From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos Rethinking Positions of the Human Through Art
Using Gold and Crossing Time in Contemporary Art Gry Hedin
Introduction. From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos
Gry Hedin & Anne Kølbæk Iversen
Visualising the Invisible, Imagining the (Im)possible
Cosmic Care Tobias Dias
Precarious Forecasts in Danish Contemporary Art Dea Antonsen
Anne Kølbæk Iversen
Germinal Monsters and New Kinships in Contemporary Art
Nature (Re)turns, Dear Planet & From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos Sarah Pihl Petersen
The End of the Technological Utopia
Katrine K. Pedersen
Astrid Myntekær, The Hermit, 2018. Carving foam, metal, polyurethane. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
A group of horseshoe crabs move through the water in the lagoon, seemingly heading for ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Three huge conch shells with the faces of sleeping humans rest in the sand on the opposite bank. A sculpture of colliding ellipses with algae painted onto the surface towers up against the museum wall. For several years now, the art at ARKEN has spread out into the landscape around the museum to interact with visitors to Strandparken and the museum alike. Under headings such as Nature (Re)turns and Dear Planet, we have invited the public to enter into a conversation about humanity’s role in what we now, in view of the climate and environmental crises, can no longer without hesitation call nature. Man and nature can no longer be understood as separate entities, and our preconceived notions about specific categories and differences are breaking up. The fact that humans affect the processes of nature at such a fundamental level that we are fast approaching the tipping points which climate scientists have warned us against urges us to think and act in entirely new ways. From being mappers of a neatly organised cosmos, we must increasingly understand ourselves as grains of dust that swirl around as part of much larger processes we cannot control. This issue of the ARKEN Bulletin brings together reflections from a number of scholars on art and culture who, through contemporary art, help us rethink humanity and nature – applying new concepts, ways of thinking and models of analysis. We need substance when objectivity is under pressure, when emotions are pushed, and our notions about ourselves – as human
beings – crumble. Responding to this, an introduction to the overall field and thereafter six articles cover a lot of ground. After the introduction by ARKEN curator Gry Hedin and ARKEN project researcher Anne Kølbæk Iversen, Iversen analyses artworks that visualise the invisible. After that Tobias Dias, PhD fellow at the Department of the History of Ideas at Aarhus University, explores cosmic care and healing screens. Katrine K. Pedersen, Head of Education at ARKEN, explores technology and the possible end of our world, and in the following article Hedin delves into how contemporary art grapples with the golden treasures of cultural history. Art historian and dr.phil. from Universität Leipzig Kerstin Borchhardt introduces us to the abject hybrids of bioart, while ARKEN curator Dea Antonsen takes a closer look at art’s forecasts for our vulnerable future. Finally, curatorial assistant at ARKEN Sarah Pihl Petersen presents the two past exhibitions Nature (Re)turns and Dear Planet and the current exhibition, From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos. My warmest thanks go out to all contributors: Dea Antonsen, Kerstin Borchhardt, Tobias Dias, Gry Hedin, Sarah Pihl Petersen and Katrine K. Pedersen and not least to Anne Kølbæk Iversen, who – thanks to generous support from the Danish Ministry of Culture – has spent six months researching the field and the ARKEN collection. Special thanks go out to the Ministry of Culture’s Research Committee for their generous support for the project and this themed issue of the ARKEN Bulletin. Christian Gether Director, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Amalie Jakobsen, Suffocated Air, 2020. Steel, acrylic, diatom algae powder. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Introduction From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos Gry Hedin & Anne Kølbæk Iversen
A large photograph by Danish artist Nanna Debois Buhl is mounted on the outer walls of ARKEN Museum of Modern Art and seems to almost merge with the concrete wall. The photograph is a ‘cameraless’ print, inspired by August Strindberg’s technique of the celestograph, literally written or drawn with celestial light. By exposing sheets of photosensitive paper for a few minutes at night in the parking lot at ARKEN in April 2017, Debois Buhl created this image in which small dots of light on a dark background appear to be stars in the sky. By employing this technique, Debois Buhl opens up questions of scale that are otherwise easily overlooked. In this work, the grains of dust – which may be small particles of earth, sand or even dew – create an image of the incomprehensibly large, the cosmos. The photograph mounted on the museum’s wall reminds us of the role of art and the art museum in communicating and exploring how we, as humans, are positioned in the world. The specks of dust, however, are not only imprints of the specific surroundings of ARKEN but also of the technology used to make this image. Thus, the work also inspires us to reconsider how we may represent our surroundings with a sensitivity to the complex interactions between human activities, the Earth’s ecosystems and processes of the Universe. In its series of reports on the role of human activities in climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that climate changes are taking place and that human activities are the main cause.1 In addition, a crisis of biodiversity is unfolding as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
(IPBES) has documented.2 As part of the unfolding climate and ecological crises, scientists are consequently discussing how the human – or more accurately, parts of humanity – has become a geological force that impacts billions of other lifeforms and puts other species at risk. This destabilisation urges us to rethink the relation between the human subject and the environment, and to acknowledge that humans are part of the very nature we utilise and describe. The climate and ecological crises attest to an interdependence between beings, or life forms, which undermines long held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. Many contemporary artists address ecological questions and speculations about human existence, responding to climate and ecological emergencies in their artworks by testing and contributing to new ways of thinking. Art holds an important position for addressing these perspectives. Through a special awareness of human entanglement with other life forms and materialities and its sensitivity to a fragile world marked by irreversible climate catastrophes, contemporary art approaches this situation by opening a space for investigation and imagining. Artists explore the fragile ecosystems and spheres with a scepticism towards existing categories, technologies and scales of measurement. With its ability to embrace the ambivalent ontologies of the human and what we – for want of other wording – may call the non-human, art may be a place for critical questioning and speculative fabulation about possible forms of future existence.
Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars (20-4-2017, 22.01, 55° 36’ 18.99’’ N 12° 23’ 9.8736’’ E), 2017. Cameraless photo on self-adhesive foil. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
1 unenvironment.org/explore-topics/climate-change/ facts-about-climate-emergency. All cited online sources have been accessed July 2020. 2 Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, ed. E. S. Brondizio et al, IPBES secretariat, 2019.
3 On a method of noticing see Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press, 2015. For a method of examining materials and structures with an awareness of entanglement and complex ecologies see Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. For a ‘speculative’ method looking for analogies in geology and biology see Donna Haraway in Fabbula Magazine, fabbula.com/ donna-haraway. 4 Dipesh Chakrabarty ‘Anthropocene Time’, History and Theory, vol. 57, no. 1, 2018; Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin, Open Humanities Press, 2015; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, The Anthropocene Project, 2013-14. 5 As Bonneuil and Fressoz explain: ‘While awaiting official validation from stratigraphers, the Anthropocene concept has already become a rallying point for geologists, ecologists, climate and Earth system specialists, historians, philosophers, social scientists, ordinary citizens and ecological movements as a way of conceiving this age in which humanity has become a major geological force’. The Shock of the Anthropocene, Verso, 2016, 5. 6 The terms, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene and Chthulucene, offer different viewpoints. The ‘anthropos’ in the Anthropocene focus on humans per se, whereas the ‘capital’ of the Capitalocene points to systems, such as capitalism, contesting the very notion of the Anthropocene having at its centre Anthropos. Plantationocene instead points
As a museum, we can open our doors and our walls to the artists’ invitations to reflect on our place in the world and the way this world may be approached. ARKEN has engaged with these questions over the past five years in the outdoor exhibitions Nature (Re)turns and Dear Planet, as well as the exhibitions Young Danish Art – Forecasting the Future and Patricia Piccinini – A World of Love. This interest is now further pursued in the exhibition From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos and in this issue of ARKEN Bulletin. External as well as internal researchers have been invited in an open invitation to reflect on the questions that the climate and ecological crises and the Anthropocene condition raise. Together, they explore how the present climate and ecological emergencies introduce instability into both thought and material worlds following the rapid developments in research that across disciplines call for a shift in world views and vocabularies. This field of research is characterised by introducing new ways of noticing, paying close attention to particulars and the way these meet in assemblages, and it includes investigations that are open to a speculative dimension of planetary and interplanetary thought and material relations.3 Central to this are questions of scale and how the rearticulation of the categories ‘human’ and ‘posthuman’ inspires to zooming in and out between macroand microscales, placing the human as a molecular arrangement, then a geological agent and then a narrativising subject. In the six chapters of this ARKEN Bulletin, art and cultural researchers investigate how artists today are engaging with such questions and how exhibitions can be
curated with attention to themes and methods central to the way in which we understand and position the human in relation to natural, cultural and technical environments. The authors engage with how art tries to grasp the dizzying and urgent issues of the ecological emergencies and the implications of this for the way we understand and position ourselves as humans. Art can indeed inspire us to reconsider how we engage with other-than-human modes of existence and on which temporal and spatial scales we measure our existence in the world. In this introduction, we take a step back to map and introduce some of the theoretical issues at stake within the theoretical field, thereby presenting the interested reader with a framework for the complicated issues running across the articles. Approaching multiple Anthropocenes Over the past twenty years, the notion of an Anthropocene epoch has served as a placeholder for questions relating to human impact on the planet and its ecosystems.4 Even though the Anthropocene is a concept based on the study of geological strata that still awaits official validation, it urges us to think and react to what living within an Anthropocene epoch implies.5 Acknowledging the accumulated human impact on the environment, however, calls for a consideration of which human activities have made this impact and who this anthropos (the Greek word for human) refers to. This is where the geological analysis of strata meets historical thought. The debate around the Anthropocene as a term is symptomatic of the desire to investigate the specifics behind the
crises. Capitalocene, Plantationocene and Chthulucene are just a few of the terms challenging the Anthropocene by highlighting the historical and material background for the crises, which suggests that not all parts of humanity have contributed in equal measure.6 As a reaction to this, eco-critical thinkers insist on an awareness of the multiple, in the sense of rejecting dominant traits in and of Western thinking and facilitating an increased global outreach that includes multiple cultures and subcultures. Discussions of the Anthropocene often also imply moving off centre from this anthropos in recognition of non-human forms of life, whether natural or technical. These non-human actors might outlive what we traditionally associate with the category of the ‘human’ – be it in the form of technical-material detritus or bacterial assemblages on a planet uninhabitable for humans. Within this theoretical framework, the Anthropocene connects to that of the post-human; imagining a world without the human as we know it, either because it entangles with other beings in ways still to emerge or be developed, or because the human race is wiped off the planet, leaving space for new forms of life and new geological epochs. The question is: will another world uninhabitable for humans appear or will another kind of human be possible, one which can survive under conditions yet unknown? In his speculations on these questions, American sociologist Benjamin Bratton remarks that ‘the best of all possible news is that, should “we” survive the Anthropocene, it will not be as “humans”’.7
Entanglement and complexity One of the implications of the discussion of the human impact on the planet is a rejection of human exceptionalism and an increased awareness of the ways in which humans are interconnected, related and entangled with other species and materialities. The interconnectedness of nature and culture is argued for by, for instance, multispecies philosopher Donna Haraway, who looks into the metaphorical and specific material ways the two are entangled to consider co-constituted relationships where none of the partners pre-exist.8 Haraway is a proponent of an ecocritical thinking that calls attention to the ways in which we are intricately connected to other beings as only one among many forms of life. Discussing the urgencies we are facing as a result of the human impact on the planet, Haraway emphasises that we have the possibility of positioning ourselves anew in relation to the ecosystems of which we are part. As she argues: A number of experts think of Anthropos as ‘the one who looks up from the earth‘, the one who is earthbound, of the earth, but looking up, fleeing the elemental and abyssal forces, ‘astralised’.
to the transformations of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on different kinds of exploited and often transported labour. Chthulucene introduces the human as an element within and of the earthly networks of biotic and abiotic processes. Jason W. Moore, ‘Introduction: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism’, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore, Kairos, 2016; Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015; Donna Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’, e-flux journal, September, 2016, e-flux.com. 7 Benjamin H. Bratton, ‘Some Trace Effects of the Post-Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical Aesthetics’, e-flux journal, June, 2013, e-flux.com. 8 Donna Haraway, Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, The University of Chicago Press, 2003, 12. 9 Donna Haraway, ‘Donna Haraway in conversation with Martha Kenney’, Art in the Anthropocene, 259. What Haraway refers to here is the definition of ’anthropos’ given by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue ’Cratylus’.
She continues that ‘Human’ is a better figure for our species, if we want a species word, because of its tie to humus, compost.9 Haraway, thus, challenges the European/ Western subject, who has traditionally orientated ‘himself’ through ‘looking up’ in a process of distancing ‘himself’ from
Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars (Marram grass), 2017. Cameraless photo. Courtesy of the artist
10 A similar reading appears in Yuk Hui, ‘On Cosmotechnics: For a Renewed Relation between Technology and Nature in the Anthropocene’, Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2017. 11 Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2009, xvi. 12 Parikka, A Geology of Media, 13-4; Quentin Meillassoiux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Continuum Books, 2008.
the soil, in order to investigate the world around ‘him’ – and describe, predict, control and utilise it.10 She calls the entanglements between human and non-human life forms and practices naturecultures, and argues that they require that we practise and develop sensibilities and responsibilities to scales other than that of the classically human. It is not a question of returning to an assumedly sacred nature but rather of a rethinking of connections between the human, the natural and the technical in an acknowledgment of hybrid existences and entangled participations. Many cultural researchers participate in this rejection of human exceptionalism and there is a renewed interest in opening up a broad scope of looking at animals, plants and minerals. Thinkers such as Jane Bennett and Jussi Parikka emphasise – and even
willingly overemphasise – the agentic contributions of non-human forces operating in nature, in the human body and in human artefacts.11 They consider materialism in new ways and argue that agency is distributed across the boundaries of the organic and inorganic. They call for an awareness and sensibility towards the agency of non-human realities, aware that the idea of material agency poses a challenge – and a paradox even – of attempting to access, experience and understand things in themselves, separated from human thinking.12 Agency here is found in microorganisms, chemical components and minerals, and also metals have been the focus of testing for the agency of materials. Questioning the lens The awareness and sensibility of non-human realities rely, to a large extent, on the
technical possibilities of observing, registering and representing them. Despite the tremendous contemporary impact of humans on our surroundings, the impact is, in many ways, invisible to the naked eye. The rising of temperature and density of CO2 are recorded by technology rather than via the human senses. Likewise, the loss of biodiversity needs mediation to be comprehended. Technology and media are necessary to create engagement and understanding, but also pose challenges. ‘The lens is to blame’, wrote Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser around 1990, explaining how the development of the optical lens, the microscope and similar instruments for observation and measurement have set aside the human (body) as a reference for the measurement of the world: It made visible small things on the surface of the moon, so that it became difficult to admire the size of the moon. It made visible great things in human semen, so that it became uncomfortable to hold it in disgust and contempt.13 These still updated ‘inhuman’ magnitudes, or scales, destabilise established horizons of time and space and relate what is accessible through human perception to a number of micro- and macroworlds. The position from where we see the world, and the lens through which we look, have become an important topic. One with an increased awareness that the lens is crucial for what we see and how we position each other and ourselves in the world. This calls for an awareness of the materiality of the technology and
media employed to register and represent reality. In our modern digitalised world, minerals are mobilised together with plastics and other materials as part of digital media, such as computers, deterritorialising geology, as Finnish new media archaeologist Jussi Parikka has argued.14 And recently, geologist Peter Haff has coined the term ‘technosphere’ to suggest that technology is a semi-autonomous ecosystem in and of itself.15 Interest, however, may also expand to a discussion of the possibilities and constraints around the production of knowledge, including the boundaries between ‘reality’ and our knowledge of it. For French anthropologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour, the question of the lens becomes a question of the assemblage of institutional, historical and technical practices participating in the production of knowledge. He argues continually that scientific facts are produced and sustained through specific scientific inquiries and practices.16 Similarly, feminist theorist and physicist, Karen Barad, insists on thinking about the social and natural worlds together. She considers measurement as ‘an instance where matter and meaning meet in a very literal sense’. Inspired by quantum physics and Niels Bohr’s complementarity principle, Barad puts forth the thesis that the nature of the observed phenomena changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus, implying that we, and our mode of interrogation and investigation, are part of that very nature that we are trying to understand.17 For Barad, entanglement implies the lack of an
13 Vilém Flusser, ‘Humanism and the Orders of Magnitude’, Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 160. 14 Parikka, A Geology of Media. 15 Peter Haff, ‘Humans and Technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules’, The Anthropocene Review, April 2014. 16 Bruno Latour, ’Whose Cosmos, which Cosmopolitics?’, Symposium: Talking Peace with Gods, Part 1, Common Knowledge, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, 459; Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2013. 17 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press, 2007, 67, 106.
18 Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I-II, trans. Roberto Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, 2010-11.
independent, self-contained existence, and she proposes the term intra-action for the process by which individuals emerge.
19 Steven Shaviro, ’Cosmopolitics’, upress.umn. edu/book-division/books/cosmopolitics-ii; Isabelle Stengers, ‘The Cosmopolitical Proposal’, balkanexpresss.files.wordpress. com/2013/09/stengersthe-cosmopolitcal-proposal.pdf.
Thus, questioning the lens means addressing the operationality of different materialities and technologies and investigating how they participate in constructions of knowledge, but it also means questioning the political. Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers proposes a cosmopolitical perspective that considers all assumptions and facts as being open to question, reintegrating the natural and the social, the modern and the archaic, the scientific and the irrational.18 Stengers’s vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic. For her, science is not a transcending ‘truth’ but one of many ‘interests’ that need to constantly (re)negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely ‘tolerated’), and are actively able to intervene with and against each other.19 As a means of speculation and ethic experimentation, the cosmopolitical vision implies acknowledging that we are collectively inventing what our shared world will become.20
20 Stengers, Cosmospolitics II, 349.
Navigating complex timescales Questioning the lens also applies to our notion of time and navigation. We must find new ways to navigate and acknowledge the breakdown and shortcomings of previous instruments and maps. This implies an awareness of both the direction of the gaze and the challenges that the too-slow events bring: the ability of zooming in on the miniscule and the studying of the slowly evolving mineralogical subsurface beneath our feet, as well as
the difficulties in scaling up and looking up. Anthropogenic climate change forces us to look at the portending sky, at a mutable heaven of weathering to come, as well as to the solar system, testing for options of escape. Again, we are forced to consider the continued human intervention in a material world that we have tried for so long to understand. The notion of the cosmos, the idea of a unified, organised whole is repeatedly challenged by new discoveries – for instance, of black matter and energy – and by projects such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which aims towards making ‘humanity multiplanetary’. Both the looking down and the looking up are ways of looking back in time – from the realisms of extinction within the abysmal sands of geologic time, to the notion of the speed of light reaching us staggeredly. But the realities of both are highly entangled with the means and positions of observation (and, indeed, the observer). Thus the underground and the sky are important sites – with their mythological and imaginary meanings of hell and heaven – and with their archives of fossils and delayed light from distant stars. These perspectives are important to consider when trying to understand the fractures between the human and non-human, and how communication between these is established. The discussions raised may be viewed as responses to a precarious reality in which established knowledge systems and measuring devices, both technical and cultural, are questioned. Artistic and theoretical propositions, therefore, come to function as double
Nanna Debois Buhl, Cranefly (Tipulidae). Cameraless photo. intervals and forms of stones of stars, Humboldt Books, 2017
lenses, reflecting simultaneously the matter of study and the device of measurement and representation. This openness to interconnectedness, material agency and multiple scales, as well as multiplicity regarding diversity, poses a challenge to the classic idioms of research â€“ the tight logics, determinacy, having an established canon. Instead, it opens up a creative and (perhaps) more democratic thinking. A thinking that values the poetic, dreamlike, subjective, sensuous and speculative. The force of geologic events and the harshness of the slow violence wreaking havoc, especially on the global South, evoking patterns formerly
associated with colonialism, demand a counter-poetical reorganisation of existing terms and systems.21 Visual art is vital here, with its transcendence of language and its sensibility towards its materials, and it is the aim of this issue of the ARKEN Bulletin to contribute to this reorganisation and rethinking. And so, this issue presents analyses and reflections on art that provide us with inspiration for rethinking the present time and the way we engage with our human and non-human surroundings.
21 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.
Visualising the Invisible, Imagining the (Im)possible Anne Kølbæk Iversen
Just as looking at the stars is looking back in time, how human beings have looked at the stars is a glimpse into different historical moments.1 In Mads Gamdrup’s photograph Nattehimmel (Night sky) a camera has captured the star trails resulting from the stars’ nightly movement around the North Star. Here, the photographic technique makes visible the changing positions of the stars that would otherwise have to be observed, registered and calculated.2 Through a long exposure time and the photographic capture, the photograph exhibits a rotating motion – a result of the Earth’s rotation around its axis – creating a sense of an extension of time; the registering of a movement which is otherwise ungraspable. Apart from the capturing of this movement, the photograph does not differ very much from the view of the night sky as it is visible to the naked human eye: small dots of light on a dark background. This has to do with the character of the image and how it has been produced, namely as the registration of visible light using the optical device of the camera. With Gamdrup’s photograph as an entry to this article, I wish to set the stage for an analysis of artistic presentations and investigations of the relations between phenomena, such as the stars in the night sky and the particles they are made of, and their appearance and how this relates to the use of different techniques of observation and registration – but also to different ways of posing and answering questions. Alongside Mads Gamdrup’s image of the starry night sky, this article engages with works from the collection at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art by
the artists Nanna Debois Buhl, Gerhard Richter and Lea Porsager that present dust particles on a photographic plate, a depiction of the inside of an atom, and a fabulation on cosmic fucks and the inner ear’s resistance to gravity, respectively. Common to these artworks is an engagement with questions of scale, a negotiation of the authorisation of knowledge and an exploration of shifting technical means for observing, registering and interacting with the world. The analysis is inspired by the notion of cosmos and its current extensions into cosmotechnics and cosmopolitics, which implies asking how a scientific approach to the world combines with a political, ethical and aesthetic one. Looking at the artworks from this perspective, I will study how they contribute to a discussion of the ways in which knowledge about the phenomena, particles and processes of what we may term ‘nature’ or ‘physical reality’ is produced. Here, the artworks are viewed as invitations to practise zooming in and out of scales and moving between perspectives. Thus, they draw the contours of a multidimensionality of phenomena, which attests to an increasingly persistent urge to question the established understanding of natural processes in universal terms, and humans’ ability, as formed by a primarily Western scientific thinking, to tame them.3 This article may also appear guilty of jumping between scales and disciplines in its attempt to pose the question of which and whose cosmos anew.4 Whose cosmos? Stemming from the Greek word for order, the notion of cosmos designates
Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars (20-4-2017, 22.01, 55° 36’ 18.99’’ N 12° 23’ 9.8736’’ E), 2017. Cameraless photo. Courtesy of the artist. Detail
1 The findings presented in this article are part of the research project From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos. Rethinking Positions of the Human Through Works in ARKEN’s Collection, supported by the Danish Ministry of Culture’s Committee for Research. All cited online sources have been accessed August 2020. 2 Robert Wilson, Astronomy Through the Ages, Taylor and Francis, 1997; Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers. A History of Man’s changing vision of the Universe, Penguin Books, 1959. 3 Cp. Lorraine Daston, Against Nature, The MIT Press, 2019; Isabelle Stengers, ‘Whitehead and Science: From Philosophy of Nature to Speculative Cosmology’, unpublished lecture given at McGill University, Canada, in the context of the ‘History and Philosophy of Science Seminars’, 2006. 4 This formulation is a variation of the title of an article by Bruno Latour, ‘Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics. Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck’, Common Knowledge, vol. 3, no. 10, 2004.
5 Stengers, ‘Whitehead and Science‘, 9.
coherence and organisation. As British philosopher Alfred Whitehead explains:
6 Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, 3.
a Cosmos is not just a Universe, some kind of a matter-of-fact ensemble of everything that exists. It is, as it was with the Greeks, something with an inherent value.5
7 map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/ uni_fate.html. 8 Robert Wilson, Astronomy Through the Ages, Taylor and Francis, 1997, 4. 9 Yuk Hui, ‘Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics’, e-flux journal, #86, November, 2017, e-flux.com.
For Whitehead, this also means that any cosmos must include the thinker in contrast to studying the order of nature, which poses itself as a problem to the thinkers. We can, thus, say that a cosmos is a projected totality based on an established scale of organisation and measurement, within which a place is reserved for the one thinking, observing and measuring this cosmos. With scientific discoveries far exceeding the scale of the human, as for instance dark matter and dark energy, it may seem that we are re-experiencing a ‘loss of the cosmos’, as historian of science Alexandre Koyré famously put it with reference to the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.6 Because how should and can the cosmos be articulated as a coherent, organised whole, that leaves space for the human, when this whole keeps expanding, seemingly indifferent to the survival of human beings and instead marked by entropy and as yet unknown processes?7 The problem is that even if the ‘study of the beginning and evolution of the Universe and matter in it’ – the cosmology of astrophysics – may disclose a symmetry and orderliness of the Universe as a cosmos ruled by universal natural laws,
it is not necessarily an order that leaves room for life as we know it.8 The challenge of posing the idea of the cosmos in contemporary terms, therefore also concerns what happens to this allegedly universal understanding of the cosmos when we take into account the many ways in which humans interact with the world. These interactions include disturbances of natural processes by technological developments on increasingly smaller and larger scales. Within contemporary philosophy, a transdisciplinary re-articulation of cosmology is taking place, which rethinks how science and technology relate to an anthropological notion of cosmos, introduced through, among others, Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers’s concept of cosmopolitics and philosopher of technology Yuk Hui’s concept of cosmotechnics. Both respond to the discussions around the urgencies of environmental changes – a situation of crises that inspires us to reconsider the position of the human in relation to the existence and processes of other objects and life forms on Earth. These are crises explained through scientific means, but crises which simultaneously (re)negotiate established epistemologies and insert a hesitation when confronted with the assumption that we, to quote Yuk Hui: ‘no longer perceive anything behind or beyond the perfection of science and technology’.9 Common to Hui and Stengers is the acknowledgment that interaction with the world cannot happen without leaving an imprint on it; that the world is produced and constructed through this very interaction.
Mads Gamdrup, Nattehimmel, 1998. Separated colour negative. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Cosmotechnics and cosmopolitics Through his concept of cosmotechnics, Yuk Hui argues against universalism and determinism in a critical response to modern and contemporary technics. Technics here should be understood in a broad sense as tools and instruments for production and science but also as technologies of, for instance, financial transactions and communication. Cosmotechnics is defined as ‘the unification between the cosmic order and the moral [of this cosmos] through technical activities’.10 Informed by an anthropological definition of cosmology, Hui’s cosmotechnics refers to the simultaneous operation of understanding and producing an organisation
of the world. Thus he argues against the idea of a self-contained world waiting to be represented according to different viewpoints, and advances the view instead that the world is the result of actualisations of certain qualities and relations – actualisations which also depend on technical mediations. This implies that the scientific approach to the world with its clear distinction between nature and culture, distinguishing between natural facts, on the one hand, and human beliefs and meanings, on the other, is itself a cosmological order, one ontological possibility among many.11 Informed by this definition of cosmologies in the plural, Hui articulates an alternative to any ideal of ‘nature’ in the singular by
10 Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China. An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Urbanomic, 2016, 19 and Hui, ‘Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics’. 11 Philippe Descola, ‘Modes of being and forms of predication’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 1, 2014; John Tresch, ‘Cosmograms, or How To Do Things With Worlds’, keynote, the Anthropocene Project, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 12 January 2013.
12 Yuk Hui offers a more elaborate discussion of the philosophy of technology in Europe and China in his book The Question Concerning Technology in China, which is not engaged with further here. 13 Isabelle Stengers, ‘Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices’, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2005. 14 Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics II (1997), University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 359. 15 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press, 2007, 24. 16 Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, 346.
addressing questions regarding scale and the means employed for the understanding and producing of worlds. The concept of cosmotechnics thereby functions as a perspective to investigate the multiplicity of ways of existing in the world and over time, and how shifting forms of technical activity align with an implied ‘moral good’ of this cosmos. This idea of technics contrasts with thinking of technics merely as a means to a productive end, tied to measurement and objectivisation.12 Understood as cosmotechnics, technics rather becomes the means to produce the world and to sustain this world through practice. What matters in Hui’s perspective, then, is not so much the ability through technics to uncover or reveal the truth of phenomena and their causes but rather to realise the good of the cosmos and how to live in accordance with it. Indeed, what this good may be, from Stengers’s perspective, is a matter of concern, and something to be discussed. In combining the anthropological perspective with a scientific and technological one, Stengers’s reformulation of cosmos comes to imply not simply the study of the multiplicity of modes of being and worlding but an attempt to establish communication between these different modes; what Stengers refers to as an ‘ecology of practices’.13 It means taking seriously practices that may not correspond to the strict obligations and constraints of scientific practices in posing objects of study. For Isabelle Stengers, a cosmopolitical stance means acknowledging that we are not alone in the world. Cosmopolitics is, thus, an operation of diplomacy, of how we may come
to shared agreements on and about the world that we, as humans, are part of, and the roles that technology and scientific practices play in this operation. The cosmopolitical question is not about the ‘reenchantment of the world’ but the coexistence of disparate technical practices corresponding to distinct forms of reciprocal capture, characterised by logical constraints and different syntaxes.14 Even though Hui’s and Stengers’s rethinking of cosmotechnics as/and cosmopolitics is a response to a primarily Western ideology of the universality of science and technological inventions, it is a reformulation that attempts to reach across a strict division between science and other knowledge forms, insisting on the questions and challenges posed by the interactions between ‘facts’ of ‘physical reality’, as described by science and what we may term other ‘realities’. The cosmopolitical task implies asking how questions and answers are produced, through which logics and with which technical aids. Through the notions of cosmotechnics and cosmopolitics, we are invited to reconsider ‘the relationship between discursive practices and the material world’,15 as they relate to political and ethical ones: asking how can those who are affected by what is being produced be ‘invited’ to participate in its production?16 These extensions to the notion of cosmos are central to approaching what is at stake in a moment where a rethinking of ontological and epistemological questions is imperative, and a seamless scaling from micro- to macrolevels seems impossible.
This means reconsidering the implied spatial and temporal scale of the proposed cosmos, or world, and which forms of matter or life are included in it. A reconsideration that artworks by Nanna Debois Buhl, Gerhard Richter and Lea Porsager address in their interrogations of the implications of specific (cosmo-)political and technical propositions to contribute to a negotiation of the understanding of cosmos. Writing nature in light and dust In 2016, artist Nanna Debois Buhl was invited to engage with the landscape surrounding ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in questioning how nature and human activities impact on each other for the exhibition Nature (Re)turns. Debois Buhl’s investigation resulted in a series of photographic works inspired by the techniques of the photogram and micrography developed by British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot and the celestograph developed by Swedish playwright August Strindberg.17 By exposing sheets of photosensitive paper for 1, 2 and 2.5 minutes at night in ARKEN’s car park in April 2017, Debois Buhl produced a series of images showing small dots of light on a dark background. This series of celestographs is entitled intervals and forms of stones of stars, affixed with the specific date, time and coordinates of each exposure.18 In the celestograph, chemically prepared photographic plates are exposed directly to the sky. In the words of Strindberg, the technique was to register: the moon and the real appearance of the firmament on a laid-out
photographic plate, independent from our misleading eye. I have done this without a camera and without a lens.19 Through the technique of the celestograph, literally the writing of the heavens, we are invited to think that what we see is a photographic capture of the night sky, even though what is exposed are most likely specks of dust or small particles of dew – or imperfections in the chemical process. The celestographs of Strindberg are, therefore, not of the night sky in the familiar sense, thinking of the photograph as a physical impression of the world through light.20 Instead of a photographic representation of the photographed object, we have a direct impression on the photographic plate, where the small specks and grains stand for stars in the sky. The celestograph, thus, shares characteristics with the photogram, a technique developed by Talbot, which is a contact image of plants placed on the light sensitive surface and, therefore, at a scale of 1:1. In another technique developed by Talbot, the micrograph, the photographed object is exposed through a microscopic lens, conveying very fine details. As explained by Debois Buhl: inspired by Talbot’s image of an insect wing, I experiment with placing insects directly in the enlarger. A moth, a spider, a crane fly. In the developed print, even the finest hairs on the spider’s legs become visible. X-ray-like images.21 Through employing these techniques, Debois Buhl facilitates questions around the function and status of photographic
17 The research and artistic process is described in the artist book: Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars, Humboldt Books, 2017, which also includes reprints of the produced photograms and celestographs and documentation of the installed large-scale photographs at ARKEN. 18 The title is a reference to Danish author Inger Christensen’s Alfabet, Gyldendal, 1981, in which a line from the final poem goes: ‘stjernernes. stenenes. mellemrum og former’. 19 August Strindberg in a letter to physiologist Bengt Lidforss, 26 December 1893, as quoted in Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars, 38. 20 David Campany, ‘Art, Science and Speculation: August Strindberg’s Photographics’, August Strindberg: Painter, Photographer, Writer, ed. Ollé Granath, TATE Modern, 2006. 21 Nanna Debois Buhl, ‘Field notes from a man-made beach landscape’, intervals and forms of stones of stars, 39.
22 Ibid., 37.
23 Nanna Debois Buhl, ‘A world in a grain of sand. A conversation between Nils Bubandt and Nanna Debois Buhl’, intervals and forms of stones of stars, 49. 24 Debois Buhl, ‘Field notes from a man-made beach landscape’, 37. Systematic data collection and meticulous registration has been a central part of classifying plants, animals and minerals in order to describe what Lorraine Daston refers to as their specific nature, which determines how a certain kind of thing looks and behaves. Daston, Against Nature, 8.
registrations in relation to the depicted elements of nature. The cameraless photographs were part of Debois Buhl’s investigation, her close reading of the artificial landscape surrounding ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. For the exhibition, a photogram, a micrograph and a celestograph were enlarged and mounted on the museum’s outer walls, thereby disturbing the scales of the building and those of its surroundings (illustrated p. 6, 118). Through the careful registration of plants, insects and the night sky, she investigates the interrelation between ideas of the landscape and the different materials and plants imported to build it that are sedimented in and at this specific place. In the artist book published as a continuation of the exhibition, Debois Buhl reflects upon the idea of letting the Køge Bay Beach Park, where ARKEN is located, resemble the west coast of Denmark: ‘While highly planned and regulated, the idea was to create a landscape that looked like wild nature’.22 The investigation is informed by recent discussions around the so-called Anthropocene, which implies viewing the human as a geological force, whose activities have created a new geological stratum and acknowledging that human activity impacts to a remarkable degree on the entire planet’s biosphere and atmosphere. In her project, Debois Buhl takes inspiration from the questions of scale made acutely present by the idea of the Anthropocene directing attention to how marram grass and insects are connected to movements on a global scale, inspiring us to reconsider the landscape as an intersection of systems, where
biological processes meet political, industrial and cultural ones: When looking at an insect wing up close, you can imagine a landscape in which the microscopic and the geographic are fractally related. I think it is extremely interesting how this fractal notion [...] can also be applied when studying the landscape around us; for every stone you turn, a new biological habitat comes into view, a small microcosm that has connections far beyond the horizon of what is immediately visible.23 Central to the works is how human activity is a considerable part of the configurations of the world, not innocently placed as a mediator at the centre. One of the objectives of Debois Buhl’s series of works is to illustrate how the development of photographic techniques was part of the development of botany and natural history. She explains: Since the early days of photography, the rendering of botanical life played an important role in the development of the medium, and photography has highly influenced our understanding of nature.24 As such, the photographs perform a double capture; making visible not just the specks of dust or insect wings, but also the human wish and attempt to observe, describe and categorise. But they ask, too, if it may be possible to photographically capture or register nature, without attempting to control it in the same movement. By showing how histor-
Mads Gamdrup, Nat, 1998. Seperated colour negative. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
ical techniques may be used in other ways than originally intended, Debois Buhl’s works become part of a cosmotechnical and cosmopolitical hesitation towards existing understandings and applications of technology. In the words of Hui: it is necessary to reappropriate modern technology through the renewed framework of a cosmotechnics consisting of different epistemologies and epistemes.25 Thus the technologies of photography are turned towards other ends and possibilities. Her investigation becomes a way of focusing attention on the local nature26 – the site- and time-specific biotope
around ARKEN, as it relates to a complex of natural, cultural and political interactions. But the series of works may also raise awareness of how nature can imprint itself, on the photographic plate and on the world itself, with or without the interference of the human perceptual and technical apparatus. Visualising the invisible In the work Erster Blick, German artist Gerhard Richter has reproduced a page from the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, allegedly showing ‘the first glimpse into the inside of an atom’. With its hazy contours and the areas of light upon dark, the reproduced image in Richter’s lithograph may resemble that of
25 Hui, ‘Cosmotechnics as cosmopolitics’. 26 Daston, Against Nature.
27 C.f. French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s idea that man lies ‘suspended between two infinities’ as quoted by Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, 12. 28 Ibid., 3. 29 Since 2000, other techniques have been developed to create photographic images of atoms. See, for example, Elaine Zachos, ‘How a Student Took a Photo of a Single Atom, National Geographic, 14 February 2018. 30 Hubertus Butin, ‘Gerhard Richters “Erster Blick” im Kontext nanotechnologischer Visualisierungen’, Objektivität und Imagination: Naturgeschichte in der Kunst des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts, ed. Annerose Kessler & Isabelle Schwarz, Transcript Verlag, 2018, 163ff. 31 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_force_microscopy. 32 fysikleksikon.nbi.ku.dk/A/ afm/. 33 Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, 29. 34 See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway and Karen Barad, ‘Troubling Time/s and Ecologies of Nothingness: Re-turning, re-membering, and facing the incalculable’, New Formations, vol. 92, 2017.
a planet, star or haze; thus, visually connecting the infinitely small to the infinitely large.27 With the technological possibility of visualising the inside of atoms, we move ‘beyond phenomena’ to use the words of Isabelle Stengers.28 We also move beyond what can be directly represented. What Richter presents is not a photograph, however beautiful the idea may be of being able to directly transfer the atom’s photons into a photo. At the time when Richter made his lithograph, it was not possible to photographically capture the light emitted by the electrons as a result of the energy transition stemming from its ‘leap’ between orbitals, its fall from an excited to a normal level of energy.29 What we see instead is a visualisation made through the translation of data into a computer-generated image using the technique of an atomic force microscope.30 Atomic force microscopy is a very-high-resolution type of microscopy with a resolution of the order of fractions of a nanometre, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit.31 Using atomic force microscopy, information on the surface structure is produced by letting a mechanical probe register the surface, quite similar to the way a pickup and tone arm works. By touching the surface, the structure of it is registered as the oscillations move up and down, and data is processed through computer software, creating a three-dimensional image of the surface of the test sample.32 This is a breakthrough in terms of measuring subatomic particles, which is also very likely why this image made it onto the frontpage of the Frankfurter Allgemeine
Zeitung and why Richter found it relevant to reproduce it. Previously, the only possible forms of ‘observation’ of atoms and their actions was through what Stengers refers to as detection. Measurement by detection implies sorting and amplifying the highly rare events postulated by theory – for instance, the existence of neutrinos or the quantum leaps of electrons. What the detection devices, according to Stengers, make observable are not the objects or actors in themselves but the events, which produce information on the entities to which those events ‘happen’. As Stengers writes: ‘in Bohr’s model, we cannot observe an atom the way we think we can observe the Moon, by visual identification’.33 To have an at least supposedly direct representation of an atom, therefore, is something new. As already mentioned, Stengers stresses how endowing the information extracted from the particles of the Universe with meaning is a political act and how we need to keep the investigation and discussion open. Is this what Richter is implying, when he presents to us this visualisation of the inside of an atom depicted in the form of a luminous haze? It is relevant, in this respect, that Richter’s photograph is reproduced from a page in a newspaper, turning it into a quotation of the – of someone’s – enthusiasm for the ability to, for the first time, capture what the inside of an atom looks like. The knowledge of nuclear processes, of fusion and fission, and how it has been employed in the development of nuclear energy and nuclear power is charged with political and ethical tensions.34 Perhaps the montage is a subtle comment from Richter
Gerhard Richter, Erster Blick, 2000. Lithograph. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
35 As described and dramatised in the documentary Particle Fever, directed by Mark Levinson, 2013. 36 C.f. Hans Christian von Baeyer, Taming the Atom: The Emergence of the Visible Microworld, Random Hause, 1992, as referred to in Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, 63ff. 37 The coronavirus pandemic being a recent and very troubling example of this. 38 Karen Barad in ‘Troubling of Times’ talks about the queer behaviour of the electron capable of ‘touching itself’; that is interacting with itself: emitting and absorbing its own photon, something American physicist Richard Feynman referred to as ‘immoral’. 39 As described, for instance, in Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway and Leonard Susskin, New Revolutions in Particle Physics: Basic Concepts, no. 1, iTunes-podcast, Stanford Continuing Studies Programme. 40 In the original installation of the piece at Nils Stærk Gallery, the fifty-six foam mattresses were placed next to twenty-two large, rusted iron plates – the so-called ground protection mats – in which the initials ET are cut out. Lea Porsager, E(AR)THERIC SLIME ~ PRE-OP, 29 April to 2 July 2016. 41 Lea Porsager, text poster as part of the installation E(AR) THERIC SLIME ~ PRE-OP, 2016.
to reflect upon the arguments we have for believing ourselves to be the masters of life and death? Knowledge of elementary particles is hoped to provide the missing information needed to explain how our Universe was created,35 but it has also supported the development of atomic bombs and resulted in great amounts of nuclear waste. The visuualisation of atoms amplifies the realisation that the human being consists of, and is nothing but, a speck among other specks of dust in the Universe – but it also creates the idea that scientific discoveries may be able to tame processes at atomic levels.36 Again, in order not simply to describe, but to control and predict probable outcomes. Reading Richter with and through Stengers inspires us to be aware that the ongoing scientific discoveries on increasingly smaller and larger scales must be followed up by discussions of the implications drawn from these discoveries. In other words, it is crucial to discuss which solutions we are trying to reach through the ability to visualise an atom and turn observables into calculables. Mini-bangs and the power of weak forces If we contend that we, as humans, are accustomed to interacting through and with our bodies, senses and perception with the phenomenal world of flowers, coffee cups, photographs and newspapers, it may be equally obvious how we are impacted by, interact with and have to react to forces that go beyond phenomena perceivable by the senses.37 Lea Porsager continually investigates how forces of particle physics entangle with forces of a spiritual and sexual kind. Questions, such as where do we come from, what are we made of and how can
we know, often neglect to consider how life presents itself to us in all its messiness and unpredictability. In Porsager’s video work Disrupted E(ar)thereal Fantasy (Ova Splash) and a related text poster, connections are drawn between quantum physics, anthroposophy, the artistic strategies of American conceptual artist Lee Lozano, kundalini yoga and sexual desire, creating a sense of a reversing or at least a queering of scales and effects, of how we would normally think these things were connected.38 Within the configuration of the work, which also includes the installation Space-time Foam, consisting of fifty-six purple foam mattresses and seven silvercoloured sculptural abstractions of the inner ear, the so-called two-slit experiment suddenly gains new significance. The two-slit experiment is part of quantum mechanic’s argument for the particle-wave duality of light (and matter).39 By sending particles through an obstacle with two holes in it, a diffraction pattern is created, which attests to the particles’ wave behaviour. In the original installation of Porsager’s work, the video’s images of a woman, possibly masturbating, and its animated sequences of purple eggs, is juxtaposed with a text poster with a tale of the fictional character ET.40 As ET moves in and out of art history, events of quantum physics and Rudolf Steiner’s lecture on the ear, the slits ambivalently point to the slits of particle physics and the vagina as a slit: ET recalls and recollects previous experiments done with FEMALE friends: slit/unslit, feathery, foamy, masturbatory fizz-fest. Woman. Bird. Egg. Woman. Bird. Egg. Ova. Splash.41
Lea Porsager, still from Disrupted E(a)rthereal Fantasy (Ova Splash), 2016. Film/3D animation: Duration 13 mins. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
In the text poster, explicit references are made to the physicists Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli, who each in their own way, and along different paths, contributed to the discoveries of quantum physics. Pauli (definitely more esoterically inclined than Bohr) is known for his discovery of the neutrino particle, but was also deeply influenced by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and insisted that one of his theories came to him in a dream.42 The neutrino, an even smaller elementary particle than neutrons, electrons and photons, is emitted from atoms in the process of radioactive decay and is evidence at loose in the Universe of the nuclear processes taking place within stars.43 The penetrating feature of the neutrino becomes an example of the intricate relation between our phenomenal bodies and the distant origins of the Universe. A constant Mini Bang!, as museum director Birgitte Kirkhoff puts it in the catalogue text that accompanied Porsager’s exhibition [Weak] Force at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde in 2019.44 The weak force is a fundamental force that
is stronger than gravity, but only effective at very short distances. It is responsible for radioactive decay and, thus, has the capacity to transform subatomic particles into other ones. In Porsager’s work, the classical laws of physics are temporarily suspended and connected associatively to other forces, similar to the way in which the fluid of the inner ear protects it against gravity. Informed by Rudolf Steiner’s ideas of the spiritual qualities of the ear, the work invites us to think of the bones and the inner ear as an instrument of connecting to not just the nanoscopic, but also the extra-phenomenal world. In the video, close-up images of a female body are juxtaposed with animations of eggs (ova) and the inner ear floating in an undefined space. In this way, the outside and inside of the body are presented side by side as an animation and speculation on the possibilities of reproduction – of life within the ova and of spirituality within the inner ear.45 By combining these perspectives, Porsager’s work becomes an opening to regarding the sexual body, its desires
42 Birgitte Kirkhoff Eriksen, ‘Dear Radioactive’, [Weak] Force. Lea Porsager, ed. Morten Hviid Melsen, Museet for Samtidskunst, 2019, 4. 43 In connection to the explosion of a super nova in 1987, an extraordinarily high number of neutrinos were detected, and supposedly each of our bodies are penetrated by 100 trillion neutrinos every second. 44 Eriksen, ‘Dear Radioactive’, 4. 45 Rudolf Steiner, in his lecture, speculates upon the inner ear as equivalent to the embryo; a latent body that the human carries inside them: ‘The cochlea within the ear is none other than a beautiful, elaborate metamorphosis of these inner organs. And so, you can imagine; there, inside the ear, there lies a human being, whose head is immersed in its own brain. Indeed, we bear within us a whole number of “human beings”, more or less metamorphosed or transformed, and this is one of them’. Rudolf Steiner, ‘Spiritual Relationships in the Human Organism. The Ear’, Stuttgart, 9 December 1922, wn.rsarchive.org.
Lea Porsager, Disrupted E(a)rthereal Fantasy (Ova Splash), 2016. Film/3D animation: Duration 13 mins. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art Lea Porsager, Space-Time Foam, 2016. Fifty-six painted foam mattresses, seven sculptures in wood covered in metal paint. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
46 Roberta Smith, ‘Lee Lozano, 68, Conceptual Artist Who Boycotted Women for Years’, The New York Times, 18 October 1999.
and orgasms as non-ignorable forces in the world. Energy is what connects the physical with the spiritual. Within some variations of tantric yoga, sex is a means to reach a spiritual realm, of erasing the subject and establishing connections through the phenomenal body with extra-phenomenal dimensions. As it says in the text poster: ‘I WILL MAKE MYSELF EMPTY TO RECEIVE COSMIC INFO’. The masturbation session in the video may then be an example of such an exchange with the cosmos, a cosmic fuck. With the figure of Lee Lozano, who also referred to herself as E, the work points towards one of its own art historical references, but simultaneously suggests an interpretation of her legacy that challenges the constraints that formed Lozano’s career and life. In the text poster, Porsager refers directly to Lozano and her work but she is also summoned as a source of inspiration, though less explicitly through the themes evoked in the video and textual work. That Porsager’s work raises some of the same questions and interests as Lozano’s seems clear. Trained in philosophy and natural sciences, Lozano created a series of Wave paintings based on the physical properties of light.46 Another known work is entitled Masturbation Investigation and several of her early drawings had sexual connotations. With her General Strike Piece from 1969, however, Lozano withdrew from the art world, and in her other uncompromising piece Boycott Women, Lozano experimented with isolating herself from other women, supposedly in order to discover new ways of communicating with them – ones not framed by (the) patriarchy.
Instead of adopting Lozano’s strategies directly, Porsager’s work can be viewed as an attempt to create new forms of communication, particularly for women, expanding what is possible through reconnecting forces of different kinds. The work raises questions about what forms of desire and what forms of production and reproduction are valid. To gain access to these levels of existence, including autosexual desires and exchanges of energy or information with the cosmos and across the divide between life and death, we must use other modes of observation and communication than those presented by the established discipline of physics or of technical media in an ordinary sense. In this process, it becomes very clear how art is itself a technology for producing worlds, providing a space for experimentation and reflection. Porsager’s work presents itself as a technology of visualising information that lies both in and outside of the discipline of physics, experimenting with other means of measurement and communication. And maybe those little deaths, which the work alludes to, the orgasm and tantric meditation, are exercises in dying, practicing what it might mean to suspend the thinking and sensing subject. As a cosmopolitical endeavour, Porsager’s works urges us to not simply reorganise what we know, but also to approach what we do not – and maybe cannot – know and predict but only imagine and experience. Imagining the (im)possible Moving through the photographic image of the starry night sky by Mads Gamdrup and the inside of an atom with Gerhard
Richter, dust particles on a photographic plate by Nanna Debois Buhl and a fabulation on cosmic fucks and the inner earâ€™s resistance to gravity with Lea Porsager, it is evident that artworks contribute to negotiating and re-articulating relations between biological, material, technical and cultural scales. Read from the perspective of cosmology and the notions of cosmopolitics and cosmotechnics, the presented artworks reflect (on) how the human is part of that very nature they are trying to observe and understand. And the works interrogate the technical means of registration and measurement as a meeting of the natural and the social: matter and meaning.47 Through the artworks, we are invited to consider how we are in the process of continuously creating several worlds on different levels, which cannot necessarily be scaled or made to fit with(in) each other. This resonates with ideas of the world as a complex of spheres, such as, for instance, the biosphere and technosphere,48 or of superimposed systems that form an entanglement of metastable systems, which interact and affect each other, but cannot be reduced to a simple formula. The artworks, thereby, also direct attention to how the idea of a cosmos as a unified interacting system is political; something that will have to be continually negotiated and discussed. Applying the notions of cosmotechnics and cosmopolitics implies asking which world we are producing through our descriptions, observations and measurements.
illuminates phenomena and the means for the observation and description alike. Working across scales, traversing divisions between established disciplines, invites and provokes us to think and imagine otherwise. This also includes imagining a world without us, if we do not falter in front of how we (at least, in a world formed by Western thought, scientific progress and industrialisation) have been accustomed to thinking about relations between nature and human and the ways in which they act and interact. We are invited to consider, which world we wish to participate in producing and through what means. Speculating whether this produced world leaves room for human, as well as other, forms of life also urges us to acknowledge what we cannot know and calculate.
Art plays a vital role in addressing the cosmopolitical question in and through its ability to function as a double lens that
47 Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 67. 48 Coined by American geologist and engineer Peter Haff. See, for instance, Jan Salasiewicz, â€˜The unbearable burden of the technosphereâ€™, The Unesco Courier, no. 2, 2018, en.unesco. org/courier/2018-2/unbearable-burden-technosphere.
Cosmic Care Tobias Dias
As many critics pointed out during the first few months of the still ongoing covid19 crisis, the pandemic could indeed be seen as merely adding another layer to capitalism’s perversely demonstrable inability to provide the basis for a liveable life.1 As the indigenous movement The Red Nation stated in mid-March: ‘the crisis has exposed the capitalist system for what it is: anti-life’.2 As a reaction to the predictable recognition that ‘corporate politicians and billionaires [...] only care about their own power and wealth’, the early months of the pandemic, thus, stimulated various demands for a universal and global care system beyond capitalist exploitation and extraction.3 According to a group of academics and activists dubbing themselves The Care Collective, the pandemic crisis was not just the result of new pathogens propagating in human bodies around the globe. It also caused and exposed a manifold crisis of care. Years of neoliberal austerity, deregulation and privatisation debasing and devaluing ‘hands-on’ care work meant that many of the largest nation states were unable to properly cope with the spread, the Collective argued.4 What was suddenly so urgently missing was not only more and better conditions for ‘hands-on’ care workers, but also care in the sense of an ‘enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life’.5 On this note, the Collective called for a new system of universal care and for a radical rethinking of the role of the state and the economy on the foundation of a proliferating circle of models of common care. Such utopian
yearnings were far from rare during those initial months. Crises, as we know, are not only recklessly violent; they also induce radical hopes. In an attempt to respond to such visions of universal care systems, this article will turn its attention to a rather unusual object: Russian Cosmism. As ridiculous and frivolously ill-timed as it may sound at first, I will indeed argue that we seem to need Russian Cosmism more than ever before. I will do this by examining two contemporary (though pre-corona) artworks, Jonas Staal’s installation Interplanetary Species Society from 2019 and the film trilogy on Russian Cosmism Immortality for All from 2014-17 by Anton Vidokle. On the basis of these works, I discuss how Staal and Vidokle actualise past utopian desires in order to draw some inspiring lessons for a contemporary politics of care.6 Whereas Staal calls for a politicisation of the biosphere in new experimental infrastructural settings, Vidokle elaborates on a biopolitical demand for immortality for all that is mediated by the screen. On the basis of the fundamental impulses of Russian Cosmism, they both attempt to experiment with an enduring capacity for caring for the living; a practice that, embedded within material situations, seeks to provoke speculative and imaginary potentialities.7 Seen from a wider perspective, both Staal’s installation and Vidokle’s film engage in the reception of the intellectual, artistic and philosophical tradition of Russian Cosmism, which has unfolded around the media platform e-flux with several book publications, journals, exhibitions and even an extensive timeline on the
Jonas Staal, Interplanetary Species Society, 2019. Installation photo from Reaktorhallen in Stockholm. Produced by Public Art Agency Sweden. Courtesy of the artist
1 For a widely quoted and discussed account, which touched upon the ecological roots of covid-19, see Rob Wallace et. al., ‘COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital’, Monthly Review, 1 May 2020, monthlyreview. org/2020/05/01/covid-19-andcircuits-of-capital/. I would like to thank the editors, especially Gry Hedin, Anne Kølbæk Iversen and Sarah Pihl Petersen, for valuable comments and help with this article. All cited online sources have been accessed July 2020. 2 The Red Nation, Editorial Council, ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic: Capitalism in Crisis’, 16 March 2020, therednation. org/2020/03/16/the-covid-19-pandemic-capitalism-in-crisis/. 3 The Red Nation, ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic’, emphasis added. 4 The Care Collective, ‘COVID19 Pandemic: A Crisis of Care’, Verso Blog (blog), 26 March 2020, versobooks.com/ blogs/4617-covid-19-pandemica-crisis-of-care. For a more thorough and general discussion of this crisis pre-covid-19, see, e.g., Nancy Fraser, ‘Crisis of Care? On the Social-Reproductive Contradictions of Contemporary Capitalism’, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya, Pluto Press, 2017. 5 The Care Collective, ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’. 6 In the midst of writing this article, Jonas Staal responded to the crisis with a text on e-flux. See Jonas Staal, ‘Coronavirus Propagations’, e-flux conversations, 17 March 2020, conversations.e-flux.com/t/ coronavirus-propagations-by-jonas-staal/9671. Having almost finished writing this piece, Anton Vidokle published an interview
in the e-flux journal in which he briefly emphasises the contemporaneity of cosmism (an edited transcription of a conversation taking place on Zoom in May in the context of the Art and Science Aleph Festival hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico), see Anton Vidokle & Irmgard Emmelhainz, ‘God-Building as a Work of Art: Cosmist Aesthetics’, e-flux journal, #110, June, 2020, e-fux.com. 7 For a theoretical elaboration on the notion of care and its material and speculative dimensions, see María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 8 Anastasia Gacheva, Arseny Zhilyaev & Anton Vidokle, ‘Timeline of Russian Cosmism’, e-flux journal, #88, February, 2018, cosmism-timeline.e-flux. com. 9 George M. Young, The Russian Cosmist: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, Oxford University Press, 2012. 10 Boris Groys, ‘Introduction: Russian Cosmism and the Technology of Immortality’, Russian Cosmism, ed. Boris Groys, The MIT Press, 2018. 11 Esther Zonsheim (in conversation with Bart De Baere & Arseny Zhilyaev), ‘Wahlverwandtschaft’, Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism, ed. e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, 2017, 139; Arseny Zhilyaev (in conversation with Bart De Baere and Esther Zonsheim), ‘Wahlverwandtschaft’, ibid., 143. 12 Hito Steyerl, et al. ‘Editorial - Strange Universalism’, e-flux Journal, #86, November, 2017.
e-flux webpage.8 From this dispersed historiographical endeavour, Russian Cosmism – a conceptual term applied retrospectively in the 1970s – emerges as a highly multifariious historical tradition. As such a tradition, Russian Cosmism is said to encompass the work and practice of Russian scientists, philosophers, technicians and artists from the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century. Some, in this group of scientists, reflected on the possibility that the sun might have caused the communist revolution, while others developed visions of space occupation; thus, building the cornerstones for what would later become Russian space science. Moreover, some of these ideas disseminated into the Russian avant-garde in the form of ‘biocosmist poetics’, and further into the post-revolutionary establishment of a transdisciplinary Institute for Blood Transfusion with the ambition of collectivising blood and rejuvenating life. Most often, the Russian cosmists took their point of departure from the posthumously published Philosophy of the Common Task written by the Russian philosopher and librarian Nikolai Fedorov in the late nineteenth century.9 In this book, as media theorist Boris Groys has noted, Fedorov drew the contours of a radical biopolitical project seeking to overcome death.10 Death was a biological mistake, Fedorov argued, and for this reason a truly common and socially just state should strive towards the immortality of all who ever lived and would live – an aspiration that, naturally, would quickly lead to space constraints and the need to explore other planets. Our daunting cosmic times and discouragingly sick Earth need truly cosmic answers
for sharing and taking care of the living. This seems to be the raison d’etre of Staal’s and Vidokle’s actualisation of Russian Cosmism. What they share is an attempt to resurrect the central Fedorovian aspiration to ‘live with and for everyone’ and, thereby, engage in the radical shared task of resurrecting and taking care of all humans, animals, bacteria and ‘all other molecular compounds, too’.11 I propose to term this strange universal ambition a cosmic care for the living.12 Naturally, Fedorov’s hyperbole and dramatic ideas of cosmic care are much weaker today than in the late nineteenth century or post-revolutionary years in Russia, but Staal and Vidokle show us that cosmism need not be a ‘mythological place-holder for an absent, or failed, politics’.13 As we shall see, they keep alive the desire for a cosmic care; they attempt to organise past utopian desires and speculative imaginaries, and, thus, they simultaneously reflect and epitomise the contradictory function of art as a careful practice. Through and in their works, we are confronted with several questions crucial for any contemporary politics of care within and beyond the field of art: as the notion of (feminised) care historically speaking has most often been considered the exact opposite of (masculinised) political emancipation and empowerment, what would it then mean to put care and concern into the service of emancipation? 14 Are we, really, as the French anthropologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour seductively would have us believe, forced to choose between an iconoclastic ‘critical barbarity’ gesturing towards the fetishes and abstract structures of capital, and a more concerned form of critique that
aspires to compose and glance at things ‘in great need of care and caution’?15 Instead of digging myself into a theoretical hole encompassing the usual suspects of influential and congenial contemporary thinkers, such as Latour, Donna Haraway and Jane Bennett, my attention will instead turn to Staal and Vidokle. From Staal’s and Vidokle’s engagement with the historical archive of the futures past of Russian Cosmism, I attempt to examine the contours of a form of weak cosmism from which we might be better able to grasp, or at least grasp otherwise, what it means today to mobilise contemporary social desires involving the nurturing and care of all. If not this, what else should comprise the horizon for contemporary politics? Countering the billionaire boys club A little more than one hundred years after socialist thinker Rosa Luxemburg’s famous thesis that capitalism would not survive without a non-capitalist outside, it is tempting to confirm her assessment – though for different reasons than those her sophisticated analysis pointed to.16 With billionaire projects, such as Space-X by Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) and Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos (CEO and founder of Amazon), we are witnessing a new kind of ‘neocolonial, extractivist, corporatist state’, as Jonas Staal has phrased it.17 The ‘alternative’ to the ‘inevitable extinction’, as Elon Musk has himself put it, is to become a ‘spacefaring civilisation, and a multi-planetary species’.18 Cunning as it is, capital is finding ways to assert its powers beyond planet Earth. If the most likely outcome from this situation is the acceleration of the collapse of capitalism, as economic geographer Peter
Dickens has stressed, we might also get used to another layer within this mess: a kind of extra-terrestrial billionaire boys club seeking to survive from the planet it has burned up (and through).19 That Musk, Bezos or some other upcoming trillionaire will succeed in this endeavour within the near future does not escape the real social and ecological effects it will cause. In the summer of 2019, in Reaktorhallen in Stockholm, Jonas Staal exhibited his Interplanetary Species Society. In an explicit attempt to counter the cosmic billionaire boys club and other ‘terrifying alt-right biosphere[s]’, Staal’s installation aimed to function as an ‘experimental’ and ‘emancipatory biosphere’.20 Materially speaking, the species society took the form of a huge installation consisting of an assembly of chairs with domes at each side: the first dome exhibited neo-constructivist ammonites – fossil ammonites on top of columns bearing slogans such as ‘COMRADES IN DEEP FUTURE’, ‘HYPEREMPATHY NOW’ and ‘FOSSILS ARE COMRADES NOT FUEL’. The other dome comprised two rectangular posters of plants, arranged beside a red flag – so-called ‘proletarian plantae’. The installation was gathered around a deep hole in which one could glimpse cosmic meteorites. As Staal himself stresses in an e-flux essay entitled ‘Comrades in Deep Future’, the experimental biosphere was much inspired by Alexander Bogdanov’s cosmic novel Red Star, a sci-fi vision of a cosmist-communist utopia on Mars published in 1908. Without neglecting the programmatic and ambiguous nature of this fictive communist utopia (in fact, the novel ends with problems of overpopulation
13 Benjamin Noys, ‘The Poverty of Vitalism (and the Vitalism of Poverty)’, To Have Done With Life: Vitalism and Anti-vitalism in Contemporary Philosophy, MaMa, 2011, 3, available at academia.edu. 14 For a brief discussion on this matter, see Dmitry Vilensky, ‘Who Is a Healthy Subject? Dmitry Vilensky interviewed by Meriujn Oudenamposen’, Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health, ed. Andrea Phillips & Markus Miessen, Sternberg Press & SKOR, 2011. 15 Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry, no. 30, winter 2004, 240, 246. In his ‘An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”’, Latour indeed set it up as a matter of an either/ or: ‘The difference is not moot, because what performs a critique cannot also compose’. Bruno Latour, ‘An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”’, New Literary History 41, 2010. 16 Rosa Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Verlag Neue Kritik, 1970. 17 Jonas Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’, e-flux Journal, #102, September, 2019, e-flux.com. 18 Nicky Woolf, ‘SpaceX Founder Elon Musk Plans to Get Humans to Mars in Six Years’, The Guardian, 28 September 2016, theguardian.com. 19 Peter Dickens, ‘The Cosmos as Capitalism’s Outside‘, The Sociological Review, vol. 57, no. 1, 2009, 80. 20 Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’.
Jonas Staal, Interplanetary Species Society, 2019. Installation shot from Reaktorhallen 35 Sweden. Courtesy of the artist in Stockholm. Produced by Public Art Agency
21 Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’. More precisely Staal is drawing on the work of Russian constructivists here, such as Varvara Stepanova, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko, and their idea of the ‘object as comrade’. This idea comes from the scholarly work of Christian Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Object of Russian Constructivism, The MIT Press, 2005. 22 Jonas Staal, ‘Assemblism’, e-flux journal, #80, March 2017, e-flux.com; In this text – and in the installation in Stockholm – Staal is inspired by Judith Butler’s idea of the assembly as a performative practice. However, whereas Butler is, first and foremost, focused on the bodily presence of the performative assembly, Staal is much more concerned with the infrastructural conditions rendering a more careful assembly possible. See Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly, Harvard University Press, 2014. 23 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, ed. Gabriel Rockhill, Bloomsbury, 2004.
and excessive resource extractions, which lead to debate about whether to colonise capitalist Earth), Bogdanov’s Red Star is presented as a critical and historical corrective to the violent colonial vocabulary of Musk and Bezos. Rather than a nostalgic longing or a simple historicist gesture, Bogdanov’s novel, in Staal’s work, functions as a kind of historical resource from which to mobilise the urgent need to engage with the thinking and building of an alternative biosphere in our contemporary moment. ‘WE DEMAND THE PRESENT’, as a slogan on one of the columns states. Along the lines of this communist trajectory, Staal, inspired by Donna Haraway (the contemporary dialectical counterpart to Bogdanov?), calls for a ‘propaganda art of hyperempathy’: what is proposed is nothing less than another kind of biosphere replacing the pioneer with the guest. Moreover, Staal is inspired by the works of certain Russian constructivists in his consideration of what it might imply to view non-human objects, such as meteorites, plantae and ammonites, not as dead, exploitable matter, but as ‘comrades’.21 Characteristic of Staal’s practice, this experimental replacing or substitution has to be viewed as both a performative and organisational task. Resembling a strange mixture of scientific societies, such as the glorious The Royal Societies, a communist party meeting and a cosmic fiction, Staal founded his assembly on 24 August 2019 in Reaktorhallen, with an event involving non-human objects and human academics, scientists, curators and artists. It does, however, not seem unfair to argue that Staal’s concern was less the actual
event than the performative assembly itself in the form of the installation.22 Installed underground in a former Cold War era techno-utopia topos, a nuclear reactor, the installation could indeed be said to expose the social, material and infrastructural conditions without which any alternative biosphere and material actors would be unthinkable. In this sense, the installation could be viewed as the cheap and more artistic equivalent to the vast experimental research facility Biosphere 2 in Arizona (which Staal also mentions in the e-flux essay), once under the directorship of the alt-right propagandist and former Trump chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Obviously mimicking not only some of the architectural forms of Biosphere 2, but also its inaccessibility and exclusiveness, literally being underground in a former stateowned research reactor now frequently used for cultural and artistic purposes, Staal’s installation performed – that is, constructed – a counter-hegemonic biosphere. In Staal’s rather compact and airy, almost transparent, infrastructure, what is at the fore is, thus, how any experimental social organisation – however scientific – already prescribes and is conditioned by the ever-present formal aspects, whose political form par excellence is the assembly: in the chairs on which we sit, and the walls surrounding us, we are already taking part in what philosopher Jacques Rancière terms a ‘distribution of the sensible’.23 In other words, within the installation, we are already partitioned into a social division of labour; configured by certain limits and possibilities, enemies and comrades inscribed in the very
Biosphere 2. Library & Living Quarters, Arizona
infrastructure of our – or their – assemblies and experimental laboratories. Staal, thus, reflects on and engages with the question of how to contest and collaborate in a more careful infrastructure. One that replaces the competitive and violent extraction of capital and its personifications with mutual aid and ‘space cooperation’.24 The politics of non-human assemblies Staal’s installation is unquestionably symptomatic of a much broader trend in the contemporary art world. His work could arguably be viewed along rather similar lines to another political-aesthetic engagement with non-human/ human assemblies, such as that of the speculative research group Parliament of
Things. In 2018, this group launched the long-term The Embassy of the North Sea project at Stroom in The Hague, much inspired by the thinking of Latour.25 In March 2019, they arranged a symposium entitled ‘Listening to the Sea’ in which they attempted, with the help of hydrophones and underwater noise data, to give things of the oceanic ecosystem a political voice. The ambition was to include non-human actors and extend human rights to phytoplankton, bacteria and hermit crabs as ‘fully-fledged members of society’.26 As in Staal’s installation, the Embassy took the form of a careful gathering of participants (humans as well as non-humans), as Latour would put it, which together came to constitute an assembly.27 Both the Embassy
24 Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’. With the use of chairs in the installation, Staal, in fact, betrays his own lesson which he stated in 2017: ’we have learned that using chairs maintains the liberal order that emphasises the sovereign individual above the collective, whereas benches maintain the principle of negotiating and sharing collective space’. Staal, ‘Assemblism’. 25 A notion from Bruno Latour, We have never been Modern, Havard University Press, 1993. 26 Parliament of Things, ‘Embassy of the North Sea 2019’, 27 March 2019, theparliamentofthings.org/event/ embassy-of-the-north-sea-2019/. 27 Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?’, 246.
28 Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, The MIT Press, 2005.
and Staal’s installation strived towards expanding the network of actors, probing the task of ‘making things public’.28
29 Jonas Staal, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century, The MIT Press, 2019.
However, whereas Staal’s installation is propagandistic in nature, The Embassy of the North plans to build a fully inclusive democracy by 2030, with the possible goal of including the Embassy in the EU infrastructure in the form of an office in Brussels.29 As the Embassy emphasises the inclusion of non-human actors in an already given formal democratic and bureaucratic infrastructure (which could perhaps be supplied with an experimental office?), Staal’s experimental biosphere stems from the premise that it takes form within the ‘terrifying alt-right biosphere in which we find ourselves today’ – to such a terrifying extent that he thought it necessary to, at least temporally, go underground.30
30 Anne van Leeuwen, ‘About the Embassy of the North Sea. Speech during the Human Rights Weekend @DeBalie, Amsterdam’, February 2019, theparliamentofthings.org/ article/embassyofthenorthsea/; Jonas Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’. 31 Jonas Staal, ‘Comrades in Deep Future’. A month after the exhibition in Stockholm, between 20 and 22 September on the occasion of Ruhrtriennale Festival der Künste, Jonas Staal conducted a performative training camp curated by Florian Malzacher, trainingforthefuture. org.
What is foremost in this admittedly rather brief, polemical comparison between the Embassy and Staal’s installation, is the highly conflictual and hostile social context, which none of the formal strategies can evade. The assembly of the Embassy may be viewed as processual, fragile, constructivist and radical in scope and scale. But, from the point of view of Staal’s assembly, the strong emphasis on inclusion, and the diplomatic and juridical form of the Embassy (strictly speaking the embassy as an architectural-bureaucratic form sustains and extends the interests of the nation states) tends to naturalise or, at least, devote great trust to the existing social forms. Ignoring the hostile and increasingly militarised biosphere in which we are all living, arguably also makes it
an easy target for the compensatory and recuperated powers of capital. Powers which, after all, show no intention of altering our direction towards catastrophe. Hence, contrary to the Embassy’s strategy of radical inclusion, Staal’s experimental biosphere is comradely and hyperempathic – though surrounded by capitalist alt-right enemies. Rather than a formalistic bourgeoisie-like we (as in the brilliantly illustrated case of the EU, which the embassy aspires to be included in), it, thus, produces a propagandistic us vs. them. On the shoulders of past emancipatory movements, Staal attempts to construct new collective, cultural and artistic forms that engage and propagate – hence propaganda – in a much broader social struggle against (fossil) capitalism and its increasingly fascist derivatives. Of course, such a position is open to critique: just as the performative gap between humans and non-human agents can arguable be viewed as a generic and rather empty gesture, the propagandistic exertion can perhaps, for some, appear too performative, as a kind of desperate and left-mimicking act of the Bannon-like alt-right repertoire. However, not only do we need to be aware here not to fall into a dubious liberal critique presupposing a Habermasian ideal of a herschaftsfreie Dialog, we also need to acknowledge that this us is far from homogenous. Rather, it is built around multiple and precarious socialist visions of new forms of living inscribed within the ‘morphological vocabulary’ of experimental biospheres, assemblies and even so-called training camps.31 Staal’s installation could, thus, be said to highlight that we do not need to choose, as Latour compels us to, between performing
a (Marxist) critique of capital and other forms of oppression, and a careful composition or assembly of objects.32 What dispels such a false choice is the attention to the infrastructural and formal conditions always already (re)configuring any form of social organisation. The heritage of Cosmism During the period of Staal’s installation in Reaktorhallen in Stockholm, multiple screenings of Anton Vidokle’s Citizens of the Cosmos took place in the exhibition. On the surface, however, this alignment seems rather odd. As another manifestation of the interest in cosmic ideas in the contemporary art world, Vidokle’s film is pervaded by similar obscure and speculative demands, as present in Staal’s installation. However, compared to Staal’s highly politicised propaganda art of hyperempathy, Vidokle’s work strike as somewhat more hesitant and perhaps even reticent in terms of stance to contemporary politics. This is not least the case with his film trilogy Immortality for All from 2014 to 2017. In these ‘scientific-popular-films’, as he himself terms them, exhibited several places, such as Tranen in Copenhagen, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul and YVZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto, Vidokle tells the story of Russian Cosmism.33 The films present montages of quotations recited in Russian by Vidokle (and others), and images of actors and people living in the various areas of the former Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan, Siberia and Crimea. In the two first films, panorama-like images are shown of the post-Soviet
landscape of industrial architecture: pylons surrounded by mountains, Lenin statues and Muslim cemeteries. Occasionally, from a bird’s-eye perspective, the historical distance between the Russian cosmists and our time is supplemented with a certain form of visually produced spatial wideness, which bears some striking similarities with the Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko’s famous film Earth from 1930. However, whereas the characters of Dovzhenko’s Earth are almost annoyingly glancing towards the future throughout the film, the anonymous people of Vidokle’s ‘scientific-popular-films’ seems haunted by the words of the cosmists, which they recite in a severe, convincing mime. Compared to Staal’s installation, Vidokle’s films appear almost surprisingly historical, and some critics have indeed identified the trilogy as an ‘intellectual history project’.34 This, however, does not result in an aestheticisation of a forgotten and obscure intellectual tradition in a kind of compensatory utopian act, which would, at best, reflect the historical distance to our contemporary ‘capitalist realism’.35 Reluctant to convey any direct actualisation, Vidokle retains a historical distance, and is, therefore, questioning and perhaps even illuminating cracks and fissures in our disastrous present from afar. This historical gap is further reflected in the absence of any direct translations of the relation between his or others’ recitations of obscure quotes taken from Fedorov or Russian scientist Alexander Chizhevsky, and the images portraying the contemporary post-Soviet landscape with people bathing in a river and riding horses.
32 Bruno Latour, ‘An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”’, 475. 33 Anton Vidokle (in conversation with Arseny Zhilyaev), ‘Factories of Resurrection’, Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism, Sternberg Press, 2017, 69. 34 Alma Mikulinsky, ‘Resurrection After All: Russian Cosmism as an Intellectual History Project’, Tohu*, 18 June 2019, tohumagazine.com/ article/resurrection-after-all-russian-cosmism-intellectual-history-project. 35 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009.
36 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, 486. 37 Vidokle, ‘Factories of Resurrection’, 58. 38 Ibid., 64-5. 39 Ibid., 62. 40 Alexander Chizhevsky, ‘Mass Movements and Short Periods of Solar Activity’, The Earth in the Sun’s Embrace, Russian Cosmism, ed. Boris Groys, e-flux & The MIT Press, 2018, 41–53.
Frayed as it may sound, Vidokle’s visual historiography is, in this sense, close to Walter Benjamin’s historiographical reflections. Instead of a direct historical translation, Vidokle keeps open, much more than Staal, the dialectical thresholds between past utopian futures and our contemporary moment with the hope that it may result in new forms of the Benjaminian ‘now of recognisability’.36 Perhaps even more than Benjamin, Vidokle explores this threshold in a very practical and material sense. According to Vidokle, he first stumbled upon the Russian cosmists when Boris Groys told him about cosmic ideas about the resurrection of the dead on spaceships, and Bolshevik experiments of prolonging life through collective blood transfusions.37 The blood experiment, in particular, epitomises a central feature in Vidokle’s trilogy. The post-revolutionary establishment of the Institute for Blood Transfusion was led by doctor, philosopher and co-founder of the Bolsheviks Alexander Bogdanov. The institute was built around the cosmist idea of slowing the ageing process, or perhaps even obtaining immortality by transfusing blood from the young to the elderly – a practice that in a modernised version is, in fact, now offered by certain blood clinics and allegedly taken up by another PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, who dreams of living to the age of 150. Bogdanov is almost absent in Vidokle’s films, but his biopolitical and somewhat mundanely utopian and material ambition of collectivisation and rejuvenation is materially expressed in the trilogy. All of the films begin with Vidokle addressing the viewer in Russian as a patient. In the
first film, This is Cosmos, a kind of introduction to Fedorov’s ideas, the viewer is successively exposed to a red-light ‘irradiation session’, a form of treatment accidentally developed by NASA with the result of speeding up the healing of skin wounds in the zero gravity in outer space. The second film, The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun, begins and ends with clinical hypnosis used for the treatment of different addictions. In the film, the hypnotised voice executed by Vidokle himself ultimately induces the viewer to follow the road to eternal life. In the third film, Immortality and the Resurrection for All!, Vidokle uses a discovery made by MIT: that flashing light in the range of 40 hertz has a medical effect on brain cells; for instance, reducing the loss of memory in the treatment of Alzheimer patients.38 In this way, Vidokle’s films materially and physiologically reflect and manifest the impulse of the cosmists in a kind of materialist determinist gesture.39 One particularly radical view of this materialist determinism, which is the pivotal point of Vidokle’s second film, was elaborated by Chizhevsky, who, for several years, examined the correspondence between solar activities and social revolutions, such as the October Revolution in 1917.40 Cosmic screens Borrowing a well-known trope popularised in the twentieth century from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida, we might, thus, speak of what could be termed a weak cosmism, pointing to two interdependent things: cosmism as a spectre encapsulating our contemporary longing for a universal (or cosmic) care system,
Anton Vidokle, still from This is Cosmos in Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism (2014-17). HD video, colour, sound: Duration 28:10 mins. Russian with English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist
Anton Vidokle, still from This is Cosmos in Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism (2014-17). HD video, colour, sound: Duration 28:10 mins. Russian with English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist
41 Vidokle, ‘Factories of Resurrection’, 65. 42 Arseny Zhilyaev (in conversation with Marina Simakova and Anton Vidokle), ‘Cosmic Doubts’, Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism, Sternberg Press, 2017, 119. 43 Victory News, Standing Strong Against Coronavirus COVID-19 with Kenneth Copeland, 2020, 1.29:28, youtube.com/ watch?v=LJ9BO_G0aGs&t=847s. 44 Kim Stanley Robinson (in conversation with Jim Bell), ‘The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the “Emergency Century”’, Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, ed. Ed Finn, Joey Eschrich & Juliet Ulman, Arizona State University, 2017; Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (in conversation with Anton Vidokle), ‘Chaos and Cosmos’, Art Without Death: Conversations On Russian Cosmism, ed. e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, 2017; see also Pasi Väliaho, Biopolitical Screens. Image, Power and the Neoliberal Brain, The MIT Press, 2014. 45 In São Paulo, for example, one of the biggest cities, the average life expectancy within a distance of less than 15 kilometres is 79 in the richest quarters and 55 in the poorest, see Nick Van Mead & Niko Kommenda, ‘Living on the Edge: São Paulo’s Inequality Mapped’, The Guardian, 27 November 2017. On the notion of ‘algorithmic governmentality’, see Antoinette Rouvroy, ‘Algorithmic Governmentality: Radicalisation and Immune Strategy of Capitalism and Neoliberalism?’, no. 3, 2016; Antoinette Rouvroy & Thomas Berns, ‘Algorithmic Governmentality and Prospects of Emancipation’, La Découverte, 177, no. 1, 2013.
and cosmism in a very practical and material sense, as in Staal’s meteorites, ammonites and proletarian plantae. In this context, rather than actually healing the viewer, what we might term Vidokle’s vulgar-materialist impulse, at least as much, expresses the idea and desire of immortality. Viewed thus, the threshold between futures past and present not yet fully recogognised could be perceived as taking form inbetween images obscurely chanting Fedorov’s utopian demands for immortality and the almost banal medical and material strategies of red light, hypnosis and flashing light at a certain frequency. Here, Vidokle is questioning the lines between the (techno-)utopian and the mundane – a perhaps not that insurmountable divide between demanding immortality and viewing a film. The cosmic utopian ethos to ‘rejuvenate, cure, heal, improve health, and delay death for as long as possible and by any means possible’ is, thereby, transferred to the screen as a cosmic, therapeutic and, perhaps even, medical medium.41 As novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has noted, space travel does indeed propose itself as a sheer ‘luxury problem’ today, and, for Fedorov himself, as Vidokle observed, was just a practical solution to the problems of overpopulation caused by the resurrection of the dead.42 Seen as such, forcing the viewer to turn their eyes away from an already overheated biosphere and onto the screen, should not necessarily be viewed as a call for ignorance, as we are usually told. As the screen has increasingly become the inevitable condition for any social struggle, Vidokle reflects on and manifests how
the digital fluxes and interfaces could be seen as the means and practical solution to a hyperempathetic stance; a medium through which a caring attitude in a vulgar-material sense is practised. After all, such practices and desires become less and less rare. During the first weeks of the corona outbreak in the US, it achieved its most patriarchal and passive-aggressive version in American televangelist Kenneth Copeland’s attempt to heal television viewers from covid-19 by asking them to place their hands on the screen.43 Vidokle’s films manifest this reverse terraforming of cosmic strategies and processes on screens, taking care of blood and molecules entangled as they are in an expansive biopolitical visual economy already ‘reformatting the human mind’ in digital fluxes.44 ‘This is cosmos’, Vidokle tells us in Russian with images of the Muslim cemeteries in Karaganda in Kazakhstan, former landscapes that under the Soviet Union were populated by political prisoners, such as Chizhevsky. Taking at face value the ambiguous line between the utopian dream of immortality and its more material, mundane execution present in Vidokle’s films, the demand for immortality might, then, not be as obscure as it first sounds. We all know the daunting numbers displaying unequal mortality rates. For billions of people living in the chaos of today’s algorithmic and biopolitical form of governmentality mediated by the laws of capital, the dream of immortality would perhaps amount to just 70 liveable years45 – and this is not to mention the other forms of increasingly
impoverished and obliterated lives occupying much of Vidokle’s attention in the trilogy. As a result of the corona outbreak, we experienced the increasingly crucial function the screen plays in this algorithmically controlled biosphere pervaded by contagious pathogens. Long before the virus had even peaked in the US, it became possible to glance at the contours of what writer and activist Naomi Klein dubbed the ‘New Screen Deal’: the hightech, Silicon Valley giants who did all they could to profit from the virus ‘in the name of fighting the virus’.46 From the point of view of Vidokle’s films, we can easily see how such initiatives are indistinguishable from the experience that the precondition for screen capitalism is that some lives are more highly valued than others.47 However, in the midst of these multiple disasters, the utopianism of the dreams and demands of the cosmists, which Vidokle’s films obsessively circle around, not only manifest how horrible the situation is, but also how much there is to be done. The parodic mimicry of the techno-utopian desires displayed in the attempt to endow a certain frequency of light with a demand for immortality might here carry a certain un-spectacular truth: that it is in the material and mundane, day-to-day hyperempathetic practices that immortality (that is, a liveable life) is hidden. Contrary to the way public health care institutions tend to appropriate art – as a kind of ‘too careful’ cultural Band-Aid detaching the sickness and the cure from its social context characterised by hyper-individualisation, privatisation and economic cuts in public health care funding48 – Vidokle’s historical and reflective approach complicates any form of instrumentalisation. The films
not only expose their viewers quite materially but also question and open, not least by virtue of the absurdity and obscurity of the cosmist ideas, the historical terrain to different forms of engagement in rejuvenating life and delaying death. Similar to the work of Staal, cosmism functions hence not so much as ‘an imaginary solution to real problems, as a real problematising of how to navigate the differences between the imaginal that corresponds to each particular labour point of view’.49 Rather than a mere historical analogy or a mythological place-holder, cosmism comes to function as a kind of historical reservoir from which to engage with some of the fundamental contradictions of our time. That is, as a weak historical tradition only surviving as long as practices pursuing other forms of caring and collective life forms persist and endure. In this light, we may reflect on Vidokle’s question towards the end of the first film: ‘and if all energy is truly indestructible, where is that energy now?’. This question is posed after having dubbed the Russian Revolution ‘applied Cosmism’, a social experiment allegedly canalising the energy of the cosmos. Thus, where did cosmism go? And what does it mean to be a cosmist today? The contradictions of care As historian and social reproduction theorist Tithi Bhattacharya noted at the beginning of April, the global propagation of the pandemic clarified that ‘care work and life-making work are the essential work of society’ – not capitalist ‘thing-making’ work.50 A few days later, Bhattacharya, together with the rest of the Marxist Feminist Collective, called for a decommodification and public availability of all care work.51 Rather than speculate on how 43
46 Naomi Klein, ‘Screen New Deal’, The Intercept, 8 May 2020, theintercept. com/2020/05/08/andrew-cuomo-eric-schmidt-coronavirus-tech-shock-doctrine/. 47 For a short discussion on how covid-19 displayed how some lives are more highly valued than others, see, e.g., Kehinde Andrews, ‘The Other Pandemic’, in The Quarantine Files: Thinkers in Self-Isolation, curated by Brad Evans: Los Angeles Review of Books, 2020, lareviewofbooks. org/article/quarantine-files-thinkers-self-isolation/. 48 Andrea Phillips, ‘Too Careful: Contemporary Art’s Public Making’, Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health, ed. Andrea Phillips & Markus Miessen, Sternberg Press and SKOR, 2011, 56. For more on the relationship between art and care see some of the other essays in this anthology. 49 McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red. Theory for the Anthropocene, Verso, 2016, 225. 50 Tithi Bhattacharya, ‘Social Reproduction and the Pandemic, with Tithi Bhattacharya’, Dissent Magazine, 2 April 2020, www.dissentmagazine. org/online_articles/social-reproduction-and-the-pandemic-with-tithi-bhattacharya. 51 The Marxist Feminist Collective, ‘On Social Reproduction and the Covid19 Pandemic: Seven Theses’, Spectre Journal, 3 April 2020, https://spectrejournal.com/ seven-theses-on-social-reproduction-and-the-covid-19-pandemic/.
Anton Vidokle, still from Citizens of the Cosmos in Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014-17. HD video, colour, sound: Duration 30:20 mins. Japanese with English 44 subtitles. Courtesy of the artist / Asakusa and Vitamin Creative Space
52 For some aspects on the ideological mediations of ‘art as care’ see the already noted, Phillips, ‘Too Careful’. For some valuable reflections on the mediations of love and care in immaterial capital in the operations and functioning of post-Fordist forms of labour, see Brian Kuan Wood, ‘Is It Love?’, What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It?, e-flux journal & Sternberg Press, 2017. 53 Phillips, ‘Too Careful’, 53. 54 Maria Lind, ‘An Ominous Buzz’, Art Review, 10 June 2015, artreview.com/ april-2015-opinion-maria-lind/. 55 This is a paraphrase taken from Adorno’s ‘In psycho-analysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’, Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflection on a Damaged Life, Verso, 2005, 49.
care workers might be seen as the truly contemporary cosmonauts, I will end with a rather short note on how the demands of life-making work expose and challenge some contradictions and critical potentials within the art world. In doing this, one soon has to acknowledge a rather simple fact: we certainly do not seem to lack art practices complying with the (privately funded) expectations of top-down organised inclusions of works of art in hospitals or Latourian instantiations desiring to make things public, often in a far too careful parliament of things. Critical attentiveness and carefulness are exactly what ideologically and materially speaking is expected from the aesthetic sensibilities of art. To acknowledge that art is entangled within a post-Fordist economy of affect, continuously producing the wounds and despair to be cared for, must, therefore, be one of the starting points of any reflection on care in the art world.52 The expectation is art practices that ‘repair and heal broken social situations’; art that does not hurt too much.53 In this sense, one could easily talk about a certain jargon of care in the art world. Care is obviously just as much the problem as it is the solution. To put it bluntly: art is, ideologically and materially speaking, expected to be careful and attentive, perhaps even healing, but no radical political-aesthetic struggle would ever survive without care, intimacy and mutual aid. Experimenting and identifying ways to tackle and deal with this contradiction, without obliging ourselves to a false Latourian choice between critical destruction and careful composition, might be one of the most urgent tasks of an emancipatory (and cosmic) engagement with care.
With this in mind, what makes the works of Staal and Vidokle interesting, and what justifies a certain comparative view, is the way they historicise the politics of care within a broader tradition of social struggle. Within this context, they elaborate, very concretely, even vulgarly, we might say, on what art critic and curator Maria Lind in a review of Vidokle’s first film terms ‘soft mobilisation’.54 In fact, one could arguably see this notion appropriated in a very literal manner in Vidokle’s most recent film Citizens of Cosmos in which cosmists go out on the streets singing. Rather than flirting with a nostalgic vision of an avant-garde gesture igniting or curing the masses, the strength of such images lies in their ambiguous combination of softness and mobilisation, carefulness and antagonism, without resolving their contradictory relationship. Perhaps the exposition of these images, as well as the urge to use watchwords and slogans, such as ‘Immortality for All’, and in the case of Staal’s installation, ‘HYPEREMPATHY NOW’, should not just be viewed solely as expressions of the cosmic desires layered in the longstanding tradition of emancipatory struggle. Rather, these art works show us, too, that cosmism today is mostly true in its anachronistic exaggerations and obscurities.55 Which simply means that we still have so much to fight for. Still a cosmos to win!
Anton Vidokle, still from Citizens of the Cosmos in Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014-17. HD video, colour, sound: Duration 30:20 mins. Japanese with English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist / Asakusa and Vitamin Creative Space
Anton Vidokle, still from The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun in Immortality For All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014-17. HD video, colour, sound: Duration 33:36 mins. Russian with English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist
The End of the Technological Utopia Katrine K. Pedersen
We will not be able to be smarter than a digital supercomputer, so, therefore, if you cannot beat ‘em, join ‘em.
the year 51 ‘after the last oil’, when it has become clear that humankind will not survive the impending catastrophes.
Elon Musk (2019)1
The scene is an ark – both site-specific and in the listener’s present – with ARKEN Museum of Modern Art forming the physical backdrop and framework for the work and listening experience, though the work may be accesed online and thus listened to anywhere. Smith’s work is, subsequently, metaphorically related to Noah’s Ark from the Old Testament. In the biblical narrative, God punishes humanity by annihilating all life while at the same time assigning humans the responsibility of gathering and preserving a pair from each animal species on the ark. In Smith’s work, there are five people gathering at the ark. A man and two women are the narrators and find themselves in a dystopian universe of deadly drones, mutated animals, and endless rain.
Around the world are DNA banks for extinct animal species, seed banks for plants that no longer grow on Earth. 3D scans of collapsed buildings. The frozen heads of the hopeful wealthy. But, as far as I know, nowhere else in the world has anyone tried to preserve human art. Amalie Smith (2018)2 The artist Amalie Smith’s sound piece 51 Years after The Last Oil (51 e.DSO (2018)) takes place in a distant future where technology is omnipresent and predominant and will eventually take over humans, Homo sapiens – as the species we know today.3 Using a binaural microphone, Smith has created a 3D sound universe for the purpose of presenting a future-time narrative to be listened to in a specific landscape in our real-time landscape, thus blurring reality and fiction; disrupting our senses of time by enabling different epochs to interact in the work. She has transformed the landscape around ARKEN Museum of Modern Art into an experience of dystopian time travel. The prerecorded audio is accessible via a browser on the visitor’s smart phone. Using headphones, the sound piece unfolds while the listener walks around the coastal landscape surrounding the museum. The sound piece consists of recordings made in a distant future,
ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Smith’s sound piece is thus a tale of an apocalyptic future where present systems, structures and life forms have fallen apart. As we shall see, it connects to issues reflected upon by cultural scholars discussing the consequences of technology’s ability to take control and the belief in the promises of technology to solve the crisis of a planet increasingly affected by our ‘culture’ of oil. These are all important themes for artists and writers today, and I will look into Smith’s contribution to this expansive field as I argue that the complex sound piece adds a much needed complexity by elaborating not only on the (in) abilities of technology but also on the necessity of a humanist and philosophical notion of time.
1 Elon Musk told Lex Fridman on ‘Artificial Intelligence’ podcast på youtube.com/watch?v=smK9dgdTl40&feature=youtu.be. All cited online sources have been accessed September 2020. 2 Amalie Smith, 51 e.DSO, 2018, [02.31]. Original language: ‘Rundt om i verden findes DNA-banker for uddøde dyrearter, frøbanker for planter, der ikke vokser på Jorden mere. 3D-skanninger af bygningsværker, der er styrtet sammen. Nedfrosne rigmænds håbefulde hoveder. Men så vidt jeg ved er der ikke andre steder i verden gjort et forsøg på at bevare menneskekunsten’. All citations from Smith’s work are translated by Sinéad Quike Køngerskov. 3 Amalie Schmidt, 51 e.DSO, 2018, is a binaural recorded stereo sound. Duration 25 mins. Listen to the piece on: 51edso.info
4 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [18:25]. Original language: ‘Jeg hørte en mærkelig lyd her for lidt siden. Måske en fugl? Jeg har taget optageren med herud for at fange den. Der var den! Den lyder underlig mekanisk. Nu kommer den herned. Den er landet på min hånd. Den er fjern, og små plirrende øjne. Men der sidder en solfanger på ryggen. Hej lille ven! Hvem har lavet dig? Av!’ 5 Some of the words erode, like in the words ’blob of paint‘ (original: ‘malerklatte’) and ’glazed’, (original: ‘glaserede’) which in the original spoken language appear grammatically incorrect in the sentence: ’I close my eyes and think about the sun. Let my fingers wander over a piece of glazed ceramic, or the thick blob of paint on the edge of a painting.’ Smith, 51 e.DSO, [3:30] Original language: ‘Jeg lukker øjnene og tænker på solen. Lader fingrene vandre hen over et stykke glaserede keramik, eller det tykke malingklatte i kanten af et maleri’. 6 The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, ed. Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, Peter McClure, 2016, 427. 7 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [3:30] Original language: ‘To har trukket sig tilbage til kælderen. De sagde, at de ville forsøge at lave et barn. Jeg forventer ikke længere noget af naturlig reproduktionen, men jeg afleverer gerne håret til IU, som opløser det i en væske og fordeler den i petriskåle. Han vender og drejer skålene nænsomt under elektronlamperne. Trækker dem væk fra lyset, hvis de bobler over‘.
When the music stops In Smith’s sound piece, art plays an important part. It is a tale of destruction and survival in a hopeless future, where the only thing that makes sense to the three narrators is the conservation, categorisation and dissemination of art – or, at least, that is until ‘Louis’ enters a trancelike state, a form of delirium. Louis is the last person in the group with artistic and creative skills. She is the only one who can keep the music alive: ‘Before and after she blows the instrument, it’s just a piece of bent metal’. However, the music stops when the ubiquitous deadly technology tackles Louis: I heard a strange sound here a little while ago. A bird perhaps? I brought the recorder out here to capture it. There it was! It sounds weirdly mechanical. Now it’s coming down here. It’s landed on my hand. It’s distant, with little blinking eyes. But it has a solar panel on its back. Hi, little friend! Who made you? Ow!4 For the rest of the story, Louis features exclusively through the other woman’s recordings of her delirious words. After the bird-like drone attacked her, Louis is no longer capable of breathing life into the instruments and the group decides to end their task of collecting art. Delirium is associated with illness and death, but here, too, may be a new beginning, where nothing can be predicted, where no known concepts, meanings or experiences are of any help. Not even the names are clear: Louis, Lois, Luri, Loori? The pronunciation of the three narrators is reminiscent of a mixture of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.5
Old structures and well-known systems crumble as technology of the future takes control. Those who are in power in the year 51 ‘after the last oil’, referred to as: ‘the rich people’, do not consider art to be of any importance to future societies. However, the narrators were given the task of collecting and conserving art by ‘Chin’, who seems to be the commander. He is controlling the technological systems and dictates how they should be managed and used: ‘I am only continuing with the experiments because Chin wants results’. Chin appears as an ever-present Orwellian ‘Big brother’ who is not ‘watching‘ but measuring every move. Yet, again it is not clear if the name is spelled Chen or Tjin. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names the name pronounced Chin is a common Chinese surname: 錢, meaning money, cash, coins.6 It is unclear if Chin is a machine or a human being, yet he commands that art only matters if it is quantifiable and that resources allocated to laboratories for purposes of human reproduction should be cut back. Technology is not just value-neutral tools In total, there are five people taking commands from Chin, two of whom are represented only by virtue of their function. They are responsible for propagation: Two have withdrawn to the basement. They said they would try to make a child. I no longer expect anything from natural reproduction, but I would like to give hair to IU, to dissolve it in a liquid and distribute it in petri dishes. He turns and rotates the dishes carefully under the electron lamps. Moves them away from the light if they bubble over.7
ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Human genesis is taken over by technology, and the word ‘carefully’ signifies a kind of mechanical care. This additional name sounds like IU, but could just as easily be IJU, IVU or E-YOU or even Io like the moon of Jupiter or the daughter of Inachus in Greek mythology.8 It does not make immediate sense but is reminiscent of designations for new technologies such as IO, iOS, AI and the like. These are abbreviations for technology and identification systems from our time – AI meaning Artificial Intelligence, iOS is the operating system made by Apple and IO is an abbreviation for the simple system a computer is based on: ‘Input/ Output’ – the idea that every input results in an output. And even the Danish title ‘DSO‘9 is a sales performance metric. In 51 e.DSO, Chin dictates what should be recorded and collected; thus, he keeps the output – information – under control in a binary number system. As a result, the Earth, the world, language; the words and names as we know them are either gone or dissolving – and ‘everything is a kind of image file stored on a hard drive.’10 Technology is not just value-neutral tools
8 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, books 1-5, ed. William S. Anderson, University of Oklahoma Press: Norm, 1997.
– and the question is: whether advanced technology promotes sustainability or accelerates collapse?11 Technological utopianism As mentioned, the narrative takes place 51 years after the last oil and marks the alarming consequences humans caused until the last oil was used up. In the future universe, we, as listeners, are on the other side of a time driven by the belief in technology’s advancement, its undreamt-of possibilities, and the need for innovation and efficiency. A time representing the terminus of the biospheric drama12 that humans initiated when entering the Anthropocene epoch: A proposed interval of a geologic epoch which marks human influence on ecosystems in the recent period of Earth’s history. Smith’s work is part of a debate where artists, authors and scholars reflect on the way a life without oil equals a post-apocalyptic era. As cultural theorist Imre Szeman puts it in his 2007 article ‘System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster’: It is not that we can’t name or describe, anticipate or chart the end of oil and the
9 DSO: ‘Den Sidste Olie‘ – meaning The Last Oil. 10 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [19:57] Original language: ‘Alting er en slags billedfil gemt på en harddisk’. 11 Michael Huesemann & Joyce Huesemann, Techno-Fix – Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, New Society Publishers, 2011, 15; Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, PM Press, 2016. 12 Andreas Malm, Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, 2017; Adeline JohnsPutra, ‘Climate Change in Literature and Literary Studies: From Cli-fi, Climate Change Theater and Ecopoetry to Ecocriticism and Climate Change Criticism’, WIREs Climate Change, 7, 2016, 127
consequences for nature and humanity. It is rather that because these discourses are unable to mobilise or produce, any response to a disaster we know is a direct result of the law of capitalism – limitless accumulation – it is easy to see that nature will end before capital.13
13 Szeman et al., ‘System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 106, no. 4, 2007, 820-1. 14 Ibid., 820-1 15 University of Alberta, ‘People generally do not act on information on the effects of oil on the environment’, ScienceDaily, 28 May 2010, sciencedaily.com. 16 Szeman in podcast Cultural Studies, ep. 2 ‘Petrocultures and the energy Humanities’. 17 In Techno-fix. Why Technology Won’t Save Us Michael Heusemann and Joyce Heusemann describe the technological imperative argument as being key to the technology concept of progress as inevitable that is used to suppress criticism, 170; and Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Sierra Club Books, 1991, 190. 18 Jillian D’Onfro, ‘Elon Musk thinks we need brain-computers to avoid becoming ‘house cats’ to artificial intelligence’, Businessinsider, 2 June 2016, businessinsider.com. 19 Heusemann, ‘Techno-Fix’, 6.
Szeman points to the propagandistic structure of the dominating narratives within the discourse of technological progress and the effect of oil on the environment. He emphasises stories of technological utopianism – where the purpose is the endless pursuit of economic growth: What it shows is the extent to which we place a lot of faith in narratives of progress and technology overcoming things, despite all evidence to the contrary.14 He argues that technological utopianism – meaning, for example, the trust in future technological inventions to solve the climate crisis – is one of the social narratives that prevent people from acting on the knowledge they have concerning the effects of oil on the environment. According to Szeman, oil use has become a deeply cultural issue and, thus, any kind of solution has to be cultural, and not just infrastructure- or technology-based.15 Szeman argues technological utopianism is an irrational and bizarre social narrative. He talks about a certain Elon Musk way,16 an idea based upon the technological imperative: You can´t stop progress.17 Musk himself is preparing Homo sapiens for a digital evolution. According to him, ‘humans are going to need to add a
digital layer of intelligence to our brains to avoid becoming house cats to artificial intelligence’.18 He believes that due to the accelerating technological development, especially regarding AI, humans will be left behind, ‘and we’ll be treated like pets by artificial intelligence’. In other words, technology is the only solution because it is intended to improve on nature.19 And because progress is unavoidable the argument we can’t turn back the clock is used to avoid criticism. Smith’s sound piece seems to carry a cultural and political critique. A critique of a positivistic and progressive capitalistic scheme driven by the idea that technology will solve the problem. That technology is our only way out of the climate crisis, the only way humans can continue living on the planet, yet it is a collapse of the species we know in favour of artificially driven evolution of new species. 51 e.DSO is not the tale of the survival of the human and animal species, like in the story of Noah’s Ark. Rather, mutated animals warn of danger and death, and humans are kept alive artificially. And in this tale art becomes a kind of DNA for humanity’s philosophical existence. We can’t turn back the clock There are two different notions of time that seem to run through the story of 51 e.DSO. Chin represents the, according to Louis, ’outdated concept of time’ characterised by being linear, chronological and defective. The other notion of time, repressented by the narrators, may be defined as a philosophical notion of time. As the character Louis puts it:
Times are full of uploads and downloads, as Professor Marvel has shown. Art has emerged in parallel in many places in the world. It did not develop like a family tree or a yeast cell. Art folded itself into local lifeworlds that are many faceted, like bubbles in quantum foam. Simultaneity is fiction. A year-date does not tell us anything. In space, there is no simultaneity. No watch that ticks in time. No fixed age. What gives us the right to assume that the laws that apply in space should not apply on Earth?20 This quotation constitutes a central point in the story – the turning point of the narrative – before the new artificial species overpowers Homo sapiens. Professor Marvel may be a reference to the character of that name from The Wizard of Oz. There he is ‘Acclaimed by The Crowned Heads of Europe’ and is able to ‘Read Your Past, Present, and Future in His Crystal Ball’.21 Smith’s use of the name ‘Marvel’, however, may be a phony, just as Smith’s depiction of the positivistic and progressive approach to collecting, categorising and curating data is somewhat filled with irony. Smith depicts the illusion of technological utopianism. The technology to measure and monitor, collect and analyse data has been refined to such an extent that today we are convinced that we can measure everything – even emotions. New technology provides us with efficiency: it has become easier to consume knowledge, we can categorise and either save money, be productive or maybe even make money. That is the essence of technological utopianism. New technologies, such as Big Data, are all about calculations of
correlations that can predict potential behaviour. And data analysis tools are now believed to be so advanced that they can generate extremely specific data and, thus, even measure the moods we are in – even the difficult, and the depressive.22 Smith describes the end of the technological utopia – or the beginning of a new biotechnological dystopia where hybrid animals and new species dominate the planet: Here, I am recording the sound of my DNA experiment number 462. The cells are dividing so quickly, you can see it with the naked eye. They have taken the form of a triangular lump. They breathe through something that resembles a larynx.23 In Techno-Fix, the foreword by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich outlines how the claim that ‘technology will solve the problem’ — whatever that problem may be — is part and parcel of Western culture: The record of ’cures’ for these problems promoted by technological optimists gives little room for cheer. Over those five decades, the putative advantages of claimed ’fixes’ have usually failed to appear or proved to be offset by unforeseen nasty side effects.24 Technological solutions to social, political and psychological problems are according to Ehrlich often ineffective because they generally address symptoms rather than causes. Philosophical notion of time When the character Louis reflects on how the art collection can be organised for
20 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [19:57] Original language: ‘Tiderne er fulde af uploads og downloads, som professor Marvel har vist. Kunst er opstået parallelt mange steder i verden. Den udviklede sig ikke som et stamtræ eller en gærcelle. Kunst foldede sig ind i lokale livsverdener, der er mange facetterede, som bobler i rumtidsskum. Samtidigheden er en fiktion. Et årstal siger intet. I verdensrummet findes ingen samtidighed. Intet ur, der tikker i takt. Ingen fast alder. Hvad giver os ret til at antage, at de love, der gælder i rummet, ikke skulle gælde på Jorden?’ 21 Victor Fleming, The Wizard of Oz (film), 1939. Jerry Weissman, ‘A Lesson from Professor Marvel’, Huffington Post, 16 March 2009. 22 Katrine K. Pedersen, Phono Sapiens – Det Langsomme Pattedyr på Speed, Loopland Press, 2015, 33; ‘Facebook targets “insecure” young people’, The Australian, 1 May 2017. 23 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [15:00] Original language: ‘Jeg optager her lyden af mit DNAeksperiment nummer 462. Cellerne deler sig så hurtigt, at man kan se det med det blotte øje. De har taget form som en trekantet klump. De trækker vejret gennem noget, der ligner et strubehul’. 24 Huesemann, Techno-Fix, 17
25 Jimena Canales, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time, Princeton University Press, 2015, 7 26 Canales, The Physicist and the Philosopher, 142. 27 Ibid., 143 28 With Bergson’s ideas about human experience of time passing, and how that differs from a scientific measurement of time, he questions the assumption made at the time that the model of the physical sciences can be simply automatically applied to a psychological room of human experience: that one can predict what the mind will do just like one can predict what a machine will do. As part of a wider movement in French Philosophy called Spiritualism, Bergson questioned the reduction of the human mind to the model of the Physical Sciences. Bergson’s concept of time explains the human experience of time as a philosophical phenomenon, and he has been criticised for giving time a mysterious quality and assigning intuition too central a place. And that was perhaps one of the reasons why Bergson seemed to disappear within the field of science as the fascination with new technological inventions that supported physics’ concept of time were growing, and, thereby, reducing the roles of philosophy and subjectivity. Ross Abbinnett, ‘The Anthropocene as a Figure of Neoliberal Hegemony’, Social Epistemology, A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, vol. 33, iss. 4, 2019: Neoliberalism, Technocracy and Higher Education, ed. Justin Cruickshank & Ross Abbinnett. 29 Keith Ansell-Pearson, Bergson. Thinking Beyond the Human Condition, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, 168
the sake of future generations to understand, it shows the human categorisation behaviour – the need to systematise, categorise and classify the world around as a desperate attempt to manage the unmanageable. A quantitative approach to time, measuring time by means of a number and systems offers only a practical solution – and one that the character Louis dismisses as ‘outdated’. French philosopher Henri Bergson has contributed to a plural understanding of time.25 Bergson was interested in that, which technology for monitoring and measuring cannot explain: memories, expectations, dreams, déja vú, flashback and fantasy. He saw time as a quest, guided by freedom and randomness that, because of its abstract and arbitrary size, could only be comprehended imperfectly by science. The question ‘what is time’? has been challenged by thinkers since ancient times.26 Bergson’s contribution explains the human experience of time as a philosophical phenomenon. He has been criticised by Heidegger, among others, for concentrating on quality instead of quantity, decoupling space and time.27 However, this qualitative notion of time may possibly offer as a tool for searching the limits of the technological utopia. In the Anthropocene epoch, the climatic, geological and biological systems of Earth have essentially been bound up with the technological systems that have been developed by human beings.28 For scholars looking into this, Bergson has gained renewed interest as a representative avant la lettre in what has become known as ‘the posthuman turn’ in philosophy and history.29 Throughout history, and parallel to the technological
development, we have clung to the belief that we can measure and weigh time.30 And one of the most deeply rooted ideas about the world is that time is linear and homogeneous – ‘a container where events succeed one after the other according to the laws of causality’.31 As we have seen in Smith’s 51 e.DSO, there are two different notion of time: one is time as linear and the other is the human experience of a philosophical notion of time. The power system – embodied by Chin – is structured around a capitalistic agenda of sorting everything into predefined calculable categories. On the other hand – music – personified by Louis – represents the philosophical notion of time: art and, more broadly, the humanities as crucial to Homo sapiens’s philosophical and existential survival. Music, and especially the absence of music and art, causes what sounds like the final signs of the extinction of the human – as we know human beings today: We have been woken by sirens, going on and off for half an hour now. I don’t know how to stop it. On Monday, Louis was stabbed by a hostile drone. She’s still not herself. Last Wednesday, the bioprinter printed nails in breach. Last week, the air conditioner cooled the building down to freezing point. I’m afraid we’ve been hacked.32 The sound of music has been replaced by shrieking sirens and machine-like dog barking. Humankind has been hacked and, with that, the philosophical notion of time. Bergson describes duration through the example of music or listening to a melody:
ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
30 Pedersen, Phono Sapiens, 3 31 Canales, The Physicist and the Philosopher, 9 32 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [21:27] Original language: ‘I mandags blev Louis stukket af en fjendtlig drone. Hun er stadig ikke sig selv. I onsdags printede bioprinteren stifter i bruddet. I sidste uge kølede klimaanlægget bygningen ned til frysepunktet. Jeg er bange for, at vi er blevet hacket’. 33 Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Harper & Brothers, 1960, 100.
‘as if they are enveloped in one another’.33 What we do, when we listen to music, is that we form an organic whole – and that is how Bergson wants to think of both our own experience of time as duration and how we think of evolution.34
a smartphone, Big Brother is controlling how knowledge is structured, recording every move – including that of the listener walking in the landscape surrounding ARKEN Museum of Modern Art while listening to Smith’s 51 e.DSO.
In 51 e.DSO, the past fades away and there is only the present moment and the future. Listening to music has a sensuous immediacy to it that invokes the present moment and an experience of the surroundings with the help of other senses. However, the memories it triggers seem to crash:
As data has become recognised as the new oil, exclusive information has become a power factor. One of the consequences of technological utopianism is ‘agnotology’: culturally-induced ignorance or doubt.36 Or, as Szeman points out, the social narrative of technological utopianism becomes an instrument for enforcing ignorance. Data collection and data-mining of our most intimate and personal affairs is a condition for users of new connected technology shaped by what has also been called ‘surveillance capitalism‘.37 These data-generated predictions act as algorithms that calculate the likelihood of a potential deviation; for example, when we are being controlled by impulses, when we are in a certain emotional state and susceptible to influence, e.g., when the social media platform Facebook offered advertisers the opportunity to target children and youngsters during moments of psychological vulnerability, such as when they felt ‘worthless’, ‘insecure’, ‘stressed’, ‘defeated’, ‘anxious’ and like a ‘failure’.38 The reason Facebook provided this information for advertisers was because a young vulnerable person is seen as being easier to target and influence.
The music unfolds forwards in time, but it is not preserved. Like a dance, it exists only while it is being danced. As the tones chime out, small fibres in my heart stretched and ruptured. A bird flew toward the window and fell into a bush. A dove, as grey as dawn. Then the heaven’s burst. The day started over.35
34 Simon Tillotson, Bergson and Time, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4. 35 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [08:51] Original language ‘Musikken udfolder sig fremad i tiden, men bevares ikke. Som en dans findes den kun mens den danses. Mens tonerne bliver slået an og klingede ud, var der små fibre i mit hjerte, der strakte sig og bristede. En fugl fløj mod ruden og faldt ned i en busk. En due, grå som daggryet. Så brød regnen løs. Dagen startede forfra’. 36 Robert N. Proctor & Londa Schiebinger, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford University Press, 2008, 8; Jimena Canales, ‘Temporal Recording’, Wired Magazine, December, 2015; Katrine K. Pedersen, ‘Lykkelig uvidenhed’, Weekendavisen, 26 June 2015. 37 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Profile Books Ltd, 2019. 38 Nitasha Tiku, ‘Get Ready for the Next Big Privacy Backlash
What are human beings without memories, without a collective history? Where the human mind is controlled like the input/ output systems of computers. Surveillance capitalism and culture In 51 e.DSO, the regime of Chin has erased history and the ability to create individual as well as collective memories and knowledge in favour of imposing stringent systems that can be objectively measured and thereby control individuals minds and hearts. A dystopian future that mirrors a contemporary reality, where all-pervading surveillance is inescapable and inevitable and is, for the most part, the result of a technological development driven by the endless accumulation of capitalism. For those who carry
Today, the everyday lives of global citizens are bound up with new technology. We can ask voice assistants, like Siri or Alexa, for direction and advice, we ask them to play our favourite music or to find the perfect outfit to wear. But we rarely – if ever
– consider how data is structured. Who is behind the screens? And what value judgements are embedded in the technology – what is the ideology behind the computational voices we are taking orders or advice from? In 51 e.DSO, Chin gives orders – but not only as explicit directions – they are concealed – like algorithms – in the ubiquitous technology. From a surveillance capitalistic aspect, ‘the goal is to automate us’.39 As Louis asks before she is attacked by the mechanical bird: ‘What gives us the right to assume that the laws that apply in space should not apply on Earth?’ To answer the question ‘what comes after oil’, we cannot just focus on the linear shifts but need to also turn our attention to the non-linear. Historical ‘progress’ – the idea that the inventions of tomorrow trump the inventions of today is an illusion and so too are the ethics of the technological imperative: that the solution is more advanced technology. Technological development shaped for the purpose of economic growth does not rescue but instead eradicates the planet.
or good, rather it is about shedding light on the hidden power structures as well as providing a more holistic approach to the concept of technology. Smith’s sound piece portrays the double-edged sword of technological development. The sound piece points to the fact that human impact in the geological record is not only ‘anthropogenic’ but also ‘capitalogenic’.41 Not all human beings, but the few in power and those empowered by a certain wealth are responsible for global warming, and the crisis of climate and capital are interconnected. We are living in a transition of planetary life as well as a transition of energy and the answer is not a new Elon Musk techno-fix: it cannot be found within the logic of capitalism because it cannot – and does not – offer a lasting solution. As the female narrator states when she stops the recording and 51 e.DSO ends: It is not possible to guarantee the survival of the species. We must continue our work. I will stop the recording to spare the batteries.42
As Szeman states in After Oil, we will not make an adequate or democratic transition to a world after oil ‘without first changing how we think, imagine, see and hear’.40 In other words, ‘we need to perceive the world differently in order to change it’. Amalie Smith’s 51 e.DSO provides a space for imaging possible futures, for revealing the blind spots of technological utopianism as an instrument for structuring and controlling collective knowledge and action. Technological critique is a recurring theme in Smith’s art. Nevertheless, it is not about questioning whether technology is bad
Against Facebook’, Wired Magazine online, 21 May 2017. 39 John Naughton, ‘“The goal is to automate us”: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism’, The Guardian, 20 January 2019. 40 Imre Szeman, Petrocultures Research Group, After Oil, 2016, 41. 41 Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, 2. 42 Smith, 51 e.DSO, [08:51] Original language ‘Der findes ingen garanti for artens overlevelse. Vi må fortsætte arbejdet. Jeg vil indstille optagelserne for at spare på batterierne’.
Using Gold and Crossing Time in Contemporary Art Gry Hedin Shimmering, heavy and resurfacing far from where it originates geologically, gold is a material that we have transported over great distances and loaded with meaning throughout the centuries. In the hands of artists and craftsmen as far back as prehistory, gold has been used as a material for intriguing and thought-provoking artefacts and artworks. Today, as we, in accelerating climate and environmental crises, must rethink both ourselves and our place in the world, gold is a most interesting material to think with. Gold, however, is not the most obvious material to discuss in this context, compared to plastic and carbon, which have become symbols of the waste products of consumer culture. Gold, rather, is a symbol of â€˜wealth for the fewâ€™, and as the material is closely connected to colonialism, it is inevitable to consider when discussing the distribution of resources and the colonial background of the crises. Gold, however, has not only been valued for its monetary value and usefulness as a resource. This precious metal has been attributed strong non-secular meanings throughout time, and humans of many cultures have used it to communicate with other-than-human realms. Gold, therefore, not only relates to core issues of the climate crises, but also to our worldviews. This article explores this by looking at the status and meaning of gold in contemporary art and cultural history. I will look into this by analysing the way seven artworks in the exhibition Gold and Magic at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art create dialogues with cultural artefacts from the National Museum of Denmark.1 These dialogues enliven a long and tangled history of the
way in which humans, through gold, have engaged with the material world for thousands of years and across continents, as well as the way in which we, as humans, have organised ourselves in relation to each other within and across cultures. As this shared history relates to core issues of late capitalismâ€™s climate and environmental emergencies, an examination of our encounter with gold may help us understand the interdependencies of humanity and the world. Stirred by the climate and environmental crises, scholars of media geology, postcolonial theory and new materialism explore the meanings of metals and minerals. Though they rarely focus on gold, the terms and methods of these scholars enable analyses of the meanings that artworks and historical artefacts in gold communicate on the interdependency between the human and the natural world. My analyses of the artworks are inspired by the concepts and reflections presented by, amongst others, media theorist Jussi Parikka and geographer Kathryn Yusoff, who investigate the social lives surrounding materiality and reflect on the ways in which metals are extracted, transported and used. In addition, I will draw upon political theorist Jane Bennett, who analyses how materials act according to and are driven by an agency depending on their specific qualities. Together, they facilitate examinations of the way artworks and cultural artefacts of gold move in and around the human and the world, and how their reflections are valuable tools for exploring how ancient cultural artefacts inspire contemporary artists.
Eva Steen Christensen, Beginnings and Ends, 2014. Watercolour paper, gold thread. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Detail
1 Scheduled to open in February 2021, the exhibition will display more than 40 artworks chosen for their potential to create dialogues with artefacts of cultural history. As the curator of the exhibition, which is still in the making, I will not evaluate the exhibition in an objective way, but analyse a selection of the exhibited works in a framework of the ecocritical and media archaeological thinking that has informed the curation. Thanks to the Research Committee of the Danish Cultural Ministry for supporting this research with a grant. All cited online sources have been accessed August 2020.
2 Jussi Parikka, Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 3 David A. Aguilar & Christine Pulliam, ‘Earth’s Gold Came from Colliding Dead Stars’, cfa.harvard.edu., 17 July 2013. 4 Parikka, Geology of Media, 13. 5 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2010, 10-1. Bennett argues that thing-power is a power of slowness due to patience, stability, duration. For the use of gold in medicine, see: Luigi Messori & Giordana Marcon, ‘Gold Complexes in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis’, Metal ions and their complexes in medication, ed. Astrid Sigel, CRC Press, 2004, 280–301. 6 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 9 7 Parikka, Geology of Media, 50-1. 8 Ibid., 46. 9 Susan La Niece, Gold, The British Museum Press, 2009.
Slow, global and magical Three characteristics of gold emerge when discussing how artists today use gold and – with or without intention – draw on the way gold has been attributed meaning throughout history. The three characteristics are: the slow, the global and the magical. As we shall see, they appear in different constellations in the dialogues between the artworks and the cultural artefacts. The first, the ‘slowness’ of gold, relates to gold’s characteristics as a chemical element. Minerals and rocks change at a slower pace than animals and plants, and appear more durable than organic life, though their inability to regenerate offers a reflection on the evanescence and fragility of materiality.2 As a noble metal, however, gold is one of the most durable and non-reactive metals and bears a long and sluggish history that begins very early in the history of the universe.3 Gold is shaped and kept deep down in the geological layers and, thus, affords a view not only of the now-moment that unfolds into a future potential of exploitation, but also of the past buried beneath our feet.4 As Jane Bennett has argued, the agency of minerals becomes more plausible if one takes a long view of time. Mineralisation, for example, is the creative agency by which bone was produced in the long view of evolution, and humans share a vital materiality with everything else.5 Gold occasionally enters the human body and ‘makes things happen’ in the form of gold salts in medicine, but the peculiar efficacy of gold may be more accurately described with reference to its sluggishness and resistance.6 Artists and craftsmen have
engaged with these characteristics of gold for centuries, and alchemists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc., have contributed meaning to gold accordingly. In our modern digitalised world, however, gold has lost some of its solidity. Due to its good conductivity and general resistance, gold is used in very small amounts in a high number of technological products, such as computers and mobile phone products. The idea of its endurance and rarity is, thus, somewhat obscured, especially as it becomes part of the growing issue of e-waste.7 Gold’s long history of geological slowness is consequently challenged by technology’s treasuring of its conductivity. Indeed, in the specific ways in which gold and other metals and minerals become mobile, enabling technological mobility, they become part of a deterritorialisation of geology.8 The second characteristic of gold – the global – is related to a long history of colonialism and capitalism. Gold is easy to mould and has been viewed as a valuable resource from the very start of mining and metallurgy. It was attributed monetary value as early as in 600 BCE,9 and because the origin and previous forms of gold become untraceable once it is melted, it encapsulates a particular potential of transferring value across space. Thus, it has moved – and continues to move – across continents, transferring power and value. Gold has a violent global history, and colonialism’s conquest of land in search of gold and other resources has been viewed as tightly connected to the birth of racialised
The Sun Chariot, c. 2400 BCE. National Museum of Denmark
social control, where personhood is categorised and coded as matter to be dealt with as a resource. Discussing this under the title A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yusoff points to the way black and brown communities through centuries have been exposed to harm related to the extraction of resources in mines etc., to the hardships of working on plantations, and to being forced from native soils.10 Many scholars have indeed pointed to the need to stress the colonial background of the climate and ecological crises with its networks of precious metals, sugar, forced labour and indigenous genocides.11 Colonialism has a strong afterlife today, not least as climate change appears to affect areas of the global South harder than the global North. With the transfer of resources, including gold, from South to North, the precious metal has been part of these global networks from an early stage. The third characteristic of gold – the magical – attests to how gold has appeared symbolically meaningful and ritually powerful for humans of many
cultures across the globe. The placement of golden artefacts in graves, the offerings of them in bogs and their function in religious rituals have made archaeologists guess at the metal’s religious significance.12 The physical and perceptible qualities of gold may indeed feed the imagination. Gold appears vibrant and reflects light with a yellow radiance reminiscent of the sun and its endurance, heaviness and scarcity have contributed to its extraordinary meaning. In many cultures, gold has been perceived as imbued with powerful qualities that have made it an appropriate material with which to communicate with the gods. In others, gold has been perceived as a material with which to manipulate visible reality with the help of supernatural agents.13 It is, however, impossible to decipher the meaning attributed to gold by individuals in different cultures at different times in history, and the magical is indeed a tricky concept. As Randall Styers has argued, the naming of something as ‘magic’ may say more about the one using the concept than the practice described. He points out that ‘magic’ is a concept
10 Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Forerunners: Ideas First, University of Minnesota Press, 2018 and Kathryn Yusoff, ‘Geologic Realism. On the Beach of Geologic Time’, Social Text, vol. 37, 2019. 11 Donna Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’, e-flux journal, #75, September 2016, e-flux.com. 12 Lars Jørgensen & Peter Vang Petersen, Guld, magt og tro. Danske skattefund fra oldtid og middelalder / Gold, Power and Belief. Danish Gold Treasures from Prehistory and the Middle Ages, Nationalmuseet, 1998, 83, 121. 13 Istvan Czachesz, ‘Explaining Magic: Earliest Christianity as a Test Case’, Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography, Routledge, 2011, 146; Charlotte Behr, ’The Symbolic Nature of Gold in Magical and Religious Contexts’, Papers from the Staffordshire Hoard Symposium, British Museum, March 2020, finds.org.uk/ staffshoardsymposium/papers/ charlottebehr.
The grave of the woman of Himlingøje, c. 250 CE. National Museum of Denmark
born in the late nineteenth century to differentiate that which is not at the core of the Western, scientific and rational.14 Lately, the magical (and related concepts) have gained new interest from artists and scholars reflecting on the climate and environmental crises. Here, the magical has become part of a discussion of the boundaries – or lack thereof – between the living and non-living. Anthropologists, such as Nils Bubandt and Mayanthi L. Fernando, discuss the role of magical and hidden forces. They analyse the uncanny and supernatural as part of the crises of the natural, occurring with the collapse of our separation between culture and nature, subject and object, human and non-human and life and non-life.15 According to philosopher Charles Taylor, such an openness to ‘extra-human agencies’ existed in a previous enchanted world. One with a perplexing absence of boundaries that seem to us essential, such as those between human and non-human, life and death, natural and supernatural. This ‘pre-secular enchanted world’, he points out, ‘had a porous self, vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers in contrast to our universe of buffered selves and “minds”’.16 Viewed in this way, a previous non-secular use of gold may gain new interest, especially for artists seeking new ways to understand human-world-entanglements. By exploring humans’ multifaceted relationships with the mineral, the artists in the exhibition Gold and Magic address how humans and minerals are intertwined, keenly aware of the way in which
the cultural history of gold reaches back to prehistory and across continents. As we shall see, they point to deep history and intercontinental connections when they refer to the long and complex global history of gold. Temporality and vibrancy in prehistory The woman of Himlingøje was buried with a piece of gold in her mouth. She belonged to a wealthy Iron Age family living at what is today Stevns and around her arms and fingers were rings of gold. By her feet were containers of glass and clay, possibly for food and drink. A piece of gold in her mouth was to secure her a ride with the ferryman, Charon, and passage to the Kingdom of the Dead.17 Her accessories and belongings illustrate how early gold was entrusted with a magical meaning that blurred the boundaries between life and death. The piece of gold and the golden jewellery of the woman of Himlingøje are cultural artefacts, and together with the physical remains of the woman they are presented in a glass vitrine as part of the National Museum of Denmark’s Iron Age display. There might be a reciprocity in how artist James Lee Byars is inspired by the meaning of gold in early cultures, but the particular type of display in cultural museums may also inspire him. His sculpture The Monument to Cleopatra is a 120 cm long marble block covered with gold leaf, placed in a glass vitrine on a wooden plinth. With its dimensions and placement in a vitrine, the elongated block is reminiscent of a small body – and the name of the
James Lee Byars, The Monument to Cleopatra, 1989. Gilded marble, gilded wood, glass. Private collection
14 Randall Styers, Making Magic: Religion, Magic and Science in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2004, 26. 15 Nils Bubandt, ‘Anthropocene Uncanny. Non-Secular Approaches to Environmental Change’ and Mayanthi L. Fernando, ‘Flora, Fauna … and the Fabulous? Supernatural Hauntings in a NatureCulture World’ both in A Non-secular Anthropocene. Spirits, Specters and Other Nonhumans in a Time of Environmental Change, ed. Nils Bubandt, AURA Working Papers, vol. 3, 2018, 107-23, anthropocene.au.dk/ working-papers-series. 16 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 27-33. 17 Jørgensen & Petersen, Guld, magt og tro, 170
Eva Steen Christensen, Beginnings and Ends, 2014. Watercolour paper, gold thread. Courtesy of the artist
18 Rosemary Clark, The Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt: The Spiritual Practice Restored, Llewellyn Publications, 2003, 62.
Egyptian queen and the designation ‘monument’ in the title point to the role of gold in burial rituals and beliefs in eternal life.
19 Mirjam Mencej, ’Connecting Threads’, Folklore (Estonia), August 2011, 70-2.
The sculpture captures how beliefs in the magic of gold in early cultures have inspired artists to use gold to invite reflections on the way in which we are all bound to materiality with a wish to transcend it. With his sculpture, James Lee Byars reminds us of the dream of an afterlife in ancient Egypt, demonstrating how gold, marble and the monument can connect the individual to realms transcending physical life. Gold is one of the vehicles of transcendence and was believed to be the flesh of the gods by the Egyptians, and the people of the Himlingøje settlement may also have seen gold as divine and indestructible.18 With this use of gold, we are reminded that metals and minerals are important constituents in all forms of life and that their shifts between the organic and the inorganic are transitions between life and death, not least in the individual where organic bodies may become inorganic fossils. We are, thus, invited to reflect on the magic of gold and the way
in which gold is used to solidify and make porous human bodies eternal. The idea of porosity and the fascination of the span of a single life is also a theme in Eva Steen Christensen’s Beginning and Ends. Watercolour paper is sewn with thin golden threads, row after row on top of each other like geological sediments or words on a page. Some rows are short, while others are longer, and all have a beginning and an end where the threads hang loosely down. Through its title and the use of gold, the artwork brings to life the metaphor of the single life as a golden thread. Just as gold has been viewed as a symbol of eternal life, so has ‘the thread’ in European folklore and mythologies meant the fate of the individual human. The process of spinning or weaving such threads of life has, for example, been connected to mythological beings, such as the Norns in Norse mythology, as they according to the Poetic Edda ‘prepare the golden thread’.19 Such beliefs are found in other cultures, too. Thread, spinning and weaving, for instance, are connected to life and death among early indigenous
Ugo Rondinone, the sun at 12 am, 2019. Gilded bronze. Studio Rondinone and kamel mennour, Paris/London
peoples in South America.20 The symbolism of a gold thread, however, should not be viewed as something universal. It is, however, evident from studies comparing data from different cultures that certain ideas about various materials and structures have an enduring existence in many traditional worldviews. Artists engaging with this kind of symbolism activate beliefs expressed in artefacts of cultural museums. Time is also a theme in Ugo Rondinone’s the sun at 12 am, which connects time and gold by evoking the use of golden sun symbols in the Bronze Age. In the Sun Chariot, a horse pulls a golden sun disc, and many artefacts from this period are decorated with concentric circles that may be sun symbols (illustrated p. 61). The artefacts were buried as a sacrifice to the gods and show that gold was believed to connect humans to celestial powers due to its sun-like reflection of light. Here, gold is used as a symbol of the life-giving sun that embodies fertility, well-being and permanence. Such artefacts express, too, a cyclical notion of time connected to the sun.21
As in these golden artefacts, the sun in Rondinone’s sculpture is shining in gold. Many of Rondinone’s suns are named after a particular time of day and they are placed in the gallery space standing or hanging at different heights.22 The title, the circular form and the golden glow of the gilded aluminium connect to the sun. Though the title indicates a certain time of day, being made from casts of wreaths of wine rootstocks, the artwork also hints at the cyclical time of the shifting seasons, as the slumbering wine stocks form a circle and may be imagined sprouting every year. Past, present and future are thus looped together, energised by the circular sun, just as life unfolds in loops. As a golden sun heavy with vegetal symbolism, it undermines the notion of time as a linear progression – pointing instead to the slow circular motion of the sun’s passing through the sky and to the even slower vegetational growth. Rondinone’s sun, thus, connects to a notion of time and to a belief in fertility also expressed in the use of gold in prehistory – a time where gold was a material
20 Johannes Wilbert, ‘The Thread of Life: Symbolism of Miniature Art from Ecuador’, Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, no. 12, 1974, 29-30. 21 Barbara Armbuster, ‘Gold and Gold Working of the Bronze Age’, The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age, ed. Harry Fokkens & Anthony Harding, Oxford University Press 2013, 454-69. 22 A sun sculpture by Ugo Rondinone was first exhibited in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles in winter 2017.
Bill Viola, Unspoken (Silver and Gold), 2001. Video projected on two wooden panels covered in silver and gold leaf: Duration 35:40 mins. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
believed to be magical. Rondinone is interested in what he calls ‘the primitive and essential’ and in a ‘belief in the spiritual and magical power of an artwork’ where ‘material transports information’. In some of his works, there are references to specific prehistoric artefacts and architecture, such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. However, he often prefers to leave it up to the viewer to draw specific connections. It is the shimmering characteristic of the material, rather than its specific cultural history that is important, and he implies magic in the meaning of the supernatural forces of premodern philosophies of nature only in broad terms.23 Rondinone, thus – like Byars and Christensen – uses the materiality of gold in a way that brings early beliefs in magic into the gallery space. Hereby matter is imbued with new meaning and agency that suggest a porous boundary between life and death. A meaning and agency that revive historically deep-rooted and geographically widely shared beliefs. Passion and light in medieval times As Jane Bennett points out, beliefs in mineral agency and vibrant materiality are
not only to be discussed in regard to indigenous cultures and prehistory, but have a place in the thinking of such diverse and influential figures of European thinking as Henri Bergson, Charles Darwin, Gilles Deleuze and Friedrich Nietzsche.24 The golden artefacts of the National Museum of Denmark make clear that artisans of a Western and Christian tradition are indeed attentive to the attraction of gold, and the golden altar of Odder is a very delicate example of this. Golden altars appeared in parish churches in Denmark in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and six of them are now part of the National Museum’s medieval collection. The Odder altar consists of a gilded copper frontal and a low retable surmounted by an arch of heaven. Scenes from the life of Christ are seen in twelve reliefs on the frontal, and scenes of great passion and suffering are depicted in expressive and realist detail.25 Through the magical attraction of the materiality of gold and the strict layout of the altar, passion and suffering are tightly framed and held in place. Art historian Søren Kaspersen explains that gilding provided the altars with a status and
The golden altar of Odder, c. 1225. National Museum of Denmark
23 ‘Blighted Luminance. Ugo Rondinone with Jarrett Earnest’, The Brooklyn Rail, May 2013, brooklynrail.org/2013/05/art/ blighted-luminance. 24 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, viii. 25 Søren Kaspersen, ‘Narrative “Modes” in the Danish Golden Frontals’, Decorating the Lord’s Table. On the Dynamics between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages, ed. Søren Kaspersen & Erik Thunø, Museum Tusculanum Press & University of Copenhagen, 2006.
26 Kaspersen, ‘Narrative “Modes” in the Danish Golden Frontals’, 118. 27 Ibid., 119. 28 Nicoletta Isar, ‘Vision of the Unspoken. Viola’s Hierotopy’, ARKEN Bulletin, vol. 2, 2004, 29-39. 29 Viola has named the series to which this artwork belongs The Passions.
an elaborateness that emphasises the momentousness of the stories depicted. He points to an inscription on the related golden altar of Stadil that instructs the viewer not be dazzled by the glitter of gold, but to use it as an ‘ornatus’, to open one’s eyes to a greater radiance; to the spiritual light that radiates from the divine mysteries.26 In this Christian tradition, gold used on an altar, where the sacramental act takes place, unites the heavenly with the earthly as heaven opens up and time and space are annulled.27 Contemporary artists, such as Bill Viola, express themselves in relation to this tradition. In the video installation Unspoken, Viola draws on the Christian tradition of using gold to depict holy figures and imbue stories of great passion with expressive power.28 As on the golden altar, Viola uses gold as an ‘ornatus’ – a special medium that opens up the eyes of the viewer to a unification of heaven and earth and a transcendence of the personal to the eternal – drawing on both the slowness of gold and the magical attraction of its radiance. Viola stretches two video recordings, originally only two minutes long, into lengthy, slow sequences in which the faces of a man and a woman enter strong emotional states. The faces are seen in close-up but with blurred personal features and are projected onto two screens covered with gold and silver leaf, respectively. They appear at the threshold of visibility, as the slow-motion movement of light, shadow and facial emotion leaves behind traces, and as the surfaces of the gold and silver are both coloured and textured. Time and light become important elements that strengthen each other and
make the materiality of the media – light projections on gold and silver – important makers of meaning. The viewer is encouraged to reflect on the meaning and origin of light and materiality and in transcending a personal timeframe, the viewer may reach for a cosmological meaning. The golden altar of Odder invites its viewer to engage in similar reflections, and though there are one thousand years between the altar and the artwork, both use gold as a vibrating and exclusive materiality that connects to the heavenly and transpersonal, elevating personal emotions into passions.29 Colonialism and power Gold has been employed as a special material to help us transcend boundaries of time and space, life and death. Golden artefacts and artworks, however, also in the way gold has been mined, formed and transformed engage with our social life and collective history. As a rare material in the hands of the privileged, the life of this mineral is often violent, as it is at risk of being taken by force and melted, thereby leaving no traces of where it was mined, how it was formed and to whom it belonged. This is an important characteristic of gold and one of the dark drives behind both its value and interpretative potential. A pendant dating to 1300-1500 CE from the Tairona culture in what is now Colombia is an example of a golden object with a complex and violent – but largely unknown – history. It is a unique piece of craftsmanship and presents a human or supernatural personage wearing a set of wings and a bird mask with two beaks. The
Pendant from the Tairone culture of Colombia, 1300-1500. National Museum of Denmark
original meaning of the winged figure as well as who made it and who wore it can only be guessed at. Judging from what is known of Tairona culture, through early Spanish sources of the conquerors as well as its descendant Kogi culture, it may represent a shaman and may have been worn by one. The shamans performed rituals to mediate between the community and the ancestral or supernatural world, so as to ensure the balance of the cosmos, and in their cosmology, gold, sun and fertility were closely connected.30 Today, the pendant is part of the ethnographic collection of the National Museum. This collection is formed by Denmark’s colonial past, but also reflects the museum’s position as a European national museum with a wish to acquire artefacts to present other nations and cultures. The pendant is one of 12,000 Tairona artefacts in gold in museum collections worldwide from which only a handful come from controlled excavations
or other reliable contexts, and this limits the conclusions one can draw in regard to their original functions and meanings.31 The National Museum’s pendant is one of many of which only a little is known. It was bought in London by director of Landmandsbanken and art collector Emil Glückstadt and later donated to the museum; the provenance of the pendant is, therefore, unknown.32 As a golden object, the pendant can be viewed as a symbol of the European conquests of land and resources of other cultures. These conquests were primarily driven by a search for resources, and artefacts such as the pendant were desired because of gold’s monetary value rather than the skilled craftsmanship or special meaning of the artefacts. The conquests express a view of ‘earth as world-object’, an unwillingness to distinguish between living and non-living, subject and object, as Yusoff has argued. Here, humans of other nationalities are viewed as resources or
30 Warwick Bray, ‘Gold, Stone and Ideology. Symbols of Power in the Tairona Tradition of Northern Colombia’, Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, ed. Jeffrey Quilter & John W. Hoopes, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003, 309, 315, 316, 321. 31 Ibid., 307-8. 32 Catalogue of the auction of the estate after Emil Glückstadt 1923 & 1924. The pendant was bought here by the painter Kai Lange, according to the registration database of the National Museum.
Runo Lagomarsino, Europa, 2016. Composition gold leaf applied to wall, glass, 20 one-metre wooden rulers on wall, photographic print. Public work, Port Entry, Gothenburg
33 Yusoff, ‘Geologic Realism’. 34 Simon L. Lewis & Mark A. Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature, vol. 519, no. 7542, 2015, 171, 175, 176. 35 Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value’, e-flux Journal, #79, February 2017, e-flux. com; Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘Blacklight’, Otobong Nkanga, Luster and Lucre, ed. Clare Molloy, Philippe Pirotte & Fabian Schöneich, Sternberg Press (forthcoming). 36 Fredrik Svensk, ’Gränskontrollens estetik’, Kunstkritikk, 30 June 2016, kunstkritikk.se.
obstacles rather than fellow humans.33 In the Americas, this conquest and hunt for resources caused a decline in population of 58 million people in a 100-year period following the making of the pendant.34 Thus, the pendant abounds with questions about the double life of the inhuman; as both inhuman geological matter and inhumane racialisation.35 These issues are addressed by Runo Lagomarsino. In the site-specific artwork Europa artificial gold leaf is applied to a wall, leaving room for the black letters of ‘Europa’ to suggest how the violent conquest of the so-called New World brought golden artefacts from one culture to another. Lagomarsino did the first version of Europa for the port entry of Gothenburg in 2016, as an integral part of the ID-gate in the harbour, where everybody travelling in and out of Sweden must present identification. Here, Europa actualises the place’s historical and political conditions.36 The artist reused elements from other works, and the golden wall is reminiscent of his
Abstracto el Dorado from 2014, a work envisioning the dream of a city in gold by European colonists of South America. In Gothenburg, this dream is replaced with the dream of people wanting to get into Europe; thus, making clear the way in which a European state exerts power on the individual. Here, the immigrant. The gold of Lagomarsino’s Europa is mounted on a wall. It appears flat and purposeless, confined to just communicating, but communicating in a powerful and insistent way by making use of its shimmering characteristic. Gold, in this perspective, is Europe showing off to cultures, who, through a long colonial history, ‘offered’ Europe its resources, so that Europe, in other parts of the world, may stand for a place of abundance and gold. Drawing on the violent history of artefacts, such as the Tairona pendant, Lagomarsino’s artwork points to the way in which colonial violence remains active in the global present. We are reminded that Europe is founded on the gold of other
Louis Henderson, still from All That is Solid, 2014. HD video, colour, sound: Duration 15:40 mins. Courtesy of the artist
cultures, and that its borders are guarded despite the ideas of freedom associated with Western thought. ‘Europa’ is written in the style and language of road signs, indicating the city or country we are about to enter – and with the glittering and screen-like background, it reminds us of advertising on billboards or on the web. The black letters add to this symbolism, too. They are as heavy with meaning as gold, with blackness referring to what is not visible and what is non-white in terms of racialisation.37 In referencing this violent history, the meaning of ‘Europa’ as welcoming is fused with a darkness that reminds us of Europe’s colonial past. Gold becomes a symbol of the quest for resources that was an integral part of European colonialism and signifies gold’s embodiment of monetary value and the display of wealth. This is a meaning of gold that collides with, but is also deeply connected to, how gold is used as part of myths and religions to communicate with the higher powers of the gods. Robbed of its metaphysical meaning, gold is
connected to value and commerce, but this is not without its magical qualities, as wealth – according to Karl Marx – is established as a fetish through its aesthetic qualities.38 Thus, Europa is a statement demonstrating how contemporary art may draw on the history of how we got to this state of late capitalism, and with its temporal character as a decoration on a wall, it also indicates that this is not necessarily a permanent position. Similar concerns about colonialism and the transfer of gold – and magic – between cultures are found in All That is Solid by filmmaker and artist Louis Henderson. He is equally fascinated with the materiality and history of gold and includes the colonial perspective. In the film, Henderson points to how gold is mined in Ghana and is part of the country’s colonial history, and the film includes clips showing how electronic waste is today re-mined for gold and other precious metals under toxic conditions near the capital Accra. Henderson, thereby, points to both the colonialism of the past and the colonial structures still in place.
37 Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 12, 55. 38 Karl Marx, Critique of Political Economy, 1859. marxists.org/ archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch02_4.htm.
Copies of the Golden Horns, 1859-60. National Museum of Denmark
39 Louis Henderson, ‘Animism is the only sensible version of materialism’, lecture 27 February 2016 at De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, vimeo.com/158145401; Simone Bertuzzi, ‘Louis Henderson’s delicate journey through a real and virtual contemporary Ghana’, Culture, 6 June 2014, africasacountry.com. 40 Fernando, ‘Flora, Fauna … and the Fabulous?’, 115. 41 Ibid.
The film also questions the ‘magic’ of gold. As a component in computers, gold is part of the solid materiality of the Internet with its seemingly immaterial ‘clouds’, and Henderson traces this meaning of gold with a media archaeological method – close to the one used by Jussi Parikka. The film investigates this complex entanglement of gold as, through a continuous metalayer, it shows the process of film-making as a composition of information from the Internet and from the different hard drives in a computer. The digital clouds and the computer appear with a certain aliveness and – especially towards the end of the film – the pixels that make up the images appear to fall apart, shedding the illusion of just transferring. The media, thus, comes alive, revealing its roughest components, but behind this flickering appears a palm tree, illuminated in the dark night. As Henderson has explained by quoting anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, ‘Animism is the only sensible version of materialism’. Looking into how the materialism of tubes, cables and electrical contacts make it possible for us to travel in space and time,
Henderson points to an ‘aliveness’, which is part of the Ghanaian animist practice of Shakawa.39 Animism in indigenous cultures has gained new interest in contemporary scholarship, as it is studied by, amongst others, Viveiros de Castro and fellow anthropologist Philippe Descola.40 As a third anthropologist, Mayanthi L. Fernando, points out, the figure of the indigenous animist has been seen to offer a utopian, almost salvific, hope for the future of humankind. It is hoped that indigenous beliefs in supernatural forces may help us rethink the entanglements of human and other-than-human worlds, so that we can rebalance our relationship with the world in a time of climate and environmental crises. This stance, however, Fernando argues, may not be that simple and carries a long and violent history.41 Indeed, Henderson reminds us of that as he points to an aliveness that is uncanny, strange and disturbing, rather than utopian and salvific. Instead of pointing to utopian metaphysics, where gold connects us to heavenly realms, he brings a disturbing
Damien Hirst, The Shield of Achilles, 2010. Gilded silver (fragment). Private collection
magic of gold to life. He visualises the double bind between the relations of media technologies and the earth. Here, earth, with its gold, is a dynamic sphere of life that cuts across the organic and non-organic, and the vibrant life of media, with its grounding in materiality, meets with the corporate realities of technologised capitalism.42 Believing the media Many artworks made with gold communicate with an awareness of the medium: the materials in which they are produced, as well as the context in which they are shown. Damien Hirst’s series of sculptures Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, exhibited under this title in Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice in 2017, comment on the ways in which private collectors and museums acquire and display their treasures. For the exhibition, Hirst created his own golden artefacts with a precision and ambition that may (for a
longer or shorter time) convince the unprepared viewer.43 Here, the golden shield of Achilles was on display, together with a set of golden sheep horns, a golden face of Medusa and a large number of artefacts in different materials and sizes, many of them gilded or made of gold. A documentary of the same title tells the story of the way the treasures were found on the wrecked ship, the ‘Unbelievable’, off the coast of East Africa. Even when recognising the inventive hand of Hirst, we may be seduced by the convincing – however unbelievable – narrative of the storyline. Diving into the myth we glide away, imagining a distant time of forgotten gods and golden cities – and an eager ancient collector. Likewise, in national museums, we are sometimes met with the inventive hands of archaeologists, curators and collectors, and the original meaning of the golden artefacts is, at times, outshone
42 Parikka, Geology of Media, 12. 43 The frame that Hirst built around the project was the uncovering of treasures from a wreck off the coast of East Africa. The treasures were exhibited at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta dell Dogana under the Venice Biennale. Thus, reconstructing the legend of Amotan – an ancient roman collector around 100 CE who wanted to bring treasures from the old world to a new temple on the ship ‘Apistos’.
44 Morten Axboe & Peter W.U. Appel, ’De udødelige guldhorn’, Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark, 2005. 45 Archaeolgy Professor John C. Barrett wrote: ’We should treat [the archaeological record] as a medium from which it is always possible to create meaning, rather than a record which is involved in the transmission of meaning’. John C. Barrett, Fragments from antiquity: Archaeology of social life in Britain, Blackwell, 1993.
by the adventures of the archaeologists or a history of theft or fraud. In a Danish context, the Golden Horns – two golden and decorated horns from the Iron Age – are a prime example of this. Today, they exist only as replicas of the lost originals and, in public imagination, their meaning is centred on their theft and destruction. They were stolen from The Royal Collection in 1802, at a time when national identity was formed, and they gained further importance through a romantic poem by Adam Oehlenschläger that viewed their theft and destruction as a symptom of the incompetence of the authorities and the greed of ordinary men. The director of the museum P.V. Glob and the jeweller Ove Dragsted, however, constructed a new set of horns in 1859-60. In 2007, this version in gilded silver was stolen, too, and though they were soon recovered, also this theft fed the popular imagination, overshadowing the horns’ Iron Age context.44 The history of the theft and the melting of the horns make clear that though gold is one of the most durable and non-reactive metals, gold in the hands of humans has travelled far. A golden artefact or artwork may contain gold from the Incan empire or ancient Egypt, and violence has often been involved in its travels and transformations. This imaginative potential includes fantasising about the form and meaning of destroyed golden artefacts and the effect of the missing objects on our collective history. This brings the role of the museum and the market for art and antiques into play, too. Given the scarcity of written records and the fragmented state of the finds,
archaeology is not only about objects. It is also about imagining and believing – and about creating and presenting narratives.45 Hirst feeds the imagination at the same time as he feeds the art market, and he displays the mechanism of the market of valuables with its passive-aggressive movement of artefacts across time and space from culture to culture. The actual story of the thefts of the Golden Horns is different from the fictions of Hirst, but both sets of narratives question the circulation and ownership of ancient precious artefacts – and this is, indeed, an issue repeatedly facing national museums. Rethinking ourselves through gold The cross-disciplinary dialogues between the artworks and the cultural artefacts unmask and question both the dark drives and the symbolic potential of gold – and the way in which they merge. Artworks use gold and cross time to invite us to rethink ourselves and our place in the world. As shown, they may do this by addressing three characteristics of gold – the slow, the global and the magical. In regard to slowness, the meanings connected to gold reach far back in time, and we are reminded of our eons-long entanglement with materiality and our embeddedness in a mineral world. Gold is part of this, as a symbol of our endurance. Though gold is connected to the cyclical time of the sun and its vitalising light, gold is also monumentality, slowness and a brutal vanity. With its inability to regenerate, it reminds us of aridity and, thereby, fragility and porosity – our individual lives are but fragile threads.
In relation to the global, the climate and environmental crises have taught us about our connectedness across geography and about how our individual actions, and our actions as countries, affect others. Gold carries strong and violent connotations that highlight injustices, especially in relation to colonisation, and the patterns of colonisation repeat themselves. Regardless of its apparent slowness and endurance, gold is tied to transformation and loss of lives and cultures. The museum plays a double role in this. It works as a maintainer and safekeeper of artefacts but is simultaneously an engine of manipulative narratives making us believe the unbelievable. Lastly, the magical. According to anthropologists studying the uncanny of the climate and environmental crises, the crises enable a consideration of monsters, ghosts and supernatural forces.46 The boundaries between human and non-human are blurred; processes set forth by humans are out of human control and affect humans and non-humans alike. Beliefs dating back to prehistory connect with beliefs in higher powers, and these inspire artists to facilitate a possible agency of metals that invites us to rethink the entanglements between human and other-than-human worlds.
transformed and transported through time and space. By bringing multiple temporalities and spaces into one frame, artists use gold to make us think about the vastly different time scales and spaces within which the mineral – and we – move. Many artists use gold to communicate how the cultural history of gold reaches back to prehistory and across continents, and they show us the ways in which gold has stimulated the imagination. By mapping just a few of the many ways contemporary artists use gold, and through their works and the way they may enter into dialogues with cultural artefacts, I have pointed to the potential of an aesthetic attentiveness that directs sensory, linguistic and imaginative attention towards the complex history and materiality of gold.
Gold is a powerful material to think with – as is the long perspective, back to prehistory. Inspired by the use of gold through history, artists bring a rethinking of boundaries into the gallery space. Once there, matter takes on a new meaning and acquires an agency that is necessary to consider at a time when the balance of the earth’s systems is destabilised. Gold has a complex history, as the mineral is
46 Bubandt, ’Anthropocene uncanny’, 2-3; Fernando, ‘Flora, Fauna … and the Fabulous?’, 111.
Germinal Monsters and New Kinships in Contemporary Art Kerstin Borchhardt
We have to ask ourselves: if it is so hard to figure out where one thing starts and another ends, can we really continue to believe in the barriers that separate us? Patricia Piccinini (2020)1 This questioning of boundaries by Patricia Piccinini marks a crucial point in the creative practice of the Australian artist famous for her hyperrealistic plastics of bizarre multispecies hybrids. Such hybrid bodies, which contradict traditional ideas of beauty, proportion and order, have often been devaluated as monsters in occidental culture.2 Nevertheless, during the last few decades, several artists and scholars have become more and more fascinated with the aesthetic figure of the monster.3 They have reinterpreted the monstrous liminality as a critical device with which to deconstruct traditional discriminatory concepts of category, such as species or gender, and transformed them into the aesthetic representation of a more open, integrative and non-hierarchical idea of order. One of the most famous promoters of such ideas is science philosopher Donna J. Haraway. In her recent works, she discusses a peculiar concept of new ecological entanglements by emphasising the germinal base level of existence reworked and resignified through modern technology.4 This base level of existence includes microorganic germs, gametes, moisture and compost, as well as the procreative parts of multicellular organisms, which were traditionally banished to the realm of the abject. As they provide the soil and tie points of the common life-giving physiological processes, such as germination,
fertilisation, proliferation, fusion and symbiosis, Haraway aims for a positive re-evaluation of this germinal abject in terms of a promising model for altered ways of multispecies coexistence. In performing such a re-evaluation, many of her writings operate with the monster as an aesthetic device to move beyond anthropocentric ideas of ecology and give way for new networks of coexistence. This article argues that similar ideas are crucial for various contemporary artists speculating on and testing out the prospects for altered ecologies, while developing unique artistic strategies to stage monstrous aesthetics and new materialities rising from the germinal base level of existence. This argument will be tested on the artistic strategies of Piccinini and Slovenian artist Špela Petrič. Petrič, in her work Phytoteratology, operates on the basis of somatic transspecies blending, through the use of technology, raising embryonic human-plant hybrids on hormones taken from the artist’s urine. Thereby, she explores future perspectives on new kinships between human and vegetable life in terms of motherhood and care. The claim relating to kinship with and care for technologically created, germinal hybrids also characterises the congenial biofictionality of Patricia Piccinini’s Still Life with Stem Cells and Eagle Egg Men, which challenge the traditional concepts of species, gender, culture/nature and procreation by exposing them to a contradictory affection. Regaining the germinal base level In the ancient Greek rationalist and Renaissance humanist traditions of thinking, monstrous breaches of boundaries
Špela Petrič, Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Phytoteratology, 2016. Photograph. Courtesy of the artist. Detail
1 Patricia Piccinini, ‘Some Thoughts about My Practice’, 2020, patriciapiccinini.net/writing/0/463/63. All cited online sources have been accessed July 2020. 2 Dea Antonsen, ‘Embrace the Unknown: Patricia Piccinini and the Aesthetics of Care’, Patricia Piccinini – A World of Love, ed. Dea Antonsen et al., Strandberg Publishing & ARKEN, 2019, 16. 3 For example: Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, ed. Donna Haraway, Routledge, 1991, 149-81; Jeffrey J. Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 1996; Nina Lykke & Rosi Braidotti, Between Monsters, Goddesses, and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine, and Cyberspace, Zed Books, 1996; Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses, Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming, Polity 2002; Donna Haraway, ‘The Promises of the Monster: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, The Haraway Reader, ed. Donna Haraway, Routlegde, 2004; Laura K. Davis & Christina Santos, The Monster Imagined: Humanity’s Recreating of Monsters and Monstrosity, Inter-Disciplinarity Press, 2010. 4 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.
5 Hans Blumenberg, Arbeit am Mythos, Suhrkamp, 2006, 73-6. See also the chapters in: Asa Simon Mittman & Peter J. Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, Routledge 2016. 6 Hermann Breitenbach, Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphosen: Epos in 15 Büchern, Artemis, 1964, 824-57; Georg Morawitz, Der gezähmte Kentaur. Bedeutungsveränderung der Kentaurenbilder in der Antike, Biering & Brinkmann GbR, 2001, 17-22. 7 Beate Ochsner, DeMONSTRAtion: Zur Repräsentation des Monsters und des Monströsen in Literatur, Fotografie und Film, Synchron Wissenschaftsverlag, 2009, 93-9, 187-211. 8 Cohen, Monster Theory, and Haraway, ‘The Promises of the Monster‘, 63-124. 9 Malcolm South, Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide, Greenwood Pub Group Inc, 1987; Mittman & Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, Routledge, 2013. 10 Braidotti, Metamorphoses, 174-92; Haraway, ‘The Promises of the Monster’, 63-124. 11 Michel Foucault, Die Anormalen: Vorlesungen am Collège de France (1974–1975), Surkamp, 2008, 46-9. 12 An introduction to and overview of transhumanism can be found in: Max Moore & Natascha Vita-Moore, Transhumanist Reader, John Wiley & Sons, 2013; Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, Transhumanismus, ‘die gefährlichste Idee der Welt!?’, Verlag Herder, 2016. See also:
have often been considered threats to established social structures and harbingers of mess and chaos.5 For example, fictional human-animal hybrids from ancient mythology, such as centaurs and satyrs, have usually been portrayed as brute, animalistic and lecherous monsters threatening the order of human civilisation.6 Similarly, in the Middle Ages and early modern times, real bodies of disorder – prodigies and malformation strongly deviating from the Vitruvian ideal of the human body, especially – were construed as monsters and symbols of disturbances of the divine order.7 Nevertheless, since antiquity, the monster has not only been a source of fear, disgust and rejection, but has also evoked fascination and a desire for overcoming restrictive constructions of order, law and categorisation.8 Such a positive evaluation of the monstrous has become more and more popular in postmodernity, as proven by its immense presence in contemporary popular culture, literature, fine arts and scientific scholarship.9 In particular, authors and artists who have dedicated themselves to critical theory consider the monster as a social-critical device to discuss and deconstruct hierarchically structured and discriminatory concepts of species and gender, as well as traditional ideas of the conditio humana and culture-nature dualism.10 The monster, therefore, should not be mistaken for a total dissolution of such categories and binaries, but rather marks the point of cultural discourse where boundaries become fragile and crumble. In occidental culture, many aesthetic representations of these crumbling boundaries include manifold hybridisations of divergent bodies. For
example, the hermaphrodite in terms of a mythological figure, as well as a medical concept fuses traits of the female and male sexes, which has often been considered a breach of the sexual order and, thus, as something monstrous.11 As the male and female sexual markers are not obliterated or indistinguishably fused but appear in parallel in the same body, such physical concepts open a discussion of the idea of a binary distinction between and of the sexes. Hovering in a paradoxical oscillation between the dissolving transgression of such distinctions, on the one hand, and a marking and reaffirming of them as a point of reference, on the other, the monster inhabits the fine and permanently shifting line of in-betweenness and incorporates the liminal and hybrid as permanent processes of becoming. Recent scholarship, such as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016), has emphasised this critical liminal potential to examine new ecological entanglements beyond the culture-nature binary. Unlike diverse transhumanist theories, their monsters do not incorporate a liminality in terms of surpassing the traditional categoria humana by creating stronger, smarter or more persistent versions of humans through genetic engineering or cyborg technology.12 On the contrary, Haraway’s and Tsing’s monstrous concepts refer to a more basic idea of becoming, not only in terms of moving ahead and becoming better, but also in regard to returning to and reuniting with the common life-giving, but traditionally abject, germinal base level of existence.
In addition to the monster, the abject marks an important concept of liminality in modern occidental culture. As the monster, the abject has been perceived negatively but offers a potential to criticise and re-evaluate traditional conceptions of order. Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has made the abject an important term with her reading of the abject as a process of exclusion of phenomena from a person’s realm of experience, which is not considered to belong to the person’s identity and is banished to the realm of otherness.13 Kristeva exemplified her theory with a human cadaver confronting a living being with the idea of death and its own mortality.14 Such confrontations by the abject are often associated with negative effects, such as disgust, fear and rejection. Thereby, the abject marks not only an individual but also a social and political phenomenon in the reading of a special form of othering, resulting in the marginalisation and discrimination against certain individuals, social groups or non-human species who do not fit into the normative constructions of a hegemonial system of order.15 In many occidental patriarchal societies, physical phenomena related to death and to the basic physiological processes of germination, such as genitals or bodily fluids, especially those of the female body, have often been considered as abject to a male concept of social identity and, therefore, excluded from public and visual representation.16 The liminal concept of the abject is, in many ways, closely related to the monstrous and frequently merges with it. Similar to the monster, the boundary-breaking nature of which presents not
only a threat but also a potential to transgress traditional concepts of order, the abject has a deliberating and expanding potential too: even so, one’s encounter with the abject other may unsettle the idea of identity and, at the same time, expand one’s realm of experience by completing the concept of the own with the other to form a greater, more comprehensive, reality. It is, thus, not surprising that scholars and artists have reinterpreted the abject too, not only in terms of the procreative potentials of the female body but also of the germinal materials and processes of life in general. For these scholars, the germinal base level of existence provides a common and unifying basis for all life, and they reintegrate it into philosophical theory to raise awareness of the togetherness and interconnectedness of all life forms, from germs to multicellular organisms. To realise such a reintegration, several scholars refer to aesthetic representations of the monster in terms of hybrid and symbiotic bodies, such as cyborgs, multi-species fusions or symbionts, which mark the points of crumbling boundaries traditionally dividing identity from abject. Such ideas are especially prominent in the writings of Haraway. In 1985, she published the very influential Cyborg Manifesto, where she proposes a revolutionary reading of the cyborg as a countermyth to the traditional scientific worldview; thus, deconstructing classic binaries, such as human and machine, male and female or body and mind.17 Through the decades that followed, Haraway broadened her research focus to include additional possibilities of multispecies coexistence beyond the culture-nature distinction; for example,
Bernhard Irrgang, Posthumanes Menschsein? Künstliche Intelligenz, Cyberspace, Roboter Cyborgs und DesignerMenschen, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005, 20-3. 13 Julia Kristeva, ‘Pouvoirs de l’horreur: Essai sur l‘abjection’, Éditions du Seuil, 1980, 11-5. 14 Ibid. 15 Kelly Hurley, ‘Abject and the Grotesque’, The Routledge Companion to Gothic, ed. Cathrin Spooner, Routledge, 2007, 139. 16 Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, Screen 1986/27, vol. 1, 44-52. 17 First published as: ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs, Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review, vol. 89, 1985.
18 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Posthumanisms), University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 19 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 60-1. 20 Ibid., 60. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid., chapter 3, ‘Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lifely Arts of Staying with the Trouble’, 59-98. 23 Ibid., 2. 24 Ibid., chapter 8, ‘The Camille Stories: Children of the Compost’, 134-68, 149. 25 Ibid., 10, and chapter 3, ‘Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lifely Arts of Staying with the Trouble’, 59-98. 26 For Haraway‘s concept of NatureCultures see: Christian Stache, Kapitalismus und Naturzerstörung: Zur kritischen Theorie des gesellschaftlichen Naturverhältnisses, Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2017, 61-86. 27 Ibid., 1-5. 28 ArtReview, ‘Power 100’, artreview.com/artist/donna-haraway/. See also Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 139. 29 For further information on bio- and hybrid art see: Ingeborg Reichle, Kunst aus dem Labor. Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Wissenschaft im Zeitalter der Technoscience, Springer, 2005; Eduardo Kac, Signs of Life, Bio Art and Beyond, MIT press, 2006; Kavita Philip & Beatriz DaCosta, Tactical Biopolitics; Art, Activism and Technoscience, MIT press, 2008. During recent years, there have also been numerous exhibition, such as
in her theory of the companion species in which she discusses the relevance of the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs for the development of (a) civilisation.18 In her latest works, she has turned increased attention to hybrid and symbiotic life forms, particularly those inhabiting the microbiological germinal base level of existence, and many of her new protagonists are holobionts. The term holobiont was originally coined by biologist Lynn Margulis to describe a biological system consisting of a host and prokaryotes/symbionts living together in a symbiotic modus vivendi.19 In accordance with Margulis’s ideas, Haraway has used this term to describe her own concept of multispecies coexistence living symbiotically together on planet earth ‘in diverse kinds of rationalities, and with various degrees of openness to attachment and assemblage’.20 To elaborate on this theory, Haraway refers to Margulis once again. She expands her concept of symbiogenesis (a concept for the evolutionary process of ‘life-making’)21 to sympoiesis – a metaphorical and sociological dimension describing the various ways of creating and becoming one.22 In this thinking, there is nothing which resembles a pure, hermetic, separated or outstanding organism, but everything is equally united and transcended, not by a metaphysical divine spark but by the germinal base level of existence, which provides the very basis of life. According to Haraway, all is ‘multicritter humus’,23 all is compost and, indeed, ‘humanity meant humus, not Anthropos or Homo’.24 Thus, humus is not understood in terms of its traditional devaluating meaning of dirt and rubbish belonging to the realm
of the abject, but as the vital unifying basic concept of curing humankind from the arrogant idea of holding the crown of creation and supplanting this way of thinking with a more modest attitude towards its position in the ecological network as a holobiont, which lives and dies together with all the other species.25 This sympoietic coexistence does not only include the realm of biology but also entities created by human hands, such as technology, traditionally conceived within the culture-nature dualism but united in Haraway’s concept of NatureCultures.26 Thereby, even decades after her Cyborg Manifesto, she stresses the relevance of science and technology not in terms of an unconditional techno-fixed optimism but – if used responsibly – as a possible way to support a flourishing multispecies sympoiesis in times of severe ecological crises on a planet already irreversibly changed by humankind’s actions during the Anthropocene.27 In this context, Haraway does not cease to stop to emphasise the basic vital interactions between various lifeforms, from monocellular microorganisms to fungi, plants and vertebrates, which include germination, proliferation, putrefaction, cellular fusion and assimilation, reworked and redefined by human technology, as inspiring forces to co-create new post-natural entanglements of becoming and non-hierarchic sympoietic kinships between manifold living entities. Similar ideas are crucial for various positions in contemporary art and Haraway has closely interacted with several artists and was a consultant at Documenta 13. The British magazine ArtReview tellingly listed
her amongst the power hundred of the art world from 2017 to 2019.28 This, however, does not mean that artists find inspiration from authors such as Haraway and/or translate their theory into art. Rather, many artists have inspired philosophers. Indeed, they have – as we shall see in regard to Petrič and Piccinini – developed artistic strategies that transform mental speculations on post-natural entanglements into a material presence that reconciles with the abject germinal base level of existence. Petrič’s little green monsters Špela Petrič is a Slovenian media artist and proponent of the emergent field of bio art,29 who has received several art awards and has obtained a PhD in Biomedicine. Similar to Eduardo Kac, Oron Catts, Maja Smrekar and Teresa Van Dongen, she performs experiments between art and science to discuss and examine the possibilities of advanced multispecies relations in the age of technology.30 Her works are especially interesting as they explore the germinal potentials of the vegetable kingdom. Plants are important holobionts and part of planet Earth’s ecological system, but despite them accompanying and enabling the development of human civilisation, at least since the beginnings of agriculture, they have often been neglected by eco-philosophical and ethical scholarship. As American scholar Jeffrey T. Nealon, however, has made clear: the plant […] rather than the animal, functions as that form of life forgotten and abject within a dominant regime of humanist biopower.31 This might have started to change during
recent years, as proven by promising publications,32 but compared to the huge impact on the humanities of the human-animal studies advocating for the importance of non-human animals as social and ethical actors, plants remain rather underrepresented. Although frequently emphasising the importance of plants for new multispecies entanglements, even Haraway’s writings have mostly been focused on cyborgs, animals and microorganisms.33 Many contemporary artworks open a broader perspective. At least since the 1960s, visual artists have increasingly paid attention to vegetable life in its relation to human society and its potentials for new ways of multispecies coexistence.34 Such an agenda is also identifiable in Petrič’s project Phytoteratology, a bio art installation accompanied by other media, such as a series of photos and the artist’s website. Inspired by Nealon’s research,35 Petrič’s aim was to: pro-create plant-human entities, which I lovingly call monsters, via in vitro conception and hormonal alteration. The project embodies my desire to conceive and mother a trans-plant, to conjoin the gentle green alien, metaphysically dubbed the most primal of life forms, the barest of bare life, and my animalistic, politicised humanness harbouring a culturally pregnant mind.36 To do so, she explanted tissue from thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), which she nurtured with sex hormones taken from her urine, in an incubator to create various embryonic human-plant hybrids.37 These hormones caused the embryos to
DeMonstrable curated by Oron Catts, Elizabeth Stephens & Jennifer Johung at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth 2015, lwgallery.uwa.edu.au/exhibitions/ past/2015/demonstrable; or Exo-Evolution curated by Peter Weibel at Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (ZKM), Karlsruhe 2016, zkm.de/de/event/2015/10/ globale-exo-evolution. 30 spelapetric.org/about. 31 Jeffrey T. Nealon, ‘Plants are the New Animals’, Stanford University Press Blog, October 2015, stanfordpress.typepad. com/blog/2015/10/plants-arethe-new-animals.html. 32 For example: Lukas John Mix, Life Concepts from Aristotle to Darwin: On Vegetable Souls, Springer Nature, 2015; Jeffrey T. Nealon, Plant theory: biopower and vegetable Life, Stanford University Press, 2015; Peter Wohlleben, Das geheime Leben der Bäume: Wie sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren – die Entdeckung einer verborgenen Welt, Ludwig Verlag, 2015. 33 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 121-5. 34 A critical overview of outstanding artworks and an introduction to the theoretical backround can be found in: Prudence Gibson, The Plant Contract: Art’s Return to Vegetal Life, Brill, 2018. 35 Špela Petrič, ‘Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Phytoteratology’, spelapetric. org/#/phytoteratology/. 36 Ibid. 37 Ibid.
Špela Petrič, Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Phytoteratology, 2016. Photograph. Courtesy of the artist
38 Ibid. 39 Ibid. 40 Using the term ‘kin’ to describe fertile multispecies coexistence became especially popular through the works of Haraway as proven by the subtitle of: Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. 41 Petrič, Confronting Vegetal Otherness. 42 Ibid.
‘alter their epigenetic pattern and grow a unique body morphology’,38 differing from the shape of ordinary thale cress naturally grown from seed. Besides the scientific character of the artwork, Petrič does not only refer to her little mutants in terms of subjects of experiment. On the contrary, when describing the project on her website, she uses phrases alluding to kinship and maternal care. She even ends her description with the words: ‘Making kin with plants, caring for us, hopeful monsters’.39 In particular, the terms ‘kin’ and ‘caring for us’ underline this monstrosity as a thoughtful togetherness of human-animals and plants.40 Against this backdrop, the website as well as other media documenting and promoting this project should be read not only as additional material but as inherent parts of the project itself, disseminating it to the audience, both in terms of the process of creation and becoming. This idea also marks an important point in a series
of photos visualising this process, which can loosely be divided into three groups. The first group presents the human-plant embryos in a petri dish inside the incubator and alludes to the technologically inspired performance of their creation. The second group shows illuminated zooms of isolated embryos against a black backdrop, emphasising the bizarre bodies of the little green hybrids. The third group of photos displays the embryos on the intimate parts of the artist’s female body, such as her nipples, genitalia and navel, which make them look as if they were growing from these places.41 This group is especially relevant to Phytoteratology in terms of a reconciliation with the abject through hybrid bodies as visual representations of the boundarybreaking potential of the monster. Even though, Petrič refers several times to her hybrid plant embryos as ‘monsters’,42 their monstrous hybridity does not manifest in their physical shape at first glance. Though their physical appearance may differ from ordinary thale cress, they do not explicitly
Photography by Lennart Nilsson of 18 weeks old foetus on cover of Life Magazine, 30 April 1965
show the infusion with human hormones. Only the staging on the intimate parts of the artistâ€™s body links them visually back to their germinal origins, using the fluids of which they were created to make their somatic hybridity visual. This hybridity is not represented through a fusion of human and plant traits in one and the same body. Rather, the plant embryos seem to grow out of germinal body parts as an altered way of pregnancy and a special form of symbiogenetic development.
Taking a closer look at the series of photos, they reveal a complex narrative of the process of coming into being, which â€“ according to this article â€“ brings to mind a widespread visual tradition of representing pregnancy in terms of foetal life in its relation to the female body and technology. Accordingly, the first group of photos recalls the visual tradition of scientific documentary presented, for example, in science magazines. The second group does something similar, as the isolated
43 Rolf F. Nohr, Sternenkind, ‘Vom Transformatorischen, Nützlichen, dem Fötus und dem blauen Planeten’, Bild und Transformation, iMage, vol. 12, 2010, 148-54. 44 Barbara Duden, Disembodying Woman, Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, Harvard University Press, 1993. 45 Ibid. 46 Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, Screen 1986/27, vol. 1, 44-52. 47 Nealon, ‘Plants are the New Animals’. 48 Verena Krieger, Was ist ein Künstler?: Genie – Heilsbringer – Antikünstler; eine Ideenund Kunstgeschichte des Schöpferischen, Deubner Verlag für Kunst, 2007, 130-6. 49 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 139.
illuminated staging of the human-plant embryos apparently float through an undefinable black space. This evokes the tradition of the highly aestheticised images of human foetuses created by prenatal photography, which have often been staged as being illuminated and floating through darkness, too. Beginning with the earliest photos taken by the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson, first published in Life Magazine in 1965, such images have often been associated with photos of the Earth from out in space, hovering in the dark universe, which transformed the foetus into a cosmic icon of becoming.43 According to several feminist scholars, such as Barbara Duden, this concept of the icon contributed massively to coining the public idea of the foetus as a subject of untouchable human dignity and personhood as an argument in several biopolitical discourses on childcare, abortion and reproductive technology until today.44 At the same time, Duden reproaches such a visual isolation of the foetus decontextualised from the woman carrying it for causing a visual elimination of the maternal body (disembodiment) and, thereby, for a marginalisation of a woman’s role in procreation and pregnancy as a rather passive source and invisible vessel of growth.45 This visually obliterated and marginalised maternal body is somewhat regained in the third group of Petrič’s photos presenting the plant embryos on germinal parts of her body. By doing so, not only is the female body reintegrated into such visual discourses, but so are its germinal parts, which have often been abjected
and excluded from public visual culture.46 Likewise, the plant as the ‘forgotten and abjected within a dominant regime of humanist biopower’ is also reintegrated.47 As such, multiple reintegration is performed through a technologically inspired art project, which also conceals biological procreation with artificial – artistic and scientific – ways of creation in a post-natural synthesis. In such a synthesis, Petrič, as the project’s creator, merges multiple role models of creativity. Thereby, she presents herself as a life-giving biological source and caring mother, which are procreative roles traditionally attributed to women. But she also acts as an artist and scientist inventing and performing the project, which have been considered rather male conceptions of creativity in many periods of history.48 In this context and in line with Haraway’s call to ‘make kin not babies’,49 Petrič’s kin with plants in Phytoteratology performs a reconciliation with various germinal abject concepts and a blending of different types of (pro)creativity. In doing so, it transcends common separating, discriminating and marginalising stereotypes concerning gender and species in a post-natural symbiogenesis between human and animal, and plant and technology in co-development. Abjects of affect in Piccinini’s works The aim of reconciling the germinal abject represented through a monstrous aesthetic also marks the works of the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. Unlike Petrič, Piccinini does not conduct real scientific advancement of lifeforms but operates with the artistic strategy of
biofictionality50 and creates hyper realistic plastics in which mental speculations on multispecies relationships in the age of modern technology become visible. In the words of the artist: My practice is focused on bodies and relationships; the relationships between people and other creatures, between people and our bodies, between creatures and the environment, between the artificial and the natural.51 As strikingly pointed out by curator Dea Antonsen, Piccinini focuses on the process of affection through visual representations of bodies which blend manifold opposing and contrasting elements to explore such relations.52 Besides the blending of traits of different species or ideas of culture and nature, one of the hallmarks of Piccinini’s art is the fusion of childlike or parental features (often perceived as cute, appealing and evoking a need for care) with features considered as repulsive, such as deformations, orifices and tumour-like proliferations.53 So, for example, in the work Still Life with Stem Cells, a little girl is shown playing with some giant lumps of meat. Given that the work’s title reveals them to be stem cells, those clots allude to the still-unspecified potencies of cellular development, which can transform into any type of cells and shape. Real stem cells are minuscule and located in the body. They can only be extracted from it and perceived by the human eye via optical enlargement through technology. Here, however, they are presented as freely existing tumour-like lumps,
thus appearing as displaced, artificially generated life forms. Their malformed oddness contrasts to the cuteness of the girl turning this scene of a carefree child’s play into an uncanny encounter of divergent bodies.54 Piccinini herself emphasises an untainted affinity for various natural as well as artificial kinds of fertility, germination and procreation: To me, fertility and reproduction [are] the great magic of the world, take [them] away and we don’t have a world. Yet, there seems so little space in the art world for this extraordinary, yet so amazingly ordinary, aspect of life. It is rich and fascinating territory.55 Nevertheless, for their visual representation, she chooses an imaginary, explicit and hyperrealistic depiction of germinal materials and body parts that have often been banished to the realm of the abject in occidental history and reduced to medical illustrations in visual culture. She, thereby, fuses representations of various types of germinal materials from different species, such as body orifices, pouches or tumourlike proliferations, in her artworks to blend manifold germinal concepts and procreative strategies found on planet Earth. This is also the case in Eagle Egg Men, portraying three bizarre hybrid creatures, which are entitled The Philosopher, The Optimist and The Astrologist. These titles refer to different types of thinkers discussing and speculating on: existence (The Philosopher), a positive future (The Optimist) and the cosmos (The Astrologist).
50 Natalie Lettner, Bilder des Bösen, Teufel, Schlange und Monster in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Trancript, 2015, 379-82. 51 Pauline Bendsen & Patricia Piccinini, ‘Interview with Patricia Piccinini’, Jyllands-Posten, 21 January 2019, patriciapiccinini. net/writing/108/478/52. 52 Antonsen, ‘Embrace the Unknown‘, 10, 14, 16. 53 Ibid., 10, 14. 54 Ibid., 30. 55 Sophie Normann Christensen & Patricia Piccinini, ‘Interview for Fine Spind Denmark by Sophie Normann Christensen and Patricia Piccinini’, 2019, patriciapiccinini.net/writing/111/478/52.
Patricia Piccinini, Still Life with Stem Cells, 2002. Silicone, polyurethane, human hair. Monash University Museum of Art
Even though they have human heads with androgynous, but rather male-looking features, they are not only mentally pregnant with prospective thoughts, but one of their most conspicuous traits is that they have neither a torso nor limbs, and their bodies proliferate into undefined lumps of meat with huge pouches. Piccinini herself states that Eagle Egg Men was inspired by the etchings of the French painter Charles Le Brun, which present human faces that are gradually blended with the features of other species.56 Such hybridisation perfectly incorporates the monstrous as a transgressive figure in terms of a breach of boundary and as an unstable, but permanent, process of becoming. In contrast to their sources of inspiration, Piccinini’s Eagle Egg Men have human faces, which slightly resemble the eagle-like faces of Le Brun with their huge beak-like noses, and the multispecies blending afflicts mainly germinal parts of their bodies, including blending traditional binaries of male and female procreative roles. According to Antonsen, this is proven by the huge body orifices of these
creatures, which allude to the pouches for the young of female marsupials or male seahorses. Yet, they host eagle eggs like a nest usually guarded by female birds and have rather male-looking faces.57 Piccinini blends such germinal features of different species with clotting bodies, recalling the lumps of Still Life with Stem Cells as the fertile basis of cellular development, and, thus, the human heads mentally pregnant with prospective thoughts transcend various traditional ideas of species, body and mind, as well as several norms of gender and procreation,58 through a striking haptic representation.
56 Patricia Piccinini, ‘Patricia Piccinini reflects on “The Grotto” 2018’, Turning bats into fungi, watch as we install Patricia Piccinini’s Grotto, QAGOMA Blog, 12 July 2018, blog.qagoma.qld. gov.au/turning-bats-into-fungi-watch-as-we-install-patricia-piccininis-grotto/, and Marina Marangos, ‘Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection at QAGOMA’, Weekendnotes 2018, weekendnotes.com/patricia-piccinini-curious-affection-at-qagoma/.
Piccinini, thereby, also employs hybrid bodies incorporating the boundary-breaking potential of the monster to re-evaluate the abject germinal base level of existence. On that account, she not only blends the germinal characteristics of different species traditionally banished to the realm of the abject and laden with disgust and repulsion,59 she also merges them with physical traits communicating kind and familiar aspects to encourage affinity and compassion.60 Thus, Eagle
60 Ibid., 10-6, and Patricia Piccinini & Rosi Braidotti, ‘Your Place Is My Place. Rosi Braidotti in conversation with Patricia Piccinini’, Patricia Piccinini – A World of Love, 43-80.
Patricia Piccinini, Eagle Egg Men, 2018. Silicone, fiberglass, resin, hair. Courtesy of the artist
57 Antonsen, ‘Embrace the Unknown‘, 30. 58 Ibid. 59 Ibid., 10.
Lithographs illustrating the relation of the human face to that of the eagle by L.-J.-M. Morel d’Arleux (after Charles Lebrun), 1806
61 Antonsen, ’Embrace the Unknown’, 10. 62 Agnieszka Anna Wolodzko, ‘Materiality of affect. How art can reveal the more subtle realities of an encounter’, This Deleuzian Century: Art, Activism, Life, ed. Rosi Braidotti & Rick Dolphijn, Rodopi, 2015, 178-81. 63 Ibid. 64 Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, ed. Nils Bubandt et al, University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 65 Špela Petrič, Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Phytoteratology.
Egg Men shows a fusion of multi-special mutated bodies and familiar human faces staged as tender parents caring for their offspring. Such a fusion of the – as Antonsen called it – repulsive with the cute and touching does not form a visual mitigation or obliteration of elements traditionally deemed abject and considered repulsive.61 On the contrary, this clash of contrasts emphasised by the strikingly haptic corporality of Piccinini’s monsters generates a vibrant field of tension between the deconstruction and affirmation of both oppositions, which affect the beholder in manifold ambiguous, and often contradictory, ways. Consequently, following the scholar Agnieszka Anna Wolodzko, the phenomenon of affect not only marks a unilinear cause-effect relationship between the perceived object and perceiving subject, rather, it describes a more complex interrelation between physics and emotions in terms of an encounter between subject and object, transcending their boundaries through emotional participation, while shaping and reshaping the perceptions of bodies as well.62 Against this background, facing the ambiguous affection of an
encounter with the bizarre hybrid bodies, Piccinini’s creatures offer us an opportunity to rethink physical phenomena traditionally banished to the realm of the abject and to perceive and experience such abject otherness in different ways: no longer solely as objects of disgust but also as subjects of compassion and care. Piccinini herself states: ‘the challenge to accept them [her creatures], is the same challenge we feel to accept anything – or anyone – who is different’.63 On the way to an abject-oriented kinship Such acceptance seems to be quite a long way away for many of us. However, on our already irreversibly changed planet, as a result of humankind’s actions during the Anthropocene, there will be no way back to an untouched lost paradise, only a moving forwards towards altered ways of coexistence on planet Earth.64 Leaving the path of a traditional culture-nature dualism, technology, such as genetic engineering, may contribute to such coexistence by offering a way to renegotiate traditional devaluing and discriminatory categories, such as species and gender. Abject phenomena rising
from the germinal base level of existence as the unifying basis of all living entities, reworked by technology and represented through monstrous bodies, may signify a huge potential to break away from such categories and provide promising models for new multispecies entanglements. This article discussed some examples of such ideas in philosophy and art, by applying Haraway’s theory of an abject-oriented sympoiesis to the artistic strategies of Petrič and Piccinini, arguing that they transform mental speculations on new post-natural entanglements into material presences and spaces of reflection and encounter. While Petrič emphasises the accomplishment of humanplant blending to generate new kinships, Piccinini speculates on the socio-ecological consequences of germinal blending in terms of contrasting effects. By performing both strategies, the artists provide a striking exploration of traditional concepts and perceptions of species, gender, procreation and otherness by shifting the focus to a re-evaluation of the germinal processes as a basis for making kin and ‘caring for us, hopeful monsters’.65
Precarious Forecasts in Danish Contemporary Art Dea Antonsen
Mouldy mushroom sculptures, heaps of candy shaped like fried eggs and a musical cabaret featuring drag performers in red postal service uniforms: with such works and many others, contemporary art conjures up images of our world. This article presents the thinking behind the exhibition Young Danish Art. Forecasting the Future at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, which in 2019 presented ten young artists, all of them linked to the Danish art scene in various ways. They all have political messages to convey, and they all push the formal idioms of art into new places as they explore and challenge the way we are now. They offer intimations of the prospects that await us, and they invite dialogue about the possibilities of creating new stories and communities.1 Uncertain times The exhibition focused on a selected segment of a young generation of artists. All born in the 1980s, they are responding to a number of changes in social values and societal systems currently taking place in Denmark and globally. Addressing three overall themes – work culture, belonging and climate crises – the exhibition calls attention to how contemporary art materialises and embodies a range of atmospheres and structures in our society, all of which involve negotiations between the community and the individual. Cultural scholar Gregers Andersen has described how we live in ‘a culture of boundlessness’ characterised by ceaseless growth and ever-growing speed, one that puts pressure on individuals, on communities and on our planet.2 Our present-day competitive community creates pressures to perform, imposing
high demands on individual productivity. Today, a veritable boom in the number of people diagnosed with stress and depression has hit Denmark to such an extent that these ailments have become endemic. At the same time, we are experiencing increasing cultural and political divisions as well as national and global upheavals. Scientists, activists and protesting schoolchildren around the world are worried about the alarming climate forecasts pointing out threats to our living conditions and our planet. We seem to be approaching a point where existential, collective and planetary crises are merging into one great sense of burnout. Currently, many theorists and philosophers are suffused by a dystopian mood. For example, the Marxist theorist Frederick Jameson writes that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’.3 With this, Jameson is pointing out that we are currently experiencing a crisis in our collective imagination that prevents us from thinking up alternatives to capitalist realism. We find ourselves at a time in history where it is clear to many that change is necessary. We need to find entirely new ways of perceiving and understanding ourselves, our culture and our world. We need other narratives. But how? Perhaps contemporary art carries a special – and urgently needed – potential for opening up new, visionary spaces for us. Contemporary art reflects the fragile mood of our time, pointing to an increasing sense of uncertainty within a number of areas. In critical, investigative and experimental ways, the artists featured in this
Silas Inoue, Future Friture - Turritopsis Dohrnii, 2018. Sugar, silicone, cooking oil, acrylic aquarium, concrete plinth. noma
1 This text was originally written for the catalogue for the exhibition Young Danish Art. Forecasting the Future. The exhibition was displayed at the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art from 17 August 2019 to 15 March 2020. This slightly edited English version introduces the works featured in the exhibition and the themes that connect and shift across the societal issues the artists treat. The theoretical background of the text is the feminist and capitalism-critical thinking currently informing and shaping the field of contemporary art. Here the core questions concern who has a voice in society; who defines the cultural norms and decides the political course? Reflecting this, various feminist theories addressing issues such as labour, capitalism, eco studies and gender and performativity studies will constitute the backdrop of the text. 2 Gregers Andersen, Grænseløshedens kultur, Informations Forlag, 2016. Andersen addresses the relationship between (work) culture and global capitalism, which is based on competition, consumption and growth, pervading all aspects of our lives and threatening our ecological basis for life. In my curating and reading of contemporary art’s involvement with the political currents of our time, I add cultural divisions and upheavals as a threat to sustainable, cultural communities. 3 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative?, 0 Books, 2009, 2. Bruno Latour has pointed out helplessness as one of the main affects of our present day. See: Bruno Latour, ‘On some affects of capitalism’, lecture given at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, 26 February 2014.
4 Performance theorist Jon McKenzie describes how the global neoliberal and post-industrial sector has developed a variety of performance strategies around branding, management, technology, experience economics, etc. These strategies restructure the intangible, immaterial forms of labour that characterise many people’s work today. Project society focuses on networking, creativity and self-realisation and on a constant demand for restructuring and flexibility. According to McKenzie, performance is the engine of neoliberalism. Jon McKenzie, Perform or Else. From Discipline to Performance, Routledge, 2001. The two French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme from 2007 has also provided a framework for understanding the flexible labour market of our time. According to them, it is the result of a historical course of action in which a neoliberal management industry has appropriated fragments of the 1960s artistic protests against the disciplinary society seen back them. The management industry has implemented these fragments in a new round of capitalist accumulation founded on a network-based organisation centred on the employees’ initiatives and relative self-management. See: Luc Boltanski & Eve Ciapello, ‘1968. Crisis and Revival of Capitalism’, New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso Books, 2005 5 Max Weber, Den protestantiske etik og kapitalismens ånd (1920), Nansensgade Antikvariat, 1995.
exhibition address connections between the big scenes of global politics, the changes seen in welfare society and the nation state, the vulnerability of the individual and the globe. They ask questions: Who is included and accepted in our society, and who is excluded? Do we build homes together or individually? Do we even have a common future and a shared planet to inhabit? With innovative idioms and imagery, they embody the various currents of our time, opening up cracks that may let in new ideas and stories about other communities, enabling them to take root. Theme 1 – Work culture Several of the artists featured respond to the late capitalist deprioritisation of public workplaces and the dismantling of the infrastructures and communities of the Danish welfare society. They observe the rise and dominance of the privatised labour market, which has found a firm foothold globally since the 1980s, creating a new framework for working life. Several sociologists and theorists have described how work culture is increasingly organised according to values such as branding, networking and creativity. Here, individual performance takes centre stage, and we are directed towards ever-higher effort and ever-increasing consumption.4 Artists Hannah Toticki Anbert, Marie Thams and Kirsten Astrup critically examine the consequences of modern work culture. Their art revolves around issues of value, pace, productivity, identity and performativity. Work as the new religion Six different sculptural costumes reminiscent of work uniforms such as a lab coat, suit, military uniform and apron greet us in
the series Sacral Work by Hannah Toticki Anbert. The suits interweave aspects of work clothes, fashionwear and religious garments into new, absurd and disproportionate compositions that make the resulting pieces highly impractical to wear: an apron made of yellow plastic fitted with a fur train would be virtually impossible to work in, and the ecclesiastical stole used by priests is combined with the colourful suit of a stockbroker. A delicate silk scarf is combined with rubber gloves, and suits used in the seventeenth century by Christian reformers have been recreated out of synthetic fabrics. These pieces are more akin to theatrical costumes than actual workwear. Here, the sphere of work is presented as an arena for performance.5 With the title, Anbert establishes a link to the religious notion of work as a vocation – a meaning bestowed upon it by Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as part of the Reformation. When Luther translated the Bible, he used the German word ‘Beruf’ for work. ‘Beruf’ has the dual meaning of ‘work’ and ‘vocation’ – work as a ‘calling’. According to sociologist Max Weber, this has made work a moral matter and an ethical injunction that has features in common with our modern economic order.6 Anbert examines the correlations and overlaps between Weber’s interpretation of the Protestant work ethic and the significance of work in our secular society. Here work is a collective commitment, part of each individual’s efforts at selfactualisation, and a social meaning-making measure.7 Anbert’s costumes are full of contrasts. Some resemble heavy, claustrophobic straitjackets, yet have been executed with exquisite, intricate details
Hannah Toticki Anbert, works from the series Sacral Work, 2018. Courtesy of the artist
and feature beautiful combinations of pattern, colour and shapes. In this way, Anbert invites us to reflect on the dual nature of work, historically and today. We are deeply dependent on working – for better or worse. We achieve identity and (self-)satisfaction through work, and work functions to maintain the social order. At the same time, we are shackled by the invisible chains of a work culture that does not allow us to stray from its production apparatus. Those sentiments are also reflected in the sculpture A walk in the park (2018): a large circular sculpture featuring grass raised as a plateau, outlining the perfect setting for minimal recreation. Here, individuals can go for a quick walk and then return to work refreshed and re-energised.
Anbert presents recreation as necessity, something that happens to be required in order to optimise the working body, rather than something of value in itself. The circle also becomes a stage from which the worker can perform their part. Done in delicious pastels, the sculpture Production/Celebration (2018) is a kind of furniture or platform from which confetti can be produced. However, the decoration falls to the ground the moment it is produced. Here the transition from production to consumption is depicted as ephemeral and empty. Underneath the sculpture, the scattered confetti looks like the remains of a party we never attended. The work reflects our fear of becoming an exhausted resource – like the confetti that served its purpose and is about to be thrown out.8
6 Hannah Anbert, ‘Samtale mellem Hannah Anbert og Hannah Lutz om værket Sakralt Arbejde’, Visuel Arkivering, vol. 9: Sakralt Arbejde. Billedmateriale, arbejdssange, noter og samtale, June 2016, Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, 2016, 28. 7 Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work. Feminism, Marxism, AntiWork Politics and PostWork Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2011. 8 Miriam Wistreich, ‘En manege for arbejdslivets cirkus’, Hannah Anbert. Slower and Cheaper, Overgaden. Institut for Samtidskunst, 2018.
9 Judith Butler, ‘On Linguistic Vulnerability’, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, Routledge, 1997.
With the two karaoke films The Human Resource Management Song (2016) and Deadline Song (2016), Anbert forges connections between working life and pop culture. She has rewritten the lyrics of well-known pop songs, linking them to issues of finance and work. The main trope of pop music, love, is transformed into Human Resource Management rhetoric about efficiency, competencies and competition. We are no longer deeply loved but recognised. Using pop music as a conduit, Anbert points out that our relationship with the labour market has become a major theme of our lives – on a par with love. Anbert offers a humorous portrayal of an emotional space that has shifted away from grandiose, pathos-filled and heartfelt pop music to a work culture where each individual must invest their whole body and soul to be reaffirmed. As viewers we can choose to sing along, enter the arena and take part in the performance. If we do, we also reaffirm the message and help spread it. Perhaps the earworm choruses will even get stuck in our heads, making us sing them to ourselves and our surroundings for the rest of the day...
CV-like inventory of the qualities of the productive human being: The productive human maintains the pace / the productive human is diligent / the productive human adapts / the productive human is proactive / the productive human is value-adding. From the corners of the room we hear a range of high voices speaking combinations of the letters r and e at varying speeds and volumes: re / er / rrreee. Unlike the authoritative voice, these voices convey a sense of immediacy, playfulness and instinct. The room is also suffused by the sound of breathing, reminiscent of a woman in labour. Thams is interested in the effect and significance of the voice and works with her own voice as a material, a subjective testimony and means of critical expression. The work involves a study of language as a tool for political power, defining and regulating norms and bodies. Language can be hateful, discriminatory and infectious, but language is also performative and offers potential for transformation and resistance.9
The logic of (re)production In Marie Thams’s art, the external demands imposed on the self by work culture creep right into our biological and bodily DNA. The artist depicts how the labour market’s requirements regarding individual professional performance shape our bodies and our voices. In re, two large blue banners featuring the letters r and e form a portal to a semi-dark room. Here we find an intimate image of a pregnant woman’s belly and hear a voice reciting a monotonous
re revolves around the (im)balance between the productive and the reproductive in our society. Here, the reproductive sphere encompasses not only biological reproduction and care work, but also the repetitive aspects of labour. The work is a response to the artist’s personal experience of standing outside, due to being pregnant and on maternity leave, of what is generally considered the productive sphere of work. Here, the feeling of being unproductive is reflected in one of the most intense moments of production
Marie Thams, re, 2017. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist
10 Isabel lorey, State of Insecurity. Government of the Precarious, Verso Books, 2012. 11 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, trans. Karsten S. Iversen: Bæreposeteorien om fiktion, Virkelig & Laboratoriet for Æstetik og Økologi, 2017. 12 Joan Tronto, Bernice Fischer, quoted from María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 3. 13 Silvia Federici, ‘Wages against Housework 1975’, Revolution at Point Zero, Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, PM Press, 2010. The Wages Against Housework campaign argued that commodifying reproductive labour was liberating for those women who did such work unpaid. Seen from a neoliberal perspective, the argumentation helped harness this unpaid work for the furthering of capitalism. This opened up a number of new dilemmas, such as the outsourcing of care work to women from the global South who leave their own families to make money by caring for other people’s children.
imaginable: bringing forth new life. The late capitalist labour market has given rise to a new and ever-increasing working class: the precariat. As a class, the precariat is characterised by precarious employment on fixed-term contracts that do not confer rights such as paid maternity leave, a pension scheme or holiday pay. The uncertainty and vulnerability locks the precarious worker inside an unstoppable production apparatus that also affects their sense of self-worth – both financially and socially. Having no work equals having no identity, no value. We are pressured into optimising our performance, social skills and communication skills. The body becomes a mechanical production apparatus and a commodity, a tool for labour.10 So what happens when you are reproductive and have to withdraw from the work scene, Thams asks? What is the value of reproduction? Can we set the body free from the expectations of the labour market? The term reproductive has an air of repetition about it. In art history, reproduction in the sense of ‘unoriginal copy’ has been the subject of much debate, and in our contemporary labour market driven by competition and innovation, reproduction is completely useless. The assessment and valuation of reproductive work has a long history behind it. In the text The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction from 1986, feminist sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin outlines a theory about the hero and heroism that is far removed from the assertive superhero stories that unfold in Hollywood films. Le Guin takes us back to prehistoric times when exciting tales were told by the bonfire by hunters
recounting the dramatic and dangerous hunt for the mammoth. The women, who had collected seeds throughout the day with children on their arms, had no exciting news to convey. Unlike the hunter’s spear, the vessel – a seed bag, a bundle of medicines or a baby sling – only tells an unremarkable story of the mundane, trivial care work of everyday life.11 Le Guin’s text portrays the kind of time associated with care work: repetitive, unfinished, long and slow time, ordinary lived life, a marked contrast to the great, momentous act of heroism. But most of us don’t spend our time slaying mammoths. Instead, shopping, cooking, laundry, cleaning, caring and putting the children to bed are everyday care activities that never end. Care work is ‘everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair “our world” so that we can live in it as well as possible’, as scholars Joan Tronto and Bernice Fisher have defined the concept of care.12 In the 1970s, the Redstockings were at the forefront of the struggle to call attention to the reproductive domestic chores as timeconsuming and hard work on which society is deeply dependent.13 Welfare society incorporated reproductive work in its institutions, but these so-called soft occupations have to this day remained low-status, both in terms of the salaries offered and the number of people allocated to carry out the work. Teachers, educators, cleaning staff, nurses, sanitation workers and health care assistants are not among the prestigious professions. With a global corona pandemic in the spring and summer of 2020, care work suddenly prominently featured on the global political agenda, establishing an
Kirsten Astrup, still from Troe og Agtsom, 2017. HD-video: Duration 24:45 mins. Courtesy of the artist
entirely new tone of voice where care work, alongside the healthcare sector and professional groups such as recycling industry staff, supermarket staff, factory production workers, truck drivers etc., are suddenly seen to carry out ‘critical work’ that forms the foundation of our society. A radical new reality that has sparked new debate about the value of work and economic arrangements in our society. Thams’s work speaks to this political debate. She examines the many entanglements between the intimate body and the structures of society. As a reproductive individual, one stands outside the production of labour, yet also helps maintain it by creating future workers.14 The image of the pregnant belly is both potent and fragile on its thin, round glass plate. The flow of voices is intense and overwhelming. As a vessel for values, the body becomes a battleground between inside and outside demands and needs. Is there resistance to be found in the reproductive body? The work issues a critical call to shape a society in which pregnancy, parenthood and caregiving are not just commodities in a mechanical production regime that simply
seeks to expand itself, but constitute fundamental values of a society, creating the most fertile conditions for (new) life. A national queer cabaret A blast of full drag make-up, tuba music and props made of papier-mâché hit the viewer when Kirsten Astrup presents caricatured social satire in the form of carnivalesque film cabarets. She and partner Maria Bordoff criticise the current deprioritisation of public jobs and of welfare society’s infrastructure. In Faithful and Diligent (Troe og Agtsom, 2017), the former headquarters of the Danish postal service form the backdrop.15 Built in 1912 as the seat of the Royal Danish Mail, the building is currently being converted into a hotel. The cinematic tale begins with a group of workers dressed in the iconic, traditional Danish red postal uniforms showing up at work in the morning to begin the day in true civil servant style with coffee and rolls. A number of tableaux set to music follow. A fictional radio show discusses trends concerning progress and ideologies, interspersed with scenes featuring two investors
14 Cecilie Høgsbroe, ‘Re: produktion’, re (printed matter), Marie Thams, 2017. 15 Kirsten Astrup created Troe og Agtsom (Faithful and Diligent) for the MFA Degree Show at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2017. The work is part of a trilogy of films on which the artist is currently working with Maria Bordoff.
16 Gender and ethnicity theorist Judith Halberstam describes queerness as an anti-disciplinary form of knowledge. The queer (non-binary) individual is an anti-hero opposed to the academic tradition that defines art history and society’s norms. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University, 2011. See also feminist and queer theorist Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press, 2006. 17 Marie Vinther, ‘Én filmkabaret og to urolige hjerter, interview med Kirsten Astrup og Maria Bordoff’, AF-ART, no. 8, 2019. 18 The work of gender and performativity theorist Judith Butler has been seminal in building the outlook on gender as a construct based on performative actions. Gender is a social and normative construct which prescribes heterosexuality as biologically ‘natural’, but for that same reason the performativty of gender also has subversive potential. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Routledge, 2010. 19 Since the 1960s and the advent of pop art, several theorists of art and culture have effected a break away from the dominant perception of popular or low culture. See e.g. the author and critic Susan Sontag’s texts ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’ from 1965 and ‘Against Interpretation’ from 1966, and later, art critic Hal Foster’s Recodings. Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics from 1985.
with cardboard heads and plans to demolish the building. Meanwhile, the postal workers find a sense of community in an otherwise hopeless time through singing and dancing in scenes with erotic undertones. The work revolves around themes of community, desire and power. In terms of method, Astrup bases her art on studies of the history of a given particular site. Prior to creating this piece, the artist conducted in-depth research at the postal archives at Enigma – Museum for Post, Tele and Communication. Pictures, films and home-penned songs from the postal headquarters’ past form the backdrop for the story. The work derives its title, Faithful and Diligent (Troe og Agtsom), from the original motto of the Danish Post Office. The final scene of the work is based on a 1953 homepenned song written by a postal service employee, J.C. Petersen. Astrup gives agency to the workers being discarded by a post-industrial community, bestowing upon them their due status as experts and first-hand witnesses to the impending change. The worker is celebrated as an (anti)hero figure who stands in opposition to the elite and those in power.16 However, Astrup has changed the lyrics by adding the preposition post, giving the lyrics a double meaning that commemorates the postal service and its gradual demise with a mournful tribute to ‘the post-Danish spirit’. In doing so, Astrup criticises the dismantling of Denmark’s welfare society and implicitly points to the consequences for the community spirit of the future.17 Offering a counterpoint to elite sensibilities and highbrow culture, Astrup delivers satire dressed up in popular garb, heavily
inspired by the melancholy cabaret tradition of days gone by. The songs, with music by Astrup and lyrics by Maria Bordoff, are packed with references to Danish pop culture and music hall theatre history. We sense echoes of classic Poul Henningsen variety shows from the 1930s, the socialist 1970s artists’ collective Røde Mor (Red Mother), paraphrases of Danish rock icon Anne Linnet and classics from Danish children’s TV, including the muchloved puppet characters Anna & Lotte. Just like in the popular film comedies about the hapless Olsen Gang, the story culminates with the detonation of a bomb that shatters the postal service and, metaphorically, welfare society itself. Meanwhile, the investors are celebrating their plans for the future, and the postal workers – the post-future labour force – are throwing a steamy going-out-of-business party in the dark basement, mirror balls and all. The popular meets the marginalised in Astrup’s art, which is populated by divas and flamboyant drag queens. Through staged and kitsch spectacles, Astrup engages with gender identity and feminist solidarity across different sexual and gender positions, pointing out that different forms of identity – including national identity – are performative.18 In so doing, Astrup establishes a bold link between popular/mass culture and minority culture.19 The work calls out for new collective narratives based on democratic plurality and solidarity across differences and political camps. Despite the nostalgia and grief over the slow decay of welfare society, the narrative also looks ahead. In the final scene, just before the bomb goes off, political leaflets flutter through the air. They urge the reader to ‘Join the
Kirsten Astrup, still from Troe og Agtsom, 2017. HD-video: Duration 24:45 mins. Courtesy of the artist
20 Quoted from The Republic of T.M. (2016) by Masar Sohail. 21 ‘Interview med Masar Sohail’ by curator Toke Lykkeberg in connection with the exhibition Citizen X – Human, Nature, and Robot Rights at Øregaard Museum in 2017: http://oregaard.dk/home/ interview-med-masar-sohail/. 22 Toke Lykkeberg, ‘Direct Action, Without Direction. The Short Films of Masar Sohail’, Dorothea Von Stetten Kunstpreis 2018, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 2018. 23 Quoted from The Republic of T.M. (2016) by Masar Sohail.
post-future work force’. What the future workforce will be like is up to us; we can create it together. Thus, Astrup’s work conveys hope as it issues a call for new communities and organisations across our various differences in a global world. Theme 2 – Belonging The exhibition’s second main theme is belonging. Like the previous theme, work culture, it is closely linked to ideas about identity and performativity, investigating gender identities and social, ideological and political communities. Artists Masar Sohail, Tabita Rezaire and Mo Maja Moesgaard explore questions about the individual’s different perceptions and experiences of national and global conditions. Touching upon issues such as racism, xenophobia, vulnerability and solidarity, they explore how marginalised subjects can respond to power structures and challenge social and cultural norms. Their works consider who defines the community – and who is excluded from it. They link up individual and planetary vulnerabilities with national and global conditions. Naming is taming ‘We should have a flag, man. […] A fucking banner, a common symbol to thrive under. You know. Just like all them other so-called fucking nations’, says a voice in an exaggerated American gangster accent.20 Meanwhile, a red tiger-patterned flag flickers across the screen. In Masar Sohail’s film, a young man of Middle Eastern appearance wanders alone in a forest. He seems to be searching for something and looks quite lost. He sets fire to a scooter. Throws stones into a lake. Smokes cigarettes. The story of the work is built
around a dialogue conducted between the young man and his alter ego – a fictional male character. The title of the work, The Republic of T.M. (2016), lets us identify that character as Tony Montana, the protagonist of the movie Scarface. Brian de Palma and Oliver Stone’s iconic 1983 film tells the story of a Cuban refugee arriving in the United States. Ostracised culturally, he massively changes his position in society by becoming a powerful mafia boss, thereby realising his own version of the American dream. The film resonated greatly with young men in gangster environments in 1980s America.21 The characters in Sohail’s film seek to devise and define the outline of their boundary-less and multireligious state. In this process, the young man is transformed into a Montana-like character complete with a suit and gold chains, becoming the lawless head of a utopian state. Sohail is interested in portraying the figure of a rebel or outsider from the lower social classes who revolts against the prevailing norms. As the first sentence of the work indicates, the artist explores the legal, geographical and mental boundaries around which we build our nations and communities. The narrative never becomes concrete. We do not know to which group, gang or ghetto the two characters belong. We never see their struggle against power unfold, and we never get to put a face to the enemy.22 ‘Pick one. The East, The West, The North, The fucking South? An ethnic majority, an ethnic minority?’, says the fictional Montana character.23 But the young man does not know who he wants to fight
Masar Sohail, stills from The Repulbic of T.M., 2016. HD-video: Duration 15:00 mins. Courtesy of the artist
Tabita Rezaire, Ultra Wet Recapitulation, 2017-18. Video-projection on pyramid: Duration: 11:18 mins. Courtesy of the artist / Goodman Gallery
24 In a text from 2009, Judith Butler connects her theory on gender, performativity and vulnerability to questions of identity, belonging, violence and precarity in national states. Here she draws on political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s theory on totalitarianism and feminist theorist Gayatri C. Spivak’s criticism of colonialism. Judith Butler, ‘Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics’, AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, vol. 4, no. 3, 2009, i-xiii.
against, or what systems should be the targets of his frustration. His sentiments reflect the rootlessness and alienation of the minority per se. There is nowhere for this young man to see himself reflected, to experience a sense of belonging. The state and the resistance movements remain imaginary abstractions that revolve around a dream, a vision, a utopia. The narrative refers to the local and global boundaries negotiated and changed throughout history. These are highly topical issues in present-day political agendas, where we are seeing increasing national and global divisions with refugee crises, border closures, religious fundamentalism, right-wing populism, Brexit, new and extreme right-wing parties and more. The work does not criticise a distant ISIS-afflicted Middle East, but opens up questions of migration, parallel societies, integration and democracy – at a national and global level. The narrative
takes place in a politically charged space, but also an emotional space. Sohail lays bare the mechanisms underpinning our need for shared values and belief systems, for a sense of community and belonging that cuts across all groups by equating a married couple’s battle against invasive weeds in their kitchen garden with two groups of hooligans fighting in front of a sports club and a state threatened by a socialist ideology. Everyone needs an external enemy. Sohail uses a theatrical and fictional universe to point out how national identity and nation-states are parts of humanity’s real-life performances.24 Deeply existential, universally valid questions about belonging and being part of communities are brought to the fore here. The work also creates parallels between human rights and animal rights. The protagonists feel a closer kinship with the laws of nature than with humanity’s. Birds
are their ‘business associates’, and the characters want natural boundaries in their state – ‘look at nature, man. It doesn’t discriminate. Doesn’t care if your passport is blue or bordeaux’, as the Montana figure says. They want to avoid all kinds of hierarchical and oppressive categories that establish boundaries between us and them. The work points to the destructive consequences of man’s need to govern his surroundings, and it reflects humanity’s eternal quest to find its place in the world. Most of all, the work expresses a yearning to rewrite history and create a free and peaceful world with room for diversity across cultures and species. Digital resistance and healing Tabita Rezaire explores issues of identity, belonging and knowledge systems in a culture infused with an ever-increasing digital presence. In her work, technology, spirituality and decolonial critique merge. Ultra Wet Recapitulation (2017–18) is a four-channel video work projected onto a large pyramid. We are drawn into a complex digital landscape featuring a plethora of images: characters from popular culture, planetary phenomena, molecular structures, naked body parts, pulsating organs and dark, dancing bodies floating around against a cosmic backdrop of planets and stars. We find ourselves in a sensuous, animated universe where we meet a range of African individuals and voices who talk about the historical colonisation of the African continent and how the power structures of the past affect and intervene in our time. Of FrenchGuyanese-Danish descent, Rezaire’s own artistic practice takes the form of a negotiation of identity and narrative between
the global North and South. We are presented with a composite image of Africa, portrayed partly as the Earth’s womb and partly as the world’s waste bin!
25 Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Film Theory and Criticism. Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen, Oxford UP, 1999, 833-44.
Several issues are at stake here. By using the language, images and structures of the Internet, Rezaire challenges the stories and hierarchies of power embedded in the communication technologies that mediate and shape our reality. The artist is also interested in exploring the potential for resistance through the various forms of self-expression and self-staging for which digital culture can act as a platform. The work engages with a number of resistance movements such as Black Lives Matter and #metoo, both of which had their wellspring in a wish to oppose unequal power relations in relation to gender, sexuality and colour. Among other things, Ultra Wet Recapitulation engages with representation of the coloured – especially female – body in Western art history and popular culture. Here, the dark body has been turned into a commodity, depicted through stereotypical, erotic images.25 Rezaire depicts how the historical objectification of the dark female body is now being repeated in a digital world. The work questions the blind spots and hidden power codes of digital culture. Rezaire links the structures of the Internet – its algorithms – to issues of exploitation and repression.26 She exposes the problematic economic power structures that create the content and reality we experience through the screen. Run by Western tech giants such as Google, the algorithms operate through binary codes that generate one-sided and rapidly decodable images. In these days of fake
26 Media analyst and cultural theorist Dzodan Flavia has charted how contemporary technologies act as tools for racial, gender, and class-based hierarchies whose roots can be traced back to eighteenth-century early capitalism and its taxonomic ideologies and systems that place us all in databases that comprise groupings such as consumers, goods, voters, friends, partners, enemies, criminals, etc. See: ‘The Coloniality of the Algorithm’, 23 February, Sonic Acts Festival, De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam, 2019.
Mo Maja Moesgaard, Kollektiv Bekymring, 2016-. Installation of eight flags. Courtesy of the artist
27 Denise Murrell, Posing Modernity. The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, Columbia University, 2018. 28 See Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of oppression. How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York University Press, 2018
news we are becoming increasingly aware of how algorithms accelerate spectacular and extreme content.27 The algorithms created a blinkered, stigmatising realm of imagery with particularly adverse effects on already disadvantaged minorities.28 The work also refers to the tech industry’s harmful impact on human health and ecosystems in Africa when the continent is used as a dump site for toxic tech waste from the West. Rezaire’s hyper-aesthetic cyberspace universe is chaotic, fluid and fraught with paradoxes that create a counterpart to the reductive digital culture. Using humour and satire, she plays with clichéd imagery of the dark, erotic body through a stream of images and statements. We are bombarded with ambiguous terms such as ‘be yourself’ and ‘follow your instincts’, which might equally well be a rallying cry for a group of freedom fighters, a slogan from a wellness group or a statement from a SoMe blogger. The work is redolent with power, playfulness and a sense of resistance. She simultaneously uses and breaks away from the tropes of online imagery,
prodding and poking our expectations and prejudices as she feeds new representations into the internet. Rezaire is interested in challenging the polarising forms of knowledge found in the Western world, which she also links to our contemporary climate challenges. Voices in the work relate how prehistoric, spiritual worldviews in which a sense of communion between man and land was a fundamental element became disrupted and blurred with the advent of eighteenthcentury colonialism and the subsequent industrialisation and modernisation. With modernity, the voices point out, came categorical opposites such as human/ nature, black/white, male/female, human/ animal and mind/body which characterise Western contemporary culture. Categories that have created the basis for a number of repressive and exploitative hierarchies of power throughout history. Rezaire herself acts as a spiritual guide in the work; taking as her starting point Eastern spirituality, she speaks about the separation of the masculine and feminine energies of the individual and the universe which
dominates Western thinking and creates a divided and divisive understanding of the world. She wants to help us restore balance and re-establish a connection to the planet that gives us life. With the work, Rezaire opens up questions about which stories are allowed to be heard in our world – in the past and in our present. What stories do we store and encode? Which do we eradicate? Who is behind these choices? And what are their consequences? Rezaire describes her practice as a healing digital activism that provides a counter-response to a polarised era characterised by structural stigma, increasing cultural divides and planetary vulnerability. Rezaire wishes to heal through openness, balance and diversity. Sensitive slogans Using drawing, animation films and banners as the primary artistic mediums, Mo Maja Moesgaard depicts how political systems and conditions shape everyday life and influence the well-being of individuals. Their art studies the possibilities of creating spaces for resistance against the current cultural and political current. In the animation work It is an I who speaks (Hour of reckoning) (Det er et jeg der taler (Regnskabets time) 2017), we meet a first-person narrator – the titular ‘I’ – addressing the audience with an uncompromising monologue about racism and the lack of solidarity and community in Danish society.29 It is a work full of anger, frustration and sadness. Moesgaard created the piece in collaboration with author Lone Aburas, taking an autobiographical starting point in Aburas’s upbringing in Denmark as the daughter of
an Egyptian father and a Danish mother. The narrative begins with memories of childhood, bullying and shame, and then segues into comments on current states of racial rhetoric in public culture. The work also reflects on issues associated with freedom of expression and political correctness – and refugee influxes and containment centres. The narrator expresses confusion at the prejudice against the Other that prevails across the culturalradical elite and the political left. The film creates a picture of a cultural climate characterised by tension and intolerance. Moesgaard’s art engages in a dialogue with the tradition of the 1970s avantgarde, which combined poster art, music, theatre and political activism. Examples include Dea Trier Mørch’s sociopolitical literature and linocut prints as well as the socialist artist collective Røde Mor (Red Mother), who were directly involved in the politics of the time and wanted to bridge the gap between the arts and the people. Collective collaborations often form the starting point of Moesgaard’s works, which are infused with a feminist objective of challenging major political tendencies through subjects and narratives that let the intimate and the marginalised take centre stage. In Moesgaard’s art, images of protest rallies and vulnerable slogans come together, such as in the work Collective Concern (Kollektiv Bekymring, 2016-), which consists of eight banners on which Moesgaard expresses a number of different sentiments and states. Originally created in collaboration with a feminist college group, the work has now been further developed for this exhibition.30 The banners feature various poetic statements,
29 Det er et jeg der taler (Regnskabets time) (2017) exists in the form of this video work and as a novel by Lone Aburas with illustrations by Mo Maja Moesgaard. The novel was published by Gyldendal in 2017. 30 The work was created on the basis of conversations and interviews with the other artists and actors involved in the group exhibition Det ku’ være politisk at Janus Bygningen in 2016.
Mo Maja Moesgaard, (Af)magt, 2017. Tusche on paper. RĂĽdet for Visuel Kunst i KĂ¸benhavns Kommune
31 Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 22. 32 ‘The Anthropocene Epoch’ was proposed in 2002 by Nobel laureate in Chemistry Paul Crutzen and was recognised by the International Geological Congress in September 2016. The new epoch replaces the Holocene, which encompasses the last 12,000 years of stable climate since the last Ice Age. See: Damian Carrington: ‘Vi er trådt ind i en ny geologisk epoke: Antropocæntiden’, Information, 5 September 2018. The concept has met widespread criticism in feminist, postcolonial and posthumanist studies. Here it is pointed out, among other things, that the universal naming after mankind (antropos) places the blame for climate change on the whole of humanity and not primarily on the responsible industrialised Western countries whose profits are based on (post)colonisation and the destructive exploitation of land and bodies across species. Based on the critical question: ‘Who is included in this we in the history of anthropos?’, a number of theorists propose other, more nuanced terms for our era: Capitalocene (Jason Moore), the Anthropos-not-seen (Marisol de la Cadena), Plantationocene (Anna L. Tsing & Nils Bubandt), Chthulucene (Donna J. Haraway) and Planthropocene (Natasha Myers).
all of them opposed to cultural normativity and prevailing political conditions. Several of the statements, such as ‘The senses are under attack’ and ‘I don’t know where to seek refuge’, evoke images of an uncertain world where the individual is exposed to stress and feels a sense of mental homelessness. The work expresses and portrays a sensibility that is often pushed aside in a society where capitalism’s logic of ceaseless growth rewards traits such as positivity, decisiveness and determination. In our performance society, vulnerability and incompetence are regarded as signs of personal failure. They are not seen as symptoms of structural issues.31 With these banners, Moesgaard’s vulnerable bravely insists that emotional aspects merit serious attention. The banners highlight and demonstrate experiences of powerlessness, disillusionment and anxiety as an act of resistance to the unbridled culture of boundlessness, where individuals, societies and the planet all face exhaustion and meltdown. The ambiguous saying ‘Everything is (finally) falling apart’ makes us wonder: Are we talking about the end of an individual or the end of the world? Is this an eagerly awaited collapse? Does it refer to the downfall of capitalism? Or the climate collapse? Whatever is meant by the work’s statements, and whatever we choose to believe, it points to something that will soon be unable to cope with the pressure. The animated film Slowly But Suddenly (Langsomt men Pludseligt, 2016) takes its starting point in everyday life as it is experienced by some in this part of the world. It delves into the sense of powerlessness and fear of climate disasters that can
afflict us all mentally and physically when we’re alone in our homes, listening to news of melting icebergs, the destruction of rainforests and the mass extinction of insects. The animation is a collage where Moesgaard interweaves videos from travel agencies and climate NGOs with their own animated drawings. The story follows a person who receives a long-distance call from a friend and looks up climate news on their laptop. The person reads, listens to and writes poetic texts based on sources such as Julianna Spahr, whose writings deal with gender identity, global class inequality and climate change. The work raises questions about how we respond and act in a changing world. From this concrete setting, the narrative slides into a dreamlike space where the protagonist imagines alternative ways of life. The person first settles on a cliff occupied by a trombone player and other individuals, then joins a group dancing in the street at Nørrebro Station in Copenhagen. Realism and fiction merge. People and animals gather in the streets, and the scene ends in a euphoric dance and protest rally set in front of the artist’s drawing Power(less) ((Af)magt, 2017). Here Moesgaard urges us to find strength and power by organising ourselves in new forms of communities. A hopeful call for solidarity and coexistence – between people and across species. Theme 3 – Climate crises The third main theme of the exhibition concerns the climate crises. Geologists call our current epoch the Anthropocene.32 A term which indicates that humankind has become a geological force of nature that affects the entire
Benedikte Bjerre, High Hopes, 2018. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist
biosphere of the planet. At the same time, biologists are warning us that we are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of animal and plant species.33 Artists Silas Inoue, Astrid Myntekær, Nanna Abell and Benedikte Bjerre address a range of different aspects of the climate crises and their connection to global capitalism. The artists challenge humanity’s way of life by exploring the polluting, inequality-making systems in which we are all entangled, and they zoom in on the other species and materialities with whom we share this planet. Chains of desire In Benedikte Bjerre’s High Hopes (2018), the viewer comes face to face with a large conveyor belt. Suddenly we find ourselves at a seaport or airport where various commodities and consumer goods are being shipped across national borders. On the conveyor belt are large pillows representing boxes and suitcases – some are half-open, giving us a glimpse of the goods being exchanged, such as lemons, jewellery, washing machines,
corn and coconuts. Bjerre is interested in capitalist logistics and the political realities that underpin them. She examines the movements of goods and the culture of consumption and desire that drives the global market. The conveyor belt is built from bed bases from IKEA – a mass-produced, inexpensive product now made available in more than fifty nations worldwide to be purchased by a growing middle class. In conjunction with the title of the work, these bed elements let hopes and dreams take centre stage. The work addresses issues of social mobility and the desire for the good, capitalist life across global borders. Bjerre takes a conceptual approach, working with found objects, so-called ready-mades, and with readily available and inexpensive materials such as fibreglass and, not least, plastic, a ubiquitous feature of everyday culture and one of the most polluting materials of our time. Plastic waste ends up at the bottom of the oceans and in the stomachs of whales and fish, and microplastics and various
33 As concluded by 450 experts on the IPCC. See: Jørgen Steen Nielsen, ‘Først FN’s klimaforskere, nu FN’s biologer: Omstillinger uden fortilfælde er nødvendige i alle dele af samfundet’, Information, 7 May 2019.
34 Nicholas Shapiro, ‘Attuning to the Chemosphere. Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning and the Chemical Sublime’, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 30, no. 3, August 2015. 35 Mathias Sommer & Sif Vesterløkke, ‘Svindel med slik er rykket ud af hovedstaden’, DR Nyheder, 20 June 2017. 36 Andrew F. Smith, Sugar. A global history, Reaktion Books, 2015.
chemicals flow through our drinking water and through the bodies of all species.34 Plastic is also part of Hot Products 2 (2016). The work consists of an iron cage with mirrors at the top and bottom, equipped with glowing light bulbs and suspended plastic hoses. A huge, dark red cherry made of shiny fiberglass stands at the bottom of the cage. The cherry can be seen as a reference to the American artist Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–88) and to German artist Thomas Schütte’s Kirschensäule (1987). Both these artists entered the public space to address issues of capitalism and consumer culture. Bjerre uses everyday objects and consumer products as humorous, down-to-earth devices that comment on our obsession with mass-produced objects. There is something erotic about the cage and its presentation of the new, ‘hot’ products: lollipops, phallus-shaped light bulbs and mirrors. The cage has a fetish-like feel, its door is invitingly open, like a changing room or a peep show. Next to the cage, stands the work Pophole (2016); an absurd monolithic sculpture covered in candy shaped like fried eggs. Below it, disposable waste from fast-food meals lies scattered. The entire work is made out of candy eggs which the artist has painstakingly burnt and fused, evoking playful associations with candy shops, but also with battery hens. Besides the interest in the chemical combination of materials, the work arises out of the artist’s interest in the patterns of fraudulent activity found within the candy trade. In 2014, the Danish tax authorities discovered illegal imports and sale of sweets to a value of DKK 68 million. Candy has
become a popular commodity on the criminal scene.35 For the artist, sugar is an interesting product because it points to a number of economic nodes and relationships, both past and present. Denmark has a history of colonialism, engaging in triangular trade with arms, enslaved people and sugar. In the past, sugar was the special reserve of the aristocracy, but today sugar dominates our diet and diabetes has become a widespread health problem. And at the same time the sugar industry creates a massive carbon footprint.36 Bjerre imported the candy eggs from a candy dealer in Malmö who sells to Danish shops. Working with techniques of melting, merging, heating and chemical experiments, she has shaped this simultaneously imposing and peculiar sculpture, a sour-sweet monument to a global jumble of connections in which we are all complicit as we gobble down sweets in front of the telly on Friday night. Bjerre seduces us with aesthetically pleasing, striking sculptures on a monumental scale that engage us viscerally. With a decidedly idiosyncratic, whimsical selection of materials and explorations, she establishes unexpected connections that are by turns critical and playful. The artist intertwines and highlights the things and objects that shape our reality and world as she draws our attention to global socio-economic systems and relations. Erotic pollution Nanna Abell’s works form an unusual, complex landscape for visitors to navigate: a three-metre silo with running water, two somewhat atypical beach chairs, a padded banana chair that has been peeled to reveal the dry foam underneath, and a
Nanna Abell, Meeting the universe halfway, Untitled (sunset), Fountain and Bloom, 2015-18. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist
coffee machine playing a stream of animated GIFs. A large yellow half-sun forms the backdrop of the entire scene. Abell explores the space around our bodies, creating an environment where found objects are processed and given new meanings. Abell works with sculptures and installations while employing a minimalist aesthetic, investigating tropes of popular culture and the imprints we make on the world through our consumption. On the rusty chairs, the fabric has been replaced with elastic bikinis and bathing suits that extend the iron frame of the beach chairs into clumsy compositions, giving them a cramped, constrained physicality. One chair is balanced on two plastic tumblers with a coconut as counterweight. The bikini and iron frame of the other is held in check by a small granite rock covered in lichen. The pieces have lost their former functionality as beach chairs, and the combinations used in these compositions blur the delineation between body and object. At the same
time, a number of new meanings arise from the new sculptural forms, from the materialities and surfaces that greet the viewer’s senses. Upon closer inspection, the sun in the background turns out to be a large Shell sign advertising the Dutch oil and petrol business. Abell uses the different elements to forge links between body culture, consumer culture and pollution. A historical starting point permeating the works concerns the connection between the erotic marketing of the female body and the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States during the Cold War years 1946–58 at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.37 When the first two-piece swimsuit was launched in 1946, it was called the bikini to play up its explosively erotic power and to create a sense that it would prove as revolutionary for humanity as nuclear power. This established a number of cultural links between advertising, warfare and women’s bodies.38 Abell connects this to issues concerning
37 Bikini Atoll is the title of Abell’s solo show at the Ringsted Galleriet in 2016, which dealt with this particular theme. One of Abell’s sculptures borrows its title Meeting The Universe Halfway from feminist quantum physicist Karen Barad. Barad is particularly well known for introducing the concept of ‘agential realism’, describing how the universe consists of the ‘intra-action’ of all phenomena; everything is connected and in a process of constant creation. She is a leading thinker within the movement known in theoretical circles as the ‘material turn’ or ‘new materialism’. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press, 2010. 38 Jennifer Le Zotte, ‘How the Summer of Atomic Bomb Testing Turned the Bikini Into a Phenomenon’, 21 May 2015, smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-wake-testingatomic-bomb-bikini-becamething-180955346/.
39 Rosi Braidotti calls the human (especially the Western human) an agent of capitalism – pointing out that we are cognitively embroiled in the systems of capitalism. Rosi Braidotti: ‘What is the human in the Humanities today?’, The Future Lecture Series, Aarhus University, 22 September, 2018. 40 Posthumanism (Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway) and new materialism (Jane Bennett, Karen Barad) overlap and arise out of a range of other current aspects of theory: speculative realism (Dan Graham), animal studies (Vinciane Despret, Elizabeth Grosz) and more. The posthumanist field comprises a range of branches and various internal disagreements, cf. Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism?, University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
the ecological crises we are currently facing. Some have proposed that the starting point of the Anthropocene epoch arrived with post-war nuclear weapons testing, and we may add the oil industry and aviation to the list of destructive man-made factors. Abell lets the impact of all these phenomena converge across past and present. Issues concerning water pollution and consumer culture also converge. In Abell’s Surface circuit (2018), small animated GIF videos are displayed on the screen of a coffee maker. The GIF has become a frequent element of social media communication, where it is used to offer a quick, wordless comment through references to pop-cultural and internet-based phenomena. It is a way of sharing a mood or feeling, quickly and with impact, often between friends. In Abell’s work we see a flow of GIFs featuring small water-related sequences and scenes that vary greatly in nature: floods, sex on a beach, jumping whales and water pollution. Here Abell interconnects several circuits as fluid extensions of one another: the digital, the emotional and the water that all flow through our body, culture and planet. The viral nature of GIFs is both nurtured by and influenced by our psychology. We are simultaneously seduced by and addicted to the social media’s approach to communication. Here, the serious and the frivolous merge across news streams and images. The GIF becomes emblematic of an endless circuit and of the digital pollution to which we are constantly exposed – and which we help co-create through our digital activities.39
Taken as a whole, Abell’s works create an ambiguous, distorted scenography where idyllic scenes of summertime fun on the beach are disrupted, directing our thoughts towards a dystopian climate collapse. Abell destabilises and confuses our habitual ideas and sensory perception by engaging with contrasts and dynamics between materials, tactilities and contexts that cut across past, present and future. The sculptures appear like Anthropocene relics that will probably outlive mankind. Mouldy and sticky sugary worlds Sugar, frying oil and mould – in Silas Inoue’s artistic practice other forms of life and materials are allowed to run rampant. The artist works with sculptures made of organic materials that comment on the imbalance of ecosystems, exploring the existence and agency of other species. The works are alive – they change, rot, sweat and melt. Inoue works with an aesthetic informed by the posthumanist and neo-materialist thinking currently found across academic disciplines, telling us about the importance of more-than-human worlds. These theories point out that man is part of a larger reality where animals, plants, bacteria and substances change, react to and are influenced by us.40 Instead of controlling nature the way that, especially, modern Westerners are in the habit of doing, Inoue allows growing, intuitive and random aspects to dominate the aesthetic process. His works are infused with a slowness and an extended temporality that opposes the pace of capitalist society. In a series of mould-based works called Infrastructure (2018), Inoue covers various wooden structures in yogurt and
Silas Inoue, Infrastructure, 2018. Clear acrylic, wood, palm leaves, mould, aluminium, respiratory system. Courtesy Silas Inoue / Marie Kirkegaard Gallery
41 Donna J. Haraway, ‘When Species Meet. Introduction’, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 4. 42 Lone Frank, ‘Ædlere skabninger’, Weekendavisen, 24 May 2019.
then surrenders aesthetic ownership of the pieces to the organisms that take over with no further interference from the artist. The yoghurt automatically gathers up 100–300 different species of fungus from the air, which immediately begin to fight for nutrition and space. The works change as this mouldy race progresses. In this way, Inoue challenges our, and not least art history’s, notion of the artist’s unique, individual position as creator, as well as Western culture’s paradigm about man’s exalted position as a species in the world.
described it.41 Haraway challenges our culturally established notion that man is defined by an independent consciousness and free will. Rather, we are intimately connected with our surroundings. Fungi can also threaten human existence if, for example, they take the form of toxic moulds in the walls of our homes. Inoue’s works revolve around questions of hierarchies and interactions between species, and he challenges our notions about separate boundaries between the organic and the human world.
Inoue is interested in breaking down the contrasts between the minimalist and the abstract, the controlled and the free, the material and the immaterial (consciousness). In terrariums, the artist builds small, neat tableaux of wood or plexiglass, forming beautiful architectural infrastructures. At the top, small respiratory systems generate oxygen for the organisms. The works turn into urban landscapes that are taken over and inhabited by fungal cultures. Inoue addresses questions about how to form homes in these critical planetary times. The works remind us that man is not alone in making homes for himself on this planet. Mould plays a crucial role in the cycles of growth and decay in every ecosystem. Human survival also depends on moulds that form part of nature’s nutritional and composting systems. Fungi help break down food in our intestinal systems. Like other animals, humans are vessels for bacteria, microbes and fungi. We are not just human beings, but are constantly becoming with other growths and beings, as Donna J. Haraway, a biologist and feminist thinker in the multispecies field, has
In the Future Friture series, Inoue works with sugar, shaping it into the likeness of wooden beings that melt and decay, or of jellyfish that are immersed in frying oil and preserved. The series is poised between life and death. Inoue’s jellyfish are based on two species known for their unique regenerative properties: Hydra and Turritopsis dohrnii, both of which can transform from old to young and are therefore considered immortal. The genome of such species has attracted interest from scientists in the field of genetic engineering, a discipline questing for ‘the pinnacle of evolution’, the key to eternal life.42 The works comment on the human desire and pursuit for self-preservation. Inoue is also interested in the materiality and history of sugar. Sugar is one of nature’s most fundamental building blocks. Humans, animals and plants all have sugar in their cells. Sugar is also an essential element in pollen and pollination processes. Evolutionarily, therefore, all species are dependent on sugar. Culturally, as has previously been described, sugar is part of many sticky stories and connections. Inoue reminds
us that man is not the only agent in the world. With its seductive and enticing properties, sugar is an active contributor, co-shaping the course of history. Inoue’s works consider questions of evolution, invasion and expansion between species and materialities. The narratives of moulds and sugars extend far beyond that of man. The works pave the way for speculation about the ecologies and cultures of the past and future – human and non-human – inviting dystopian and utopian takes alike. The superpowers of algae A vast, minimalist structure infused with a delicate Japanese aesthetic forms an architectural setting for a number of individual elements: braided tatami mats, small, neat pyramid-shaped piles of green algae dust, imprints of chains, Japanese fans, a green steaming liquid and a film about algae production running in a loop on a Mac computer. Astrid Myntekær works in a field where science, spirituality, new age and science fiction intersect. In Mana Stash (2016), the artist explores how styles, phenomena, conceptions and objects travel across cultures and form new contexts in a global world. Whereas the vertical, airy architecture is inspired by the modernist architect Frederick Kiesler’s utopia about a wall-less and weightless urban space, the structure’s base is inspired by Japanese architecture, where tatami mats made to fit the human body are used as a unit of measurement. The work is thus rooted in a meeting between Western and Eastern architecture, culture and philosophy.
The work revolves around algae as an organism that creates and breaks down worlds. First and foremost, algae and the related cyanobacteria are part of the photosynthesis that creates oxygen and enables life on Earth. Hence, algae can be described as the lungs of the planet itself.43 Myntekær is interested in the history of algae, which preceded humanity by billions of years and has a future deeply embedded in a variety of manmade contexts and conditions. Algae are part of the Japanese diet and are high in protein and antioxidants – algae are said to be a source of eternal life. The work addresses the boundless potential of algae by considering their many elements and compositions. The spirulina algae dust that Myntekær uses as artistic material is a Western product used, among others, by NASA. Algae are also an eminent food source for space travel and could become the sustainable biofuel of the future. Research is also being done on algae as a source of nutrition that can be used to resolve some of the challenges facing humanity, such as global overpopulation and a huge production of animal feed. As processed spirulina, algae are considered a superfood in Western health foods and are central to the wellness culture that cultivates meditation and Eastern teachings on health issues, offering respite and salvation from a hectic, stressful day-to-day existence exacerbated by a constant digital presence. However, algae can also be dangerous. Due to acidification and pollution of the oceans, large blooms of algae can occur, disrupting ecosystems and smothering other species.
43 Described by anthropologist Natasha Myers, who is interested in effecting a break away from the anthropocentric and logocentric worldview. Photosynthesis is a biochemical process in which plants, algae and cyanobacteria use solar energy to convert the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into organic compounds and oxygen. Natasha Myers, ‘Seeding Plant/ People Conspiracies to Root into the Planthroposcene. Ten notso-easy steps for growing livable worlds’, lecture given during the conference SLSAeu GREEN, University of Copenhagen, June 2018.
44 Myntekær describes the mutual interaction between the various references addressed and linked in her work in ‘Et sted mellem religion og videnskab, tyngde og lethed’, interview by Torben Zenth, Kopenhagen Magasin, 18 October 2016, kopenhagen.dk/magasin/ magazine-single/article/ et-sted-mellem-religion-og-videnskab-tyngde-og-lethed-interview-med-astrid-myntekaer/.
The title of the work is laden with a number of significant references. ‘Manna’ refers to the Arabic word for the edible substance that, according to the Bible, God gave the Israelites during their journey in the wilderness. ‘Mana’ is also a term used for a religious force invoked in blessings, prayers and prophecies. In fantasy-themed video games, the term mana is used to denote magic energy points. ‘Stash’ is an often-used term for secret stores on the drug scene.44 The work also evokes associations with the seed banks currently being created in the hope of securing humanity’s future on a planet being depleted of its resources. Questions of value systems and survival are at stake here. Will algae be our miracle cure against climate disasters? Can we recharge the planet with the almost supernatural powers of algae? Might algae be our source of eternal, youthful life? Or assist humanity’s expansion into space? The work also contains a critique of man’s ceaseless urge for expansion and resource consumption. In a by turns utopian and dystopian universe, Myntekær portrays a world in a state of transformation. The work forms a new global world and ecosystem where the East and the west merge and the natural and the artificial mutate, and Myntekær raises questions about what future (ways of) life will look like.
communities are in meltdown. The three main themes of the exhibition intertwine across the works, which overlap, prod, poke and cross-pollinate each other. We move among sensitive, bodily experiences of national and global realities and meet reflections of various major political structures and currents. Using subtle, ingenious and surprising modes of expression, the artists materialise and embody how a range of polluting, inequality-creating and divisive tendencies characterise our time and jeopardise our common future. But the powerful, playful and poetic characteristics of the works also offer alternatives to the status quo, challenging our habitual thinking. The works demonstrate the potential and resistance embedded in the marginalised, vulnerable and overlooked. Perhaps the hope of the future lies somewhere between growing mould, states with natural boundaries, glittering drag parties and gatherings of penguins, cows and humans? The exhibition shows how contemporary art issues a call for us to form new narratives and communities based on diversity, solidarity and care – as the only way to foster viable futures for all beings on this planet.
Vital futures? The exhibition presents a diverse, multivoiced range of forecasts that are just as uncertain as a weather forecast: the planet is overheating while individuals and
Astrid Myntekær, Mana Stash, 2016. Algae dust, hand and computer fans, tatami mats, steel construction. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Detail
Nature (Re)turns Sarah Pihl Petersen
In the summer of 2017, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art presented the exhibition Nature (Re)turns. This exhibition was a collaboration with guest professor of anthropology Nils Bubandt and was supported by the Danish Ministry of Culture. The title Nature (Re)turns refers to the duality of nature’s role in the Anthropocene: Nature is changing but is also coming back in new forms influenced by humans. The exhibition dealt with what it means to live in an age where humans have become a force of nature, and it encouraged us to rethink what is natural, what is human and what is humane. ARKEN invited the artists Nanna Debois Buhl and Tue Greenfort to create a series of site-specific artworks, and the works are today part of ARKEN’s collection. The wings of a crane fly are the motif of one of three oversized photographs that are mounted on the façade of ARKEN. The photos are part of the series intervals and forms of stones of stars. Here Nanna Debois Buhl charts, in different ways, the flora, fauna and particles of the biotope around ARKEN, zooming in on an insect wing, marram grass and grains of dust. Thereby, the artworks displaces any familiar sense of scale and brings new visibility to what is usually overlooked. Buhl’s photos dissolve the distinction between the active artist and the passive motif. In the work, nature is illustrated and registered without the hand of the artist controlling the process. The photos were taken without a photographic lens: instead, the insects, plants and dust particles formed the motif by being in contact with the photosensitive interface. By giving agency to organic material, Buhl shows
the unpredictable creative forces of nature and points to the fact that humans are not omnipotent. The exhibition also included Tue Greenfort’s Limulus Polyphemus – A Living Fossil which during the months April through October can be found on the bank of the lagoon. Limulus polyphemus, or the horseshoe crab, is a species with a much older history than humankind. It can be traced back 400 million years and is often referred to as a ‘living fossil’. The horseshoe crab was living on Earth before us and due to the climate changes caused by humans, it might outlive us. In the outdoor installation a flotilla of horseshoe crabs are making their way out of the lagoon and seem to be heading right towards the museum. This formation has connotations of the plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament where swarms of frogs, mosquitoes and grasshoppers overruns the civilization – giving the exhibition title Nature (Re)turns a horrific layer of meaning. The artwork’s horseshoe crabs are cast in concrete and contain fly ash, a by-product of power stations burning refuse. Fly ash is produced at the Avedøre Power Plant, which lies directly in the line of sight from ARKEN, enabling the artwork to comment on the museum’s surroundings and reminding us of the waste products of the Anthropocene. The outdoor exhibition Nature (Re)turns was presented at ARKEN from 3 June to 17 September 2017.
Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars (Cranefly wing), 2017. Cameraless photo on self-adhesive foil. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
Tue Greenfort, Limulus Polyphemus â€“ A Living Fossil, 2017. Reinforced concrete. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art 121
Amalie Schmidt, 51 e.DSO, 2018. Sound piece. Binaural recorded stereo sound. Duration 25 mins. Listen to the piece on: www.51edso.info. Photos accompanying the listing of the work at http://www.amaliesmith.dk/51edso.html. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Photo 122
Dear Planet Sarah Pihl Petersen
In the summer of 2018, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art presented the exhibition Dear Planet – an exhibition about life on our wounded planet at a time in which the biologists consider the sixth mass extinction to be a reality. ARKEN invited the artists Astrid Myntekær and Amalie Smith to create site-specific works in dialogue with the artificial landscape surrounding the museum. Their works, which later became part of ARKEN’s collection, investigate different dystopian scenarios for the future. Hybrid beings and new ways of preserving the vanishing life on Earth are part of the imaginaries that unfold in the artworks. During the exhibition Astrid Myntekær’s three oversized, pink conches appeared to have been washed up on the shore of the lagoon surrounding the museum. In the artwork faces of women emerge from inside the shells, growing out of their inner spirals. The work is entitled The Hermit, which in the Christian tradition refers to people who live alone, isolated from society. Myntekær seems to question the very idea of total seclusion as she treats the many entanglements between humans and the surrounding world, pointing to the fact that all bodies are part of larger ecosystems. Conches are often used as souvenirs, and as shells of dead animals the life they once carried inside is replaced with an empty space echoing the sound of the sea. The conch shells are thus reminiscences of the sea snails that inhabit them, but they are also generators of a nostalgic longing for the ocean. Today, the colourful conch has become the symbol of the exotic vacation paradise, but is on the brink of extinction due to the acidification
of the oceans. Myntekær’s conches may thus be creatures from a future dystopia where severe changes in ecosystems have resulted in interspecies mutations – or could the strange hybrids be fossils from a forgotten past? The exhibition also featured the Danish sound piece 51 e.DSO. Here Amalie Smith invites us to take a walk in the landscape surrounding the museum as we listen to a fictional piece from the future – a dystopian sci-fi story set in year fifty-one after what is termed ‘The Last Oil’ (Den Sidste Olie). The sound piece may be accessed online and can be listened to anywhere, but ARKEN forms the fictive backdrop for the listening experience. Smith’s work indeed relates to the story of Noah’s Ark and to contemporary questions of seed banks, climate changes and survival. Through the narration we follow three characters who are affected by the continuously weakened living conditions on Earth caused by climate changes and unbridled technological development. The characters in 51 e.DSO have lived at ARKEN for about two years while the museum is in the process of being converted into a bank for art. 51 e.DSO poses a series of questions around the merging of organic and technological life and about how our collective memory, such as art history, is established and organised. Thereby, it makes the listener reflect on art’s role in society and what will become of it in a future when humans – as we know them – are no longer around. The outdoor exhibition Dear Planet was presented at ARKEN from 23 June to 15 October 2018.
Left: Photo that accompanies the listing of 51 e.DSO at amaliesmith.dk. Next page: Astrid Myntekær, The Hermit, 2018. Carving foam, metal, polyurethane. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art.
Nanna Debois Buhl, intervals and forms of stones of stars (20-4-2017, 22.01, 55° 36’ 18.99’’ N 12° 23’ 9.8736’’ E), 2017. Detail. Cameraless photo on self-adhesive foil. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. 126
From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos Sarah Pihl Petersen
From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos is an exhibition based on works by 16 artists and will be on show from 14 November 2020 at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition explores the relationships between humanity, nature and technology, and at the same time challenges these very categories. The present pandemic and the climate and environmental crises give human beings an ambivalent self-image. It can make us feel incredibly small and insignificant but at the same time, we are reminded that we are intimately connected to the world, and that we have an impact on each other and our surroundings. The word cosmos is etymologically tied to the word order and it points to the idea of an interactive correlation of everything. Pythagoras, who was the first to call the Universe a cosmos, believed that all natural phenomena share a common basis in geometric proportion and thereby are interconnected. Yet today astrophysicist are still trying to figure out the mysteries of the cosmos, struggling to explain the concepts of dark matter and dark energy. This challenges the laws of universality and stimulates the imagination. Throughout the centuries artists have engaged with the question of what a human being is, and what place we as humans can and should occupy in the Earth’s ecosystems. Through selected artworks the exhibition examines the scales we humans use when measuring our presence in the world. Among the exhibited works are Lea Porsager’s installation SpaceTime Foam and the videowork Disrupted E(a)rthereal Fantasy (Ova Splash) (illustrated p. 25). Combined in an installation
the two works transcend a rational and logical understanding of the world and focus instead on the sensations we feel in the microcosmos that is our own body. The video explores the hypersensitive anatomy of the inner ear in which fluid protects the delicate bones against gravity. This notion of protective fluids is also evident in the title’s reference to the ova, meaning egg. Human life stems from fertilised ‘eggs’ surrounded by amniotic fluid inside the uterus. ‘Ova Splash’ may therefore refer to the reproductivity of the sexual act and the orgasm as a kind of ‘Mini Bang’. Marie Kølbæk Iversen’s installation Nine Bats is also part of the exhibition. The installation consists of nine LED light tubes combined with sound sensitive technology. Iversen takes the bat as a point of departure, and she interprets the nocturnal animal through her biosonic light installation reflecting on the scientific research on the way bats communicate and navigate. In the installation the sound of the passers-by is translated into light as an investigation of the bat’s use of echolocation. This image of light as a means for navigation is further examined through the works’ reference to the Egyptian cow goddess Bat, whose milk, according to mythology, formed the Milky Way. The technological and spiritual layers of meaning in Iversen’s work can be seen in relation to the many different methods that humans have used to comprehend the Universe and the cosmos. There are at least as many mythological explanations for the origin of the Universe as there are religions, and with the fast development of technology, many different tools are being produced giving humans numerous ways of understanding the infinite cosmos.
Lea Porsager, Space-Time Foam, 2016. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Detail
128lights, sound-to-light controls, microphones. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art Marie Kølbæk Iversen, Nine Bats, 2016. LED
Dea Antonsen, MA, Curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. In her curatorial work, Antonsen focuses especially on feminism and environmental matters in contemporary art and philosophy. Antonsen holds an MA in Modern Culture and Cultural Dissemination from the University of Copenhagen (2014). She has curated several exhibitions, edited numerous exhibition catalogues, contributed various articles and her teaching experience includes being a guest teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 2014, Antonsen and Ida Bencke founded the curatorial platform Laboratory of Aesthetics and Ecology. The laboratory experiments with new interdisciplinary methodologies within the curatorial field. In 2017, the platform received the literary award Schadeprisen.
Gry Hedin, MA and PhD, Curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, managing ARKEN’s research and catalogues. Gry Hedin holds an MA in Art History from the University of Copenhagen and in 2012 obtained a PhD from the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen with the dissertation Skrig, Sult og Frugtbarhed about the reception of Darwin’s theories in Scandinavia. Hedin has written for and edited a range of research-based anthologies and exhibition catalogues, including Jordforbindelser (2018), Artistic Visions of the Anthropocene North (2018) and J.P. Jacobsen og kunsten (2016). In addition, she has contributed more than twenty peer-reviewed articles to journals and exhibition catalogues in Denmark and abroad.
Kerstin Borchhardt, MA and PhD, researcher, teacher and curator. Kerstin Borchhardt holds an MA from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. In 2013 she obtained a PhD from the Institute of Art History at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena with the dissertation project Böcklins Bestiarium: Mischwesen in der modernen Malerei about hybrid creatures in symbolist art, which reflect both ancient mythology and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. She has been a researcher and teacher for art history at the University of Siegen (2020), Leipzig University (2014 to 2019) and Erfurt University (2013) and contributed to several scientific and artistic publications such as the catalogue of APS Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale 2020 and the Encyclopedia of Teacher’s Education (2019).
Anne Kølbæk Iversen, MA and PhD, Curator, editor and researcher. Anne Kølbæk Iversen holds an MA in Modern Culture and Cultural Dissemination and obtained her PhD in 2019 from Aesthetics and Culture at Aarhus University with the dissertation Forms and Formations of Memory. Artistic negotiations of (trans)individuations in light of contemporary memory conditions. Kølbæk Iversen has contributed to a series of anthologies, catalogues and journals, including Stages (2017) and Passepartout (2019) and Jane Jin Kaisen – Community of Parting (2020), which she was also the editor of. Kølbæk Iversen was affiliated with ARKEN as a postdoctoral researcher with the project From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos from 2019 to 2020 and is co-curator of the exhibition From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos.
Tobias Dias, MA and PhD fellow in History of Ideas. Tobias Dias is an intellectual historian, art theorist and critic who is currently completing his thesis on the ‘artistic research’ and elementarism of the dada-constructivists in Germany in the interwar years. Dias is an editor of the journal Slagmark for which he has made a special issue on Karl Marx (2018), and part of the newly founded collective Organon for Autonomous Sciences. He has contributed to a series of anthologies and journals such as Uhørt!, Global Idéhistorie, Periskop as well as translated a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings into Danish (forthcoming 2021).
Katrine K. Pedersen, MA, Head of Education at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Pedersen holds an MA in Danish and Rhetoric and her recent research focuses on the digital culture. Pedersen is a writer with the Danish publishing house Gyldendal and the New York-based publishing house Pan & The Dream, which specialises in contemporary art. She has published four books and written more than fifty articles – primarily journalism – for Danish and international journals and magazines. She is the founder of the international blog TheHumanSituation. org, the publishing house Loopland and the Art & Tech Lab at ARKEN.
Karolin Schwab, My Floating Home, 2020. Stainless steel, powder coated. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
ARKEN BULLETIN Volume 8, 2020 Editors: Christian Gether, Gry Hedin, Anne Kølbæk Iversen,
© ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, the artists and the Authors
Editorial assistant: Sarah Pihl Petersen
© The Estate of James Lee Byars. Courtesy Michael Werner
Graphic design: Marie Højlund
Gallery, New York and London
Language revision: Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/
Proof reading and copy-editing: Jeremy Butterfield
Translation from Danish: René Lauritsen (Dea Antonsen)
© M.A. Goetzke © Studio Rondinone and kamel mennour, Paris/London
Paper: 150g Galerie Art Volume, 240g Munken Polar
© Silas Inoue and Maja Mo Moesgaard VISDA 2020
Print: Narayana Press
Print run: 300
Courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated © Anders Sune Berg p. 26, 58, 64, 67, 104, 126, 128
© David Stjernholm p. 93, 95, 102, 107, 109, 117, 122, 130
ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
© Emilia Kjær p. 104
© Emma Thunbo p. 86
© Frida Gregersen p. 4, 23, 48, 51, 55
© Hendrik Zeitler p. 70
Tel. +45 4354 0222
© Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com: p. 37
© Kit Weiss p. 69
1. edition, 1. print
© Lennart Larsen p. 66, 72 © Miha Turšič p. 76
© Ricard Estay p. 30, 34
Printed in Denmark 2020
© Roberto Fortuna og Kira Ursem p. 61, 63 © Tina Agnew p. 120
The research by Gry Hedin and Anne Kølbæk Iversen has
© Torben Petersen p. 6, 124
received support from the Ministry of Culture’s Research
© Tore Hallas p. 97, 99
Committee. The editors have attempted to identify all the licence holders for With the exception of ‘Editorial’ and ‘Nature (Re)turns, Dear
the illustrations used in the publication. If we have missed any,
Planet & From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos’ all texts have been
we kindly ask you to contact the museum, and you will receive
the standard fee.
The certification means that an independent peer of at least
Cover: Lea Porsager, Space-Time Foam, 2016. ARKEN Museum of
PhD level has made a written assessment justifying this book’s
Modern Art. Detail
scientific quality and original contributions.
Starry skies, hybrid beings and the inner of an atom. This special issue of ARKEN Bulletin explores connections between the unfathomably big and the incomprehensibly small.
Dea Antonsen Kerstin Borchhardt Tobias Dias The present pandemic and the climate crises have shown us the ARKEN BULLETIN Volume 8, 2020 Gry Hedin interconnectedness of nature and humans in new ways, and this can scientific quality contributions. Anne Kølbæk Iversen make us feel small and yet interconnected. Through centuries, artand original Editors: Christian Gether, Gry Hedin, Anne Kølbæk Iversen, Copyright: Katrine K. Pedersen has processed questions: What is a human, and which place does Naja Rasmussen © ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, the artists and the Authors Sarah Pihl Petersen humankind have in the ecosystems on Earth and in the universe’s vast Editorial assistant: Sarah Pihl Petersen © The Estate of James Lee Byars. Courtesy Michael Werner system of galaxies? Graphic design: Marie Højlund Gallery, New York and London Language revision: Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/
Proof issue reading of andARKEN copy-editing: Jeremy Butterfield VISDAto 2020 In this Bulletin, seven scholars take us on a tour outer
Translation from Danish: René Lauritsen (Dea Antonsen) M.A. Goetzke space and to the inner ear channels, where contemporary©art merges © Studio Rondinone and kamel mennour, Paris/London with scientific disciplines such as physics, astronomy and©biology. Paper: 150g Galerie Art Volume, 240g Munken Polar Silas Inoue and Maja Mo Moesgaard VISDA 2020 Print: Narayana Press
Print run: 300
Courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated © Anders Sune Berg p. 26, 58, 64, 67, 104, 126, 128
© David Stjernholm p. 93, 95, 102, 107, 109, 117, 122, 130
ARKEN Museum of Modern Art
© Emilia Kjær p. 104
© Emma Thunbo p. 86
© Frida Gregersen p. 4, 23, 48, 51, 55
© Hendrik Zeitler p. 70
Tel. +45 4354 0222
© Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com: p. 37
© Kit Weiss p. 69
1. edition, 1. print
© Lennart Larsen p. 66, 72 © Miha Turšič p. 76
© Ricard Estay p. 30, 34
Printed in Denmark 2020
© Roberto Fortuna og Kira Ursem p. 61, 63 © Tina Agnew p. 120
The research by Gry Hedin and Anne Kølbæk Iversen has
© Torben Petersen p. 6, 124
received support from the Ministry of Culture’s Research
© Tore Hallas p. 97, 99
Committee. The editors have attempted to identify all the licence holders for With the exception of ‘Editorial’ and ‘Nature (Re)turns, Dear
the illustrations used in the publication. If we have missed any,
Planet & From a Grain of Dust to the Cosmos’ all texts have been
we kindly ask you to contact the museum, and you will receive
the standard fee.
The certification means that an independent peer of at least
Cover: Lea Porsager, Space-Time Foam, 2016. ARKEN Museum of
PhD level has made a written assessment justifying this book’s
Modern Art. Detail