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You are now on the Ouibus to Rotterdam, according to our last email exchange, but nowness is always paradoxical and time is pretty indifferent to our world. We are geographically separated but connected by the common denominator of our ideas. Even more so, we are bound by the space we occupy: dominated by a mythology of democracy, wherein the liberal dreams of globalization and cosmopolitanism have been realized in a multi-polar mess peopled with warlords, “too-big-to-fail” corporations, oligarchs (oligarchs love art), dictators, stateless people; wherein art actually facilitates the development of new multi-polar distributions of geopolitical power, with its predatory economies that are often fueled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock and awe policies.
The whole world seems to be marching toward its end. In this context we are invited to celebrate the reality in which we live — a festival of failures, delusions, simplifications— all the while we evade rational future planning and pretend there are no lim- its. The paradox is that it is often easier to imagine the end of all life on Earth than a much more modest radical change in our current conditions.
So, we speak together at the end of this very long chain, at the painful point where the links are breaking apart, making horrible worse, causing irreversible destruction, denying certain everso-present realities. And tonight in Los Angeles, as it is getting late and the winds of time seem to be announcing a global tempest, I’m unable to sleep. I’m nervous because time is accelerating, and there is too much to say, and maybe I won’t make the deadline for this essay. So I can’t help but write quickly, candidly, intimately to you (though I am exhausted). And what I am going to say to you will probably reverberate in a sort of labyrinth.
I’ve never seen your work “in real life,” at least in the traditional sense of sight— the here and now, the present and the physical. You sent me images of your object-oriented work, documentation of performances, and essays you like, including excerpts from Semiotext(e)’s Looking Back on the End of the World and some of Heidegger’s on art, which was more than apropos con- sidering your piece with a literal present in hand, a pretty funny reification of the concept of the present-at-hand, but also a really sad, lamentable, impoverished expression of our current
conditions. I have read your published writings, followed you on Twitter. These elusive fragments offer an impression of your work that might beg a brief inquiry into how a digital file relates to what we traditionally think of as presence (in this case, I guess, the presence of an art object). I realize this might not be the right question to ask, but it’s an okay entry into the larger conversation of our inherited anthropocentric, rationalist tradition. It points to a frenetic, epoch-defining confusion regarding what is “real,” and how the historically inherited dichotomy of presence and absence (privileging presence), might no longer function today, and we might as well deem it irrelevant.
We spoke briefly over email about the issues of time, of our time, inherited time, shifting notions of time— that there once was a time when the simultaneous comprehension of all facts and objects was lodged in the absolutely omniscient mind of the Creator— and how temporality itself is a medium that binds a view of the world to a view of the self. We agreed that a central mistake of the Western tradition of philosophy from Aristotle onwards is the postulation of a consciousness that exists only insofar as it is present, a presence that is not just physical, but an objectively discernible thing, at hand, in sight, definitively here and now; and that this postulation has far reaching implications. We agreed that the cozy anthropocentric worldview that has governed Western thought since the advent of Greek philosophy is a super cute idea, but extremely dysfunctional.
I mean, what is promised by this framework is never actually delivered. In a time of global ecological crises and shifting geopolitical configurations, the privileged transcendental sphere of art or philosophy can’t protect us from ultraviolet rays or rising ocean levels. After years of idealism, years of seeing humans at the center of existence, the inherited framework of rational logic and objective coherency crumbles along with the economy, along with the idea of a stable backdrop from which human affairs emerge and the subject/object, private/public, outside/inside, present/absent dichotomies crumble with it (arguable they have already crumbled and we are now just festering in our own ruin-evidence of our failures). Here, the darkest of prospects seem to be the most likely ones. Maybe our only option, or at least the most viable one, is to build different narratives out of these ruins, to focus on the affirmative, constructive role of art, and dispel the myths that weigh us down, because history, as a form of mythology, is really just a palimpsest in constant flux. New narratives will always erase the old ones.
A few weeks ago you gave a visiting artist lecture at NYU that worked to do just this: create a new narrative out of the ruins of history. It was (to be bit reductive, sorry) a non-linear rewriting of Western philosophical history that started with the “specific- ity of here and now, I am at least apparently here presenting to your class...” and went from the symposiums of ancient Greece to the metaphysics of dualism, which “we all know and love (and hate and hate and hate vehemently),” through the development of the concretely organized subject based on observational mechanics, to the emergent Object-oriented philosophy and the log- ical conclusion of manifest destiny in the dot-com boom. In the lecture you noted that the default relation to an (art) object has been determined by the historically instantiated idea (or worldview) of a fixed vantage point, an unchanging horizon. It is as though there is something essential
in the object to “understand” or “know” through our inherent observational/ sensational faculties: “when we do not ‘understand’ the work, it is the objective, grounded vantage point that does.” The experience, “is awkward,” you say. And it is awkward, truly, I agree. Yet we still interact with objects as though they possess some singular, knowable truth despite our recognition of this absurdity, which is even more absurd considering long ago a tran- scendent-Creator-figure accepted death, and even more so because our stable, neutral backdrop (Nature) has dissolved and taken on quite a menacing air. All this talk about the new, the contemporary, the digital era, shifts in ways of thinking... why still do we treat objects as having inherent prescribed meaning? Has a paradigmatic shift in an epistemological worldview actually taken place?
I want to jump backwards briefly (I guess if we want to consider what is contemporary, we might have to split it up into several times), to when the character Vivian in Oscar Wilde’s “Decay of Lying” treated art (again, to be bit reductive, sorry) as the means by which reality was reproduced. He claimed that an extraordinary change, which had taken place in the cli- mate of London during a ten year span, was entirely due to a particular school of art and that nature was the causal consequence of art.
“Where if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps, and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge?”
The assertion on the one hand is quite ridiculous, for how could the method of exaggerated realism in painting determine the fate of a city and its surrounding landscape? On the other hand, why not treat aesthetic objects, works of art, as though that is precisely what they can do: alter the present landscape, pass effect onto other things?
In giving an irregular, cavernous detail to the traditional 90-degree angle where two walls meet in a home, using mate- rials that are used to actually build walls in homes, you not only constructed an alternative vision of the classic corner, instantiating a reality other than that which was before, but you also performed an act of breakage— disrupting what one expects to see in commonplace architectural structures, thereby affirm- ing the very possibility of an intervention into conventional structures. The gesture also revealed that which is already known: what might appear as consistently real and present, throughout modern history, is in fact merely an invention. The dream of a consistent, discernible, mathematically justifiable world has already been broken, and, even more poetically, that our structural reality is actually quite malleable...
Your photographic prints with text overlay act in a similar manner: disrupting a fabric of reality, through an intervention into an image of what was “there,” thereby creating a “fictitious” memory of the present, or very recent past. The fact that the words superimposed onto the images, randomly generated via an app that reads words in objects that were not there, diverts the attention from the single standing anthropocentric subject— “I”, or the “eye” that sees clearly what is in the world— giving agency to a voice outside of that anthropocentric subject. It shifts our very vantage point, or at least the conditions that make such a vantage point possible, and reminds us the horizon is not fixed. Maybe, what is most important is that these images work against a public pathology of imagination (one in which the end of all life on Earth is more feasible than a modest, yet seemingly radical, change in our current conditions). Often this is exhibited (or experienced) as a paralysis of action and the inability to even bear the experience of the possible.
I’ve been considering the last slide of your lecture, a custom-made pair of shoes in an undefined space made via Nike’s website, as a direct (or rather an updated and upgraded) reference to Heidegger’s section in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, wherein he used the example of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes to elucidate how a work of art reveals the horizon of a particular epoch, how a work of art works in its world.
Within this framework I began to ask: what do these shoes dis- close, or unconceal, with regards to our epoch? How does the image undisclose our phenomenological experience of world? What can be discerned, self-evidently, qua this picture contained in its frame? But I think it might be more interesting, or useful, to consider this constant need we have to define or speak toward what-is our epoch (which I think you defer when you say your Epoch Series will be ongoing). Nowness becomes a sort of deflection of the future, a preoccupation that limits and deflects our concern with the future, and that possibly there is no historical wisdom that is adaptive to a situation like ours because it is completely unprecedented. Getting myself trapped in this Heideggerian frame (haunted by the idea of an artwork as containing truth, as though truth can be contained) seems backwards, considering we are trying to break away from this default “lump ontology”, which is horribly kinesiophobic. I mean, why would I even want to, or feel inclined to, place the shoes frozen in passivity (ironic considering shoes imply some sort of motion)? It is a question that seems to want to get rid of movement, to explain it away, to make it incidental to how things “are”. As though there is something qua picture in frame that is even discernible? It’s crude and simplifying, and speaks toward some sort of consumer-like hurry toward the content of a representation, or the desire for some projected transparency. It’s as though the hammering of notions of self-evidence, clarity, and property is meant to resound very, very loudly, so as to prevent us from hearing that nothing here is clear, or self-evident, or proper to anyone or anything whatsoever.