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can be a question concerning the gesture or techniques of artistic practice, distinct from media: just as mimesis was superseded by abstraction and repetition, will these gestures similarly be superseded by some unknown trope?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.

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