Joseph Nechvatal, editor
THE AESTHETICS OF AN OBSCURE MONSTER SACRÉ
In the beginning was the noise.
Michele Serres, The Parasite
Recently in my book Immersion Into Noise1 I mapped out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity I call the art of noise by tracing its past eruptions where figure/ground merge and flip the common emphasis to some extent. Immersion Into Noise concludes with a look at the figural aspect of this aesthetic lodged within the ground of consciousness itself.2 For me, the obscurity of Minóy exemplifies well a general noise aesthetic needed now within our broad-spectrum data-monitoring info-economy environment of background machine-tomachine gigabyte communication murmur3 in which we now find ourselves. Minóy is a good example of the speculative reality of noise music aesthetics4 in our era of algorithmic globalization.
This reflection on Minóy is somewhat of a reaction to what some interesting contemporary philosophers have been saying about contemporary art. Most notably, the surprising talk “The Next Avant-Garde” that the philosopher Graham Harman gave at the Aesthetics in the 21st Century conference at the University of Basel in September 2012, which engaged me with the recent speculative realism5 turn in continental philosophy and aesthetics. In that talk Harman criticizes Relational Art,6 calling it convivial art, so as to circle back to the formalist, media-specific aesthetics of the art critic Clement Greenberg, where art objects are free of the “tyranny of context.” This supposed context freedom merges efficiently with Harman’s theory of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), 7 but seemed somewhat at odds with his proclaiming that “there must be a new avant-garde in every field” that we cannot predict. His return to the formalist, media specific aesthetics is hard to swallow in terms of avant-garde ideals.
Harman then touched on the subject of figure/ground relations (the main focus of my own noise art aesthetic theory) in terms of anthropomorphic free, flat ontology without going very far in addressing the human specialness8 (relationality) involved in viewing certain artworks. I mentioned to Harman, à propos, the irony of the intense dislike that Greenberg had for the late last work of Jackson Pollock, when Pollock went semi-representational, playing with indeterminate states of figure/ground ambiguity—for example, Jackson Pollock’s portrait of Jane Smith, No. 7 (1952), that I saw numerous times at her home, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his talk, Harman touched on the subject of figure/ground relations in the context of the anthropomorphic-free, flat ontology that emerged as part of the debates within the Speculative Realism movement. He coupled this figure/ground discussion with a Greenbergian medium-specific version of the Object-Oriented Ontology defense of an ontology of objects (rather than processes). This was a welcome tonic in a relationally committed, but miserable, Europe of depressed post-convergent labor. I found remarkable his defense of objects amid the soaring (some would say souring) contemporary art trend of relations (de-aesthetized and dematerialized). Yet Harman failed to adequately account for the human singular (non-anthropomorphic-free) aspect involved in experiencing the art of noise, with its reversals in the order of figure/ ground.
Without a rethinking of human singularity, I suggest that this omission conceals a concern for relational power, as we know from the life of Clement Greenberg. With the officially sanctioned support9 and celebration of relational dematerialization (celeb-commodified into a brand – and co-opted by the star-state-socio-economic system that is its life blood) the relational aesthetic10 is no longer an idealized mode of art activity that (supposedly) accepts the full range of all human relations as art in opposition to private objects and spaces. That has petered out, found now often unsympathetically aloof: afloat within relational administrative systems of power.11 The ideal of artistic exploration12 of the full range of all human relations is clearly untenable at this administrative level—and obscure, singular human intimacy pays the price. The relational artist as catalyst13—by means of flighty creations of intentionally stuplime14 works that fluctuate between sculpture, music, film clips and small Fluxus-like events—has turned the artist into a star-impresarioentrepreneur: a very specific, limiting and quasi-domineering human relation. Coupled with fun-house-laboratory work based in an aesthetic paradigm of aloofness that is so cool it verges on cold, the relational art star is placed firmly back at the top-center of things and torn away from art that creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a private-but-shared activity that is openended, interactive and resistant to closure.
I would make the case for a return to the art object as post-conceptually scalable and mutable (as opposed to art as process alone) that owes something to Harman’s OOO object (stopping short of his context freeness) because the inherent detachment of work-in-progress post-medium practice, shorn of any deep commitment to medium specificity, seems to inscribe a limiting condition of superficiality on the artist while bestowing media success—a truly Mephistopheles-like metaphysical situation that, as Claire Bishop has suggested, “seems to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux.”15
Also, I have been following closely the public proclamations of another philosopher on art, Simon Critchley. Critchley described in 2010 contemporary art’s dominant trend as an in-authenticity of “mannerist situationism” based in rituals of reenactment.16 Critchley goes on in 2012 to describe the circumstances further, as the “cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.”17 So things have gotten no better. Clearly something deep-seated must be reevaluated. And art aesthetics is more interesting when it does the work of shifting meaning. So I am declining here Critchley’s urging for contemporary art to focus in on the monstrous, as, in my opinion, that parody of gloomy general dystopia only plays into the extreme spectacle aspect of mannerism. To be fair, Critchley doesn’t explain what or who he means by the monstrous, but when I think of the monstrous today I think of the high visibility of Lady Gaga (and her little monsters), extreme Hollywood lowbrow movies, and grotesque far right political claims and postures.
No, here I am only interested in a new contemporary aesthetic labor based in a certain exquisite untouchability, and unseeablity—Minóy’s obscure monster sacré affinity of disconnectedness, which focuses on an impregnable divalike commitment to a nihilistic aesthetic of becoming imperceptible18 (á la Ad Reinhardt blackness, but one that takes you into embodied and embedded resonance perspectives, into radical immanence, and away from extreme pure abstractions). I am interested in an exquisite monster sacré aesthetic for Minóy (where personal anthropomorphic eccentricities and indiscretions are tolerated) that is bent on combining the neo-materialist19 vibrant world with a wider vision of political awareness including private spiritual, ecstatic or numinous themes accessible through the generative subjective realm of each individual; an aesthetics of perception-politics based on resonance (not a politics of visibility) which reveals in minute particulars the full spectrum of the extensive social-political dimension.
This monster sacré affinity is a materialist nihilism of no that (if it goes far enough) can transform a metamorphosis (subject to the flickering formative forces of emergence)20 into an all-embracing yes of delicate abhorrence.21 So I am advocating here not the passive and thus incomplete nihilism of form, but a generative and virulent and curative nihilism that unleashes forces of reverberation to emerge and resonate like a web of inter-connected, molecular and viral relational affects and intensities that traffics in dissonance, deviation, and the incidental.
But what specifically can we glean for art from this instability and resonance of covert nihilism? In what kind of regimes of attraction/repulsion can the resonant nihilistic art object participate, and what may it do differently from other signs and objects? To these questions I offer a countertheory to OOO’s formalism, a theory of à rebours22 exchanges of figure/ground relationships: a nimble art that emphasizes human and non-human entanglements. This is an art that depends on playing out nihilistic negativity by intensifying its forces into an affirmative nihilism. This nimble nihilist bracketing pushes the audience towards open defamiliarizations, challenging them to think outside of the normal system of human consciousness. In this way it is favorable to OOO aesthetics. So this art as nimble monster sacré is implicated in the very type of problematic instability that the “self” undergoes in Nietzsche’s thought: the cohesiveness of the culture/state distinction, like the cohesiveness of the self/other distinction, disintegrates with the ontological instability produced by the annihilation of the real as distinguishable from the illusory. With a nimble art of noise— based in the distinction between active nihilism and passive nihilism (or monstrous nihilism)—we can depict the underground vigor of form as an active verve that can only be speculated upon by thinking beyond the discursive.
The embeddedness of our inner world—the life of our imagination with its intense drives, suspicions, fears, and loves—guides our intentions and actions in the politicaleconomic world. Our inner world is the only true source of meaning and purpose we have and nimble exquisite gazing23 (that involves self-investigation) is the way to discover for ourselves this inner life. So we might consider now that, in contrast to our frenzied data market surveillance culture,24 that which trains us to fear the atrocious eyes of outer perception, a protracted and absorbing gazing art (like Minóy’s) could encourage the development of agile clandestine exchanges based on the embedded individual intuitive eye in conjunctive contact with an abundant optical-mnemonic commons (not cloud)25 that shares a sensibility for building a force. What I mean by optical-mnemonic commons is a visual memory of possible shared futures, a mnemonic gazing at that intersubjective affinity that we share as the cooperative common ground of sociality: that shared common ground that precedes community. Such a commons of exchange is what has to be built politically through the creation of innovative individual-polis assemblages; new modes of organization of the individual-collective from which all could benefit.
Of course this sphere of anti-purist gazing-commons (essentially a cooperative rejection of the tyranny of labels, essential identities, privileged abstractions, and fixed ideas) is what allows art to construct unstable distinctions between subjects and objects that embrace the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces—from the infinitude of actual forms to formless voids of virtuality. Subsequently my interest here is in anti-pure nimble artists like Minóy who challenge and sometimes exchange the hierarchy of figure and ground (figure and abstraction) through struggles with noise. Certainly globalization is all about world space, so noise art aesthetics here will continue to be thought of in terms of spatialization: dimensions, areas, and territories. What space does noise clear and what space does noise clog? How does noise function as an attractor for a gazing-commons and as a repellent in the monstrous era of global data mining and the digital surveillance state? How can monster sacré aesthetic thought help us to think and live differently within our smooth and surveyed spaces through art? How can we live more intently and intensely in our imaginary cosmos of pleasure rooted in the non-closure of a gazing-commons aesthetic, with its yearning for otherness in the non-appropriative mode? By not ignoring the differences between the personal and the political, but on the contrary, by showing how these differences resonate together in unpredictable and contingent ways to form, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, 26 planes of consistency from which new political concepts can be formed.
So what does the brand contemporary art presently suggest for a gazing-common aesthetic? Not much, yet. Julian Stallabrass argues27 that behind contemporary art’s multiplicity and apparent capriciousness lies a monstrous bleak uniformity and that this amounts to making culture uncurious, timid, and stupid in the service of a big business ethos of unquestioning consumer conformity. Also, Stallabrass purports that the unregulated insular contemporary art market seeks to dupe newbie art rubes into being enthusiastic participants in the dumbing-down values useful to big business—values which address all communications to the lowest common denominator of the monstrously massive. So, the obvious question is: what about art’s responsibility of resistance? Perhaps surprisingly, for me the answer is to be found within the challenge of a noise style based in resistance through the cultivation of invisibility. 28 So I want to argue for an agony of style of logo invisibility, and the importance that should be given within noise art aesthetic struggles for a gazing-commons.
The principle of constructing patterns of infinite becomings is perhaps inherent in avant-garde artistic tradition (avant-garde values). Graham Harman suggested as much. But this avant-garde now, I think, should be considered in terms of noisy invisibility not ontology, as deviating from the regularities of visible normality provides the avant-garde new sources for artistic production. Certainly, the values of the avant-garde have always been interfering with the channels of artistic production and reception, and these values are responsible for expanding the forms and definitions of art itself.29 But like in nature, noise in art plays a productive role in the invisible life of a system when it stresses becoming-imperceptible.
But a becoming-imperceptible-invisibile monster sacré, today can no longer be a form of enfant terrible withdrawl, akin to Marcel Duchamp’s strategic invisibility,30 but rather a phantasmagorical plunge into what Félix Guattari expresses as the chaosmosis. 31 In that sense, Minóy’s becoming-imperceptibly noisy is an event for which there is no immediate representation.
The art of noise marks a qualitative transformation into a non-place where being and non-being reverse into each other, unfolding out and enfolding in their respective outsides. This short-circuit causes a creative conflagration typical of the art of noise.
Let’s consider the difference between noise art (based on an individual’s inner vision) verses the monstrous mass machine data market,32 with its digital functionalism. For me the difference is in looking into and projecting onto something—thereby discovering an emerging manifestation based in invisibility—as opposed to looking at something. In that sense it requires an active slow participation on the part of the viewer—and noise style demands as much. For me this requires the use of hidden mental participation and, as such, is now essential in our climate of monstrous mass media in that it plays against the grain of given objective consensus visibility.
I believe that Minóy’s deep droning palimpsest soundscapes exemplify what I have been theorizing above, the aesthetics of an obscure monster sacré. They suggest a spectral relationship between landscape and sound that accomplishes sensations of haunting dark ambience. They provoke dense planes of feelings, disrupted and veined by withdrawal and partial absence. They suggest a poetics of night. And of difficulty—one that explores both the outer space of presence and the inner space of remembrance, where a haunting perspective shatters both linear temporality and accounts of embodied emplacement.
1. Joseph Nechvatal, Immersion Into Noise (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press/MPublishing, 2011).
2. This involves a question of the qualities (and levels) of awareness of our own consciousness within aesthetic realms which we are capable of attaining through noise art.
3. Stupendous amounts of data generated by nearly one billion people are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s website, send e-mail with files attached, buy products, post on Twitter, or read newspapers and art theory papers online.
4. Noise Music in general traffics in dissonance, atonality, distortion, incidental composing, etc. This music begins with Luigi Russolo’s reti di rumori (networks of noises) music that he performed on his intonarumori noise instuments and with his text “The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto,” in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, eds., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (London: Continuum, 2004). For more of the history of noise music, see Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music: A History (New York: Continuum, 2007) and Nechvatal, Immersion Into Noise, 39–47.
5. Speculative realism is a movement in contemporary philosophy which defines itself loosely in its stance of anti-correlationist metaphysical realism against the dominant forms of post-Kantian philosophy or what it terms correlationism (meaning philosophies that apprehend being and the world via human-centered lenses, where any understanding of being and the world is always correlated to what it means for or to humans, or how insight into being and the world looks, feels, etc., is shaped according to human perspectives). While often in disagreement over basic philosophical issues, the speculative realist thinkers (such as Harman, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux, among others) have a shared resistance to philosophies of human finitude inspired by the tradition of Immanuel Kant.
6. Relational art or relational aesthetics is a mode or tendency in fine art practice originally observed and highlighted by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud defined the approach simply as a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. The artist can be more accurately viewed as the “catalyst” in relational art, rather than being at the center.
7. Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) is a metaphysical movement that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects. Specifically, OOO opposes the anthropocentrism of Immanuel Kant's Copernican Revolution, whereby objects are said to conform to the mind of the subject and, in turn, become products of human cognition. In contrast to Kant’s view, object-oriented philosophers maintain that objects exist independently of human perception and are not ontologically exhausted by their relations with humans or other objects.
8. Art’s coherence stems from human values and symbolic systems and the role of the beholder, and thus is, and must be, correlational and anthropocentric.
9. Curators promoting this “laboratory” paradigm include Maria Lind, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Barbara van der Linden, Hou Hanru, and Nicolas Bourriaud.
10. Established by Nicolas Bourriaud, now director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
11. 2013 examples include Philippe Parreno’s Anywhere, anywhere out of the world at the Palais de Tokyo, Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at Le Centre Pompidou, The Dia Art Foundation- sponsored Gramsci Monument by Thomas Hirschhorn, and Tino Sehgal’s win of the Golden Lion for the best artist in the International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico in the Venice Biennale.
12. Artists included by Bourriaud under the rubric of Relational Aesthetics include Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, Henry Bond, Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe, among others.
13. See “The Menagerie Entertains,” my review of the Pierre Huyghe Retrospective at Le Centre Pompidou in The Brooklyn Rail, December 18, 2013: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2013/12/ artseen/pierre-huyghe-the-menagerie-entertains.
14. In Chapter 6, “Stuplimity,” of her book Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), Sianne Ngai offers this term as a necessary reaction to new, primarily postmodern objects of analysis, a term that acknowledges stupidity and boredom as part of the sublime expression connected to the postmodern art experience.
15. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 52.
16. Simon Critchley, “The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology,” Dance Politics & Co-Immunity Workshop, Giessen, Germany, November 12, 2010. See also Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (London: Verso, 2014).
17. Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail, August 1, 2012: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/08/art/absolutely-toomuch.
18. “Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. . . . If becoming-woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula”: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 279.
19. Manuel DeLanda coined the term “neo-materialist” in a short 1996 text, “The Geology of Morals: A Neo-Materialist Interpretation,” Virtual Futures 95 (1995), where he treats a portion of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus in order to conceptualize geological movements. For more on neo-materialism, see Manuel DeLanda’s interview in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press/ MPublishing, 2012), 38.
20. In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.
21. For a musical comparison, see “The Beauty of Noise: An Interview with Masami Akita of Merzbow,” in Cox and Warner, eds., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, 59–61.
22. The meaning of à rebours is against the grain. Also, À rebours (1884) (translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain) is a decadent novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its narrative concentrates on the tastes and inner life of Jean Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive aesthete and antihero who loathes bourgeois society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation.
23. Gaze: to look long and intently. Gaze is often indicative of wonder, fascination, and revelation.
24. For example, take the blandly named Utah Data Center, National Security Agency. A project of once immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases are all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital transactions. It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy. For more on this trend, see James Bamford, The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (New York: Anchor Books, 2009).
25. The term “cloud” is generally used to describe a data center’s functions. More specifically, it refers to a service for leasing computing capacity.
26. Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) was one of the most influential and prolific French philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. Deleuze conceived of philosophy as the production of concepts, and he characterized himself as a “pure metaphysician.” In his magnum opus Difference and Repetition, he tries to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary mathematics and science— a metaphysics in which the concept of multiplicity replaces that of substance, event replaces essence, and virtuality replaces possibility. Deleuze also produced studies in the history of philosophy (on Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Bergson, Spinoza, Foucault, and Leibniz), and on the arts (a two-volume study of the cinema, books on Proust and Sacher-Masoch, a work on the painter Francis Bacon, and a collection of essays on literature.) Deleuze considered these latter works as pure philosophy, and not criticism, since he sought to create the concepts that correspond to the artistic practices of painters, filmmakers, and writers. In 1968, he met Félix Guattari, a political activist and radical psychoanalyst, with whom he wrote several works, among them the two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia, comprised of Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Their final collaboration was What is Philosophy? (1991).
27. See Julian Stallabrass, Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006).
28. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that the hidden complexity of a basic internet transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.
29. For more on this, read my essay “Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #5, 25th Anniversary Edition (2011): http://writing.upenn.edu/pepc/meaning/05/meaning- online5.html#nechvatal.
30. Duchamp's entire artistic activity since the “definitive incompletion” of the Large Glass in 1923 was an exercise in strategic invisibility, giving rise to objects and events which—because they were apparently too impermanent or unimportant or insubstantial, or because they eluded established genre conventions, or because they confused or diluted authorial identity—evaded recognition as “works of art.”
31. Félix Guattari said in his noteworthy book, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, the work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment that leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subject itself.
32. To support all that digital activity, there are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide, according to figures from the International Data Corporation.
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