Maria Walsh on art and the new objecthood
There is a call for disarmament in the contemporary art zeitgeist. The ‘subject position’ is being given up and handed in. Autonomy and control are being ceded and artists are rushing to become objects or to side with the object. One such artist, Hito Steyerl, says: ‘Giving up trying to become a subject and trying to ally with other participants in the social sphere such as inanimate objects, or processes of production, or data protocols seems at the moment more interesting.’ The subject, once the site of emancipation, is now seen as overburdened by subjection, the injunction to produce and perform yourself as a subject intensified to an untenable degree under conditions of global capitalism. Strangely, technology, while a great enforcer of subjection, is also the facilitator of this supposed liberation of the subject into a type of objecthood in which the traditional stasis of the object is transformed into a mobility of connections that can be made in conjunction with other objects, human and non-human. Is this shift from subject/object distinction to a more networked connection between objects to be welcomed?
In ‘Becoming Thing’, a performance at the Whitechapel Gallery in December 2012, Ed Atkins and Andy Holden engaged computer technology, PowerPoint and live feed to recycle images of themselves and objects that interest them, creating a digital cut-up mesh of images, words and bodies. The speaking subject was beheaded. In its stead, a luminous green cadaver head appeared on screen, a digital mutation of Atkins’s latex mask. Atkins and Holden dialogued about becoming an ontograph, a term borrowed from an object-oriented ontology theorist, the video-game designer Ian Bogost, who uses it in his book Alien Phenomenology or What it is Like to be a Thing to refer to the status of objects always exceeding their relations. In an ontographic universe, all things perceive and experience one another, not just humans. Atkins and Holden named their object of choice, their becoming-thing or object (objects and things mean pretty much the same thing in object-oriented ontology, which critiques Heidegger’s separation of them), as the cadaver. In object-oriented ontology, every object has a different durational potential which allows it to occupy different realms outside human consciousness. For Atkins and Holden, the cadaver conceptually oscillates between the abject and the spiritual. In this, they claimed, it functions as a ‘thing’ locked in a network of relations akin to ‘Andre Breton’s bejewelled gun’ that fires randomly into a crowd, creating new thought patterns and associations. What might be a static thing from the perspective of the subject, the cadaver generates myriad verbal and visual connections if one adopts the alien consciousness of an object. Atkins and Holden concluded that ‘a strange distance occurs in this disembodiment’. To witness the performing of this disembodiment was simultaneously exciting and troubling. Exciting in that the associational conjunctions between object-things, word-things and image-things were expansive and mind-blowing, but troubling in that it seemed like an obverse necrophilia, the digital cadaver indiscriminately reaching out to copulate with the universe as a whole, thereby acquiring a supra-consciousness untrammelled by the limits of identity. That the internet or the digital is unleashing new object relations is also explored in Mark Leckey’s recent curatorial venture ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (Reviews AM370), a touring exhibition which I rushed up to Liverpool to see in March after hearing Leckey on Radio 3 talking about his desire ‘to get unalienated’ and ‘feel the presence of things in the world’ much as he imagines an autistic person might. Steven Connor, author of Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, 2011, also a guest on the show, retorted that alienation from ourselves via the object is necessary for human subjects in order to get us out of our narcissism. This brief discussion encapsulates the stakes involved in one aspect of the debate about subjects and objects: on the one hand there is the traditional notion of the object as a material something that stands out against the subject or that the subject comes up against. The object is here an obstacle to be overcome or has the potential to perform a resistance to the subject’s desire. Then there is Leckey’s view, which repeats what media theorists such as Sadie Plant told us 20 years ago, minus the politics, which is that we can reach into the screen and touch and be touched by objects, conjoining with them and they with each other in a psychedelic plasticity which would be akin to Freud’s dreamwork – except that now there is no subject doing the dreaming, associations being made on a purely visceral and vibrational level rather than evincing unconscious meaning.
‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ as an exhibition was surprisingly traditional in that the eccentric choice of objects – artworks, historical but mainly contemporary, and some by autistic persons; as well as curiosity objects from a mandrake root to a Nissan car design model – were presented in a kind of wunderkammer format against vibrant green walls. A reproduction of Piero de Cosimo’s The Forest Fire, c1505, also served as a backdrop to some of the works, giving us a clue perhaps to the connections some perceive between the monstrous hybrids that populated the medieval and pre-Enlightenment imagination and the internet’s avatars – a connection explicitly made in the exhibition catalogue. This view, while celebrating the imaginative capacity of mutation and morphing, which in itself is no bad thing, is ultimately conservative, wiping out as it does the notion of historical consciousness, this uncritical resort to mythical thinking forgetting that it was superstitious belief in demons that kept the feudal overlords in place. On the whole, though, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ is a well-behaved monster, systematically leading us through renditions of the holistic body, the part-body and the machinic body which celebrated feedback loops between man, machine and mind.
Regardless of the fact that there were about six objects by women included, this world of affinities between human and non-human was ultimately made in the image of Man, a connection made explicit in the diagrams of the ‘human’ form that were traced out on the painted black walls of another room containing vitrines. Much as I delighted in the creative energy that circulated in the exhibition between objects whose surfaces fluidly transmogrified between 2D and 3D, the things collected here display an anthropomorphic relation to a universalised human body, making any ‘alien consciousness’ at work somewhat comfortable. It conjured a world of affective exchange similar to the Na’vi forest in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar before the corporation made inroads into it. The unalienated Na’vi tribe could plug their hair into horses’ manes or tree roots and feel them from the inside, a metaphor of the digital unconscious into which we plug ourselves, addicted to its liquid pleasures that remove us from the alienation that supposedly exists in language. In fact, the image that compelled me most was a computer-generated image of a frond-like hairball that moved hypnotically as if to the beat of the drum in Leckey’s BigBoxStatusAction, 2012. Lulled by its motion, time became trance. While not immune to this communion with inhuman objects, I have some reservations about it.
Leckey asserts that ‘our perception is being retrained by computer programmers’ who think only in code and that thereby we are learning to become slightly autistic, dominated by images and sounds rather than versed in language. Media and cultural theorist Jonathan Beller also says that in our contemporary mediascape ‘images are scrambling the function of language’, rendering it somewhat defunct or at least not the saviour of critical consciousness that it was thought to be in the linguistic turn in cultural studies. I buy this view. But at the same time, while recognising the ubiquitous desire to succumb to the power of the image and engage in ‘touchy-feely’ (Leckey) relations to other images and objects, I also think the fluidity of this connectivity has to be resisted. But here lies the rub. The critic’s admonishment to put away your fetishes is clearly outmoded in a world in which non-human sentience and intelligence have long been proven by social scientists and biologists such as Donna Haraway and Lynn Margulis. And now object-oriented philosophy, also called speculative realism and getting more of an airing in art discourse (Features AM368) than the feminist-inspired animal and microbe champions, is insisting on the life of objects, a life that they deem no more or less valuable than our own. Does this new materialism offer more equitable relations between subjects and objects?
Object-oriented philosophers such as Graham Harman suggest that all objects, including humans, enter into surface relations with each other, but retain a dark hidden core that is outside of all relation. This is not an essence, as essence would refer the object back to identity, but rather an autonomy, which I find hard to weigh up with his insistence on how objects transform one another in their encounters with other things in the world. For instance, to use some of Harman’s examples, unlike the nail that holds a table together, which is a nail in itself and a nail in relation to the rest of the table, when cotton meets flame it burns, so where is the object’s autonomy? This can only be in its non-relation to other things – its singularity – which stands out against or forms the background to a universe that is otherwise all action and force. In my view, what this results in is an inverse Platonism: instead of ideal form being transcendent, it is now grounded in the object, which stands over the subject. While the ‘naive realism’ of object-oriented ontology is useful to get us away from tarrying with the ineffable signifier, which is another way of referring to what Leckey describes as a desire to get away from the alienation of the sign, Harman’s examples mostly come down to wanting to talk about wood as wood and other ‘natural’ materials rather than engaging with the virtual objects that occupy us in technological dream worlds, which are much more complicated.
Another name that crops up in the current siding with the object is sociologist Bruno Latour. He is one of the main references in Erik Davis’s essay in the catalogue for ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ and he was also invoked in Holden and Atkins’s performance. Is Latour’s idea of networks – the digital inference is not to be reduced to the web – more productive for thinking about the life of objects? Latour’s networks are fields of relations in which what he calls ‘quasi-objects’ and ‘quasi-subjects’ act in a parliament of things. (The ‘quasi’ here is to point to the fact that objects and subjects are always both autonomously real and collectively discursive, thereby tracing networks rather than being produced by them.) Sharing much with object-oriented philosophy, the advantage of Latour’s actor-network theory is that it can include the animate and inanimate, animal and human, mental and material things of the universe without transporting us back to Leckey’s ‘archaic state of being ... where images are endowed with divine powers, and even rocks and trees have names’. While Latour is not without such poetic inference – one of his lists of contemporary hybrids includes frozen embryos, digital machines, psychotropic drugs, data banks, and whales outfitted with radar sounding devices – his networks are an attempt to trace the complexity of social relations rather than provide comfort.
Latour makes a distinction between things and objects that are gathered and objects that are reduced to facts. He refers to the run-up to the US attack on Iraq in 2003, which brought together an assembly of participants that instead of attending to the parliamentary gathering of things turned into ‘an investigation that tried to coalesce, in one unifying, unanimous, solid, mastered object, masses of people, opinions, and might’; in other words, reducing Iraq to an object of fact to be targeted by a subject, US military power. The drone, as a factual object embodiment of this power, is currently appearing in artists’ works. Unmanned aerial vehicles are objects which are devoid of surface contact with other objects, their deadly effects happening in a time and space remote from location, hence the phrase ‘clean kill’. This was poignantly brought to the fore in George Barber’s The Freestone Drone, 2013, in which the lethal object is lent a subjective voice-over, Barber’s voice distorted to sound like ET, that reflects on its invisible targets, the object ‘others’ signalled by the presence of lines of washing that appear in the film and which were also used as props in its recent installation at Waterside Contemporary in London. The film assembles surveillance and media images and, as the drone flies over Waziristan, a female narrator reflects on the continued existence of human relationships in a world that has evacuated human agency for a technological subjectivity that takes object power to its calculated extreme. It was hard to determine where the film’s politics lay, but this says more about the conditions of a world in which fictions proliferate as facts.
According to Latour, rather than purify the hybrids that populate the contemporary world we need to multiply them to deal with a reality that, as Harman states in an essay on Latour in Towards Speculative Realism, is ‘partly objective and partly perspectival ... partly real, partly of a narrative character, and partly the effect of political displacements’. Multiplying the human and non-human hybrids that form our social, historical and material relations could be said to be the organising principle of Steyerl’s film In Free Fall, 2010, which has three main human protagonists but is narrated from the position of an object, the object in question being a Boeing 4X-JYl. Inspired by Sergei Tretyakov’s essay ‘The Biography of the Object’, 1929, where he argues that art should concern itself with the life cycles of objects rather than human biography, the aeroplane as object gathers many participants into a series of networks, including the material conditions of cinematic production and distribution in a globalised media culture. Fast-paced images with different production values from high-res to low-res show us the Boeing’s career in the Israeli army in the 1970s. A German film retells its presence at the hijacking in Entebbe in 1976. We see its retirement to a junk yard in the Mojave desert in the 1990s; its being blown-up in the Hollywood film Speed II; its being recycled into aluminium in China and made into DVDs which in turn show the plane being blown up. We also see how these networks of relations incorporate human bodies affected by global conditions of labour and production: the owner of the junk yard whose capital increases; the cameraman whose capital decreases. From the position of a subject, the absence of a perspective outside this frenetic staging of an object’s degradation made the film puzzling, which might explain why in London at least there was recourse to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of simulation to account for the self-reflexive play of images in the film. But by contrast to that 20th-century response to technology, networks do not produce a simulated reality that is taken for the real but rather assemble the things which participate in the creation of reality. Participation is, for Steyerl, the condition of the image as ‘thing’, whether this be through actual exchange of files and images on the net or through collective identification with the allure of the image.
But participation can kill. The problem for me at this point in time in researching Latour’s actor-network theory is to establish where the boundaries lie between things. It seems to me that the hybrid monsters which populate the collective imaginary, and which congregate in a battle of screens and objects, need subjects to determine the conditions of their own objecthood rather than having this imposed on them as either a matter of fact or an infinity of associative relations without limits. The question to be asked is whether the gathering of ‘quasi-objects’ and ‘quasi-subjects’ might allow instead for a different kind of participation, one in which the life of things is shared rather than subdued or feared.
Maria Walsh is a writer. Her book Art and Psychoanalysis was published in 2013 by IB Tauris.
First published in Art Monthly 371: November 2013.