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Nuclear Fusion and Art’s Fission

Monday, February 18, 2008 11:07

Originally published by mute, written by Nuno Rodrigues, reblogged by Cluster

sizeAlasdair Duncan, Our New Mechanisms Releases New Human Potentials, 2007

In the recent show FUSION NOW!, is curator J.J.Charlesworth’s promotion of technologically – rather than socially – produced abundance as political as it claims to be, and were the artists on (modernist) message? Review by Nuno Rodrigues

FUSION NOW! MORE LIGHT, MORE POWER, MORE PEOPLE is no ordinary art exhibition and yet it claims to be a show about ‘art’s relationship to the political world of the present.’ This is not to say that contemporary art is particularly uninterested in the politics of the present day; there are numerous examples to the contrary. The peculiarity of FUSION NOW!, however, stems from the way in which the current political state of affairs informs it. It is unusual to see contemporary art as the harbinger of a position in one of the debates seemingly emerging from the ‘public sphere’.

Today, art that is loosely supportive of humanist goals continues to be the object of official patronage. By the same token, it can also appear anachronistic and well behaved when compared to some of the more ‘bonkers’ cutting edge art, or even compared with something less blatantly humanistic like relational art. But this is not a sufficient reason to deter J.J. Charlesworth, the curator of FUSION NOW!, from summoning contemporary art into the core of the ‘public sphere’ and participation in the ‘common good’.

This is not to say that the art selected for FUSION NOW! is humanistic. From a formal point of view, this is a show that addresses the legacy of modernism, maintaining a necessary aesthetic distance or ambiguity in relation to the concrete public debates that frame it. In this sense, the relation between the public sphere and the individual artworks is supposedly secured by a kind of affiliation of the latter to the ideological stratum of the canonical bourgeoisie and not by an overt engagement with the particularities of current public disputes. This seems to be the rationale by which Charlesworth mediates between the art shown and the show’s brief. However, these artworks engage with their implied affiliation critically, first putting into question the idea of culture as the privileged place of subjectivation and consequently manifesting serious doubts over the ideological sustenance of the common good, the public sphere, universalism and humanism.

The idea behind FUSION NOW! is the championing of nuclear power, fusion energy, as a means to surpass the limits and dangers of fossil fuel consumption. There is a small publication accompanying the show that argues for the endorsement of fusion energy as the solution to the current problem of energetic limitation and environmental damage and which avoids the reactionary trap of environmentalists’ back-to-nature approach. The publication is comprised of four texts: Charlesworth’s ‘FUSION NOW! Art and the Politics of Energy’ briefly introduces the artworks on display and the texts included in the booklet and explains the show’s main concept; Professor Mike Dunne writes about the scientific and technological adventure of nuclear fusion whose imminent arrival will provide a profitable, green, and almost endless source of energy; ‘Green Energy’ by Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen explains the limits of ‘green’ and ‘renewable’ sources of energy in meeting current demand, while showing how the much needed exponential increase of green energy production would imply the collapse of its alleged environmental friendliness; finally, in ‘The Cornucopian Manifesto’, James Heartfield argues that capitalism draws its power relations from an economics of scarcity which, paradoxically, has been materially overcome by its own technological progress, and whose logic is served by the puritanical and reactionary arguments of environmentalists.

And art? Given that the argument over the cleanliness and limitlessness of fusion energy versus the limitations and not-so-greenness of green energy is strictly a matter of technical dispute, here we must see the role of art as particularly related to the general ethical position underlying the advocacy of nuclear energy. ‘Energy is political’ writes Charlesworth. But, despite Heartfield’s comment on capitalism and the management of scarcity, what emerges from these four texts is a general ethical attitude towards technological progress and the respective promises of abundance. Very little is said regarding the collective and socially transformative power that nuclear energy might bring or how the embrace of technological progress is immanently political. Ultimately, the advocacy of abundance, without a strong political revolutionary underpinning, becomes the advocacy of ‘more of the same’, which is as political as it is conservative. With this in mind, it is fair to say that the starting point of FUSION NOW! is a general ethical position towards technological progress and material plenty and not the ‘politics of the present day’.

It might be the case that FUSION NOW! attempts to show the way in which art can establish a bridge between a general, ethical position concerning technological progress and the political problematic stemming from it. Charlesworth says that art, like energy, is ‘inherently political’. Some of the art shown here, including work by artists like Liam Gillick, John Latham, Freee and Laura Oldfield Ford, is evidently concerned with politics. But if the art on display touches upon some political aspects emerging from the optimistic embrace of material expansion via technological development, it does so to question it. An overview of the show warns the viewer that the embrace of material abundance through technological progress should be taken with a pinch of salt, to say the least. Certainly some of the irony and disenchantment present in the artworks shown is the result of a self-reflective judgement through which contemporary art is saying how uncomfortable, even unbearable, it is to hold to modernism. It cannot sing the future promised by technology like some modernist art did. Contemporary art, this contemporary art at least, is particularly interested in reminding us that modernism is over, even if it persistently emerges as something yet to resolve. From the standpoint of the exhibition’s concept, the self-reflection on modernism becomes a wary sign regarding the apolitical endorsement of modern technological progress. It says: ‘we’ve been here before, and the result was not so palatable.’

Roger Hiorns, Untitled, 2007

Take for instance Alasdair Duncan’s work Our New Mechanism Releases New Human Potentials (2007). This is a rotating banner composed of abstract geometric shapes in bright colours. The pictorial composition seems to refer to modernist geometric abstract painting which, in this context, clearly can’t be regarded naively. Modernism’s celebration of technological progress was manifested through formal and material innovation and experimentation, mirroring those advances in an artistic vocabulary. This is clearly not the intention here. Furthermore, the reuse of a modernist pictorial language in the rotating banner seems to represent the way in which basic geometric shapes have moved, in the course of modern history, from the world of autonomous art to the world of advertising and branding. It seems that the title of the work and indeed its description in the booklet – which at some point states that ‘Duncan’s banners imagine a community that has not yet come into being’ – are to be taken somewhat ironically.

Another example of the redeployment of modernist aesthetics is Roger Hiorns’s Untitled (2007): a white light bulb covered in semen. The oval bulb, which emits a powerful bright light, making it difficult to look directly at it, invokes a cosmological and somewhat mystical conception of the embryonic state of the universe and its immense potential energy. This pristine shape, with its immanent cosmological pregnancy, is nonetheless formally corrupted by the semen that covers it partially with an irregular layer of brownish hue. Semen might mean ‘life’, but here it is dried, dead and formally not whole. The semen that is dead, dead matter – death – undoubtedly shatters the optimism present in the cosmological ‘eggness’ of the bulb. As irretrievably unrealised potential life, the semen seems to refer to dead energy, entropy, rather than failure or sin. Certainly there is ambiguity in Hiorns’s piece. The source of energy, the bulb, is man-made, and the ‘natural’ source of life, the semen, is dead. It is terrifying to read this work as a reminder of the irredeemable human costs inherent in modern, technological progress. This is where cosmology becomes the subject of history.

Certainly Laura Oldfield Ford’s intricate pencil drawing, Your Decadent Sins Will Reap Discipline (2007), does not wield the moral circularity of consumerist perdition as a deterrent to excessive consumption and the over-production of obsolescence it produces. It is indeed within a suburban landscape saturated by over-consumption, replete with scrapped TV sets piled high – the refuse of spectacle – and greasy breakfasts dripping over the sides of plates, where frail moments of human serenity, captured in the split of a photographic second, emerge. Here, the artist is not exposing the sin of over consumption as the obstacle to a world of abundance: it regulates it at its best. Clearly, the question of affluence versus poverty is not being posed as a kind of ethical moment of either one or the other, but rather as a double regulative system where the irrevocable expansion of capital is padoxically managed by a logic of limited consumption. More importantly, the generic term ‘abundance’ is pertinently indexed to the unlimited consumption of low cost commodities and the associated over-production of obsolescence they entail. Is ‘abundance’ socially equal? Does ‘abundance’ necessarily produce waste? Beyond a generic ethical discussion of material affluence, it is to the commodity – with its social and economic systems of consumption and production – that scarcity and abundance must refer.

Laura Oldfield Ford, Your Decadent Sins will Reap Discipline, 2007

WITH’s work, g-Part 1: Think-base Artefacts (2007), presents the process that led an advertising agency to win a spurious brief, concocted by the collective, to ‘relaunch its brand of water’. WITH’s ironic ventriloquism of corporate ‘social responsibility,’ with its cool image, associated jargon and advertising techniques, seems to be targeting the blatant transformation of the ‘green cause’ into a fashionable and expensive, middle class product. The work would appear to address the problem of ‘soft’ or corrective environmentalism which advocates minute but accurate corrections in (middle class) consumer habits as a means to ‘correct’ environmental problems, neatly side-stepping the environmentalism which proposes radical, even if regressive, social change. Furthermore, the aesthetics of ‘process’ and bricolage deployed by the advertising campaign suggests that contemporary art’s interest in makeshift objects and assemblage may also be undergoing a parallel, market oriented appropriation.

The fact that the art exhibited is not adequate to the idea that prompted the exhibition is not a problem in itself. Despite Charlesworth’s optimistic description of some of the works, he is not claiming to have found in this art an unconditional ally for the cause of fusion energy. It is nonetheless interesting to see that against the backdrop of technological optimism, art seems to hold the position of prudence and suspicion. What is more disconcerting is that, once these artworks are read politically, art’s reserve is grounded on a more or less incisive critique of current capitalism that, positively, does not lead to an optimistic embrace of technological progress and material abundance. The connection between Puritanism and the formation of capitalism is a historic given. On the other hand, in classical economic theory the increase of value is related to the principle of scarcity. But it is also a fact that environmental activism is, in its most radical form, waging war against the social system and economic model of the present day. From a formal and conceptual point of view, the art shown in Fusion NOW! is far from endorsing a return to a pre-modern harmonic relation with nature. On the contrary, it is ‘modern’ and ‘autonomous;’ more bourgeois, so to speak. As such, it seems rather concerned with the fact that technological development is emerging in a social system where no one has a grip on capital and where the existence of a ‘public sphere,’ in which art can ‘participate,’ is regarded as ideological nostalgia. Here, the show’s illusory rehearsal of the public sphere is the reiteration of the aesthetics of modernism. Reactionary environmentalism may find some solace in that.

Liam Gillick, Kalmar Received a Great Deal of Attention (1974), 2007

Liam Gillick’s work, Kalmar Received a Great Deal of Attention (1974), (2007) is telling. It is a computer animation showing a car moving at constant speed and colliding with a factory, provoking an all-over-the-screen terminating explosion. The fact that a car, a mass produced artefact, runs into a factory, the place of manufacture, would seem to refer to a moment of implosion for industrial society, and possibly the end of the Fordist model of production. This moment of historical reflection upon the post-industrial condition is emphasised not just by the content of the video but by its medium, a computer animation, which announces the informational world to come. But this is also a video of minimal movement, simple and inexpressive shapes, devoid of all colour. In sharing some aesthetic traits with conceptual art, it gains in abstraction, becoming more diagrammatic, less historical. In its abstract diagrammatic quality, it works as an image of collapse that is proper to the logic of modernity; a collision and explosion that is temporally moveable and can be fixed to different moments belonging to the history of modernity. Would it be possible to see the car being propelled by nuclear energy and colliding into a nuclear plant?

Nuno Rodrigues is a PhD candidate at the Middlesex Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University


FUSION NOW! MORE LIGHT, MORE POWER, MORE PEOPLE was held at Rokeby Gallery (21.11.2007 until 20.12.2007),

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