If It Was a Going Concern
Catalogue essay for Adelaide International 2014
In 1971 Leonard Cohen flew from Montreal to Switzerland to meet his friend Henry Zemel, who was making a documentary for Canadian television about Immanuel Velikovsky, the Russian catastrophist and psychoanalyst. Cohen had first become interested in Velikovsky's writing after reading an article in one of his father's copies of Reader's Digest magazine. He maintained a strong interest in Velikovsky's theories about relationships between cosmology and evolution and how religion and myth were human responses to real, historical catastrophes of celestial origin.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould made a synopsis of these narratives in the essay, 'Velikovsky in Collision':
Velikovsky's first book, Worlds in Collision, had been published in 1950, and he expanded his ideas in numerous publications over subsequent decades. Despite the cold shoulder from the scientific and educational establishment - as exemplified in Gould's description - Velikovsky's ideas became widely circulated outside academia. The CBC film that Cohen took part in - he can be seen asking questions about the sexuality of gods and the workings of mass amnesia - was broadcast in 1972, and a separate documentary by the BBC went to air in 1973. By 1974 the American Association for the Advancement of Science felt it timely to convene a public seminar - as it had previously done to look at the evidence about UFOs - to put these ideas again under scientific scrutiny. Velikovsky and his theories were interrogated by (among others) Professor Carl Sagan, who also felt it necessary to rebut them in his popular television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This marked both the high point of Velikovsky's visibility and the point where his theories begin their retreat from the public gaze.
Although dismissed by the scientific community, there was something in the cinematic space-opera scope of his vision, and the ways his theories suggested occluded layers of material truth behind legendary events, that spoke to the wider cultural imagination. And Velikovsky's ideas attracted not only the demographic that subscribed to Reader's Digest, but also individuals like Leonard Cohen who, in disparate and various ways, were in the process of developing subjectivities more diverse and magical than the world described by the Reader's Digest. They were looking for new models of understanding in that short and spectacular efflorescence of free-form activity of the 1960s and 70s collectively known as the 'counter-culture'.
There are as many understandings of what constituted the counter-culture as there were participants, refracted by viewing it through the prism of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, sexual liberation, the investigation of hallucinogens, experiments in communal living, musical avant-gardists, Pan-African Jazz cosmonauts, Eastern Mystics, Yippies seeking to levitate the Pentagon, Electric Kool-Aid Acid testers, Diggers asking that you 'Remake yourself as you want to be, now!', or Timothy Leary exhorting everyone to 'Turn On! Tune In! Drop Out!'. Any combination of these or other ideas were being frantically enacted and explored by a generation seeking wider possibilities of imagining what it might be to be fully human. What linked these was a rejection of existing structures, an openness to other models of the world, and a demand for new and expanded levels of experience and meaning outside or beyond 'straight' society, establishment values and received models of knowledge. It was a search for enlightenment that might be found through a synthesis (and synaesthesia) of philosophy, psychedelics, revolutionary politics, tantric sex and a close reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A pamphlet at the 1967 'Human Be-In' at Golden Gate Park started with the lines '[A] new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old ...' and concluded, 'Hang your fear at the door and join the future. If you do not believe, please wipe your eyes and see.'
Velikovsky was in Switzerland at the invitation of Alfred de Grazia to teach at the 'University of the New World'. De Grazia, a political and behavioural scientist and former writer of psychological war manuals for the CIA, was also editor of the American Behavioural Scientist magazine and had dedicated a special issue to Velikovsky and his ideas. De Grazia had established the university as an alternative to mainstream educational systems, and to model approaches fitting for the emerging new Aquarian culture. There were no hierarchies, no exams, and all learning was to be playful and joyous with a free interplay between various disciplines.
Velikovsky's fellow professors included Ornette Coleman and William Burroughs, who described the school in a number of letters to Brion Gysin and Antony Balch:
He went on to say:
The years since Velikovsky's residency at the University of the New World have seen a retreat of such ideas of grand transformative enterprise. As Burroughs' letters indicate, there were challenges in getting these new utopian structures and ideas to work in actuality, especially given the conscious rejection by the people involved of received organisational structures and hierarchies, compounded by the considerable operational difficulties presented by an enthusiastic embrace of drugs and altered states of consciousness. Inevitably, their enactment led to a betrayal of early ideals, not only in Haute- Nendaz but across the counter-culture as the music and culture transmuted from being the means to explore new ways of being, to becoming products in new markets of fashion, music and style traded by a new generation of hippy entrepreneurs in the emerging markets of youth. In the longer term, its antimaterialist legacies and non-linear approaches were further eroded and occluded by newer radical narratives of economic liberalism and ideas of the free play of market forces. These provide little space for a belief in open-ended constructions of human potential and association, and prefer instead to encourage new formations of the individual as an economic unit and atomised intelligence - a consumer satisfying a set of immediate, notionally rational, self-interested drives.
When the command economies in the Soviet Union and its satellites collapsed at the end of the 1980s, it seemed that the logics and operations of the market were invincible and changing from a political, economic and ideological construction into a Natural Law or a 'truth'. Questioning it was akin to refusing the existence of gravity. And, like natural laws such as gravity, the narratives of economic liberalism allow no exclusions...this is how things work...there is no part of the world where things fall up.
This categorical shift of the market and its expansion into the realms of the abstract increasingly shaped ideas and outcomes of contemporary art. The function of art as a highvalue commodity - both abstract and actual - to be traded and consumed by high-value individuals and institutions, has become so dominant that it denies or problematises wider agendas of change and transformation that shaped the development of progressive art practices, including ideas of art as a revolution of consciousness; as an agent of social change; as something that is stubbornly oppositional, arcane, esoteric or perverse; or art as a laboratory of approaches that lie outside of - or in vital opposition to - quotidian and bourgeois structures of value and meaning.
Practices that were once oppositional, alternative and avantgarde are now establishment. Ideas of art as a transformative or revolutionary enterprise increasingly constitute a sort of foundation myth that gives an auratic glow to stylistic innovations, to new lines of production for the market. Outside the commercial sphere - in the tattered remains of the social non-market arena - these histories translate into ideas of art having an instrumental or utilitarian function. Artworks, galleries and museums are considered to have some sort of vague, non-specific broad-spectrum benefit, to individuals or depressed communities, towns and bleak traffic interchanges, with outcomes that hopefully can be quantified and measured in terms of health, happiness and economic well-being.
In parallel, the revolutionary ideas and agendas that modern art once considered itself to be but a part of - as an avantgarde of wider social change - are themselves increasingly corralled into the spaces of contemporary art. Ideas that once intended to rewire civilisation or redefine human potential are allowed expression and free play within the white walls of the Art Gallery or the Art Department seminar, as it seems that they can no longer function properly in the world outside. This bandwidth reduction has increasingly shaped understandings of the intentions and histories of many practices that influenced the development of contemporary art: their spiritual, esoteric and mystical agendas sidelined in favour of formal or conceptual understanding of their role and functions. Oceanic theological yearnings have been marginalised in favour of intellectual, philosophical and ironic constructions. Utopian imaginings have become an endangered species, unable to cope in the altered eco-system. In many ways the 'contemporary art world' can be seen as taking on the function of a conservation park for rare and exotic species: princes and potentates once collected exotic lions and rhinoceri in their private gardens as symbols of power and other abstract values, and now oligarchs, arms dealers, developers and bankers, start-up enterprises and corporations collect and fund contemporary art. Galleries and art fairs become a way of extending the reach of the market into immaterial realms - a monetisation of abstracts and ideals - where works that talk of human emancipation and potential outside the trammels of capital are now collected, bought and traded for the entertainment of the very rich.
It seems possible however that we have arrived at a circumstance where these developments might have reached a pause, a point that in the future will be seen as their apogee. The endless expansion of money might be slowing. In the wake of the crash of financial systems that started in 2008, we can, for a moment, imagine that the natural law of the market has lost its inevitability, and that the 'invisible hand' is becoming a metaphor again, not the manifested agent of a god-like system. As John Gray writes, 'militant truth is always harmful to civilisation (becoming an open ended licence for savagery and oppression)'. This moment may be just a blip; certainly we are told that the systems are returning to 'normal' (at least until longer-term limits to ever-expanding markets and consumption become evident in catastrophic environmental degradation and rising sea levels). But there remains a new nervousness and the potential that, despite their increasingly forceful re-articulations, the market paradigms that have shaped our culture over the last few decades are, for a moment, less absolute; that there are spaces for other possibilities and ideas that operate independently of the absolutist claims of this dominant narrative; and that we may detect new constellations of association and possibility.
The last few years have seen a rekindling of interest in ideas and styles associated with the 1960s and early 70s counterculture, which, until recently, had been considered entirely uncool and beyond recuperation other than for comedy purposes. In part, this is due to the mechanics of contemporary culture's inexorable nostalgia. Punk and postpunk have been picked over and reconsidered, so logically what lies in the murk of pre-punk is next in line for a zombie reanimation. But perhaps we might identify other reasons and resonances in this interest. Significantly, the counter-culture - although unfolding against the backgrounds of the Vietnam War, the possibilities of nuclear destruction and overtly hostile cultural and political forces - was, at its core, the last essentially optimistic movement in recent cultural history in the West. It was not only reactive, it also proposed the possibility of generating ways of living and understanding that were non-alienated and truly alternative (as well as in opposition) to society at large. It is this other-worldliness that made it so rich for dismissal -'never trust a hippy', as the punk movement had it - and it is this sense of possibility that makes it of such interest now.
The world we inhabit today is shaped by ideas and events from that period in more significant ways than are usually recognised. This can be seen not only in social, sexual and racial attitudes, where progressive values that first emerged as radical utopian alternatives have become mainstream in much of Western society, but crucially also in the operations of the internet and the digital spaces that increasingly shape our activities, imaginations and sense of potential. There are direct links to individuals and events with roots in the counter-culture - from John Perry Barlow to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog - and the ghosts of these visions continue to roam its seemingly infinite spaces. The development and expansion of these technologies, even when they seem merely to innovate new ways of selling things, suggest the possibility of new relations and structures outside or beyond those that have determined our recent history. The developing digital cultures and their links with the historic counter-cultures might, optimistically, be imagined as forming a bracket around the period of market hegemony and suggest a possibility of a cathexis, where some of the ideas from the past may be instructive in thinking about the new.
Music, although a dizzyingly fast-declining cultural and market force, has been experiencing (perhaps because of the freedoms given by this decline) an efflorescence of experimentation and revisiting of earlier forms. From freak-folk bands borrowing from the cultural eclecticisms and enchanted sylvan imaginings of The Incredible String Band or the symphonic reaches of Roy Harper, to bearded Sydney and Williamsburg hipsters revisiting ideas of 'getting it together in the country' as groups such as Traffic and The Band once did, the approaches of the counter-cuture have gained a new currency. There have been successful compilations and festivals of new psychedelic music, with Australia's Tame Impala a leading light in this emerging scene. Outside formal re-articulations, wider experimental music scenes from electronica to hauntology continue to investigate and reclaim lost narratives, and to trace expressions of radical imagination. In visual art, Lars Bang Larsen recently curated Reflections from Damaged Life, an exhibition on psychedelia at Raven Row, London, which set out to question 'what psychedelic art might be'; and his 'Radical Enlightenment' project is interrogating ideas explored in the counter-culture that might give an expanded understanding of the agendas and intentions of the Enlightenment. In Berlin, Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diederichsen recently staged The Whole Earth. California and the Disappearance of the Outside, tracing the resonances of the Whole Earth Catalog across the worlds of cybernetics, nature romanticism, psychedelia, computer culture, the environmentalist movement and digital network culture.
Worlds in Collision is not a historical show, nor are any of the artists known for their relationships to that historical counter-culture. However, the exhibition has been conceived in relationship to these intriguing investigations and reassessments, and is a celebration of practices and works that in one way or another suggest the possibility of another sort of 'real', of something else either underlying or breaking through more fixed understandings. The implied refusal to entirely accept the mainstream reading and the demand for 'more', along with the manifest interest in heterodox and alternative models, echo previous strategies but are, at the same time, of this moment. Taking its title from Velikovsky's most famous (albeit now increasingly forgotten) publication, the exhibition presents a number of contemporary artworks and practices that, in various and different ways, operate at - or just beyond - an edge or a boundary. Each work operates at a place where one state or model ends and another begins, or at least, may begin: a moment where worlds collide, overlap and shift. Stephen Jay Gould wrote: 'Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends.' He meant this as a dismissal but, in its perverse insistence that there is meaning in approaches outside 'normal' construction, and the demand that indexes normally seen as incompatible might operate as different facets of a reality, it might also work as a rationale.
Ideas of how science and technology - along with their methodologies of collection, comparison, analysis and indexing - can act as portals to wider dimensions is a theme in the exhibition. In turn, these dimensions are perhaps those we cannot yet know or map. Nor are they necessarily entirely knowable through the approaches and syntaxes of instrumental reason, and so they might suggest the limits of orthodox modelling. Seen in this way, the technologies operate as agents of transformation as much as alienation, and become inflected and shaped as much by the promises of early modernity as by the outcomes of post-modernity. They suggest a function of 're-enchantment' as much as mechanisms of 'disenchantment', as conceived by Max Weber:
Susan Hiller's practice has long explored areas of human experience that lie just beyond established models. Her interest however is not to posit these as alternative 'truths', but to bring into sight material that is anomalous. An inspiration in her approaches can be found in the work of Charles Fort, the American journalist and writer who spent his life investigating the records of newspapers and scientific journals for reports of anomalous phenomena and strange events that challenged accepted theories and beliefs. In 1919 he published The Book of the Damned, where he wrote that the ideal is to be neither a 'true believer' nor a total 'skeptic' but 'that the truth lies somewhere in between'.
Rationalist, scientific methodologies and their attendant technologies privilege certain constructions of power, class and gender and exclude other approaches and narratives. In the UK in the early 1970s, when Hiller first started making work, the art world of conceptual and critical practice was subject to similar operations, and it was her experience of this that motivated a shift in focus:
Instead she sought ways to explore alternatives to dominant narratives, to 'move sideways'. This underpins Hiller's ongoing engagement with cultural materials 'whose meanings have been repressed, suppressed, censored or simply ignored'. It has also found its expression in an emphasis on the dream and the altered state. In a paper for the Bristol Science Centre in 1999, Hiller quoted Constantine Baroni:
Channels (2013) is her latest exploration of the outer territories that lead towards the 'great absences', in this case death, 'the undiscover'd country, from whose bourn, no traveller returns', as Hamlet says. Hiller, however, has been accumulating travellers' tales over the last decade in an archive of people describing near-death experiences. Here language is not stopping, but it is perhaps getting closer to the limits of its operation and possibilities as it seeks to articulate sensations that happen at that point where sensation may either cease or transform, and approaches realms that cannot yet be known.
Paul Laffoley trained in Classics at Brown University and then Architecture at Harvard before travelling to New York to study with visionary architect Frederick Kiesler, a member of the De Stijl Group and who had organised the first ever screening of Léger's Ballet Mécanique. Laffoley then worked for the architectural practice Emery Roth and Sons, where he was involved with designs for the World Trade Center. At the time he was also recruited by Andy Warhol to view late night television, usually in the pre-dawn hours before programming had begun. Despite these art world associations, Laffoley's practice does not fit into the model of 'art' that we are comfortable with - that is, the sense of a practice that is in discourse with the defining or dominant narratives of the tradition in which it works, one perhaps leavened by irony and self-reference. Instead, his luminous paintings are conceived as technologies and machines that allow communication and understanding with other orders of knowledge, beings and dimensions (echoing some of the esoteric intentions of past radical art practices, and practices that were shaped by spiritual and religious practices that preceded them).
In 1965 Laffoley founded 'The Boston Visionary Cell'. This is a room, an ophthalmos, where he brings together literature, occultism, histories of science, philosophy and of world cultures into a single space to read and analyse, and which are transmuted into the experiments and technologies he constructs using paint collage and texts. It is a complex and polymorphous undertaking, where, as Michael Bracewell writes:
The works combine the mundane, the esoteric, the philosophical and allegorical, and meld ideas from Plato and quantum physics, science fiction and autobiography in an undertaking that seeks a structure and methodology both of understanding and of revelation.
If science fiction is a material of research for Laffoley (he said in a recent talk that he had seen The Day the Earth Stood Still over one thousand times), it is the material traces of its fictional spaces and buildings that fascinate Rä di Martino. She has developed a body of photographs documenting the architectural remains of the sets of Star Wars films that she tracked down in the desert areas of North Africa. Star Wars is a vast unfolding narrative, its first iteration in 1977 and still unfolding on cinema-screens around the world at irregular intervals with prequels and sequels to the original. It describes an epic struggle of civilisations and of individuals, where an endless battle between a free world and an Evil Empire unfolds on psychological, personal, ethical, military and even theological levels. This happens in a realm far above us and at a time far away, but is of compelling interest to legions of fans and followers. In the 2001 Australian Census, more than 70,000 people declared themselves members of the Jedi order and on 16 November 2006, two Jedi warriors delivered a protest letter to UN officials on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance. They requested that it be renamed the 'UN Interstellar Day of Tolerance' and cited the 2001 Census showing 390,000 Jedi in England and Wales.
What then are we to make of the concrete manifestations of the sites of these fictional, almost legendary, events? Di Martino's documentation of their ruined forms generates paradoxes and echoes that travel across relationships between objects and narratives, the real and the unreal, the ideal, the Platonic realms and the earthly. At the same time, as the artist points out, they are 'just rubbish that has been left by a richer country in a poor country'. Many of the local inhabitants use these resources as materials for constructing sheds and shelters, in exactly the same way that the Goths and Saxons incorporated stone from Roman buildings into their houses and churches. To other eyes, this might be a moisture farm on the Planet Tatooine, to a few fervent fans they are almost holy sites, places that were trodden by Luke Skywalker and other heroes seeking to know the operations of 'the Force'.
In Second Moon Katie Paterson is couriering a fragment of lunar meteorite - that is, a meteorite that is known to have originated on the moon, spinning off the surface into space through the impact of another meteorite – around the world in an anti-clockwise direction, for a year. Rather than the smooth ellipsis of the lunar orbit, the motion of the second moon is a more eccentric one, its path determined by commercial and logistical factors. This moon orbits at approximately twice the speed of the larger moon, albeit at a considerably lower height, with frequent interruptions where it lands, is processed by customs and then relaunched. Through the use of an app we can map its progress, and its position in relationship to the viewer's location, to the moon's location, and in relationship to the orbits of other planets in the solar system.
It is a thing and an event that is an enactment, a model, a representation and the thing itself. The work is simultaneously blank and dead-pan, and a marvellously complex metaphor, even though what it may be a metaphor of seems to recede deeper into infinity the more the viewer tries to focus on it. Her making of a small moon takes on the charge that Frances Yates identified as being at the heart of the occult mind, 'the everlasting relationship between microcosm and macrocosm'. 'As above, so below': Second Moon is, simultaneously, above - at least for quite a lot of its life, it cruises at some 30,000 feet before landing and making its way through Customs - but always below the 384,400 km that its twin travels at, and so touches on ideas of sympathetic magic and supernatural enactment. At the same time, Paterson’s re-articulation of the lunar orbit seems to refute the loading of meaning that the hermetic imagination saw in the structures of the cosmos. It becomes mimetic of ways that the teleological models of the universe were replaced by Descartian mechanical models of movement and gravity.
A struggle between models, the dialectic of certainty and the return of mystery are not necessarily benign or comfortable. The multi-monitor video installation Democracies by Artur Zmijewski reveals the ferment that such circumstances can produce, a Brownian motion of energy and desire that seeks release. The artist has been recording rallies, meetings and demonstrations around the world since 2009. Each gathering of people and banners and loudhailers is focused on a desire to articulate a specific understanding and model of the world, be this shaped by ideologies of nationalism, ethnic identity, morality, theological belief or social model, and to give these a physical expression. These visions are necessarily opposed or contradictory, sometimes in a direct clash - for instance, a rally demanding women's reproductive rights is opposed by a gathering protesting against abortion. Each is specific, but seen together across 34 screens, they suggest wider tectonic movements and fault lines, a flux in which one version of the real becomes weakened, and other versions of another real might, for a moment, break through.
These changes of state are echoed in the way that many of the demonstrations shift between being an articulation of meaning into inchoate expressions of energy and violence. On one level, the work can be seen as addressing a specific historical moment of hegemonic over-reach, bringing to mind Gramsci's observation that 'the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear'. However, the title of the work also seems to indicate that it is interrogating the idea of Democracy as an absolute, a Platonic ideal and the best order of mundane matter, in which freedom of expression and conscience are self-evident virtues. But it may be unable to contain the very energies and forces that it demands by expressed: that the desires and models demanded by the demos ('the people') cannot themselves be contained in its 'progressive' narratives, and may contradict or be antithetical to the values and ideals that have allowed their articulation.
If Democracies reveals a ferment of energy underlying social and political structures, Fred Tomaselli's intense, detailed, layered works talk of other dimensions and events that lie behind the world that we, as individuals, normally perceive. And we might only experience these energies if we allow ourselves to become sensitive to these normally invisible or imperceptible operations, and open ourselves to a wider spectrum of sensation. This desire to 'see beyond' the mundane links theological, mystical, occult traditions to bohemian seekers of pleasure, chemical adventurers and psychedelic adventurers. They are the bandwidths that Timothy Leary was inviting people to 'tune in' to by using chemicals to achieve a state of grace that previously had been attained through meditating or fasting or other physical disciplines. Tomaselli describes his pictures as 'psychoactive sites' and has spoken about how he:
Tomaselli's works are of the world, they inhabit it gloriously and incorporate materials from it: collage elements, pills, leaves and, in a series of prints made from the front pages of newspapers, they encompass political events. They are also shaped by his interest in popular culture and music - Tomaselli used to make and publish his own punk fanzines. And so these jewelled paintings are linked to the wider narratives and search for possibility that animated many of the alternative cultures of the 1960s, and are to be glimpsed in punk and post-punk activity and in digital culture. His work does not use these references as hip accreditation, but to insist that these too are means by which we might approach the sublime.
Benedict Drew takes elements generated in the digital universe and allows them free play in an analogue realm. He combines tumblr with construction drawing, and sculpture and light and music. When walking through the spaces energised by shifting wavelengths and populated by strange presences and awkward machines, we suppose the possibilities of an endless and infinite leakage and exchange between dimensions, a scenario where the imperatives and logics of one seek expression in another. These expressions are not abstract, but often possess rudimentary faces and grumpy expressions. Computer images and lumps of clay, slides of protractors, or photos of clouds and circles that look as if they should be found in ring-binders assemble themselves into the simple schematics that we recognise, almost at a reptilian level of the nervous system, as possessing animation and even personality. Faces and throbbing glistening masses abound: the leakage has its inhabitants. The artist's work suggests an almost HP Lovecraft or Arthur Machen-like vision for the world that computers are making, in which weird old creatures animated by agendas and logics - not shared by the humans who witness their presence - manifest themselves in dark spaces and forgotten corners. Erik Davis has written extensively about the emerging world shaped and inflected by the technological and digital realms:
The Lebanese Rocket Society by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas is a homage to the space exploration program in Lebanon, and a delineation of a possible past and present where the desire to leave the earth's atmosphere and counter the earth's gravitational pull, ghosts the possibilities of moving into abstract Platonic states to do with ideas of the Modern, the promises of a future and how this might relate to the past. The work reconstructs and constructs a sort of secret history, and asks how that might leak into the understanding of the present:
The project focuses on a period between 1961 and 1966, when a group of undergraduate students and the Haigazian University College Science Club in Beirut, and their lecturer Manoug Manougian, developed a solid fuel rocket program. This was funded using their own money as well as funds from the Department of Education, and resulted in several successful launches, one of them making it up to the thermosphere, which begins about 85 km above the surface of the earth and currently hosts the international space station. The project archives and documents its activities at a time that launching rockets in the area had a different loading than it possesses today and in doing so pulls into being another world of possibility and another potential for the technology. As the artists have also constructed and generated material for the exposition of this history, we are never certain as viewers where the world of fact ends and the worlds of fiction start:
Richard Grayson 2013