Thursday, March 27, 2014

Introduction to Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010)

Cinema is scarcely more than a century old. It is still a babe in arms compared to the ancient arts of music, poetry, dance, storytelling, painting and sculpture. It is, or should be, still, a laboratory for new forms.

What is important about great films is not how they subordinate their parts to the whole, but how the very idea of wholeness remains fundamentally challenged by the parts it gathers into itself. This is the case with Nostalgia for the Light

Here is Guzmán describing the process

'In the desert you can only film in the morning and the evening. The sun is too powerful in the middle of the day. So at that time, when we couldn’t film in the desert, we chose to film little things—little details, tiny stones, rays of light, reflections, shadows, cracks between objects and their undersides. The resulting images of the substance of materiality look abstract, and it’s really quite impressive. We took masses of shots like that. We weren’t sure why, but that’s how the documentary developed. You look intuitively with film and you find the theme. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. But that dust became fundamental. We found a big astronomical cupola from which the telescope had been removed. It was disused and actually full of rubbish. When I saw that space I actually saw the whole process of the coup d’état in the destruction and the absence of what was supposed to be there. I saw this dustbin place as a metaphor. It was thick with dust. There was lots of powdered glass and at one point we started throwing it in the air when the light that was entering the building was like the light you might see in a cathedral. When we did this it was like you could actually see the Milky Way there. We were captivated by this sight for a whole day. The director of the observatory said, “What on earth are you doing there? We’ve got the telescopes over here!” She was absolutely baffled! She had prepared this whole official visit and we spent the day throwing dust in the air. But that’s what you need to do with documentary cinema. It’s a path you have to discover and explore. You don’t know where it will lead, if anywhere, but the process is often very moving.' (White 2012)

Perfection is the fatal temptation of art. It is only the flaws in the perfection that make artworks great, that is, that makes them art in the first instance.

The dust particles in Nostalgia are unnecessary supplements. Guzmán describes his crew spending a day throwing dust in the air to get these shots, a day wasted on the only fictional shots in a documentary film. They are extraneous, and wrong, and it is because of them that Nostalgia is not merely an essay, an item in a genre of essay films as described so lucidly by Timothy Corrigan (2011).

In less than sixty years, cinema had found a strange attractor, a formula for making perfect films like Casablanca and Stagecoach. Every subsequent film that followed the formula thereby sacrificed any claim to either perfection or art. The pursuit of a new method for making films has therefore been pressing for more than 60 years. Guzmán has been working on this problem for more than 40 of them. He is an essayist only in the sense that he essays a new form with each project

Here the politics is all on the surface. The film has an absolutely clear message. The Chilean popular socialist government of Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected socialist government, was brutally suppressed by a US-backed military coup under General Pinochet in 1973. The film concerns the process of historical forgetting and how difficult it is to erase trauma, and equally to recall it.

Pinochet's murderous regime was the first great experiment in what has become the ongoing disaster of neo-liberalism. By concentrating on this unique and particular history, Guzmán points us to the meaning of an epoch. By pointing us to the pre-Colombian indigenous Chileans of the Atacama and to the immense silence of the sky, he points not to the universality of some putative human condition but to the uniqueness of this particularly unnecessary tragedy, the unfolding of an ineluctable chain of torture, murder, erasure, forgetting and remembrance that need never have occurred: that could have been stopped at any point, that could have been learned from at any point, but which was not and is not.

The dust particles of sand and bones are both cosmic and contingent, contingent and clumsily metaphorical, and precisely because that allegory is so brusque, it opens what would otherwise be the perfect rhymes of archaeology, cosmology and contemporary history to the hell of the random, of the stupidity of neo-colonialism, of killing as a vainglorious exercise of the semblance of power proper to the puppet army of a puppet dictator whose strings were pulled by the Washington consensus.

Dust to dust: the last and lasting act of the post-Pinochet political elite has been to deny the desparecidos their right to death. Their unstill ghosts refuse to allow Nostalgia the satisfaction of artistic wholeness, and it is for this reason that it stands among the greatest of films.

At the same time, because this formal flaw is also, paradoxically, the making of the film as an artwork, it achieves its flawed completion, containing in itself the contradiction that creates its own perpetuum mobile. As self-operating perpetual motion machine, it both opens to interpretation, and becomes a monad, entire unto itself. In turn it is also because it is a broken but autonomous whole that it has the agency that allows it to function in history as a refusal of history.

The remembered light of the past casts its shadow across the present in order to point the way toward the future.

Corrigan, Timothy (2011). The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, Rob (2012). 'After-effects: Interview with Patricio Guzmán'. Film Quarterly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

We Have Never Been Human

We Have Never Been Human
text of a talk at the Intermediality – digital images in contemporary art event, ICA 16 November 2013

Chris Cunningham's 1999 video for Bjork's All Is Full of Love is an icily sensuous theatre of carnal cyborgs for whom milk is erotic danger. A vision of the posthuman?

The term is too much with us. My claim is that we are not posthuman because we have yet to become human.

We might start with Claire Bishop's short, controversial essay in Artforum in which she owns up to 'a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labour and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution'. Though admitting a handful of exceptions, she is right. What was controversial was her decision not to address new media arts, because they occupy a different sphere to what Eddie Shanken calls Mainstream Contemporary Art; the art of the biennials. It was a peculiar move, but understandable: contemporary art has failed, formally and thematically, to address the contemporary. It has reprised the moment when, in Peter Osborne's account, philosophy's turn to language abandoned the fields of ethics, ontology and phenomenologies of perception to be taken up by the advance of the modernist avant-gardes. Now those avant-gardes have turned, in their neo-conceptual guise, to reflecting on the condition of art, and abandoned the questions of ethics, ontology and phenomenology in their turn. Leaving them to the technological arts.

As a brief example I give you Oblivion, a more or less run of the mill summer action movie telling the tale of a clone dredging about in his innards for some last, lost memories of being human. The rather lovely design of the film (its director Kosinski has an architectural background and a thriving commercial practice) has one curious feature. Many of the effects we presume to be digital are physical – the skytower house, the bubbleship aircraft – and some that we presume are physical are not: in the second shot in this clip, Tom Cruise is played by a digital double.

You can work out the intricate mirroring this sets off, and –without spoiling the story – how the ambiguous reality and unreality of the character is elegantly expressed in the dialogue of physical and digital effects. Jack seems to me just what Bishop was looking for: a response to the meaning of becoming digital. His mission is to prove that he is a person, but his tragedy is to discover that he is not unique.

That failure of uniqueness is what lurks behind the contemporary condition that contemporary art does not address.

The enclosures and colonialism that marked the (continuing) era of primitive accumulation shattered the old tribal communities. The needs of industrialisation were no longer met by the extended families people brought from their villages, specifically the task of disciplined consumption required to offset crises of overproduction. Suburbanisation and the first half century of consumerism encouraged nuclear families. In the later years of that organisation, the heteronormative family collapsed under the double weight of the reproductive and consumptive cycle demanded of it.

after the failure of the molecular family (amd liquid modernity), we had the atomised individual, a gaseous state. Today that individual is in crisis – the burden of Lacan's sujet barré and Guattari's schizoanalysis. In its collapse emerges the plasma society: the quantum level of desire (no longer anchored in individualist subjects), and its biopolitical management under the guise of lifestyle - the kind of lifestyle ironised but never analysed by contemporary art (Laclau on Populism)

Jack's condition is ours: popular digital media already respond to it, even when, as in Oblivion, they give us a resolution in the third act.


The materiality of visual effects, as an industry, the international headquarters, the off-shoring in South East Asia (evidenced by the Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy), the sealed bidding system forcing down wages.

The materiality of the energy it uses in work stations, server farms and transport via fibre optics - energy that too often comes from lands once deemed 'reservations' for the last traditional peoples - Geoff Kyle is an industrial chemist ... employed by the Mirarr people. ... there's no way the company will be able to safely treat the contaminated water stored at Ranger by the time the mining lease expires in 10 years: "They have facilities to remediate water through chemical water processing, ends up with micro-filtration and osmosis and it is top shelf stuff but it can only do a couple of megalitres a day and they have got 10 gigalitres. We are terrified that this is going to ruin our country." The traditional owners are repeating calls for Ranger to be shut down permanently ... They also oppose the company's plan to use an acid leaching process to increase production and the construction of a new exploratory mine shaft.

The weight of the internet: the materials it is made of - for example In northern China, near the Mongolian border, radioactively contaminated leaks from two decades of rare earth refining have been slowly trickling underground toward the Yellow River, a crucial water source for 150 million people. And in Guangdong province in southeastern China, regulators are struggling to repair rice fields and streams destroyed by powerful acids and other runoff from open-pit rare earth mines that are often run by violent organized crime syndicates

The demolition of these regions is not an Australian or a Chinese problem: the WTO is only set on ensuring that China exports its controlling share of rare earths, not to curtail their exploitation. The UK is racing towards a nuclear solution in the name of greenhouse gas reduction but clearly in the real interests of energy security, and where more secure than Tony Abbot's Australia.

I wish I could believe that ethical consumerism was the answer: it isn't. Like private debt paying for the global financial crisis, the mortgae on the future benefits the kleptocracy, while we pay for it.It is another example of governments too scared by the Market to lead, and devolving responsibility for solving their crises onto the shattered, scattered individual citizen.

The actually existing cyborgs are the vast technological machines we call corporations, and the vaster one still we call the market - a huge technological ensemble with human biochips implanted. We can tell they are not human because they do not care how or if we live and die, and how or if the world survives , so long as they secure profit – the relentless and ultimately suicidal demand for growth.

Jack is not the only cyborg, but he is the end product of the cyborg process.

Jack, either played by Cruise or his digital double, is not only photographed but mapped: by lidar and texture mapping as well as sprites. He is more, not less, indexically formed. But in his heart he is an iteration of a model.

He is the product of a set of technologies in full evolution, however wasteful. I add to our debate on the specificity of the digital to say that we need to analyse medium extreme specificity

we should, that is, analyse Jack (measured and indexed in multiple dimensions) as exemplary of the coded human - which is the state of quantum desire biopolitically managed as lifestyle.

An economy run by cyborg corporations, whose sole motivation is profit, who lack all sense of communality and shame, and who are prepared to sacrifice the happiness of the living and the lives of the unborn.

A polity dominated by the Market, a cyborg operation increasingly determined by automated algo-trading.

A society governed by the probabilistic managerial principles of biopolitics, which has already breached the tolerances of individuality, and now mobilises desires framed by lifestyles, and constrains through communication protocols and urban systems design.

Whether the code that is now the truth of human being is digital or genetic , the ambivalence of depicting humans and world as both flesh and code, expresses the germ of contradiction in data visualisations and synthespians.

The purpose of art, of digital art, in this is to back up the analytical success of popular media by producing alternatives that the pop media are largely incapable of. To picture desire otherwise than as the quantum effect of postindividuation. To picture for us what it might mean to become human, before we cease to be at all

Cyborg takeover

World War One was the final death throe of the old feudal order, which had clung to the principle of absolute monarchy across Europe and Japan long after its social and cultural bases had withered away. In its last agony, it lashed out at all of humanity, kings ordering the deaths of their own populations by the million. The current world order has responded to the implosion of 2008 by doing the same thing on a global scale. Perfectly aware that consumerism – demanded by the ongoing crises of overproduction, stalled by falling purchasing power and financed by the gigantic Ponzi scheme of derivatives markets – can only end in ecological disaster, still it drives on. The rising tide of poverty sinks all boats. The war of corporate capital against humanity reveals the awful truth. Against a background of science fiction dystopias, the cyborgs have taken over. The actually existing cyborg is the corporation, an entity without shame, loyalty, honour or love, composed of massively connected computer networks into which human biochips are inserted and trained. Motivated solely by profit, controlled only by shareholders which turn out to be themselves also corporate cyborgs (pension funds, banks), these monsters are prepared to diminish the world, to the point of destruction, so long as they can continue to pursue their single-minded obsession with economic growth. Shell, Exxon Mobil, Sinopec, China National Petroleum, BP and Total from the petroleum sector; Toyota and Volkswagen from the automotive; together with energy giant State Grid and retailer WalMart complete the Fortune 500 Global top ten of 2013. Is it any wonder that they have bought governments, defeated attempts to curtail global warming, and driven the world's wars for decades? Bankers and presidents are merely paid lackeys of these inhuman and anti-human colossi. To understand that cyborg capital has invaded the planet and means us harm is the first step towards rebellion.