[This text was included in the work Changing Installation for the UTAC Lounge]
Imagine a space with three windows on one of the walls, letting in a cool light that reflects off the wood floor. There is a patch of sunlight on the wall next to one of the windows, or the light is more diffuse because it is overcast or close to dusk, or it is dark outside. Scattered throughout the space are tables and chairs: dark leather lounge chairs, metal and plastic designer desk chairs, large wooden tables, coffee tables, a bench, etc… There are some large rugs in the room, maybe arranged parallel to each other between the two columns that divide the space into sections. Centred on one is a large wooden table; on the other, two smaller metal and wood tables on castors. Desk chairs with matte metal frames and either blue or lime-green plastic seat-backs are arrayed around the tables, where some people are studying, or eating. Or maybe they are folding chairs arranged in a large circle nearly the size of the room, or in rows facing one of the longer walls, pointing towards a podium and a space on the wall where there could be a projection. Maybe they are wooden chairs with uncomfortable backs and grooves on the seat formed to fit your legs. The lights are pointed towards the walls, others illuminating seemingly random spots on the floor.
Maybe there is a projection on the wall, near the table, of something non-descript. It could be an image of a wall, or a corner, or a shadow. Elsewhere there is a TV monitor on a white veneer stand, resting on castors. On the screen there is an image of a hand holding an image in the centre of the frame, an image of a different space or of the same space some other time. Somewhere else there is a projection onto an A-frame chart of some more informative images: images of this space and some other spaces in different states and at different times. There is a sound of voices. Listening closely, perhaps with your ear touching the speaker, you hear a discussion, a description: “... a large room with three windows, slightly off-centre, on one of walls. There is a blue-ish light. Outside there are small trees, some cars, a field. The floors are hardwood, varnished and reflective...”
Loosely arranged on a table there are photocopies, folded in half and staple-bound into little booklets or just spread out flat. There are some other books or magazines, and a small pamphlet, also staple-bound, in a pile or a clear plastic holder. Maybe there are different versions of this text, or different sections. It might begin with a proposition, a description, followed by a series of notes on the complexity and ambiguity of space, site, images...
The ‘atmospheric’ interior is described by Jean Baudrillard as a space that ‘permits’ a fluid movement between intimacy and distance, warmth and non-warmth, a space in which relations are mobile and functional. This corresponds to a neutralisation of the subjective aspects of relating (e.g. desire): a situation in which taste (as a process of internalisation) does not have a place, only information and organisational structures. This externalisation of atmosphere corresponds to a state in which fixed divisions (private interior, absolute exterior) no longer hold.
Walter Benjamin wrote, in his “Work of Art...” essay, that distraction is the mode of reception characteristic of architecture. Writing about the contemporary phenomenon of the lounge Helene Furjan has suggested that distraction, as Benjamin formulated it, “[...] is not so much a peripheralizing inattention as it is a mood [...] an active engagement with the matrix of information flowing towards the viewing subject.” This is getting close to the mode of attention that Simone Weil wrote about so beautifully in Waiting for God: "Attention consists of suspending our thought [...] Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it."
It is good to give attention to the vague and peripheral, to moments of uncertainty. These moments are not always the result of concentration, but rather a distraction from habitual modes of meaning-making, a release of expectations. This can be very nurturing. Think of a breeze: something slight, liminal, diffuse. This is an ethical and aesthetic proposition; an attitude that is directed towards intimacy, which is something on the threshold, something ephemeral. A more intimate relationship with a space might simply be a more attentive one. Simultaneously, it might be a call for spaces that would cultivate this attention.
The question of inhabitation seems to lead to the question of cohabitation, and then, according to Bruno Latour, to politics: “Politics is the domain of compossibility. It’s a fact, as soon as we’ve moved from the world of time to the world of space. But we don’t know what it is to cohabit. We are very badly equipped for this question by the political culture we acquired during the time of succession, when, for example, class struggle was supposed to make religion and ideology disappear. Politics was easy since, on the Right as on the Left, it was always basically revolutionary. It declared the obsolescence of whatever it could not absorb.”
A problem: how to operate within an institution while developing systems and practices that potentially exceed, or fail to function within, institutional boundaries. The artist Robert Smithson wrote about this relentlessly. “Artists themselves are not confined, but their output is,” he wrote in “Cultural Confinement.” “Art shows that have beginnings and ends are confined by unnecessary modes of representation both "abstract" and "realistic"... It would be better to disclose the confinement rather than make illusions of freedom… I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation… Nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling development. Nature is never finished.”
There is a short story by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges called “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like many of his stories, it might be understood as a kind of philosophical proposition or conceptual exercise. What is particularly interesting about this story is the Garden of Forking Paths itself, which is a labyrinth in the form of a book: a book in which all possible outcomes of an event occur or are explored or navigated simultaneously. At each point that a decision must be made – take the path to the right or the path to the left – no decision is made, both paths are taken. Setting aside the question of possibility, or of compossibility, imagine how such a book could be written. What kind of author would it require?
Think of the image as something other than a visual document, something more than a distorting, arbitrary mechanism of representation; perhaps as a sudden event in life, as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard would suggest. Images do not only represent, they operate in multiple, differing modalities: offering concepts of spacing and organizing, defining zones of visibility, articulation and imagination, producing affects... They interact: folding, transposing, intermixing, destabilizing... Bernard Cache relates the practice of framing images to that of architecture: “Architecture, the art of the frame, would then not only concern these specific objects that are buildings, but would refer to any image involving any element of framing, which is to say painting as well as cinema and certainly many other things.”
An expanded theory of the image has developed primarily around the work of the late 19th Century French philosopher Henri Bergson, as read by Gilles Deleuze and the architect/furniture designer Bernard Cache. Through Bergson-Deleuze-Cache an image can be thought of as anything that presents itself to the mind. The mind, or mind-body, or, more simply, subjectivity can itself be thought of as an image: a privileged image that we mix with other images in the act of perception-cognition. This has significant consequences for the discourse around digital technology, particularly arguments that digitisation presents the capacity to inscribe the real independent of any interface with the human.
In her text, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity,” Miwon Kwon writes about the problematisation of site within the context of electronic networks and globalization and the troubling proximity of site-specific practice to the mobile and itinerant state of labour in the flux of global economies: “Within the present context of an ever-expanding capitalist order, fuelled by an ongoing globalization of technology and telecommunications, the intensifying conditions of spatial indifferentiation and departicularization exacerbate the effects of alienation and fragmentation in contemporary life.” “[W]hile foregrounding the importance of the site, they [current site-specific practices] together express the dissipation of the site, caught up in the “dynamics of deterritorialization”…the ideology of the new.” Site-specific practice, then, operates on and in a problematised space. The challenge is to work towards the visibility of these conditions and the proposition of ways of being that can attend to these spatial problems.
Cultural theorist Boris Groys has suggested that the goal of art is not to change things, since things are changing by themselves all the time, but rather that “[a]rt’s function is to show, to make visible the realities that are generally overlooked.” Further, Groys proposes a reconceptualisation of the politics of installation-based practices: “By taking aesthetic responsibility in a very explicit way for the design of the installation space, the artist reveals the hidden sovereign dimension of the contemporary democratic order that politics, for the most part, tries to conceal. The installation space is where we are immediately confronted with the ambiguous character of the contemporary notion of freedom that functions in our democracies in parallel with sovereign and institutional freedom. The artistic installation is thus a space of unconcealment (in the Heideggerian sense) of the heterotopic, sovereign power that is concealed behind the obscure transparency of the democratic order.”
There is a story by the architect Adolf Loos that goes something like this: A rich man commissions an architect to re-design his home, to ‘bring Art’ to his home at any cost. The architect takes control of the space, producing a highly organised interior in which the man has to re-learn how to live. When, on his birthday, he receives some gifts from his family, he turns to the architect to help him place them in the space. The architect responds with hostility, stating that the interior he has designed has already ‘completed’ his client, and that nothing else is necessary or should be accepted into the space. The man then realizes that his identity has been fixed into place, or displaced from any sense of an interior; and that he will be unable to continue to develop in relation to the ongoing flux of the world. An interior is produced as much by inhabitation as design: it is inhabited as much as it is perceived. The image occupies an ambiguous place here, operating on the threshold of interior and exterior.
These are places that can’t quite be brought together as a category, but share a similar atmosphere, similar modes of arrangement. They are casual and multi-use sites, mixing the private and the public, the domestic and the institutional. They present an image of accommodation and flexibility: the ambition, or the mandate, to cultivate an atmosphere of relaxation and idleness. You could have a meeting, you could read or eat lunch, or just pass through on your way somewhere else. There is an ambiguity or tension in these spaces, insofar as they are institutionally programmed and determined: a tension between domesticity and institutionalization, intimacy and alienation. These are not quite the ‘non-places’ of Marc Augé or Michel de Certeau – defined as non-relational, non-historical and not concerned with identity, or as a space that is absent from itself, respectively – unless the non-place is considered as the product of a mode of attention: the being-elsewhere typical of modern transportation, for example.
In an essay on the virtues of Quickness (in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium), the Italian writer Italo Calvino writes of his admiration for Borges and his invention of the literary form of potential literature. In so much of Borges’s writing one encounters impossible books, impossible acts of authorship. They are always pointing, with precision, efficiency and clarity, towards a form that cannot be actualised; towards the infinite, the total, the multiple, the identical-but-different... The pleasure of the writing is in the potential of the idea and the framing of this potential so that it hovers on the edge of actualisation.
Art is often an address to the moments of least understanding. Considering art as a form of research, it could be said that artworks present problems, offering them up for reflection without a concern for answers; perhaps, even, that “nothing in art is so true that it’s opposite cannot be made equally true.” Or, that what is more important is the manner in which a problem is posed; the quality of the proposition. This is about quality of life: the invention and cultivation of new (or different) ways of living and knowing, rather than the representation of (existing forms of) knowledge. Considering art as a form of immanent ethics, we should ask of each proposition, following Nietzsche, “What is the mode of existence of the person who utters a given proposition […] what mode of existence is needed in order to be able to utter it?”
With the continuous circulation of commodities and signs, the production of images tends towards homogeneity and indifference, or, stated somewhat differently, redundancy. Redundancy is an important concept for the migrant philosopher Vilem Flusser, whose Towards a Philosophy of Photography presented the argument that the need for a philosophy of photography corresponds to a need to critically transcend post-industrial society: “The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon [the] possibility of freedom – and thus its significance – in a world dominated by apparatuses [...]” Freedom, for Flusser, operates against redundancy (the programmatic operation of an apparatus) towards the production of informative images, or poetic images, perhaps.
The impulse towards reflexivity is generally attributed to the ethos of modernisation. This attention to framing, to the structures that delimit spaces of visibility can appear or be interpreted primarily as a labour of making and maintaining boundaries and categories, of refinement and purification, or of interrogation and exposure. By a slight shift, however, this activity might also be thought of as a kind of testing out of boundaries, an attempt to produce a tension, to make a break, or better, to simply drift outside of boundaries into the vague, the peripheral, the in-between: “Look at any word long enough, and you will see it open into a series of faults, a terrain of fissures each containing its own void.”
Representation tends to involve a prioritisation of product over process: freezing, confining, making static. To attend to the existence of things apart from representation, on the other hand, is to aspire towards a process that never ceases to reach fulfillment as it proceeds, so Deleuze and Guattari suggest. But a dialectical ‘thinking apart’ of representation and the direct effects of the sensible (the reality of matter and force) is not entirely satisfying. It produces a model of separation, or places too much emphasis on distance, reducing the potential for more intimate possibilities (‘thinking together’).
It is useful to resist the mode of thinking that arranges concepts – subject/object, interior/exterior, mind/body, etc. – according to a definitive separation or hierarchy. This is a convention of the Cartesian trajectory of thought, particularly in considering the conditions of embodiment within the contemporary media environment (the loss of immediacy or of distance, the displacement of the body, etc.). Binaries should be approached with careful attention to difference and the continuity between opposites. Media theorist Anna Munster has provided a useful framework for such an approach in her recent writing on digital technology and embodiment. Emphasising the everyday limitations in human-technological relations – lag in connection speed, unevenness of global access, technological obsolescence – Munster has proposed an aesthetic platform of approximation as a means of undermining “the exacting tyranny of remaining up to date.” This platform might be adopted more broadly as an aesthetic and ethical position that frames differential relations in terms other than inadequacy, resisting a hegemonic synthesis or polarity in favour of proximity and multiplicity.
Rather than confining site (i.e. strata) to notions of materiality or locality, it could be thought of as a variable social/cultural/physical place of production and reception. It is where the itinerant practice of art lodges itself. Or, it is the space that becomes visible or opens up through an attention to the conditions of each situation as it is encountered. This activity might take place outside of the proper place of art, or take art outside of its proper place. A site is a space for a recursive movement; a process of dislocation and relocation, deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation.
In the section of A Thousand Plateaus called ‘How do you make yourself a body without organs?” Deleuze and Guattari write: “This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous point on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensity segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight.” This could be a model for site-specific art practice. Such a practice would operate within a given context (a text, a building, an image, a lifestyle) towards a re-consideration, a re-presentation, or a re-invention of existing conditions. Looking for challenges within one’s mode of life, as the artist Robert Morris might have said; or, working towards the fullest possible appreciation of the process and possibilities of ordinary experience, as the philosopher John Dewey might more gently offer.
We exist, it is said, in the time of space, or the time of the prioritisation of space. This corresponds to the coming-into-prominence of the paradigm of the network. According to philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “Kant defines space as the condition that allows the being-together of bodies – which always at the same time implies the faculty of separating them. The first virtue of space is its power to create distance between bodies. Yet the first virtue of modern transportation is the annihilation of distances.” Speaking of the developments of telecommunications, Sloterdijk describes space as “usually already” neutralized and homogenized. So, as Paul Virilio might suggest, the invention of a technology is the invention of a corresponding crisis. But perhaps this situation is not so extreme. Perhaps this condition of separation without distance can be thought in terms of compossibility or proximity, rather than annihilation, leaving open the possibility for hybrid and heterotopic spaces.
An interviewer once misquoted or paraphrased an early poem by the poet-turned-artist-turned-architect Vito Acconci as follows: “Notice what position you’re sitting in as you read this, notice what clothes you’re wearing. What color are your eyes?” Suppose the poem went on like this: “Notice the light reflecting on these pages as you read them, the shadows in the fold. Notice what is going on in the periphery of your field of vision, at the edges of the text (in the room around you). What does the room look like? What colour are the walls? How does it feel?” Elsewhere in the interview Acconci notes: “[...] I wanted everything to be about itself so much that it probably never occurred to me that you could lead to another space.” To which his interviewer replies: “But any piece of writing lures you with the promise of another space, even if ultimately it returns you to this one. So even though you were refusing narrative, it was still there as a tension or possibility.”