Thank you all for your thoughtful and diverse responses. I’d now like to turn to a subject raised for me by the Haunted exhibition itself, which, when I saw it in New York, was, as advertised, a show about repetition and reenactment. More powerfully, however, it seemed to me that amid all the doublings and acts of archiving a show about a kind of destitution. Unexpectedly I found myself faced with works that concentrated my sense of a society without hope.
Why this lack of hope? And with that question, what’s the relation between, on the one side, an art of doubling and haunting and, on the other, art that prompts us to realize that we live in a world that has lost its capacity to affirmatively will the future? The answer to the first, admittedly ridiculously ambitious question turns out, I think, to be quite simple: it’s a hopeless world because a single social system, democratic state capitalism, has become so dominant that we cannot imagine an alternative to it—and yet the system can’t fulfill our demands on it. We live in a society that has eaten up the future in part by promising more than it can deliver. We’re in endgame capitalism in the sense that it provokes the failure of our collective imagination.
The way this failure relates to repetition/haunting, meanwhile, goes something like as follows: we live with a flattened sense of time where the future has been closed off, so repetition rules. The future is the present, and vice versa. The innovative technologies of recovery and re-mediation that Amy talks about or Drew’s evocative account of black metal as the expression of a grinding sense of time where hopelessness falls short of despair, are important analyses of the repetitive temporality of curtailed expectancy in works of art. They treat the functional, aesthetic components of our social substrate.
At any rate and despite everything, art hangs on grimly to its traditional powers: 1) its power to prophesize, now of a world without a future 2) its power of truth telling: where we else will you get more straight talk about our situation than in the works in Haunted, most of which point directly to history’s premature end? 3) its power to celebrate the world, now perversely turned (per my first post, after Kierkegaard) toward a liturgy of the void, where what has become transcendental is an absence that turns any flickerings of true hope and love into something impossible, saintly, miraculous.
Am I right, for instance, to imagine that Miranda Lichtenstein’s Floater (2004) arresting image of a floating girl with two faces, one face looking up into the gray heavens, the other down into the blue waters, shows someone awaiting exactly such a state of exception?
The big-picture implications of Amy’s and John’s posts on the dissemination of films and jokes, and Simon’s second post in particular, have me thinking about two dilemmas. First, there is the vast and vexed matter of art and politics. Can we wield the language of politics on art without forcing art into a subsidiary role? Must art be only a treasure box of case studies for a larger, more pressing discourse that contains it? If so, then art can only point toward present conditions or index problems with strictly political solutions, and the stake of aesthetics shrinks embarrassingly. Can we claim any autonomy for the aesthetic without collapsing into an awfully old-fashioned (and ideological) defensive crouch?
Second question: might the temporality of art force us to think about the political in a fundamentally different way? If the melancholy poetics of art as a caretaker of pastness acts as a soporific consolation for a political morass, could art work with time in ways that invigorate us, that slap us awake? In particular, can art sidestep our intuitive, pre-Einsteinian default model of time as a one-way street and the poetics of “destitution” that inevitably comes with that?
The anti-tradition of musical free improvisation seems to me to reject melancholic haunting in favor of the future. At every point in a free improvisation, forms emerge, collapse, and are renegotiated at a collective level: the option of a given gesture is put forward by one player only to be instantly canceled or affirmed by others. At each point, the total set of potential moves that players might make remains both cumulatively pressurized by past decisions and radically open to renewal. As such, free improvisation is insistently, defiantly, absurdly hopeful, and it sticks out in an aesthetic landscape that has mostly succumbed to the won’t-get-fooled-again logic of quietist surrender. Learning from free improvisation might gearshift the conversation toward an understanding of politics as an art of infinite potentiality rather than predicatively contoured possibility.
I describe free improvisation as an anti-tradition with due caution. When we experience in real time an improvisation by seasoned veterans like New York’s Borbetomagus and then compare it with another real-time performance by a young ensemble like Chicago’s Tiger Hatchery, molecular differences abound. But in the jump from one to the other, we do not sense the evolution of a canon or the simple demonstration of a more muscular set of abilities. Progress is canceled out, but not on behalf of a poetics of failure or stall. Instead, in the forking paths of infra-thin cascades of choices enacted by every improviser in their own present moment, we encounter a means of leveraging potential from the future. Improvisation offers one way to short-circuit political melancholy on behalf of a future that we can claim within the present, right now.
I was happy to see Simon posing what he himself called “a ridiculously ambitious question,” because of the important answer he provided. The Question: why is this now a world without hope? His answer: “it’s a hopeless world because a single social system, democratic state capitalism, has become so dominant that we cannot imagine an alternative to it.”
I’d say “hope” as a word is racing toward uselessness, where the word “democracy” has already arrived, when its implicit reference is to one-dollar-one-vote democratic state capitalism. It’s great that Simon has called out “DSC,” but for most people it’s not clear that that is the problem, precisely due to the DSC worldwide ideological blanket that Simon’s fingered. The failure of imagination can be remedied by filling in the blank of “hope.” You’ve got to fill it in with context and strategy, and art projects can do that.
I’d argue that repetition and haunting don’t have to be linked. And repetition can be an effective strategy in breaking through. Simon says, “The future is the present, and vice versa.” Well, when things don’t change, the present is also a repetition of the past. Problems and failed policies are replayed ad nauseam because the ideological and power relations underpinning them are there precisely to push back against the evidence. At this moment, for example, we see this playing out in the arena of financial reform.
I’m gonna paraphrase something I wrote in 2000: I’m creating work that reflects the social imbalance by re-creating it, but with the power relations revealed; by producing a seamless re-creation of reality, but with normal people playing the elite. The constraints of the text limit them to the words of the elite. This participatory re-creation of an exclusive reality exposes familiar experiences, feelings, and thoughts to the social forces that to some degree determine these feelings and thoughts, and it results in their being understood in historical context.
It’s true, as Simon says, that in this era of DSC dominance, “we live in a society that has eaten up the future.” I’d say we’ve strip-mined it, mountain-top-removed it, and in using up the future—our future—we’ve become slaves to it. I talk with graduating visual-arts MFA students who are $120,000 in debt. Those who have thought about it are intent on becoming art stars and look at the brand-name degree as indispensible for their rise and to recouping their investment. Some of them are in unrenumerative subfields of art like “public practice.” Yikes!
This forum has become somewhat confusing to me, and I’m sure my first post didn’t help. At the risk of being pedantic, it might be useful to get back to some basics about repetition in works of art. First, repetition has been a primary structuring element in all art forms throughout history. (There are polemical exceptions, of course, for example twelve-tone music.) Second, the kind of repetition made possible by the technology of mass reproduction—first the printed word and, possibly more crucially for the past 150 years of art, the photographic image—has transformed our notions of original and copy.
The Haunted show emphasizes, among other things, the indexical aspect of the photographic image. Photography and movies testify to the existence of whatever was in front of the lens at the moment the pictures were taken. Hence they are defined by their relationship to something that no longer exists—a moment in time, a condition of light, even a scene that is created specifically for the camera. The indexicality of the photographic image—the physical (chemical/electronic) traces of its moment of origin—emphasizes its function as memento mori and makes it by definition ghostly. Does that mean that contemporary art has less hope or more to mourn than art in the age of the Black Plague, or the Inquisition? That seems to me a dubious conclusion, even when one wakes up every morning realizing that the Gulf of Mexico may very well become a Dead Sea.
Tacita’s Dean’s 2008 six-screen film installation Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33’’ with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007, six performances; six films) is a memento mori that refers to the passing of two great masters of American modernism and to the modernist century that passed almost simultaneously with them. But the piece also speaks to the practice of Cunningham and Cage’s aesthetic now and for years to come. As the title suggests, Dean’s piece consists of six films of choreographer Cunningham performing a dance he composed for the famously “silent” composition 4’33’’, which his life partner Cage created in 1952. The frail Cunningham (who died two years after Dean filmed him) sits in a chair throughout, occasionally turning his head, shifting his gaze, or moving his arm.
While the tone of the work is melancholy, it also engenders a great deal of physical movement and mental acrobatics on the part of the viewer. I found myself running from screen to screen to compare Cunningham’s versions of the dance as well as to hear variations on Cage’s composition as the film sound mixed with the sound in museum. But perhaps the most vital aspect of the piece is its incorporation of the viewer. In order to look at Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS, he or she must cross between the projector and the screen, casting a shadow on the image. Unscripted movements become part of the artwork, the visual equivalent of the aleatory sound in 4’33’’—and guarantee that Dean’s reinstantiation of Cunningham’s choreography exists not only in infinite regress but projects into the future, however long that future may be.