cantos, arranging its subjects in ideogrammatic form, shaping them with a poetic sense of imagery, allowing themes to recur in patterns, generating significance, as Pound did, by juxtaposition and the intuition of likenesses among dissimilar and unexpected things.
Ruskin, who sounded as provincial to Matthew Arnold as Pound to Gertrude Stein, was yearning in Fors Clavigera for a cleansing and re-ordering of civilization, in almost the same way Pound did in the Cantos. Both works trace a heritage of wisdom and tradition now obscured or abandoned. Both works direct our attention to the monetary historian Alexander del Mar, to the capacious minds of Louis Agassiz and Alexander von Humboldt, architects of systems of knowledge. Both works analyze the cultures of Venice and Florence, admire the energy of fifteenth-century condottiere, and draw morals from various kinds of Italian banks. Both teach us how to see the roots of the Renaissance in mediaeval art. Both are works by men with an extraordinary range of concerns who have the same, almost insurmountable problem of organizing their material into a large work.
And because both issued their work piecemeal (Fors in monthly installments from 1871 to 1887, The Cantos sporadically in magazines and books since 1917, with Cantos LXXII and LXXIII yet to be published), the assumption has been fairly common that Fors and The Cantos are serial commentary basically random in organization. Yet both works are strenuously unified. They both insist that economics must be a part of our literacy and a legitimate and pressing subject for the artist.
Watch how Ruskin in Fors XXIII goes about fixing the meaning of Theseus in our minds and you will see how Pound built ideograms of images and ideas.
A great captain, says Ruskin, is distinguished by Fortune’s “conclusive stroke against him.” We see this proof of adversity in the loss of Ariadne. But of Theseus, more later: we must turn to an engraving of Botticelli’s representing the seven works of mercy, “as completed by an eighth work in the center of all; namely, lending without interest, from the Mount of Pity accumulated by generous alms. In the upper part of the diagram we see the cities which first built Mounts of Pity; Venice, chief of all — then Florence, Genoa, and Castruccio’s Lucca; in the distance prays the monk of Ancona, who first taught, inspired by Heaven, of such wars with usurers.”
Ruskin then rambles around in what seems to be a shambles of subjects: Victorian fund raising, national defense, reforms in punishment, Maria Edgeworth’s novel Helen, until he can get back to Theseus, this time to his image in the British Museum, where he is a stolen antiquity only, unless we can see his meaning. Theseus’ stamp is common in our world, in, for example, the Greek fret we can see everywhere. The meaning of this design is now lost, conveying nothing to our eyes. It was, however, the Greek life-symbol, and ours.
Best try to understand it by remembering the cathedral doors at Lucca, near which, in the church porch, we can find this sixteen hundred-year-old inscription:
Hie quern creticus edit Dedalus est Laberinthus
de quo nullus vadere quivit qui fuit intus
ni Theseus gratis Adriane staminé iutus
(This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Daedalus built, out of which nobody can find his way except Theseus, nor could he have done it unless he had been helped by Ariadne’s thread, for love.)
This, Ruskin goes on, can be reduced from mediaeval sublimity to the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.”14 The cow with the crumpled horn will then be the Minotaur. The maiden all forlorn will stand for Ariadne, “while the gradual involution of the rhyme and the necessity for clear-mindedness as well as clear utterance —
This is the farmer sowing his corn
That owned the cock that crowed in the morn
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built —
are a vocal imitation of the deepening labyrinth.
“Theseus, a pious hero, and the first Athenian knight who cut his hair short in front, may not inaptly be represented as the priest all shaven and shorn; the cock that crew in the morn is the proper Athenian symbol of a pugnacious mind; and the malt that lay in the house fortunately indicates the connection of Theseus and Athenian power with the mysteries of Eleusis, where corn first, it is said, grew in Greece.”
There was a Greek spirit in Shakespeare, Ruskin continues, compelling him to associate English fairyland with the great Duke of Athens. And Jack the builder neatly equals Daedalus, “Jack of all trades.”
Ruskin is just getting warmed up. Coins of Cnossos bore the symbol of the labyrinth. Symbols are natural shapes elevated to significance. The Greek fret existed before Theseus, but he gave it the meaning of a labyrinth. The spiral is the shape a worm draws with its coiling bore, a fern with its bud, and a periwinkle with its shell. Completed in the Ionic capital, and arrested in the fending point of the acanthus in the Corinthian, it has become the prime element of architectural ornament in all ages. In Athenian work the spiral mirrors wind and waves; in Gothic, the serpent Satan. But Satan is a power of the air, as in the story of Job and the story of Buonconte di Montefeltro in Dante.
Ruskin next compares labyrinths, coins, modes of justice, judges of the dead, until he can demonstrate that Dante’s hell is a labyrinth, until he can triumphantly identify the Minotaur with greed, lust, and usury, like Ezra Pound, whose symbol for usury is Dante’s monster of deceit Geryone: “Hic est hyperusura.”
Modern criticism has X-Ray eyes to see that the house that Ruskin makes Jack-as-Daedalus build is the house that Jack Ruskin built: his cycle of books around the violence of greed in his world and the violence of lust within. His Ariadne was named Rose, whose name he finds, and conceals, everywhere in the text of Fors. Between Ruskin and Browning, Pound’s first master, we can see the invention of Daedalian art in literature: the discovery that only in that intricacy which the Greeks called poikillía — cunning craftsmanship — can complexities of meaning beyond inherited styles of narrative and poetry be summoned into play. A strange beauty, Yeats said, was born into the world.
Did Pound know Fors? He at least knew Ruskin’s method, and called it by the Greek word paideuma. His early “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris” was perhaps an imitation of Ruskin’s manner. Yeat’s last prose work, On the Boiler, was a conscious attempt to repeat Fors Clavigera.
In Charles Olson’s Gloucester there still lived an old man who had heard Ruskin lecture at Oxford. Between his house and Olson’s there is an inlet in which lay a sunken battleship completely covered with Gloucester sewage. The symbolism of this pleased Olson immensely.
James Joyce certainly knew Ruskin’s Fors, for the doubling of the labyrinth as the house that Jack built became a Joycean mode of building symbols. Professor Herbert Marshall McLuhan has recently announced in The James Joyce Quarterly (XII: 4, 1975, Letters to the Editor, p. 342) his discovery that the fifteen stories in Dubliners correspond symbolically to the fifteen books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What he is observing is the mythological dimension of those stories whereby they are made to correspond to the adventures of Odysseus, to episodes in the Bible, and to various archetypal parables and fables. To find the outlines of Joyce’s symbolic structures it is always best to follow the rules of symmetry. The tale of Daedalus, for instance, is midmost Ovid’s text. “A Little Cloud” is midmost Dubliners. And if you look, you will find nothing overt about Daedalus in “A Little Cloud” (unless you want to see Little Chandler as a man trapped in an emotional labyrinth, tempted by Gallaher to fly away, or allusions to great height and molten wax in the title and the name Chandler). You will, however, find phrases from “The House that Jack Built,” the word malt and the phrase crumpled horn.
In the spiral labyrinth of The Cattle of the Sun chapter in Ulysses you will find an elaborate web of allusions to Daedalus and the labyrinth, and an equally elaborate web of allusions to “The House that Jack Built.”
In the center of Finnegans Wake there is a corresponding evocation of the nursery rhyme: “the jackhouse that jerry built.” Its address is 32 West 11th streak (an entropic Fibonacci progression, the way nature runs down). Throughout his work Joyce puts Jack at the center of the house he built, Daedalus at the center of the labyrinth, from which design spirals out or radiates.
This symbolic figure from a childish, and therefore primal source in our knowledge of literature, is Joyce’s signature, his labyrinthine thumbprint on his work. Finnegans Wake is the house Jack Joyce built, but it is a reading of the Old Testament, the house that Jacob built, and of the New Testament, the house that the carpenter Jack Christ built, Ruskin being the Shaun to Charles Dodgson’s Shem. The Wake dreams through ultimate absurdities of symbols, such as our dreams make us suffer, and through the tragic limitations of language which imprison us when we would be meaningful, and betray us, whatever our caution.
Contemplating the sonorous midden of the Wake, William Carlos Williams decided to make an American model. He singled out a river even filthier than the Liffey, the yellow Passaic, and a New Jersey town with a name half Latin, pater, and half English, son; in America our parentage is European; and as Pound’s Cantos begin — like H.G. Wells’ Outline of History — with the word and, Williams’ poem Paterson begins with a colon, a device Joyce could not have used, as his art down not omit the material implied to the left of that colon. In a sense, Joyce is on one side of that colon, Williams on the other.
He takes from the Wake one sleeping giant, one hamadryad, and the radical idea that words go numb. And he also took, whether intentionally or not, the idea that where understanding fails the result is that we perceive a monster instead of an intelligible reality.
This idea seems to have been precipitated from a painting by the Russian Pavel Tchelitchew. Williams met him in 1942 and saw the massive canvas called “Phenomena” in progress. This painting is iconographically a Temptation of St. Anthony, with monsters of all sorts, monsters which, as Dr. Williams, a pediatrician, observed to the painter, are all teratologically exact. Williams saw the point, and took away with him the courage to write about the decay of an American city as the gradual metamorphosis of humanity into monstrosity. He ordered the original plan of Paterson with the four classical elements, earth, air, fire, and water, and saw in their flux a tragic entropy that nevertheless fell back into itself to begin again. A poet whose lifelong business it was to bring babies into the world could never see nature as anything but counter-entropic.
And a monster of monsters, the atomic bomb (which, incredibly, its mushroom cloud shaped like a skull, appears in the deep background of Tchelitchew ‘s “Phenomena”, painted nine years before Hiroshima) — the atomic bomb and the radioactivity of matter gave Williams his sense that the world is regenerative in a way we had not expected.
He then added two more books to Paterson, one for love, and one for genius, which he symbolized by the figure of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, sensualist and monster, an artist who fazed on the ugly and lifted it with love and understanding into the realm of the radiant, into the articulateness of exact statement. The Minotaur may, after all, be the heart of the labyrinth.
The painter Tchelitchew later took to concealing Minotaurs in his Joycean style of punning with multiple images inside the same outline, and even painted a “Riddle of Daedalus,” an anatomical drawing of the nasal labyrinth where we breathe and smell: our animal intake of knowledge. This picture resolves, if you look carefully enough, into a bull’s face and into genitals male and female.
Just last month15Louis Zukofsky, our greatest living poet, finished his long poem A that he began fifty years ago. It was written under the double tutelage of Pound and of Pound’s tutors, by a student stubbornly faithful and stubbornly original. A is a dance of words to Bach and to the music of Shakespeare’s thought. It is a dance of imagery that follows the laws of the Orphic Daedalus. It ties and unties knots in a harmony of emblems the way Ben Jonson’s Daedalus instructs his dancers to do in the “Masque of Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue”:
Then, as all actions of mankind
Are but a laborinth, or maze,
So let your daunces be entwin’d
Yet not perplex men, unto gaze.
But measur’d, and so numerous too,
As men may read each act you doo.
And when they see the Graces meet,
Admire the wisdom of your feet.
The daedalian artist infolds, he makes a complicatio. We beholders are involved in an explicatio; we unfold to read. Or, with Zukofsky, we unfold to hear, for, as with Joyce, it is the labyrinth of the ear in which Zukofsky likes to move. His images pun with a playful energy we have not seen since Shakespeare. He has made a pun in English on every Latin word of Catullus; he has made sawhorses in a Brooklyn street (emblems of the letter A) gallop with manes made of the Latin word manes and with heads made of the number 7.
He has made all of his work tributary to the poem A. His oeuvre is tied in an elegant and fanciful knot. To see the beauty of A, we must know the maze-like commentary on Shakespeare called Bottom. For at the center of Zukofsky’s daedalian labyrinth is a puckish Minotaur indeed, the assheaded Bottom and his fellow daedalian craftsmen “in a quaint maze in the wanton green.” (Remember that Ruskin accepts the Theseus of “A Midsommer Nights Dreame” as the proper English understanding of the Athenian maze-treader).
The labyrinth, as we could continue to demonstrate, became a life-symbol of our century (witness Borges and his labyrinths, Gide’s Theseus, Cortázar’s Hop-Scotch, Kafka, Kazantzakis. And so did Daedalos, Ikaros, and their wings.
A pioneering and all but complete edition of the writings of Leonardo da Vinci appeared in London in 1883. Queen Victoria, the Kaiser, and even the National Library of Dublin are listed among the subscribers (but not Chester A. Arthur or the Library of Congress). This handsome edition omits those beautiful drawings on ornithopters and pages on the theory of flight that are to our eyes some of the most fascinating in da Vinci’s notebooks. The omission is tacit and the reason obvious. Da Vinci the anatomist was of living interest (though Victoria covered them with decent blank paper in her copy); da Vinci the botanist, the geographer, the military engineer: these faces of his genius were of sound cultural interest. We must assume that the pages about flight were so much Baron Munchausen in 1883.
They had forgotten Daedalus. A one-year-old baby in Dublin would eventually remind them. And in five more years a steam-powered monoplane named the Aeolus would fly 150 feet outside Paris, Clément Ader its designer and pilot, only to hiss down with a plop and await the perfection of the internal combustion engine until another example of its species would mount the air again.
This was to be the pattern of the twentieth century — a labyrinth as Ezra Pound would call it in The Cantos — history would develop a maze-like pattern full of sudden surprises and tragic blind alleys. A man searching for a way out, or attempting to plot the confusion, would rarely agree with or even know about, other men on a similar search.
The Cantos are a maze by plan and in subject. The second canto does not follow from the first, but takes up anew; and so do the third, fourth, and fifth. At LXXIV the poem discloses a direction unplanned by the poet, and the last three divisions of the epic are meditations on ways of getting out of the labyrinth of history into the clear air of certainty.
If the Victorians could see only unhinged frivolity in da Vinci’s pages on flight, they were very much alive to other mythological symbols. Ruskin, lecturing at Oxford on sculpture, taught his students that the lesson of Daedalus is an ambiguous one. He placed the labyrinth in contrast to that golden honeycomb with which Daedalus crowned his lifetime of invention. They are similar structures, but in one lurks a symbol of bestiality and violence, in the other bees and honey, signs congenial to the royal houses of Mycenae and China, to John Bunyon and Napoleon. Prophetically Ruskin disclosed symbols that would appear in work after work of twentieth-century art. Joyce in Dubliners depicts the city as a labyrinth (including, as we have seen, Daedalus the craftsman under the name of Jack). In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he introduces his own Daedalos, fused with the figure of Ikaros. Ulysses is a labyrinth within a labyrinth, and Finnegans Wake is his golden honeycomb.
Daedalos. He would have had the scrupulous, the piercing eye of Wittgenstein, who was also architect, engineer, craftsman, and aviator. He would have had the lean nautical body of Vladimir Tatlin, architect, engineers, craftsman, and an aviator who proposed to assume wings powered by the human body and pedal through the air. He had, as the myths tell us, the sudden temper and inept solicitude for apprentices that Leonardo himself displayed, da Vinci who was also architect, engineer, craftsman, and an aviator who designed a bat of lathes and struts in which he hoped to swim through the Tuscan air. He would have had the laconic inwardness and heroic alertness of Wilbur Wright, who was also architect, engineer, craftsman, and an aviator who, on Monday the 14th of December 1903, at a little after three in the afternoon, from Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, flew. He was ready the day before to take mankind on its first flight, toward Fiume, London, Coventry, Berlin, Sheffield, Dresden, Hiroshima, Hanoi, except that the day before was the sabbath, which he declined to break.
O sinewy silver biplane, nudging the wind’s withers!
as Hart Crane wrote in “The Bridge” —
Warping the gale, the Wright windwrestlers veered
Capeward, then blading the wind’s flank, banked and spun
What ciphers risen from Prophetic script,
What marathons new-set between the stars!
“Je n’ai cherché pendant toute ma vie,” said Pound’s friend Brancusi, “que l’essence de vol. Le vol, quell bonheur!”
Henri Rousseau around 1906 painted a charming landscape of the Pont de Sevres, and placed a balloon in the sky — there has been balloons in the skies of France since Benjamin Franklin’s day. Next year, the ruddered dirigible La Patrie took to the air, and Rousseau added it to his landscape. Next year, Wilbur Wright flew at Le Mans while Blériot watched in tears of ecstasy, and Rousseu added the Wright Flyer No. 4 to his sky; the world’s first painting of an aeroplane.
In Dublin that year James Joyce invented a young man named Stephen Dedalus. Ezra Pound has just begun to plan a long poem on which he would write for sixty-seven years, and never finish.
Guillaume Apollinaire, addressing the Tour Eiffel, told her, shepherdess as he imagined her to be of bridges and automobiles:
La religion seule est restée toute neuve la religion
Est restée simple comme les hangars de Port-Aviation
And seeing in the aeroplane something as new as the unaging newness of Christianity, compared the new aviators to Christ and His priests:
C’est le Christ qui monte au ciel mieux que les aviateurs
Il détient le record du monde pour la hauteur
and later, in Zone:
et change en oiseau ce siècle comme Jésus monte dans l’air
Henry James, out walking his dachshund on the South Downs, saw Blériot complete his Channel crossing in 1909. Kafka saw Curtiss and Rougier fly at Brescia. Gertrude Stein included Wilbur Wright among her Four in America; Robert Frost wrote a “Kitty Hawk.”
And there was a day when Ezra Pound brought James Joyce to the studio of Constantin Brancusi, who had metamorphosed a mythological Roumanian bird, the Maiastra, into an image of pure flight, and who had sculpted a tombstone for Rousseau on which Apollinaire had written the epitaph.
Brancusi’s portrait of Joyce is a spiral labyrinth, an ear. He kept it pinned to his wall, and told people that it was symbol opposite to that of “la pyramide fatale,” by which he meant the idea of fitful material progress.
The Minotaur enters Picasso’s work in 1927 as a constant icon thereafter. In 1931 he made a set of etchings for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for Albert Skira, specifying the work himself as the only one he was interested to illustrate. A few years later he did the most finished mythological etching of his career, the mysterious “Minotauromachy,” in which brutal violence stands opposed to an innocent girl holding flowers and a candle. For the rest of his life, for another forty years, he would meditate on the Minotaur. Sometimes the Minotaur is as ambiguous a symbol in Picasso’s iconography as the bullfight itself, which he insisted was prehistoric ritual, as disturbing as the animal headed creatures from the imagination of Jean Cocteau, horse-headed daimons of the underworld, cat-headed beasts which, if loved, turned into prince charmings, as ambiguous as Gide’s Minotaur, which was beautiful but brainless.
Picasso’s Minotaur is a symbol of creative energy, chthonic inspiration, the pre-human past, the animal in man; and our century has maintained an argument in its art as to the harmony between our bestiality and our humanity. What beast is there at the center of the labyrinth? It is sex embracing death, said Freud. It is, said Ezra Pound, the moth called over the mountain, the bull running upon the sword. It is the dolphin leaping in its element, said Yeats.
Not until his old age did Picasso turn to the daedalian part of our myth. Commissioned to do a mural for the UNESCO building in Paris, he chose the Fall of Icarus for his subject, making Icarus’ body out of lines he had seen in prehistoric caves in the Dordogne, the raised arms that can be traced through stone-age art to the Egyptian hieroglyph for praise, spindly and uncertain lines with which the earliest artists drew man’s body as distinct from the masterful lines and religious awe with which they drew their splendid animals.
Picasso includes in his mural an Ariadne abandoned and three figures on land beside the empty blue sea into which Icarus is falling: two reclining figures in warm earth colors, and a perplexed figure with joined hands, the gesture of the thinker, of man considering, of vapid theorizing at the very edge of plunging tragedy. Picasso’s first mural depicted violence hurled from the skies upon a Spanish town; his second contrasted war and peace; this, his fourth and last, displays how he finally saw our century: a woman in distress, youth falling from an awful height, a man lost in thought.
The first mural is in a museum, the second and third in a church, the “Fall of Icarus” in a building that administrates educational programs. Like his other murals, it is unsigned, the sole works to which he did not put his name, as if to say that words have nothing to do with pure emblems, as if to remind himself, triumphantly and in a veritable temple of words, that he never mastered the alphabet.
It was a mural, according to a famous passage in Yeats, that served Pound as a plan for The Cantos: the Sala dei Mesi in the Palazzo Schifanoia that Francesco del Cossa, Cosimo Tura, and their assistants painted for the Este family. Rapallo was of the east wall of the room which is made to say in Canto XXIV: “Albert made me, Tura painted my wall.”
The Schifanoia palace was built in 1391 by Alberto d’Este; the Room of the Months, painted from floor to ceiling in three horizontal bands, is one of the few painted rooms to survive moth, rust and thieves, and only two walls of it, at that.
The uppermost zone shows in twelve divisions the triumphs of the Olympian gods, together with allegorical figures signifying the virtues and skills over which the gods preside.
The middle zone shows in twelve panels the signs of the zodiac and the Decan symbols, figures appropriate to the three groups of ten days that make up the month over which each sign of the zodiac rules. Hence each of the middle panels contains four figures, or groups of figures, one for the zodiac, one for each Decan.
The bottom zone, also in twelve parts, depicts the life of Ferrara in the time of Borso d’Esté, who figures in the first thirty cantos as a symbol of good will and just government.
Reading downward, we see that allegory, symbol, and scene from history correspond. Thus, if the top shows Minerva, or Justitia, with scholars, poets, priests, and women at their looms around her, the zodiacal band shows emblems of industry, and at the bottom we see a vineyard, a hunt (for food, not sport: dukes in those days provided for their own tables, and later in The Cantos we see pharaohs sowing crops and John Quincy Adams at the plow receiving news of his election to the presidency); the law courts at Ferrare, and Borso d’Este trying a case.
Yeats tells us that that the upper panels, the Triumphs, represent archetypal persons in The Cantos, the center panels “a descent and metamorphosis” and the lower panels, in Yeats’ wonderfully vague phrase, “certain modern events.”
It has been argued that Yeats got everything wrong even if he heard correctly, and that Pound never followed this plan, or that he abandoned it long before the Pisan group.
Some years ago I had the privilege of helping Ezra Pound move his effects from one house to another in Rapallo. With a Max Ernst in one hand and the poet’s Spartan cot on my head (“Ecco il professore di greco,” sang out a jovial Rapallese, “con il letto del poèta sulla testa!” — what a symbol of critics and poets) I noticed at my feet the sepia reproduction of the east wall of the Schifanoia freschi, the very print that Pound had shown Yeats. Turning it over, I found these words on the back, in Pound’s hand:
Intention of Cantos
To run parallel (this found later)
The contemporary, with activities of the seasons
Forty years after explaining the plan to Yeats, the poet had taken down the framed print (the war intervening, an exile within an exile intervening) and confirmed what Yeats had reported in A Vision. I asked, and was given permission to copy it.
The Cantos do indeed follow the triumphs, the seasons, and the activities of the seasons. To know the triumphs we must know the past, which is told in many tongues in many places; to know the past we descend, like Odysseus, into the House of Hades and give the blood of our attention (as translators, historians, poets) so that the dead may speak. To know the seasons we must understand metamorphosis, for things are never still, and never wear the same mask from age to age. The contemporary is without meaning while it is happening: it is a vortex, a whirlpool of action. It is a labyrinth.
The clue to this labyrinth, Pound knew, was history. The Cantos, therefore, are labyrinthine in structure, a zigzag of subjects, modifying and illuminating each other by proximity, treating time as if it were a space over which one can move in any direction. We begin in Greek time, move into Roman time, and then into mediaeval time, not naively, like The Connecticut Yankee to King Arthur’s court, but in the hands of guides. The descent into hell is Odysseus’, out of Homer, Homer paraphrased by a Latin hand in the Renaissance, with the language guided by archaic English, the tone of which is a music familiar to our ears.
We move as if from room to room of a house, from stanza to stanza, for a poem has always been thought of as a house, and verses are versus, our turning at a door or stair, and we tread in meter. The Cantos were originally conceived as a Browningesque movement from room to room of a painted palace.
We have left the metamorphic House of Circe as we begin to go to domus Hadês. A ghost named Robert Browning fades into Proteus, who fades into Homer, who fades into Ovid.
The third canto begins in the labyrinth of Venice and ends in the Gonzaga palace in Mantua. Between Cantos IV and V Troy fades into the circular city Ecbatan, with many a transformation on the way. As the epic proceeds, houses begin to be the most substantial images: the House of Malatesta, the dynasties of China, the House of Adams. And, as Joyce might have punned, many houses that jack built, meaning banks.16
Basically three kinds of houses appear in the epic: the House of Hades (the phrase is Homer’s) or repository of history, tradition, and myth, the houses of great families (Italian, Chinese, American), and the “quiet houses” (Ithaca, “thy quiet house at Torcello,” the mountain retreats, as of Confucius on T’ai Shan, Pumpelly’s at Chocorua: places where the traveler who has seen the cities and known the minds of men can “make it all cohere.”
The pattern from the Schifanoia freschi turns out to be the same as the plan given in Canto LXXIV:
between NEKUIA where are Alcmene and Tyro
and the Charybdis of action
to the solitude of Mt Taishan
This is emblematically the plan of the Odyssey as well, and of The Divine Comedy. It is also Confucian, implying a reverence for ancestors and past wisdom brought forward, a philosophical balance in the midst of turmoil, a return to a spiritual homeland.
We have many brilliant readings of Pound; he is as much a magnet (and a battlefield) now as he was for more than half a century. The Cantos have that intricacy of architecture and minutely finished detail which have kept us reading both Homer and Dante. They have that original energy and freshness of Cubist canvases, the best of Gaudier and Brancusi, a page of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, the brightness of Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and Cocteau, that has not aged. Pound spent his scholarly life looking at art so beautifully made that it cannot deteriorate. That vitality of line and image was his supreme lesson to us, and his best guide.
But we have only begun to read him, just as we have only begun to read and to see and to hear the whole Tribe of Daedalus: Eliot, Cummings, Hilda Doolittle, William Carlos Williams, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce, Zukofsky. Their art has changed all our previous concepts of art, and much of our concept of reality.
The essence of daedalian art is that it conceals what it most wishes to show: first, because it charges word, image, and sense to the fullest, fusing matter and manner; and secondly, to allow meaning to be searched out. There are flying Daidaloi and falling Ikaroi on all the pages of A Portrait. When, in Ulysses, people make change, with money, a metamorphosis occurs. The word Stephen is concealed in the opening phrase of Finnegans Wake (“rivverun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .”) and the word stephanos, a garland or victor’s wreath, is hidden in rainbows and Viconian circles down the page.
But who has begun to see that The Cantos begin with a descent into Hell, a transformation involving wine, and a child amid ruins, as in a Renaissance nativity scene? And are about the driving of moneychangers from the temple? That Minos and his labyrinth are neatly concealed in Pound’s portrait of the artist as a young man, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a poem moreover in which a Venus rises from the sea, as in Joyce’s Portrait? When can we begin to see the parallels between The Cantos and Ulysses, both rewritings of the Odyssey? When shall we appreciate that the words in which both works are written are as formulaic as Homer’s? Joyce accepted Homer’s formulae in the comic mode, as cliché, and parodied all the English there is; Pound understood the formulae to be words shaped by masters: all those quotations are not quotations (and they usually turn out to be misquotations, from memory, if you look them up); they are the formulaic gists of ideas in maximum verbal focus.
Homer, as best we know, did not invent a version of the wanderings and return of Odysseus. From the best phrases he knew, all tried and tested by singers over centuries, he took the firmest and finest, dialect be hanged, and built them into a strong, incredibly elegant symmetry.
When shall we begin to see Joyce’s radical invention, the interior monologue, random phrases and capricious images (seemingly, though held firmly in a logic of association, correspondence, and symbol), as an invention parallel to, and strangely like, Pound’s radical invention, the ideogram? The ideogram is a complex word, however many phrases long, a new kind of word, which we must learn to read in reverse etymology, from components to the whole idea.
The next step in reading The Cantos is to master the labyrinth of its images so that we can see it with new eyes for what it is, not the Cretan maze but the last, triumphant labyrinth of Daedalus the Master, a golden honeycomb. But until we tread the maze wisely, it will remain a perplexity. It is alive. It will change from labyrinth to honeycomb only after you have seen its architecture and learned the harmony of its way.
The English artist Michael Ayrton, a disciple of Wyndham Lewis and sculptor who specialized in Minotaurs and wrote a novel about Daedalus, was commissioned a few years ago by the mountain-climber and bee-keeper Sir Edmund Hilary to see if he could discover how Daedalus made a honeycomb of gold. The lost-wax process, perhaps its very invention, was obviously involved. Michael Ayrton proceeded to make a golden honeycomb. Moreover, when Sir Edmund put it in his garden in New Zealand as a gleaming piece of sculpture, bees came, accepted it as a hive, and filled it with honey and their young.
Just this week, my student Bruce Wiebe pointed out in a seminar on Joyce that in the fifth chapter of Ulysses, the Lotos Eaters, where the symbolism is concerned with flowers, Leopold Bloom is a bee gathering nectar (look at Gold Cup, Sceptre, the calyx of the rolled newspaper, and Bloom’s characteristically apian figure-eight amble. Molly, in the preceding chapter, is the queen of the hive. Stephen is a larva, and the whole novel is a Daedalian golden honeycomb, the ultimate remaking and refinement of the labyrinth (which it also is). The original labyrinth was political; the final one, the honeycomb, is a gift to Aphrodite.
Crystal, we beseech thee,
(we read in Canto C)
Clarity, we beseech thee
from the labyrinth
And in Canto LXXXIII, written in the concentration camp at Pisa:
And Brother Wasp is building a very neat house
of four rooms, one shaped like a squat indian bottle
La Vespa, la vespa, mud, swallow system
And further along in the canto:
and in the warmth after chill sunrise
an infant, green as new grass
has stuck its head or tip
out of Madame La Vespa’s bottle
From Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981) Submission by Michael Cavuto
The sculpture features a moving wooden shelf that references the sizes of the works in the collection of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle. The shelf is programmed to move up and down according to the ideal viewing height for each work in the collection.
The collection is the property of the University’s School of Art, where Jamison is a member of the faculty. The collection is primarily comprised of faculty and former student artworks that have been “donated” or left behind. There are storage spaces in the basement and in other random parts of the art building in which these works are kept. The school remains unsure as to what to do with them. There is never an attempt to display them.
The Jacob Lawrence Gallery is technically in charge of those works; it’s their collection. In 2018, a collaboration between the Jacob Lawrence Gallery and the Director of Information Technology at the School of Art generated a Filemaker Pro database cataloguing the works.
This is your Captain, and this is your ship.
This is your moment.
You might think that you’re scared, but you’re not.
That isn’t fear.
That’s your sharpness.
That’s your power.
We are Belters.
Nothing in the void is foreign to us.
The place we go is the place we belong.
This is no different.
No one has more right to this, none more prepared.
Inyalowda go through the Ring, call it their own, but a Belter opened it. We are the Belt.
We are strong, we are sharp, and we don’t feel fear.
This moment belong to us.
For Beltalowda! Beltalowda! Beltalowda!
Inners are “Welwalalas,” or, people obsessed with gravity. Anderson Dawes, a Belter leader who is suspicious of Welwalas, gives a speech below about being a representative of the Belt when Fred Johnson, an Earther who identifies as a Belter, nominates Dawes as the Belter representative for diplomacy and equity talks with the Inners:
Excuse me, no disrespect.
I just imagine the look
on the Inners’ faces
when they see who is sitting across the table from them.
I would be honored to represent the Belt.
It’s a beautiful dream he [Fred] has:
Earth and Mars at peace.
And the Belt,
equal partners in that peace.
But is it too much an Earther’s dream?
I do not doubt his heart.
Fred Johnson has proven himself
to be a true friend to the Belt.
But as much as I fear war between Earth and Mars,
I fear the peace more.
For that is when they will
turn their sights back on all of us.
The Inners are not like us.
Earthers cannot look upon a thing
but wonder who it belongs to, huh?
To make it their possession.
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” they say.
But that is not the way of the Belt.
We say, “The more you share,
“The more your bowl will be plentiful.
“And those that will not share…
And if we are all welwalas…
They see us as their possessions.
Animals to test their new weapons on.
And, make no mistake,
They will do it again.
We must protect ourselves against these weapons…
— Nick Farmer, who has constructed “Lang Belta” for The Expanse. The texts are based on the novels by James S.A. Corey, written by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham.
Submission by Flint Jamison
Throughout the seventeen years bridged here, Baghramian’s work successively moved closer to — and in the last five even entered — the body. While most of her earlier pieces tended towards architectural, abstract, or theatrical forms, in more recent years they progressively revealed organic alliterations, in the form of bones, teeth, vertebral columns, heart valves, and other fibers that ensure bodily functions between the skeleton and skin. The timeliness of using the body as a point of reference for three- dimensionality — its absence being the essential point of departure for all artistic sculptural practice — remains as unbroken as ever. Moreover, our present-day lives are being drawn deeper and deeper into a networked amalgamation of physical and virtual space, inevitably causing a sense of corporeal bewilderment, to which contemporary cultural discourses frequently answer with vast theoretical posthumanist speculations.
Big Valve is an erect formation of hinged acrylic glass objects, formally reminiscent of police protection shields and heart valves, which directs visitors further along their route, as if they were the blood requiring regulation in order to flow.
— Vincenzo de Bellis and Martin Germann, An Oeuvre by Proxy: Nairy Baghramian’s Déformation Professionnelle (excerpt), in Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle (Munich: Prestel, 2018)
This chapter draws on two sources, the photography collection of SFMOMA and the poetry of San Francisco poet Jack Spicer (1925–65). Apsara DiQuinzio and I decided to include our correspondence— which was written while I was working on the paintings—in the exhibition brochure. The following is an excerpt:
Dear Apsara DiQuinzio,
… The core issue of “Chapter 18” involves the following: how to bring the two “damned mediums,” as Spicer calls them—photography on one hand and language on the other—into a painting, one receiving the static transmission of the other and hopefully losing in the transmission some of its claim to authority. The painting further tries to counter the almost overwhelming pull of both the photograph and the text into the space of the viewer.
All but one of the photographs I am using from SFMOMA’s collection are by unknown photographers. Copyright considerations originally limited me to this group, but in retrospect the anonymity of these photographers is apt in relation to Spicer, paralleling as it does the eclipsing of self so evident in his practice. The exception in the group is a photographic drawing by Jay DeFeo that her estate generously allowed me to use. This particular image exerted such a strong pull, even though at the time I had no idea that Spicer and DeFeo had been close friends. This image imparts a disposition of Spicer’s poetry that I want in the paintings. For Spicer, the camera was often used as a metaphor for how the arrival of the poem occurred: “Poetry, almost blind like a camera.” In other words, the poem isn’t inspired by the deepest self or by ego, but rather is received the way a radio picks up signals. The self of Spicer is not entirely lost, however, being heard usually in the form of anger, or a mordant humor with which the poet is displaced from the traditional or assumed space of the author to a space in which one looks at the unfolding of the poem from outside the poem. As Spicer writes: “Invasion itself might be a better metaphor for poetry than inspiration.”3 When this happens, the poet has no choice but to transmit the invasion: “If this is dictation it is driving me wild.”4 This transmission or dictation is frightening, dangerous even: “It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium.”5 The fairylike transmission back to Spicer, via the poem, is “you can’t see us in spiritland, and we can’t see at all.”6 The DeFeo image so accurately speaks to that reply and to the silence and fundamental dislocation the viewer of a picture experiences.
I am trying to “take dictation” from the materials at hand, but realize, and this is the hardest issue, that when words appear near images they supplant the painting. Language wins all the time over image. I want to delay or suppress this phenomenon through optical manipulation. This chapter is a battle between words and images. I realize that text on or above an image is a title, text over an image is an advertisement, and text beneath it is a caption. None of these orientations is right for this poetry. I also realize that a picture is not worth a thousand words and that its worth is based in its very departure from language. It is through this linguistic absence that the picture can counteract the radical unresponsiveness or indifference of nature/“the outside” toward the individual. One interesting footnote is that Spicer showed his poems hanging on a wall as if they were paintings at the Six Gallery. Having studied linguistics, Spicer, believed in the materiality of language—its flatness as opposed to its communicative function.
Sincerely, R. H. Quaytman
Originally published in Spine (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011)
I seek to maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence, to bring subject matter into painting without having to privilege a figure/ground composition. As the intrinsic isolation of painting reaches toward the sustaining contexts of its immediate surroundings (walls, rooms, studios, galleries, institutions, and geographies) subject matter falls out while contexts and constituencies seep in. My paintings exhibit an incremental development of ideas over time, together creating a hybrid logic—a logic that can only be articulated in retrospect. I deliberately use the entirety of my past work as a scaffolding from which to move forward, and consider all of my paintings as one ongoing archive. My work borrows from sculpture, photography, printmaking, digitalization, oil painting, book design, drawing, and writing. The methodology I have developed came from blind instinct, blurry reading, and a sharp attention to the experience of being in front of a painting, passing by it in a particular time and place.
— R. H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys (Gent: MER, 2008)
“I don’t want to exhibit something to someone, but rather the reverse: to exhibit someone to something.”
— Pierre Huyghe
Mind’s Eye (L) is a materialized deep image reconstruction, a mental image output from UUmwelt, first presented at the Serpentine in 2018. UUmwelt is a co-production of imagination between human and machine, using a brain-computer interface.
A set of elementary components – building blocks of a speculative situation – were given as images or descriptions to be imagined by a subject, among them biological entities, prehistoric tools, machines, code, and artworks. As the subject imagines these components, brain activity was captured by an fMRI scanner and an engineered deep neural network learned to recognize the brain-data patterns and then attempted to reconstruct the mental images.
Mental images can circulate from mind to mind, outside the realm of appearance, as synthetic telepathic conversation, or be externalized from the subjects’ minds and manifest themselves physically.
Mind’s Eye (L) is an artefact of the imaginary realm, a precipitate occupying the space. It lies in an ambiguous continuity between human visual imagination, artificial intelligence, data and matter.
The aggregate of materials modifies itself and the environment at its own pace.
“When what is made is not necessarily due to the artist as the only operator, the only one generating intentions and that instead it’s an ensemble of intelligences, of entities biotic or abiotic, beyond human reach, and that the present situation has no duration, is not addressed to anyone, is indifferent, at that moment perhaps the ritual of the exhibition can self-present.”
— Pierre Huyghe in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2018
“The poet makes silk dresses out of worms”
— Wallace Stevens
Stock (Bombyx Mori) depicts isolated fragments of the anatomy of an average domesticated silk moth. These images are drawn from a 3D model of the moth produced with software made for the advertising and film/television industry. Lewitt has rendered views of this model into static prints, abstracting its surfaces with varying levels of detail and focus. Here tessellated camber comes up against fleshy reveal, false light spilling in at a resolution beyond any camera’s reach. Encased in raw silk frames, the material that supports and encloses these prints point to the intermediate product – the cocoon – of the work performed by the depicted creature. The moth model, native only to the environment of production software, is a precise kind of abstraction, sheathed in its silk frame’s promise of reality.
The broad connotation of the word ‘stock’ commonly evokes a store of goods or share of wealth. One immediate association with Lewitt’s work might be the invocation of stock images: context free pictures available for use in promotional material – held in reserve as intermediary to some yet to be determined meaning. The images in Stock (Bombyx Mori) might themselves be considered something like generic appearances of intermediacy, transitioning between inanimate goods and livestock.
This is appropriate to the subject of the silk moth, an ancient example of animal husbandry, whose instrumental role in generating silk issues from its natural process of transformation. Bombyx mori is a living inversion of the telos of means and ends, where its cocoon, the natural byproduct of metamorphosis, is the central element of the textile production process. The long history of harvesting this animal’s silk cocoons has caused such dramatic genetic changes in both morphology and behavior that the animal is unable to survive without human aid. Both caterpillar and moth’s bulky size hinder it from concealment, exacerbated by its loss of camouflaging pigmentation. It is also flightless and cannot feed. Fully dependent on patterns of human industry, the moth’s wings and mouthparts have atrophied to residual ornaments. Its survival depends on a highly designed and formatted environment that facilitates its orchestrated rhythms of reproduction.
The moth model in Stock (Bombyx mori) might then be understood as the technically fabricated appearance of a biologically engineered species. These images result from a calculated modeling of nature. But the nature that is modeled is itself formed by the technical needs of the production process. Lewitt treats these as inextricable and irreducible moments in a circuit, belonging to the same uneasy movement by which natural processes become encased in social forms, and social forms appear as if they were natural: presumably having sprung whole from some cocoon.
Stock (Bombyx Mori) might then be understood not simply as images of a model, but as models of an image, where life appears as an immense accumulation of calculations.
The emphasis on capitalism’s history helps us to see how the system has survived through its recurrent crises – and how the geographical conditions of previous crises and their resolutions are very different today. Such a perspective allows us to see how capitalism today is in some ways very strong, but in other ways quite vulnerable. The Popular Anthropocene has unintentionally brought the historical questions back into the political and scholarly conversation – the very historical questions that it cannot answer. The virtue of an older Marxist tradition was to foreground the specificity of capitalism’s contradictions in modern class relations and the dynamics of capital accumulation. It didn’t do such a great job around the question of nature – although there was always a significant minority view that insisted on ecological history. Environmentalist thought emphasized that there was an environmental history alongside the social and economic history. At the core of the world-ecology conversation is the argument that these two traditions – and not only these – have assembled the elements of a new synthesis.
Easier said than done! To pursue such a synthesis, one has to give up certain idealized concepts of how capital accumulation works, what class struggle looks like, and even what “environmental change” means. You have to give up your sacred objects – without abandoning enduring insights. It turns out that many scholars don’t like to give up their sacred objects. They often greet with special hostility suggestions that we reformulate established ways of thinking and studying class, capital, nature, and so forth. Here the cliché of separating the baby from the bathwater is relevant, as scholars often respond to calls for re-evaluation of their sacred objects as if such objects were indeed their children.
Capitalism in the Web of Life is a call for a conversation around the kinds of knowledge necessary to navigate our unfolding climate crisis. I had come from a background of writing something that could be called Marxist environmental history. I also wanted to move beyond those models, which I found increasingly limiting. I hoped to generate a conversation that asked, What does the history of civilization look like if we take seriously that every dimension of human experience – markets, states, classes, agrarian and extractive systems, family formation, you name it – was entangled with and within the web of life? In responding to the question, I wanted to offer open rather than closed formulations. I wanted to consider what happened to our views of history – and our philosophies of history – if we began with how human sociality fit into the web of life, rather than how it was separate from Nature. In other words, I hoped to explore how the distinctiveness of human power and re/production was always configured within both larger and smaller domains of extra-human life, from the biosphere to the micro- biome.
In pursuing these questions, I wanted to cultivate the insights of two Marxist scientists, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. Two observations were especially influential for me. One is that there are no basic units. Up to a point, this is entirely uncontroversial. In the history of modern science, “all previously proposed undecomposable ‘basic units’ have so far turned out to be decomposable, and the decomposition has opened up new domains for investigation and practice.” There are units of observation, for instance a particular country (the United States) or a specific historical process (modern slavery). But it’s impossible to make sense of these historical geographies by adding up relations in two different ontological containers, Nature and Society. (Or “race” plus “class” plus “empire” plus “nature.) To do so enforces an ontological claim about their separation – a philosophical claim directly implicated in the real abstractions of Nature and Society and the practices of domination enabled by them. Such claims lead either to social reductionism or to environmental determinism, or to a grand narrative of the human experience in which Society dominates at some points, Nature at others. An alternative is to situate every domain of human experience in its connective relation within nature as a whole. Human thought, action, and sociality, themselves products of a long evolutionary experience, become historical through definite patterns of environment-making as a double internality: humans are inside the web of life, and the web of life is inside, outside, and connective with every human social form. A popular way of saying this is that history is co-produced, or coevolutionary – which is true, but only if we let go of the basic units, the sacred objects, of Humanity and Nature.
Submission by Sam Lewitt
Lyall’s Talents are comprised of two compressed sheets of glass. The back sheet is a mirror; the front pane is printed on the inside with a unique, yet potentially infinite progression of colored pixels to constitute a polychrome surface which brings to mind a monochrome. A mixture of gel medium and Nano-particles of gold is then applied by the artist’s hand to the outside surface to complete the work – the painter, perhaps, as window cleaner. Activated by the mirror’s reflective play of light, the pixels produce a diffused hue or colored aura. In containing gold, the mixture also recalls the etymology of talent (in Latin, the amount of metal in a coin). Akin to golden backgrounds in Cimabue paintings, the gold creates an effect of groundlessness, the fundamental reality of abstraction itself. Simultaneously reflective and absorbing, the painted Talent oscillates between a world-reflecting image and an adventure of embodiment. At its core, the work both engages and subverts the two essential categories of contemporary art, that is the mirror, and the monochrome.
Jacques Rancière’s “The Surface of Design” appeared, in English, in a book of collected essays, The Future of the Image (SD, 2007). Subsequently, some of the ideas returned in texts on art, aesthetics, and politics: Aesthetics and its Discontents (AD, 2009), Dissensus (D, 2010), and Aisthesis (A, 2013).
I can’t say whether these ideas are perfectly suited to your image of a Poet-Engineer. The essays have to do with a poet and an engineer, and I thought you might be interested. To enrich this interest, I felt it useful to provide some background on Rancière’s work. This is contained in section (i). The essay is summarized in section (ii). I follow with a series of links and distinctions whose aim is to discern contemporary relevance. Finally, I try to gather these strands, at first theoretically in section (iv), and in section (v) with a “hometown” case.
(i) Background: Rancière’s Aesthetic Theory
‘aesthetics mix technique and the passions of the soul’
(i.a) Rancière argues that aesthetic discourse is involved in producing a form of life. It relates to things that sustain a people in their common mode of habitation. Art is among these pertinent things.
Aesthetics is not itself an art (if ‘art’ is a form of knowledge and will). Neither is it simply a branch of philosophy that thinks the disjunction of ideas and emotion, or of raw sensation and subjectivity. Aesthetics is the name of a REGIME of thought whose goal is to identify works of art.
(Aesthetics) designates a mode of thought that develops with respect to things of art and that is concerned to show them to be things of thought. More fundamentally, aesthetics is a particular regime of thinking about art, and an idea of thought according to which things of art are things of thought (A, 4-5).
Of what are “things of art” the thought? The answer is neither objective nor clear. An artifact does not draw its property of being art by holding to a recognized form, or to some mimetic or mythic adequacy. Rather, an artifact draws its artistic status by belonging to a certain SENSORIUM. This is a specifically configured space which contains and distributes a wealth of elements in which the questions of art are specified.
Entirely material conditions—performance and exhibition spaces, forms of circulation and reproduction, but also modes of perception and regimes of emotion—make it possible for words, shapes, movements and rhythms to be felt and thought as works of art (D, 97).
The sensorium is, thus, a social diagram. We could speak of a matrix of shared sensation, or even of a plasticized social medium. Rancière calls these spaces, SCENES. They are complex weaves of paradigms, protocols, habits and cultural dispositions which envelop the diversity of arts institutions. Their fabric is publicly enacted (it is mutable), but meant to be common, and relatively durable. Perhaps like Laruelle’s non-aesthetics, Rancière’s idea is to take a scene (its actors, spaces, objects, and enjoyments) as so much scientific material. If so, then aesthetics is not the sphere of an art which survived scientific knowledge by clinging to obscure, inaccessible myths, “impossible” objects, or unsayable words. By carefully observing aesthetic scenes, we grasp the particular decisions and distinctions they use to elevate works of art — to separate art from other experience, and to value and preserve only certain works.17 Philosophers, at least since Kant, have grasped this regime, but they did not invent it themselves.
(i.b) Art is a historically assignable term. This is crucial to Rancière’s argument.
There have always been arts in the sense of the forms of know-how. There have sometimes been divisions such as that which sets in contrast the liberal arts and the mechanical arts. But art and literature, as we know of them today, have existed for only about two hundred years (D, 209).
Much of what we talk about as art, today, was once part of sacred custom. The appearance of art in its independence, in a process which reached its peak in modernity, responds to various cultural influences: the Enlightening effects of modern science; expanded literacy and critical thought; a realist turn in literature (novels); genre painting and popular theatre (…). Rancière also notes the appearance, to the public of 18th Century Europe, of many unfamiliar cultural artifacts imported in the course of colonizing processes. Further, at the time when art was constituted (when Hegel had declared it an end in itself):
… it became a commonplace in magazines, and was corrupted in bookstore trade and the newspaper—or so-called industrial literature. Once again, however, it was at the same time that commodities started traveling in the opposite direction, crossing the border separating them from the world of art, in order to replenish and materialize the very art whose forms Hegel considered to be exhausted (AD, 49).
Above all else, the AESTHETIC REGIME took note of and wanted to grasp these changes, which together had rendered a new experience: that of art as a singular pursuit which seemed to be directed at prosaic life, and not at courtly patrons, cultivated specialists, or traditional religious elites. (The conversion of palaces to art museums, like the Louvre, was important to this experience.) The problem was that art, having ‘merged’ with life, could not be conceived in its own specificity. Unlike traditional artisanal labor, it employed no specialized means or materials. Different from industrial-mechanical arts, it did not result in commodity products, and did not propose any practical uses. Rather, the things that would count as art reflected, in novel and intriguing ways, the sensible domain of a people who could see that they inhabited a world of accelerating change. Art and aesthetics appeared in a dream of happiness, freedom, and religious tolerance. These ideals had emerged in a sickening context of war and factional violence. Carried forward, they supported the modernist idea of a reconciled, secular social order. But excessive negativity persisted and seemed to adopt ever more surprising forms. Differences disrupt. They are sense occasions. And the word had unfolded in different differences: its unities changed into masses and multiples, its Spirit replaced by force and firepower. Dissatisfaction and disagreement carved many paths for modernist art. More generally, as Nicolas Bourriaud put it in an essay that conjoined Foucault and Manet, “what vouches for Manet’s painting is the definite birth of an individual exiled from his certainties regarding his place in the world.”18
There is no historical point of rupture: “But there was a slow re-configuration that provided the same ways of doing/making—metaphors, frottis, a use of light and shadow—with a new visibility and new forms of intelligibility on the basis of which new ways of doing/making arose” (D, 209). Rancière notes Germaine de Staël. But, contrast Benjamin’s concept, aura, which preserves a negative essence of art in relation to the vast reproducibility of photographs and other mechanical images, Rancière finds this idea self-serving: “a typical use of the negative term to announce an impossible positive feature.”
Art reflected a changed sensorium. Suspending the commandment of form over matter (or of active understanding over passive sentiment), it seemed to displace old tastes and biases, and pressed for surprising perceptual paradigms. Mood was fused with a questioning intellect. These are still the conditions for aesthetics, whose contemporary processes continue to presume that art is an inchoate (and reflexive) term. Mostly, aesthetics is about appearance. It draws our attention to the surfaces of things. (It does not have an iceberg theory of subject.) Aesthetics is how people change and exchanged their sense of authentic artistic appearance, and at times their doubts about the latter’s possibility. Again, it concerns the apparent surface as matter that is bound, so to speak, to change.
(i.c) Anything can count as a work of art. But this doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” The potential resources of a work of art (including its ‘cause’) are probably infinite. However, if art has unlimited potential, then aesthetics is the thinking of its SENSIBLE-EXCEPTION. There is no aesthetics without a cut. How is ‘anything’ exchanged for art, such that everything about it might seem to matter? By what device of transformation does ‘whatever’ gain the mask of a singular thing? Aesthetics is the thought of these processes at work.
A “sensible exception” occurs within what Rancière calls a PARTITION OF THE SENSIBLE—“the system of self-evident facts that simultaneously disclose the existence of shareable things and the delimitations that define the respective elements, parts, and positions within it.” The exception is within the shared sensorium, and is not an outside power of form. It is that which, appearing inside the sensorium, lacks the quality of clear self-evidence. It is something that is not immediately legible. It does not make sense if observed alone, but requires mediation by aesthetic thought. However, this thinking has no recourse to extant distinctions and cultural divisions. (The latter would be nothing but administrations.) In fact, the material on which aesthetics focuses is not just the “thing of art” but the subtle contrasts such a thing inspires. Aesthetics is a mode of active discernment. This includes comparisons of different works (distinctions that arise between paintings, for example). It also aims to challenge the ideas that merely reproduce art’s institutions—modes, like painting, by which “art proper” is distinguished from whatever is not called art, or whatever in art is called “impossible” (lost, unshowable, unsayable, ended). Art is bathed in a separative light, but one imagines a virtual lighting plot, turning on and off, and shifting, spotlights.
Rancière speaks of a strange AUTONOMY. However, unlike the autonomy of modernist scholarship, it is not an autonomy of things. Further, the distinctions we perceive as art are not reflections of empirical realities already at work in the shared sensorium—differences that function to divide and oppose, or to suture actors to discrete identities. Aesthetics is a science of indiscretions. Rancière’s autonomy of art is shown by the indiscretions of surfaces as such. Something appears that had not already been a part of recognized empirical reality. Something changes in the mirror image, not only as reflection but within reflectance (the manner of reflecting, its materiality). This “something,” which is clearly not impossible or negative, calls upon aesthetics to receive its signal, to describe and interpret it, …to call it names. (I called this superficial difference, talent.)
(i.d) Rancière chooses the word AISTHESIS. Aisthesis is defined as a process of discernment that relies on mixtures of raw sensation, intellect, emotional response, and know-how. It occurs in the very self- difference of thought. “An artist cannot but know and will;” but “art traces matters of subtle feeling that do not reveal their deepest causes, and do not support any necessary meaning.” Such disjunctions must trouble form, but they elevate diverse subjective outcomes. Aisthesis prompts for hetero-autonomies. Rancière uses the term aisthesis as a contrast with the common idea of mimesis. If mimesis, in art, is concerned with likeness, then it always appeals to existing standards. It works with adequacy and probability. Thus, it disciplines subjectivity, containing it within very rigorous codes. Aisthesis is concerned with the way art traces its difference in the gaps of the cognitive process, and as such, in excesses over stock significance. It deals with potential and inappropriation. It adds and changes mundane reality.
In Hegelian terms, aisthesis is the notion to which we express our fidelity whenever we compare or discern the qualities of art. Aisthesis links rough, pre-thetic sense to impressions and perception, cognitive processes, languages, and finally, to conscious imagery. The cause of the image is assigned retrospectively, according to the way an artistic appearance is received, interpreted, described, and analogized. Cause comes after its artistic effect, so the time of aisthesis is strictly virtual—aisthesis introduces “pure special effects.” Aesthetics can comprise connoisseurist knowledge, scholarship, and flights of projective fiction. It does not have to answer to “real conditions.” This freedom is art’s autonomous piece. Autonomy, being the autonomy of subjects, makes art’s surfaces heterogeneous.19
Compare the Platonic ban on poetry, which Badiou explained by the fact that the Poet lacked a necessary element of dianoia—a capacity of speech to be verified discursively. Aisthesis is, rather, a general term for something that promotes a diversity of making and doing, and allows many people to speak. It delivers ever new artistic figures to an otherwise flattened, prosaic scene.
(i.e) Aisthesis and autonomy have helped confirm that art is an under-determined term. Its principle is that of insufficient cause. Noting Schiller’s concept of free appearance, Rancière links the production of art, and, also, its hetero-autonomous scene, to a stance he (surprisingly) calls indifference. Autonomy and under-determinability lead to INDIFFERENCE and FREE APPEARANCE. Alone, this is not a radical claim. From Hegel to Adorno, it has been maintained that art is different from mere utility. (Or again, it is not a device of discourse.) Indifference, which is clearly a negative term, has never been entirely expunged from art. If so, and to specify Rancière’s idea, I propose to infect the word indifference by cutting it apart and inserting a dash. Then, indifference is re-written:
Aisthesis occurs in-(gaps of)-difference, in a play of disparate things and thoughts that exceed all recognized empirical difference. But what is the non-different content of difference? Logically, it must be “the same as nothing,” like an empty blow and its unary mark—in-difference as the basis of repetition. It would point “beyond (aesthetic) pleasure;” and art would contain (or constrain) its drive.
But the references to Schiller are aimed to show how in-difference is related to apparent freedom, to authentic living, a promesses de bonheur. Rancière is right to note that art, in modernity, is nothing if it doesn’t keep moving in repetitive unfoldings of desire and freedom. Promises and dreams have been its automaton. But freedom is a matter of free appearance. It refracts in scenes of liberated play. An aisthesis, traced in a work of art, returns to its people as a thought of play (adventures of ideas, nominations, and analogies). We could just as well say, “a play of thought.” This introduces a double suspension: “a suspension of the cognitive power of understanding that determines sensible givens in accordance with its categories; and a correlative suspension of the power of sensibility that requires an object of desire” (AD, 30).
Play is an activity that has no end, inasmuch as it has no definitive aim outside the codes which establish its games. It conditions artistic appearance by adhering to a sensory mode “that is different from all known dominations,” from all known ways of dividing the public, and especially from labor’s servitude. If play erupts in a changing community, it tends to express a “refutation”—of intelligence dominating sense-experience; of men-versus-women, of the HR department. Symmetrically, free appearance refutes old habits of delivering appearance to reality.
Surely, art is only half-expected happiness! But the fact that autonomy does not result in absolute states of happiness and play doesn’t mean that a univocal concept, ‘Art,’ must protect its empty, impassive core. (The latter would perpetuate symptomology). In-difference, or the dash which I use to express it, holds to the clutter of the playful scene. It holds to a self-differential thought that lacks for an immanent binding term. “Aisthesis” is created with an absent signifier. The Other (of a currently existing sensorium) is pierced by a hole that it cannot fill. Underneath the space of aesthetic art is the truth that there is literally nothing to say. It is only by proceeding from this empty point—this “nothing-(more)-to- say” of the Other, itself—that art reflects its subject’s immanence. It “plays” its own in-different role.
(i.f) Finally, the moving floor of in-difference is marked by the interesting word, DISSENSUS. Dissensus is a lack of consensual agreement. It has no other, more positive meaning: it is simply the absence of a common procedure, or again, the lack of a binary term. We hear an echo of the non-agreement that defines aisthesis as self-differing thought. This also points to political meanings. There is no sensorium without dissensus, or at least ONE figure of in-difference, itself. (Recall Laruelle’s intriguing nomination: the subject, art, is in-differently a Stranger, being stranger-than anything which plays its role.)
Dissensual aesthetics is always political. Thus, aisthesis will be linked to attempts, by some, to appropriate artistic surfaces for messages stripped of aesthetics, entirely. Art is exchanged with functional signage. Obviously, this has value in itself, but Rancière approaches it somewhat cautiously. In contemporary art, the political signal has relied on the consensus of its liberal audience (or, something which amounts to the same idea, it relies on an empty meta-difference that subsumes its arts as services performed for the Other (of democracy’s dis-contents.)
What, then, counts as a politics of art? Much as science creates its objects by adding a mathème to existing nature, aesthetics creates artistic appearances. By carefully observing a diversity of things, we take their appearances as they are, and lend them words to decipher and preserve them. This plays out on aesthetic scenes. Finally, thanks to this aesthetic deciphering, people are encouraged to propose their experience of heretofore unrecognized material, in ways that can change the sensorium, itself. Art appears in all its contingency. But the process is still (quasi-) scientific: first, aisthesis is traced and hypothesized; then, a community of interested people decides if its particular effect has merit. We do not dig into the depth of cause. We ask: does it capture a shareable experience? And, why does it matter to call it Art? Although the aisthesis cannot be verified, its collective validity can be disproved. Dissensus means the process is multiplied across very different, and perhaps, unlinked, communities. But it is by this general method that a subject, which had not been included in a recognized discourse, can come forth, proud, as a new resource of art, its value, its scenes, and politics.
(ii) “The Surface of Design,” (2004, trans 2007)
Is the Poet-Engineer such a new resource, not only for art, but of aesthetic material? Perhaps this essay is Rancière’s answer.
(ii.a) The notion of aisthesis means that art is autonomous, free of any one defining principle. Released from religion and representation, art is both a sensible exception and something whose appearance is bound to change. Its change occurs on the surfaces of things. Rancière seems to exploit that in French, the same word, ‘change,’ means change or exchange. By extension, it invokes transition, transformation, transaction, transit, and metamorphosis. These overlap in artistic appearances.
“The Surface of Design” imagines a moment when such a change/exchange took place between a symbolist poet and an engineer. Further, this exchange took place in advance of the modernist theory of formal autonomy. That is, it came ahead of abstraction in the arts, and the subsequent divergence of aesthetic and productivist goals in the avant-garde.
(W)hen Mallarmé wrote his Un coup de dés, he wanted the arrangement of lines and the size of characters on the page to match the form of his idea—the fall of the dice on a surface. Soon after, Peter Behrens designed the lamps and kettles, catalogues, and trademarks of the German General Electricity Company. What do they have in common? The answer, I believe, is a certain conception of design (Rancière, Dissensus, at 120).
At the same time, graphic design had emerged in its now-familiar mechanical form, as the organization of printable surfaces where logos and images produced by Behrens could exist with the calligrams of Mallarmé, and photographic images of anything else. This common surface was revealed by a matrix of increasingly standardized graphic elements: lay-out, letter, and structured line. Quickly, an underlying grid was formalized. Color and the half-tone soon appeared.
All were heralds of a changing worldview:
The poet wanted to replace the representational subject-matter of poetry with the design of a general form, to make the poem like choreography or the gesture of a flicking fan. He called these general forms his ‘types.’ (…)
The engineer wanted to create commodities whose form would fit their use, and advertisements which provided exact information, free of ornamental embellishment. These forms he also called ‘types.’ (…)
Behrens thinks of himself as an artist, inasmuch as he attempts to create a culture of everyday life that is in keeping with the progress of industrial production and artistic design, rather than the routines of commerce and petty-bourgeois consumption. His types are symbols of a common life. But so are Mallarmé’s (D,121-2).
The Surface of Design was a virtual domain of changing techno-mechanical reality. It revealed itself by symbolic types. These were particular to each of their makers and did not disclose a general intention to usurp the field by a synthesizing discipline. Each man saw that, lacking any necessary principle, the Surface produced dissensus (types that reflect and interrupt each other). Therefore, types were functional equals, and change/exchange could occur between them. Further, this Surface was not only common, but public, reproducible, distributed, ubiquitous (…).
The equivalence of the graphic and the visual creates the link between the poet’s types and the engineer’s. It visualizes the idea that haunts both of them—that of a common visual surface where types (as signs, forms and acts) become equal and exchangeable (…). The world of forms and the world of objects make do with the same flat surface—the surface that supports alphabetic signs. (SD, various cites).
Types were, therefore, also, letters, which is not straightaway to call them signifiers. Rancière is looking at a short-lived moment when no such status was yet determinable. The products of the poet and the engineer were aesthetic in the sense that they produced new pleasures. Suspended, they materialized the new sensorium.
(ii.b) The Surface of Design was no mere grid. It was not pre-cleared of representation, and was not a “blank” or a syntactical neuter. Rancière calls these ideas ‘reactions,’ or ‘ramparts for protecting the sanctity of art.’ Rather, his Surface of Design was virtual. It was cleared of the burden of cultural tradition and, as such, was free of a need to isolate, classify, and purify inherited form. For every monochrome painted by a Malevich, there was also a Dada artist “at work bringing letters, photos, disparate iconography, and products onto the same flat surface.” But, these represent a dual solution. There was room for infinite play between them. Surface was a new aesthetic principle that encompassed this very aisthesis of things. This is why the same superficial topos was at once a condition for poetic invention, and a code for the rigor of the engineer. As far removed from one and other as the Symbolist poet and the functionalist engineer may seem, they shared the idea that forms of art should be models of collective orientation for a commonly emerging humanity. Industrial production and artistic creation were both committed to doing something on top of what they normally had done: that is, creating not only objects, but a new sensorium, a new partition of the sensible, and with it, a new aesthetic configuration of a frankly shared material world (D, at 123).
Rancière compares this aspiration to Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts (though not without pointing to the latter as more sentimental, and therefore, somewhat compromised). It is also worth noting that scholars of pre-modern ornament have long been able to show how textiles and ceramics had functioned as surfaces on which a diversity of emblematic types, materials, and skills were shared internationally. There are very few writers who still support a purity-theory of—for instance—Renaissance tapestry, tiles, or textile patterns.20 Seemingly, every shareable surface will imply a structure of commerce-being.
(ii.c) Mallarmé and Behrens were separately inspired by photos of the dancer, Löie Fuller. Fuller was an international sensation. Someone called her “the muse of everyone.” As part of her famous cabaret performances, she projected lights onto layered robes to create wild flashes of evocative imagery. Lengths of fabric were twisted and manipulated, reminding some viewers of Charcot’s hysterics. Stills of these performances were circulated widely in the press as well as in advertising imagery. Fuller inspired a line of electric lamps, wallpaper patterns, and mouthwash bottles.
For the poet, as for the engineer, these images of Fuller exemplified a new free type circulating in the public realm. Captured in photos and scattered on surfaces, the dancer’s poses were themselves like letters that anyone and everyone could somehow read. This ubiquity revealed a hybrid space that was neither public nor strictly private. The intimate and private space of reading—or, indeed, of enjoying the depiction of a woman—was linked to an expansive shared reality. On the other hand, because they were self-contained, these images seemed like free appearances that demanded no single interpretation. Sometimes part of the décor of life, they were also, at other times, works of art.
Fuller is summoned in “The Surface of Design” to eschew a familiar critical story: “the symbolist cult of aesthetic autonomy coincides with the origins of systematic advertising,” such that “their emancipatory potential found its dialectical counterpart in spectacle culture.”21 It is true that Rancière’s Fuller points to early modes of celebrity and spectacle. Isn’t the idea of spectacle culture that a common technical surface was erected to assemble and dissolve an atomized population (a “public that had learned to read,” Kant called it) in a blur of shared consumerist fantasy? If so, then Rancière’s discussion of Fuller introduces a kind of cultic residue. However, by linking the occasion of aisthesis to the flickering vortex of the dancer’s ‘types’, his idea insists on an original resistance to the spectacle’s seamless, self- enclosing surface. He wants to emphasize the dancer’s in-difference. The fascinating figure of the woman-at-play conveys that a minimum of representation is needed to avoid merely passive spectacles, and thus to resist the closure of the Surface of Design as against its own virtuality. The multiple is shown in its fulguration, but the sensible-exception is not disavowed.
(ii.d) At the end of the essay, Rancière points to Suprematism:
The finest illustration of this kind of exchange … might be the posters designed by Rodchenko for the aircraft company Dobrolet. The stylized forms of the plane and the letter of the brand are combined in homogeneous geometrical forms. But this graphic homogeneity is also a homogeneity between the forms that serve to construct Suprematist paintings and those that serve to symbolize the élan of Dobrolet planes and the dynamism of the new society”
Or again, in a subsequently published essay,
If the creators of pure forms of so-called abstract painting were able to transform themselves into the artisans of a new Soviet life, it is not by virtue of some circumstantial subordination to an external utopia. … It marked, on the contrary, the belonging of the new pictorial gesture to a surface/interface where pure art and applied art, functional art and symbolic art, merged, where the geometry of the ornament became the symbol of inner necessity and where the purity of the line became the constitutive instrument for a new way of living (la vie), itself susceptible to being transformed into the new décor of the new life (AP, at 32-3).
Rodchenko’s compacted types—being letters, shapes, and pictographs—were mixed in the hybrid signifying system to appear in the image of a soaring airplane. The poster was itself a piece of the Surface of Design in the guise “flying paper” (an early nickname for paper money). As such, it was both an exemplary assemblage and proof of the common incapacity of any one input-type to reify the whole. The subject was released to its line of flight. The Surface of Design was radically open, and Rodchenko had discerned its playful potential, its anti-gravity, its apparent groundlessness.22
(iii) One or Multiple Surfaces?
Where is this Surface of Design today? And what of its poets and its engineers?
(iii.a) Rancière’s surface anticipates ‘synergy,’ Buckminster Fuller’s inventive term for the fact that the relational parts of an assemblage (its diagram) vastly exceed the number of factual elements used to assemble it. Synergies generate surplus value in otherwise finite social fields. Sometimes, synergy is easy to capture, and a profit (or some kind of progress) results. At other times, though, an excessive surplus overspills into unintended outcomes. Because the latter promote dissensus, art might stand as among the material traces of ungovernable social diagrams. There would be no art were there no dissensus (and the scattered artifacts by which we show it).
For the Poet-Engineer, the effects of synergy arise between two recognizable figures:
— Poet: Maker, Creator, Producer of Forms; Figuratively, a person who possesses powers of imagination, feeling, expression, or one who privileges these in creative work; by convention, a Poet uses writing as a means to adapt the rhythmic properties of song; It is also the daemon of tragic theatre. Poets seek to bring a concealed or forgotten reality into sensuous presence.
— Engineer: Maker, Builder, Designer, Author of Prototypes, Models, Diagrams; Adept of Practical Knowledge (Technical skill) and inventive strategic contrivances; a Problem Solver.
Here are two very common ways to approach the question of generic humanity: a Poet (a linguistically expressive being) and an Engineer (homo oeconomicus). Further, the relationship between these figures takes place not only in social links, but also in the belly of an individual. (“Human” must encompass a range of organic, cultural, and techno-scientific elements). No wonder people spoke of a “Deleuzian Century:” the Poet-Engineer would stand for an artist at work in a flux of “different differences,” extracting what is new from the repetitions, and affirming these occasions as expressive novelties. Art would trace the movement which Deleuze understood as a crack in immanence (un félure).
(iii.b) But success would come with some ambivalence. It is easy to relate synergistic surplus to Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism. There, one reads of a densely woven surface, or fabric, of social relations. This is the flexible hyper-structure that, today, we see in social networks. In a network society, projects count for more than specialized modes of knowledge. Projects are arranged by facilitations, or distributed links of willing actors, each of whom contributes a partial task. Because these structures need flexibility, network links eclipse manufactured objects at the summit of social value, and the role of management is often key. Links must both be easy to assemble, and easy to dismantle and redistribute. In Art, these attributes became the stuff of the social sculpture of the 1990s. An enduring example is Olafur Eliasson, whose massive output is divided into project areas like a cliented design corporation.
What about today, over 20 years after such attempts to materialize social diagrams in sculpture and scenographic décor?23 In contemporary art, the New Sprit of Capital runs on the power of digitized images. This has changed our sensorium, dramatically. David Joselit made this point when he compared the digital images in social media to the oil that flows in a pipeline system.24 The properties of oil determine the pipeline, just as digitized images determine both network design and user experience. (“Types” are reduced to image-formats.) The Spirit has delighted in ideas that draw on the efficient transfer of digitized images. We read of “multitudes,” “creative commons,” “dispersions,” and “immaterial assemblages.” (First, these notions are explored by agents of change; but then, by MBAs.) Within these visions, art is Ding-Ästhetik: it is only one piece in a broader discourse that focuses on issues of public concern. Anything can count as a subject of art, and artists are among a diversity of agents whose ideas are meant to resonate together. Perhaps symptomatically, this kind of art is strong in places where public and corporate funding outweighs the commercial markets. It increasingly appears at world biennials. ‘Art’ is a surface for intricate ‘partnerships’ (curators, managers, marketing departments, corporate sponsors, theorist-consultants, state representatives, and stake-holder groups (…). But artists soon come to perceive a paradox: at least to the extent that they identify as artists, the success of projects makes them disappear.25 In Rancière’s terms, their work is absorbed by a growing sentiment of public consensus. They respond to an Other of Public Policy that requires no moment of sensible-exception. Not unlike in a theatrical production, the share of art is reduced to props, background friezes, and programmed lighting. Art, as itself, becomes superfluous.
‘Art’ may survive as empty form, but this is often framed by disavowed investments. Žižek wrote a whirlwind essay on how “the ends of art” have been re-assigned by digital design and spectacle architecture—as “visors,” “veils,” and “sculptural skins” on todays’ most celebrated Arts complexes. (He cites Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron, along with a ponderous list of others.) Examples of a privileged surface of design, these new containers of Ding-Ästhetik are supposed to imagine a cultural commons. They are meant to display multiplicitous surface. As such, however, they have been a way to mask a variety of inconsistencies: their surface reconciles horizontal aims (or “value propositions” that would make of art a symbolic site of inclusion and equity) with more or less ruthless vertical goals (to preserve the unequal wealth and social distinction of the donors who pay for the buildings, and whose names are emblazoned on their ornamental masks).
(iii.c) Is there an alternative beside the art fair? To linger on a pessimistic answer (but just for now), I will note another idea: the Surface of Design in the era of the networked Spirit might function as a Hyper- Object. Arising from disparate social practices, Hyper-Objects take their complex structure from globally extended synergetic diagrams and refract in rapidly changing networks. However, there is also an inhuman part: the sharable space of a Hyper-Object is beyond the scope of the human sensorium. Although it is made of technical elements that themselves are products of human labor, it evades all particular manifestations and cannot be modeled or depicted locally. Hyper-Objects generate “wild- synergetics,” (or as Malabou calls them, negative plasticities). When art attempts to render these excesses, or to capture their effects for collective meaning, it succumbs to sprouts of ideology.
Massively distributed, a Hyper-Object places its agents inside its surface. Applicable to anything, it sticks to contexts and mediates localized specificity. Precisely, it appropriates forms of life. There could be no question of a Poet-Engineer at work outside its complex knot.
Perhaps this is why a Hyper-Object feels more substantial than personal experience, and triggers anxiety or misplaced reverence. Its collateral is spectral meta-Difference (if not the “Spectre of Marx,” himself). Jean-Pierre Dupuy wrote at length about the sacred nature of digitally-linked technologies. Joselit, again, while pointing to a map of the internet, noted how it looks sublime. Lyotard’s exhibition, Les Immaterieaux, was also about sublimity—there, the idea was that art might offer a form of resistance, or romantic impasse in response to accelerated technical change. Otherwise, personal or local sense is restricted to effects of inter-objectivity. Experience arises in chains of partial objects, none of which carry meaning by themselves, but require projective semantic performances. (As one last reference to Joselit, here, see his well-rendered essay on image-aggregators.) We deliver our “selves” to a Hyper- Object. But, at issue is whether this self-performance is reflexive (as genuine social speech) or whether it occurs in self-reflection, in a circuitry infected by ‘the plague of narcissism.’
(iii.d) The common language is DIGITIZATION. This is also true for the Poet-Engineer, who works in areas of digital convergence. But a digital language is not made up of types, or discrete alphabetic letters. A digitized language is made of duels that lack for a necessary binding term. Thus, it is a language of permanent crisis. The Other that performs through a digitized network (through users, all of whom are ‘decentered subjects’) acts as a force of pandemonium. I mean by this that it calls for assemblages that link very disparate partial-elements and tend to intensify contradictions. (Byung-Chul Han sees
“swarms” and “shitstorms” as authentic phenomena of digital culture). But the digital power is not, or at least not only, the power of an autonomous system, beyond the reach of empirical experience. That kind of power is a factor in any assemblage that mediates inter-subjectivity by use of an invisible surface, or interface. Today, we are mostly comfortable with this. Instead, because its reach is diverse and multiple, and because multiplicities absorb antitheses as merely factual differences, the power of a digitized Hyper-Object is condensed by how it suppresses (its) One. It refuses all thought of the sensible- exception. Rather, a One that is dead and empty—a designifying One (in its architectural mask)— explodes in a superego-voice, and haunts dissensus with the hatred-of-capital. We are then enlisted as destabilizing agents, and as such, are among the “little motors” that generate cycles of new disruption (a repetitive consumption of existing surfaces, or the clearing of the old as a ritual stage in projects for new and speculative investment). Citing The Hunger Games, Franco Berardi once told me, in a private conversation in Toronto, that oppression has slowly been transited from work relations to techniques of semantic burden. We exist in a miasma of surplus knowledge, and network relations are the major distributer. If he’s right, then the impasse of repetition, and the key to freedom in the “Capital City,” is not primal trauma, or a willingness to fight, or the jewel of the psyche, but sheer fatigue.
In Art, this “passion for the One” has recently returned (though it never quite goes away) in the tiring spectacle of NFTs. It is easy to detect the repetition, here. Much of 20th-century art was framed by cultural ideals of action, impulse, flux, the informe, disseminated difference, and playful social “happenings.” Both in the historical avant-garde and the post-war media- and culture-industries, the arc of anti-aesthetic art has recorded our preference for Arts of Difference.26 Conversely, these have also prompted for ever-more ingenious modes of surplus value. In modernity, the multitude provided a backdrop where new figurations of uniqueness, novelty, celebrity, and style were brought to the fore. From ‘the’ readymade to under-recognized artists, and up to Cattelan’s tucked banana, art has succeeded as a signaling device for resilient rights of monopoly ownership.
It is apt to place the NFT and the networked world of Ding-Ästhetik on the same, dialectically inflected, plane. They repeat the age-old struggle to establish the relation of (the form of) One and the multiple:
— a multiple implies the lack of One;
— a One denies and suppresses diversity;
— between these two, there is no relation; philosophy decides them in terms of duels.
Also repeated is the link between an emptied One and persistent elitist exceptions, though now with a neat post-human twist. NFTs are ordinary things that gain by a supplement of crypto-writing. Maybe this writing has replaced the babble of the man of taste and the connoisseur. It is also a device of monopoly- enjoyment in the space of a new, post-civic, technocracy. Or, like conceptual art certificates, this writing is less an artistic innovation than an item in the ongoing dialectic of sign-exchange and security-technology. Collapsing these poles, the NFT makes value by protecting (non-existent) value.27 The “expanded field” of Ding-Ästhetik is exchanged with pure (derivative) drive. We are in a maelstrom of a “public that has learned to read” by swiping, liking, flicking, pinching, scrolling, cancelling, and (…).
(iii.e) Just as it would “pass” on Ding-Ästhetik, the Poet-Engineer must reject the paranoid frisson of recent crypto-exceptionalism. Rancière’s Surface of Design was other than a compact of massively integrated ownership. More reminiscent of the early Internet (before our identities became its product), the Surface of Design was an accidental weave of particular, and previously separated, things. It appeared in diverse and dissensual matters. Its synthesis of types was creative and provisional, and passed in and out of quotidian frames. This means, I think, that the Poet-Engineer would not be lured by an ersatz futurism, and cannot be sublated by ‘immaterials.’ (True, I once had fun thinking out a super- position of Warhol’s painted blank with Elie Ayache’s Blank Swan. Both were concerned with a writing of price. This helped me structure my EVe adhesives as ‘nakedly’ derivative artistic writing, in the vast tradition of Rodchenko’s posters. However, it was not a case of embracing the technical domain as an aim, itself. I had wanted to express the free design I detected in the algorithmic “action” of pixels, and indeed in the point of these pixels, itself. As Rancière would put it, I had looked to discern a sensible exception to digitized jouis-sense.)
The predicament shaped by the NFT and the Ding-Ästhetik is anti-aesthetic. (It is probably a problem for ethical discourse). Within this problem, art is carried on as an empty, naked, de-signifying term. It loses its status as a sensible-exception, but this is because its powers of non-self-evidence are lost, they cannot be distinguished, if nothing makes local sense at all. The problem is how we ought to re-dress this. If “Poet-Engineer” is a good nomination, it will seem to instantiate its various figures from within this failure of contemporary art. The paradox is that of exceptional in-differences. It will seek to open an artistic playspace right in the midst of the technical advances that define so many of its chosen means. It will bind it work to a hetero-autonomy. Its task of (the) morning will be anti-fatigue. And crucially, if art must be under-determined, (if its products are thoroughly hetero-autonomous, and do not add up to a formal concept), then the Poet-Engineer must appear on the scene as a figure of aesthetic in-difference*, itself.
*(figure d’un Différence aesthetique, en-même).28
(iv) The Dash
(iv.a) Your notes refer to a triple opportunity:
— new materials;
— complex design and modeling software; and
— new fabrication techniques that employ robotics, remote operations, and convergent
Among the important effects of this are the pathways running from atelier to Lab — and back! A reciprocal movement is needed to avoid the one-way drag of the readymade. To stick with Rancière’s useful terms, the artist brings a kind of aesthetic force to the cuts and joints of digitized convergence, in its various material and technical means. By exploring and combining these different means, an artist helps technology to play itself, in a synergetic field that has not been reified (that is, has not been invested, already, with other more practical, businesslike goals).
This was true of Nanofoil. At the time when I got to explore this material, its potential uses were not well known. It seemed very likely that its applications would include security and data storage. Perhaps Nanomedia images would find their way onto credit cards, instruments of finance, banknotes, authentication papers, and passports. Perhaps they would encode another NFT. However, by deciding on “art” as its client, the Lab was able to observe results in a free, “pre-technological” context. (I argued that, lacking any certain application, the scientific knowledge that produced Nanofoil had rendered, temporarily, a surplus skill. This is why art, which tends to accumulate surpluses, seemed like its fellow traveler.) With art as the client, there was no requirement that the images perform like standard photographs. Color, vibrance, stability and movement were just as important as assessing likenesses (facial structures, or iris prints). As an artist, I added a playful automaton. More precisely, I supplied an aesthetic frame. The choice to refer to my works as Nanofoil (instead of opting for Nanomedia, the umbrella term used for the various patents), aimed to reflect this application of science in the singular sphere of art. (I was saying that art might function as a foil in respect of a device of techno-imaging.) The important thing to me was this: my decision took nothing from the past or future of the scientists’ ongoing optical knowledge. It did not interfere with the scientific status of the object, which remained what it otherwise was: an embodied artifact of research; a proof. I liked that my work with the optical scientists resulted in a singular, shareable surface whose meaning could refract our different concerns. There was no illusion of combining art and science in a third, collaborative discourse. The conjoining of the two very different worlds occurred IN and AS the surface, alone. Walter Benjamin showed an aesthetic potential that slept in technical obsolescence. Shifting this logic, I found that a premature technology could also ignite what Baudelaire nicely called an “infinite taste of the Republic.” A common surface flashed in the Nanofoil, and this was key to its aesthetic appeal.
(iv.b) This—the common and dissensual surface—is perhaps what encourages Poetic-Engineering. To recall the broader argument, again:
— Aesthetic discourse is supposed to distinguish the glut of merely realized culture from things which actualize sense effects in a way that incites us to call them art. As such, it adds a signifier, art, to a variety of disparate cultural occurrences.
— ‘Actual’ refers to the way the sense experience is faithful to its founding notion, the virtual (in-different) dimension of aisthesis;
— For the surface of design, this virtual dimension enfolds the dissensus of a certain historical experience of techno-cultural novelty. This is traced by works of art. Aisthesis is enhanced when the technical appearance has no pre-existing equivalent in art, as was the circumstance for Nanofoil. (Such lack is evidence of technical change: change proposes dissensual occasions; these occasions inspire aisthesis; the aisthesis prompts for aesthetic autonomy; and, finally, autonomy leads to artistic playspace).
I propose that the Poet-Engineer contains such an immanent space of in-different play. We could think of this as its aesthetic extension, its share of aisthesis, its adherence to art. It is not a duality of art and science, but a figure that arises with a Surface of Design, to play with the latter’s self-differing elements. It gathers disagreements of emotion and the intellect, and holds them together with sensation, and technique. Above, I proposed this duality in terms of the pleasure of the Poet (its enjoyment of the letter), and a pleasure one supposes for the laboring-being (in the satisfying work of an Engineer). Both have suffered their alienations: pleasure gets caught in commercial spectacles; labor, in exploitative mechanical routine. If so, however, then the question to be asked is: how (and whether) the Poet- Engineer endures (or survives) these double injuries? Is the figure that ‘survives’ doomed to sheer fatigue? If it stands by the passion of a double negation, is the figure we are looking for a subject, barred?
(iv.c) My answer is triple. The Poet-Engineer must incorporate:
— links, but not (only) to Hyper-Objects;
— cuts, but not as digital destructions; and,
— art, but only as under-determined (traced by in-difference and hetero-autonomy).
If so, then why not take a chance to consider the importance of the little dash, which, between the Poet and the Engineer, seems to join them and hold them apart? We repeat the dash from the word in-difference.
But, what is a Poet Dash Engineer?
In a book about Hegel and Absolute Knowing, the scholars Frank Ruda and Rebecca Comay considered the meaning of the dash that appears at the end of Hegel’s Phenomenology.29 This “strange punctuation” comes after a prosaic crescendo, but precedes a poetic fragment. Here is one of the conventional translations:
(Science and phenomenal appearance), the two together, are conceptually grasped history; they form the recollection and the Golgotha of absolute spirit, actuality, the truth, the certainty of its throne, without which it would be lifeless and alone; only—
Out of the chalice of the realm of spirits
Foams forth for him his own infinity.
The authors tell us that the German words for dash are Gadenkentrich and Bindestrich. Each word uses the image of a strike, or a stroke, and points to a lapse in thought. They imply a moment of temporal suspension, which might be the cut of the unconscious, itself. A thought, being written, is paused, interrupted, deferred; or it changes paths, gets lost.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
These first lines from Dante’s Comedy stage the subject of the poem, dashed:
But, as Ruda and Comay point out, this lapse provides the space for a dash that links. The self-same stroke now appears as a bridge, or a length of thread that intends to hold. We are dealing with an element of graphic suture. In the Hegel fragment, this dash even looks like a feeler, an antenna, or a little dock (for shipping and receiving, or exchange and travel). The dash is a “picturing punctuation.”30 As a picture, it is something like a meta-interface, made by linking a set of pixels. Its subject must stumble, but it overcomes and dashes forth with renewed intensity. It adds a savor (a dash of salt); and it ornaments (appearing with a dash of style).
The Poet-Engineer is a dashing figure.
No doubt, I mean that for a Poet-Engineer, the dash represents an immanent surface, and accounts for dissensual in-difference, itself. This in-difference is inside of and contained by the dual-figure of the Poet-Engineer. It arises in the Real of its immanent synergy. At any one moment, art “includes” in- difference, the extension represented by the little dash. This means: it cannot be the same as nothing. Art is something inasmuch as it is not mere junk. Certainly, this (very minimal) status will expose it to much contingency. Every ICA is stocked with objects that have yet to be installed in a future landfill. However, aesthetics is constrained to pursue such things as would not come to rest this way. In-difference overtakes art’s old Lost Cause. There could be no aisthesis, nor a work of art, if artists couldn’t see that museums (or the critics, or a public) are all, in their very own ways, just as hungry as the famous omnivore that Walter Benjamin saw, through an angel, as the rubbish pile of history. Dash (and its outcome, artistic appearance) cuts the multiple of everything else. Through it, the things of art and of sensible life are discerned, defined, and distributed. To Rancière, this is axiomatic. The cut of aisthesis is non-negotiable.
(v) Application (More or Less Bone)
(v.a) Finally, to focus more directly on the Poet-Engineer (through an artist who helped inspire the idea), l will mention Jean-Luc Moulène’s approach to sculpture in More or Less Bone. His use of digital models not only relates to the way I think about pixels, but is also apropos of the Surface of Design. At any rate, the following thoughts reflect my own attempt to expand the pixel to encompass the conditions of 3D modeling.
Rancière described a common surface that:
…is, first of all, the equal footing on which everything lends itself to Art; secondly the surface of conversion where Art and its others can exchange their roles; and thirdly the surface of equivalence where the symbolic writing of forms equally lends itself to expressions of pure art and the schematization of industrial art (SD,106-7).
A fourth idea is added when we look, with Moulène, at 3-D digital models. As the pair of images (above) makes clear, this latter Surface of Design is not a plane, but a flexible polygonal mesh. This mesh displays its modeled objects in strictly empty skeletal outlines. The surface is a lattice of vertices and edges (or, perhaps more casually, points and lines). But, because these points are differential (they lack any real-world orientation), they are treated as semantically impoverished, or empty. As such, they are infinitely changeable/exchangeable with any other point in a determined volume. There is simply no interior subject here. It’s as though a void were re-dressed by a set of abstract, equally empty points. Then, a series of graphic edges is added as connectors, between the points. These are logically supplementary: they are not really needed to define the model. Rather, they contrive the recognized image of the web-like mesh as a consistent surface. Therefore, they are part of the user-interface, and orient our vision by linking empty points into images of plastic reality.
And you see: this visual effect of surface, this surfacing of nothing, is made of dashes. The 3-D model is a dashing figure.
Two ideas need emphasis, here:
— Unlike the surface of a photo negative, there is no pre-existing receptive material. We do not require a referent-element, a body that “once really was” (pace, Barthes). Sure, the surface can be derivative (scanned from readymade partial-objects). But, also, it can trace immaterial ‘actions’ (like abstract geometries, algorithmic distributions, or procedures for folding surface topology);
— Unlike Rancière’s surface of design, the digitized mesh is entirely immanent. It is not a surface onto which we express a mark, like a page or a piece of canvas. Surface and mark are strictly combined. Or again, the object, its image, its coded script, and its interface (screen appearance), mix in one geometric thing. This is stored in a .OBJ file, (“OB-Jay”), and can be used another time for future modelings.
At issue is a question of genericity. The imaginary object is in fact a code that contains the nihil of its core and cause. (It contains in the two key senses of this verb: its mesh-like surface has nothing as its content, but it functions to contain and delimit this nothingness. It contains by adding the mattering dimension we see in the surface of dash-like lines. When this is part of an artistic decision, it contains the sensible exception, itself.
It would not be difficult to imagine this mesh-like surface being pulled and twisted in ways that looked like one of Löie Fuller’s performances. The digitized surface of the 3D model makes “image” with whatever plays into its points—shifting them, and adding or subtracting their number. Again, we encounter a strong in-difference. The superficial play makes it possible for ANYTHING that ‘counts as one’ (as a geometric point) to exchange its void for a surface feature.31 Then, by a mechanized sculptural procedure, this surface can exchange its merely graphic status for the body of a work of art. Finally, the plastic object can be scanned, reduced to points, and re-manipulated.
J-L M defined and selected three types of object for More or Less Bone. (It would be interesting, here, to compare these ‘object-types’ to those Le Corbusier used.) The modeling procedure, which “mixed” these types, was framed by a set of conceptual restraints. These were used as scripting protocols. While anything-whatever can be modeled, digitally, what distinguishes the work of art is the way its artifacts trace a particular struggle. Because it is radically under-determined, art makes no demand on the model. Rather, it struggles with the space opened up by the model’s meaningless poetic freedom, and the very engineering which makes it possible. Again, this implies an aesthetic decision, and J-L M assigned this decision by the set of parametric impositions. In Bone, this rendered the skeletal prototype. The artist saw his product as an “object of juncture” which recalled Joris Larman’s iconic Bone Chair. So, the reference made it clear that his Surface of Design could be widely and differently distributed, exchanging objects, as described by Rancière. As art, however, this inter-object seemed to have survived a playful three-way (an orgy that involved its three main types). Thus, it was visible as something monstrous. Comically, this monster was dressed (re-dressed) to allow us to see it as “stripped to the bone.” The Hegelian speculative idea is clear.
(v.b) I will close by noting that, along with Rancière, there are other ways to look upon the digitized surface. Perhaps we should follow Laruelle and say that it supports more than one philosophical decision. (This suits me: I am no philosopher.) For Rancière, things are determined by the way such choice involves an aesthetic passage and supports aisthesis (self-different thought). Contrast this with Alain Badiou, who would see the model as a void of form, where Idea (in its geometric-definition) transpires in all its non-mimesis. Free of resemblance, the Idea has no correlation outside the technical material into which it is written as an instance of thought. The mesh is precisely an Idea of surface. This surface, then, provides a resource for art, whose realized shapes are:
(i)dealist, insofar as, in the works of (the Poet-Engineer), certain entirely unknown forms impose on disparate materials—through the use of images, scans, topologies, digital manipulations and complex tools—a sort of startlingly clear and striking self-evidence.32
Then, because this striking bodily evidence is dressed as a work of sculpture, its appearance is:
material, because, beneath the novelty of the form, beneath the mathematics and its digital glamour, lie the traces of old materials, timeless gestures—traces hidden by just a layer of brilliant color.33
We do not take the artwork as it is, de facto. It is only at the moment of aesthetic investment (the moment we engage with its material trace) that art, in its under-determined being, is crossed with technical indeterminacy (or, again, what Rancière calls aisthesis) to present a new, determinate thing. The sculptural object is unequivocal. It is “this,” such that everything about it matters. And “this” supports a truth procedure. Badiou’s inaesthetics takes nothing from Art. In the latter’s surface, it encounters and reclaims its own (pre-) philosophical gaze. Against art’s surface, it exchanges its own desire and invents a poetic term. (Such poetic transfer is important to the way Badiou returns his idea to philosophy. If the latter is a site where the gaze is vocalized, then the essence of its interests lies close to poetry.
For Badiou and Rancière, my choice of a classical statue (in the image of the polygonal mesh, above), would not be arbitrary. According to Schiller, it was classical sculpture that mapped its surface on a voided subject (to exclude from art the dimension of the gaze, and to deny that it was properly a subject, at all). This sculpture was a figure of free appearance. As such, it showed how a plastic surface could convey an ideal of the individual (the ideal of perfect self-realization, which was also the ideal of the Greek community). Hegel had perceived that the goddesses enrobed in classical sculpture were mere “perfections”: suspended in their cages of poetic shape, they desired for nothing from their human audiences. Their stance was simply to be left alone. A statue embodies a withdrawal from humanity: disinterest, satisfaction, re-pose, in-difference.
Lacanians would say that the ‘partner’ of perfection is none other than the figure of the subject-barred, the subject onto whom the gaze is transferred as a seemingly impossible, extimate, thing. Rancière would not endorse this connection, but his themes of dissensus and aesthetic autonomy are not too far from the tuchē and the automaton (Lacan’s key elements of repetition). Is the dash a blur of the unary trait (as it came to appear in Gerhardt Richter)? The difference seems to be that Rancière does not require a structuring non-relation like that of the signifier’s negativity. In-difference is not a term of negation. It is not the subject in its aphanisis. It describes a place of appearance and play. Aisthesis doesn’t beg for a novel signifier. It stimulates enjoyable and challenging talk. And, rather than a ‘pass’ (the production of the patient as yet one more Lacanian analyst), a dash invigorates aesthetic subjects to approach and savor their common worlds, even though these worlds never cease to change (them).
I’m not optimistic that I’ve nailed this difference. But, if you are willing to indulge these spitball contrasts, at least to reserve them for another conversation, we can bring these notes to conclusion: instead of an art that aims at the world but that always returns to a point of trauma, and instead of a gasp of digital exhaustion, we can say that the Surface of Design has always been a playspace for a Poet-Dash-Engineer.
When archaeologists dig with hopes of unearthing nameable fragments, they seek to return latent abstractions to figuration. Bones, buildings, cups and spoons are entered into a new jig of re-articulation. Gathered and spat back out as collaged chronologies, the collected warmth of real-life perforations sieve these findings out of buried flatness and back into daily language. Once concealed by mud and foliage, sought-out areas become marked sites, places with contemporary traction.
The erased strokes of ancient activity are put back to work: vector grids symbolically allocate meaning or position to animals and humans alike. The enigma of labour necessitated by gravity – the haptic investments in making buildings stand upwards – is provided with a solid topological outline. Handwriting, numbers and vocabulary enter into new formal logic. The discovery might be intense or fragile and it is almost certainly ringed with a hallucinatory outline, which is at once a tracing of signs and alchemical process.
The drawing of a floor plan can also be read as the abstraction of an idea. Fantasy and philology allow mutation: sociological procedure, technological metaphor, erotic image, or surreal apparition bond as a muttering mass.
This might be something to do with making images that have an imposed itinerary quality, but are also disassembled to the point where they can be allowed to be non-committal if required. Flatness allows a literal description of movement, of A to B navigations, with the vector line being a suitably fast mechanism of delivery. But the point at which things become husked down to geometric memories of themselves is also the point when definition gets flabby: this tree is a drunken tree; that house has a pain in its side. Even the dismal colloquialisms of workplace melodrama can be exported, metaphors in essence: think of a spoon, jugs, stones, all invested with personality enough to converse with human crassness.
So of course it is a common idea that if we witness a foreign entity, we perceive it for the pure abstraction of its difference. A visible suspension of particles in the air – the smoggy, wispy blotch of smoke or burning – provides alien stimulation. There is something exotic in the fear and energy possessed by substance so closely linked with an extinguishing of inhalation. The puff-of-smoke is smoke-as-object, a clearly defined spectacle of the miracle of the atomic. So what is the essential nature of smoke? Obfuscator? Comic enabler? Sympathist?
When we apologize, the depth of sincerity can be deliberately fuzzy. A drip – of paint, of piss, of ice – is treacherous, but really sorry too. It is pure tragicomedy. In painterly form, the “apology” is a grim reflection of the human body, a caricature: beaded broken lines, little blobs and libidinous squiggles retain an elastic firmness. They are materially treacherous, with the paint itself playing plasticity made fixed substance; it is immutable and precisely without the warmth of flesh. But it is an extension of intension and we can apologize preemptively on its behalf. This is validation: Apologies! There is calculation and further archaeological gathering. Colour participates as though queered or gendered; the simple action of doubling forces tautological shortcut and collapse of definition; dysfunctional eyes are clouded by an auditory film and ears by a diagrammatic mapping of sensory importance. The mouth, the hand, the tongue are all involved. Our vast gray milkshake of information flexes and bends at will, a planktonic swarm of signs where merchandise, language, and spirituality all participate proudly in the stew of reality. There are 8 new works in the exhibition.
Eucalyptus is one of three similar genera; many species, but far from all, are known as gum trees because they exude copius “gum” (bloodwood/red gum/kino) from any break in the bark. The generic name is derived from the Greek words “well” and “to cover”, referring to the cap on the stem which usually conceals the flower before it blooms.
Exhibition press release, Greene Naftali, New York, 2016
Radial (i), engages the use of rotary motion, a machine’s operation through the repeated and revolving movement from a center axis. In this instance, the mechanism is derived from a metal polishing and rock tumbler. The action is an automated approximation of phenomena that began when waves and streams tumbled Earth’s first sediments, a distributive process that occurs through the internal drives of tides and waves that shape and loosen, smoothing the surfaces of accumulated and hardened substances.
The works Circadian Interface I-III, Second Affordance II, and Radial (i) are an iteration of sculptural composites, made up of adjusted mechanisms and assembled forms one might encounter in daily life by way of their integration into the circuitry or physical edges of a building. The mechanisms are selected as characters of action. Their potentials trace a specific facilitation of movement, typically in relation to space, access, light and the adjoining surrounding. By “killing the use part” through new formal arrangements, they oscillate between illegible, abstract and mimetic forms.
Window glass is slumped in a kiln directly into a half round steel channel which in its initial context functions as a gutter or drain. Subjected to very high heat, now concave, the glass has solidifies back into the shape of its direct support. In previous iterations, an electromagnetic lock, a pneumatic actuator and now rotary motor sit at the end of a tray, set inside is the slumped glass, water, and an intricate tangle of metal and silver wire in which the forms oxidize slowly over the exhibitions duration. A causal relation between ferrous compounds found in steel and water. As one tries to penetrate the surface visually as much as its interior transparencies permit, it is also reflective, and gives back to the viewer the circumstances in which they behold it and evidences a system of emergent material relations.
— K.R.M. Mooney
Based on social and material engagements, the works Carrier, Channel In C, and Strike i-iii are taken from objects that hold the capacity to emit, to have a voice and participate in public life. Strike i-iii follows the logic of works produced from 2016 -2020, an iteration of sculptures using source objects that in their initial context function as idiophones, for example a bell or chime: objects the whole of which vibrates to produce a sound when struck. Held up by the architecture required to materialize their production and here, display, Strike i-iii is produced from the striker of a tenor bell. Strike i-iii consists of a repeating form that enacts sound as an institutional modality by way of a tenor bell’s temporal register, aware of the encounter of a sound’s emotive means. The surfaces are not sanded, varnished or sealed, allowing the initial coloration that emerges by way of oxygen fusing with metal once the cast is poured and cooled to be reflected on its surface. A reminder that bronze itself is an assemblage of the alloys copper, tin and the conditions from which it was produced, constantly changing, resisting totality or precision on the surface.
— K.R.M. Mooney
Cheyney Thompson’s new series of Displacement paintings posits each canvas’s ground as a touch- sensitive surface. The works adopt a uniform structure of five-millimeter square black marks painted in a gridded pattern atop a white ground. Before the paint is dry, Thompson deploys an assortment of custom silicone tools against the surface, forcing the wet squares out of place. He adds no new material, but rather subjects the existing marks to this process of reorganization. The resulting transformations appear as extensions of squares into lines, glyph-like forms, and sweeping, sinuous fields of paint. Each painting has become a record of the tools’ interaction with the surface: the stops and starts, the kinetic limits of Thompson’s body and the entropic movement of the order of painted squares into noise. But, they are also pictures, as though this play of rupturous conjuring has been frozen into an unsettled pictorial field, still with the trappings of figure-ground, composition and space.
For the exhibition at Ordet, Thompson has introduced four sweeping arcs of bright red, yellow, green, and blue that are sprayed onto the white ground. They appear as distinctly colored lights illuminating each painting, one arc per corner. Together, they suggest that each canvas is not an autonomous piece, but instead, an element in a larger set as their radii are designed by relating the internal dimensions of the painting with the architectural dimensions of the gallery space and the positions of the neighboring paintings. Thompson treats color as both a sensual material and an organizing strategy.
Cheyney Thompson investigates the systems that inform the production, distribution, and exhibition of painting and the adjacent subjects that may cohere around artworks—mathematics, history, biology, and political economy. By imposing rigorous constraints on his painting practice, Thompson underlines the governing structures within which all contemporary art must unfold. In this corpus of work, the “artist” emerges less as a myth of the administered life than as a specter, felt or sensed as a body just outside the frame or an orienting bundle of intentions and intelligence that cuts a path through overlapping orders of abstraction.
Wacław Szpakowski (1883-1973) was a Polish architect and engineer who created a distinct idiom of abstract drawing, first conceived in notebook sketches in the 1900s and developed systematically in a series of works made with an ink pen on tracing paper between the early 1920s and 1940s. Szpakowski worked in complete isolation, indifferent to the art of his time; yet his project is fundamentally modernist in its aspiration to find the simplest possible means for expressing the underlying order of the universe, one that approaches a scientific investigation in its formal rigor and systematic nature. Calling his works “drawings of linear ideas,” Szpakowski created symmetrical patterns of a continuous geometric line; invariably 1 mm thick and 4 mm apart, it always starts on the left side of the page and ends on the right. For Szpakowski, the line’s relentless trajectory across the surface of each sheet is merely a fragment of its endless rhythmical movement through space and time. He invited viewers to ‘decipher’ what he called ‘the inner content’ of his drawings by following the course of the ‘broken line’ across the surface of the page, “just like one composes the words of a text out of individual letters.” Seen today, Szpakowski’s work anticipates seriality, accelerated temporalities and the increasing density of visual memory. Resembling circuitries or digitally generated diagrams, the motifs of Szpakowski’s drawings evoke the new technologies of image production that affect perception, heightening the crisis of attention. Exploring the dichotomy of a focused and distracted, decentered gaze, Szpakowski’s project can be understood as a critique of the changing modalities of vision.
The LOST CORE works support the fossilized traces of the process that materially forms them.
The works are comprised of ‘sand core’ fragments retrieved from a BMW engine manufacturing facility in Landshut, Germany. Sand cores are used in industrial manufacturing to mold cavities and internal geometries of mechanical equipment.
For these works, mechanical precision cedes to the heaping and halting of material processes. The retrieved core fragments are trapped into molten aluminum, as is consistent with their industrial use, showing the layers of agglomeration and loss on a flatbed plane. What is formed by this tabular logic are moments of accumulation, layering and spacing – a tableau always involves counting elements – rather than the directed issuance of those moments into a unified product.
These works are ‘remains’. They result from the sedimentation of the cast off cores from a process of production that they are then used to crudely reconstruct. As reconstructed remains, they isolate the particular processes that differentiate the surface and form of the work – retrieving, framing, placing, pouring, seeping, stopping.
— Sam Lewitt
In 1895, H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, a book that began his renown as a science-fiction author, though he wrote in many genres. Despite Wells’ success being patterned with infidelity and misogyny—behaviors that decorate the biographies of many white male historical figures—The Time Machine is still considered the book that introduced time travel into the lexicon of science fiction. Many products of sci-fi have become realities within the past few decades, but a machine such as Wells’s remains elusive. We can feign time travel through international flight, but the ability to travel across centuries hasn’t left the realm of fantasy.
Having read the novel years ago, I recall its depiction of the familiarities of civilization made superfluous, as they ebbed and flowed against the exterior of the engineer’s machine. Wells’s ability to imagine species entirely different from humans as the only protagonists throughout most of the novel was impressive to me. It made me wonder if a reality beyond the vectors upon which humans draw barriers could ever materialize. Imagining oneself as the engineer in the novel, would the fascination of witnessing a world beyond one’s own be curious enough to prompt the acceptance of one’s consequential nonexistence? To put it another way, if you knew that the next stage of the Earth consisted of giant crustaceans building community amid sunset-colored skies with no concept of difference, would that be fantastic enough to aid you in accepting your own end, in order for the new world to be brought about? Maybe this is similar to the crisis of legitimacy that institutional gatekeepers face today, as they attempt to radicalize and racialize their public images by employing more non-white people and queer people.
I thought about Wells’s proposition while I traveled this year between Brooklyn and Detroit.34 As predictions of a climate disaster contend with Octavia Butler’s apocalyptic premise in Parable of the Sower, I wonder: If we were to presumably save the world, would everything still function in the same way? And if so, whose world would be saved, and why should I care to save it?
In the article “The Social Life of Social Death,” Jared Sexton uses the plot of the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night to cite the concept of “colored time,” a form of incarceration that is different from “white time.” The main character, Virgil Tibbs, describes it as “the worst time you can do.” Sexton goes on to describe colored time as “interminable, perhaps even incalculable, stalled time […] the slow time of captivity, the dilated time of the event horizon, the eternal time of the unconscious, the temporality of atomization.” This differentiation in time as a condition of Black captivity is important for reconciling a sense of time’s relativity within the frame of sociality. Though Wells prompted a consideration of how we, a singular humanity, might breakthrough time, into an other’s temporality, he did not account for the difference in temporality that already exists between people in the same geographical place at the same literal time, experiencing different epochs of possibility because of the linear narratives into which they are inscribed. Wells was not aware of the fact that—time just moves differently for some people…
On July 20, 2019, the artist Alisha B Wormsley debuted a billboard in downtown Detroit: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” The white text on a black background is easy to read and hard to mistake. It’s a clear proposition that mirrors the mundane insistence of vitality presented by the Black Lives Matter movement several years ago—but maybe for a sci-fi audience. In a statement about the piece, Wormsley says that it is “a response to the absence of non-white faces in science-fiction films and TV.”35 What Wormsley points out is: Culture that attempts to depict the future defines the possibility of the future in that moment. It gives us a glimpse into the future being planned for us if it continues unchecked. The mundanity of Wormsley’s billboard is important to note because the Black Lives Matter movement was labeled as “Black-identity extremism” for merely pointing towards the resilience of Blackness. Are there Black people in Wells’s version of the future, or do we exist in colored time? From what I recall, the novel anticipated the pipe dreams of contemporary technocrats like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos: the engineer of the time machine was the only person that made it out of the present alive.
In my artwork, I juxtapose different temporalities to show that the ailments of science fiction are facts that are often too banal to register as the thing depicted through cinema. Most science fiction dramatizes the bourgeoisie’s fear of becoming the Other while the real thriller is addressing the fears actually created by the bourgeoisie. The artwork titled 201536 characterizes the use by the New York Police Department (NYPD) of predictive policing software, an approach introduced to the public by films such as Minority Report and used in the United States as early as 2012. The sculpture titled Data Server Rack37 compares the pouring of technology-focused venture capital into the Midwest with Black farmers’ struggle for settlements in the largest civil-rights lawsuit in the history of the United States. My work, like Wormsley’s billboard, reveals the machine that not only makes different outcomes possible for various individuals in the same singular frame but also announces—with criminal regularity—the casualties of colored time.
As its title indicates, Catasphère can be described as the staging of a set of catastrophes. In this work Moulène arranges around an earth-like bronze sphere the five figures of French mathematician René Thom’s Catastrophe theory. For the artist, an intriguing aspect of Thom’s theory is that he himself chose to popularize it by representing it, that is by drawing and giving names to each of the figures of catastrophe in question.
A branch of bifurcation theory and a special case of singularity theory in geometry, Thom’s Catastrophe theory addresses phenomena resulting in sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances. Within a range of inputs corresponding to the terms or conditions of an equation, a functional equilibrium is achieved. If, however, a small change in the terms or conditions of the equation occurs, functional equilibrium may be destabilized, leading to unpredictable outcomes or phenomena.
At the level of potential allegorical readings, Moulène considers this work to function like an ecological manifesto.
The following are the five figures manifested around the sphere:
1. Fold catastrophe: a ‘tipping point,’ where the input information approaches a point at which the function can no longer continue as predicated, and a radical change occurs. This is the fold on the top of the sculpture.
2. Cusp catastrophe: A kind of double fold catastrophe that produces a “jump,” a kind of positive fold meeting a negative fold. This is the ridge on the side of the sculpture.
3. Swallow tail catastrophe: a triple fold catastrophe, in which two cusp catastrophes meet at an added parameter in space—typically producing a “jump” that results in a point. This would correspond to the point coming off of the sculpture.
4. Hyperbolic umbilic catastrophe: concerns a point on a surface that is equally spherical in all directions (umbilic). Thom suggested that this figure models the breaking of a wave.
5. Elliptic umbilic catastrophe: concerns a point on a surface that is equally spherical in all directions (umbilic). Thom suggested that this figure models the creation of hairlike structures.
Common representations of these reductive figures are usually on an x-y-z axis plane, but Moulène’s challenge was to calculate, combine, and transpose them onto a smooth sphere that can be continuously traveled with one’s finger without disruption, only to encounter bifurcations or discontinuities in six specific spots.
Scott Lyall’s Nanofoils are made from Nanomedia, a process in which wafer-thin foils of cloned aluminum are altered at the level of their sub-visible particles, rendering structures that cannot be seen. But like certain plants and butterfly wings, these structures cause light to disperse and scatter. Whenever light encounters this exposed material, it shatters into billions of chromatic signals. The color is not derived from pigments or chemicals; it is the real-time appearance of the radiating light as it is scattered by the non-visible structures of the foil. This could be conceived as a performance by light. The scripts for such performances are made in a Clean Lab, but the works themselves are concrete, individual visibilities, or accidental masks of natural light. Crucially, as a structured material identity, the cloned foil is altered to become something new.
One of the pleasures of reading literature written centuries ago is that it illuminates forms of perception and viewpoints which may since have become atrophied. I felt this was particularly true when I recently read John Keats’s Sleep and Poetry. In that poem, Keats expressed his belief in the power of dreams, either in sleep or in verse, to transcend mortal reality by conjuring the realm of the divine, and thus to illuminate the spiritual universality of our consciousness.
The early 19th century was a time when one could still express such faith. By the 20th, the imaginative capacities of the human mind had become psychoanalyzed, turned into mechanical processes that express only existential human needs. In our age, human consciousness is losing ground in both the arena of epistemological certainty and the realm of spiritual transcendence which, in a universe of objective mechanical causes, is no longer believed to exist. Its once exalted status is being further eroded as we enter the age of artificial intelligence.
As a painter, I feel that the human mind as confronted by artificial intelligence may be compared to the medium of painting as it was confronted by the invention of the camera. Much as the camera appeared capable of objectively rendering an image better than painting could, the computer appears capable of objectively knowing our world better than we can.
In both cases the power of humans to depict their world, either by hand or through conception, has been devalued, or at least relegated to the less valued realm of imaginative as opposed to objective rendering.
It has been asserted that there is a lie in all mimesis. If this is so, it is as true for a photograph of a hillside as it is for a painting of a hillside. It is also true for computer programs no matter how sophisticated they may be. In each case, neither a thing (a camera, a computer) nor an animal can know another thing other than through its own inherent epistemological capabilities: mechanical processes for things and subjective perceptions for animals. In this sense, a camera or a computer is no less a subject in relation to another object than is a human being.
If mimesis is a lie, there is, furthermore, a lie in the existence of the camera and computer as they exist only to create a mimesis of a scene or a mimetic explication ‘of the physical properties of an object. They do not exist naturally. They do not exist for themselves. Human perceptions may be founded on lies, but in our being we know the truth of our existence. We are; the image of a thing is not. Since our consciousness is participatory in our being, its ontological purpose is assured. This we can take to be real.
Our perceptions of truth are thus often skewed to reflect the ultimate reality of our existence in nature, in the cosmic order of things. By our nature, when we perceive we seek a truth that is more than literal. There may be an untruth in any representation of a landscape, but in a painting there is the truth of natural materiality. The painted world enjoys the sensuousness of being able to perceive the material world through matter. Painting, unlike the bodiless images of photography, never leaves the natural world of things. The sunflowers of Van Gogh are at once a depiction of nature and nature itself -the physicality of existing materials like ochre and burnt sienna. Painting always refers back to its own constituent materials. As such, it is as close as culture ever gets to nature.
Mechanical perception – artificial intelligence – can never do more than understand things in their particularity. This is a function of its wholly literal epistemology. It is not equipped to understand things universally. Such an understanding (fundamental as it may be) is essentially imaginative. It is through the imagination that we can contemplate the possibility of a bigger reality. For this reason, it is important for us to maintain a connection to a vision independent of mechanical prosthesis: a vision which is purely animal. Our rationalistic obsession with objective intelligence is overvalued.
Perhaps it is time to enhance our appreciation of those qualities of consciousness which we share with other natural beings, the qualities of imagination and sublimation which we bring to our perception of the universe and which stem from our affection for the condition of being. This affection seems oddly inexplicable if being is viewed as stemming from purely material or mechanical causes.
It may be time for a rudimentary faith of the sort Keats expressed in Sleep and Poetry, a faith that being and consciousness have purpose and meaning. A faith in the transcendent capabilities of the human imagination, with its epistemological and its ontological understanding of reality.
Perhaps our universe is as some American Indians thought it; that our life here is a dream and when we die we go elsewhere to dream. li so, what reality could we conjure with the dreams that come to us in our sleep, and in our art?
Jonathan Lasker: Complete Essays 1984-1998 (New York: Edgewise, 1998). Originally published in Art & Design (London: Academy Group Ltd., 1996)
The ensemble of fragmentary and fragile-looking sculptures titled Scruff of the Neck, maybe regarded as symptomatic of the close dovetailing of corporeal morphologies and context-specific installation strategies that have come to define the artist’s oeuvre in the past five years. Relief-like constructions, sometimes in pairs, are mounted on the walls at fairly wide intervals, either above or below eye level. In all incarnations of Scruff of the Neck, bulbous and organically shaped matte white plaster objects, partly coated with yellow bees-wax along the edges, are set in front of large uneven panes of cast and polished aluminum. These in turn are supported by dynamically mounted constructions of slender metal rods likewise polished to a silvery shine and affixed in two points to the gallery architecture. Along the sides of several of these pieces of sculptural debris, hook-shaped proliferations reach out into thin air, suggesting the possibility of interconnection beyond the individual structure; at the same time, the cantilevered elements indicate that the works have lost their foothold. In this configuration, each component of the complex of works holds out the prospect of a supplementation of what is there, while also, and in equal measure, marking a deficiency that is almost impossible to mask. In fact, the artist modeled Scruff of the neck on the morphology and materiality of dental protheses — more specifically, of bridges, of combinations of implants and mountings used to close gaps in a rudimentary set of teeth. Codes such as “UL 9/10, E,” “UR 8,D,” and “UR 1⁄2, G” included in the titles- their meaning will be familiar to dentists and some of their patients- emphasize this connection. The unmistakable references to armatures and artificial replicas of body parts, that serve the cosmetic correction of physical deficit, not only has implications for the status of the sculptural object but also the viewer’s experience of it.
— Vincenzo de Bellis and Martin Germann, An Oeuvre by Proxy: Nairy Baghramian’s Déformation Professionnelle (excerpt), in Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle (Munich: Prestel, 2018)
Ah it is an age since I last wrote — forgive me! Time dribbles and puddles around my feet, slowly soaking the shoes which seem slow at times getting anywhere. Sometimes I even forget the shoes!
I am so happy the package arrived with you and over the moon that The Boiled will be in your bookstore. This is just wonderful, thank you.
So, I’ve been thinking about the Poet-Engineers and the gorgeous paradox, or perhaps möbius-type phenomena of that term. A place where the empirical world shivers and becomes more malleable, more erotic, more wild. Bends into itself and returns.
Admittedly, I wanted to offer you something more ambitious work-wise, more tangled, but that aforementioned puddling of time is getting in my way. So, I’ve been thinking about paper, watercolours, line. Attached are some lines that chase their own tails (tales), that wriggle between abstraction and figuration, behind bars, propped up, weaving. The size of the actual painted area is A4 – the cheapest space one can buy! And yet so familiar through its mechanisation of printing and dispersal that its format is impossibly comfortable and beautiful. The same kind of sentiment I have for Times New Roman, which remains one of my favourite type faces for all its structurally stoic density. The tape used to make the line separations is mauve, made by 3M (a nerd’s common favourite), low-tack, maximum edge straightness, little flex. The type I use is manufactured on 50 metre rolls which gives us a fun equation: 50 meters divided by average stride length, 80 cm = .62, approximately 60 seconds. A one minute roll of tape! Somehow that makes me think of holding ones breath for a minute, about the input/output variables of respiratory systems and of course then the dumb collision of a common method of masking with the chemical unruliness of paint — so many addictive conundrums! Things that simultaneously behave and don’t. Patterns describe a problem and then tentatively suggest a solution (another line departure), hinting ever at the algorithmic relationship between known things – how there are shorthand surrogates for emotion, a pre-loaded index … the special circuitry of the describer, cataloguer, author ETC. The ludic organs of it all hanging out!
I worried that perhaps these works on paper didn’t fit your brief of plastic re-manipulation, but then I thought well, they are abstract machines themselves, an agglomeration of diverse “acts” and so therefore part of the bulb of language and therefore technology… there to be broken, to spread like oil, to be patched — part of a system! I thought about a potato with its tubers or a mushroom with its mycorrhizal magic ecologies as being perhaps the most technologically advanced and chemically sensitive things out there. I thought how everything I make begins with drawing anyway. I also got thinking on more elaborate tangents about how in plotting the lines or vectors of a shape in CAD or CGI — a banana or a car for instance — you play with the tessellated edge of volumes before they become softly animated shapes. Rugged geometries, baby outlines. A pre-render curved line exists only as tiny joined sections of straight edges, so the place before a curve happens is like zombie land, not skin nor flesh but en route. This en route state is most confounding because of its image paradox: it’s the place where information in the whole process of digital design is for an instant truly honest, exposed and yet, it’s not truly image/object form at all yet. It’s a ghost or an en route cipher. All the intention, the snags, the architectural markers, the numbers – they’re all there on screen but the image looks like nothing “real”. And at this stage compression also hasn’t happened yet so the physical slipperiness of the curve (if there were such a thing on the screen!) is less treacherous. The wonky curve isn’t sexy, just mid process. It’s like suspended space before manual diagram becomes densely optical catastrophe. Once the render is complete, all these markers disappear, the mathematical force lines or script that make up the commands have disappeared … the image is full-bodied! Now it looks even more real. Except it’s a great dishonest horror, a strangely ectoplasmic substance that reflects light, casts shadows, offers density. It’s so insane and fascinating! Such a dark comedy to this making of CGI/CAD… that behind the tightly constructed image elegance, there is a bloody mess of entrails and rampantly un-plotted vectors! A weird kind of surgical process that happens at a goddamn desk!
Ok, maybe that was a little off piste… so … to wrap it up, I was imagining these images as a kind of “fake substance” waiting for animation, layering skins and light in a theatrically mathematical jumble.
To describe material terms: they’re watercolour on paper size: 30.4 x 45.4 cm / 12 x 17 ⅞; in frame size: 34.1 x 46.4 x 2.5 cm / 13 ⅜ x 18 ¼ x 1 in. The frames are silver gilded on the front face using a white-gold leaf. This is applied in many layers such that you can see the layers and the sides are the visible Oak, with a matte wax finish […]
Happy to hear your thoughts, + warmest as ever,
– Helen Marten, email correspondence, March 10, 2021
Time is like that — both point AND duration. This is how it can bend and warp. A week, a second, a season: all are specific and discrete, but none are the same. The present can be cut to any number of lengths, from a single vibration of a quartz crystal to the display period of a digital timepiece.
Watch Wyoscan 0.5 Hz is a reverse-engineered Casio digital watch. A tiny computer inside has been reprogrammed to slowly render the current time from left to right, scanning across its liquid crystal face, completing 1 cycle every 2 seconds.
You’ll notice that reading this watch requires more attention than usual, as the seven segments of each digit are lit one by one across its display. This speed may be adjusted until it reaches the limits of your perception. You and your watch are now in tune.
Watch Wyoscan was adjusted by Dexter Sinister and produced by Halmos with support from Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp, and Yale Union, Portland.
- ‘We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood, the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.’ Otto Neurath, Anti-Spengler (Dedicated to the young and the future they shape) in Empiricism and Sociology (Springer, 1973).
- ‘The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.’ Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” in Science, Perception, and Reality, (ed.) Robert Colodny (Humanities Press/Ridgeview, 1962), 35-78
- According to the dictionary of artistic terms made of by the former Russian academy of artistic science also known as GAKhN, ‘facture is the very means by which a master works on the material of an artwork. An artist uses materials available to him in order to gradually achieve the desired formal expression by employing technical processes that are suitable for the given type of material; he uses one or another tool (brush, chisel, pen) and, with customary movements, approaches the desired form. Therefore an artwork carries traces of its working, similar to the creator’s handwriting, at every stage of its creation. The sum of these traces constitutes the artwork. When a monument is completed, facture is visible in it in its final form. Thus facture is both the process and the result.’ See The GAKhN Dictionary of Artistic Terms, 1923–1929, translator: Devin Fore, in October (2017) (162): 39–40.
- ‘Better’ only in the context of the platonic good which spans over theory and practice, episteme and techne for the production of more intelligible unities and therefore, more capable forms of intelligence acquainted and living with those intelligible unities.
- Danté, Paradiso, Canto I:100–142.
- Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975), 74.
- Zoolander (dir. B. Stiller, 2001).
- The original containers used by Agematsu were ziploc bags, from which the series takes its name.
- See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, tr. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5, for humor and irony as two means for overturning the law via the power of repetition.
- Michel Foucault, ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, tr. Donald F. Brouchard and Sherry Simon, in P. Rabinow (ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984 (New York: New Press, 1998–2001), 343–68: 362.
- Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 293. ‘The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition.’
- Sol Lewitt: ‘The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise.’
- Katamari Damacy (Michiro Hoshino’s refrain).
- The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Second Edition, 1956, page 369) traces this rhyme to Nurse Truelove’s New-Year-Gift (1755), but it is probably older.
- This paper was read 30 October 1975, at Yale, to inaugurate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Center for the Study of Ezra Pound and his Contemporaries.
- In Ray W. Irwin’s Daniel D. Tompkins: Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States (New-York Historical Society, 1976) one can see a reproduction of a broadside of the time of Madison parodying “The House that Jack Built.” The house is the New York State Treasury and jack is used in the sense of money.
- Laruelle’s term is non-aesthetics (or, alternatively, non-photographic aesthetics). This is clearly to distinguish his approach from aesthetics as a branch of standard philosophy. Rancière asserts this distinction, too, and would argue for a non-philosophical aesthetics. Mostly, he sees philosophical aesthetics as comprised by contemporary anti-aesthetics. Philosophy attempts to determine art—and to furnish it with its final instance—by the ways it decides the Real of thought—especially by privileging negative terms, by proclaiming “ends” (the historical impasse), or suppressing all concern for a ONE, entirely (the post-modern spirit of anti-totalism and biennial art “in the expanded field.”)
- Nicholas Bourriaud, Manet and the Object of Painting (2009)
- See: Christine Davis and Scott Lyall, eds, Public 51: Colour (2015), where an effort was made to infect an academic journal with a broad, aestheticizing mixture of approaches to artistic color.
- See: Gülru Necipoglu, ed. Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local (2016)
- This example comes from Benjamin HD Buchloh, “The Next Best Ready Made: The Aesthetic Object from Use Value to Sign-Exchange Value” (1990).
- Here, I demure from Rancière’s account: I think Malevich introduced a novel signifier, /Painting-Surface/, whose function was precisely to distinguish his paintings, to curtial their absorption, by the “new décors of life” (be they socialist-Uropian or merely bourgeois). It held to the status of a sensible exception by proclaiming an indifferent but persistent sign. But /Painting Surface/ was made of letters: it appeared—this is crucial—in Malvich’s writing; it has never appeared in the paintings, themselves, except by way of the notion of equivalents. Rather, it directs these latter surfaces to thoughts of distinctive and dissensual effects, indiscretions, and aesthetic play. It does not smuggle in an autonomous essence, and does not say what the work of art is not. It renders its subject as an algorithm. My choice to frame my work as a painting-analog stems from this potential in the mixture of paintings and other (virtual) surfaces.
- To refer to my early work again: it explored scenography as a method of including excesses and exceptions of a social diagram in a complex situational aesthetics. See, for instance, A Dancer Dances, the Color/Power Ball, or OK!lahoma.
- See his influential “Painting Beside Itself.”
- This same problem is sometimes used to account for failures of Situationism.
- Loosely, I am referring to Laruelle, who produced the term Philosophies of Difference to define an arc from Nietzsche to Deleuze, which includes Derrida, Heidegger, and others.
- For material on the history graphics-based security features, see the work of my friend, Alexandra Kaminska (with whom I worked on the Nanofoils).
- I intend the gender disagreement, here, not least to express my own pidgin French.
- Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The Dash—The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (2017).
- Incidentally, these exchanges seem to relate quite well to Yve-Alain Bois’s ideas about Kelly and “the transfer method,” and of course to the sculptural approach of Brancusi.
- Alain Badiou, Matter and Form, Self-Evidence and Surprise (2019, Sequence Press)
- Ibid. My interest is to highlight the idea of self-evidence. This was Rancière’s term for the kind of discernment required of aesthetic thought. Here, Badiou is using it too.
- During the course of writing this essay, the author visited Detroit as a teacher of critical theory at the School for Poetic Computation (sfpc.io).
- Alisha B. Wormsley (website), “There are Black People in the Future” < https://alishabwormsley.com/new-page-1 >
- The video 2015, made in 2019, contains a fictional heads-up display (HUD)—a device that displays critical information within a windshield or cockpit window—an early form of augmented reality. A precursor to the HUD appeared in 1900 in anti-aircraft gun sights. This is a reminder that most new technology is developed and funded by the military industrial complex. The NYPD announced publicly that it would begin trials of predictive policing software on June 29, 2015, the date the video takes place.
- Data Server Rack (2019) responds to the Silicon Prairie phenomenon: in recent years, an increasing number of tech entrepreneurs and computer programmers from San Jose have moved to the Midwest for job opportunities comparable to those in Silicon Valley. The relationship between the high-tech industry and agriculture has a precedent in Santa Clara Valley, California, where the fruit industry that prospered in the early twentieth century was eclipsed by the tech sector by the 1960s.
Spanning the same two decades that many young, white, male venture capitalists have focused on the Midwest, the United States Department of Agriculture has been in a legal fight over loans that were denied to Black farmers for over a decade. After failing to adequately award settlements to petitioning farmers in the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit, successive bills were authorized, allowing additional farmers to apply for payouts. The most recent bill, Pigford II, was settled in 2010, for which applicable farmers didn’t receive payment until 2013.
This sculpture draws a parallel between the shape of a data server rack—a modest utilitarian device, usually unseen by consumers, that provides the infrastructure for the data cloud—and a handmade hay bailing machine—a niche tool to alleviate costs for farmers, made from wood and found materials, in order to create industry-standardized bales of hay.