Art Under the Influence
The panel discussion will take place at Anise Workshop, The Old Chapel, 27-33 Malham Road SE23 1AH. The discussion will start at 7pm. The venue and exhibition will be open from 2pm.
Everyone is welcome, no RSVP is necessary.
Art Under the Influence will consider the role of art in tackling the climate emergency. We are very excited to welcome Matteo Zamagni back to the space following last week’s exhibition opening who will be in conversation with Hayden Martin, Thomas Moynihan, Dane Sutherland, and Kate Pincott who will chair the discussion.
Ahead of the discussion, we will consider some of the questions to be discussed on the night and introduce the work of some of our panellists.
Matteo Zamagni’s Crepuscolo is the Italian-born new media artist’s first solo show in the United Kingdom. Bringing together recent and never-before-seen work, the exhibition consists of videos, a series of prints and a topographic installation of a digitally manipulated landscape.
Zamagni’s work is striking. The Crepuscolo prints, in particular, which give the show its title, are seductive in their vibrant enormity, depicting aerial landscapes hallucinated by computer vision. The prints hover, backlit, almost entirely filling the space between floor and ceiling of Anise Workshop’s cavernous main space.
As the artist explains, the work “explores the relationship between human hyper-development and geological growth” but, beyond its evocative forms, what does this exhibition tell us about our present climate crisis?
This is a question that Zamagni asks of his own work. Sharing research and a list of resources with the Anise Gallery team, he included an article by Marsha Lederman for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. The headline reads: “In a climate crisis, artists have a duty to speak up – but what should they say?”
Exploring a dizzying array of artists, filmmakers, musicians and authors who have explored the prevailing problems of climate change and humanity’s responsibility for its mindless acceleration and desired arrest, Lederman writes: “After all the information we have received from scientists, and all the warnings from politicians (well, some of them), is it possible that it will be the artists who can save us? If the science hasn’t registered, if the economics haven’t resonated – both of which have been laid out in chilling clarity – maybe the arts can be the planet’s white knight.”
Whilst such an exploration might be dismissed by many as a self-aggrandising look at the contemporary art world, the article’s most poignant moment arises when Lederman relays an encounter the writer Alanna Mitchell had with an emotional man following an artistic performance in Toronto. “I’m a climate scientist,” he said, visibly moved. “And I’ve never learned how to talk about this stuff.”
It is often difficult to ascertain the cross-cultural impact of the art world on other fields and industries. Whilst the art world itself has often poached neologisms from the sciences, other instances of conceptual osmosis are hard to come by. The “anthropocene”, for instance – an oft-debated word for our new geological epoch, following the holocene – has been a buzzword appearing with increasing frequency in art exhibition catalogues since it first came into vogue in the early 2010s. But have the implications of this new understanding of geological time had much of an impact beyond the art establishment? Geologists themselves have yet to officially recognise the term’s validity and it is certainly not sunk down into colloquial parlance amongst the general public, and so Lederman’s question remains a potent one, well argued for but nonetheless unanswered.
For our panel discussion this Friday, we will extend Lederman’s hopeful question by adding some probing variations of our own:
To what extent is art capable of raising consciousness of sociopolitical issues? Can art influence popular opinion from the ground up or is it too heavily influenced by institutions that are a part of the problem? Is art politically galvanising for its audiences or is it little more than a beautiful intoxicant that makes us feel good (or bad) in the midst of our contemporary geopolitical chaos?
Such questions have been central to global cultural movements for decades, even centuries. The painters of the Italian Renaissance, for instance, occupied an unprecedented position in society at the time, with many finding patronage from an all-powerful Catholic Church that offered them a platform from which to spread the message of Christ and – inadvertently – their own political leanings to largely illiterate masses. Caravaggio, most famously, was renowned and both financially and critically successful in his time but he was also notorious for his controversial depictions of Christian teachings and subjects in ways that often found him at loggerheads with his patrons. His 1606 painting, Death of a Virgin, was infamously rejected by the patrons who had commissioned it, with rumours spreading that the painter had used a sex worker as a life model for his depiction of its holy subject.
Caravaggio’s infamy persists today and he is heralded by many as the first “modern painter”, but this is surely not only due to just his skill and fame. He was a man who, thanks to his patronage, occupied two worlds: high and low society; popular culture and underground.
Similar stories appear throughout art history. Mark Rothko was another artist to fall foul of his patrons. Having captivated the world with his abstract works, late in his life Rothko’s success would take him to heights he found deeply uncomfortable. In 1958, he was commissioned by the Four Seasons in New York to decorate their new luxury restaurant. Rothko was not simply tasked with providing some nice decorations but designing the space as a whole, creating an environment where his paintings and New York’s well-to-do would reside in an uncomfortable syzygy.
He was, at first, emboldened by the opportunity, hoping to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room,” making them “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.”
Heavily inspired by the relationship between the Catholic Church and the painters of the Italian Renaissance, Rothko perhaps intended to follow in Caravaggio’s footsteps, accepting his commission only to openly subvert the values of his patrons. In the end, this rebellious act was not enough. No matter his original intentions, Rothko felt uneasy about his paintings only being visible to the richest in society. Having begun his career painting the transitory spaces of everyday people, he had found himself entombed in a space symbolic of capitalist excess and elitism. He later withdrew from the agreement and donated his now-famous Seagram Murals to galleries in the UK, Japan and the USA.
The political theorist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1964 work One-Dimensional Man, would write on these dynamics between artist and patron in great depth. For him, the influence of capitalism on the cultural interests of civilisation would only lead to art’s ruin, and much sooner than we think. Although the likes of Caravaggio and Rothko paint an uncomfortable picture of patronage, it is a relationship that lasted for 500 years, but could an artist get away with something similar today? It seems unlikely.
For Marcuse, art was the material form given to the “Great Refusal” – a pervasive negativity that calls into question the prevailing socioeconomic structures of our time – and the transformation of avant-garde art into a product would rob the former of its position outside the cultural values of the time, leading to avant-garde artists suffering “the fate of being absorbed by what they refute.”
In 1964, Marcuse’s text was a warning, but today it seems to be our reality. Artists are largely incapable of penetrating through the bureaucracies of social institutions and must ingratiate themselves within the system they have historically been at odds with if they are to succeed in any respect. Not only does this create a crisis of identity for many artists but it affects progresses of cultural production directly.
More recently, the late cultural critic Mark Fisher reconsidered Marcuse’s writings in the 2010s, noting how the latter’s mourning over “the popularisation of the avant-garde” was not borne of “anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.”
Fisher mourned this often and explicitly, particularly in our present moment, extending Marcuse’s critiques to mourn the loss of a once prevalent experimentation in popular culture, repeatedly calling for the return of a “popular modernism”, defined for him by a form of amorphous cultural production that crosses boundaries of high and low art, most common in music, where punks who can’t play their instruments enter into the same space as jazz masters who want to push beyond the standardised modes of expression we all know so well.
Matteo Zamagni’s exhibition deepens these considerations further still. Not only is Crepuscolo housed in a space that epitomises this cultural cross-pollination – Anise Workshop is comprised of a former church and light industrial warehouse, counterintuitively joined at the hip – his works explore the influence of technology on how we see the world and depict a kind of vision that is both intoxicating and unnerving. His almost psychedelic aerial landscapes, for instance, depict environments scarred by unknown industries, giving the sense of a feedback loop where computers reimagine the geologies from which their own components are mined.
The artist also has a strong interest in the relationship between spirituality and technology, and his strange computer vision straddles these two concerns with a surprising acuity.
As the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke infamously declared: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Zamagni’s works certainly dazzle like a sorcery capable of conjuring up new worlds out of nothing. His film, Horror Vacui, on display in the main room, ends with an excerpt from a Buddhist devotional text known as the Sevenfold Puja that encapsulates this paradoxical sorcery of computer generation.
‘Here then, / Form is no other than emptiness, / Emptiness no other than form. / Form is only emptiness, / Emptiness is only form.”
This nod to a Zen spiritualism contains echoes of the conceptual “formlessness” associated with abstract expressionism, and Mark Rothko in particular. It is a concept borrowed, in this context, from the French philosopher Georges Bataille who was similarly interested in our understandings of spiritualism in the modern world. For him, formlessness is “a term that serves to bring things down in the world.” “What it designates,” he continues, “has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.” For him, “affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”
The innate nihilism of Bataille’s interest in the formless was undoubtedly inspired by the growing prevalence of scientific imagery. Technology provides us with a view of our planet (and others) that, on the one hand, qualifies our place in the universe whilst exacerbating the true nature of a universe-without-us. It is an imagery that is both enlightening and alienating. Zamagni, whilst deploying imaging techniques used in the earth sciences, also deploys computer-generative imaging techniques used for purposes of entertainment. Familiar forms of imagery from the arts, sciences and entertainment industries collide to produce the abjectly unfamiliar.
In the introduction to his 1988 book, The Burden of Representation, John Tagg considers our shifting relationship to the images that populate our world. He writes that “the existence of a photograph is no guarantee of a corresponding pre-photographic existent” and “on a more subtle level… we have to see that every photograph is the result of specific and, in every sense, significant distortions which render its relation to any prior reality deeply problematic and raise the question of the determining level of the material apparatus and of the social practices within which photography takes place.”
Tagg extensively defines the scope of photography’s technical, cultural and historical contexts, particularly the technical aspect, breaking down with considerable detail the mechanical and scientific natures of an analogue camera and the processes of capturing an image, developing a negative and making a print. Tagg may have been writing in the late 1980s but today the pervasiveness of digital photography and computer imaging has led to modern culture taking these complicated processes even more for granted. As such, Tagg’s insights remain relevant. He writes of our social understanding of imaging processes:
“How could all this be reduced to a phenomenological guarantee? At every stage, chance effects, purposeful interventions, choices and variations produce meaning, no matter what level of skill is applied or whatever division of labour the process is subject to. This is not the inflection of a prior (though irretrievable) reality, as [Roland] Barthes would have us believe, but the production of a new specific reality, the photograph, which becomes meaningful in certain transactions and has real effects, but which cannot refer or be referred to a pre-photographic reality as to a truth.”
James Elkins similarly refers to these representational burdens throughout his 2011 book, What Photography Is, discussing innumerable example of photographic imagery that seem to render the photographic medium’s entire raison d’etre as a delusion of grandeur. For instance, he reproduces a photograph of a selenite window taken in an adobe village in New Mexico in 1927. Selenite is a translucent mineral often used to make windows at the time. Unlike a typical clear glass window, the selenite offers a distorted and blurred view of the world outside. Echoing Tagg’s assertion of photography’s problematic two-dimensional translation of the world around us, Elkins initially believes that photography “can be compared… to that selenite window. It promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are lodged.” He writes:
“We show photography what to show us, we feel we see what photography shows us in the faces and things that it shows us. But photography also always shows us things we would have preferred not to see, or don’t want to see, don’t know how to see, or don’t know how to acknowledge seeing.”
For Elkins, the most poignant example of this is a photograph of an atomic bomb test taken by Harold Edgerton with a rapatronic camera. The camera, developed by Edgerton himself, was able to make exposures on film as short as 10 nanoseconds, allowing for scientists to study the very early stages of an atomic blast and its subsequent fireball. Elkins chooses this image (alongside images of microscopic bacterium) to demonstrate the paradox of humans imaging that which is “not made to the measure of human experience.” The images encourage metaphors to adequately describe them – Elkins, echoing Bataille, invokes rotting fruit, star constellations, watercolour paint, the human brain, a tumour, a wound, a tide pool – but the image resists them all: it is not quite like anything else perceivable to the human eye and, as such, disrupts our processes of communication. As Elkins points out, this is an imperceptibility exclusive to the rapatronic photographic process – “even a mushroom cloud looks like a mushroom” – which creates a new photographic reality made in real time but representing a moment beyond empirical experience. “What could be more interesting…?” Elkins proclaims.
The challenge for art today, such a short time later, is that the further erasure of this imperceptibility is increasingly desired and necessary. We have moved beyond cameras entirely, creating worlds with data, scripts and code. As a result, we are more aware than ever of the world’s geological and atmospheric changes but scientific imagery is still lacking in expressivity.
Earlier this year, for example, scientists revealed, to much media fanfare, the first-ever image of a black hole. To look at, it is a disappointing image, lacking the visual information of the countless artistic renderings that have fascinated us for decades. It is a blurry, orange donut – a strangely innocuous way to describe this image of the most destructive thing in our universe but what else is suitable? And yet, behind the headlines, the news is nonetheless incredible. Scientists have discovered a new way of perceiving the imperceptible.
Similar demands are to be made of artists today, albeit far closer to home. They must make perceptible the imperceptible forces of climate change and the capitalist dynamics that fuel its acceleration, not just for the sake of scientific research but to put broaden our collective consciousness. However, the irony of producing images with an anti-capitalist sentiment is that they themselves are often the products of capitalist processes. This should not be lost on us but it should not lead to frustration or despair. The questions this situation gives rise to are essential for us to wrestle with.
What these images say to us must be said, but how best to say them under contemporary circumstances? Furthermore, how are we, as audiences, supposed to read these images that necessarily deploy and subvert that which we are otherwise familiar with? Both artist and audience are required to stay one step ahead of the other, not to mention the paradoxically self-sustaining and self-destructive system in which we are all already embedded within.
The artists and researchers who will be joining us on Friday are well placed to explore the implications of making art in our present moment.
Hayden Martin describes himself as “a London-based motion graphics designer and visual artist, working in 3D animation and live-action video for cinema, broadcast, fashion, music and visual merchandising.” As with Zamagni, he is constantly “keeping a close eye on the developing trends and technical developments within his fields of expertise” and “has worked with an array of brands providing goods from high tech sportswear to luxury cosmetics.”
Here Martin occupies both worlds, corporate and creative, and as a result he is adept at producing what Mark Fisher once called a capitalist “counter-sorcery, a weapon built from the same materials that capitalist sorcery itself uses.” “Sorcery”, for Fisher, was “a system that operates by processes of beguiling seduction and incantation.” This is far more than just advertising practices but a whole network of processes that emboldened capitalist consumerism and its capture of contemporary subjectivities. The question becomes: What is it to use the visual languages of capitalism and consumerism against that which they typically represent? What is it to reappropriate these processes of seduction and incantation to conjure up images of other worlds and ways of life? What is it to advertise capitalism’s own demise?
Dane Sutherland – a curator, writer and researcher from Scotland – shares this counter-sorcerous approach to cultural production. He is the archangel at Most Dismal Swamp which he describes as “a mixed-reality biome, an art platform, a multi-scalar mystic fiction, a forecasting laboratory, a long tail, a transitional ecosystem, a party, a cognitive scaffold, a bad dataset, a curatorial MMORPG, a memeplex aggregator, a planetary weirding studio, and a record label.”
Sutherland, through his research and curatorial approach, probes the possibilities to be found in this great entanglement of processes. If we find ourselves at home in our contemporary era of information overload, Sutherland takes the languages of contemporary capitalism and accelerates them as if in a chemical mixer, thickening the swamp of communications technologies and radioactive subcultures to produce new mutant offspring for a capitalist beyond.
Kate Pincott, who will chair the discussion, has asked very similar questions of design in recent years, although her practice has moved in another direction.
Having previously spent a decade working in the world of tech, she formed Nafisi Studio with her husband Abdollah – a bespoke art furniture and sculpture studio. Bringing together Abdollah’s skills as a traditional craftsman and Kate’s experience with tech and participatory art practices, the pair construct pieces that both affirm traditional practices whilst responding to the modern age.
Pincott has also previously curated events such as Earth Happened, a series of talks “focussed on amplifying projects that help people to adjust their lives to survive the climate crisis or that continue to reverse it.” Her work, on the surface, contrasts explicitly to the work of our other panellists, but to understand where we are going it is necessary to contemplate again where we have come from and the practices we have lost along the way.
Thomas Moynihan has also considered the impact of the past on our future, albeit the deep past of human evolution and the intellectual history of thinking our own extinction.
In his recently published first book, Spinal Catastrophism, Moynihan offers up a hallucinatory intellectual history “of human morphology, upright posture, and the possibility of language”, dramatising the “fundamental philosophical problematics of time, identity, continuity, and the transcendental that remain central to any attempt to reconcile human experience with natural history.”
He asks a question that underlines the research of all our panellists, and all of us more generally: “What exactly is involved in the relation between person and planet?”