Issue #44, 2013
Scene

Fictions, Horizons, And Free Falls: Some Meeting Points In Contemporary Art And Thought
Mihaela Brebenel

The travelling exhibition Meeting Points 7 (Ten Thousand Wiles & a Hundred Thousand Tricks) will have reached Vienna by the time you will read this article. It would have varied its gallery space and participating artists yet again, focusing this time on the “present-day situation in the former crown lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire”. Before, in its travels, it would have taken place and shape in several other locations of the world: Zagreb, Antwerp, Cairo, Hong Kong, and Beirut. After Vienna, one more destination will follow, and very interestingly so, the trail will end in Moscow during June and July 2014. Meeting Points 7 (Ten Thousand Wiles & a Hundred Thousand Tricks) is curated by WHW/What, How and for Whom collective from Croatia.1

* Fictions

“And increasingly, the fiction of the contemporary is primarily a global or a planetary fiction.”2

Wile, artifice, trick, ruse, feint, stratagem, manoeuvre, dodge:these nouns denote means for achieving an end by indirection or deviousness.

Ten thousand wiles we can conceive of. Ten thousand deceiving ways for entrapping a victim by playing on his or her weak points. 10,000 is a number we can see and we could probably make a list of some of the wiles contained here, from small to large scale, from teleshopping scams, to the seductive sexuality of a screen showing a woman’s voice and lips, engulfing the body of a man in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Used sometimes as a feint, as a deceptive act calculated to distract attention, or as intricate as Satan’s wiles, bordering the stratagem or the manoeuvre, the complete scheme of planned deception and entrapment in spaces of eternal suffering. 

What, then about the trick? Ten times ten thousand tricks, one hundred thousand tricks, that is. Although the trick seems, at least at first sight, weaker and less threatening than a wile, can one draw a list that would contain one hundred thousand tricks? Photographic and moving image technologies are likely to provide us with a serious source of examples, from the Marx brothers mirror scene in Duck Soup to a contemporary range of visual trickery, meant to fool the eye into belief. But these are not so interesting.

100,000 forms and acts of wilful deception, sometimes as ruses (the creation of a false impression), artifices, false impressions and situations, masques and masquerades... for artful dodgers to compose but also exit from.

Why is it important or interesting for WHW to look at “wiles and tricks”? As a statement on the meetingpoints7.orgwebsite reads, the phrase loosely resonates with Frantz Fanon’s reflections on Algerian postcolonial condition in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), a source of inspiration for structuring the entire exhibition and its variations. However, the terms are argued to “allude to the ever-shifting ground of complex, unfinished social processes that we see in the Arab revolutions and in the current radical reconfiguration of capitalist development throughout the world”.

10,000 wiles and 100,000 tricks. Not archived, but composed for a while, in passing. Not only deceiving, but also possible as counter-strategies “for exposing, recycling and subverting oppressive infrastructures”. Having to do with “revolution and counter-revolution, agency and co-optation” but in a struggle to pozitivize terms and language, claiming rights to optimism.3 110,000 fictions.

Wiles and tricks could potentially construct spaces that act as meeting points, in that they compose between the positive and the negative, they could open spaces up that have previously not been there, in relying on a reversal of the contained or entrapped. In that respect, we could argue that the wiles and tricks are constructions that work to produce both negative, and positive fictions.

In this way, these constructions are the positive formulations of the contemporary, as Peter Osborne argues in his last book, Anywhere or not at all. Osborne re-considers the notion of the contemporary outside of a historical periodization in stages, led by temporal markings following events (such is the periodization of “contemporary” art in 3 stages: art after 1945, art starting in the 1960s, and art “after” 1989). Instead, Osborne questions the notion of the contemporary as a particular articulation of space and time, and thus, a philosophical concept, that can inform, via the problematic it raises, on subjectivity, experience and possibilities of common or collective actions. More specifically, and in Obsborne’s words, the concept the contemporary “is problematic, in a more fundamental sense, because of its attribution of unity to the temporal mode of the present, however hypothetical, as such”.4 What does this mean? Essentially, by considering the contemporary a shared time (and space, although not physical space), the concept presupposes the possibility of this shared experience, actualized or not. It is thus, “inherently speculative” and “structurally anticipatory5, which arguably makes the concept of the contemporary an utopian idea. Nevertheless, arriving from the problematics of experience of the contemporary to its utopian characteristic as an idea, from a Heideggerian via a Kantian route, Osborne is interested in arguing that the concept of the contemporary can be or become dialectical. As such, it could be used to enact a negative critique, but also as a performative construct, leading to the formulation of operative concepts for possible counter-actions. In its negative form, the contemporary as an utopian idea is a disavowal, and more specifically, a disavowal of politics. On the other hand, as a positive idea, the contemporary brings forth two concepts, which could potentially have direct involvement and implication in the world, as acts of construction: productive imagination and operative fictions.

In a sense – the only sense worth looking at, according to Osborne – all constructions of the contemporary are fictions and this is the only way the contemporary is positive, i.e as a productive act of imagination that “performatively projects a non-existent unity onto the disjunctive relations between coeval times”.6 Respectively, the shared time in most recent guises, has been “the time of the global transnational”, where the contemporary in the pozitivized sense of “shared time” can only become an act of productive imagination. In line of this argument, the fiction of the contemporary, is or becomes increasingly, a global or planetary fiction.

At a point of intersection, Obsborne’s proposed semantics of the contemporary, structured as idea, problem, fiction and task seem to meet with WHW’s wish for re-structuring the semantics of global formulations of struggle and thought, in their positivized use of wiles and tricks.

* Horizons and Inversions

(!لتعش وتحيا الرأسم, Mona Vătămanu and țorin Tudor, 2008–2014)7

Curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh initiated Meeting Points with a first few small editions, localized to Aman, Cairo, Alexandria, and Tunis. After the point of its fourth edition, the exhibitions increased in size and reach, becoming the current “multidisciplinary arts festival focused on the contextualized presentation of art from the Arab World”.8 Making evident the transnational context in which it was produced, the previous iteration (Meeting Points 6) enfolded under the curatorship of Okwui Enwezor, across eight cities in The Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

However, in light of the recent events and the unfinished Arab “springs” and revolutions, in the latest edition, “It [became] important to reflect on current artistic and political changes in the region through the experience of Eastern Europe. . . . We’re rethinking the ongoing changes in ways not limited to the past three years. We need to think about it in relation to events of the past fifty years”, Tarek Abou El Fetouh highlighted in an interview.9

Such a formulation leads one to believe that, what is being proposed through Meeting Points wishes to exceed the art event and construct global fictions of the contemporary, where the temporal frame of shared time can be found in traces, that is, in time that passed but it is not historical time, and the spatial frame of shared spaces is to be found in positive inversions of a loss of the horizon.

For instance, a work by Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, Long Live and Thrive Capitalism! (2008–2014), part of the Meeting Points 7 at Beirut Art Center is described as “continuously re-enacting the reversed slogan in various political environments inside of Eastern Europe but also elsewhere”, and, in this way, “moving back and forth from mourning lost revolutionary horizons and deploring

the ubiquitous universalization of capital accumulation and consumption as the basis for social organization, to calling into question and confronting these effects”.10

In one of the periodizations mentioned above, art “after” 1989 would be a category where one would most likely be faced with a sense of a “loss of horizon”. This type of discourse is rejected by Mona Vătămanu and florin Tudor’s work, and not by making, how it might be apparent from reading the words on the banner, a direct critical address to capitalism. In a far more nuanced way, what is opposed is not a loss of time or space in a historical frame, but the loss of horizons for shared time and space, and as such, as imagined shared times and spaces. 

This, Osborne argues,is the opposition to the idea of a generalized loss of a horizon. Nevertheless, two main losses marked the time-space reductively labelled “after” 1989, where two horizons were lost: “’communism’ as the horizon of historical communism . . .; and ’revolution’, similarly, as a horizon of expectation of revolution has been dissolving in advanced capitalist and colonial societies”.11 In addition, the loss of these horizons, Osborne considers, did not lead to a generalized loss of horizon, but they took place concomitantly with the restitution of a third horizon, that of capitalism as a “horizon of endless accumulation (ultimate indeterminateness as infinite progression), politically coded in economic terms as the progressive freedom of ever-greater consumption”.12

The insistence of contemporary discourses on a semantics of loss is interesting in lieu of Obsorne’s previous observations on the semantics of the contemporary. The language of loss implies a generalized loss of a horizon, of any possibility to create fictions, and as such, of common temporal and spatial formulations of thought and experience. Furthermore, the generalized loss of a horizon would also imply a loss of common ground to stand on and share. In a collection of essays published by bak, On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Maria Hlavajová, Simon Sheikh and Jill Winder write: “the horizon – albeit of another kind – is in fact anything but absent in contemporary reality. The totalizing horizon of economic expansion and consumption to which the contemporary common project of globalized capitalism adheres is omnipresent, alive, and well.”13 In this collection of essays, which includes the section from Osborne’s later published book, the declared goal of the investigation into philosophical and artistic thought is rethinking the notion of horizon as a critical instrument for emancipatory, experimental artistic and intellectual work. Not unlike the positivized fiction of the contemporary proposed by Osborne, or the inversion of wiles and tricks in WHW’s curatorial language, nor even very much unlike the inversion produced by Mona and Florin in the work at Beirut Art Center.

Discussing Vătămanu and Tudor’s work in his latest book, Peter Osborne sees the inversion in the banner as a way of making apparent the stasis of capitalism, and thus revealing its horizon. In turn, WHW seems to consider the work by Mona and Florin as an emancipatory movement “back and forth”, as one might aim to reach behind or beyond the horizon; the description also mentions an important aspect, in my view: that of mourning the horizon. If there was a loss, then its mourning might reveal something of the character of what is lost. It is common in mourning rituals to cry out loud the qualities and achievements of those passed, and so, moving back and forth from mourning to “calling into question” (of the loses), is this not an act of composing through times and spaces?

David Riff believes that almost all the work of Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor “is saturated with a ’nightmarish weight’ of expropriation that has much to do with the present regime of neoliberalism as with the national communist dictatorship that proceeded it. . . . And it is not just a passive weight to which one resigns, as is the case in so many ’works of mourning’, but as all the epochs of suffering that Marx describes in that famous text, an objective reality as something that can be used and changed”.14 These space-time articulations performed by and through a certain weight become the compositions between spaces lost abusively and violently (acts of dispossession), and times that are shared, both in the contemporary, but also in the time of memory. This can be the memory of communism or of colonial rule and postcolonial struggles. In a sense, it could be said about the work at Beirut Art Center, the red banner reading in arabic, “Long live and thrive capitalism!” responds or questions the weight of memory. Yet again, unlike many works “on memory”, it manages to avoid the culturalization of memory, particularly prevalent in art that rests forms of cultural memory on claims to political legitimation. In rejecting this avenue, the work by Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor not only functions as an inversion used to create an unexpected site, to puncture the horizon, so that it reveals its recurrences. The work becomes the fiction of the contemporary, increasingly a global or planetary, increasingly heavy as a weight to be responded to, and questioned, whose horizon is to be reinterpreted through different articulations of space time.

* Free Falls

Where Some Things Are Made Apparent

What if there is no horizon in sight? What about the free fall? When there is no perceivable horizon because the perspective is blurred, shifted, in movement and one can only glimpse at lines, shapes, forms as they are falling? Where content becomes blurry and, at the same time, overlaps to become something else. Hito Steyerl brings these questions forward in a moving image work entitled In Free Fall (2010) and a text, published first in the reader On Horizons, then in her collection of essays, The Wretched of the Screen. She writes:

the perspective of free fall teaches us to consider a social and political dreamscape of radicalized class war from above, one that throws jaw-dropping social inequalities into sharp focus. But falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place. Grappling with crumbling futures that propel us backward onto an agonizing present, we may realize that the place we are falling toward is no longer grounded, nor is it stable. It promises no community, but a shifting formation.15

Free falls are accelerations where “nothing happens” – “And it may actually feel like perfect stasis – as if history and time have ended and you can’t even remember that time ever moved forward.”16 Stasis can also be constant movement in free fall, or it can be moving endlessly into what Jalal Touffic understands a ruin to be – a “labyrinthine space and time”.17

Destruction of a space and dilapidation – by war, disaster, communism, or neoliberalism does not necessarily make the space into a ruin, according to Toufic. Ruins, understood as space-times that contain both the manifestations of the past, the stasis of the present, and a sense that there is no reference to a “ground” to move towards, a future that promises movement, are accelerations of  the contemporary into itself. They contain the memory of the past, but prove bare in performing the function assigned to memory, that for bringing the past to life. Alternatively, ruins can be thought of as space-times where one can constantly be made aware of the experience and perspective of the free fall. One can only hope that eventually, the model of “cultural” memory as appropriation and expropriation of subjectivity will have had the potential to turn into fictions that eventually might shift into collective formations, rather than constantly shifting without any promise of a community.

 

Notes:

  1. www.meetingpoints7.org.

  2. ‑‑Peter Osborne, Anywhere or not at all: philosophy of contemporary art, London, Verso, 2013, p. 26.

  3. www.meetingpoints7.org.

  4. ‑Osborne, pp. 22–23.

  5.Ibid., p. 23.

  6. Ibid.

  7. ‑The first iteration of this work was presented at Periferic 8 Biennial, Iași, 2008. It was also shown at Frieze Frame, with Andreiana Mihail Gallery, London, 2009, and at the 1st Ural Industrial Biennial, Shockworkers of the Mobile Image, Yekaterinburg, 2010. http://www.monavatamanuflorintudor.ro/traiasca_capitalismul.htm

  8. www.meetingpoints.org.

  9. Cited in http://artforum.com/diary/id=46481.

10. ‑From the exhibition notes, available online http://www.meetingpoints.org/dwn/mp7_Beirut_handout_A4.pdf.

11. ‑Osborne, p. 209.

12. Ibid.,p. 210.

13. ‑Maria Hlavajová, Simon Sheikh, and Jill Winder, On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Utrecht, BAK (basis voor actuele kunst), 2011,p. 8.

14. ‑David Riff, “The Wrong Version of Capital?” in Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, Utrecht, BAK, 2009, p. 83.

15. ‑Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”, in The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2012,p. 23.

16. Ibid.,p.13.

17. ‑Jalal Toufic, (Vampires) An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, Sausalito, CA,The Post-Apollo Press, 1993, 2003, p. 73.