Concept

Main exhibition of the 17th Tallinn Print Triennial Cloudbusters: Intensity vs. Intention

Curator Margit Säde

Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia

Põhja pst 35, Tallinn

2.6.–15.7.2018

Tue-Sun 12-7 pm

 

 

 

 

Cloudbusters: Intensity vs. Intention

 

Margit Säde

 

 

‘The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear.’[1]

 

 

Cloud-cuckoo-land’s air

The study of clouds, or nephology, is a branch of science in which researchers cannot touch, analyse, preserve or archive the subject of their research. It is a science that is based solely on observation. Yet clouds are not stable, only their eternal movement is constant. Thus, the object of research is also constantly developing, changing and disappearing. Clouds have interested scientists as well as poets and artists for a long time. Romantics and impressionists used clouds to describe tortured destinies and the restless nature of the modern mind. Relying on literary and poetic examples, Steven Connor in his essay ‘Obnubilation’ (2009), which is included in this catalogue, focuses primarily on the ominous nature of clouds, and not on their heavenly appearance.

 

Even if clouds are considered to be the symbols of ambivalence and the bearers of subjectivity, they can be classified as an independent unit that enables a temporary, elusive ‘form’ to acquire a certain organised integrity. Clouds, which are located between physicality and non-physicality, denote the lack of clarity in us – a befogging and inability to understand certain concepts or information. Steven Connor aptly writes:

Clouds are outsides without insides. You can never be properly in the space of interiority suggested by the outside surface of a cloud, since inside a cloud you are properly speaking nowhere, in a mist that flattens everything into grey propinquity, without edges, outlines or distinguishing features.[2]

 

Maybe today’s overabundance is what has made weight illusory. Everything essential now lives in lightness, in the air, in the atmosphere. Thus, we too live in an informative world, with air as the transmission medium. ‘Matter’ has altered its state: now it is liquid rather than solid, more like air than liquid, informative more than material. Michel Serres has said that the concept of ‘there’ (dasein) has always defined air rather than land for people: ‘…we are the dasein in the sky, not in the land. [—] We are wandering. We are nomads. This is not a new state of things. It is a very ancient state of things. I think the dasein is in the atmosphere.[3]

 

If, previously, air denoted a miracle, vision, an apocalypse, then now air has lost all its prior values and attributes. It has become a horizontal layer of the atmosphere without any characteristics, offering us only two shrink-wrapped alternatives – a situation of uncertainty or the need to escape. In other words, we are face-to-face with the end, which we have filled with air.

 

A cloudy mind and invisible hand

If the 19th century was the era of archiving and the age of scientific, memory and recording technologies – psychoanalysis, photography and gramophones – then the present deals with the ephemeral, which is expressed in a temporary and amnestic state. Why is it that our minds have become so cloudy and fleeting?

 

Since the late 20th century, we have witnessed the rapid development of a new constructed life form – a human-machine hybrid. This new form of existence includes information technologies, the storage, security and functionality of individual and collective data, and – what’s most important – our personal relationship with information. This new intellect stores its memory and operating system in a ‘cloud’, the name of which even alludes to something light, mobile and omnipresent. Although, in reality, we are the ones that run after our data, because without it, we, and others, see us as indistinguishable, identity-less beings. Thus our subjectivity is also temporary like the clouds in the sky. Vilém Flusser has also surmised that we are no longer able to grasp or deal with the world in a way that transforms reality. Instead, we keep creating new virtualities. ‘We are no longer sub-jects, but pro-jects. Our head turns if we try to execute such an existential revolution.’[4]

 

A cloud is filled with a particular type of amnesia. The flow of information has made remembering impossible, and therefore, we need a cloud, where we can collect and save information. In the study published by Aleksandr Luria, the famous Soviet neuropsychologist, called The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory (Маленькая книжка о большой памяти (ум мнемониста), 1968), the synesthete S. had the opposite problem: the inability to forget. Seeing every new object made him taste and feel innumerable details. Luria writes: ‘S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked.’[5] Life in an uncontrollable flood of images that he could not stop or forget made him realise a deeply disturbing truth, that is, everything is transient and temporary. However, what would the opposite situation be like? In that case, the associations and ambivalence would be in the minority, and all the knowledge and memories would not need to be remembered or forgotten but sorted and saved. And this all within reach of an invisible hand, that we call the cloud.

 

Nietzsche, Freud as well as Borges, found that memory is forgetting. Therefore, remembering cannot exist without forgetting, or without making choices. Today, the problem may not even be the abundance of memories, but the fact that there are no individual ways of determining how and what we remember. A new consciousness is created on the footprints we leave behind, through our remembering techniques. This is primarily a technological question, because technology unites the conscious and subconscious.

 

Cloud apparatus: All that is solid melts into air

If the nuclear mushroom cloud was humankind’s last catastrophic formation, then the current data processing cloud is also something that is produced totally by humans and their machines. The fact that we call it a cloud makes us forget that it is an anthropomorphic phenomenon, creating an image of something that is naturally all-powerful and overwhelming. The cloud is a giant server network, which provides an extremely precise data storage and distribution service.

 

We have given a dispersed system, which includes millions of hard disks and servers, routers and fibre-optic cables, the compact and abstract form of a cloud. This alludes to our inability to understand the opaque nature of the network, but also to the fear that this system engenders in us. All clouds grow and perish. Their movement is constant and they are always above us. For the contemporary person, the cloud, due to its dissipating nature, has become a symbol of uncertainty, moroseness, oversized and incomprehensible networks, and unimaginable and horrible terrorism. The cloud is not virtual but physical. Even if it is not always ‘terrestrial’, it is somewhere in the depths of the earth. There is actually nothing immaterial about the ‘weightless’ information in data centres, the storage of which requires 30 million watts of electricity and extensive infrastructure.

 

The atomic and information era cloud is technologically condensed and challenges the comfort of humankind with the threat of its destruction. The cloud image is a mystical representation, a metaphor that masks, and in the direct sense of the word, domesticates the direct, political, biological and corporative networks of power, which increasingly control production and data circulation. However, data overwhelms us with needs, demands and sensations. The invisible threat of radiation is replaced by information floating in the cloud, the data that is collected and carefully guarded, which seemingly move invisibly, but in an all-pervasive way. Airiness means visions, insignificance, even madness, and therefore, the transition to the so-called ‘state of airiness’ has always created certain suspicions. Marx and Engels also predicted insightfully that ‘All that is solid melts into air’.[6]

 

The bit and the atom: Influencing machines

Humankind is no longer at the centre of society, machines are. The world is not comprised exclusively of physical objects, but of various phenomena and manifestations, which we look at, save and share on screen according to predetermined norms and concepts. We no longer look at images, but tap, scroll, snip and drag them. Where is the boundary between us and our data backup, information, memory and knowledge? Where do the bit (the smallest unit of information in a computer processor and memory device) and the atom (the smallest component of a chemical element) meet?

 

In his text I’m that angel (2011) Tyler Coburn asks: ‘What to do with a body when we’re living on air – how thin, how obscure does it have to become?’ Despite the immateriality metaphor, the shadow of the cloud is falling on the world around us and weighs down our physical bodies, doing so through barely discernible radiation or by objectifying the body.

 

Two centuries ago, when machines were only starting to impact human consciousness, and identify with it, machinery went mad. Or in other words, madness became mechanical. People with mental disorders started to dream about machines, ominous remote-controlled devices. The crazed machinery in their visions did not resemble the law-writing apparatus that went out of control in Kafka’s penal colony, but rather, these were devices that were crazy due to their durability and repetitiveness – due to their mechanical functionality. In his classical article about schizophrenia, Viktor Tausk, a psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud, called them ‘influencing machines’.[7] The supposed goal of these mystical machines was to grab control of the patient’s thoughts and feelings. Tausk explains that the influencing machine works like a magic lantern or film projector by making the patient see images, producing, as well as removing, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces. It also produces motor phenomena and manifestations by means of air-currents, electricity, magnetism, or X-rays.

 

However, the most important function of the machine is the systematic creation of misconceptions along with visions of the influencing machine itself. Tausk explained that the work of the influencing machine always has a temporal dimension: as the patient’s psychosis deepens, its functioning mechanisms become increasingly more complicated and detailed. This machine also functions as a defence against the patient’s madness, but providing a seemingly logical explanation for it. The craziest aspect of the influencing machine is that its goal is to produce, ramify and maintain insanity. A melancholic-mechanical insane person is the maddest in his/her own imagination, which the influencing machine keeps reproducing.

 

In the film Caligari and the Somnambulist (Caligari und der Schlafwandler, 2008), Javier Téllez examines the overlap between mental illness, hallucinations and hypnosis, also blurring the lines between creativity and mental disorders. Téllez collaborates with the patients in a Berlin mental hospital, and involves them as co-authors, actors and observers. Erich Mendelsohn’s fantastic observatory and telescope become a schizophrenic influencing machine in the film, which inserts delirium into the narrative and projects hallucinations on the audience. The film medium itself functions in the same way.

 

Cloudbuster: Intensity vs. intention

The title of the exhibition is borrowed from William Reich’s pseudoscientific invention. Reich was an Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud, who in the 1950s, carried out dozens of experiments on ‘cosmic orgone energy’ with his cloudbuster. The goal of the machine was to release the orgone energy from the sky, which was supposed to cure people of all kinds of diseases. The theories of Reich, who spent many years of his life in jail, were never scientifically proven, and yet he remained convinced of them until he died. I believe that Reich was trying to create a healing machine to counteract the ‘influencing machine’ that evoked insanity. He thought that the orgone energy emitted by clouds would free humankind from suffering and disease. In the context of the exhibition, I use the cloudbuster concept as a metaphor for people’s irrepressible optimism and willpower.

 

In a way, the exhibition is also inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Cloud Nine project (c. 1960). Buckminster Fuller, who was an American architect and inventor, thought that if one builds a sufficiently large spherical structure, and heats the air inside even by one degree above the ambient temperature, it could become airborne. In fact, it would not only bear its own weight, but could house people, their possessions and even infrastructure. Although the primary goal of these cloud-like structures was to provide a safe haven in the case of climatic and environmental disasters, Fuller imagined that these airborne towns could be anchored to mountains, which would enable the residents to sail through the atmosphere and see the world, or even migrate like birds.[8]

 

The exhibition Cloudbusters: Intensity vs. Intention wishes to focus on the imaginary and the ambivalent, and on the various personal universes that offer an alternative to the ‘transformative digital society’ or life ‘in the cloud’. In summary, the exhibition combines the optimism of will with the pessimism of intellect, and intensity with intention.

 

In this context, I define intensity as all kinds of deviations and unimaginable ideas, which our society generally condemns, ridicules, pathologises, rejects or just forgets. Intensity has played an important role in the life stories of numerous artists, and the aspirations of those who oppose people that follow society’s dictates and norms in an exemplary fashion, without ever questioning them. In his last book, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, Bernard Stiegler quite aptly calls people pharmacological beings. He argues that we are simultaneously medications and poisons, capable of good and bad – depending on which ‘dose’ is larger. Angry energy can also be powerful if it is directed into creativity and starts to function to the benefit of the artist and/or others. If one can ‘work through’ one’s darker or more toxic side, the brighter or healing side can be activated.[9] The American artist, nun and teacher Sister Mary Corita focused on the latter. Her colourful silkscreens combine advertising images and slogans with Bible verses and philosophical quotes. When organising various ceremonies and unifying rituals with her students, Sister Mary Corita’s work focused on celebrating communal life. The motto of the art department in her Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was a saying from Bali: ‘We have no Art. We do everything as well as we can.’

 

Whether we are dealing with celebrating life, our escapist personal universes, a somnambulant rebellion or carefully considered resistance, all the works exhibited at the exhibition reflect various forms of contemporary ascetic and ecstatic expression. All the author’s positions are united by searches for a more caring and human-centred society.

 

However, where does this leave intention? Is it only to oppose to intensity? The intention to do something means that a decision has been made and plan prepared to achieve something. Intention is a state of mind, and always comprises a plan to do something. Intention is both the exhibition itself and its viewing. Enjoyable viewing!

 

 

[1] Don DeLillo, White Noise. Revised edition. New York: Penguin, 2009, p. 154.

[2] Steven Connor, ‘Obnubilation’. See below, p. .

[3] Hari Kunzru, ‘Michel Serres Interview (1995)’. http://www.harikunzru.com/michel-serres-interview-1995/ (accessed 29 April 2018).

[4] Vilém Flusser, ‘A New Imagination’. https://monoskop.org/images/4/4b/Flussers_View_on_Art_MECAD_Online_Seminar.pdf, lk 4 (accessed 29 April 2018).

[5] A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory. Trans. Lynn Solotaroff. New York, London: Basic Books, 1968, p. 120.

[6] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Pluto Press, 2008, p. 38.

[7] Viktor Tausk, ‘On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia’. Trans. Dorian Feigenbaum. – Psychoanalytic Quarterly 1933, no. 2, pp. 519–556.

[8] J. Baldwin, BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 1997, p. 190.

[9] Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, p. 71.