Playing in the Ruins of the Real
In the cold morning light a visit to the Calls in Leeds was demanding on the body, waiting for entry to the building in the heart of the old commercial area. Undergoing [as all obsolete industrial buildings] ‘gentrification’; spaces put to use in the information age, time here was already betraying signs of becoming an outmoded idea.
Office space, stain-free, fitted standard-blue carpets, small kitchenettes with water supply cut, ready for rental as featureless work-space, of ‘use’ to the aspiring work-oriented self-employee, in a shabby, utilitarian way, to set up business. Being hardly derelict, yet self-possessed, today’s aspirant is derelict in the symbolic sense of exhibiting a total collapse of subjective substance. It depends. What use, when ‘modern art’ has always proclaimed the pretence of the ‘l’inutile’ as perfectly useless? The sublime, ‘uselessness’, what is not phenomenal, is to exist without value. Bathroom facilities outside, very useful. Top floor space making some attempt at recognizing the needs of the body, at the very least. Good views of the cobbled streets below. Some history seeping through the double-glazing. No heating, but stark neon lighting and electricity still connected. ‘Awesome’ he thought to himself. Not then the ideal space for presenting contemporary art and design, but good enough at providing a banal setting for how the ‘office’ operates in producing a kind of ideological consensus, through an atmosphere devoid of enchantment. Modernity born into and of its ruins. I am modern, you are modern. We are modern. This is modern. The work force includes artists, who take their place for granted, grateful for a crumb of a chance, where all singularity is removed under the sign of conformity to the uninhibited flows of opportunity. Could we, with a stretch of the imagination, ‘show’ works here, against all common sense? Yet in the Post-Fordist, Neo-Liberal version of canned democracy, you’re on your own, out there in utopia, with or without choice, ‘you’, a happy advertisement for the perfect dog food, the bargain leather sofa, the good bacteria, toilet paper, yoghurt, polystyrene, DNA home testing, ‘everything’ for the life style of your choice, provide you don’t age, sicken, or revolt against the moral codes of its vitalist brands. Love is not, as a radical prohibition, ‘enough’. Why bother to make art at all? The super-ego demands an impossible task, to not be angry, to succeed and make great art. Art, neither in this sense, is to be ‘not enough’. Art is a form of dissent, or nothing - mere decoration of manners and perpetual fashion, death, capital, banking, it is ‘enough’ like ‘love’...yesterday’s news. Better nothing, or more nothing. Fail better, fail again. What ‘cut’ can open up the can of worms that art contains? We want to throw the baby out and keep the dirt water [since where we are, we are not thinking] amid this sociality of ruin? We would be resolute, torn between resourceful [having no choice] and accepting [against our will] austerity. We’ll take it.
If we proposed to each an authorless work that might enter the frame of a technology arguably at one remove from bio-political controls…like Nietzsche’s Last Men we would sip at small poisons, take a modicum of pleasure, going out poetically with T.S Eliot’s ‘whimper and not a bang’ take our coffee [and our life] decaffeinated, no longer ‘unhealthy’ but act out the sign-language of a long deceased rebellion, transposed by a safely embedded subversion. Our
deeply conservative tendency would be incubated under the heated sign of radicalism and the mask of freedom, whilst all the time freedom is, as we wish it to be, removed from the equation along with hope or anticipation. We are without dissent, witness to the slipping away of the decaying past and the superfluous future. Was it possible to make artworks in the stale environments of ‘work’ when redundancy [of art, meaning et cetera], if the vehicle for truth, of the human project itself, is the junk material from which we must forge?
There was, despite this depressing scenario, another more attractive alternative on offer, the basement, still retaining some degree of familiarity; a ‘dirty’ space, ‘artistic’ or picaresque, in its ruin resided some kind of authenticity in a heterotopic possibility for invention, for play. In chipped ceramic brick, now falling gently apart, like some detail from a half-written diary scrawled in a Gothic novel, a protagonist describing piles of old furniture [doors off their hinges, old electricity meters, and dusty staircases long boarded off, so they seemed to go, metaphorically and literally, nowhere] – a perfect antidote to the poisonous, clean banality of the upstairs office, with its neon dystopian, user-friendliness. No carpets, stone, and plaster boarding, mid-conversion, under construction, but jettisoned. A labyrinth of rooms to place ‘works’. Works in the tradition of an acceptable idea about art objects, or sculpture, holding mass, unity, form, ‘gravitas’; canvases painted, drawn, steel welded, fabric sewn, or just ‘ready-made’ things found in second hand markets. Things that could be moved, repurposed, collaged, as entry points into an aesthetic experience, or at a more mythological level, submerged beneath the imagination, guardians of death and decay. The basement represented the imagination of the underground as nostalgic and poetic reminiscence, conveyed in the compositions of storage detritus within for example Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings , rather than serving rational facts and the moralism of community projects. Here was melancholy [repressed anger] rather more reminiscent of Surrealist poets and Faustian contracts with the Devil…a history of fictions opened up as, rather than perpetuating the myth of capital as ‘fun’ or ‘happy’ consumption, celebrated in the commodities of ‘freedom’, to bow to the despotism of equality, here was a darker residue, the basement figuring as ever as an Unconscious, or hidden quarter from the exposed utility of neon, its signaled worthiness of work and youthful fountain of expenditure; conspicuously recruited to mass belonging through spending. No mobile phone connection? Thank God, yes, an intermittent signal…technology filling the void. Some images captured, are sent online. Opening a Facebook account, these images arrive before our departure from the space. We had crossed the great divide between the virtual and actual conditions of reality, where we stood, we recorded ourselves watching, and started to think about a ‘correlation’ between two kinds of space, layered architecturally in the building, above and below, reviewing the images on the web, as mirrors of some other, faraway, outer space. An architecture of frivolity, above as below, or below as above, playing in the ruins of both, so to speak, with the innards of the urban, and its indigestible, visceral, Real. But, to make a claim for truth, to grasp the desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name. The void. In this ambivalent ‘democracy’ between having no name and being named only once dismembered, or named as subjects, we were to take up arms against the idea of normal desires, so to sustain the militant desire. Otherwise what’s the point? Do we subscribe to the modality of the world in the form of its ‘despotism of equalities’? No.
But a problem arose. How would an audience experience these if the only entry point were blocked? In truth the basement was accessible but a decision was made to an asymmetrical relation to access only through the video screen.
A decision that addressed an inequality in both spaces. Here was inequality, but we over-identified with it. What if the basement was intentionally barred from public entry? That was having some ‘fun’ with structuralism. Perhaps a video feed would change how images are cognitively absorbed ‘better’ from an anamorphic angle? From some oblique viewpoint. Many prefer, in actuality, to look at the screen. It’s a habit-forming drug. What if this barring created unprecedented anger, or indifference? What if we created a sense of confusion, that ripped open the seams of pleasure, unbuttoned its fly, to reveal antagonism at the heart of our contemporary experience of consumerism [of art, as of television, indifferent to any contradiction]? The only freedom available had been, for all, and no-one, a kind of attention-deficit indifference, and to the small rewards offered as self-satisfaction and narcissism for a kind of expertise in digital number games…’success’ not ‘failure’ patted on the back by daddy. [Because you’re worth it.] What if failure was the more tense, and aggressive formality gleaned in the pretentions of co-existence, acquittal through self-knowledge, at the expense of etiquette? Freedom, in the feigning of necessity. We thought of the cold night when a few hardy souls would turn up to be bitterly disappointed, or mildly irritated, or just plain indifferent. It was worth the risk, just to socialize / scandalize at the very least, and work together as a group. There was sense there, in learning something about each one of us, involved in a common objective, even if that objective was still very much ‘immaterial’ being about nothing, but being all the same, ‘something’ modestly configured as a constellation of ideas we could share and exchange. Nothing to fear, as Dennis Hopper recites into a microphone, recording his voice, ‘but fear itself’. Dr. Crane mouths this sentence again as ‘Scarecrow’ in ‘Batman Begins’…riding on horseback through the ruins of Gotham with a sack on his head.
Would we resist being taken out of ‘the box’ [television] like one of Dr. Crane’s institutional zombies? What if we were already ‘zombies’? We second -guess what Andy Warhol anticipated in his life, art, and film as a decomposable species of things. A Frankenstein technics. A situation without parody - just business - that dictates pleasure for an undead, post-traumatic society. If the virtual is its Real, the actual was its double, swapping places on screen. There was to be no actual experience, no ‘a priori’, no ‘Gnosis’ in the subjective experience of art, only a virtual glow, or aura, appearing in the televisual image of symbolic substance. Substance no more, just pure image, switched on, candles flicker, the light emitted is transmitted, irradiant. The wall upon which a drawing is recorded in the basement is projected on another wall in the office, a wall projected upon a wall, of an image of an image. ‘Where can’, as the Buddhist says, ‘the dust lie?’ Space and sense are skewed around the virtual, upon nothing. I am zero, you are zero, this is zero.
The theatre opened up by video to the discomfort of an audience is, as it sees itself for the first time in a mirror, the subject of the work itself…a space [the office space] becoming another arena for a process of alienation, from alienation, surpassing the classic Brechtian method , the wall broken down between audience and actors. We knew that these events took place. As we constructed the exhibition, without needing future projections that anticipated an audience, the game being that the audience was already anathema. We didn’t have to read about the avant-garde as anything but a modern myth, only that it worked even if we didn’t believe in it. Someone else could believe in it. An audience for example. Canned laughter, again, does the job for you. The era of disenchantment was over. The enchantment, ‘both/and’, and the disenchantment, ‘either/or’…yet there was a question leftover, on taking sides. One always has to, in the final analysis, they say, as Jane Austin speaks of marriage, take sides. That’s the difficult part, the argumentative part that reinvents the democratic process of equality without contradiction in antagonism. [Audience laughs].
The original 12 or 13 monitors we had culled from the department were faulty, but we managed with some ingenuity to show 12 or so video pieces, edited to overlap artworks across screens, so that the space was mapped from camera views held at various points in the basement - with some performance upstairs, one of us cross-dressing, and adopting a female persona, as a kind of semaphore that we were all trans-gendered, playing across the virtual and actual as falsifying concepts, as deceivers, or masked players. The ‘personae’ themselves were not masked, in that no one was given any privileges over anyone else. There was a consensus about not wanting ‘consensus’ but going with what Bernard Stiegler names as ‘individuation’ or co-individuation of the group in parallel to the individuation of technology. This is technology. I am technology, we are technology…and so on. The ‘technics’ that enables us to forget or remember, yet in the mythological sense, being a forgetting of the forgotten origin. The basement recedes into the back catalogue of our memory through the ‘mnemo-technology’ of the apparatus. No-one is down there. The works have all been removed. This is deception. The absence has a presence. Where the apparatus had been ‘naturalized’, we had ‘de-natured’ it. The broken tools, the TVs, were destined for the scrapheap of memory, as we were…an apparatus is designed to hide another apparatus, the apparatus or tool being greater than ‘us’.
I guess we had stumbled upon an asymmetry, the network to the body. The theatrical, or fictional ritual, performed on two levels, ‘immeshed’ the difference between them. There was no hierarchy, but a multiple series of causations equally displacing the despotic equalization of all differences to the empire of its relations. In this ‘realization’ about the regime of images that capitalize pure relationship, we were, like a revenant, in a spectral space between existence and inexistence.
The television ‘sets’ presented a broken technology. Shaky transmission textured a misreading of reality. The truth of things is not found in a shiny ideal. [Realism, in the theory of inter-connectedness, is the negation of its idealism]. Glossy high definition photography exceeded the objects in camera, or archived the imaginary in the distant immediacy of cloud technology, pre-emptively already making all things obsolete, ‘ideal’.
We ask, what the hell are we looking at, rather than who is it, what is it, looking at us? That’s a given, seduction. We desire to be seen, romanticize being unseen like stalkers, profilers, terrorists, pirates, pranksters, thieves, the very stuff of Hollywood, through our great and miserable fictions.
In 1942, the exhibition, ‘Ist Papers of Surrealism’, was held in New York in response to the bureaucratic office of immigration encountered on entry to the United States. Marcel Duchamp filled a space with a mile of string within which children played with balls, antagonizing expectation of aesthetic experience, yet pre-figuring the web itself, within which we are now enmeshed, but still like children in awe of its terrifying beauty. The parasite is invisible or out of human range, in the ‘clouds’, watching, as we are, television.
In Dante Alighieri’s poetic vision of Hell in ‘The Divine Comedy’ , stratification maps something of a perfect spatial metaphor for the deepening architecture of the mesh, extending toward an infinite, archival circularity. The allegory of the mesh [of human and animal language itself co-extensive with the machine] is at the darkest level, inscribed as a circle of betrayal, of the Real. We excavate a utopian wish in conspiracy theories, from which there is no return, and where all is reduced to the machinations of reptilian aliens and accountants, ‘pre-empting’ all events past and future in anticipation of the strategic centralization of human existence. We therefore felt, standing in the cold with some cheap wine, our friends and colleagues laughing out loud at the existential absurdity of these conspirators of technology and the [American] dream of a ferocious digital cannibalism, that we might have failed yet again to ‘paint in black’, as Danny says in the movie ‘Withnail and I’ , at the end of the film, about the collapse of the ideologically hopeful 1960s, [made in the 1980s, it’s a historical fiction, a great fiction non the less] he was right. But in that failure was the chance yet again to begin from the beginning. I know, because as Jack Nicholson sarcastically says in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, about his child, ‘he saw it on television…’.
This is the price of ‘self-improvement’. Design your own website and be happy, no more inefficiency, happiness for all! No more chaos! Welcome to the accountant’s office! Healthy breakfasts! No censorship! No politics! Happiness for All! Free decaff before returning to work! Welcome to the ruins of the Real!