Presented at Concordia University, March 2014
language of things pres 20140303
1. [SLIDE 2] Kant tells us that art is fiction.
Art, in the Kantian sense, includes things definitively standing apart from the world of theoretical and practical concerns, leading to their recognition as “fiction.” While a part of the objective world, art is constituted by man-made things, which is to say apparent only in human statements, gestures, and formal configurations. [PAUSE] What art does affects our lives; we would be less complete without it. And yet, according to Kant, it is not necessary to the perseverance of human life. Thus art, in the Kantian sense of the term, operates around a contrast between what is actual and artificial—a contrast between, for example, things we use and things which use us; between what is true and false, and what is neither true nor false; and between the straightforward and the devious.
[SLIDE 3] These assumptions have corollaries. Foremost among them is that in all contexts of aesthetic thought, the subject matter—art—provides a model of construction and fictional procedure, which determines the manipulation of the concepts we use to talk about it. Using concepts aesthetically means to use them in relation to references to things and situations of art. This is to say that aesthetic thought accepts implicitly that what it deals with is fictitious: it accepts that one is dealing with constructions and devices, with things which look as-if they are something, with configurations that appear as-if their conjunctions make a point. To think aesthetically is to think about these fictions, but it is not the same thing as thinking fictively. What art exemplifies, thinking can repeat: a mode of artificiality and the deviousness of constructions without counterparts.
[SLIDE 4] Kant comes closest to an explicit statement of this sort of fictional status of objects of aesthetic discourse in his discussion of imagination and aesthetic ideas: Section 49 of The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Imagination, called a “faculty” by Kant, is a “productive cognitive faculty,” not on par with sensibility, understanding, or reason. However, it is the only fully creative aspect of the mind which Kant allows, regarded as a mode of conjoint functioning of all mental capacities. But it is not creative ex nihilo; Kant writes “imagination is, namely, very powerful in creating, as it were, another nature, out of the material which the real one gives it.” He continues, “[o]ne can call such representations of the imagination ideas … because they at least strive toward something lying beyond the bounds of experience, and thus seek to approximate a presentation of concepts of reason, which gives them the appearance of an objective reality.” This “appearance of an objective reality” is what constitutes fiction, and compels one to use concepts which are suitable to ordinary things in a new way, which takes note of the semblance of character. This is done by making a language of things do the work for things in their own right—things which are the semblances that the as-if provides by and for imaginative construction, in the first place.
[SLIDE 5] What is the work these things can do? How can they become real? That is the subject of this talk.
2. [SLIDE 6] Even as much as it can be argued that the fact of consensus, within discussion of taste, necessarily renders art political (from a Kantian perspective), it often appears that art is ambivalent towards social change. Across the image ecology of late Modern visual culture, this is perhaps most true at those instances where art attempts to engender shifts in epistemology. It is time-based art, in particular, whose imagination so often configures a world, but does not lobby on its behalf. In this regard, let us consider David Joselit’s discussion of the work of Nam June Paik. In the opening chapter of his Feedback (2007), Joselit depicts Paik’s 1963 exhibition, “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” as a reparative representation television’s nascent and schismatic medium condition. Paik’s exhibit, sponsored by a local public broadcasting network and staged for eleven days in a gallery in Wuppertal, West Germany, featured thirteen televisions, tuned to the same program, and each displaying unique signal distortions, as a result of Paik’s modification of each televisions’ internal circuitry. Joselit writes that Paik’s “prepared TVs” reconcile the “antagonistic relationship between commodity and network.” As the audience might recall, Joselit sees this “antagonism” as “encoded” in the cover of a popular 1958 children’s book, All About Radio and Television. [SLIDE 7] According to Joselit’s formalist reading, the dust-jacket illustration of this book depicts “the gap between the television commodity, represented photographically, and the network, represented in abstract wave patterns;” Joselit contends that this illustration “insinuates a startling fact: the network and the commodity, though structurally linked… are profoundly dissimilar and even antagonistic.” In other words, it is here codified that TV’s airborne circulation of information and images is structurally dissimilar from the circulation of commodities, including televisions, which its broadcast facilitates. In contrast, Joselit notes that, in Paik’s 1963 exhibit, “the TV and the network were not allowed to remain separate, as they had been in the cover of Gould’s book. Rather, the ‘dematerialzied’ mobility of the network was stabilized as an object of spectatorship.”
Even if Paik’s modified televisions might, in Joselit’s terms, “evoke television’s unconscious”—with their swirling representations of the evening news operating as an anastrophic analog of Gould’s book’s abstract waves—the what Joselit calls “real social effect” of this specific instance remains ambiguous. In Kant’s terms I can say that Paik takes note of the television and network’s semblances of character, articulating a new reality on the valences of the existing one with, his re-imagination of signal reception and consumption. But this imagination seems to operate without intentions toward state power or even the field of visual art. It is only an imaginary construction; Paik is creating another nature out of (and in spite of) the material of the medium of television, but this representation of imagination is only an idea that strives towards the bounds of experience through chiasmic representation of existing cultural logics. It is only when examined from the perspective of art history, an on their own accord, that these actions have any meaning as a delineation of a possible historical condition.
3. [SLIDE 8] I’d like to reflect for two minutes on how Joselit’s agential fracturing of post-war art resonates with the aesthetic pessimism of Giorgio Agamben, who, in The Man Without Content, argues that Modern aesthetics is the result of a series of schisms: between artist and spectator, genius and taste, and form and matter. It is, perhaps, facile to make too much of the presence of these schisms in Joselit’s description of Paik’s “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” even if their flattening into the categories of “network” and “commodity” is quite eloquent. That, however, in Joselit’s narrative, Paik seeks not spiritual intervention, but only notional representation, is quite interesting, in context. One of the most striking aspects of The Man Without Content is Agamben’s corroboration of Hegel’s proclamation in “The Romantic form of Art” that (Modern) art creation was destined to continue indefinitely in a “self-annulling mode,” whereby essence is constantly externalized. Paik’s exhibit, per Joselit’s explanation, demonstrates an exemplary instance of this phenomenon, when Paik’s technological spectatorship, qua Joselit, casts the artist as a spritely servant to television’s medium condition, while also subversively upholding the metaphysical delineation of modern aesthetics’ purposive dialectical framework. Between Joselit’s effervescent malaise and Agamben’s turgid pessimism, the schismatic vision of Modernity confirms a banal and self-imposed defeatism, for the production of art in the modern era.
3A. [SLIDE 9] In asking what the language of things constitutive of imaginative construction can do, I’m trying to find a philosophical exit from the historiographical end-game of a castrated art practice. I’ve done this using some examples at hand, and inconclusively, and I apologize for that. Also a lot of the stakes of this investigation are unresolvedly personal, derived from my relationships with Joselit, performance art, and Houston, Texas—and I apologize for that as well. That said, in reconciling with the implication of my experiences in the ideated registers of my being a student of art history with more practical artistic leanings, I have gotten closer to a hermeneutic alternative to formalism’s entrapment of the artist-creator as such, a thing I have been seeking for some time.
Building on Agamben, I examine two instances where image-making assumes the circulatory logics of kitsch, where images are made for the express purpose of iconic flattening, and reproducibility. The point is to reimagine the aesthetics of the network and commodity through its associate image-making, to propose commodifications of the ontology of the circulation of information, and to examine the agency of its symbolic registration. I will discuss two intentionally iconic representations of networks which, due to their purpose of circulation, are also commodifications of the networks they portray.
4. [SLIDE 10] This is Leticia Aguirre. In April 2011, the Houston grandmother became the first person to host a so-called “Super Wi-Fi” network, when a transmitter was installed on the side of her house. The transmitter, developed by the Rice University lab of Dr. Edward Knightly, relays an internet connection, broadcast over low-frequencies, from a separate transmitter, 4000 feet away.
In this photograph, Ms. Aguirre holds an iPad2, given to her by Knightly’s lab to test the reliability of her new internet connection. There, the device’s built-in-camera projects a real-time image of Aguirre’s visually-obstructed face onto its “retina display,” and this digitized self-representation is in turn framed by Aguirre’s hands, arms, and torso, and curtain covered windows, behind. The photograph was taken by Eric Kayne, a local freelancer, and published on the website of a major daily newspaper in April of 2011.
Although its caption describes Aguirre, Kayne’s image is composed around the iPad. Located squarely in the central foreground of the photograph, its vivid screen dominates the field of view. Moreover, we only see Aguirre as a recognizable person in the device, where she is represented by a headshot-like depiction. Here Kayne has arrested a transformation from person to digitized abstraction, portraying Leticia-as-embodied flattened into an icon, and floating in a miasma of meat, fabric, and light. That these externalities are compositionally extraneous can be substantiated through visualization of the screen alone, [SLIDE 11] noting its compositional canniness, and then viewing the complete image without Aguirre’s face, and noting it’s uncanny partiality. In these isolations, we witness the cleavage of digital subject and animate flesh; Kayne has highlighted Aguirre’s newfound ontological ambiguity, with the iPad, in the foreground, recalling the symbolic violence of Knightly’s network, and its operations between the actual and virtual.
[SLIDE 12] Pursuant to its supporting grant, Knightly’s Super Wi-Fi network is mediated by sociological auditing mechanisms. Through onsite and remote interviews with end-users, Kayne’s lab monitors network usability, and then uses the data collected to make the network more reliable. This process has been named CODA—an acronym for “context driven network access.” As a signifier, “CODA” codifies information flow between Knightly’s lab, its experimental network, and the end-user(s) of that network. That CODA that makes the network possible is true both technically—since network function is predicated on usability—and pragmatically—since related auditing is a provision of NSF funding. As CODA mitigates the Super Wi-Fi network’s appearance to its end user, by mediating data-collection and related structural adjustments, Aguirre, Knightly’s lab, and his network become analogous instruments in CODA’s cybernetic circuitry. This is because, to enable a thing-like equivalency between people, spectrum, and digital information-flow, CODA necessarily simplifies human and digital complexity into actions and consequences. For example: CODA inherently transforms Aguirre into system errors, and seeks their eradication; it also depends on Aguirre, as a supplier of the inputs that give the mechanism its purpose. With regards to Aguirre’s malfeasant eradication, an ideal inherently lies beyond the bounds of possibility, demonstrating how CODA can only ever seek to approximate a presentation of Knighly’s experimental logic—which is what the acronym represents. It is an android imagination.
The performative registers of Knightly’s CODA are at turns entertaining and terrifying. CODA exploits Aguirre as a cybernetic reliability machine but abstracts as a necessity; regardless, the procedure fractures Aguirre’s subjectivity. Kayne represents this [SLIDE 13] and the transformation shown is appropriately partial and virtual. In this way Kayne commodifies a situation: be sutures complexities and allows their free circulation, including into this room.
5. [SLIDE 14] In November 2011, New York-based conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll rotated a house 180 degrees on its lot, in order to “make architecture perform.” The project, named prototype180, is located in the Houston neighborhood of Sharpstown, and is intended to catalyze urban innovation. In Carroll’s words,
While the rotation and relocation of the house on its lot interrupt the relation of the house to its context and to existing street typologies they also signal the altered life of the house as a space devoted to a program that will address the issue of aging first-ring suburbs and their futures.
What materializes this signal is the 3,000 individuals in city government, civic life, construction, and higher education, instigated within the performance, through Carroll’s related interactions; the rotation’s social, legal, and physical complexity required every individual’s contribution in order to be realized, and the interpersonal network will continue, in ongoing developments. [SLIDE 15, SLIDE 16]
What prototype180’s geometrical reflection performs is maintained, indefinitely, by a curated online presence. Under its eves, the house contains two cameras, which utilize Wi-Fi technology developed by Dr. Edward Knightly to broadcast individual live-feeds on the Internet. Through these cameras, the house transmits an impossible, doubled-vantage point, with certain effects. For example, online viewers must inherently make themselves absent from the digitally doubled gaze the house has constructed, as they view it, since to do so they see what they cannot from the standpoint of the human body, since people can only look one way at a time, they cannot look out from the precise view of the cameras (since the cameras are in the way), and in viewing a screen one is inherently not viewing the real analog of its representation. In this way, the house directs its gaze towards itself, and reconstitutes its physical reality as an unoccupiable vantage point, manifest in real space.
Carroll’s point, made virtually, is that prototype180 is inherently not what it appears; it is not so much an objectified singularity as it is as lenses on a city, focusing attention. In making this point, schisms between artist and spectator, form and matter, genius and taste, and network and commodity are all negated. Carroll has constructed a new view of Houston, it is that city’s various realities as well as that of the house that have made that view possible, and it was the possibilities that emerged in the process of prototype180’s creation that dictated the final outcome. It is appropriate, therefore, that the project’s circulation of images is facilitated by and as its most iconic element, since it is here precisely that schism has been replaced by a doubling suture. Or, as Carroll notes in her 2009 monograph, prototype180 “is an attempt to create a project that may lead double lives: between technology and art, between art and architecture, between architecture and technology, and between art or architecture and commerce. The result of these doublings is that the project will defy categorization, [existing] in multiple categories and negating those categories, so that it will not exist in the traditional sense, at all.” The website embodies this non-existence.
[SLIDE 17] I’ll end with a comparison.
Kayne’s photograph is a study in the representation of networked subjectivity, portraying CODA’s effect on Aguirre’s ontology. prototype180 is also a study in the representation of networked subjectivity, embodying various possibilities, to further a process already enacted. Both instantiate an ontological flattening, transforming studied information exchange and proposing an otherwise impossible new unity. One instance—that which is portrayed by Kayne—simplifies, the other—Carroll’s architectural performance—produces a complex ecology. I seek no judgment between these. Rather, I offer their representations to reflect on the efficacy of imaginative construction. Kayne’s picture pushes against CODA’s inherent abstraction, in effect reminding all that the system’s virtual fracturing of Aguirre’s person and internet usage is only virtual. Meanwhile, with its human face (Aguirre in the iPad), the network has become explicitly commodified by its use, by a person. Kayne does not offer a possible alternative mode of consuming Knighly’s network, instead he represents it, definitively, as an ambiguous and ongoing sociological process. In this sense, within Kayne’s photograph, it is possible to see Knightly’s experiment as fractured by its user, rather than fracturing its user, if one chooses to make this reading; it is CODA’s imaginative nature, as represented specifically by Kayne, makes this duality possible. Thus Kayne, the photographer, has a supreme agency in delineating the phenomenological modes of Knightly’s internet experiment.
Carroll uses a building’s online presence to direct the gaze of spectators towards their observation, to give materiality to a sociological process she has instigated. The website resists prototype180’s apparent materiality, pushing against the house’s objectification as sculpture, or even as an object, while still enabling the project’s circulation within the World Wide Web. Every spectator, in Houston, or online, becomes instantiated within the house’s emergent network of performer-stakeholders, effectively expanding the universe of possible urban innovations that was signaled by prototype180’s rotation. While prototype180.com does not completely frame reception of its projects “signal”—the house and its rotation has been written about in isolation on many occasions—it keeps the operative social networking possibilities open, and this is important.
Together Carroll and Kayne represent systems that work, where real change is made to occur by taking advantage of semblances of character, within the fictive arena of aesthetic commodities. That CODA effects Aguirre’s subjectivity and that prototype180 marshals intentions in the interest of local innovation has been effectively portrayed, to the extent that even those of us in this room could start to consider ourselves as a part of the circulation of things, people, and information that have been depicted. Kanye’s phonograph and Carroll’s house-website don’t really do anything, but they do represent in a manner with constative impact: they depict networks in fashions networks cannot themselves, to the effect of expanding possible relations within those networks and of those networks to the world. Imagination operates as if it can expand already given possibilities, and that is also what these images do. That the expansion is neither banal nor self-defeating is notable.