Only Connect In 1910 EM Foster wrote in his novel 'Howard's End', the instruction 'only connect' as a response to the fragmentation and alienation visited upon society by the effects of technological revolutions in electricity, in telegraphy, in railway stations, in engines and automobiles. A century later, in a culture that is being radically reshaped by computer and information technology, Suzanne Treister is doing just this and it is taking her to stranger places than the novelist might have imagined. Her work is tracing the complex webs of linkage and connection that not only help describe worlds, but which bring new words into being.
In the paintings that first brought her to attention in the 1980's Treister drew on the traditions of the still-life and the history painting to place disparate objects and scenes in conjunction so that we, the viewer, had to untangle the logics of relationship: how might a row of light-bulbs relate to a line of books, why is that window revealing a landscape framed by locks and bolts? Later canvasses made reference to the emerging forms of electronic gaming and with titles such as Video Game for Primo Levi (1988) they seemed to offer the possibility that the viewer (who in this context becomes elided with the figure of the player) might be able decode these events and so move onto another level; although of course the unmoving surface of oil-paint physically denied this potential. In 1991 she made a groundbreaking series of works with an Amiga computer - which at time had no internal hard-drive and only half a megabyte of RAM. Using this cutting-edge technology, she designed a series of screens from fictional games each displaying texts such as 'Examine the Evidence' 'Have you been sentenced to a fate worse than death' and 'You have reached the Gates of Wisdom - Tell us what you have seen'. These images conflated the operations of information technology with those of art and the messages seemed to narrate the viewer's/player's experience and tantalize with the possibility of a revealed truth and a resolution.... if only you knew how to get there.
As her practice unfolded, this quest took on an agency. Literally. Rather than it being left up to us - the viewer - to decode and untangle linkages and events, Treister created an agent: time-traveller Rosalind Brodsky. The CD Rom, No Other Symptoms (1995-1999) allowed us to click our way through the electronic architecture of the computer to explore the rooms and tunnels of Brodsky's Bavarian Mountain headquarters in the future, visit Freud's study in the past and even catch a shuttle up to her satellite.
Brodsky has become a meta-fictional agent for other projects. Her institute 'IMATI - The Institute of Miltronics and Advanced Time Interventionality' - is credited with initiating the research that became Treister's massive exhibition and publication project Hexen 2039 in 2006. This traced and projected extra-ordinary - and often true - histories of Military engagement with ideas of remote sensing and the occult both in the past and the future and combined these with narratives that drew on John Dee, the Harz Mountains, cinema sound technology and the Wizard of Oz.
In her new series of Alchemical drawings Treister takes past models, from occult and esoteric traditions, of the ways that things may connect, and applies them to the events of the present day. The drawings take schematics that reached their full flower in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe designed to map the universe as understood by followers of Alchemy and the Hermetic traditions. These have been applied to texts and images from the front pages of newspapers from England, Europe from America and from the Arab and Jewish world. Interwoven with the spirals and linked spheres, flaming suns and radiating stars, we can see banners for Class War, the faces of politicians and presidential candidates and read texts about the creation of artificial life, travails of an administration, showbiz gossip or another bloody incident in the progress of the Iraq war.
Alchemy was based on Aristotle's theories of Transmutation, that all matter was composed of four basic elements; earth air fire and water, and that all these were mutable: water turned into ice and steam, acorns to trees, caterpillars to butterflies and so forth. This philosophy was combined with ideas drawn from Arab, Christian, Gnostic, Jewish and Neo-Platonic mystical traditions and methods and approaches that would one day be subsumed into the discipline of Chemistry, into a utilitarian method and technology designed to understand the mind of God through revealing and echoing the structures that underlay the Earth and the Heavens. Right at its heart lay the idea of 'As above so Below', the 'everlasting emphasis on Macrocosm and Microcosm' that the historian Frances Yates described as being at the heart of all occult systems. As the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus has it "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing."
This time the viewer is placed at the centre of the quest; there is no proxy or avatar. Alchemy was a quest for perfection: and believed that the distillation and transformation of the matter of the world effected parallel transmutations in the alchemist's soul, so the human race could be returned to perfection. This however would only be achieved by the Seer and the Adept, the Hermetic Corpus is necessarily esoteric, its truths are hidden from us and can only be accessed by the initiated.
The Alchemists looked to the natural world around them as the signifier of hidden intentions and instructions: In Treister's alchemy it is the universe of human event and information that is represented. The Sun, Le Monde, The Times, Al Ahram (The Pyramids), are no longer only heavenly bodies or states, mysterious objects that are metaphors and metonyms, but brands and businesses and mast-heads, This is a universe shaped by ownership and capital and money, one of politics, exchanges, celebrity and personalities, tracking the movements of very different sorts of stars than those alchemists focused on: it is one increasingly determined and shaped by technology and the web and the linkages of electronic communication, defined by the electrical pulse. The works ask about our relationship to this celestial sphere: does it influence us? Can we influence it? The drawings pose teleological issues: are these events and people, these plots and plans and explosions the ways that we now seek meaning, to move towards 'the miracle of the one thing'. Above all they ask the question as to whether there is a meaning behind these events that allow any 'sense' to be constructed and revealed, or is this desire that there might be, as hopeful and as unreal as the Alchemists' belief that the universe was a text that could reveal mystic truth? Is to seek patterns and linkages in this infinity of activity to be peddling in paranoia or revealing hidden truth? Or both? It is a search for pattern that has been given new agency by the computer and the search engine: a Google-world where we need only name a sight or an object or a thing for thousands of resemblances and similarities and echoes to be conjured up on the screen in front of us, an electronic analogy of the magical search for resemblance and echo.
In A Timeline of Science Fiction Inventions: Weapons, Warfare and Security Treister has drawn up a history documenting innovations of imaginary and fantastic military technology. These include the 'Raytron Apparatus', a form of aerial surveillance, which was described in 'Beyond the Stars' by Ray Cummings in 1928, or the 'Control Helmet', from 'Easy Money' by Edward Hamilton in 1934. The timeline starts in 1726 with the 'Knowledge Engine' in Gulliver's travels and carries on up to the present day. It allows us to see the meetings of worlds as these weapons sometimes travel from the fantastic to manifest themselves into the real, like the 'Atomic Bomb' described in 'The Crack of Doom' by Robert Cromie in 1895. The format in which she organises this information is the schema of the connected circles of the tree of life or the Sephirot, from the Jewish mystical traditions of the Kabbalah, a representation of linkages between the worlds above and the physical world below and which map stages of transformation between these realms.
The formal beauty of these geometries of information reminds us of the hermetic histories of Twentieth Century Abstraction, how it shared the intention to seek the hidden truths that lay beyond or behind everyday appearances. This desire linked mystics such as Hilma Af Klint (who in turn drew on references and symbols that the Alchemists themselves would have recognised ) to artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Robert Delaunay and Brancusi and their transformative Theosophical dreams. The belief that art could change the objective conditions of human life requires similar transformations to those that captivated the alchemists: What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things,' wrote Brancusi. 'It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.' Perhaps, disturbingly, Treister is showing us the world that has emerged in spite of - or perhaps because of - these dizzying intentions.
The intentions of modernism are also evoked in the nine cool elegant grids of CORRESPONDENCE: From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe that contain the blank sheets of letterheaded paper from governments, Presidential offices, embassies, NGOs, arms companies, corporations and trade delegations. The way they are brought together in a formal almost museological display recalls not only, say, Agnes Martin but Hanne Darboven and others. Here the grid takes on the specific signification of a rational, scientific gaze and methodology distant from, and analytical of, the actions and transactions of an unfolding contingent life and which offers the possibility of revealing pattern. The grid becomes a structure that demands that there is order, relationship and meaning.
To generate meanings across the letterheads in each alphabetical grouping is to bring into being a mysterious world of communications between powerful bodies and groups: communication and linkages that, as the blank white sheets seem to indicate are not to be revealed to us. These spectral linkages and structures are simultaneously those of real politics and those described by people who write letters and run websites about conspiracy. The grids crackle with the invisible energy of exchange, of correspondence, of plotting, of the covert and the overt, the hidden as well as the official. To write something on a letterhead is to give it authority, a legal weight that is almost mystical, the word that it bears embodying the 'true' or essential wish of the corporation that has written it, signified by the coat of arms or symbol or address that heads the communication. It is given the weight of law. This power seems to reside almost as much in Moses or the mysteries of transubstantiation as it does in the legal department. What does it signify then that these letterheads, framing an area of paper dedicated to carrying the trace of human hand and human expression have themselves been carefully reproduced in pencil. On one level they are drawings. On another they are fakes. They could be used to discredit or compromise the entities that they represent. Is the artist seeking to represent the world that is spanned by the exchanges of corporation, embassy, arms-dealers, and ministries through her representations? Or is she seeking to interact with it, through the making of simulacra, a sympathetic magic that might allow some protection from their operations?
The Alchemy drawings and the Correspondence series centre on media that are being displaced from a dominant position in the culture through changes in technology. It is a commonplace that the circulation of newspapers is crashing in the face of the competition presented by the resources of the World Wide Web. Similarly the letter, the envelope and the exchange written in ink are increasingly replaced by e-mail. However Treister uses these older technologies to illuminate the operations of the newer ones and to pose crucial questions about how they shape our understanding and experience of the world and shape our abilities to model and understand reality.
Artists shows us twelve people using means of representation that
were once central in our descriptions of the world and still held by
some to have some essential value: the pencil, the pen, the drawing
and the painting were a privileged means of understanding. They could
deal with timeless verities and reveal hidden truths. The images span
the Second World War and the Iraq war, the first of which was seen largely
as a just war on the part of the allies, and the other, which despite
the rhetorics of those who have pursued it, seems to be more complex,
more compromised. The artists drawn here are dealing with the actions
of mankind at their most extreme: where abstract notions such as ideology
or nation, or of state are expressed through technology onto the human
fabric, into the physical sphere. These small drawings pose deep and
complex questions about the agendas and possibilities of art and how
it might represent the worlds around us, about the relationship between
representation and power. Each individual drawing represents a point
of engagement that in turn will generate hypotheses of truth and the
promiscuous webs of connection by which we pursue and chart our endless
quest for meaning.