Tag Archive: art

Vik Muniz & his waste pickers

Here are my introductory comments to the 2010 documentary Waste Land, delivered yesterday at the Fleming Museum in Burlington and shown in connection with the exhibition High Trash, which runs until May 19.

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In a comment to my last post on triads and divinities, my frequent commenter/interlocutor “dmf” points out a nice essay by Robert Gall called “From Daimonion to the ‘Last’ God: Socrates, Heidegger, and the God of the Thinker,” which Mark Fullmer has made available beyond the restricted-access community.

Gall distinguishes between the god of the religious believer, the god of the philosopher (“all those abstract ‘ultimate realities’ that have accumulated throughout the history of Western philosophy that complete some comprehensive, intellectual view of all that is”), and the “god of the theologian,” including those theological “knockoffs,” as Rorty calls them — like Tillich’s of Heidegger, Mark Taylor’s of Derrida, Richard Kearney’s of both (among others), process theologians’ of Whitehead, and, earlier, Aquinas’s of Aristotle — that appropriate philosophy for theology.

To these three Gall adds a fourth: the “god of the thinker.”

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Munich surf

Things to do on a Sunday in Munich…

1. Find where nature and culture (river and engineering) slam into each other in a passionate wave. Ride it.

Observations: To enjoy it at all, you have to be good. Some of these guys (and women) are really good. If you stay up for more than the first couple of seconds, you’re in. 15 seconds, you’re good. 25 seconds, you’re great. A minute would be awesome; I didn’t see it, but some came close (into the 40s). Finally, when  you gotta go down, find a graceful way to do it.

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If Thoreau’s quest to “live deliberately [...] and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” were cross-bred with A. N. Whitehead’s insight that creativity is the driving core of all things in the universe, the “universal of universals,” then today’s “artmonks” are children not of Marx and Coca-Cola (as Godard once labeled the activists of the 1960s and Xiaoping Lin more recently called the Chinese artistic avant-garde), but children of Thoreau and Whitehead.

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Elixir as child’s play

Marina Zurkow’s Elixir videos are wonderful, as is her Renatured blog. (Thanks to Tim for posting about her work.)

There is something sad and elemental about them, in their depiction of the self-containedness of our worlds and their ultimate vulnerability in the face of the chaos beyond. At the same time, the title suggests an alchemical remedy of sorts. Is this the elixir (of self-awareness) that will heal the rift between us and the cosmos, the child-like Aeon about to be born into the storm, or is it just another placebo, the child’s toy of Heidegger’s account of the Heraclitean Aion (which, after all, is as good as things get in this part of the universe)?

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on politics & ontology

(For some reason, this didn’t go out over Google Reader, so I’m re-posting it…)

The Speculative Realist blogosphere has been abuzz over the relationship between ontology and politics. Nick Srnicek’s post at Speculative Heresy – and the many comments on it – provide a good entry point to this discussion. Nick has wisely redrawn his initial arguments in ways that represent the counter-arguments quite well, so that both (or all) sides seem smarter and more clear-headed coming out of the process than going into it — which is what good philosophizing should be about.

The key, as he presents it, is to define politics in a viable and useful way: is it just about relations between humans and other humans (as he first assumed), or is it about ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ ‘the space of the im/possible’ (a Derridean formulation that needs more clarification, so see Nick’s elaboration on it), or something else. Nick argues that “if we’re not careful, everything becomes politics, and nothing gets changed. Art becomes intrinsically political. Ineffective protests become political (rather than spectacle). Writing blog posts becomes political! Politics – if it is to mean anything, and if it is to escape the nihilism and apoliticism that Nina rightly criticizes – must have a narrower definition than these neutered conceptions of the political.

I agree with Nick that the definition of ‘politics’ should not be fully subsumed within the definition of ‘art’ (or ‘philosophy’ or religion’ or ‘science’ or ‘nature’ or anything else) — losing the distinctiveness of each of these terms renders the world less distinct and gives us a weaker grasp on things. But art, philosophy, etc. can still be political, and identifying overlaps between these categories can do important work for us.

Politics, to my mind, is about relationality — ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ etc. — but it doesn’t just describe that relationality; it affects it. Something becomes political to the extent that it effects change in relations, and specifically in power relations — that is, to the extent that it opens up, closes down, or somehow reorients or reconfigures capacities (one’s own and/or others’) for acting and for effecting change in the world.

This seems circular, but I’m trying to be consistent here with a process-relational ontology. To say that ‘politics’ is about ‘effecting change in the ways change can be effected’ is to render politics open in a world that is itself open. If voting cannot effect change, then it is not (any longer) political; or rather it is negatively political to the extent that it closes down the possibility for change, for instance, by creating the illusion that one is making change when one isn’t. Politics, by this definition, consists of those adjustments, negotiations, and struggles by which we reconfigure power in the world (where power is not just ‘power over’ but power-to, power-with, etc.). This can be done through art or philosophy, i.e. through the expression or conceptual formulation of new or different ways of relating, to the extent that these then affect actual relations in the world. But it is not identical with them.

And it can be not only between humans, since humans aren’t the only entities acting within a shared world. But humans have been pretty effective at changing others’ capacities for acting on their worlds, so politics – cosmopolitics, in Stengers’ terms – should today be about the nonhuman as well as the human .

Michael Moore may be American cinema’s best known film essayist (or propagandist, if you like), but the leader of the genre is still alive and kicking, at age 88, living quietly in Paris (no doubt with one or several cats). Chris Marker’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a walk through a gallery of his photoshopped détournements commenting on art and world history.

This is, of course, poles apart from agitprop. The combination of rich and affectively engaging imagery (with a kind of cross-historical hyperlinked quality), subtle humor and light-footed pacing, sutured together with Pärt’s delicately uplifting music, moves me into the kind of heartfelt meditative space the Buddha would approve of — as if we’re walking alongside Paul Klee/Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, in a space capsule hovercraft scanning its monuments, but with humor and gentle compassion and curiosity, coming so close to the bodies lying on the battlefield we can touch them, feel their breath, and maybe give them some solace with our touch.

It helps to know something about Marker’s lives, loves, and politics — perhaps Wolfgang Ball can be encouraged to create a footnoted hypertext analysis of the piece, as he did with Marker’s Sans Soleil.

Chris Marker – Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory has some other videos by him. And see Brooklyn Rail’s piece on his Grin Without a Cat. Oh, and make sure you click on the full-screen button when you watch it.


One of my (largely dormant) pet projects over the years has been to document and theorize anonymous, self-decomposing artworks made in collaboration with nature and time. These works are creative engagements with environments — often simple rearrangements of physical materials (rocks, wood, found pieces of scrap metal or discarded trash, and the like) — by individuals, designed or improvised with materials at hand, working with others less by design than by happenstance. They can be found in outdoor public spaces, wooded ravines and forests, wild patches of cities and countryside, abandoned industrial sites. Remaining little documented, they appear not to exist at all except when directly encountered, which is something that usually happens by chance.

Even calling them ‘artworks’ can be problematic, since they may not be created with the intent of being recognized as art, or made by ‘artists’, and certainly not as part of the ‘art system’ (as Bourdieu, Luhmann, or Stallabrass would define it). Insofar as they assert the (past) presence of those who have crafted them, they can be read as forms of graffiti, or a kind of resistant creativity akin to the guerrilla gardening movement of urban space activists. Marking out a space as different and significant, but leaving behind little direct evidence of the intent underlying them, they may convey an aura of mystery, playfulness, childlike wonder, or the more serious character of a sacred space or shrine, but until they are turned into a public topic (as has occurred with the fairy houses on Monhegan Island, where I just spent a few days, and about which more in a moment), they remain ambiguous and a little unplaceable within the systems of things that make up the recognized world. They are anomalous or ambiguous objects, which makes them relevant to the recent discussion here of objects versus relations.

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Two of the world’s best known Iranian artists, Marjane Satrapi, author of the graphic novel Persepolis and director of the Oscar-winning animated feature based on it, and leading filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have been presenting apparent “proof” at the European Parliament that Mousavi actually won the elections. This comes in the form of an internal memo allegedly written by Iran’s Interior Minister documenting the actual results.

The Independent’s Robert Fisk raises some questions about the letter’s authenticity, but acknowledges that “it divides the final vote between Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi in such a way that it would have forced a second run-off vote – scarcely something Mousavi’s camp would have wanted,” which helps lend it veracity. Unfortunately, he continues, “The letter may well join the thousands of documents, real and forged, that have shaped Iran’s recent history, the most memorable of which were the Irish passports upon which Messers Robert McFarlane and Oliver North travelled to Iran on behalf of the US government in 1986 to offer missiles for hostages.”

This is one of those situations where it’s not clear whom to believe, because the economy of trustworthiness is nebulous and a little impenetrable. It reminds me of Jodi Dean‘s account of conspiracy cultures in the US, Aliens in America, in which the public-sphere ideal has been so eroded that we are left with an ineradicable “undecidability” about fundamental definitions of reality. My operating hunch, or leap of faith, here is that intellectuals and especially artists who have demonstrated accountability to a complex view of the world (that’s the key) can help weave our way through political confusion. This is a kind of ‘cultural ecology’ argument where communicative/cultural complexity — in the form of pluralism, dialogism, openness to the many-sidedness of perception, and recognition of the ultimate unknowability/undecidability/uncontainability/inassimilability of things (that’s the Lacanian/Derridean/Buddhist piece) counts for something. My leap of faith, then, without knowing much about internal Iranian politics or culture, would be to follow artists like Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, and others, and of course to mistrust systems that rely on police rule to crush resistance. Which makes me wonder: If an analogous situation erupted in the US or Canada, who would be the artists, writers, filmmakers, I would trust?

More interesting Iran stuff can be found at iran101.blogspot.com and in Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi‘s perceptive analyses, such as this one and this (once you get through the latter’s somewhat over-the-top Israelophobia; aren’t Netanyahu/Lieberman and Khamenei/Ahmadinejad mirror images of a sort?).


I’m sure I’m not the only one following these events with excited trepidation and a feeling of almost wanting to be there (but glad also to be watching it from afar). Which makes me wonder: what is it about revolutionary moments that fires the imagination and keeps us, or me at least, plugged into them like to a virtual intravenous drip? Is it personal — that I grew up in the 1970s feeling that I had missed the 1960s; or a desire to re-experience the feeling I had living in Ukraine for a year during the tremendous societal opening-up of 1989-90 as the Soviet Union began crumbling all around? Or is it that these events capture, and never satisfy, that constant generic craving of something — to fill that lack or gap or “basic fault” in human nature that modern social relations exacerbate and that consumer capitalism is so expert at fueling (well beyond anything the Buddha could have imagined)? (For all its evident shortcomings and overextensions, Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West remains one of my favorite articulations of that gap, a quasi-Foucauldian psychosomatic excavation of the ‘modern soul.’)

Or is it mainly a hope for change, that utopian ‘principle of hope’ Ernst Bloch‘ writes about, that makes us want to believe that things can change for the better — which is why conservatives, who don’t believe change will ever be for the better, reject the whole idea as childish and annoying? But can this one turn out any better than, say, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of a few years ago? (A few things did improve after that one: media control was loosened dramatically, or at least decentralized among rival oligarchs, with arguably positive effects on the whole; and political options became more open and more imaginable. But the last few years have seen a constant, ongoing deflation of political spirit in Ukraine.) Will Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ be messy and bloody (as it appears today) or will it triumph only to then dissipate into political machinations, co-opted like so many others? What’s the activists’ game plan for afterwards? For that matter, would I have been there alongside Foucault cheering on the students and clerics in the 1979 revolution, and how is this moment different from that one?

Understanding the dynamics of revolutionary or ‘open’ moments is important — which is part of what attracts me to the thinking of Deleuze, Guattari, DeLanda, William Connolly, Brian Massumi, Teresa Brennan, Nigel Thrift, and others for whom processes of “affective contagion” make up a crucial dimension of political change. In his summary of models of affective contagion (Non-Representational Theory, pp. 235ff.), Thrift describes an intensifying anxious obsessive-compulsive “time structure” in Western liberal-democratic polities, where “a growth in desengagement and detachment is paralleled by moments of high engagement and attachment” (p. 240), like this one unfolding in Iran.

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