Instrumental Xenotation

H. P. Lovecraft, Susan Sontag, Linda Trent, Walter Benjamin, and Tom Ford


An uncharted island in the Pacific is home to the “nightmare corpse-city” called R’lyeh. Earlier, “measureless aeons behind history,” alien beings descended from the stars high up in the sky and “died vast epochs of time before men came,” but survived ever after below the abyssopelagic zones, lying in the nether wastes of the earth. The Great Old Ones live a germinal death, through which they haunt and possess the sensitive by molding strange dreams of great Cyclopean cities, “for only thus could their language reach the fleshly minds of the mammals,” who would then get infected with feverish hysteria and lethargic delirium. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” as aligned as it is along the meteoritic tail of his other weird stories, is an arcane tale of openness. Dank and cracked stones, fragments of rotting walls and the cancerous rise of morbid flora and fungi near the swamp and lagoon country south of New Orleans, where the cultists gathered in response to the call of the Great Old Ones; the abnormal and non-Euclidean geometry of the dream-place with its “vast angles and stone surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth” and “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours;” the monstrous stone pillars sticking out of the sea and “heaved to the sun and air” near the muddy and weedy coastline of R’lyeh — these all correspond to the dimensional wreckage and interphyletic collisions of the necrotized geospheres that characterize the exhuming pest of life and the ungrounded death, while the disterminalized becomings of “dead Cthulhu who waits dreaming” incarnate in verses of a language shivering at its extremes and, more remarkably, in documents, objects, bas-reliefs, statuettes, fetishes and idols delivered in dreams.

But “the dream is in fact the telling of the dream,” said Susan Sontag while conversing with John Berger about storytelling in a 1983 episode of Voices on Channel 4. Berger had previously said that “stories begin at their end; the story of Romeo and Juliet, in a sense, begins at their death, that is when the story is given form. The end is not always death, but it quite frequently is… A life gains its full meaning in death, it is only then that a life is readable,” hence narratable. Sontag, of course, could not disagree more. She finds this way of storytelling fundamentally dependent on true lives, having been lived as precedents for stories, and utterly concerned with truth, thus hindered by it. There are no people and no lives outside of language, before the writer writes the story, as there is no experience of the dream before one accounts for it. Commenting on death as the vindicating telos of life and as the condition of fiction, Sontag suggests marriage as an equivalent to death, “that is, if one sees life only as having a meaning because it leads up to something, then it could be that it leads up to its end or it leads up to, at least, its transformation,” as marriage was traditionally viewed as a transformation. “Life is seen,” she says, “as whatever that leads up to this [ending or turning point] and what happens next is considered as another life, or another kind of life.” Shakespeare, again, is the model, whose tragedies end up in death and whose comedies end up in marriage. Against this teleological conditioning, obviously loaded with sociopolitical exigencies too and not only demands for literary novelty, the function of storytelling, she says, “is to introduce a sense of the fantastic, which might include the absurd,” to let the prism of reality keep receiving and refracting all the meaningless and absurd particles too, that is, “to establish the rights to intensity… to restore the claims of intensity.” She is pointing to the kind of feature found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which do not tell posthumous stories “but… real stories… stories of generally a disaster, which may or may not end in death… they are terrifying stories, they are fabulous stories…” These ideas, more or less, resonate with those of the fashion designer Tom Ford as told in an interview with Vogue Voices, where he says that although his “heart lies in reality,” but film also is reality for him, because actors and actresses did actually say those words, they did actually walk through those sets, and that film did actually happen, in a parallel reality, “forever sealed in film.”

“The Call of Cthulhu,” too, reads like a posthumous story. Purportedly “found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston,” it thus begins not with Lovecraft himself, despite the mainly first-person narrative, but with his invented character, Mr. Wayland Thurston, going through the notes left behind by his granduncle, a professor of linguistics, after his death. And at the end of the story, the narrator himself is convinced enough to anticipate a strong sense of ensuing fatality, after obsessively having studied and researched the notes, objects and stories that all revolved around Them. In a way, They have always been beside him, their affective presence always too close, and it is only then that he knows this, at the end of the story. This fascination with or attraction to horror is a mix that, as Mark Fisher points out, should be counted as the particularly “weird” characteristic of Lovecraft’s stories, which also dovetails with the fondness and danger that are simultaneously driven through necrophilic bonds. But the more important indicator of this characteristic weirdness is the quality of “real externality,” as Lovecraft himself notes on writing weird fiction. Such reality is the fruit of Lovecraft’s obsession with the outside but is entirely and exactly different from Ford’s “sealed” reality. The really exterior manifests its exteriority by making irruptions into the spatial dimensions and temporal coordinates of the familiar interior, that is when the recognizable here-and-now gets punctured by the unknown then-and-there (Fisher 2016). The outside is, once again, rendered in an extra-proximal relationship to the familiar world.

The effects of extra-proximity on reality are best traceable when concerning the Necronomicon. Endowed with mysterious and dangerous dominion over those who study its esoteric words, this written contagion is not merely a fabulation, in contrary to, say, Poe, but an instantiation of exteriority (Fisher 2016). Similar to other Things in other Lovecraft’s stories, it is more than occasionally discussed and meticulously but not fully described in details as a para-fictional entity that makes it then possible for other elements borrowed from the objectively familiar reality, most remarkably including places, geographies and institutions, to collapse onto the fictional side — simply because it pushes against the membrane of the extra- proximal sphere and spreads it out across the parcels of reality, where it is invoked. And it does so in a very particular manner. “Lovecraft generates a ‘reality-effect’ by only ever showing us tiny fragments of the Necronomicon. It is the very fragmentary quality of his references to the abominable text that induce the belief in readers that it must be a real object… [He] seemed to have understood the power of the citation, the way in which a text seems more real if it is cited than if it is encountered in the raw” (Fisher 2016: 24). This “reality-effect” is the hyperstitional potency of a fiction, by which it can be effective and make itself real. The main reason why fictions become hyperstitions is the “consistency of the fictional system” (Fisher 2016: 25), a network of multiple tales, to which the initial author loses control. In fact, it is this consistency that enables the “collectivization of the fictional system” (Trent 2004) — because of the fragmentary eruptions of the reality-effect, conveyed by the prismatic Things, a multitude of readers and authors have explored the Cthulhu mythos and released unshed stories welling up in its many undiscovered corners beyond the journeys of Lovecraft himself.

Walter Benjamin, one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, also happened to leverage great importance on citations. Benjamin wrote at a time when what the future held was the impression that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy, if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Benjamin 2007: 255), an extra-proximal horror from which no distance is attainable, haunting both those who are gone and those who have not yet come with equal valence. Benjamin is preoccupied with alternatives for transmissibility across history, a way for seizing the past from the present standpoint other than by clinging on the ladder of an instrumental tradition whether with a prospective or retrospective inclination, both dependent on linear filiation. Against this fabricated continuity, inadequate to the ruptures of modernity, he poses the idea of cuts and breaks, wrenching the phenomena from the continuum of tradition and making them transmissible again. It is by the shock of citation that “disturbing strangeness of past vestiges” make eruptions into the present (Simay 2005), “arresting thought and allowing reality to collide and roll over it in search of another and until then unacknowledged history” (Taussig 2000). This is a fight over the past and its true meaning. And for Benjamin, as he writes in “Convolute N,” truth is not to be revealed but manifested in a “flash” of recognition, a fleeting image stitched together in a flickering constellation (Benjamin 2002). Lovecraft would not have been too surprised if had heard of the momentary constellation or the figure of the lightening, writing of the “day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality,” or more literally, of “all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things.”

However, as much as the lines of filiation and the bonds of philia configure dissimilar epistemogeometries, neither “the past from time immemorial” (Benjamin 2002: 464) should be mistaken with “measureless aeons behind history,” nor “the eruption of a prehistoricity into the present” (Taussig 2000) with “an irruption, through time and space, into an objectively familiar locale.” The distinction lies in Benjamin’s attempt to formulate a moment of historical awakening, when the fantasy of tradition is shattered and its instrumentalization is manifest, while Lovecraft, quite to the contrary, deepens the dreams, endorses instrumental transmissions and actually “traditionizes” the objects (Simay 2005). That is the birth of the tradition of hyperstitional actualities, a weird genesis that is always open to further fabrications and projective extensions to prior or later points of origin, exactly as Benjamin described it: “Origin, although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (Benjamin 1998: 45). This “process of becoming and disappearance” is critically diagnosed and laid bare when the dialectician flips it into “a specific mix of repression and of expression,” that is, the instrumental basis for becoming a social being who learns to know what not to know (Taussig 2000). But that same process is intensified and hyped up toward further actualities if “the production of the new,” the becoming, is “disclaimed and disguised by the author,” as writes Fisher. “Lovecraft’s retrospective projection of newly minted mythos into the deep past,” his strategy of “retro-interring” (Fisher 2016: 22), molds the dark matter of dream into objects of hyperstition. Eventually, by setting up a paradoxical but consistent strategy, Lovecraft takes creative advantage of what Benjamin, in the name of truth, rigorously tries to criticize.


All citations, if not specified otherwise, are from Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”.

CITED WORKS:

Books and Articles:

  • Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books
  • Benjamin, Walter. (2002). The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland, K. McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Benjamin, Walter. (1998). The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne. London: Verso
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “The Call of Cthulhu,” in H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. New York: Barnes and Noble (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx) [10/12/2016]
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”, in Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Literary Essays. Maryland: Wildside Press (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx) [15/12/2016]
  • Simay, Philippe. (2005). “Tradition as Injunction: Benjamin and the Critique of Historicisms”, in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin. London: Continuum
  • Taussig, Michael. (2000). “The Beach (A Fantasy)”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 249-278
  • Trent, Linda. (2004). “How Do Fictions Become Hyperstitions?” Hyperstition Blog, 19 June 2004 (http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003345.html) [3/1/2017]

Web and Television Productions:

Objective Hyperreality vs. Hyperobjective Reality

The following is an overrun footnote, expelled from my master’s-thesis-in-progress. Here in exile, may it rest in peace.


Jodi Dean argues that the Internet, on the one hand, “imagines, stages and enacts the “global” of global capital. But on the other this global is nothing like the world — as if such an entity were possible, as if one could designate an objective reality undisturbed by the external perspective observing it or a fully consistent essential totality unruptured by antagonism” (Dean 2005: 67-68). Latent in Dean’s argument is that the reach of capital is beyond “our specific worlds,” beyond the image of the global that the internet puts forth. Then, it can be surmised that capital has captured “an objective reality” beyond the specific worlds of situated experiences. Although the totalizing ruse of the imagined global makes it seem as if “everything is already there” inside the network (69), the foreclosed outside cannot exceed a planetary scale regardless. Put differently, capital has already captured the objective reality of the planetary scale as its launchpad. The planetary scale is where the informatic infrastructure of capital is installed, it is the operative horizon of all the satellites orbiting the earth and all the fiber optic cables spread across the bottom of the oceans.

In this sense, what was surmised from Dean’s argument — namely the planetary scale that capital has already expropriated as its own objective reality — can be better explained if dubbed, following Timothy Morton, in terms of a hyperobjective reality. But we might need to first briefly examine Jean Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality.

When the real itself, or that which bears the function of the real, is generated by models and doubles that bear no reference to an original reality, all that is left is the “Precession of Simulacra.” Hyperreality is inaugurated by “a liquidation of all referentials — worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs” (Baudrillard 1994: 2). The theory of simulacra is among the first attempts to account for the cultural logics of a new era of capitalist development, for which postmodernism has come to stand as the most ubiquitous designation. This era is marked by “an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” (2). Here capitalism is exclusively carried on by the symbolic exchange of signs which are ungrounded from any real referentiality that would have hitherto determined their value. Exchange or abstraction itself generates the real of capital. Hyperreality, therefore, is based on the dissolution of the “sovereign difference,” hence the signs of the real being substituted for the real. This makes it a challenge to think about an objective hyperreality.

An aesthetics of the hyperreal is made apparent by visual technologies that attempt “a frisson of vertiginous and phony exactitude, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency” (28). Baudrillard charts microscopic vision, pornography, and the generics of An American Family, a 1971 reality TV series, as harbingers of hyperrealistic aesthetics. Such aesthetics presents that which comes across as effectively and operationally more real than what previously operated as reality, or for that matter as sex or as nature. If effective signs and symptoms of the real can be generated and operationalized without the real preceding them, then is an objective diagnosis of (hyper)reality possible any longer? I might not sat objectivity is technically precluded, but has perhaps lost its significance, because hyperreality does not leave anything out. It does not rest on any preexisting territory that could be previously mapped by a logic of “imaginary coextensivity.” It first produces the map, and its territory will be generated thereof. There will be no imaginary, no sign or symptom which is not as real as reality used to be, if not more. And there will neither be a reality as such because “no imaginary envelops it anymore” (2). Objectivity, in the sense of the faculty of distinction between that which can be accounted for as true fact and that which is false, is threatened when confronted by the hyperreal, which is “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2). Hyperreality resolves the question of objectivity by invariably enabling it in regard to all the operative elements that take part in an order that functions as same as the real used to.

The loss of an objective reality is therefore occupied by a kind of materialist indeterminacy or, as Morton would say, “a boiling whirlwind of impermanence” that is today’s capitalism (Morton 2010: 130). This loss, however, has always been fundamental to capitalist operations, or to an understanding of the world and its reality after capitalism. “There was no world before capitalism,” writes Morton. Nature only shows up and becomes intelligible as Nature once attempts at terraforming Earth have already been made, when Nature has de facto vanished: “Things are first known when lost” (132). Global warming and the planetary extents of nuclear contamination, among others, shape what we refer to as the world and also bring about the end of the world, rendering the operational capacities of such a concept redundant. In other words, following its fundamental mechanism of dissolution and abstraction, capitalism “creates things that are more solid than things ever were… things that appear almost more real than reality itself” (130). These things are hyperobjects, “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans… [T]he sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism” (Morton 2013: 1). Speaking of a universe entirely assimilated into the matrices of late capitalism, Morton refers to the most widely cited sentence that Karl Marx quoted from Macbeth, “all that is solid melts into the air,” and continues, “at the very point at which the melting into the air occurs, we catch the first glimpses of the all-too-solid iceberg within the mist” (20). Therefore, that which was previously intended as an objective reality of the world as such can now be only traced in a search for hyperobjective realities.

Important in this transition is also a revision of postmodernism. “The ultimate goal of this project,” writes Morton of postmodernism, “was to set up a weird transit lounge outside of history in which the characters and technologies and ideas of the ages mill around in a state of mild, semiblissful confusion” (4). The confusing indeterminacy of hyperreality, so to speak, gives way to the shocking reality of hyperobjects. Finally, while the simulacra and the genesis of hyperreality were frequently ascribed to televisual effects, their hyperspace seems to be now populated by the all-too-real hyperobjects that, by extension, locate the pursuit of objectivity on the internet and computational networks of various kinds. Nonlocality, after all, is one of the key common properties of hyperobjects. Just like the distributed networks of planetary informatics, “one only sees pieces of a hyperobject at any one moment;” local manifestations that are not the direct equivalents of the larger totality (4). Morton proposes the practice of an “Ecological Thought” that can attend to the future of these hyperobjects, a mode of thinking that can attend to an “Ecology without Nature.” Since hyperobjects or, we could say, the hyperobjective reality of the internet and its distributed networks outscale us so massively that although we know that they are there, we cannot point to them directly (12), the ecological thought needs to stand in as a mode of “irreductionist thinking” that can encounter the “scalar dilemmas” that hyperobjects present (19).

Despotic Ophidiophobia

The following is an overrun footnote, expelled from my master’s-thesis-in-progress. Here in exile, may it rest in peace.


Gilles Deleuze once distinguished the late twentieth century societies of control from disciplinary societies that reached their height almost one hundred years earlier. The latter initiated “the organization of vast spaces of enclosure… Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point” (Deleuze 1992: 3-4).

The “continuous change,” “self-modulation” and “transmutation” are crucial points for outlining the relationship of Iran’s economic order at large to the planetary apparatus of capital since the late 1980s. The neoliberal logic of capitalism, only principally speaking, does not require all the walls to come down. Adaptation, as a mode of conduct, is coded into its coils. Ahmadinejad’s fanaticism, therefore, can be understood as a phobic reaction, a hysteria, in the face of the consistently shapeshifting and “complex coils of this serpent,” as Deleuze called it. Ahmadinejad’s administration, in this sense, was ophidiophobic, to stay with the analogy. We can take a detour here and briefly discuss how ophidiophobia resonates with the issue of survival and thus goes beyond the tradition of modern pathologies.

Snakes originate in the Cretaceous period from around one hundred million years ago. Descending from the now extinct amphibians of the Class Reptilia, their limbs grew shorter and shorter over thousands of millennia, enabling them to overcome the difficulties of life underground — a certain flexibility without which many other reptilians could not and did not survive. This makes snakes the oldest species alive today, meaning that their origins of life precede that of many more recently developed mammals, who had to advance a perceptive ability to focus on environmental threats in order to survive and to follow the path down the line of evolution. Hence a fear of snakes and serpents, and of spiders for that matter, which have been among the most longstanding threats coexisting with the mammalian ancestry.

These extra-pathological aspects of the ecobiological deep time are reflected in certain productions of popular culture in the modern era, including the reptilian humanoids and the Serpent Men, a fictional race created by Robert Howard in the 1920s, which fuel many more contemporary conspiracy theories about the mainstream politicians and their ties with secret cults who can adopt anthropomorphic appearances, manipulate human societies, and roughly speaking, have control over all global affairs.

The allegory of the serpent suggested by Deleuze as the image of late capitalism, its networked disposition and the accompanying logic of control reflects a sense of triumphant survivalism that relies on a particular anatomy or architecture, that of the flexible, shape-shifting coils that spread across and stretch into and out of dimensions that challenge the validity of an anthropic principle in the face of technocommericial forces of global capital. Hence a reflection, too, of the overarching agency of capital and its nearly unmappable, untrackable reach, of how an inexplicable system operates beyond the aims, intentions and agencies of humans and, as Mark Fisher put it, how seemingly “conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity” (Fisher 2016: 11).

Taking these allegorical attributes seriously, Reza Negarestani suggests the figurative substance of oil to replace the serpent, which therefore eschews the immediately racist connotations of how reptilian survivalism has been reflected in the white racial frames of the Western culture. Capital’s survival is registered by the oil and its “petropolitical undercurrents.” Put differently, capital’s enduring life, lubricated by oil and consummated in the emergence of “war-as-a-machine,” occupies an agency and a timeframe beyond that of humans:

Petroleum poisons Capital with absolute madness, a planetary plague bleeding into economies mobilized by the technological singularities of advanced civilizations. In the wake of oil as an autonomous terrestrial conspirator, capitalism is not a human symptom but rather a planetary inevitability. In other words, Capitalism was here even before human existence, waiting for a host (Negarestani 2009: 27; emphasis added).

“Post-Capitalist Desire”: An Introduction

to rigor, rage, and courage…


FISHER FUNCTION GOLDSMITHSWritten 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


[1] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), p. 18.

[2] Mark Fisher, ‘How To Kill a Zombie: Strategizing the End of Neoliberalism’, in openDemocracy. 18 July 2013.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976), p. 929.

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), p. 434

This Is the Sea, Isn’t It?

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.

The Exhibition Whisperer

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 Art Magazine as a follow-up to the Young Curators Workshop Post-Contemporary Art, 9th Berlin Biennale. 

Trans-Temporal Perspectives 

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, an autonomous imprint of Architectural Association, London. 

August 3, 2016: After Pak Sheung-Chuen

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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.”

EPSON scanner image

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.

An Alternative Entry in Five Moves

Schemes of an essay-to-be


①   Art FAQs

Art FAQs (2007-2008) were a set of proposals that the Iranian artist, writer and architect Homayoun Askari Sirizi aimed at realizing at the now closed project space 13 Vanak Street, located at the edge of an extremely vast parcel of empty land on the northwestern corner of Vanak Square in Tehran. Concerned and frustrated with all shortcomings in engaging the public in socially conscious projects, he claimed his own answers, given on the occasion of short-lasting events, to what he allegedly posed as frequently asked, fundamental questions regarding art. No objects were to be produced, no documentation of the events was allowed, and nothing was to remain of the proposed solutions; fundamental problems were to live on unresolved—as if the artist just wanted to fail better in engaging the public, and this was also evident from his utterly disconcerting responses. The artist made plans for a total of seven events, of which only one, Art FAQ #1, actually took place and another, Art FAQ #4, was rehearsed—and failed.

Art FAQ #1 was subtitled “Who is an artist? What is an artwork? How far can an artwork reach?” On the day of the event, visitors found nothing but other visitors hanging around in the completely empty space and on the sidewalk, in front of the large  street-facing window, looking into the tiny room. Most of them were covering their noses and mouths with hands as a terribly strong smell of urine was everywhere in the air, pushing out from the space and totally noticeable even on the sidewalk. Inside, some pale yellow paint was splashed on the walls here and there. It was actually a solution of yellow pigment in ammonium hydroxide. A small text was all that could be found in the window display. It read “Mammals are among territorial animals; they mark their territories by dripping blood, spraying urine and dumping feces.” It continued “Humans are mammals too.” During the whole time of the event, the artist sat hidden behind a wall partition at the back end of the room.

For Art FAQ #4, subtitled “Where did all problems come from? (Probably out of a hole?!),” the artist had the idea of trying to let as little light as possible into the space and make a tiny hole into the southern wall so that, by turning the whole room into a camera obscura, an overturned image of the immediately neighboring vast empty land would appear on the facing wall inside the space. The door was to be kept closed during the event, and it was not easy to look through the window as it was to be covered almost completely. Visitors had to approach the room from the other side and try to look through the hole that was made into the wall to see the inside. Again, as if practicing failure, visitors were to block all the light that the space of art needed to represent, albeit disorientedly, its larger outside. But the idea failed even earlier when it was put into test: The wall that was to be pierced happened to be too thick for a fine, straight hole to be made into it. The artist failed in representing the outside world before his audience would fail in seeing it.

②   The Mural

I imagine myself standing inside 13 Vanak Street, looking out through the hole Homayoun had made in the wall. What would the view be like from within a black hole? I imagine there being no obstacles, no billboards, no utility poles, no pop-up stands, no traffic signs and even no trees disturbing my sight line or, alternatively, I imagine my line-of-sight curving and twisting and rounding all those things. Then I would be able to see the mural on the southeastern corner of Vanak Square. Painted on one of Tehran’s typical huge blank city walls, it is of the same kind of trompe l’oeils that have proliferated all around the city in the past few years. The content of the image seems congruent with dominantly omnipresent constructions of subjectivity and ideologies of spatial division: The fantastic image of rural innocence, loaded with a promise of escapism, is de facto accentuated against the dark realities of an evil town; The privatized female subject has been just allowed up to the limits of her domestic universe and all that only due to an appointed household task; Male subjects, carrying live symbols of a reproductive lifestyle on their shoulders, seem to have easily passed through the city, the public domain, and are now headed for the countryside.

However, men are not given a face. Although I see them, we are not intervisible—they are walking their walks with their backs facing me. They don’t seem to be aware of me looking at them. My oblique (quer) sight line can assist me round their bodies, see their looks and read their lips. An imaginary leap has set me on this perceptive engagement with the surrounding, where my sight, and consequently all my other senses, would passionately drift away from the straight line. Each of the two men and each of the two little boys they carry on their shoulders transmute into one alternative subject who has four arms and no face. Together, they form one couple, two lovers, who might be forced to make public appearance with a pair of their arms holding to the rules of normativity, but somehow manage to reach hands, their other hands, to one another and perform alternative affections that go against the dominance of constructs.

③   Grindr Cartography

A concentrated but diverse public of queer men in Tehran is to be found nowhere better than on the screens of their cell phones. The virtual communities that are built up by location-sensitive applications like Grindr, dwell on a gridded surface that runs across an actual geography that has no actually acknowledged consciousness of those communities. A graph of the network that those who appear on Grindr create suggests another subjective topography of Tehran. However, having the strict social and political climate of this specific context in mind, it is clearly an absurd attempt to make either the virtual topography or the actual geography come out as identical to the other, or to merely consider such bifurcation as what provides functional plausibility. These pocket-sized cartographic technologies of subjectification should help refigure potential perceptive engagements with the folds of a lived topography.

④   EXIT

Literally a freestanding signature on its own, the four-letter word EXIT, hastily but most legibly written in uppercase, has been rapidly and increasingly appearing on numerous spots around Tehran during the past two years. Street walls, trash cans, bus stops, roller shutters and traffic signs have all had their moments of encounter with EXIT. This by itself does not introduce novelty to the spectrum of sites from which graffiti artists can choose for their work. Even the word itself is a highly familiar and frequently utilized sign in an urban context. But the bare wit of these four letters superimposed on top of those same old places, together with them still incredibly mushrooming across most distant areas—despite being painted out almost routinely—have brought them a silently phenomenal presence in Tehran. A mask for an invisible agent, EXIT invites the passerby, unexpectedly and out of blue, to a parody of escapism, one that proposes a perceptive engagement that is in complete opposition to what the word, by definition, reads.

EXIT is a project of reflective reterritorialization. Far from being concerned with an attempt of withdrawal, EXIT transforms the surfaces it is tagged upon to reflective screens that, instead of opening up to somewhere else, redirect the suddenly engaged passerby toward their own gaze, location and state of being. In other words, by diffusely signifying a way to the outside, EXIT has actually set, and is setting, provisional borders at the verge of an expanding territory with no clear shape—a territory marked off by the artist, similar to how animals create sign-posts to retain their demarcated territories. This is a cartographical practice as an ongoing performance. Minding this fluid territory, it is easy to understand that anyone faced with EXIT takes a position previously took by the artist and is consequently placed on the inside. Therefore, by rendering any position “before,” “outside,” or “beyond” this perceptive territory redundant, EXIT is symbolically disrupting the bipolar exchange between the inside and the outside and is giving way to an expression of a discursive situation where the way out is virtually another way in.

⑤   Art Gallery Problem

In August 1973, during a conference at Stanford University, the mathematician Victor Klee extemporaneously responded to a request for an interesting geometric problem made by his younger peer Václav (Vašek) Chvátal. What Klee posed has since come to be widely known as the Art Gallery Problem or, alternatively called, the Watchmen Problem—an inspiring challenge in the field of computational geometry. It asks to find the number of guards who can survey 360˚ about their fixed positions and are together occasionally necessary and always sufficient to observe the whole interior of an art gallery. For a polygonal gallery with n vertices, Chvátal soon established an upper bound of [n/3] on the minimal number of guards.

The inductive proof of Chvátal’s original Art Gallery Theorem accounts for simple polygons, flat shapes with straight, non-intersecting sides that form a closed boundary separating the plane into two distinct regions: the interior and the exterior of the polygon. If the function g(n) represents the maximum of guards that are ever needed for covering a gallery with n vertices, it is often easy to establish a lower bound, that is g(n) ≥ [n/3], through generic shapes that settle the necessity of this particular formula. However, the categorical specification of simple polygons still bears particular challenges when attempting to establish sufficiency, as this needs an argument that holds for all polygons.