A Persian translation of David Joselit’s essay “On Aggregators” (2013) published on the occasion of Slavs and Tatars: Nose to Nose, Pejman Foundation, Tehran, June 2017.
to rigor, rage, and courage…
Written as an introduction to Mark Fisher’s 2012 essay “Post-Capitalist Desire,” this text was featured in the accompanying publication to The Fisher-Function public program series.
Built upon the intricately sketched landscape of Capitalist Realism, at the heart of the naturalised order of appearances assumed to render all alternatives impossible, ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ is a climax in Mark’s commitment to envision a future for the left. It calls into question capital’s long-established monopoly on desire.
Why should a desire for technology and consumer goods appear necessarily to mean a desire for capitalism? The conflation, Mark argues, results from capital’s opportunist aligning of technology and desire. This occurs on capital’s own terms when “anti-capitalism entails being anarcho-primitivist”: finding solutions in a self-organizational ‘organicist-localism’ while maintaining a stance that is anti-technological, anti-mass production. An explicitly antagonist left falls short of gaining traction on the libidinal flows of social drive that are already animated by capital and are further enabling its processes in return.
A post-capitalist politics begins with affirming that this structural antagonism should therefore be reconsidered because of its being heedless of capital’s programmed reality. But it also refuses to remain caught up in ideology critique, circumscribed under the crust of complaint and denunciation. To strategize against capitalism is to summon and reclaim the possible “Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.”1
Mark identifies the challenges that a future-oriented left needs to face by tying conservative, reactionary statements that hold up capital’s techno-libidinal conflation to a certain strand in the writings of Nick Land from the 1990s. Via Land—the ‘avatar of accelerated capital’—Mark exposes how the prime mandate of capitalism is to capture libidinal circuitries and channel public desiring in certain directions rather than others.
As Mark calls them elsewhere, “libidinal technicians”2 have embedded their parasitic mechanisms into everyday life and grown their ‘semiotic excrescences’ on the bodies of individuals. It is then made clear that a traditional ‘leftist-Canutist’ attitude is incapable of desire-engineering. It is fundamentally opposed to such engineering in its anti-libidinal insistence on conservatism: “preserving, protecting and defending”.
Determined to break from Landian thanatophoric fatalism, Mark incites a post-capitalism commensurate with the ‘inorganic nature of libido’—the death drive. This is not a desire for death or for the extinction of desire, which is characteristic of both the apocalyptic acceleration of deterritorializing processes and of the ‘ascetic-authoritarian’ measures imposed by communist states. Rather, it is a desire to push an organism’s life out of obdurate homeostasis, away from a life forcefully lived along the lines of preservation and protection.
In ‘Utopia as Replication’, Fredric Jameson turns to Marx to restate that destratifying forces of capital tend toward “the centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor.”3 In other words, capital tends towards the emergence of the General Intellect and the growth of monopoly, of a reterritorialised extremity after ultimate deterritorialisation. Jameson, in a self-admittedly perverse move, tends to identify this monopoly, best exemplified in the post-Fordist context of late capitalism by the largest company in the world, Wal-Mart, as a utopian phenomenon.
Mark argues for a turn from the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call to a post-capitalist ‘counterbranding’ via Jameson’s outlining of a utopian method, where a logical operation of inverted genealogy was attempted—a genealogy of contingent futurities. To locate utopian impulses in the preconditions that are already reserved in the present is to target that which was promised by the cultural revolutions of the left and yet was never delivered; spotting the ‘residual’ only to leave it in search of the ’emergent’.
The demand of this pursuit of abandoned promises is to address and rework substructures that lend support to the apparent reality, away from the underlying Real(s) and fundamentally designed against the fulfillment of desires—only feeding and stimulating them enough to be always worthy of capture, ready to be milked. Hence the recovered evocation of ‘designer socialism’, in the absence of which the design of capitalist realism has been made to appear unrivaled.
It is then evident that the Landian take on the death drive and the ‘historical-machinic force of libido’ is biased against taking the reterritorializing turn, deeming it impossible, or its possibility insignificant. However, it is in the course of this turn that the left needs to implement its ‘counterlibidinal’ politics. “[D]isarticulating technology and desire from capital”, while simultaneously intensifying the processes of deterritorialization only in the manner of “de-anchoring […] the libidinal fragments from the capitalist sigils with which they are arbitrarily articulated”, as Mark prefigured in ‘Digital Psychedelia’, an essay on The Otolith Group’s Anathema.4
To march toward and build (around) an Acid Communism requires “a new use of digital machinery, a new kind of digital desire: a digital psychedelia, no less. […] It dilates time; induces us to linger and drift”, as it “rediscovers the dream time that capitalist realism has eclipsed.”5 To host post-capitalism is to expand the presumably unaffordable spans of time from the side of the future. As Jameson maintains, “[s]uch revival of futurity and of the positing of alternate futures is not itself a political program nor even a political practice: but it is hard to see how any durable or effective political action could come into being without it.”6
 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), p. 18.
 Mark Fisher, ‘How To Kill a Zombie: Strategizing the End of Neoliberalism’, in openDemocracy. 18 July 2013.
 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976), p. 929.
 Mark Fisher, ‘Digital Psychedelia: The Otolith Group’s Anathema’, in Death and Life of Fiction: Modern Monsters – Taipei Biennial 2012 Journal (Spectormag, 2014), pp. 160–166.
 Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), p. 434
Commissioned by Mohammad Salemy for the project This Is the Sea, this text was presented at artmonte-carlo, April 2017.
The CIA World Factbook has listed one Belgian-owned ship that flies the North Korean civil ensign.
Even the two largest landlocked countries in the world, Cambodia and Mongolia, have been offering flags of convenience to foreign-owned merchant ships since the mid-1990s.
Registries are often run out of office buildings in countries other than those nations whose colors flag the vessels, managed by corporations that specialize in engineering legal leeways and anonymous mobility like no wishful cyberutopia could promise.
There is a history of how compositions of venue and vicinage can pave the way for a walk, arranged to escape trials, right across the narrow strips of near-impunity.
Before 1548, the English jury did not have the power to pursue cross-county homicides.
The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice or, simply, the Murder Act of 1774 secured Britain’s supreme authority over the American dominions, maintaining the principle of local jury trial.
Yellowstone National Park, one of the first of its kind, overflows the almost impeccably rectangular territories of Wyoming into the neighboring Idaho and Montana, preserving a potential death zone, a federal enclave immune to the enforcement of state law, reserved for the perfect crime (Brian C. Kalt, “The Perfect Crime”).
The suspension of legal command is still looming in the loopholes that, 370 kilometers away from the shore, float in the high seas of evasion and efficiency.
A shade of gray folds back on another, waves of indeterminacy stratify into zones of exception.
On the horizon rests the utopia of independent jurisdictions, looping whirlpools of self-regulated counter-sovereignties, proxies for secrecy…
The platforms of floating seasteads are raised to let the consequences of every action or transaction exceed the limits of maximum entropy, leave behind the retroaction of an ex post facto law, deviate and descend, discover new regions of disorder, dissolving in the patterns of the wild tides.
A company’s solid performance should match a solvent’s molecular capacity to dissolve the grains of debt into smooth solutions.
The logics of fluidity through the ducts of global capital often recommends meeting insolvency with enforced liquidation. The logistics of flux necessitates an extended process of molecular intensification, passing through unheard-of potentials for full-fledged sogginess as phase transitions that pursue the principal ends of entropy dissipation.
Planting loopholes into the ducted network is an alternatively oversaturated solution, formed by flowing in directions more varied than those defined by entropic tendencies, which slide into an equilibrium of perfect internal disorder.
Loopholes are isolated infinities. Popping up infinitesimally and folding inward infinitely, they stir the network, further complicating its whirling turbulence to no foretold end.
A system too loopholed to stay inside its enclave, or to remain well demarcated from a surrounding environment, spills over into the looping infinity of sub-spiraling special administrative regions.
Growing complexities take advantage of defined boundaries, displacing them not by pushing back or forward, but by folding them deep in or far out.
The high seas warp the mainlands.
Trafficking slaves from the Swahili coast to the Arabian Peninsula, Omani ships sailed off into isolation, at the height of the Sultanate in the 18th century, unmoored into independence from land-locked state institutions, and developed on-board tendencies, whether cultural, idiomatic or sexual.
Xaniths in Oman, Hijras in Pakistan, Mashogas in Kenya… Washing up on coasts that border on the Indian Ocean and turning inland, gender fluidity is a feature of maritime identities. Not mermaids springing from the shape-shifting volume of the sea, fantasies stemming from heterosexual frustration and melting away into watery fairy tales, but exercising their being as doing, they originate in the characteristic versatility of marine societies (Ahmad Makia, “Treading Gulf Waters”).
Carried over to shore leaves and pouring into the land are relationships and practices born at sea, the registered birthplace of lives delivered on the ships surrounded by water.
Some would say that amidst the transoceanic nightmares that colonialism induced in and out of wakefulness, certain gifts were also granted, right on the deck, an “anarchic mix of sailors and slaves and riff-raff plying the waves… humming with creolized languages and music and preindustrial visions of the Rights of Man” (Michael Taussig, “The Beach (A Fantasy)”).
The water gleams in the first rays of a rising sun. What else is carried over to the shore by the approaching waves?
For the slightly indeterminate purposes of this text and the context it shares with the contemporary state of plastic arts, it would sound almost nothing short of corrupt to invest even a single line in a vain attempt to engage with the ruthless currents that fatally devour the lost futures of millions of tormented souls on the run and in search of a refuge, whose bodies often end up washed up on coasts.
Not a message in a bottle, but the plastic bottle itself is plastic enough. Although lauded as the very idea of its transformation, branded by the promise of tracing the movements of a shape in flux, plastic is nothing but a container, acting as “a sealant, a barrier… materializing the desire for impenetrability, for objects, bodies, and selves to be discrete, for categories not to mix, for a monadic identity separated from its environment” (Heather Davis, “Life & Death in the Anthropocene”).
The pressures of molecular obduracy exceed the excitations of formal versatility. This is a war of polymers, waged by a more commercial than scientific matter that is best deployed by the chemistry of biofinance.
The only shape traceable in its reluctant footprint is that of a still extractionist capitalism, rejuvenated in the substrate spirit of a cheap substance and the conditions for a commodity society post WWII, which is still struggling with the sporadic waterspouts of the neo-Empire — surely more frequent than their meteorological counterparts.
The will to conquer distant territories, once resisted on an unprecedented scale, folded back into a river of black-boxed vortices, unpredictably flooding its banks.
If fluxional self-regulation bounces off the “inmost end” (Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy), if the molecular scale is where the capitalist frontline is drawn, then what are the chances for bypassing the middle phase of liquidity altogether? What does it take to organize more directly across the full spectrum of intermolecular extremization? The seasick dream of phase transitions: a politics of deposition, a politics of sublimation.
About Time, Wounds, and Legibility
A weekend break to Oxford earlier this month cultivated in a conversational reunion with a wise man who elevates the typical boredom of a midlife crisis by a very peculiar touch of dead serious pragmatic optimism. He hates binary fluffing, though. The post below is retrieved from 2014.
Time passes and wounds won’t heal — never forgotten. Scratches made into the skin of a tree, in remembrance of a thing and in the form of a word, tend to deform as time passes by. The trunk grows and its dried skin stretches out, marks deepen and strokes broaden. Years go by. Opened up into the flesh of the tree and in remembrance of a thing, letters and words, the hollowed out displays of a name, a date or a lucid phrase or sentence, are now disguised into a contorted mound, one with no clear message, no words to spell or any names or dates to embody. What remains is the wound itself — testifying, as an index of a years-old injury, to a deed in the past. The fresh wound is clear and intelligible. It speaks, carries a message. When grown older and if not healed — and it will never fully heal — it transforms to an obscure mass, extremely hard to communicate with and receive replies from. A mute mass that never leaves and, at any moment, can pull out its contract of identification with pain and stab it into a soul. Therefore there’s a correspondence between incomprehensible characters and the years-old injury. Pointing at their contrast would crystallize their affinity: Incomprehensible characters should not be considered as straightforward signs of an old pain since this is to reinterpret their obscurity in terms of significance, this is to entangle them once again in a trap of content. The power of an incomprehensible character lies exactly in its relationship to time. Without having to maintain ancestral dependence on a source of pain, the incomprehensible character, untied from a chain of past significance, develops to engender a sense of senescence, a painful depth of time, and projects it along the timeline of reading, one that is always facing the contingency of an ever haunting future. Such articulation is different from that of the relationship of a text to its eventual subjection to future, to being read; it is instead that of the creation procedure of the instantaneous phantom of history and its transmission into the phantasm of future. This folded articulation of the past, the present, and the future should be considered as the sudden thrill of a future desire libidinally pronounced in past tense: The incomprehensible character, the obscure language, is a child’s instantaneous desire for aging.
In Conversation with Theo Cook
As contemporary art’s affair with image-sharing technologies and its desire to emulate the image-driven ecology of fashion become more and more evident, technology is rapidly and radically changing what it means both to see art and to put on exhibitions. Mahan Moalemi talks to Theo Cook – the invisible hand behind the artist-run project space Auto Italia South East in London, about what goes on behind the scenes, from preplanning to postproduction.
After a foundation course in lens-based media, Theo Cook enrolled in Camberwell College of Arts to study fine art photography. At the end of his second year at school, he started working as an assistant with commercial and still life photographers, and decided not to go back to complete his degree. Barely a decade later, he has a portfolio of commercial work for Loewe, Valentino, Prada and David Morris, and has worked on Hollywood film productions and British TV commercials.
Alongside such projects, Theo also works at Auto Italia South East alongside the team of Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest, Marleen Boschen and Edward Gillman, where his remit includes producing a representative body of images to document an exhibition or project. The most basic unit of such images is the installation shot, but Theo says: “this whole idea of installation shot is kind of boring.” A fundamental question has become “whether and how an image truthfully represents an exhibition is important at all”. Instead, Theo sees his work as both a translation and expansion of the act of exhibition—consciously mapping “the trajectory of a project by how it’s represented in images.”
At the packed opening of Metahaven’s Information Skies at Auto Italia’s new location in East London this past October, Theo shared an anecdote about Pascal Dangin, the photo-retoucher of choice for fashion photographer royalty. He is known as “the photo whisperer”, and, Theo tells me, anticipated the emergent interrelation between camera and computer in the 90s, when he showed his work to clients on color- and contrast-calibrated monitors rather than photographic proofs. Part of the new landscape of contemporary art is that exhibition spaces themselves exist within and form part of a networked ecology of images.
Today, Theo’s trading of art studies for technical training a decade ago seems a wise anticipatory move that has coincided with macro-shifts and the restructuring of hierarchies within the creative industries over the last decade. Tech-sector work practices have infiltrated the creative sphere, and the visionary authority of the singular artist-creative has been overshadowed by a range of collaborative technical functions, from the administrative to the algorithmic.
An installation shot may appear as if abruptly captured in the flick of a shutter, but there are calculated considerations lying under the surface. “I usually take a few hundred shots and bring them down to one or two,” he says. “The more that you shoot the more elements you have to work with in postproduction, as some of the images are heavily retouched after… if you can’t get everything in one frame, you need to stitch lots of images and fake a wide angle. Also if you’re shooting a projection in the room, you need multiple exposures to balance the different elements afterward.” For Theo, such images should not serve as a proxy for a visitor wanting to move through space on an optical journey. Instead he “thinks not of a flipbook but a single image to create a successful representative image for a project, it has to stand as singular.” Such a representative, however, often abides the myths of representation and complicates certain notions of mediated or mechanically aided empiricism.
Images thus give exhibitions a parallel yet distinct life in a different experiential economy. It is hard to tell which aspect of an exhibition complex is hosting the other and which is living off the other, symbiotically or parasitically. The exhibition that inaugurated Auto Italia’s new space in June 2016, Hailweed, revolved around the notions of parasite and host, with contributions from the Research Center for Proxy Politics, Aimar Arriola, Syria Mobile Film Festival, Suzanne Treister.
Theo produced bespoke images of the show that were featured in a profile of Auto Italia in i-D magazine. Responding to the aesthetic language of the fashion almanac, he contrasted a few straightforward exhibition views with close-ups of the walls on which highly graphic vinyl marks were layered. These shots illustrate the contiguous materiality of clean-cut digital line drawings, while revealing the institutional flesh in surgical detail. The surfaces that are usually rendered so silky and subtle by installation shots are exposed as imperfect up-close, with uneven surfaces and slapdash painted corners.
This was not Theo’s first attempt at subverting the documentary purpose of the image through the graphic and the digital. Auto Italia’s 2015 show On Coping started out from the shape of a billboard in Johannesburg to become a shape-shifting durational project. It became a two-minute animation for a show in Bologna, then a group exhibition in Liverpool, a performative lecture series in Nottingham, and finally a sixteen-page piece with eight images in Sleek magazine, for which Theo worked exclusively in CGI.
Over his career, as the technology of image production has shifted, Theo’s technical expertise, too, has shifted from 2D image retouching to 3D rendering. What does this industrial shift from 2D retouching to 3D generation offer beyond a more purely graphic visuality? The effects are twofold. First is an expansion of space into parallel spaces. In the run up to Metahaven’s exhibition, Theo made digital models of Auto Italia’s space so that placements and lighting configurations for Information Skies could be tested out without the artists and curators needing to be physically in the space.
Second is a reconfiguring of time itself. While documentation used to happen after the fact, it can now preempt an event through 3D simulations. Given that the exhibitions are based on these image-plans, such optimized renderings can themselves serve as better documentation than actual photographs (search for the results via #autoitalia and #metahaven). “SketchUp models can help because they do get very sophisticated, so then it’s not really that much work to stick in some lighting and texture and produce a fully rendered image of a show. I don’t know whether that is necessary, if it is a case of faking or something like that, but what is certain is that it’s totally possible.” Following Theo’s logic, it is thus already feasible to generate and distribute images of an exhibition that may never take place. Perfectly incorporating the spectral space between the no longer and the not yet, exhibition views might soon not only haunt us from the past but arrive from the future too—whispers detached from the trajectories of a voice.
Published on Spike as a follow-up to the Young Curators Workshop Post-Contemporary Art, 9th Berlin Biennale.
Shortly after the proposition of bringing the royal collection into public view at the Grande Galerie, Hubert Robert was appointed Garde du Muséum in 1778 while a resident artist at the Louvre. The landscape and architectural painter assumed all the tasks classically associated with a curator’s function: inventory of the collection, acquisitions, supervision of restoration, and participation in the refurbishment of the building — which is reflected in his pictures of the exhibition spaces he lived in and worked on.
His two paintings from 1796, both exhibited at the Salon of the same year, can be seen as early formations of today’s ubiquitous installation shots, and what makes them even more interesting is how they reveal the temporalities that such images engender. Refurbishment Project of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre displays the gallery interiors in a resolutely sharp perspective, paintings hung frame to frame (“skied”) from floor to ceiling, statues on pedestals or in dedicated niches, the public dwarfed by the monumental scale of the space, walking around and pointing at art works, and a handful of copyists in front of masterpieces — among whom is pictured Robert himself, carefully studying Raphael’s Holy Family. This picture, although recalling the legacies of Renaissance illusionism and its representational precision, is not an actual view of what the painter could have really been looking at while making sketches. Carrying an evocative title borrowed from architectural language, the picture is Robert’s proposal for renovating the gallery that was at the time a long hallway with neither divisions nor decor, dimly lit by narrow windows. It was a call for the prospective division of the gallery into several bays by a system of niches surrounded by ionic pilasters, heavy architraves, and a coffered, vaulted skylight. A pendant to this painting was Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins, which depicts, from a slightly different point of view, the same hallway with the same propositional details in place but in a state of ruin — the sky and other natural forces having intruded and replaced the artworks. Here, again, Robert has pictured himself, but while making a drawing of the Apollo Belvedere.
Both of these pictures are stylistically realist, and are both real (art) historical materials through which one can track the life of an institution along hectic moments of social and political change. Their artist, on the other hand, is driven by forces of speculation, positing spaces of experience in relation to near and far futures. His picturesque style, pertaining to pseudo-antique scenes that brought him the nickname Robert of Ruins, simultaneously marks an end to centuries of institutional development and projects another beginning upon the ruins. It is in this nascent moment that Robert makes a typical Renaissance statement on art historical ancestrality and the formation of artist-subjects, by turning away from modern masterpieces toward ancient classics. He imagines himself outlining the future of his practice by resorting to the few remaining originary forms and figures, and not by attending to the reality of the future he has envisioned. The space opened up between these two picture planes addresses the future as if it is given, bound to eternal retrospection. An understanding of history and the conditions of progress are held up by the constant reincarnation of classical ideals.
Paintings, architectural renderings and installation shots each belong to different regimes of practice and perception. The concept and technique of perspective is key here. It rose from within the context of architectural thought, which is primarily concerned with conceiving projects: bridging ideas and built realities. Across a period spanning from fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, it was developed first “as a preferred vehicle for transforming the world into a meaningful human order” and then “became a simple re-presentation of the external world for human vision.” (Pérez-Gómez, 2005) A history of the perspective shows how visual coordinates, on the one hand, and reductionist mathematical construals, on the other, have shaped the very extents of reality itself. The perfection of applicable manuals encouraged the architect “to assume that the projection was capable of truly depicting a proposed architectural creation and, therefore, to design in perspective.” Architecture, as a practice devoted to the materialization of the future, could now be rendered as a picture.
Fast forward to the contemporary time and the standard computer-generated architectural rendering is itself a documentary photograph. Modeling softwares are used when planning exhibition spaces, and they come to serve as more than a tool in the hands of the curator trying to figure out where to put what. To write the customary exhibition essay, the writer is usually faced with a wide array of visuals that attempt to prefigure an exhibition: JPEGs of individual works, crude architectural plans and basic SketchUps with silhouette figures. But what if there were enough time and resources for the production of some super-realistic installation renderings so that there would be no requirement for subjective postulations in order to write a proactive essay? What if the installation shots that land on the screen of one’s cellphone or emerge, one after another, during a curator’s talk amounted to nothing more than speculation? Would be a lame joke to frame all this as a conspiracy that claims to unravel the truth about everything. All this thought experiment can reveal is an abstract machine that regulates the exchanges of actuality, making sure that nothing escapes the immanence of mediation. It doesn’t matter if there is any art beyond the frame of installation shots. The question of being in or out of reach is just irrelevant since installation shots, for the time being, simply can set the preferred mode of access.
Installation shots, whether captured or generated, are capable of mediating both past and future experiences. The phantasmagoric situation of the globalized contemporary art can be identified by a particular temporal tendency for constant transition from being retrospective to being prospective, from documentation to projection, and back again. The contemporary idea of originary forms is caught in the arrival of installation shots from the future and their ensuing perpetuation in the transit lounges of exhibitions: Spaces of experience, exemplifying a contemporary sense of transience, are required merely for ensuring an abundance of installation shots, and for facilitating the automatized reincarnation of what has just been projected into the fleeting specters of other upcoming projections. What happens between each departure and every landing is similar to the undergoing of a morphing technique, a recombinant pattern laid across the soupy shades of grey that open up, like decimal gates, deeper and deeper in between every white and every black and only find sharpness and contrast in the temporary teleology of an installation shot. The shape of contemporary art practice, the formation of its syntactic geometry, seems to be best traceable not in the general and wildly omnipresent use of the word project but in the exercise of specific variations of prōicere, its Latin root: to stretch out or extend, to throw away or give up, to defer or delay, all ever until further notice.
An earlier version of this text was published in PNYX, issue 24.
I needed to find an innocuous but cool image to put on the header of a newly set up Facebook group—that moment when the host feels the obligation to drop a joke that is neither too fresh nor too handy, neither too unerring nor too vulgar, but interesting enough to slowly break the ice and keep everyone optimistically hanging on. Coming into an ultimate impasse by fishing around for a clue in the never resting flow of Google results, I started digging deep into the intra-spiraling Matryoshka of files and folders resting on my hard drive. At the expense of nauseating nostalgia, I came across tiny lo-fi thumbnails that I used to produce for every single of the posts on my previous blog. Ranging from documentations of self-published projects, exhibition reviews, translations and therapeutic rant and ephemera, the contents of the blog, including the images, were at some point brought down all together due to a reason now consigned to oblivion. Here are some of the thumbnails, which I now find to be totally cool but nevertheless fall short of fulfilling what I was looking for. Not because they are too derivative to stand on their own, or too painfully stuck in a past life to be easily dragged forward, but because they must be at least 400 pixels wide and at least 150 pixels tall to meet the requirements of a cover photo.
Yesterday at the German Embassy in Tehran, I pleaded with almost everyone from the doorman to the officer for a chance to visit Berlin. The hardest part was to explain, or argue, why attending a curatorial workshop can be a valid reason for traveling to Europe from the greater outdoors. I had to talk them through the makeshift itinerary of the trip, lay out all the plans and project an image of all I might end up doing then and there. The officer had a hard time, albeit righteously, figuring out what curating is, let alone understanding the inner dynamics of the art world and its logic of intercontinental flights. Anyway, it took me hours. In the evening, I had reached the page 41 in Pak Sheung-Chuen’s book of works Odd One In II: Invisible Travel.
On August 3, 2006, the artist made contour drawings of every single one of the 122 leaves of a sapling in Berlin on 72 separate sheets of paper only to bring the corpus back to that spot exactly ten years later and burn them all at the feet of the grown tree. “This artwork is about future memory,” wrote Sheung-Chuen. During those ten years, To Draw a Tree existed in the format of a black and white photograph of the small tree as was seen in 2006, along with the drawings loosely hanging on a wall in an exhibition setting or stacked in a box when off display. “A tree is drawn… The tree is brought to life in the breeze.” By the time I’m writing this post, the future of the drawn tree is supposed to be my immediately recent past; as the breeze must have already spread the ashes in unknown distances from where the tree stands in Berlin, its life is to have come to an end, perfectly merged in a memory that had been envisioned.
To Draw a Tree is to propose a parallel lifetime, particularly by targeting an overdetermined death. It mimes a living creature, a nonhuman, through a set of rules holding together a shivering grid of atomized accounts. Its internal affairs flip the usual tendency toward ephemerality on its head: A set of actions or a cluster of things are not only thrown into the face of inevitable temporal fatality, ready to give up whenever they have to—whenever the ice has totally melted down, when the exhibition is over, etc. They exist and take place only because of, and in direct relation to, this fatality. Future is taken for granted and the present is acted upon therefrom. To counter Lacan’s assertion, and although “death belongs to the realm of faith,” but it also happens to be more of a solid base than life itself on which an artwork lives—probably because there are lives, that of a tree for example, for which not as equally as we bear in life should be borne.
However, proposals are by now a vernacular for those who speak the beta language of contemporary art 2.0, particularly when a drive to intervene beyond art’s own naturalized habitat is fully acknowledged. An artwork or project, a solo presentation or biennial, a seminar, panel discussion or publication, all can happen to have been made or performed in order to “propose” something, to distance from mere criticism and to willfully step beyond the boundaries of their surrounding conditions, oppose having been destined to them and extend our current grounds to those of the future, one that is to be different, mostly for good. This has long been the language of every typical architectural practice, though. Architecture as a discipline is in charge of the task of envisioning sceneries of the future, which have been changed, in the course of centuries, in and out of drifting relationships with instrumentalization and functionality. Even if an architectural proposal has not been to serve a certain need or demand, it has by principle been oriented toward the extents of technical possibility or has set to modify existing approaches and orientations. It is to throw a spotlight in a reachable distance, one which is to take us forward, step by step. And there seem to have been only certain spots in certain distances that could have brought us progress, down the road we’ve been directed.
In parallel to this main road into the future, there have always been others that served as “alternatives,” both in rival and complementary manners. The finalist design proposal stands at the edge of reality, ready to step in when already passed through many (retrospectively) preliminary and/or rudimentary stages or iterations and then having been usually standing in competition with some other finalized proposals. It is along such disciplinary lines, spread wide and long enough to remain as inclusive and malleable as possible, that rivalry and complicity happen to feed a logic of competition and progress indifferently from one another. What each piece of built environment, which was once treated as what will trigger memories in the future, is carried forward by and simultaneously leaves behind are loads and loads of unrealized proposals, each for one or another reason. The bigger portion of what the discipline of architecture produces is then to be traced among those chunks of projection that are not followed by further projections down an eventually recognizable path; they are convened, “thrown forth” and finally “left behind.”
This superimposed form of complicity—i.e., horizontally fighting against and simultaneously serving a vertically overarching regime—is doubled, or better epitomized, in the back and forth, the push and pull of realization. It is ordered by a system of supply and demand that always produces (hence the pull of proposals) and absorbs (via competition; the complicit rivalry) an excess (all that is left behind by the finalist; deliberately remaining distanced from the reality). The propositional logic functions as an integral part of an apparatus for the production of categoric conflicts, a machine that maintains and nurtures tension. All the alternatives to the real, whether to be realized, abstained or declined to be realized, help the authority of the real to mark areas it can softly reach and actually contain, without losing hold of reality and thus becoming unreal. The power of the ruling real is that of a soft, liquified authority, which doesn’t even need a map of movement to find ways for releasing its tendency toward expansion; the real is real as long as it holds potentials that maintain movements within. The immanence of the real feeds off projections of the unreal while acting upon their contingencies via regimes of mediation moderating a correlation that renders any choice of going for the third pill actually redundant. “Not the reality behind illusion but the reality in illusion itself,” as Žižek puts it, is already conceived as a coordinate of the malleable field of the ruling reality. Nothing is “too traumatic, too violent or even too filled in with enjoyment” to “shatter the coordinates of reality,” yet we have to keep on fictionalizing inevitably within the expanding spectrum of the preemptive rule of reality. The third line of breakthrough in the dilemma of authoritarian real vis-à-vis the alternative projection simply falls into the ongoing vicious game of producing an excess of alternatives that are all contingently preempted and will finally fold back onto an expanded field of the ruling reality.
Therefore, every proposal or propositional utterance can be well claimed to have a reality, a life, of its own. Precisely because the rule of reality has softly naturalized every act of proposing, letting every proposal live a life in its own natural realm of being. Proposals don’t need to get “realized” or “actualized” to have a share of reality, they are already a part of it once they are proposed. The life that proposals live is exactly the opposite of a bare life—though excluded from the actual extents of naturalized reality, they are softly included in it by having been given the biopower of ruling over all that lies on the other side of actuality, and it’s hard to tell where that ends. The reality of competition-driven realizations, which sets to frustrate all clusivity distinctions and makes it hard to tell which we we’re talking about, by and large, runs on a growing plethora of projections that not only have to nevertheless get refused from being realized but do also get absorbed into reality through that very refusal and in their very unrealized state of being.
Contemporary art is complicit in developing this expanding rule of reality, and in bringing alterity into a systemic deadlock precisely by naturalizing it in abundance. Contemporary art is obsessed with glorifying potentials and emanating possibilities, through which the phantom of proposals can fly most fittingly. Here’s a comfort zone for thinking big, for constantly taking a willing pose that merely points to the beyond of the present, simply because there’s no need to bother making an effort to leave the present behind. This gesture was well captured in John Baldessari’s Commissioned Paintings series from 1969. You just point at it and contemporary art, with all its hidden armies of cheap laborers, interns and assistants, will take care of it—it will happen without having to go any bit beyond the tip of your finger just pointing at it. Contemporary art makes us feel comfortable in failing, in not realizing what we propose, all because every proposal is always already realized before even having been attempted for realization.
Sheung-Chuen’s proposal may not share this rather concealed complicity, but it only shies away from the bigger move at best. Still, his work marks a considerable distance from Baldessari’s Cremation Project, which has left uncompromising traces on the face of contemporary art all the way down to here and now. To Draw a Tree doesn’t rely on identifying the artist with his oeuvre and therefore doesn’t follow the rationale of reincarnation as was the basis of Baldessari’s more or less instant decision to launch a project that marked a fresh start, a stage in a cycle following which everything was once again totally possible. To Draw a Tree is not a radical regress to paramount potentiality itself nominated and reported as art—and this nomination and the subsequent reportage are of course what make Baldessari’s approach distinct from the modernist take on newness and its radical break from tradition. The prevalent tendency of contemporary art to constantly reinvent itself within the same vicious cycle that allows for the lining-up of anything followed by everything else is an extension of this nominating act of destruction. To Draw a Tree is more about delimiting the scope of possibilities. It sets out to fully acknowledge the gap that widens between a faraway life and its traveling double, and also limits this width from the very outset. What remains, above the future memory that was triggered, is an axiomatic model, a self-evident form that favors maintaining and regulating a network of inter-relationality spanned across the past all the way to the future more than its becoming in the present. Its precarious presence, a life lived in the breeze, is only formed via a responsibility already taken in the future to stand accountable for the past.