Jacqueline Millner (1994)
Saturated by ever more sophisticated telecommunication technology, it is well nigh impossible to resist the seduction of the dream of perfect knowledge: instantaneous, comprehensive, ever available. The newest telecommunications systems promise us the status of the gods: omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence. Such systems mark the disappearance of space, indeed the end of time. Our physical presence and location become irrelevant as we live out all experience through the computer and video screen. Even the space that once existed between our bodies and the modem collapses as we ourselves become the network. Welcome to the hyperreal, where every place is simply another element to be reassembled in an empty simulation, where whether we are in one place or another becomes a matter of irrelevance.
In the wake of the disappearance of space, is resistance to the hermetically sealed world of simulation possible? What happens to the traditional sites of the avant-garde? In particular, what becomes of art and the gallery? Can art offer anything but a nostalgic glimpse of what life was like before space lost its place? Or can it provide a little gap of solitude and silence, respite from the excess of reality? Can it, for instance, reactivate space by insisting on its materiality, and hence provide a place from which to think otherwise?
Despite early modernist gestures—such as cubism and futurism—which sought to render negative space positive, and the ‘new’ physics, which found that space was not full of things but rather that things themselves were ‘spaceful’, our culture has continued to value the ‘active’ object in space and disdain the ‘passive’ void. The comfort of penetrating object versus the horror of encapsulating space is a familiar binary opposition.
However, with the loosening of the modernist canon, there emerged exciting new artistic forms. Installation, in particular, promised to challenge the rigidity of traditional painting and sculpture, to escape the fetishisation of the object and revitalise avant-garde interventions. Arguably, its ability to do this derived from its unique potential to rethink space, to render space palpable in a way that early modernism was unable to do
For what is installation art—or should I say good installation art—if not art about spaces in-between, those spaces most often ignored and neglected as empty, as the void through which we must travel to attain the object of our destination? Good installation art would compel us to perceive, dare I say, feel, the materiality of the spaces in-between the objects, and subjects, that populate our quotidian lives. I am reminded of early attempts in physics to explain the nature of space in terms of an ether, a palpable presence which acted as conduit for the forces of nature. Perhaps by affirming the presence of space, installation art has the potential to configure new spaces from which to think, as it diverts our attention from the obvious and familiar, to the ever-present but usually invisible.
I would argue that it is more difficult for traditional art forms, such as painting, to level the hierarchy between object and space, to effect our deterritorialisation from the conventional organisation of space. Precisely on account of the weight of tradition, painting’s ability to play with space is circumscribed. After all, we look at a painting, whereas a good installation demands a greater commitment from us.
However, more often than not installations fail. They fail to make those spaces in-between palpable. Instead, we are left to look at a series of objects which do not speak to one another, and we wander (wonder) from one to the other, our bodies cutting through that space in between as if it were nothing but (hot) air.
Installation became the easy entree into art-making. Just a couple of rusty objets trouves, an inscrutable blurb, and, here we have an instant conceptual piece. Pity that this manner of working has been so abused, because it is uniquely placed to force the issue, to beg the question.
Not that installation does not now have its own tradition. Not that its anti-object rationale has not been corrupted. However, in my view, it is still best able to resist fetishisation, indeed to resist form — the mathematical frockcoat which binds our thinking to the conventional. And ultimately, it is the resistance of form that will permit those already existing but new spaces for thinking to be configured.
The big challenge, of course, is to resist form while at the same time retaining sufficient form to facilitate an engagement with the work. Without a modicum of formalism a work will usually fail, its elements remaining isolated, non-communicating objects. And while the postmodern has often stated that its very intention is to short-circuit communication, there is no denying such work is nonetheless trying to say something; for instance adopting muteness to critique the imperfection of language or to elude entrapment in the dominant discourse. Even the merely frivolous use of form, as in kitsch and decoration, cannot avoid the high calling of communication. However, there is communication, and communication.
For deterritorialisation to occur, some element of the familiar must enter the exchange between art and ‘viewer’ — enough to provoke the ‘viewer’ to perform the work necessary to abandon the frame of reference of ordinary communication, and enter an as yet unarticulated space. That spark of recognition seduces us, enables us to give ourselves over to a no-where. Once destabilised, our attempts to find a foothold confront us with an unfamiliar memory: we only know where we are when we try to get away. The shift in space throws the quotidian into sharp relief. It is the relief of the émigré, the deterritorialised.
The peculiar time and space in which conceptual invention transpires becomes possible when the ‘no-where’ of thought is connected to a ‘now here’, to a territory of thought which corresponds to the unofficial histories, the untold stories that lost out to official Truth. Conceived in this way, the no-where of thought, or utopia (from the Greek ou for ‘not’ and topas for ‘place’), is not a beyond, an ideal place which follows the imperfect ones that we now inhabit. Rather, utopia is an outer space that is already in our midst. It is real, not ideal.
The objective of art and philosophy, then, might be to activate those unofficial histories by opening up the spaces from which they can be thought, by seeking out the spaces in-between observable reality rather than seeking to explain the origins of thought or impose an overarching order on the chaos of existence. Such an approach acknowledges historical specificity, but is able to depart from it; it uses objects to render space palpable; it uses form to unform. It does not shrink from communication, but rather uses communication—a common ground—to create gaps and silences from which the utopia in our midst might arise.
By insisting on the materiality of space, such a strategy might also provide an alternative to the necrophilic closed circuit of the hyperreal. Hyperreality renders our location—our historical and material specificity—matters of indifference. The cultural result is a ‘soft nihilism’ of the end of everything and everyplace else—characterised by swings from cynicism to sentimentality, from panic to narcosis—which leaves no space for thinking otherwise, indeed no place for action or human agency.
By contrast, thinking spatially is governed not by a logic of empty or ironic recombination, but rather by a logic of intervals that supposes a complexity irreducible to simulation. It is a logic of chance rather than indifference, of invention rather than cynicism, whose central question is ‘What have we not yet realised it is possible for us to do?’
To render space palpable is to confuse the conventional categories of thinking. This may well be a strategy for which installation art and the gallery can provide a place. First Draft is on the move.
Copyright Jacqueline Millner, 1994