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  • Jun
    21
    2014

    More than the simple defence

    This is the abstract of the paper I just delivered at the Affective Habitus: New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions conference at ANU this weekend. An interesting experience, and still a struggle to match up what I want to say about new ways of thinking (that are based on old ways – in particular Gregory Bateson) with discussions of artworks – that of course are already demonstrating the new ways of thinking (that are also based on old ways). The title comes from a passage in Guattari’s Three Ecologies where he highlights how humans are part of nature, they are ‘in’ nature, so cannot defend it. He says more needs to be done if we are to survive IWC (Integrated World Capitalism). I talk about some NZ and AU artists who have been thinking about NZ bird extinctions, and suggest that they are already doing ‘more’. These art works are not a defence at all but a reenactment of environments.

    I’m revising it now to present in a few weeks in Hobart at Unnatural Futures.

    Richard Owen 1878 and Moa (Natural History Museum London)

    More than the simple defence of nature: Artists confront extinction.

    If aesthetics had an invisible force it would be called nature. In the histories of art, nature is defined through a set of visual and social codes that have sedimented into a cultural and political place that is romantic, continuous and at a safe distance from the impacts of humanity and technology. In The Three Ecologies Felix Guattari writes: “In the future much more than the simple defence of nature will be required … and the adoption of an ecosophical ethics adapted to this terrifying and fascinating situation is equally as urgent as the invention of a politics focused on the destiny of humanity” (2000, p.66-67). Australian artists Hayden Fowler and Fiona Hall, and New Zealand artist Stella Brennan all construct media installations that demonstrate how unnatural our relations with nature are. In their hands nature is not static; it does not simply end where technology begins. Birds that can no longer sing are suddenly given voice, and humans regress into the dystopian reality of a techno-entropic environment. At the heart of each work is a newly imagined entropy not as death but renewal. Their works suggest that extinction does not manifest as a final fiery end but a terrifyingly slow dwindle. In the current shifting geo-physical environment where natural and human disasters have blurred into rolling catastrophes of technical and environmental melt-down, this paper asks what can be gained from an ecosophical approach to contemporary art. Overall, this paper examines how the ecological concerns raised by both Deleuze and Guattari have been renewed in contemporary media art such that the energetic forces of ‘nature’ continue to present aesthetic challenges for artists and viewers in the techno-ecological climate of the 21st century.

    Jun
    07
    2013

    Imagining Disaster

    ISEA is next week in Sydney. I’m participating in the ADA MESH cities roundtable. Its a way for ADA to bring the preliminary thoughts and contexts for the projects to a broader field. About 6 people with experiences of Christchurch are going to present for 5 mins each on what the context of the earthquake and the transitional city mean for their practice. This is the formal version of my speil, I’m not sure if I’ll have time to say it all, or if the context will be right, so I’m posting it here first.

    The ideas are part of something larger I’m working on which is thinking about the shift from galleries as twentieth century post-industrial monuments to twenty-first century post-industrial machines.

    ISEA2013. 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art.
    ADA ROUNDTABLE: Media art and the Transitional City.
    Tuesday 11 June 2013, 13.30-14.30.

    Imagining Disaster.

    An earthquake is a natural disaster that shifts not only the land but also the way we imagine and locate ourselves culturally and socially within a city. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake is credited with causing a seismic shift in people’s understanding of the world (Regier 2010). Most famously, for Voltaire it marked the beginnings of Modernism. Over the subsequent 250 years Lisbon has remained central to discourses of modernity, but as de Medeiros (2006) reminds us it was also a specific and particular experience for the Portuguese people. Disasters lead to broader reflection on culture as well as local action. The 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand was immediate and catastrophic. It transformed a vibrant Victorian city built on a British industrial model with public spaces and art galleries at its core, into a transitional site.

    The events in Christchurch have also transformed the way that I think about my practice as an art historian and the role of the contemporary art gallery. In particular I have begun to think about close connections between the discourses of modernity and the ruin, and contemporary models of the disaster as a war on ‘terror’. In the really short time I have here I want to introduce both of these ideas.

    The post-industrial city (or the city in ruins)

    Over the past twenty-five years on an international scale, cities that were once based on manufacturing and primary industry have found themselves with major contemporary art galleries inside their once productive factories. The recognised pattern of post-industrialisation has become one where the social and labour base shifts from primary industries and manufacturing to networked labour (Neilson and Rossiter 2005, Raunig 2007), industrial labour forces shift outside of the European centres of power, factories close, turn to ruin, and are regenerated as gallery spaces (Rose 1991, Deutsche 1996, Matuscak 2007, Baniotopoulou 2001). Natural disasters engender a different speed to the process. Kevin Rozario calls natural disasters “engines of development and economic growth” (2010). This model of economic growth is embedded inside the concept of a ‘transitional city’. Newman, Beatley and Boyer (2009) define a transitional city as a city that is responding to transformational change whether due to post-industrialisation, climate-change, disaster or population decline. (Hopkins 2008). Christchurch city adopted the term to describe its own rebuild. (Parker 2012, Christchurch City Council 2011, Rebuild Christchurch 2012). However, Christchurch presents some key differences to the ‘usual’ process of regeneration and transformation. Twentieth century models of post-industrialisation are redundant. This time there are no buildings to ‘rebuild’. There are no ruins to inhabit. The approach in Christchurch has rendered the ruin absent. Instead it is a desert of gravel.

    In “Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society”(1974) Nam June Paik introduced the notion of the electronic superhighway. Paik predicted the rise of the digital as a response to the post-industrial; an environment where the machine labour relationship is replaced with a networked communication relationship. Perhaps this is the way that media art practices can contribute to our thinking about the city without ruins, not as a rebuild, and not as an insertion of new structures (screens and the like), but a fundamentally different way of conceptualising the city as a network of relationships, one that foregrounds networked rather than monumental models for art in the transitional city.

    The war on apocalypse (or the language of catastrophe)

    My second point is more speculative and begins to move out from the specific instance of Christchurch. It is about language as much as experience. The machine age of Western industrialisation was conflicted by dystopian and utopian visions. The metaphor and concept of the machine was used to persuade a public fearful of the challenges industrialisation presented (Hell 2010). For example, the art gallery become a machine for social and cultural improvement. And later, the computer became a machine for expansive connection and communication. In the first year of this century this changed forever. Suddenly machines were not for education and communication but were tools for the generation of terror. America (and thus the world) entered a state of high alert. Brian Massumi (2006) describes the attacks on the World Trade Centre and elsewhere in America as markers of the moment when the western world adopted a very narrow affective spectrum of fear propelled by powerful neoliberal governments. New Zealand, like Australia rapidly adopted the dual languages and methods of disaster aversion and preparedness. “If you see something, say something.” The Christchurch earthquakes then, occurred in a location that was already well acculturated to a neoliberal approach to risk. “Neoliberal governance goes hand in hand with a culture of risk. It is an art of dosages, knowing when and how much to intervene to avert accumulations of danger and sudden breaks.” (Massumi 2005, p.2). However, Christchurch was a sudden break. No one could prepare for this. In neoliberal terms it is understood in the billions of dollars of insurance claims that still lie unresolved, and the ‘opportunities’ taken by many property developers to clear some historically difficult spaces. But the connections run much deeper. The political reaction to the disaster in Christchurch was modelled on responses to the manner in which America had responded to its own catastrophes: as much Katrina as September 11. In 1966 Susan Sontag wrote about the “imagination of disaster”: our ability to fictionalise experience through film and narrative. The connections between the fictional accounts of Katrina in the mini-series ‘Treme’ and the real experience of the people of Christchurch should not be underestimated. The languages of disaster are not accidental. Michael Barkun has argued that “disaster is a mental construct that people place on experience” (2002, p.29). He continues: “events… may be similarly categorised despite enormous differences in the scope of damage” (2002, p.29). His point is that since September 11, both ‘human-made’ and ‘natural’ disasters are met by the same responses from politicians and communities in which a culture of everyday fear has lead to a kind of habitual uncertainty.

    This is where I think projects such as ADA MESH cities and Gap Filler amongst others suggest very different ways of imagining the world we live in. By critically engaging the narratives of disaster we can begin to think clearly about how and in what ways art, media and (my particular interest) the art gallery can contribute new forms of thought. As Barkun says “the new war against terrorism creates a need for a new public and governmental perception of, and response to, catastrophic events” (2002, p.27). For me, imagining the future of Christchurch has had a profound impact on the way that I imagine engaging with any form of contemporary art practice. And as an active transitional site Christchurch offers methods and experiences by which we can counter the raging neoliberal apocalypse of fear.

    REFERENCES

    Baniotopoulou, Evdoxia 2011. “Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and their Role in Transforming Societies: The Case of the Guggenheim Bilbao.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, vol. 7 (March): 1-5.
    Barkun, Michael 2002. “Defending Against the Apocalypse: The Limits of homeland Security” Policy Options, vol 23 (no. 6, September ): 27-32.
    Christchurch City Council, 2011. “City Plan”. http://www.ccc.govt.nz/homeliving/civildefence/chchearthquake/centralcityplan.aspx
    de Medeiros, Paulo 2007. “Fault Lines: Narrative, Catastrophe and the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755” American Portuguese Studies Association (APSA) http://www.ellipsisapsa.com/Volume_5_files/Medeiros_ellipsis_5_2007.pdf
    Deutsche, Rosalyn 1996 Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
    Hell, Julia and Andreas Schönle eds. 2010. Ruins of Modernity Durham and London: Duke University Press.
    Hopkins, R. 2008. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Cornwell: Green Books Ltd.
    Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact” Conference Proceedings: Genealogies of Biopolitics (October) http://www.radicalempiricism.org
    Massumi, Brian. 2006. “Fear (The spectrum said)” Multitudes Web (4 January) http://multitudes.samizdat.net/
    Matuscak, Melissa 2007. “Redefining Production – Contemporary Art Museums in Post-Industrial Spaces: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art” International Journal of the Arts in Society vol 3 issue 3. pp.55-66.
    Neilson, Brett and Ned Rossiter 2005. “From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks” Fibreculture Journal vol. 5 FCJ-022 http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/
    Newman, P, Beatley, T & Boyer, H 2009. Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil & Climate Change Washington DC: Island Press.
    Paik, Nam June 1974. “Media Planning for the PostIndustrial Society.” MediaArtNet http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/source-text/33/
    Parker, G. 2012. “Christchurch should be transition capital” The Press 18 October.
    Raunig, Gerald 2007. Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century New York: Semiotext(e)
    Rebuild Christchurch 2012. Transitional City Projects Bring Life Back to Central City” 21 June. http://www.rebuildchristchurch.co.nz/blog/2012/6/transitional-city-projects-bring–life-back-to-central-city
    Regier, Alexander 2010. “Foundational Ruins: The Lisbon Earthquake and the Sublime.” In Ruins of Modernity Hell, Julia and Andreas Schönle eds. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
    Rose, Margaret 1991. The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press
    Rozario, Kevin 2010. “Rising from the Ruins” The Wall Street Journal January 16.
    Simon, David and Eric Overmyer (dir.) 2010. “Treme” Series 1, HBO.
    Sontag, Susan. 1966. “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    May
    11
    2013

    the audience and the art machine

    I presented a short version of a paper yesterday at the ISTRSchizoanalytic Applications” workshop yesterday.

    I was trying to test out a number of new ways of activating Deleuzian thought (in this instance the art machine), not as explanation, and not as illustration, but as legitimate application. A case of (art work) + (ways of thinking) = (new sensations) and maybe (a new kind of art gallery).

    I’m writing it up as a book chapter based around Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller’s Opera for a Small Room (2005).

    This is a small excerpt from somewhere around the start of the draft:

    Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari despair of ever escaping the structural alliances of commodity capitalism. They ask again and again how we form the relationships possible for escape, and how the human might move beyond established institutions. (p.368) Art and science offer two possibilities but seem as tied to the machinations of capital as any thing else. Over a few paragraphs, and ignoring the art historical codes that tend to keep artists temporally and materially separate, Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion slips from Lorenzo Lotto to J.M.W. Turner to John Cage. This obscure grouping describes an ‘other’ art; a set of artworks that are formed from relations and experimentation, strange flows, materials and energies. Deleuze and Guattari find amidst these particular artworks a “force [that] fractured the codes, undid the signifiers, passed under the structures, set the flows in motion, and effected breaks at the limits of desire: a breakthrough.” The breakthrough is effected by the artwork as machine set in motion by affects flowing underneath “a signifier reduced to silence.” They present a different kind of artwork: “art as a process without goal.” Let’s call them art machines. Although Turner starts the machine in motion, it quickly becomes a Stygian river of harrowing filth and confusion – at one point propelled by both Artaud and Burroughs. It is art as process, as “schizorevolutionary,” as expression and content that is no longer representational. All too quickly it is over. After just two pages Deleuze and Guattari move on, entering a new schizoflow (of science) they abandon the art machine at the moment it attempts to break through the forces of modernity.

    Perhaps in 1972 this was the right place to leave the art machine: bashing at the operations of modernity, opening slivers where experimentation can slip through. Today the art machine has re-emerged as different kind of machine; formed this time from a group of abstract operations including not only the artist and the art work, but viewers and the art gallery within which the work is housed. New flows, new assemblages, new experiments.

    And from my description of the Cardiff and Bures-Miller installation:

    The work is visually and sonically folded inside itself: a room within a room defined by sound rather than space. This installation that inhabits a strange borderless space of art solicits certain responses. The small room invites viewers to become part of an intimate audience, yet anyone who lingers is immersed within a sonic space where they find themselves sheltering under a railway line and threatened by loud storms. Iconographically and semantically it draws us into the story of a solitary individual and his record collection. Peering in through gaps in the unglazed windows, the audience witnesses a miniature space of occupation. More than 2000 records are stacked to the roof against the internal walls, there is a comfy chair, trinkets, suitcases, lights, a set of dusty chandeliers, a ratty carpet. Books are held open by stones, an uneaten meal rests alongside a shoe rigged up to a light made from an old tin can. The shadow of a ghostly individual moves between the stacks, there is the sound of shuffling and selection, before tunes are deployed by unseen robotic arms onto one of the eight record players spread across the shelves. The music that plays through twenty four antique loudspeakers is at times synched with what seem to be stage directions spoken intermittently through a large central megaphone. Mostly the music is snippets of familiar songs and arias by the ‘great’ tenors; occasionally though there is a vividly sharp pop tune. Some of the records are labelled “R. Dennehy” in neat black biro. There is a needle lifted by an invisible hand. A tenor booms. After a while an alt-styled rock and roll song emerges, part Nick Cave part Tom Waits: “She was walking down the road with her shoes in her hand … I didn’t know what to do, seems I’ll forget her.” The room transforms into a stage where multi-coloured theatrical lights illustrate the moody wailing of the desolate individual. This must be R. Dennehy himself, the clichéd man alone howling at the walls. His misery reaches a crescendo. The lights flicker and growl as a train passes by. “Music don’t change anything,” he says, “but it helps in some way. It’s an opera after all, everyone dies in the end.”

    Cardiff and Bures-Miller Opera for a Small Room (2005)

    Dec
    17
    2012

    The Chair Did It

    I presented this paper at the recent Telling Tales Crime Fiction and National Allegory conference here at Wollongong. Mostly I decided to use the conference as a forum for testing the idea of the agency of the nonhuman object in a context where objects are often active players in narrative constructions.

    Below is a draft of the paper (as it was presented) and next I’m going to work to combine it with my earlier attempts to think through agency via Jane Bennett, Levi Bryant and Graham Harman. I’m well aware of the tension between the OOO (Object Orientated Ontology) approach to things and the more Deleuzian approaches framed within new materiality which still feel like my natural home. It is this tension I’m trying to inhabit and where I think this paper falls down.

    The question time following the paper was open and challenging, (perhaps because the context was so unusual) and I still have a lot of work to do to explain the relationship between affect and agency and the location of each. For example the issue of whether a sculpture can be dead or not emerged as a productive way of thinking through affect. One person commented – ‘how can it be a dead sculpture, it makes me feel awful.’ – with the implication that perhaps not all sculptures are dead! When thinking about Goya’s works and those of Jake and Dinos Chapman, it is usual to think about how they make us feel as viewers. Is this agency or affect? Or a strange blurring of them both.
    The paper unfortunately leaves this problem deeply problematised …

    ‘The Chair Did It’: The Agency of Nonhuman Objects.
    Dr. Su Ballard
    Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong
    .

    At the opening of the temporary Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2010 there was a room curtained off from all the others. Looking behind the curtain I found two chairs, a silently meditative voice, a blue board resting against the wall, and a slide projection of an old ballroom. Of all the various objects somehow existing together for this moment, it was the chairs that held my attention. They were just chairs but they seemed important. The work is “Circular Facts” (2009) by New Zealand artist Ruth Buchanan, and is an installation based on the script of a performance Buchanan staged as she researched the strange and highly publicised disappearance of mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    In 1926 Christie vanished for eleven days until she “was found staying in a hotel under a pseudonym after having suffered what she claimed to be a case of amnesia.” (Buchanan). Buchanan’s fascination with the story lead her to spend a summer living in a hotel; the two chairs in the installation are from this hotel. The slide is an image taken in the ballroom of the hotel where Christie stayed and is projected onto the tilted blue panel, becoming simultaneously a reflection and a kind of rabbit hole. In this context the curtain also changes its nature, becoming a different kind of curtain; perhaps now a bedside privacy screen found in a hospital ward. Individually these things are not monumental, nor do they narrate a fiction about Christie. They are however meaningful objects. Together their variations mark out an installation in an art gallery that makes us stop, wonder and begin to connect – things with other things, bodies with objects. Buchanan like many contemporary artists has an uncanny ability to imbue objects with energy. These choreographed objects seem to vibrate.

    Can a chair have energy? Can it actively contribute to unravelling a mystery? Could it have actually participated in the perpetration of the mystery? Can it retain a vital force as it shifts form between countries, between bodies, and across time? In the same way that Buchanan’s chairs are not Christie’s chairs but somehow contain the story of Christie’s disappearance, this paper in a conference thinking about what crime fiction does is not about what crime fiction does. Instead this paper is a meditation on the kinds of nonhuman objects that populate the pages of crime fiction. In order to think about the capacities of nonhuman objects it attempts to tap a current of thought appearing in philosophy and art criticism. The paper will begin by looking historically at some of the ways that the nonhuman object has been defined and defended. Drawing on the work of Jane Bennett in particular and scooting lightly past Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze the paper asks what kinds of actions do nonhuman objects perform. Or more specifically: what do objects do? The paper extends this into thinking about artworks and moments when concerns for the nonhuman and the human blur. I’m interested in artworks that challenge our assumptions about what objects can do and how they behave. Throughout I will focus not necessarily on how these objects make us feel, but on the kinds of sensibilities that these objects contain in themselves. In doing this I take on board Jane Bennett’s challenge to work through a process of ‘strategic anthropomorphizing’; what she recently described as “allowing yourself to relax into resemblances between your-body-and-its-operations and the bodies-of-things-outside.” (http://philosophyinatimeoferror.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/vibrant-matters-an-interview-with-jane-bennett/) In attempting to talk from and through the nonhuman object my paper may unfortunately appear either obscure or outright flaky. Levi Bryant recently described the critical problem with the approach I adopt here saying that it “goes one step further [than recent work in the new materialities by] arguing that animals, microorganisms, institutions, corporations, rocks, stars, computer programs, cameras, etc., also have their phenomenologies or ways of apprehending the world.” (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/) With a focus on objects and their place at the scene of the crime I will address the agency and vitality of the nonhuman object. Buchanan’s chairs are the first nonhuman objects to enter our collection, the second is a group of guilty objects labelled deodand.

    In a discussion of what it might be to be a Latourian “actant”, Jane Bennett raises the historical figure of the deodand. Enshrined in English Law for nearly six hundred years the deodand was an inanimate thing that had caused the death of a human, and as a result must be legally forfeited to the Crown. Bennett highlights the active role of the deodand, for example, a carving knife or a tram or a wheel were not necessarily an innocent party to the accident and thus could be confiscated. In “The Deodand and Responsibility for Death” Teresa Sutton lists a number of cases from the late eighteenth century where objects had caused the death of an individual and were thus declared deodand. For example, a clapper from a bell fell on a man’s head, and as it was ringing at the time, the whole bell was forfeit to the crown. Another case involved drowning caused by a flock of 58 sheep that had all moved to one end of a boat. The law declared the objects (in this case – sheep) deodand because they were moving and had caused death. Significantly, the law of the deodand distinguished between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. A cart in motion required the whole cart to be forfeited, whereas a fall from a stationary cart would require the forfeit of just the wheel. These guilty objects in motion were afforded agency.

    The practice of deodand was abolished in 1846; not coincidentally at the same time as the exponential rise of the railways. Too many accidents meant that the ongoing surrender of guilty things would remove most trains from the newly built tracks. William Pietz notes that the abolition of the law of deodand was part of a change to a raft of social institutions in the 1840s that “established legal structures better suited to capitalist enterprise and liberal society.” Fault had to lie elsewhere. Increasingly complex laws of compensation, cause and effect replaced the deodand, but the nonhuman objects and their crimes did not go away.

    Today the concept of deodand holds a place in legal history alongside sows charged with criminal offences, and cats hung to death in public spaces. It offers a useful way to think of the way that nonhuman things remain speculative and potent objects, not for just what they mean to us, but for what they mean in relation to other objects.

    The agency of nonhuman objects does not always have to extend to criminal activity. From 1814 to 1820 the aging Spanish artist Francisco Goya began the process of engraving eighty three copper plates with a series of images reflecting on the worst possible effects of human activity. The “Disasters of War” contain an “unstinting portrayal of rape, genocide, torture and ritual mutilation.” Together the plates make up what Philip Shaw has called: “the abject at its most insistent.” [My argument here follows Shaw's closely]. Viewing the plates consecutively the horrors become overwhelming. Goya was responding to the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, its aftermath, and the atrocities committed during this time. Not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya’s death, the “Disasters of War” are critical of both the French and the restored Bourbons. Art history has tended to approach the series by focusing on the way the prints represent a humanist retelling of the Romantic imagination via what might be called negative humanism, a view that Shaw says “looks the negative in the face and endeavours transcendence.” And as Shaw says, there is something troubling to this reading, because despite their traumatic and disturbing horror the plates remain ambiguous. They are certainly negative, but are they transcendent? The unrelenting violence makes it hard to imagine any form of humanist moral transcendence driving the works. The images are neither rational nor ethical. In some situations we use artworks as a means for narrative; a way to get a message across. In this context, we might choose to read Goya’s images as allegory, a means towards the truth. But I want to suggest something different. The “Disasters of War” are not just objects made by one human for other humans to look at, but objects that contain affective resonances of their own. They actively generate behaviours. The objects do not reflect on or represent, but contain the very taboos the artist sought to highlight. If we stop thinking of the plates as representations of humanist desire, and instead start to think about them as active nonhuman objects, the “Disasters of War” become active participants in the telling of tales of brutality.

    Is it really plausible to say these images do something, that they have agency? Artworks occupy a strange place in the world. They inhabit the walls of our homes, hide out in dark corners of our fictions, and watch as we inflict pain on each other. As particular nonhuman objects they are never docile and always relational. Bruno Latour defined the actant as an event, human or not, and (often in Latour’s world) formed from a combination of both. Actants are anything that “modifies other actors through a series of” actions (Latour in Politics of Nature). Levi Bryant gives the example of baking soda and vinegar that when combined become actants causing each to behave differently. (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/a-brief-remark-on-actants/) Manuel Delanda talks of hurricanes, events formed from the air that take on personalities and unique forms, so much so that we name them. The hurricane and its cousins are momentary relational nonhuman objects (think of Sandy, Katrina, Yasi). They modify everything around them. Artworks and hurricanes are not the same kind of entities; yet, we cannot reduce either to a kind of vehicle for human use. Goya’s prints are not mere tools for the telling of stories of war. They have contributed to and changed behaviours – in this they are actants. They have agency.

    Lets for a minute return to the definition of the object offered in the 1846 “Act to Abolish Deodands.” The deodand was a nonhuman material object, an “accursed thing” that when in motion had killed a person. For example, to remove the requirement for deodand when a person had been dragged to his death by the workings of a mill, the law had to prove that “the accident which happened was a mere accident, and had not happened through any fault of the machinery.” (Pietz) By the time that the concept of deodand was overthrown objects were becoming stabilised by capital. For example, the deodand required for the Sonning Cutting railway disaster in 1841 of two trucks and the engine, was considered impossible to pay, even if financially it would mean compensation for the families of those killed. Instead new laws regarding fatal accidents shifted blame away from the moving object and towards adjudication of the impact and severity of the injury. The nonhuman object in motion lost its place to a humanist rationale that turned its focus towards mitigating the impacts of increasing industrial and railroad accidents. Simultaneously the nineteenth century was beginning to see the massification of death due to war. (Although crimes of war have always been sanctioned off from the courts, the connection between Goya’s prints being published and the overthrow of the concept of deodand is relevant).

    The rise of industrial capitalism meant that the agency of objects became reduced to one of exchange. As Pietz explains the “death of the deodand” created money. [And here I follow his fabulous essay closely] Instead of the object becoming forfeit compensation could be financial; another form of debt exchange. Slipping away were the objects themselves. Taking up the place of the deodand were objects of industrialisation that could be bought and sold within a monetary economy. This transformation also included art objects, which due to the professionalisation of the art dealer were also becoming publicly exchangeable commodities.

    In 2002 British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman purchased a historically significant edition of Goya’s prints. Published in the 1937 as a reminder once again of the atrocities of war (this time Fascism in Spain) the edition includes a frontispiece showing a photograph of bomb damage to the Goya Foundation.

    Dinos Chapman says that “We had it sitting around for a couple of years, every so often taking it out and having a look at it,” until they were quite sure what they wanted to do. Jake picks up the story. “We always had the intention of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler’s trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family – to rectify the situation.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/mar/31/artsfeatures.turnerprize2003)


    Working meticulously over all 83 plates the Chapman brothers have replaced the heads of all the victims in the images with grotesque and distorted nonhuman forms including clown heads and puppy faces. The Chapmans sought to draw a direct parallel “between the ‘enlightened’ annexation of Spain and the recent ‘humanitarian’ interventions in Iraq.” As Jonathan Jones says

    “The Chapmans have remade Goya’s masterpiece for a century which has rediscovered evil.”

    The series was retitled “Insult to Injury.” In this process of defamiliarisation the artworks become strange. Their tattooed and scarified surfaces result in a new vitalism and energy. Animals take the place of human figures, as they once did in court.

    In thinking through the agency of the deodand and these newly reworked art objects we discover different ways of thinking agency. Objects do things. These nonhuman objects don’t just contain affective powers, but as actants (things in motion that relate to other things) they make things happen that are not just about and directed towards the human. Occasionally things go wrong, and this was the logic of the deodand. Take the knife and the knife will not kill. Take the wheel from the cart and it cannot hurt again. Place the knife in the hand of a dog and it becomes a different knife.

    The ‘rectifying’ of the Goya prints was not the first time the Chapmans had reworked Goya. Another of their pieces forms the centre of a room at MONA in Hobart. “Great Deeds against the Dead 2” is a simultaneously graphic and sanitised reworking of another of Goya’s plates from the “Disasters of War.” But this is not a reanimation. This object is dead. The Chapman’s describe it as such: “[we] were interested in making a dead sculpture. Dead in content and dead – or inert- in materiality.” (Shaw) This is a nonhuman object with no agency. The violence committed is standardised as are the figures, the “plasticised wounds… nullify the gaze.” (Shaw) Goya’s tree that once had life, branches and leaves has been stripped and rendered in the same material as the human bodies impaled upon it. A central part of Jane Bennett’s discussion of vital materiality is about the liveness or vitality of nonhuman objects. In keeping these objects discrete and separate to ourselves, Bennett says:

    “the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalised matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”

    Bennett’s point is that we need to be able to recognise vitality in nonhuman objects as well as in human ones. A focus on vitality, motion, movement or circulation emphasises just how dead this particular object is. In revisiting Goya the Chapmans have contributed two different artworks, each with very different agency. The first adds insult to injury as historically significant prints exit one form of economic circulation only to enter another where they begin to vibrate with diabolic energy. The second is enlarged to tragi-comic levels yet remains forever a simulation.

    Goya was working in Spain at the same time as moves were beginning to overturn the law of deodand in England. With the loss of the law of the deodand we no longer have a law protecting the agency of nonhuman objects. Where once they were able to take responsibility for the harm they have caused, objects have become just another group of silenced witnesses.

    Our usual notion of an artwork is that it is a thing that is seen and not heard, a nonhuman thing that stays reasonably obediently within its designated area. Buchanan’s installations place objects together into arrangements that demand performance of them. The chair didn’t really do anything. Agatha Christie demanded eleven days of non-performance. Eleven days were she could absent herself from the world of familiar objects, where her agency was marked by her disappearance. She forfeited her name, her usual behaviours and surrounded herself with objects becoming strange. This is the best description I have of what an artwork (a nonhuman actant) is: an object becoming strange. The “Disasters of War” are violent objects. Over time they become strange, not just as markers of war and violence but of a time where nonhuman things did have agency, and their impacts could be taken seriously (even in a court of law). Jake and Dinos Chapman’s intervention makes the etchings themselves forfeit. They also enact a kind of affective disappearance. The prints become deodand, nonhuman objects that remain active players in a society that once again needs to be reminded of the crime and horror of war.

    REFERENCES:
    Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
    Stedelijk Museum, Monumentalism – History, National Identity and Contemporary Art, NAi Publishers, Amsterdam, 2010.
    Philip Shaw, “Abjection Sustained: Goya, The Chapman Brothers and The Disasters of War” Art History Vol 26, No. 4. September 2003 pp. 479-504.
    Teresa Sutton “The Deodand and Responsibility for Death” The Journal of Legal History Vol 18, no 3 pp.44-55.
    William Pietz “Death of the Deodand: Accursed Objects and the Money Value of Human Life” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics Vol 31, Spring 1997 pp.97-108

    Oct
    12
    2012

    Flux + Cybernetics = Paik

    This is the abstract of the paper that I was invited to present as part of the International Symposium [Gift of NJP 5] Man-Machine Duet for Life at the Nam June Paik Art Centre in Gyeonggi-do (just out of Seoul) Korea.

    http://www.njpartcenter.kr/en/program/seminars/show.asp?id=200&pos=1&page=1

    It was an amazing experience to engage with both a fabulous institution, and lovely people, as well as experience Seoul. The challenge was to find myself amongst self-declared Paik scholars and being very aware that I was no such thing. It was a special opportunity to unpack some of the work on Paik I had done previously and think through what it means to locate these ideas of machines and materiality historically. I’m very aware that I do not want to contribute to the hagiography of Paik, yet in visiting the Institute I learnt so much about the other artists whose works surrounded his, and gained a new way of thinking about his work, that it feels there is still a bit to be done.

    The paper was based around an equation that was thinking about Fluxus and cybernetics and why there was such a gap between the two. The full paper will be published in the NJP Reader # 4 ( this is the link to #3 http://www.njpartcenter.kr/en/research/publications/show.asp?id=158&pos=2&page=1 I’ll add a link to #4 when it is out), and I’m reworking it into something longer, as I’ve changed my mind about the Fluxus connection and want to be more exact with my use of systems aesthetics and cybernetics, and the art machine…


    “All Systems Go!” Flux + cybernetics = art machines.

    Abstract of paper presented at the NJP Art Centre 12 October 2012

    In 1968 and 1969 two exhibitions across two major centres of art production introduced the science of cybernetics to art: Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London and Jack Burnham’s Software: Information Technology. Its New Meaning for Art at the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibitions, like many at the time, were propositional. They suggested a future for relationships between art and cybernetics, and perhaps more importantly they prefigured an artworld that would become concerned with relations between human and non-human entities. Relationships of communication and control pointed towards a shared place for humans, objects, and machines and nearly 45 years later cybernetics remains a vital yet unassuming force in the way we think about contemporary art, and along the way other words have arisen, amidst them: systems aesthetics, media ecologies, and networked technologies.

    One artist included in both Burnham’s and Reichardt’s exhibitions was Nam June Paik. Paik’s works bought together a commitment to indeterminism, a deep knowledge of information systems, and a playful attention to the materials of communication. This paper will discuss some of Paik’s work in the context of cybernetics by unpacking the equation of its title: flux plus cybernetics equals art machines. I will address the original impulse that brought cybernetics into conversation with art, focus on a selection of Paik’s art practices that engaged these ideas of communication and control in the machine (and subsequently the network), and end with some recent ‘art machines’ by artists from New Zealand that demonstrate the ongoing relevance of cybernetic thought to contemporary art.

    In 1950 mathematician Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as the science of communication and control between animals (humans) and machines, and machines and machines. His definition went further than this condensed summary allows. Wiener identified systems as organic and artificial, human and non-human. The machines that occupied these systems used “sensory members” to respond to and monitor feedback. Did this mean that humans were machines? The flux suggested between a human as a machine and a machine as a human presented fertile ground for imaginative couplings. In 1988 Paik wrote that Wiener “construct[ed] the technical interior of the electronic age”.

    In the lead up to the Software exhibition Jack Burnham took this technical interior and identified it with new kinds of aesthetic practices, that he named ‘systems aesthetics’. For example, in Paik’s TV Buddha (1974) a seemingly closed and meditative cybernetic system is interlaced by a viewer captured in the process of observation. In this and other works Paik extended possibilities within which the relationship between human and machine became more than one of feedback; it became systemic and aesthetic. In his writings Paik identified the way that Wiener’s “sensory members” contributed to art machines that inhabited the forces of entropy and the realm of the more-than human.

    Formed from a combination of aesthetic flux and cybernetics the more-than human art machine, suggests productive affinities that continue to be developed by artists questioning straightforward aesthetic relationships with objects. In an age where it is essential to temper aesthetics with ethics, and when visual data are quickly distributed via multitudes of networks, artists are again questioning the utopian dreams of the very materials we work with. As Paik said:

    “the real issue implied in ‘Art and Technology’ is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium.”

    The final section of this paper will show how the equation of flux plus cybernetics resonates in a number of contemporary art machines that simultaneously corrupt and celebrate the connectivity of the network.

    Sep
    20
    2012

    Erewhon Calling: Sound

    Really enjoying reading my copy of Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand the other week. Its edited by Bruce Russell and Zoe Drayton, in association with Richard Francis – who has done a stunning design job. (Published by CMR and Audio Foundation, 2012). you can get a copy here:
    http://audiofoundation.org.nz/erewhon1
    or here:
    http://cmr.net.nz/cmr28.html

    I was uncertain as to how to position a research-based piece inside a book which I suspected would be about and for a very small community. Bruce has done a great job editing together very diverse voices, some slip into the usual list of ‘i was there i saw that’, but others really do suggest that minor histories in peripheral locations are clearly the only way to understand the vagrancy of contemporary practice.

    These are the first and last paragraphs of my essay:

    All night silence: Live experimental sound in New Zealand public art galleries

    Since the late nineteenth century there have been issues with the presentation and reception of sound and music in New Zealand public art galleries. During the first New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in 1889-1890 there were numerous musical events designed to prove New Zealand’s position culturally and socially on the world stage. Audience members would spend the day traipsing around the enormous pavilions of the Exhibition pausing to engage in a performance before blundering out to the next event. This mobile audience knew something about the relationship between music and art. Art was silent, static and contained within the walls of the gallery, and music was not. Music was dynamic, and formed part of a public programme which a listener could choose to attend for a specified duration.

    As yet there are as few visual incursions into the public programmes of public art galleries as there are sonic incursions into their permanent collections. What we are not yet seeing is the full integration of experimental sound practice into the dispersed and de-centralized sonic environment that is the gallery space. At its most basic live sound in galleries is an ambient feel-good addendum to a public programme. It enables a sense of inclusivity, and community, but one that does not necessarily have to be listened to by everyone. At its best, experimental sound in public gallery spaces enables moments like Bruce Russell’s prophetic earthquake music at the Physics Room in December 2010, or Alistair Galbraith’s wire music; both activate the gallery, and leave listeners with profound experiences of all night silence.

    I’m going to try to collect reviews here: first by Sarah Jane Parton
    http://books.scoop.co.nz/2012/09/20/a-bible-of-new-zealand-sound-makers/

    I was equally charmed by Alistair Galbraith’s frankness about his own financial situation – “Everybody knows you can’t earn a living as an ‘alternative’ musician in New Zealand” – as I was by Su Ballard’s thorough descriptions of the ways different public art galleries in New Zealand had attempted to present sound art – her praise of Tina Barton and Laura Preston’s work at the Adam Art Gallery was a significant highlight.

    Sep
    19
    2012

    the (new) accident of art

    22nd June 2012, Session 4, Su Ballard from Transdisciplinary art research on Vimeo.

    Presentation at the Trans-disciplinary Imaging Conference, Melbourne.
    My flustering at the start was due to the unexpected experience of directly following a presentation that had left the room a little aghast. I think you can hear the tension in the room both in the silence and Paul Thomas’s gentle intro. The images are an attempt to visually think through the ideas of the interval that I’m taking from Warburg here. To me there is a strong correlation between his black boards and the collection principles found on tumblr, particularly the sites surrounding the new aesthetic.

    Abstract:
    Accidental encounters in the art gallery occupy a critical space that moves visitors beyond established behaviours and expectations. Accidents are crucial to everyday encounters with art objects and tend to occur in the interval between images. The proponents of the New Aesthetic have suggested that in these inbetween spaces it is possible to see accidental spaces of machinic vision. But what happens when the viewer is also not human? Does the robot machine now patrolling the major galleries of the world suggest new methods for engaging with art? If, as has been argued by both Aristotle and Virilio each machine contains a concept of accident, encounters that recognize the creative potential of failure and instability will introduce a new model for machinic aesthetics within the gallery space. In reality any unexpected encounter in GoogleArtProject is more likely to be with a blurred virtual force than something framed and labelled as art. In using Aby Warburg’s “iconology of the interval” to discuss GoogleArtProject I suggest it is the accidental encounter that marks the vibrancy of the space, time, bodies, machines and architectures that make up the art gallery and perhaps contributes a critical prehistory to the New Aesthetic.

    Sep
    02
    2012

    the accident

    Very happy to be testing some old ideas in new grounds this week.

    As part of the Expanding Documentary symposium I will be running a session on “The Accident” with three very smart people: Irving Gregory, Shawn Burns and Caleb Kelly. It is quite likely that we will be discussing accidents, glitches, blank pages, and the affective horror of realisation … when it all happens just a little too late.

    The idea is that we are all from distinctly different disciplinary fields (well Caleb maybe not), Irving Gregory works with verbatim Theatre and staged the highly successful Charlie, Victor Romeo stage performance and Shawn Burns, whilst a colleague here at UOW was also a newsroom Journalist. In each of our practices the accident has figured large.

    Instead of paper presentations, we have posted ‘provocations’ here:
    http://www.doco.medadada.net/?cat=26

    My provocation also follows here:

    In a culture that likes to document and celebrate its successes, accidents are out of place. Yet no matter how big or how small, the accident has the potential to disrupt any event. Whether we believe the accident to be an essential part of an event or not, it is often in the accidental encounter, or the contingent, non-essential aspect of bodies and their relationships that we find materials for documentary engagement. The unintended slip, the malfunctioning machine, the plane or car crash, and the aftermath, all offer something about experience and our relationships with each other. What is accidental about documentary? How should the accident be documented? In what ways is the accident productive of new aesthetics and new ways of thinking? Weaving together three very different understandings of the accident, this session will examine productive, critical, and painful encounters with the glitch, gaps in transmission, and the blank page.

    In a discussion of what it might be to be an “actant”, Jane Bennett raises the historical figure of the deodand (2004, p.355). Enshrined in English Law for nearly 600 years the deodand was an animal or inanimate thing that had caused the death of a human, and as a result must be legally forfeited to the Crown. Bennett highlights the active role of the deodand, for example, a carving knife or a tram or a pig were not necessarily an innocent party to the accident and thus could be tried by a court (pig) or confiscated (tram, carving knife). Furthermore, the law of the deodand distinguished between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. A cart in motion required the whole cart to be forfeited, whereas a fall from a stationary cart would require the forfeit of just the wheel. These guilty objects in motion were afforded agency. The practice of deodand was abolished in 1846; not coincidentally at the same time as the exponential rise of the railways. Too many accidents meant that the ongoing surrender of guilty things would remove most trains from the newly built tracks. Fault had to lie elsewhere. Increasingly complex laws of cause and effect replaced the deodand, but the machines and their accidents did not go away.

    In philosophy the accident has a long and contentious history. Aristotle distinguished between substance and accident, arguing that the accidental is a recognition of a thing’s relationships with other things, beings or events. It is through the accident that the thing, being, or event presents itself to others. Aristotle’s accident is a relationship that reveals the substance of something, what it can do, but is not essential to that thing. The cat does not depend on its stripes. Its stripes are a specific accident that it presents to others. However, the stripes, like substances, are both universal and particular (Carriero 1995, p.256).

    Fast forward a few thousand years, a few thousand accidents, and we find Gilles Deleuze writing about Frances Bacon’s paintings: “The form is no longer essence, but becomes accident; humankind is an accident. The accident opens up a space between the two planes, which is where the fall occurs” (Deleuze 2005, p.94). Deleuze ties a body back together with its accident. The body cannot be thought without accidents, and we know it not through what it is (striped) but through what it does (always falls on its feet). If humankind is an accident, documenting the fall could be a first step. But we might also want to think about where and how documentation occurs.

    We all know that accidents are necessary. Experience is formed from them; as children this is how we begin to know nature, force, properties, gravity, and the limits and extents of our body. As parents we carefully document each faltering step. Nevertheless, the precise location of an accident remains a matter of ongoing debate. Mistakes come out of nowhere, accidents are more often than not a result of a special kind of event that occurs between bodies and bodies, or, bodies and machines, or, machines and machines – however we would like to define them. As the deodand demonstrated; to witness an accident is to play a part in the outcome.

    In the contemporary world, complex machines bring their accidents with them. For example, Paul Virilio (2004; Lotringer 2005) argued that the ‘accident of art’ results from a proliferation of images that has lead to complex relations between seeing, knowing, and imagining a world: the generalized accident. In identifying a shift from the accidental as caused by relations between bodies (Aristotle’s specific accident), towards the intended affects of that body, Virilio’s generalised accident also (problematically) elides the difference between accident and attack. The lurking presence of catastrophe became the focus of Virilio’s ‘Museum of Accidents’ project at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2002 in which a disturbing romantic sheen was placed over the horror produced by accidental encounters between machines and architectures (Cubitt, 1999) and in particular the events of 9/11.

    In the ‘Museum of Accidents’ images were placed together in order to encourage the appearance of some kind of essential connection; links between the nodes. The problem with this kind of exhibition of accidents is that the individual experience or event are not in themselves positioned or read as transformative or traumatic, but become fixed images. Once an accident is an image it can be traded and searched, and removed from context and affect it appears without properties. (Try a Google image search for ‘accidents’ – no longer tied to actuality, the Google accident does not require a subject for completeness). In harvesting machines or media into the service of accident, Virilio’s exhibition, like the Google search, demonstrates that in exhibiting, performing, or even reporting the accident there is a very real risk in aestheticizing trauma. If so, can the accident be documented? Is it at all possible to report on an accident without buying into the horror; or what we might understand as the perversely affective spectacle of another person’s pain. And conversely, do we have to take the accident so seriously that it removes our ability to speak? It seems that not all accidents are equal.

    Of course prevention is the best cure. But risk management is just that, management. Control lies somewhere else. The accident can be humorous or catastrophic, personal or collective. America’s Funniest Home Videos – America’s longest running prime time television programme – is built on the predictability rather than unpredictability of the accident.

    If each machine contains a concept of accident, encounters that recognize the creative potential of failure and instability are crucial to a twenty-first century understanding of ourselves, our relationships with others, and the catastrophes we live with and within. The accident as experimentation and exploration has contributed a particular aesthetics to practices in digital art and sound. Most of us curse the set top box as digital drop out prevents clear transmission and we spend our lives tweaking knobs to ensure glitches do not occur. Others relish the unexpected failure as creative possibility. The issue is not whether the accident occurs but where and how. How do we capture it? Reproduce it? Document it? The need to understand our own relationships with each other and the objects and things around us, still underlies the ongoing fascination and need for documentation of accidents in all their manifestations. Knowing something might go wrong keeps the news reporter at their desk and the experimental musician at their laptop.

    Hillel Schwartz aligns noise with the accident of the machine. He says that working alongside a machine for long periods means we can intimately recognise its sounds, and that any shift implies a potential accident. Of necessity, the worker must remain attentive. A screech out of place could signal disaster. However, in this state of sustained and “tensed alertness”⁠ (Schwartz, p.349) we are more likely to slip up. At particular risk are the airline pilot and the long haul driver. As we listen to our machines, accidents occur.

    Did you hear something?

    Dr. Su Ballard, University of Wollongong

    REFERENCES

    Bennett, Jane. 2004. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory no. 32 (3, June): 347-372.
    Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
    Bogost, Ian. 2012. The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. The Atlantic. Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/
    Carriero, John. 1995. “On the Relationship between Mode and Substance in Spinoza’s Metaphysics” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 no.2, April: 245-273
    Cubitt, Sean. 1999. “Unnatural Reality: Review of Paul Virilio The Vision Machine.” Film-Philosophy no. 3 (9 February). Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n9cubitt
    Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. New York: Continuum.
    Lotringer, Sylvere, and Paul Virilio. 2005. The Accident of Art, Semiotext(e)/ Foreign Agents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Schwartz, Hillel. 2011. Making Noise from Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.
    Virilio, Paul. 2004. “The Museum of Accidents” in Steve Redhead. The Paul Virilio Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, p.255-262.

    Jan
    22
    2012

    About Me

    This is the networked home of Dr. Su Ballard, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

    By its very nature, an online home is a continual work of re-developement. Emerging out of the collective myre of time-starvation and obsessive desires for documentation this house sparrow is no different to any other. At one level an archive for the interesting and the familiar, for what I have done and what I might do, it is also a mneumonic, a reminder that I must get back to that. So here it is: a simultaneous clearing house, potential repository and emergent archive.

    As evidenced here, my research sits somewhere in the expanded field of art history and covers many potentially divergent clusters of thought that include systems aesthetics, cybernetics, noise, video installation, accidents, error, the contestations of the gallery, the histories of disciplinarity, and the cultural politics of location in the age of digitality. I’m trying to focus this around a discussion of the artwork as machine, following on from Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic assemblage and thinking about what these kinds of assemblages do in art galleries. As a curator and art writer I find myself thinking about art’s contribution to and critique of utopia and ecologies, the ongoing construction of the antipodes as an elsewhere space, catastrophe and disaster, futures, speculation and the experience of the encounter between new media, sound and image in the art gallery.

    I teach Art History and Contemporary Critical Studies at the University of Wollongong, which I construct from fragments of 21st century visual culture, traces of 19th century machines, and a taste of mid-twentieth century systems and silence, all wrapped in a generous dose of turn of the millennium manifesto and utopia.

    My PhD, Out of Order: Explorations in Digital Materiality, used a discussion of noise drawn from experimental art, music and early information theory to examine materialist tendencies in digital art installation by New Zealand and Australian artists working in international contexts. An abstract and the full pdf can be found here:
    http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/unsworks:2527
    It was completed through Art History and Theory and the CCAP at UNSW, Sydney.
    http://www.cofa.unsw.edu.au/research/centres/ccap/ And one day some of it will turn into a book.

    In 2008 I co-edited the The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader with Stella Brennan.
    Read more here: http://www.suballard.net.nz/the-aotearoa-digital-arts-reader/
    You can order a copy here:
    http://www.clouds.co.nz/012/

    I’m a founding trustee and co-director of The ADA (Aoteoroa Digital Arts) Network and until 2012 was Deputy Chair of the Physics Room Gallery Trust in Christchurch, New Zealand.

    http://www.aotearoadigitalarts.org.nz/

    http://www.physicsroom.org.nz/

    Due to excessively boring amounts of comment spam, I’ve recently disabled comments on this blog. Nonetheless if you are human or even an interesting kind of bot, I’d love to hear from you. I still “like” facebook, or email me.

    contact me here:
    sballard ( at ) uow.edu.au

    May
    08
    2011

    Nonorganic Life

    “Nonorganic Life: Encounters between frequency, virtuality and the sublime in Antarctica,” for
    Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles edited by Andrea Polli and Jane Marsching, Intellect Books: Bristol, UK. publication September 2011.
    Intellect Books Autumn catalogue


    Phil Dadson, Aerial Farm (2003). Video still, 12mins DVD video/sound. The circular frame and wires appear as a slowly shifting and illusory graphic outline, much like an animated drawing against a snowdrift, ice-grey background. The sound of wind-generated Aeolian tones through the wires is produced by a 50 k wind. See http://www.sonicsfromscratch.co.nz/

    I’m awaiting the proofs back for my chapter in Far Field, looking forward to also seeing the other essays as they contain some really strong thought surrounding digital media and the poles.

    My essay grapples with tensions between critical ecological thought and what I see as an ongoing twenty-first century adherence to notions of the sublime. I do this by introducing the model of nonorganic life drawn firstly from the scientific discoveries in Don Juan Pond and secondly from Manuel DeLanda’s hurricane. I talk specifically about works by New Zealand artists Joyce Campbell, Ronnie van Hout and Phil Dadson alongside works by Andrea Polli, DJ Spooky and Pierre Huyghe.

    Of course as soon as the proofs come I’ll want to change many words but here is a sneak preview:

    “It may have been about our year 750 that the astonishing Hui-Te-Rangiora, in his canoe Te Iwi-o-Atea, sailed from Rarotonga on a voyage of wonders in that direction (South): he saw the bare white rocks that towered into the sky from out of the monstrous seas, the long tresses of the woman that dwelt therefin, which waved about under the waters and on their surface, the frozen sea covered with pia or arrowroot, the deceitful animal that dived to great depths – ‘a foggy, misty dark place not shone on by the sun’. Icebergs, the fifty foot long leaves of bull-kelp, the walrus or sea-elephant, the snowy ice fields of a clime very different from Hui-Te-Rangiora’s own warm islands – all these he had seen.” (Beaglehole, 1939 cited in McFarlane, 2008, p.2).

    Antarctica is a heightened location where ideas of scale and experiences of the world and our place in it come together with contemporary understandings of ecology. Hui-Te-Rangiora’s extraordinary journey is a significant foundational narrative of the indigenous histories of the Pacific and Antarctica (Te Ariki-tara-are, 1919; Best, 1915; Buck, 1954; Smith, 1904; McFarlane, 2008), and takes its place alongside heroic stories of European exploration that themselves oscillate between fictional truths and scientific myth. Even for those of us who live close by it is a combination of these histories that frames how the far, far south is constructed and understood. To discuss Antarctica we grasp at what French theorist Felix Guattari (2005, p.68) describes as an “environment in the process of being reinvented.” It is a continent formed from information and matter that together reconstitute European understandings of nature. Although it is potentially out-dated, and most definitely a human-centric way of knowing, a close study of Antarctica needs to include a discussion of the European model of the sublime and how this philosophical idea continues to determine how many of us relate to the environment around us. In the eighteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (cited in Elliot, 2010, p.39) traced through levels of the sublime until he reached “part (v) full feeling of sublime: overpowering turbulent nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent destructive objects).” Schopenhauer’s concept of the sublime grew out a sense of cultural implausibility, a question raised repeatedly by his fellow Romanticists in England: if humans are so cultured, so knowledgeable then how can they not understand the essence of the very earth they stand on? How does it remain beyond comprehension?

    Joyce Campbell, “Ice Ghoul Antarctica” 2006 5″x7″ Daguerreotype. From the “Last Light” Series. See http://www.joycecampbell.com/

    “The hurricane represents a form of non-organic life. It lasts long enough for us to give it a name. … We give [hurricanes] names because they are creatures which inhabit the atmosphere. However, these are creatures that create themselves. They don’t have genes, they don’t have anything that tells them what to do. They are completely spontaneous creatures.”
    This description of the hurricane is central to DeLanda’s arguments about nonorganic life. Antarctica like the hurricane is provisional; nonorganic life formed through frequency and virtuality. In our imaginings it has a life force. It is a place known through material productions that oscillate between the fictional and the scientific. For example, the discovery of the Don Juan Pond lead scientists towards life formed and mobilized by brine-derived nitrates (a kind of molecular self-organization by non-carbon sources). Mapping, measuring and documenting these non-carbon-based life forms living in an oxygen free environment lead scientists towards the possibility of life on Mars (University of Georgia, 2010). Questions appeared: if it is autonomous, can reproduce and evolve, it must be life, mustn’t it? There was no other description available to science except that of nonorganic life. Amidst complex computational models, nonorganic matter is not static; it forever changes and tying it to either nature or culture is impossible. It needs its own language. There are clear parallels between this scientific description of nonorganic life and DeLanda’s cultural framing of the hurricane. Antarctica becomes an object of study that we approach as we might approach an organism that can be sliced, imaged, recorded and folded. This double approach at once scientific/analytic and cultural/aesthetic is found in art’s recent engagements with Antarctica.

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