What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me
Soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me, me
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Neutral Milk Hotel.
This week’s theme on the avant guardian—blockbuster–is (motion)picture perfect for popOp‘s investigations into the nature spectacular agency. We continue to explore relational aesthetics with a nod to both Bourriaud and to rhythm scientist Paul D. Miller by combining pop songs and contemporary art. This phrase, spectacular agency, is a smooshing together of two bits of writing, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Giorgio Agamben’s What Is an Apparatus? And we’re infatuated this week with Alexandre Singh (right).
What kind of artist is Singh?
Perhaps he is a sculptor: reproducing images through photocopying, reducing them to a singular image or text, layering these in a collage. Maybe a collagist?
Maybe he’s a performance artist? He’s got a talent for giving hours-long lectures that begin with arcane facts about one subject that then splinter into believe-it-or-not stories; this is a skirting with truthiness. As he has described his lectures, they are something like a guided tour of someone’s Wikipedia habit, “The Surrealists made an art of finding drawings in the grain of wood. I think I do the same finding stories in the grain of Wikipedia.”
I have a similar habit, Alexandre; you’re so dreamy.
It got me into thinking about race, dogs, the Silk Road, nomadic peoples of central Europe, and it gave me the most awesome band name I’ve heard in a while: the age of crushed skulls.
He and his friends, Jonah Freedman and Justin Lowe also gave us that bizarre installation Hello Methlab in the Sun at Ballroom Marfa. This concept Lowe and Freedman then took on the road presenting Hello Methlab with View at The Station for Art Basel in Miami Beach, and then their Black Acid Coop exhibit at Deitch Projects in SoHo. But, were these installations primarily concerned with methamphetamine production, then Freedman and Lowe would have stopped in Atlanta, the hub for all nort-south, east-west distribution of narcotics east of the Mississippi River.
Alexanrdre, oooh! oooh! my hand is raised! I’ve got some research on methamphetamine use in the suburbs! (so dreamy.)
Anyhow. Enough with these coincidences.
But. Dreamy is a good word.
Let’s riff on that a second.
In thesis (or is it section?) 21 of Society of the Spectacle Debord states:
To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that kind of sleep.
Breton, in the first Manifesto of Surrealism begged to know:
When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought.
As I’ve stated previously, Breton saw something stultifying in modern life and demanded that the city become more imaginative. And then it went bananas, according to Debord and the Situationist International.
It’s important to make a distinction here, following Agamben’s lead: spectacle is not necessarily the same thing as cinema or of other art forms such as painting. Spectacle has as its root the specialization of power (thesis 23); power controls the facticity of subjects. Power forms subjects: we are all subjects of our liege.
We can contrast the media with cinema and art. I say “the media” because this is the vernacular I often hear from folks when I’m walking around my (A)town(down). It’s a phrase often implying the unreliability of telling the story properly, “just wait until the media gets a hold of this,” is a demonstrative phrasing. We cannot trust the images of the media because the media always only presents us with facts. As Agamben states, “The media prefer a citizen who is indignant, but powerless. That’s exactly the goal of TV news. It’s the bad form of memory, the kind of memory that produces the man of ressentiment.”
Memory is a tricky little bugger, innit? Agamben in the above referenced essay states that memory is the organ of reality’s modalization, “it is that which can transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real.” This is the definition of cinema. And it is the paradoxical nature of education. Why should we resist and be concerned about standardized testing in public education? The suspension of disbelief works, as Samuel Coleridge Taylor pointed out.
It’s not to say that the onus is on the viewer or reader; rather, the essentialism (which is not a fact, but a belief) of facticity — that facts are true — cannot in any way engender the lived experience. Facts don’t make sense until we have a memory of the facts of the matter. This is why the riot cops in the Toronto G20 summit were videotaping the people in the streets (last week’s popOp): they were using tactics appropriated from the media. The cops learned from the Rodney King incident that in order to control people you must control the transmission of what the people see. This is why we have public diplomacy actions like embedded journalism; this is how the Pentagon can combat those people that they would have submit to their will.
Walter Benjamin marked a distinction between studying and learning. As I commented to Ari earlier this week: What separates these two is the role of experience in the formation of memory. To study, for Benjamin, is to analyze and reduce what is being observed to an object-of-study. To learn, in contrast, is to be transformed by that from which one reads. The movement in the case of studying is from me to the world and thereby I transform it (I might even suggest I limit the scope of the world, minimizing it). The movement in learning is from the world to me and I am expanded by this.
In the case of studying (of fact-acquiring) what we see is the absence of possibility: object A (or even “process A”) is defined by not being object B (or “process B”). Studying is more like fact-making; or perhaps fact-celebrating. Facts are made into trophies or gold medals; they can then be measured by the simple acquisition and demonstration on the breasts of those that won last night’s trivia game at the local pub. This fact-making has its place, don’t get me wrong, but it can become an obsessive mode of living.
But learning, again, is only accomplished by experience –itself a term characterized by a receptivity to these processes occurring always around us. To experience something is to suspend our fact-making habit and to concede that what makes life livable is the possibility.
As the history of trauma has shown us, memories are haunting not because of their possibility but, paradoxically, because we cannot find a way in which to reintroduce other possible memories. They haunt us when we cannot allow for the commensurability of another possible history where our actions are just as validly possible; “some other when,” to use a term from Stephen King’s melancholic Dark Tower series.
The media does not traffic in these sorts of experiences, it knows only facts (and if you were a part of One Book, One Twitter; keep reading to get a better sense of what I mean about TV). The facticity of life within the ubiquitous presence of TV is, of course, ridiculous; so much so that we cannot stomach a world where TV only shows facts; and thus we understand the genesis of reality tv shows.
The Situationist International get their name from their pursuit of “constructed situations,” a strategy for contesting this subjugating fact-making. This media-ted subjectivity that is imposed by the use of this form of memory making is why I use the term spectacular agency. What kind of choices can we make when we are directed to act by those situating the cameras?