Spike x YCW
This past autumn, thirteen participants from around the world took part in the Young Curators Workshop, organised under the aegis of the 9th Berlin Biennale. Conceived by Armen Avanessian and organised by Maurin Dietrich and Krisztina Hunya, the program involved workshops, seminars and discussions circling around the idea of post-contemporary art. As part of its partnership with the YCW, Spike here presents the first four of eight texts, interviews and projects that emerged from the program, with the help of Dan Meththananda.
1. "Maybe We Should Rejuvenate the Words rather than the Bodies"
Sophie Lapalu in collaboration with Dominique Koch
2. City as Laboratory
Sonia Kazovsky in conversation with Etienne Turpin
3. Same Shit, Different Epoch
4. Time Replenished: The Fountain of Youth
"Maybe We Should Rejuvenate the Words rather than the Bodies"
Sophie Lapalu in collaboration with Dominique Koch
In her exhibition “Maybe We Should Rejuvenate the Words rather than the Bodies”, held at Rinomina, Paris, in 2016, artist Dominique Koch presented the life cycle of the “immortal jellyfish” Turritopsis dohrnii as an analogy of models of repetition and endless loop systems as well as examining its relationship to contemporary social structures. Here, Sophie Lapalu invited Dominique Koch to present some elements of the exhibition, adapted for online presentation.
Text and images are from Koch’s 2016 film Perpetual Operator, whose narrative is based on two conversations – one with the sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato and the other with the philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi. In the film, the respective statements are juxtaposed with the jellyfish’s fate, bringing forth unexpected intellectual intersections from this hybrid form of analogy. The sound piece, below, is an extract of a performance linked to the project, a collaboration between Koch and the Japanese musician and poet Seijiro Murayama, who recites the possible combinations of jellyfish DNA.
Over a two-year period, a colony of immortal jellyfish rebirthed themselves 14 times. When confronted with physical damage or other crises, immortal jellyfish turn all of their existing cells back to a younger state. Therefore, the genetic code is erased and rewritten identically.
Numerous clones keep on living. The jellyfish have been successfully cultured in a Japanese laboratory. But there is still no answer as to the total number of possible rebirths, or – as long as perfect conditions are guaranteed — as to whether natural death will ever occur.
Theoretically, the species’ regenerative process could go on indefinitely.Yet the promise of a hypothetically eternal, self-generating loop remains speculative at this stage. I like to think of the jellyfish’s life cycle as a theoretical concept, a speculative condition or a form of prophecy. An abstract loop. Potentially very dynamic and at the same time the absolute opposite. It could stand as a loose analogy to our present condition.
Let’s shift – in a similarly speculative way – from the species’ looped infinite life cycle to capitalism as an endlessly turning semiotic mega-machine. Think of the universal watchword: flexibility. In all the languages of the world it means: non-specialization. As flexible as jelly...Which at the same time leads to mass intellectuality – valued virtuosity – as one labours with the faculties of the mind. But to sustain the endless loop cycle and its infinite regeneration, the power of production and the power of destruction must coexist in a synchronized and perpetual manner – in an inherent reciprocity of circular causality.
It is meant to be indefinite because it is an inexhaustible source of profit.
It’s accumulation without end. But without end doesn’t mean without limits.
It’s the possibility of always pushing those limits further.
These aren’t limits that come from the outside, these are its own limits. Which it is constantly pushing further. It gets close to the limit […] but never reaches it. It’s a sort of mathematical limit.
So what we see in capitalism is this never-ending accumulation, an accumulation without limits, this absolute deterritorialization, and at the same time it sets an absolute limit on its movements – and that’s why the movement of capital is very contradictory, because all that has to generate private property.
Setting limits, destroying them, overstepping them, setting them anew, is always a regenerative phenomenon. Except that at the same time that it produces life, it also produces death.
It’s something “never-ending,” but it produces catastrophes at the same time. The limit is set and is always pushed further. Here, we have reached limits that are almost the absolute limits of capitalism […] there are contingent limits that happen all the time, for example the financial crisis. But there are limits, like the ecological crisis, which are headed towards a “Bifo”-style catastrophe, if you like. Let’s put it this way: I find […] this need for infinite, endless production and valorisation infinite, in the sense of endless, it always pushes further, and at the same time it creates its own obstacles, and these obstacles have to be overcome. So it creates them, it overcomes them, it creates them, it overcomes them, so it’s endless, but it’s not immortal.
Because capitalism has this particularity where production and destruction coincide. That’s the thing. It has an enormous power of production, but at the same time an enormous power of destruction.
The fundamental thing that Deleuze and Guattari introduced in the ’60s and ’70s was the concept [of] the difference between the technical machine and the social machine. The technical machine explains nothing. We can say the technical machine must always come back to the social machine. The social machine isn’t a technological machine: it’s a machine, but not a technological one. The social machine can produce a technical machine. But the social machine is never automatic. We can have […] an automatic technical machine, but never an automatic social machine. It would be more correct to call the social machine the “war machine,” because society is divided. It is divided within itself. That is to say, it is divided conceptually, ontologically divided. And there is always war.
War – it will be named differently – so, not war, but wars. Because there is: war against the poor, war against women, war against the colonised. That is the true state of capitalism. All those technological discourses completely overlook these problems. There are automatisms inside, of course, there will be more and more automatisms inside. But the machine is never closed in on itself.
It is always open to something. We can’t think of it as a closed machine. It is open to constructs: economic, political, social, emotional, bodily, “human” in inverted commas. That’s what the machine is. Behind everything there’s the war machine, the social machine. There is not the technological machine.
Putting into question the security of a state, that doesn’t just come from another state – that also comes from finance. So you have to think of it like a war.
Credit needs not immortality but to keep expanding. To expand without limits towards infinity. And that’s why conflict today isn’t about knowledge, language or work. There is never political conflict about knowledge. There’s no struggle about knowledge. But there is about debt. Because if you touch debt, if you touch credit, you touch the system as it stands.
So there are two streams that are the fundamental axes of the development of capitalism: one is money – the money of credit – and the other is war. And that’s what we see right now. It’s enough to look at what’s happening in Europe, on one side Greece and on the other what’s happened in France. That’s it. We see the two axes emerging, the two most deterritorialised streams, money and war. And if you separate Big Data from the war machine, then you’re screwed, huh?!
SOPHIE LAPALU is an art historian, critic and curator. DOMINIQUE KOCH is an artist whose work will be included in "Biotopia" at Kunsthalle Mainz this March.
City as laboratory
Sonia Kazovsky in conversation with Etienne Turpin
Jakarta, Indonesia, November 2015. 38 degrees Celsius. 90% humidity. The gojak driver hands me a helmet and mask and we speed off, we swerve through the metropolis, past huge skyscrapers for the urban elite, Dutch colonial architecture, and endless slums. Temporalities collide. The future careens into the present and the past in a heady, smoggy haze.
Given that the city has such a chaotic sense of reality, it’s surprising to learn that Jakarta has more active Twitter users than any other city in the world. Perhaps its label as a “mega-city” has been granted from this over-proliferation of both the real and the virtual, on the verge of being subsumed by its own infrastructure that might collapse at any given moment.
It is here that the architect and writer Etienne Turpin founded anexact office, a post-interdisciplinary design research agency operating on the edges of software, exhibition design, and infrastructure. Avoiding easy categorisation, anexact office is one vehicle for Turpin’s wide research interests – studying, curating, designing and writing on complex urban systems, political economies of data and infrastructure, visual culture, and the colonial-scientific history of Southeast Asia. With anexact office and other collaborators, he has worked on projects as diverse as a real-time flood map for Jakarta and a cycle of exhibitions in Germany.
– Sonia Kazovsksy
Sonia Kazovsky: I understand anexact office as a platform to host multidisciplinarity in a strategic way, including the flood map peta.jakarta, curatorial work, and applied philosophical practice.
Etienne Turpin: Anexact is a vehicle for inquiry, a platform for assembling different kinds of knowledge infrastructure – exhibitions, software platforms, activism. One of the most important drivers of the anexact office is multidisciplinarity or even post-multidisciplinarity. We avoid the academy as much as possible because it is toxic. But this does not mean giving up on rigour. We aim to deliver all of the things that higher education institutions pretend they do but deliver very little of. We include such concerns and research into the overall objective of the office, where we do not believe in exclusivity or in a hierarchy of knowledge and theory.
SK: What are you working on currently at anexact?
ET: Anexact is developing a large, multi-institution exhibition cycle with curator Anna-Sophie Springer titled “Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest”, which tries to connect a number of contemporary political aporias with the forest in Southeast Asia and the forest in South America. Concurrently, as an extension of our flood-mapping platform petajakarta, we have been developing a national platform for multiple hazards, using instant messaging and social media to democratise the response to climate change. This is all part of an effort to recreate a different context for visual and social media within urban environments.
We are also working on labnet.asia, a new platform intended to amplify knowledge transmission across Asia without its having to travel through Europe or be translated into English. At the moment someone in Cambodia will most likely learn about a project in Vietnam by reading about it in an English blog, and so we are trying to find ways to software design, platform design, to use a wiki structure to increase the inter-Asian connections among the megacities. Trying to both use it as an ethnographic probe as well as a new design pattern.
SK: In one of your lectures you have mention that the term Anthropocene is misused in the humanities and the arts –
ET: We have to get away from the idea that everything can be included in the discourse of the Anthropocene, that everything is just a discursive fashion. The Anthropocene is a real thing, and we are trying to work on specific problems that we are interested in, concerning infrastructure, equity, climate change and knowledge infrastructure. That means that we need to deal with specific instantiations of capitalism, of patriarchy, of inequality, of racism, so we have to be precise.
SK: More generally, do you believe that discourse is too detached from praxis?
ET: People have asked me: aren’t you frustrated when you go to conferences in Europe and people just talk out of their asses? They have no context or struggle that they are part of; they only have those vague imperatives: we should do this or that. But there is no “we”, no place where this is coming from. There are so many people writing about politics, but how many of them are engaged in real politics in their own environment? Where they are working? How do they get paid? There is a corporate takeover of the university but nobody even noticed because they were too busy writing about Foucault.
SK: So was relocating to Jakarta a means to challenge the fashion of discourse taking precedence over action?
ET: We use Jakarta as a way of working on ourselves to find new strategies. We have fewer resources here, a lot of challenges that have to be overcome and a lot of things that need to be repatterned. Here we have the opportunity to gain real-world experience of the effects of the Anthropocene as concerns politics and philosophy. Whereas that seems to be always going around and around in theoretical circles in Europe and North America, here we are in contact with the ground. This allows us to develop and test concepts to try to understand new ways of thinking through questions.
SK: How do you feel contemporary art engages with issues in the region?
ET: We can see the bankruptcy of the art scene and of much of the NGO community; it doesn’t have much to say because it has just been acting as a brokerage of suffering. This is true even for social-practice art: maybe you feel ok selling people’s suffering on to another audience and making some profit or cultural capital out of it. But this is not particularly satisfying to anyone. This sort of virtuoso scenario prioritises an individualistic practice that is ultimately just trading in the aesthetics of violence and suffering.
SK: Yet somehow you maintain a connection to the art world. What is your relationship to it?
ET: One of the fundamental limitations that artists face is their identity as an artist. That title often gets in the way of the real practice that is being enacted. So, instead I employ the label to take resources from the art system. Critical Art Ensemble is an influential group for us, especially in terms of what [CAE member] Ricardo Dominguez said about them: that they were all artists who hated their own mediums. Poets who hated poetry, musicians who hated music and performance artists who hated performance. The point isn’t how you define yourself – whether as a philosopher or an artist or whatever – but rather that this process allows you to fulfil the desire that you have to believe in the world. Identity is a strategic relationship.
For example, while I still believe in and have an affinity with certain questions that are philosophical, I assume a relation to liberty and social emancipation that isn’t bound up in my identity as a philosopher. I’m rather utilising this identity as leverage. And art often doesn’t have a strategic relationship to itself; it takes itself way too seriously, especially in Europe. I think you should have always a strategic relationship to normativity.
SONIA KAZOVSKY is an artist and curator based in Amsterdam. She is currently pursuing her MA at the Dutch Art Institute. ETIENNE TURPIN is the founding director of anexact office in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as a Research Scientist for the Urban Risk Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Same shit, different epoch: on new forms of sustainability for the art world
If contemporary art is in part defined by its self-reflexivity and self-awareness, one notable exception is regarding its own waste. No matter how sophisticated its engagement with the Anthropocene, the physical infrastructure of art and the global exhibition machine still generates an ever-growing unsustainable shit-heap.
Over the past half-century there are way more artists, more artworks and more collateral projects. The very physical size of artwork growing. But what happens with all the materials that it consumes to generate white-cube perfection? How much paper is wasted on throwaway press releases? What happens to the lights after the pop-up exhibition space closes? How much energy is consumed during the multi-screen installation? How much carbon is required to transport the work and its audiences? It all produces so much shit!
With biennale-type exhibitions attracting the attention of more eyes and growing in number around the world, perhaps coming to the peak of its possibilities, could we imagine a global contemporary art infrastructure that would be environmentally sustainable? Would it be possible to establish standards that could become engrained in the DNA of any large-scale event? Could the art ecosystem be rethought so as to become more sustainable?
Some examples of how this might look are emerging outside the outdated axes of power. In India, reusing and recycling plays a major part in everyday life. Shyam Patel, head of production at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, says: “you … have to understand we are running an exhibition that is not small in terms of scale, but also in terms of the fact that it runs for 108 days. When you’re running equipment for 108 day, eight hours a day, there is a tremendous amount of load that goes on the equipment. It works out better to buy and maintain our own hardware. We try to reuse everything.”
The New York–based artist Emmaline Payette takes used plastic bags and turns them into art objects. Her medium is an industrial product that has already served its primary purpose and would be on its way to a landfill; Payette transforms this material into rocks that mimic a natural landscape. She says “I am paid to create temporary site specific installations with these pieces, but humans are unsure whether these object are for sale. They are.” Shimmering in exhibition lighting, these bags have found a new context, far from being useless trash and, instead, increasing its value.
And perhaps not only exhibitions and artworks can be reconfigured, but the architecture in which the global art community lives. Based in Oakland, San Fransisco, Boxouse is project that transforms surplus shipping containers into living spaces. The concept was born out of a desire to live in a more sustainable (and more nomadic, with a wheel-mounted option) way, and to start a conversation about a less exorbitant cost of living.
The Boxouse units evoke the late Israeli artist Absalon’s Cell prototype micro-living quarters. Yet these shipping containers make use of an international infrastructure for transport – they are premade structures, which enables rapid prototyping and production and gives them a drastically lower carbon footprint than a traditional American house.
Boxouse initiated these tiny living spaces when confronted with the unrealistic cost of living in San Francisco. “At first we faced a lot of pushback from the city. Our sites were routinely shut down and fined,” says co-founder Heather Stewart.
“Now there is a growing outcry from citizens asking for realistic and immediate answers to unaffordable real estate, the city is beginning to shift its position on tiny living.”
Boxouse have also built a mobile art space out of a shipping container, designed for a video installation. The idea was that to build a temporary form that can be transported and reconfigured for different installations. This unit is also equipped with solar power and a minimal water tank.
Heather also reveals that these units do more than maintain mobility or function as objects of curiosity for the outside world. “Living in a small space I feel less compelled to own things or buy things.” Boxouse thus also offers the chance for sustainability through reduced consumption.
Though we have been looking at scenarios that deal with different local situations, the discussion returns to be the question of waste, which has to be dealt with differently in different situations. Sometimes, as with manure on farmland, it can be the essential, productive basis for something new.
VIVEK CHOCKALINGAM is an artist, designer and curator based in Bangalore, India.
TIME REPLENISHED: THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
Matthäikirchplatz, Berlin, summer 2016. Horse-led carts emerge from craggy-rocked forests, bearing old and infirm women, their heads wrapped in linen, hands clasped in supplication or pain. They undress at the edge of a fountain, revealing wrinkled flesh and sickled spines, skin hanging loosely from withered arms. As they lower themselves gingerly into the pool and bathe in the placid grey water, transformation occurs. On the other side of the baths, luminous-skinned girls frolic and play, taut-chested, lithe and dainty, pale and perfect. They squeeze excess water from waist-length curls before climbing confidently from the spring, where a young man waits to greet them. Once they are dressed, a magnificent meal awaits them, a bounty matched by the vitality of the landscape, whose fertile fields roll into the distance. Musicians play drums and pipes, as the young women are led to eating, to dancing, to sex, in a red tent through split curtains.
Rendered in minute detail and meticulous brushwork, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting hangs in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and dates to 1546, though its vision of immortality reads differently in light of today’s fetishisation of youth and the female body.
We might think, of course, of the fountain of youth as disrupting horizontal chronology, reversing the effects of ageing, folding time back upon itself, like wrinkles smoothed from skin. Yet instead of turning time backwards, Cranach’s painting asserts the authority of youth before age, enacting youth as a fresh kind of future, an extension of time. The painting is not an attack on linear temporality as the entirety of its motion is determinedly forwards, a looping cycle that mirrors nature's replenishment.
Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian write in “The Time Complex. Postcontemporary”: “if the present has been the primary category of human experience thanks to biological sentience, this basis for the understanding of time now loses its priority in favour of what we would call a time-complex.” In today’s world, they argue, the future acts now to transform the present before the present has even happened: Amazon knows what you will want before you do, its algorithms generate your desire; the pre-emptive strike produces conflict before any threat exists in the present.
Cranach's painting embodies this by throwing biological sentience out the window. He describes a scenario in which death is evaded, if not impossible, and in which the present loses priority by virtue of the possibility of permanent future. Just as in Avanessian and Malik’s time-complex, in Cranach's world knowledge of future rejuvenation, the possibility of rebirth in a fabled fountain, must implicitly act upon the present in which the corporeal body operates and weakens.
Perhaps what Avanessian and Malik identify is thus a logical (dystopic) extension of a trope that has existed for hundreds of years. Yet what drives the sixteenth-century time-complex is not a neo-liberal economic system that generates empty desire. On the contrary, it is Venus and Cupid who perch atop the fountain, the source of immortality. Perhaps Cranach tells us, in the end, love is the future.
RACHEL DEDMAN is a writer and curator based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Click here for part 2.