Future Art

This is an essay I wrote in 1999. While there are plenty of things wrong with it, I still find its main thesis truly strange and beautiful. And perhaps it's too long for a blog but, well, it's all I got right now......

“A distinction should be made between the time it takes the painter to paint the picture (time of ‘production’), the time required to look at and understand the work (time of ‘consumption’), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diegetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been ‘created’ (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps, the time the painting is. This principle, childish as its ambitions may be, should allow us to isolate different ‘sites of time.’” Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard

“Some are born posthumously.” Friedrich Nietzsche

I. The Time of Art

The question of the future of art can refer to several things. It may be an inquiry into the relationship between creation and technology: what kind of media—DNA, computer code, bodily organs—will be used in the year 2014? It can be a question concerning the gesture or techniques of artistic practice, distinct from media: just as mimesis was superseded by abstraction and repetition, will these gestures similarly be superseded by some unknown trope? The question of the future of art may refer to the very status of art itself: what will count as art in the future? Will the creation of a prosthetic head be a work of art or a scientific discovery? Needless to say, these questions overlap and beg each other.

But I want to locate the question of the future of art somewhere else entirely, at a different “site of time”: in the work of art itself. I don’t want to consider the history of art or of culture. Rather, I want to turn our attention to the temporality of a particular work: when does this or that piece—a painting, performance, a pop song, film, or book—happen?

Now, by this I do not mean the duration per se of a piece, what Lyotard might call the “time of consumption." A performance may last 10 minutes, three days, one hour: that is its duration. But this does not tell us about the temporality of the work itself, the work’s temporal schema, how it distributes and is distributed in time. A work is poised within a temporal landscape; it is a negotiation of that which came before just as it is a trajectory—or lack thereof—into the future.

A strictly figurative or representative work, for instance, refers to a previously known entity: something stands in or refers to that back there, that thing we already know: a portrait designates a person we already know, even if the portrait reveals secrets previously obscured. The representational has no choice but to occur, at least to some extent, before the now. Symbolism faces the same situation: in order to employ a symbol, the reference or designation must already exist—or it wouldn’t be a symbol.

Surrealism and Dadaism seek to intervene in the representational and symbolic model; as the figure points to a known thing, it is disrupted, twisted, turned about. This is in fact not a pipe. A new site of time emerges; no longer does the work happen before, but happens in the space between the previous and the now.

Cubism offers a commentary upon the representational: it splays the past into present time, lures the depths to the surface. Look at Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon": it's a portrait without depth, without secret, without reference, without a past. If Surrealism and Dadaism offer an acrobatics between the past and the present, Cubism gives us a surging, an unfurling into and of the now.

Abstract Expressionism moves the site of time of the visual arts from the part-orientation of the figural to the immediacy of the manual. There is no referent or use of a known schema. Painting becomes a visceral experience of the now, Pollock writhing over his canvas, each flick of the brush a now-event. And yet the situation is somewhat more complex, for while each drip is a now-event each now-event participates with those which both precede and post-cede the now. The drips are not completely arbitrary; they are not radically distinct events. What we see in the drip paintings is the formation of a series, the repetition of a drip as each drip takes on the whole painting, inflects it, sends it this way or that. The past—the drips that came before—surge into the present, find themselves re-realized in each drip, much as Leibniz discovers the entire universe in each monad. A drip, then, becomes a strange condensation of time that always expresses itself now.

One may be inclined to say that the work of net artists jodi.org is the art of the future. Jodi.org interjects instability into the complacency of the computer and the web. Perhaps their best know piece was a performance: when the user reached their web site, that user’s desktop was thrown into a frenzy of chaos—lines bleeped and ran across the screen, icons fizzled and jerked. The only way out was for the user to force quit the browser.

Now, the medium is certainly futuristic in some sense: the web is an evolving and new material. But when we consider jodi's gesture, it is familiar: it is a Situationist intervention. As such, it happens now as a comment upon what came before. And while its effects may linger—after jodi.org, the desktop will never be safe again—its site of time is thoroughly joined with the known: as it intervenes in the familiar, its tendrils become entwined with the past. It slithers into the cracks of the familiar; that is its home—even if it’s an unruly tenant.

II. Future Art

None of the work we’ve considered is future art. This is not meant as a pejorative; my interest is simply to locate and explore a temporal dimension within the landscape of art.

What, then, of an art of the future? What would that mean?

A future art is perpetually poised towards the future: its site of time is inevitable—it is after all the future and the future is, well, inevitable. But this future art is simultaneously impossible. It cannot be realized in any now for if it were it would no longer be in the future; it would no longer be future art. An art of the future must remain in the future, as inevitable as it is impossible.

But future art proffers neither an ideal nor pure impossibility. To be ideal is to be out of time or eternal: I’m not talking about utopias or atopias. The site of future art is very real but it is always in the future: a post-topia, perhaps, a time which is always later (and yet which is not deferred or postponed; it will have its day but that day will no longer be a day—we will no longer recognize it as such as the day gives way to unthinkable durations).

Nor am I talking about parallel time such as Borges offers us or we see in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. In both cases, we're allowed to peer into an alternate universe, one that runs along side our own, in a different time—but not in the future. These are possible worlds, not future worlds.

And we must be careful not to confuse the temporality of the work with the temporality of the subject matter: just because something talks about the future, even gives us a future universe, does not mean that that work takes place in the future. In fact, much science fiction is symbolic and hence occurs in the past. Alien, for instance, may take place in the future but it maps itself along ancient trajectories: it is an Oedipal tale, through and through.

Future art remains in the future, as inevitable as tomorrow and as impossible as this idea—or of death.

Death is an inevitable impossibility—inevitable for obvious reasons, and impossible because it cannot happen per se: it is a pure no-event. For death to happen the very possibility of happening can no longer exist. But future art is not death. On the contrary, it is the art of being born, albeit posthumously.

Perhaps theoretical physicists offer us the clearest model of a future art. They consider a universe of 11 dimensions (or 7 or 9 or 10): what could this mean? It is an incomprehensible thought, an impossibility. And yet it is discussed, argued, put forth: it is a theory poised for and in the future. When we in fact come to understand it, we will no longer be ourselves. Our world will have died and been re-born into a place and a logic which from here is incoherent but which nevertheless exerts a present force. (Does this suggest to us that theory can be viewed as art? Surely, a theory which posits a universe of 11 dimensions is a thing—yes, a thing—of exquisite beauty.)

Nietzsche bequeaths to us an oeuvre which he claims is incomprehensible; it is not to be understood, not by us, not now. I used to imagine that this was a critique of understanding as cognition, that Nietzsche was telling us that his writing is not to be understood but lived, experienced. But now I see it differently: his writing cannot be understood within the confines of man, within the world of this human species.

Man, he tells us, is but a step within the evolution of the ├╝bermensch, the overman, the overcoming of man. It is precisely when man is no longer man, when he has overcome himself, that he will be able to comprehend Nietzsche's ideas. It is only after man has died and, in a sense, been born again that he will understand Zarathustra, understand the will to power as the revaluation of all values, understand what the hell the eternal return means. Nietzsche's work remains poised in and towards the future, in and time and place that is inevitable—evolution knows no obstacles—but which is impossible because when it comes we will no longer be ourselves. Nietzsche's work will have its day once we've been born posthumously.

William S. Burroughs' offers us a literature of the future. His writing occurs in a world free of bodily constraint, in dreams, in the life of death, in the Western Lands. It is a place where borders are so radically recast so as to elude any known logic, any familiar or comprehensible order. His world offers us people who travel seamlessly between bodies and eras, who mingle with aliens, who fly and morph and move in unheard of rhythms—just like Burroughs’ prose. And yet it is not a world without logic; it is not a rebellion, an intervention, a negation of the known world. He does not write with symbols; there is no semiotics to decode. It is a world that happens, impossibly, after life: in dreams and in death. This is why he calls his education a book of dreams (see My Education: A Book of Dreams): he learns ways of going from the future that are incommensurable with our present ways of going. In that place where we’re free of our bodies, Burroughs’ prose may seem quite pedestrian. But only after we've made it out of our bodies will we comprehend.

We can see Christo's "Running Fence" as future art. As the fence runs along the cliff's edge, over and through the hills and into the ocean, a very odd space is forged. It's as if some god decreed a new law of propriety, incomprehensible to us now but poised in the future. From here, we have no choice but to regard it as an act of pure aestheticism, or as a comment upon the status of art, or on the legal system. That is to say, we try to make sense of it from the known world or as a pure now-event. But from another angle it is the sculpture of an impossibly complex space. Or perhaps it offers the propriety of the future, an architecture for a universe of 11 dimensions.


Where is our avant-garde?

So I'm reading With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, a series of conversations between William Burroughs and a variety of characters — Tennessee Williams, Warhol, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and others — and I'm thinking: hey, I wanna be there, in the Bunker with Burroughs and the gang. But where, today, would I go? Where is the avant-garde? Who is our avant-garde?

Marc Lafia has argued this to me: they're in Silicon Valley. In Lafia's generous reading, the avant-garde's interest in the instrument over content reaches its apogee with the algorithm and the app. Just as Burroughs created the cut up and Oulipo — Perec, Queneau, Calvino, et al — created the productive restriction, Silicon Valley created the means of putting on the world, the instruments to create and disseminate. Who needs Warhol's factory when we have Twitter? Twitter is the ultimate tool of pop art. Everyone's famous! Everyone publishes! And everyone can put on the world (forget, for a moment, what people do with Twitter; here, the tool's the thing).

The obvious difference between Silicon Valley and Burroughs' Bunker is that one fuels the capitalist engine and one threatens it (even if there is a publishing economy, it pales rather conspicuously next to Google). Capitalism got smart and it got fast. No sooner does the specter of an avant-garde appears before it is quickly folded into the engine. Think: Vincent Gallo hocking Belvedere Vodka and posing for H&M.

Maybe I'm missing something. I will admit I am not the most plugged in guy. Perhaps there's a burgeoning avant-garde that I don't know about because, well, I'm not cool enough. And you know what? That would be just fine with me.

But I fear that is not the case. I believe the latte has displaced the syringe as acid has been replaced by Adderall — today's drugs drive productivity, not mind trips. Today's avant-garde is doing yoga and rolling in money and probably wind surfing. I ask you this: Are we healthier for it?


One reason I love Burroughs so

This, from The Place of Dead Roads, just makes me smile deep inside while laughing out loud — the exquisite language with the relentlessly keen turn of phrase; the lists of impossible things, as if Borges had taken many more — and stranger — drugs; the surprising qualifications; the eloquence of multivalence:

"Kim is a slimy, morbid youth of unwholesome proclivities with an insatiable appetite for the extreme and the sensational. His mother had been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasm, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras. He wallows in abominations, unspeakable rites, diseased demon lovers, loathsome secrets imparted in a thick slimy whisper, ancient ruined cities under a purple sky, the smell of unknown excrements, the musky sweet rotten reek of the terrible Red Fever, erogenous sores suppurating in the idiot giggling flesh. In short, Kim is everything a normal American boy is taught to detest. He is evil and slimy and insidious. Perhaps his vices could be forgiven him, but he is also given to the subversive practice of thinking. He was in fact incurably intelligent."


Agree Shmagree, Argue Shmargue

I never care if someone agrees with me, at least as far as my philosophic positions are concerned. This includes my (former) students. All I have ever asked is that they understand — or at least try to understand — what I'm saying.

Argument is boring. What's there to argue about? Whether the proliferation of difference is....what? True? Good for the world? I don't care about either question, not really.

And I have to admit I've always been rather confused when it comes to argument. How does one go about it? It seems to me that an argument must be premised on some kind of common ground — the interlocutors have to agree to what certain terms mean, not to mention to what the very terms of the argument are. And how does one go about this without arguing? Argument seems literally impossible to me.

Now, in my experience, most argument is not about the subject matter per se but about interpersonal posturing and peculiar emotive releases. This posturing and these releases may be important components of civic life but a) they are not about the ideas; and b) they're, well, boring.

Unfortunately, for some students, arguing with the professor is an essential part of education. When they push back on the professor, they imagine themselves as good students. Such is our Socratic inheritance: argument, and opposition, is the stuff of thought.

But not in my world view and not in the world view I once taught. What I enjoy is the monologue and the conversation. In the monologue, someone holds forth, generously bestowing the audience with his or her spin on things. The more monologues the better, especially if they are strange and beautiful.

Conversations, too, make my heart go pitter patter. In a conversation — a good conversation —, the participants try together to push, pull, fold, spin ideas into strange and beautiful shapes, a collaborative monologue, if you will.

Some students of mine interpreted my prohibition of argument as conceit: I think I'm right. Well, that's true. I do think I'm right, at least when I'm teaching. After all, I am the professor. But that is not why I prohibit argument. I prohibit argument for the reasons stated above and because it inhibits understanding.

Needless to say, there are those opposed to my position on opposition. Fortunately, I'm not obliged to oppose them. I prefer the Bugs Bunny method — change the terms of the conversation. When Bugs is being chased, he doesn't just run, he turns into a woman or starts dancing. That is, he refuses to submit to the terms of opposition and so shifts the very terms of the dynamic. Deleuze and Guattari call this a "line of flight," a way out of the impasse of contradiction and opposition.

I know it may seem odd to be a rhetorician who disdains argument. But I don't actually disdain argument, I disdain a particular kind of argument — oppositional argument. For me, everything is an argument in that everything is a position — a chair, a building, an idea, a backwards cap, Kants 3rd Critique. And most arguments are not oppositional or dictatorial. Most arguments generously proffer their position: go like this. And if these positions are not generous, it is my job to evade, elude, and do what I must not to be squashed. But I'm not going to argue.


Death and Medicine

I am a fan and patient of some so-called alternative medical practices. I've seen a homeopath — and I have to tell you, homeopathy is, as the kids like to say, wack! — and many acupuncturists and Chinese medicine herbalists. I've also been loaded up with antibiotics and sliced open by a surgeon.

In this country — perhaps elsewhere but what do I know? —, these other practices — this homeopathy and this Chinese medicine — exist side-by-side with Western, institutional medicine. One may try to avoid taking antibiotics by ingesting some earthy Chinese brew or placing infinitely small amounts of, say, rattle snake poison, under one's tongue (I told you homeopathy is wack — but more on that later). But when you get really sick — I mean really really fucking sick — it seems skinny needles and sub-lingual sugar pills won't cut it. We head to the clinic, to the hospital, to the chemo and the knife and the statins: Keep me alive!

And so I began to wonder: is this a deficiency in homeopathy and acupuncture?

I then I realized: no, it's not a deficiency per se. It's that these practices don't rule out death. In Western medicine, we try to keep people alive at all costs — even the cost of their life (again, more on that later). It is a mad obsession to keep the patient alive.

Now, I happen to share this obsession, perhaps despite myself. That is, I want to live — at all costs and forever. That is what my scared, neurotic stomach and brain scream at me all the time. But there does seem to be some wisdom to these other practices, a fundamentally different logic at work about the role and function of medicine.

Homeopathy and acupuncture offer treatments to improve one's quality of life, not to extend life per se. Death is not anethema to their medical practice. And while I find that wise and while I may aspire to that level of contentment — a contentment that accepts death as the natural order of things, a contentment that does not recoil in dread and horror at the mere mention of death — I have to say that right now, prior to achieving this elusive enlightenment, I find it absolutely terrifying.