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Catalogue Essay: Industries Of Vision: A Survey Into Practical Heterotopias - June2000


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After my lecture for the International Conference for Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in Siena in 2001, I was invited by the Vestjaellands Kunstmuseum in Denmark to write an essay in the framework of "Industry of Vision" a project and exhibition that addressed and questioned historical and contemporary Utopias and Heterotopias.

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Catalogue Essay: Industries Of Vision: A Survey Into Practical Heterotopias - June2000

  1. 1. Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife A survey into Practical Heterotopias On April 28, 1997, New Zealand’s newspapers reported the spectacular life-saving rescue of a 3-year-old child from an automobile that had plunged into the Awakino River. Using a Swiss Army Knife Chris Jamieson was able to release the unconscious boy from the motor vehicle, thereby saving him from certain death in the gushing torrent. ‘(…) The artist makes models of problems and situations that have not yet emerged in the larger matrix of society’. Marshall McLuhan On October 25, 1919, a remarkable ‘Vision of Industry’ was presented to the inhabitants of Moscow. Everywhere in the Russian capital hundreds of factory hooters blared in constantly changing acoustical patterns. The resulting havoc was neither an emergency test nor the daily alert to start or end a day’s work. In order to stress the importance of the proletariat’s national solidarity the poets Gastev and Mayakovsky had conceived a symphony for factory hooters, to be performed by the proletarians themselves. Hundreds of carefully selected factory workers were standing next to factory hooter on/off buttons, their eyes fixated on a stopwatch and a simple, but highly effective music score. In November 1922, a similar composition was performed in the oil town of Baku. Apart from factory hooters the armamentarium consisted of warship sirens and foghorns, two battalions of artillery, several squadrons of machine guns, and a ‘choir’ consisting of thousands of spectators. These euphoric enterprises were typical of a nation in full transformation. Artists were decorating Agit-Prop trains, ships and agitation centers, called 'Agitpunkts'. Agit-Prop, a contraction of the words ‘agitatsiia’ and ‘propaganda’, was an omnipresent activity in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. These activities were set up in order to inculcate and promote appropriate social class values among the Soviet population.
  2. 2. yakov chernikhov, 1925 As is usually the case, revolutionary euphoria had a short life span. Seven years after Stalin took power, Russian Constructivism was publicly debunked, and the movement’s members pigeonholed as formalists, cosmopolites or downright reactionaries. Already in 1930 the firing squads worked overtime in Moscow’s Butyrka prison, the trains to Siberia were fully booked, and Russian expat communities were bourgeoning in the western capitals. Other artists resorted to a mental ‘inner emigration’ by adjusting their work to the new cultural winds blowing throughout the Soviet Union. It is interesting to connect these events to similar developments in other post- revolutionary societies. Although Mussolini’s assumption of power is hardly comparable to the immense transformations in Russian society, the position of the Italian Avant-garde vis-à-vis newly established power structures shows clear parallels. This is the period where both communist and fascist ideologies were not certain whether the Avant-garde movement was fit to represent the new political elite. In Hitler’s Germany the Avant-garde didn’t stand a chance from the beginning, while in Italy Futurism and Modernism at first were regarded to be a viable option. A remark made by the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni in 1912 clarifies Fascism’s initial affinity with Futurist thinking: ‘The era of the great mechanized individuals has begun and all the rest is paleontology’. Especially during the twenties there was an interchange between Futurism and Fascism, and Rationalist architects such as Adalberto Libera and Giuseppe Terragni were deployed to create a new fascist idiom. At the same time Stalinism started to represent itself with Socialist Realism in painting and a kind of overblown Neo- Classicist grandeur in architecture, with Moscow’s Palace of the Soviets as proverbial highlight. With Marshall Mcluhan’s quotation in mind one can say that the early Avant- garde ‘models of problems and situations’ only marginally permeated into ’the larger matrix’ of colliding ideologies. Still, the Avant-garde movement flourished. Looking at coarse-grained pictures of international gatherings organized by Theo van Doesburg we see well-dressed artists radiating self-confidence, friendship and solidarity. Van Doesburg’s suit is excellently cut, and Lissitsky’s inevitable cap a hallmark of elegance. In 1922 Van Doesburg stated that ‘all that we used to designate as magic, spirit, love, etc., will now be efficiently accomplished. The idea of the miraculous, that
  3. 3. primitive man made so free with, will now be realized simply through electric current, mechanical control of light and water, and the technological conquest of space and time.’ It was a tight group of idealists and utopians, but it was also a fringe group that was forced to cater primarily to wealthy collectors and patrons, with the exception of some Russian members who were able to benefit from the new artistic climate in their homeland. Well into the thirties Lissitsky organized and designed large- scale exhibitions and presentations all over Russia and Western Europe. This is the golden age of manifestos. They were necessary as binding agents to stress the inevitability of renewal. Within De Stijl movement Van Doesburg was the theoretical Imperial Wizard, while at the same time in Paris André Breton guarded Surrealism’s purity in the same way the three-headed hellhound Kerberos once guarded the underworld. From our viewpoint the position of artists in the first half of the twentieth century is simultaneously inspiring, fascinating and baffling. The story of their lives is surrounded by a romantic aura, but at the same time their political standpoints were unbearably naïve; in those days it seemed to be altogether impossible to recognize the gruesome parallels between Fascism and Communism. During a television interview in 1989 with the Dutch documentary filmmaker Wim Kayzer the Austrian-American literary critic and writer George Steiner remarked that his students in Cambridge were typical exponents of a generation that has learned to distrust manifestos and ideologies. Their standpoint was one that advocates relativism and pragmatism, triggered off by a bird’s eye perspective on the negative impact of ideologies in the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand Steiner was slightly nostalgic about the euphoric power of the ideals developed in that era, but on the other hand he recognized the consequence of refusing any ideological straitjacket by his students. Being a Jew, born in 1922, he had seen it all. 'Mondriaan, Malevich, van Doesburg and others made or tried to make art and architecture as part of a new civilization, which obviously it was, and obviously still is. They are generally disparaged as being idealistic and utopian, Mondriaan's philosophy aside. Why is it idealistic - even what does that mean - to want to do something new and beneficial, practical also, in a new civilization? Is it practical to let the civilization become as gross as it is becoming, to let it become stagnant, and then in a few hundred years try to aerate it?' Donald Judd The historical Avant-garde turned out to be the primary binding agent after the Second World War. Many Bauhaus members had moved to the United States during the war and established firm ground in art and architecture. It was the American market that recognized the qualities of artists and architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Josef Albers and Laszló Moholy-Nagy. Prior to their arrival President Roosevelt’s Government sponsorship of the arts during the Great Depression enabled artists to continue working, embellishing
  4. 4. public buildings with murals and creating smaller works for display in public institutions. After the war, notwithstanding the upcoming Cold War era and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt, the United States culturally turned out to be a both/and society. Alongside Modernism Abstract Expressionism conquered the New York gallery world. Roosevelt’s art patronage policy had evaporated completely; the arts depended solely on the working of the market. There is an interesting relationship between American Pragmatism, a relativistic philosophical movement established after the American Civil War in 1865, and developments in art, design and architecture after the Second World War. In the postwar United States, Avant-garde thinking equaled Frontier thinking. Frontier thinking doesn’t only refer to wagon trains moving west (although it remains an evocative image), but to the pragmatist idea that society at large was makable and flexible, without having to depend on the rigidity of some umbrella ideology. ‘There is always an inventory of important follow-through tasks to be accomplished and a number of new, highly relevant critical initiatives to be taken.’ Richard Buckminster Fuller Already in 1927 the American inventor, architect and engineer Richard Buckminster Fuller had started to develop his far-reaching designs and theories. In his eyes the Bauhaus and its offshoots were primarily fashion institutes, unable to address the real technical, economical, infrastructural and architectural challenges in a world with an exploding population and diminishing natural resources. Fuller was a Frontier man, a fusion incarnate of Old World Puritanism and New World Research & Development. Fuller was one of the first to acknowledge the power and eloquence of statistics and hard data. In his eyes style and beauty could be design results, but shouldn’t be primary goals. To him,
  5. 5. under the flag of ‘Earth Incorporated’, art, science and industry ought to be one amalgamated entity. Buckminster Fuller is the inventor of the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion Car and the Dymaxion Airocean World Map, as well as being the inventor-discoverer of energetic-synergetic geometry, Geodesic engineering and the development of so-called tensegrity structures. Fuller’s Geodesic domes and Octet Truss System turned out to be commercial winners, but many of his other inventions were too much ahead of their time. In Fuller’s case the McLuhan quotation hits the mark: his ‘models of problems and situations had not yet emerged in the larger matrix of society’, in spite of the fact that the industry and the political and cultural elites recognized Fuller’s unique range of ideas. On the one hand, as is often the case, there was a large gap between noncommittal recognition and outspoken support. On the other hand, Fuller was one of the few who maintained a hybrid network, ranging from the Pentagon to large industries, and from the museum world to prominent academic institutions. Nearly every new generation adopts Buckminster Fuller’s philosophy, especially in connection to important global issues such as the dilemma of overpopulation, and the inevitability of finding alternatives for the wasteful exploitation of Earth’s natural resources. In a way, Buckminster Fuller was a one-man N.G.O. avant la lettre. ‘Design Is a Method of Action.’ Charles Eames In 1979 the french philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote Le Mur du Pacifique, (Pacific Wall). The book is an idiosyncratic combination of fiction and non-fiction. In Lyotard’s mind California is the Pacific Wall, the edge of the physical American Frontier and Frontier Thinking. He sees clear similarities between California and ancient Rome. Rome had Greece as spiritual hinterland; California has the East
  6. 6. Coast and Europe. At the same time, independent from their hinterlands, both Rome and California developed a cultural matrix that was rampantly hedonistic. In this climate Charles and Ray Eames built up their design practice. Charles was an architect, and Ray an artist who was educated by the German painter Hans Hofmann, who kindled the development of Abstract Expressionism. The Eameses witnessed the rise of Corporate America and the foundation of the Pacific Wall. Although they are primarily known for their furniture, they produced films, exhibitions, houses, appliances, graphic design, and were pioneers in the emergence of Information Design as specialized discipline. Illustration 5 The Californians effectively accomplished Van Doesburg’s positivist idea about a new world dominated by the blessings of modern technology. The history of the Eames office is firmly entwined with the history of postwar America. What is striking about their work is that ‘their models of problems and situations’ were fully absorbed within ‘the larger matrix of society’. They were both free minds and servants in an era when ‘what was good for General Motors was good for the country’. The Eameses fully understood the implications of living in the USA: their elaborate commercial network allowed them to work with large financial resources. Although they remained loyal to their liberal and lighthearted way of life they had profound technical and commercial links to all the great players in the American corporate and cultural field. In 1969 Charles drew a diagram showing the extended relationships their office had developed in the course of thirty years. It contained all the large companies and key players: companies such as IBM, PanAm, Ford, CBS and the Rand Corporation, but also government clients and powerful colleagues and friends. Charles Eames – Network diagram, 1969 Although the world of industrial design was their primary point of reference, the attitude with which Charles and Ray Eames operated proves to be an inspiration
  7. 7. both for artists and designers. Their universe seems to be altogether absent of the artificial boundaries between art, design and science. The Eames office represents an Industry of Vision and a Vision of Industry as a place of cultural innovation and exchange. After Ralph Nader’s campaigns against the car industry, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s environmental manifesto Silent Spring, Charles Eames stated in 1971 that ‘(…) We wanted a more efficient technology and we got pesticides in the soil. We wanted cars and television sets and appliances and each of us thought he was the only one wanting that. Our dreams have become true at the expense of Lake Michigan. That doesn’t mean that the dreams were all wrong. It means that there was an error somewhere in the wish and we have to fix it.’ ‘Fixing it’ is a typical example of Frontier Thinking. Charles Eames didn’t live long enough to witness the toilsome resuscitation of the Environment: he died in 1978. ‘Culture is communication, communication is culture.’ Edward T. Hall '(…) Creativity isn't the monopoly of artists. This is the crucial fact I've come to realize, and this broader concept of creativity is my concept of art. When I say everybody is an artist, I mean everybody can determine the content of life in his particular sphere, whether in painting, music, engineering, caring for the sick, the economy or whatever. All around us the fundamentals of life are crying out to be shaped or created. But our idea of culture is severely restricted because we've always applied it to art. The dilemma of museums and other cultural institutions stems from the fact that culture is such an isolated field, and that art is even more isolated: an ivory tower in the field of culture surrounded first by the whole complex of culture and education, and then by the media which are also part of culture. We have a restricted idea of culture, which debases everything; and it is this debased concept of art that has forced museums into their present isolated position. Our concept of art must be universal and have the interdisciplinary nature of a university, and there must be a university department with a new concept of art and science.’ Joseph Beuys At this moment, in the year 2001, one tends to forget that Joseph Beuys’ legacy consists largely of text material. Some people who do remember tend to snigger at what he said about art, education and culture in general. But there’s no doubt that Donald Judd’s remark about the viability of the early Avant-garde’s ideals also apply to the ideals Joseph Beuys propagated. It is doubtful, though, whether Judd would ever utter such favorable remarks about him. But it was Beuys who set new standards with respect to the position of art in society at large. His Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz, an installation in the central staircase at the Museum Fridericianum during Documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977, was a milestone. A large electrical pump squeezed fluid honey through a circuit of transparent tubes going up and down the staircase and entering adjacent spaces. The Honey Pump represented an Industry both of Vision and Discourse: Beuys’ installation was physically and spiritually connected to a space behind the staircase where daily discussions took place. They were organized by the Free International
  8. 8. College for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, an organization founded by Beuys. Its evocative power and intelligent social interface makes Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz a hallmark in the history of twentieth century art. Joseph Beuys – Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz, 1977 Although Beuys’ personal quest as artist and thinker remains unique, there is an obvious relationship between his work and the art of the Fluxus movement. For some time he considered himself to be a member, although he was a relative outsider compared to ‘full’ members like George Maciunas and Ken Friedman. What is striking about Fluxus is that the movement succeeded in being unaesthetic, anti-mainstream and non-commercial for a long time. Furthermore, Fluxus was the first global art movement ever, from San Diego to Tokyo, and from Argentine to Sweden. Some Fluxus artists (notably the ones who weren’t fully embedded in the Fluxus movement) became prominent players in the art world: Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and John Cage. But the core members persevered in maintaining Fluxus’ consciously peripheral, non-commercial position in the art world, although a commercially attractive market in Fluxus paraphernalia popped up after 1980. Notwithstanding its dwindling influence in the course of the seventies, Fluxus has established an unequivocal precedent for art initiatives that were to develop in the following decades. ‘(…) Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art. ‘We have no Art, we try to do everything well.’ (Balinese saying à la McLuhan and Fuller.)’ Mierle Laderman Ukeles ‘(…) If I have to describe it, AVL-Ville is probably capitalism, communism and anarchism, all mixed together. But we try to earn as much money as possible and we try to rule the world. So we are capitalists, absolutely. Joep van Lieshout
  9. 9. In his essay Spaces for play Daniel Hjorth circumscribes so-called ‘heterotopias’, a concept of space that was defined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Heterotopias stem from the context where they are created, but they become ’radically other spaces, counter spaces and spaces of resistance’. Unlike utopias, which are fundamentally unreal spaces, heterotopias are counter spaces, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which ‘real’ society is simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL) In Rotterdam can be perceived as an ambiguous heterotopean model. On the one hand AVL has set own laws with respect to its organization, which aims to be as self-sufficient as possible, but on the other hand it is a commercial company run by CEO Joep van Lieshout. AVL-Ville, the enclave in Rotterdam where the company is based, is the ultimate reanimation of a boy’s dream, and if one sees early pictures of Van Lieshout’s undertakings as a youngster, the essence of this dream gets instantly clear. Atelier van Lieshout – AVL-ville – axonometric drawing, AVL view, and AVL currency, 2002 Van Lieshout is a symbiosis of Homo Œconomicus (the economic human) and Homo Ludens (the playing human). Basically AVL is a tongue-in-cheek pseudo- sectarian ultra-commercial company, and its very tongue-in-cheekness makes it a typical kind of 21st century heterotopia. After all, with George Steiner’s Cambridge students in mind, ideological counter spaces were rendered obsolete by the end of the twentieth century. For that matter the AVL ideology is in the name of the tongue-in-cheek game. In spite of AVL’s self-made machine guns,
  10. 10. the Van Lieshout game is a harmless one. It is definitively not a ‘space of resistance’ as some heterotopias are, or used to be. AVL represents society, because it is a miniature society in its own right. AVL contests society, because it opposes the alienation of today’s consumer from his own food sources, (AVL butchers and processes pigs) and from his private domain (AVL stresses the necessity to create customized spaces and to question rules and regulations that dominate the public domain). But AVL doesn’t invert society. Inverting society is possibly the most radical and dangerous act. Beuys tried it to a certain degree with his Büro der Organisation für direkte Demokratie durch Volkabstimmung, which was an attempt to invert the political power pyramid. But there’s no doubt that Western Germany in the seventies, with the RAF’s polarizing Sword of Damocles dangling ominously above German society, was a test case for political reform par excellence. In the more holistic sense of the word Richard Buckminster Fuller radically tried to invert society by redefining ‘Earth Inc’. From his point of view corporate, scientific, and political structures should be rebuilt from the bottom up in order to address the world’s most serious problems. With McLuhan’s quotation in mind again, AVL processes ‘existing models of problems and situations’ that were rendered obsolete for a long time ‘in the larger matrix’ of consumer society. In spite of the undeniable beauty and ingenuity of AVL’s products, Van Lieshout’s experiment is essentially romantic and nostalgic, with an odd warp running from blatant commercialism to a form of semi-tolerant communal life style. But what is truly contemporary about AVL, though, is the protean nature of its activities, both artistically and economically. AVL does about everything, because everything is Big Fun and Potentially Lucrative. (…) The world can no longer be seen as simply good versus bad. The new situation is more like nature: one organism's good versus another organism's good. Davidkremers davidkremers – wonder / controversy
  11. 11. davidkremers is distinguished conceptual artist in biology at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. He combines this function with his artistic undertakings, although there is no distinguishable boundary between the two. Indeed, davidkremers has created a unique platform for himself, which makes it possible to impregnate art with new scientific perceptions and vice versa. Marshall McLuhan’s quotation hits the mark more than ever before when it comes to the statements davidkremers makes about a revised function of art in the wake of scientific developments. One particular statement in his extremely concise, but highly evocative biography speaks volumes: ‘Artists no longer make meaning from the world, so much as they assemble life.’ Reading the words davidkremers writes, or experiencing the images he has generated, one realizes that art is recapturing old grounds: art used to be a medium creating highly condensed information about the structure of the universe. Art sought to develop visual interfaces that represented heaven’s hierarchies, hell’s undercrofts or social constructs of the mundane world. What is profoundly interesting about davidkremers’ stance is that in his mind art equals innovation: in the time to come art doesn’t provide the world with metaphors, but with potent visual and cognitive data banging at the doors of the hyperconscious and subconscious simultaneously. One of davidkremers’ most evocative and beautiful works is a series of early paintings he ‘grew’ from genetically engineered bacteria. The knowledge he needed in order to make these works find their origin in Calltech’s biology department. By sealing the bacteria into transparent material their growth is halted, but as soon as they are exposed to oxygen again they will resume their growth. For Caltech he built a virtual mouse that bears the same characteristics as a living one, thus making it possible to do scientific research without having to dissect physical mice. About this particular endeavor he wrote the following statement: ‘Our species is shedding a culture based on the fear of death and the accumulation of inanimate objects for a new civilization based on biotechnology in which the self regeneration and beauty of short lived creatures will be given the highest value.’ By linking innovations of biological science to the visual culture of hypermedia, davidkremers undoubtedly has created both new tools and a new platform for art vis à vis scientific innovation. But when will current biotechnology and connected innovations in visual culture be fully acknowledged and supported by those who represent ‘the larger matrix of society’? ‘There is no doubt that the hybridization of society asks for a hybridization of the instruments with which the artist operates, without having to debunk art’s historical frame of reference.’ Ronald van Tienhoven Epilogue: Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife. Victorinox Inc., based in the town of Ibach-Schwyz, Switzerland, manufactures the Swiss Champ Swiss army knife. There are thirty-three functions and sixty-
  12. 12. four individual parts concentrated in this knife, which weighs one hundred and eighty-five grams. It takes four hundred and fifty manufacturing steps to make a single Swiss Champ Swiss army knife. So much for the physical data. The Swiss army knife is a statement incarnate about hybridization, densification and multifunctionality. If an icon needs to be found that represents an extended function of art in society, the Swiss Army Knife is a Swiss Champ. Once upon a time the artist/designer only had a limited set of instruments, but they sufficed. Nowadays the same set suffices as well, depending on individual needs and ambitions. But if critical ‘models of problems and situations’ need to be made, the instruments will have to be adjusted or developed. That’s where the Swiss Army Knife comes in: it’s both a utensil and a life-saving device. This essay is a concise, consciously randomized coverage of a quest through the history of visual culture. More than ‘art’ the notion of ‘visual culture’, for the time being, adequately covers present and future artistic developments. In terms of artistic intention and tenacity the artists and designers that are mentioned share a common goal: to push the meaning and possibilities of visual culture beyond the limitations of society. They have created or are creating a lineage of thinking that will prove to be a blueprint for future enterprises. Marcel Duchamp once said that the greatest danger for the artist is the mask of the artist. This ‘mask’ stems from existing cliché’s about art’s position in society. As a result a pavlovian effect is triggered off: the artist behaves according to society’s expectations, thus limiting his range of action. Beuys remarked that ‘society’s idea of culture is severely restricted because culture has exclusively been applied to art’. For that reason he argued in favor of an interdisciplinary concept of art and science. Already a generation of artists emerges that should not be judged on individual artistic qualities alone. The individual responsibility towards society makes for a development in more than one direction. As a result, a manifold of fields of knowledge can be covered. Representatives of this generation strive to fulfill an active role within present and future scientific and social parameters. Of some it can be said that their specialty is not only concerned with art and design, but with a multitude of disciplines, thus fulfilling an active role within a supracultural domain. This attitude requires two major changes: an adjustment of instruments and a multi-layered set of disciplinary and social platforms. In the slipstream of these changes the concept of service also needs to be adjusted. This adjustment should intensify the working of visual culture in the public domain, provided that the artist/designer is well equipped, and willing to share his instruments and platforms with others. Inevitably this renewed concept of service will intensify visual culture’s social interface. Much can be appropriated; more can be shared. This is essentially the message I have wished to convey with this essay.