Pseudo life-forms: notes on conflict and the wildlife of artistic creation(s)

Image: from David Maljkovic ‘Scene for a New Heritage’ Triology (Part 2)

Last moth, I attended WJT Mitchell’s lecture on ‘Migration, Law and the Image. Beyond the Veil of Ignorance’ at UCL’s Law Faculty. I should say ‘managed to attend’, as it was not terribly easy to find it: three different venues were given by three different websites. As the lecture was on the subject of migration, I wondered whether this was part of the event (and Mitchell’s argument), but it turned out to be no more than a case of miscommunication. What I also did not realise was that Mitchell’s talk was followed by two more presentations, one by Parvati Nair, and one by Ingrid Boccardi which added vital context. Particularly Boccardi’s presentation on migration and responsibility was intensely thought-provoking, addressing concepts such as ‘atomised borders’, ‘meta-legal spaces’ and their (deadly) consequences. To me, as a geographer, it was fascinating to suddenly see myself and others as part of legal spatialities, becoming aware such simple things as that ‘the right to go nowhere’ is already a major right.

Instantly drawn to the theme of art and transformation from the beginning of the lecture, I found myself noting down all the words Mitchell linked to art during his presentation and the Q & A and ended up with the following list: powerful, highlighting, intervention, responding, reinvention, revision, border-crossing, opening, revealing. These associations happened to be picked up on by another geographer in the audience, Alan Ingram, who asked what happens after artistic experimentation and revelation. Michell’s answer to this was that the consequences of artistic creation are potentially consciousness-raising and providing new imaginaries – but in a ‘totally unpredictable’ way. To him, especially images (artistic images, it seemed) are ‘pseudo-lifeforms’ that are ‘somehow uncontrollable’. This uncontrollability appears to make them a potential carrier of resistance. As Mitchell continued: ‘I think of the image as the wildside – as the one who strains against the law’.

The theme of artistic (and architectural) creation as something unpredictable or uncontainable was continued a few days later at two other events I visited: the Cities in Conflict conference at the ICA and a seminar by Andrew Herscher at Goldsmiths College, although, here, its containment appeared to be at the centre of discussion. (Unfortunately, I had to miss out on a large part of the first event, due to other committments, so it would be great to hear if any of the speakers I missed addressed this theme.) The first panel of ‘Cities in Conflict’ focused on architecture and its relation(s) with conflict. The first speaker was Mark Cousins, who talked about his plans to organise a conference ‘against health and safety’ (one can only imagine the possibilities for potential conference venues!). His presentation consisted mainly of anecdotes of health & safety regulation taking a turn for the absurd. To Cousins, such (over)regulation ‘cancels out the possibility for architects to create pleasurable, interesting spaces’. For him, misguided creative engagements with social problems such as anti-paedophilia windows (installed in buildings near playgrounds etc) express that ‘utopia is only a heartbeat away from dystopia’.

To me this quote resonated strongly with the Unesco symposium on public art and the artist’s negotiation of risk. In this case, it is the artist/designer responding to developments in regulation with attempts to contain the ‘unpredictable’. In the above case, the anxiety is provoked by imagining the possibilities of how an ‘ordinary’ window might be used by different residents. Again, what is interesting here is the imagination of unpredictability as both residing in human behaviour, but also in the (trigger?) object. If the unpredictable not only resides in/emenates from artworks, but also simple everyday objects such as windows, one does not want to imagine what kind of ‘creative’ practices and forces the containment of unpredictability might attract (imagine what a door could (make people) do!). A question that manifests to me at this point would be: how is the unpredictability in art different from the unpredictability of non-art? Is the art-object just more likely to transform or trigger certain behaviour in humans? According to Jacques Rancière, ‘all forms of art can rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamism of our affects’ (this quote is taken from ‘The Emancipated Spectator’). He proposes that through this capacity they can open up new pathways to our relations or actions (for instance, as a political subject). The emphasis here is on ‘can’: art also has the ‘right to go nowhere’.

The next two speakers (Andrew Herscher and Eyal Weizman), in fact, demonstrated how the potential meaninglessness of an artistic or architectural creation is strategically ignored. In his presentation at ‘Cities in Conflict’, Andrew Herscher pointed to the destruction caused by efforts to renew or reinvent in post-conflict zones. Showing images from reconstruction efforts, he illustrated how these, in some parts of former Yugoslavia, not only destroy more than the actual conflict itself but even annihilate local industry and replace existing habitable space under the banner of ‘modernisation’, thus leading to disempowerment/cultural disenfranchisement of large sections of the population and illegal housing. In contrast to the imagination of architectural intervention as leading to positive transformation in a post-conflict environment, and to a creation of new meaning, Herscher argued that this kind of reconstruction leads to continued ‘redestruction’. (At this point one might wonder what the ‘life’ the images of this redestruction might have….)

Next on was Eyal Weizman – famous for his own banned creative intervention – and his analysis of the ‘pedagogy of war’. Because of the difficult acoustic situation (Weizman did not have a microphone), my notes on his talk are rather patchy. What I did note down is the theme of ‘health and safety in war’: the seeming absurdity of ‘proportionality of destruction’ (which had also been mentioned by Ingrid Boccardi, if I remember correctly – e.g. there is a fixed number of people you are allowed to kill per square metre before you become a war criminal) and architecture’s implication in it. This implication appeared to not only lead toarchitecture being designed to accomodate for/prevent certain atrocities, but also seemed to result in a kind of ‘curation’ of (current and former) warzones (‘designing ruins’) for certain effects on social consciousness. Weizman also seemed to suggest that the role of post-conflict ‘architecture to help people forget and to corrupt into distracting them from the issues that might cause warfare’. If such architectural projects are as unpreditable as Mitchell’s artworks or as ‘successful’ as the ‘regeneration’ in Andrew Herscher’s presentation, one could ask what new conflicts they give rise to, if their aims are met at all.

The issue of post-conflict curation and the politics of memory was opened up for more in-depth discussion by Andrew Herscher in his seminar at the sociology deparment at Goldsmiths, albeit under the theme of ‘heritage’. To me, the seminar highlighted some astonishing parallels between research on heritage and research on hazard containment which became encapsuled in Herscher’s phrase ‘negotiating the enormous gap between the perserving subject and the preserved object’ and his example of David Maljkovic’s Scene for New Heritage’: both areas seem to be dealing with the problem that meaning is not only transformed over time, but can disappear entirely. Like Maljkovic’s future visitors to a war memorial who have no idea what they are seeing (and who we perceive akin to an alien species), future visitors to all kinds of waste disposal sites, or what Neal White from the ‘Office of Experiments’ calls ‘experimental ruins’ (e.g. abandoned laboratories, weapon test sites or power stations), might end up completely unaware of the ‘conflict’ (and potential physical danger/violence) that is inherent (or ‘memorialised’?) in those sites.

As already mentioned on this blog, projects such as Michael Madsen’s film ‘Into Eternity’ or Peter Van Wyck’s book ‘Signs of danger’ have already begun to analyse the ‘curation’ of hazardous waste sites for future visitors, which often involves the use of artworks to warn or distract. Like war monuments, these ‘waste monuments’ (or non-uments?) are conceived in expectation of future violence which, in this case, might involve the use of what is hidden below. Here, containment of unpredictability is as much part of the design process as the danger – or, at times, desired outcome – of meaninglessness. The challenge or potential of epic amnesia: (what) do we want future human(oids) to remember? An art project that spontaneously springs to mind is to make something that is ‘epically absurd’ in our time, with the prospect that it will be imbued with radical meaning in the future. Now, where is my commission?

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