musical interlude: marisa anderson ‘gorgeously visceral’ instrumental guitar

Anderson, from Portland, Oregon, is a rare female adherent to the “American primitive” style of guitar playing (though she may reject the label) – a pretty yet emotionally fraught fingerpicking, shot through with the blues. Hers is often delivered on an electric guitar, adding a gorgeous rough irreverence. She’s stepping up to the Thrill Jockey label after a number of self-released albums, with Cloud Corner the first track – a whimsical wall of echoing melody – to emerge. guaridan, written by

well, that’s a journalists perspective… personally, i think a proper editor would have found a conflict  between ‘pretty’ and ‘rough’, and deleted the former, while, substituting for ‘rough’, gorgeously visceral. and i have no doubt that she would reject: ‘american primitive’… and rightly so! so why use it if she would reject it? at least without making a case for using it… and it’s very difficult to imagine such a case. and, ‘emotionally fraught’?  i guess only women are ‘emotionally fraught’. isn’t music exactly about that? would you say that, the sex pistols, or, the rolling stones, or madonna, or any musician at all, were emotionally, ‘un-fraught’?

and just to be clear: i’m a straight man writing this. your comments offend a large percentage of men precisely because you, ben beaumont thomas, offend their mothers, or sisters, or girlfriends, to be churlish about it. not to mention their male siblings, fathers, uncles and gay nieces and nephews, queer parents and grandparents, and even the sexual complexity of pet dogs. it’s terrible when the guardian fails.

cloud corner hasn’t been posted to youtube yet… but you can hear it here:


musical interlude: marisa anderson ‘gorgeously visceral’ instrumental guitar

organic logic/scientific-aesthetic: further to previous posts on white, demarinis, roloff, lubell, etc. or, how to crash the system of conventional art history: mark thompson: draft – a nonlinear visual ‘account’ – bespoke history – a la nietzsche… the only form of ‘history’ that’s possible: to which form of history, this blog is an experimental contribution – in alliance with demarinis, roloff, lubell, and thompson, four of the best historians i know: as demonstrated, historically, below

there is no better way to do that than with the work of mark thompson: an artist who has been written into the annals of performance art; while simultaneously written out of it. or, his work with live honey bees and their cultures, in order in part to challenge the strictures of what museums are mostly NOT willing to show: life. despite those strictures, thompson has been able to bring live honey bees into the hallowed spaces of contemporary non-living art, museums and other, non-conventional spaces. imagine: creating links through wire-mesh tubing so live honey bees can find their hives inside museums… imagine that that takes weeks, not days. then imagine that thompson has accomplished that…

in berlin before the wall came down, the same year, but just before. the images that follow are very complex and cannot be understood as images. they are beautiful. but their beauty to the eye is a pale rendition of their conceptual and performative content. more on that to follow. one of the most brilliant works of the late 20th C, 1989, the year that the 20th C ended. [don’t be fooled by conventional chronologies. the 21st century began in 1989. just after thompson’s work was created literally on the berlin wall, shortly before it fell, and the 21st C began.]


roloff and i, edited a special issue of the NYC magazine, New Observations, under the theme of Organic Logic. For that ground breaking issue, we interviewed a number of artists  and non-artists, including suzanne lacy, the geologist, paul spudich, a public art administrator, ann wettrich, the artist/theater director, rodessa jones, musician pamala Z, and even john kriedler. we then commissioned artists to produce work specifically for this issue, and conducted interviews. our criteria for selection was that all contributors had to be involved in some way with ‘systems’ thinking, in the production of the ‘ecosystem’ of the art world. john and i went to great lengths to be represent the major players in the then SF area art world system. in retrospect, i can say that i think our New Obs issue stands the test of time.

i personally edited and designed the issue, though, when it went to press at NO’s, they ignored many of my design mandates, so the final result looked worse that i had hoped.

in any case, our issue of new observations broke new ground in that it examined the art world system, as a system, across a variety of the actors responsible then, for creating it.

so, from that issue, i want to present first, the work that mark thompson created:Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 3.32.36 AMScreen Shot 2018-03-16 at 3.33.34 AMScreen Shot 2018-03-16 at 3.32.57 AM

his contribution consisted of the imagery above.

what follows is my cursory attempt to add some archival imagery as context:

below, top left: Mark’s early studio in west oakland, CA.


below: upper left and right: stills from mark’s film, Immersion, 1977-2005?). bottom left and right: Walk With Backpack Hive (date: ?): Mark constructed a bee hive from a wicker backpack and retraced some of the well known Japanese poet, Basho’s walks through the same region in Japan were the poet led an itinerant life  – Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)


Mark’s own statement about House Divided follows:

“A HOUSE DIVIDED”, Spring 1989, Mark Thompson

During May-June of 1989 I was involved in the project “A House Divided” in conjunction with the exhibition “Ressource Kunst”. The installation site was an early 1800’s hospital, the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien bordering the wall in West Berlin. In mid-May I began a three week exploration of East and West Berlin to gather the raw materials-resources for the installation. Working with a 19th century bee hunting box used to track and locate wild honeybees living in hollow trees in the forest, local honeybees were tracked to their hives within about a 3 mile area of East and West Berlin. This tracking process involved catching honeybees, feeding and releasing them, then carefully sighting along the returning bee flight direction in a series of steps to locate the source of the honeybees. Through this process interactions occurred with a variety of people and beekeepers from both cities. Usually the children were the most curious and excited about catching the bees and following them through the city.

In West Berlin I met Herr Pickard, a beekeeper whose beehives were about one mile away from the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. After an explanation of how I had found him, we spent the afternoon examining his bees and pulling honey off his hives. I described my project and the need to gather beeswax for the windows from beekeepers in both cities. He gave me the seed crystal of wax for the windows – a small fragment of wax harvested before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, his most precious wax because it was non-radioactive. From other East and West German beekeepers beeswax was purchased as the raw material for covering the two windows and iron columns supporting the ceiling. After melting and blending, the wax was poured into translucent slabs for sealing the two, arched window openings and coating the columns in the former hospital ward. Glowing with a golden-yellow presence in the darkened room, sunlight passed through beeswax drawn from the East and West – wax transmuted from nectar through the body of the honeybee.

Within the installation near the windows was the Live-in Hive – a glass walled beehive designed as a shared living space between the honeybees and my head. Before the opening of the exhibition a swarm of honeybees was transferred into the Live-in Hive – bees found during my earlier Berlin exploration – Herr Pickard’s backyard hive. Passing freely through a wire mesh tube through the ceiling, the bees came and went gathering nectar and pollen from flowers on both sides of the wall. Foraging in a 3 mile circular area around the wall, the honeybees transformed this raw nectar through their being, generating the wax architecture of their city-home. During this process my head was placed inside the hive in a series of private, sitting meditations bringing me closer to the beginnings of a new city. This city architecture of living walls of honeycomb fused together from the flowers of two Berlins – taking form in relation to a human being. The honeybees, the artist bound together through creative, natural processes form a living bridge between two cities, two worlds.

Copyright 1990, Mark Thompson

the are a few images related to this work:


above: map of berlin wall with circle indicated position of the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien; the no-mans-land between the two walls; and illustrations of the honeybee waggle dance.


below: clockwise: bee box in which bees are capture two at a time, so one may be let go first and then following until lost sight of, when, the second bee is released and followed until lost. then, two more bees are captured, let go, and followed. this process is continued until the bee hive hunter traces the bees back to their hive. an assistant in berlin helping mark in this ‘bee-lining’ process; and two children enjoying the event._seeingsaying.004

below: arrive at the hive, when Mark met it’s owner in east Berlin, Herr Pickard


below: Mark and Herr Pickard; the wax H. Pickard contributed to Mark’s installation shown above; Mark in the process of building the windows inserts and covering them with H. Pickard’s was.


My overly brief essay on Mark:

I have a unique insight into Mark as person/artist/teacher. I have served with him on many faculty committees over several years, have had the pleasure of being on student review committees with him, and of sharing students, interests, and productive dialogues often rife with both agreements and disagreements. We recently worked together on the content and conception of the New York based magazine, New Observations. I’ve know Mark for more than 25 years, have witnessed many of works, participated in the production of one personally, [6th Sense], and have held countless conversations with him over the years.

I first came to know Mark through research. I study artists who have a deeply developed relation to science and technology, a rare breed, to which Mark belongs; his education began in the sciences. I met Mark, therefore, as a “research” “subject.” Little did I know what this would entail. I was aware that his “medium” was bees, (his “form,” performance with risk), and that he considered bee keeping as an art practice; I was aware of his deep commitment to “art as life,” to “life as art,” and to an art practice that cycles between those two phases. I had anticipated a deep identification with 19th century naturalism, transcendentalism, romanticism, though spun by his encounter with the culture of the 1960’s. For him, this meant defining the artist’s role not in terms of market profitability, but as performative provocateur and commentator on culture generally, as a practice of investigation into, reflection on, and intervention in social systems, not simply on the production of objects. (Just imagine what is required to bring an alien, possibly unfriendly form of life into a museum; how does one bring live honey bees to the interior of a museum, in a way that doesn’t interrupt their lives, or that of the museum; and just what does that mean?). I wasn’t surprised to find a professional library on bee science. But blimps? A professional duck decoy collection? A knowledge of W.W.I and W.W.II that would put any professional historian to the test? Especially in relation to aviation history? The complete video collection of Sienfeld? Or, a love for a strange Italian immigrant who settled in Modesto at the turn of the century, who built a vast underground fruit orchard and home, now a California historical landmark? Like all good artists, and all good teachers, Mark refused to be “reduced” to a “subject of research.” “Research” had to be expanded to include him. This is the very point of Mark’s artistic practice, and his contributions to art, to teaching, to imagining a way of life original in such evocative associative insights and highly catalytic divagations. His concept of “art as decoy” is but one example. His paradigm for art also included the methods of detectives. Here, I will briefly to address only two of his works.

Mark’s first significant piece, Immersion, was “performed” for film in 1977 but not completed until some time around 2005? The film shows the process of honeybees swarming to cover the queen on Mark’s head. The camera angle is low, framing only his head and shoulders against a blue sky. As the covering progresses, as more and more bees land, Mark becomes less and less visible, until all we see is a bee mound with the vague outlines of a human form beneath. As the coverage nears completion, the camera speed is incrementally slowed as it is raised to show only sky and wildly flying bees; until, at 2 frames per second, the field snaps and the “film” suddenly transforms: the blue sky merges with, and becomes, a physical state of traces of slow moving elements, with a low vibratory hum. Imagine the sound of a swarm of bees slowed until it enters a low base sonic register. The experience is tactile, a synthesized audio-visual phenomenon that should not be considered a representation, but the production of an experience. But of what? The work is visually minimalist and conceptually complex; its ontological status, ambiguous. The “film” moves from representation of an event, (the body covering), to the production of an audio-visual event, viscerally phenomenological as an experience (the moment of transformation), that quits its representational function, becoming itself unique sensory data that could only be generated in film. How are we to understand this ambiguity? We must also recognize that this “film” can be understood as a kind of “scientific visualization,” without though, abandoning it’s aesthetic form and motivation. It then becomes both a phenomenological event in itself, and, a simulation, or a “representation” of spacetime at the quantum level. This ambiguity is constitutive of the work as art.

To read the work then, at the level of content, is to map three levels of this constitutive ambiguity. First, the human/insect taxonomy represents what exactly? A perverse artistic act? A monstrous crossing of kingdoms? A profound attempt at doing so? Clearly, human/insect biological niches remain mutually exclusive, in terms of “actual shared worlds,” or so it seems. We may question this if the concept of shared worlds does not mean shared states of consciousnesses, and instead look at systemic interactions among the elements. Then we will see that though exterior at the level of species, they are interrelated at a larger environmental level. The following taxonomies are, secondly, not merely symbolic sites, but must be interpreted as “empirically actual.” Consider: production/reproduction (bee/bee keeper), life sustaining interactions (flower/bee). Neither bees nor flowers can exist independently of each other – their interaction is necessary for both forms of life to exist. (And with their co-generation, humans would starve to death because their co-existence maintains human agriculture.) Understood systemically, they become impossible to separate and traditional biological definitions fail. The bee is literally part of the reproduction system of the flower on which it feeds – it is its sex organ; and the flower is literally part of the bee’s food system – it is its stomach. Taxonomic definitions must yield here, with no small consequences. Bee/bee keeper, flower/bee are partners that exchange life-giving functions but in radically dissimilar systems. The flower feeds the bee as the bee reproduces the flower, literally, not symbolically. Third, at the macro scale, bee and beekeeper are symbiotically integrated, while utterly alienated; at the micro scale, all is quantumly interrelated, and the differences between human, bee, and matter disappear.

Immersion is conceptually an immersion in this scientific paradox. And it raises questions about how the narrow taxonomic categories of the biotic world come to be constructed; thereby, immersing us in the dissolve between us and other. Immersion is a performance-act which must be interpreted in this discursive and embodied cultural network. References to art history are helpful, but are insufficient without this larger arena of interpretation. Mark requires that witnesses to his work themselves, to some degree, become biologists; otherwise, they will not be able to comprehend the profundity of his work.

Immersion needs to be compared to its sequel.

House Divided was performed in Berlin in the spring of 1989, a few months before the Wall was destroyed. The center of action was an abandoned 18th century hospital located directly on the Wall. House Divided continued the work of Immersion but significantly enlarged the social and cultural systems engaged by the work. I’d like to point out here only its actual, real time, performative aspects. For three weeks, Mark and his assistants, using the bee keeping technique called “lining the bee,” sought to discover hives and their keepers on both sides of the wall. Using small wooden boxes with two compartments, they trapped bees. When the bees settled down, they were moved from the first compartment to the second in which they are fed honey and nectar before being released. The newly freed bees circle the new food source, rising to an elevation of 50 or 60 feet above as they map the location before returning to their hive. They then travel between hive and bee trap. Once the connection between food and hive has been established, the hive hunters follow the bees in the direction they fly for as long as they remain visible (not long), and repeat the process from the new location. After three weeks of moving in 100-meter increments, they discovered a beekeeper in East Berlin. Mark then smuggled the wax into West Berlin and combined honey from both sides of the wall, melted it down, and used it as “paint” on 12 foot high, canvas, window frames fitted into the two existing windows of the room in which House Divided was installed. The room’s lighting would change over the course of the day, as the light changed. In the room were two steel columns, a tree trunk on which sat the bee traps and a glass “observation hive,” with a chair underneath. Bees traveled from all parts of Berlin through a mesh wire tube connecting the outside to the hive within the room. For 3-4 hours a day, Mark sat, only during non-gallery hours, meditating with his head inside of the fully functioning honey bee hive, imagining a unified Berlin as the bees came and went. They built the hive around Mark’s head over the course of the performance.

Much of the analysis of Immersion pertains here. But the differences are important to note; the three week lining-the-bee, pre-installation period, the cold war location, the integration of bee with human social systems, the “reversed” immersive meditations (immersion in the hive instead of bees covering Mark’s head) and their private performances. In general, the work absents the artist as the location of spectacle, and substitutes the city of Berlin and its actual state and imagined recreation, as re-unified. In the hospital room, a site for quotidian events often unnoticed, as well as a site for restoring health [of a city], like the coming and going of bees in an urban cityscape, House Divided foregrounds the city’s reimagining as a pastoral scene; but, one in which the viewer is caught between direct experience of the beautifully lit room, filled with the smell of bees wax, and the indirect experience of “someone” pursuing an ongoing investigation whom they never encounter. The work is constituted by a first tension between the viewer and this unobserved observer, and secondly between the interiority of the hospital room, and the exteriority of the city of Berlin. As the bees come and go across the wall, visitors to House Divided come and go across these real and imagined tensions. The quiet sensuousness of the “scene” could be the 18th century returned, though recoded in a third tension between the natural processes of actual/symbolic rebuildings — of a city being imagined, and a real hive being built. A statement, in its bringing together of possibility and actuality, that is at once both utopic and distopic. The overall message is optimistic, of imagining the absent meditator in an alien though natural world, as an alternative to the cold war polarity that bees are able to ignore, though people cannot. The human-natural worlds are figured in the hive as respectful, reciprocal compliments, suggesting the co-creative work-arounds of the “natural” and the “human” symbiosis addressed above. House Divided suggests the possibility of another form of social contract, one that would erase the divide between the natural and the human, as much as between the two coldly warring superpowers.

The shift from Immersion to House Divided is substantial. The essential difference is between the one-to-one microcosm, artist-bees, figured in the earlier work, to the many-to-many macrocosm of the later, with the intended subtraction of individualism. The negative human form observable in the hive could be anyone. And the concept of community, of collaborative making of the work, between Mark and Herr Pickard, and of human/nature co-collaborative imagination of utopic possibilities, become dominant themes.

Mark’s works, by definition, are alive; not “about” life; but are life performances. Thus they are without limit, without fixed form. They are performances, but ones that do not conform to traditional narrative structures or forms; they do not have beginnings, middles and ends. No more than a hive does. They are unfortunately artificially limited by art world venues such as museums, and art world expectations of spectatorship and consumption. His works demand to be conceived in a temporality unique to the modes of their performative production, and must be held suspended in the supplementary imaginings of those who have experienced them. Their temporality is best understood in the context of his performances in Japan. Walk with Backpack Hive required that Mark walk eleven feet per hour in order not to loose the foraging bees that lived there.


organic logic/scientific-aesthetic: further to previous posts on white, demarinis, roloff, lubell, etc. or, how to crash the system of conventional art history: mark thompson: draft – a nonlinear visual ‘account’ – bespoke history – a la nietzsche… the only form of ‘history’ that’s possible: to which form of history, this blog is an experimental contribution – in alliance with demarinis, roloff, lubell, and thompson, four of the best historians i know: as demonstrated, historically, below

further to the previous post about the geometric imaginary… john roloff’s geological imaginary: draft. AND, in relation to my posts on paul demarinis, with only a nod so far, to bernie lubell [more to come on his work]

and where my arcane historical/philosophical discourse meets the more important embodied practice, and my previous posts about paul DeMarinis, in this case, in the very visceral and performative sculptural work of john roloff:


roloff was trained first as a geologist. then he became an artist. so of course his work combines art with geology. not dissimilar to B’s refusal to submit to conventions of modernism. or karen’s upending of the modernist grid. or lubell’s reinterpretation of mechanization through the inevitable use of deliberately cheap pine to make his wooden machines fail. or, demarinis’s engagement with all these themes through his cynical, in the philosophical sense of cynicism, of electronic and digital reconfigurations of technological, musical and political histories all i the spirit of hayden white’s sense of possible historiographies.

from Hayden White’s essay, “The Burden of History,” of 1966:

Such a conception of historical inquiry [in which the historian and scientist organize facts through tentative metaphoric approximations] and representation would open up the possibility of using contemporary scientific and artistic insights in history without leading to radical relativism… It would permit the plunder of psychoanalysis, cybernetics, game theory, and the rest…. And it would permit historians to conceive of the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representations for dramatizing the significance of data…. [p. 47]

so, to roloff:

Spatiotemporal Practice, Aesthetic Judgment, and the Geological Imaginary in the Work of John Roloff


The premise of this essay is that spatiality cannot be conceived apart from temporality.

I will focus on the work of the remarkable American artist John Roloff, ( I will examine the rich, myriad ways in which spatiality may be linked to specific temporal frameworks and radically break free of the aesthetic discipline so powerfully maintained by the market’s dominance over aesthetics and art practices. Roloff is committed to the tradition of environmental and ecological art, has a considerable knowledge of science, particularly geology, which has been a profound source of inspiration for him. Aesthetically, his interest in systems make him most kin to Robert Smithson and Helen and Newton Harrison, philosophically, to Gottfried Leibniz and Deleuze, and poetically to J. W von Goethe and Samuel Coleridge. Roloff may be described, to use a geological metaphor, as an aggregate of intellectual influences resolved to lumpy coherence through his distillations of unexpected associations in a landscape rife with differences that have allowed him to create a remarkable, school-defying, body of work. His path is nothing if not ingeniously, laterally, transversal, where the transversal itself is a vector that measures his political commitments.

To elucidate Roloff’s aesthetic philosophy, I begin with François Lyotard’s assessment of abstract art’s theoretical significance:

…[Barnett] Newman judged surrealism to be over-reliant on a pre-romantic or romantic approach to indeterminacy. Thus, when he seeks sublimity in the here-and-now he breaks with the eloquence of romantic art but he does not reject its fundamental task, that of bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time, but in this: in that (something) happens. In the determination of pictorial art, the indeterminate, the ‘it happens’ is the paint, the picture. The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to witness. (Crome and Williams, 2006, 92-93)

Lyotard’s interpretation of Newman is half stop and half yield sign, cycling between history and theory. The inexpressible, the central object, substance and jurisdiction of abstract art is, in his terms, not the surrealistic reach for a precondition, the infantile arche that unpredictably shapes the unthought (and therefore indeterminate) past event as the ‘it happened,’ a retrogressive constitution of the picture plane as an associative slip-of-the-brush; but it is the Greenbergian form that expresses, indeterminately, the noumenal paint in-and-of-itself and both constitutes, and is witness to, its static, immediate presence. Newman’s painting, Lyotard claims, as representative of the modern avant-garde, is a witness, and as such yields to the inexpressible, which, as an ‘it did not happen’ (an inexpressible ‘event’), is a negation of time. “The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation.”

For Lyotard then, the task of avant-garde formalism was to negate the passage of time in order to evoke the emotional immediacy of something felt, a something that because both timeless and inexpressible (in thought) remains unknowable to reason, and because incomprehensible, produces in us a state of apprehension that he allies with the Romantic sublime. Abstract art restricts reflection to the domain of the Kantian (pre-reasoned) understanding where corporeal sensory intuition is the only judge of a subject’s immediate, atemporal, aesthetic experience. The politics of Lyotard’s abstraction then, is predicated on its restriction of aesthetic judgment to spatial perception, stripped of its historical, temporal dimension, to a material reduction to the primacy of paint perceived as a singular event without duration. The political is aesthetically constructed as a negation of a ‘realism’ managed by a reifying narrative of representation; viewers are constructed as witnesses to the event of painting, residing out of time, and thus subjected to an ‘abstract’ possibility of some other world that lies outside the narrative, historical realism that seeks to construct them in its, and only its, terms. But what Lyotard has not considered is an art that refuses to abandon a positive abstract aesthetic encounter, as event, in which the inexpressible is made determinate through an expressible parergon, a frame that exposes what it contains by its interpretive force; an encounter in which privation, or negation, becomes historically actualized, in which the indeterminate does concretely ‘happen’ as an aesthetically knowable event in time. Other types of anti-object, anti-representational avant-garde work exist, in opposition to Lyotard’s narrow reading, which go beyond formalism’s embrace of only the negative affirmation of inexpressivity. Roloff’s work is of this type, driven by the converse impulse. His work rejects the narrow, Kantian humanism that is the foundation of the Romantic sublime that has led directly to the negation of a social relation to what is non-rational, yet literal. Instead, as Lyotard describes Newman’s political strategy, of restricting aesthetic experience to the purely spatial jurisdiction of sensory intuition, for which paint is the sovereign “something happens,” to counter rationalism’s dominance; Roloff insists on a geological aesthetics of spatial and temporal events comprised of both organic and inorganic, human and nonhuman forces that expand our spatial understanding to a planetary scale that is the very condition of the thing we call Earth.

Manhattan/Franciscan Formation (1998) is a photographically executed conceptual work that makes my theoretical discussion thus far aesthetically concrete. Using Photoshop, Roloff here digitally compresses within the figure of a ‘frame,’ an image of a Californian cliff face that exposes a minute geological section called the Franciscan Formation, to contain an “empty” or negated, white center, where instead of some expected content, we find the literal, physical presence of a wall of New York City’s gallery architecture. ‘Compression’ is here an aesthetic principle as well as technique, and requires us to imagine the juxtaposition of geological scales of space and time, (spatially so enormous and temporally so slow as virtually to reside outside human perception), to architectural scales of space and time. Symbolically, the Pacific tectonic plate (the Franciscan formation) comes to rest against the Atlantic plate (the Manhattan Formation), and geological spacetime (the time of the cliff’s formation) is juxtaposed to urban spacetime (the time of the building’s formation). Roloff has not read Derrida, and I quote the latter here only to elucidate a principle of boundary marking that is profoundly at work in most of Roloff’s work:


What is incomprehensible about the edge, about the à-bord appears not only at the internal limit, the one that passes between the frame and the painting, the clothing and the body, the column and the building, but also at the external limit. Parega [frames] have a thickness, a surface which separates them not only… from the integral inside, from the body proper of the ergon, but also from the outside, from the wall on which the painting is hung, from the space in which statue or column is erected, then, step by step, from the whole field of historical, economic, political inscriptions … No “theory,” no “practice,” no “theoretical practice” can intervene effectively in this field if it does not weigh up and bear on the frame, which is the decisive structure of what is at stake, at the invisible limit to (between) the interiority of meaning… and (to) all the empiricisms of the extrinsic which, incapable of either seeing or reading, miss the question completely. (Derrida, 1987, 61)

Derrida’s and Lyotard’s Kantianism are in sync as both assume that it is in the frame, the decisive structure that passes between reason (the interiority of meaning) and understanding (the empiricisms of the extrinsic) that the inexpressible, that which is incapable of either seeing or reading, emerges within aesthetic judgment. Aesthetic judgment is the human faculty the very function of which is to ‘reflect on,’ in order to frame, reason’s meanings and the empiricisms delivered to it by understanding’s sensory intuitions. Judgment is both the analysis of the contents of its subordinate faculties, and their synthesis in a framework that determines our integrated (sociopolitical) human action on the world. But ‘to judge’ aesthetically is better modeled by the idiom ‘to judge the quantitative distances or qualitative differences between things’ than by the discernment of truth-values. Judgments of this type, judgments of the thicknesses and surfaces between things, for the physicist Kant, were reliant on the very Newtonian conceptions of absolute space and time his three critiques aimed to justify, in order to preserve the most fundamental concept of mechanistic philosophy, causality. Causality for this cornerstone of Enlightenment rationalism, was the very definition of God. For that, (for Him) he was willing to sacrifice all human knowledge of the world in-and-of itself. But such an extreme (Puritanical) sacrifice is not necessary, in my view, if instead the self-same absoluteness of space and time (and God along with them) are sacrificed to their relativized synthesis in spacetime, a concept always uniquely determined by the comparative contexts, frames of reference, in which aesthetic judgment encounters them. Causality for contemporary science, and contemporary scientific realism generally today, is but a lower order law, subordinate to its opposite, chance and indeterminacy, to a world recognized as unpredictable, described at best by probabilities and complexity patterns whose abord are only loosely determined, fluctuating, dynamic events resistant to complete description, and therefore to some degree always inherently inexpressible. The problem this state of scientific affairs raises for aesthetic judgment, and specifically for any account of spatiotemporal practices, is to establish, to express, the paradoxical lawless autopoeisis of the world in the context of relativistic frames of reference.


Franciscan/Manhattan Formation is exactly the kind of “theoretical practice” that is capable of effective intervention because it functions as a model of aesthetic judgment adapted to causeless, lawless scientific realism. Not only is it directly about the àbord, the frame, the parergon, but it passes between the body proper of the building’s wall that is the photograph’s integral inside, and what so centrally defines the continental USA – it’s west and east coasts and all that they represent in cultural, economic, and political terms. The central USA is figuratively elided, and the cultural centrality of the ‘east coast/ west coast’ ‘edgy’ urbanity made explicit. But it also passes between the discourses of art and science, between the latent fascia unconsciously tying image making, architecture, and geology together. By negating the center where the work would usually lie, the white field negatively recalls the materiality of the architecture; the visualization of geological compression – the Californian coastline cliff transformed into a ‘frame’ – forces the association with the compression of brick that makes the building possible. Architecture is here rendered as geology; while the art market is made to subtend the enormous expenditure of resources, economic and material, of a building in midtown New York; raising the question of the art market’s location and dominance by refusing it any other ergon (work) than its own, non-salable, non-negotiable gallery walls. Art as frame is the mediating link between what Spivak has proposed as an alternative term for ‘globalization,’ the planetary, and one of the most trenchant creations and symbols of modernity, the city. (Spivak, 2003, 21-102) Roloff’s negative aesthetics provocatively raises the cultural stakes of modernity to a planetary perspective, one that carries us far beyond both rationalist and nationalist borders. He requires that we radically readjust our interpretive lenses to the spatial and temporal scales of a geological aesthetics in order to recognize that the Earth itself is literally, materially the spatial compression of time.





I now turn to Roloff’s photo/process works to show how he is able to reverse the negative affirmation of inexpressivity of the modern avant-garde, and instead affirm an aesthetics of negative expressivity. Rather than negating the representational index as Newman does in his abstract painting, Roloff takes photographs of highly symbolic and historically significant objects and events, and subjects them to a temporal process of negation. In works like, Metabolism Study (Falling Knight), Metabolism Study (Yamishiro), and Robes I & 2, we discover not a temporal nihilism, but the elision of the durations between different temporal moments in order to make historical comparisons. The first work [Top] takes the romantic figure of the knight, at the moment of death, as symbolic of all defenders of state power, subjecting this indexical icon to the organic processes of chemical entropy as the citric acid of orange slices undermine the image fixed in the photo paper’s silver nitrate substrate. The second image [Middle] performs the same negation of the equally iconic World War II Japanese battleship, and by metonymic implication, the war’s entire global event. The third work [Bottom] takes art history itself, and its mode of realist depiction of the period’s powerful elite, in order to make the comparative alliance between three distinct historical frames of reference and their distinct modes of representation. Rather than using abstraction as a human process of negation of indexical realism (Newman’s authorial painting-event), Roloff’s uses the scientific, natural processes of chemistry to express the very process of decay, and its erasure of representation, itself. The indexical, realist space of photographic representation is subjected to the temporal process of chemical entropy. Historical periods, their icons, and their representations of power are subordinated to the temporal inevitability of material death.

If Lyotard’s Newman displaces the Romantic sublime from standing before nature ‘over there,’ to the act of painting itself as event, then the sublime has been brought out of nature and into the human sphere; though in its specifically atemporal, spatial dimension, and as a record (a witnessing) of the historical encounter between painter and the inexpressible. The elements of time Roloff engages are, in contrast, both the completed past event (the death of historical icons) and an indeterminately futurist one (the chemical catabolic reactions between photographic and organic materials). His work compresses the time of a cultural memory of medieval Europe, the Renaissance , and World War II, and some complex and unpredictable future moment when the entropic, chemical processes completely efface the photographic trace of a spatially fixed temporal moment.

Roloff’s photo-process works are simultaneously an object and an event. On the material level, the work is an event in which the ordered, negentropic photographic image is then chemically fused with the entropic, chemical process of oranges decaying. On the semiotic level, history and memory, (the figures of the knight, war ship, and Van Eyk paintings) as ephemeral textual episodes – oranges as symbols of the Golden Horde, as portals into mortality and beyond, as subatomic events, as the star systems that fuel life and which will eventually exhaust themselves – erode by the same material forces that generate them. Embodied signs empty themselves of rational meaning with the passage of time, as the sensory image is destroyed by catabolic, molecular events, and the art work is itself the frame within which aesthetic judgment is made. Time is that which runs out, not merely psychically, but materially; not just individually, but cosmically. These metabolically expressed ‘privations’ are concretized events happening as long as the work happens. By literally embodying time and entropic forces, the literalization of the negative moment, Roloff affirms an aesthetic judgment that assumes the form of negative expressivity.

But such an aesthetics has value only in the negative distance between the terms it sets in opposition, between space and time. This distance has collapsed in Roloff’s work. His aesthetic practice aims to erase the distinctions between a series of terms that each depend on a more fundamental one; between organic, physical processes and the human-as-autonomous; between indexicality and abstraction; between history and the present; between signifier and signified; between the synchronic and diachronic. Each of these dualisms is possible only in an Enlightenment regime of common, perceptual sense grounded in the false separation of space and time. How are we to comprehend that part of the ‘image’ where citric acid temporally unbinds the silver nitrate molecules and disorders the spatial indexicality of representation? What do the orange slices and their entropic chemical, image-destroying traces signify? What else but what they literally, factually are – metabolic breakdown, the something happening in time, which is the negation of representation itself? But happening to something else, the photographic images of the dying knight, the sinking ship, the inverted Renaissance elite. What Roloff is able to powerfully, literally express in a ‘work’ of art, is the ‘work’ of negation of an aesthetic that assumes that space and time are independent of each other. I emphasize the figure of ‘work’ here to suggest labour, production, the bringing of something into existence. The raw material of this labour is not simply citric acid and photographic paper, but the spatial image imprinted on it, and then chemically obliterated, in time. In Roloff’s ‘work,’ space and time reciprocally negate each other by abandoning their absolute self-sameness, and difference from the other, and their absolute independence. What comes to be positively expressed is an entirely other animal – the co-creative object-event of spacetime.

What we witness is nothing like Newman’s static, atemporal painting event; but the spatio-temporal event of our normative, 19th century geometric imaginary exhausting itself, incapable of submitting to the sole judgment of sensory intuition. The knight’s death is reenacted, in our imminent present, as its semiotic and symbolic dimensions are erased, subordinated to the temporal process of chemical erasure. Because Roloff embodies as natural process the interaction between physical and semiotic systems, the artwork becomes an autonomous, autopoetic object-event, in which historical, Enlightenment anthropomorphism is itself the object of entropy. If, as Lyotard suggested, “The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time” then, Roloff’s work suggests a radical solution to ‘undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time that undoes the learned, space and time conventions of the Kantian mind. The avant-gardist task is not the mere passive witnessing of emergent proto-subjectivities of perception, but their very invention, the invention of a geometric imaginary commensurate with the shifting, changing, self-different frames of spacetime relativism.

My comments so far have aimed to contextualize some of Roloff’s aesthetic and philosophical principles necessary to comprehend his work. To repeat what I’ve said above, his works constitute post-Enlightenment, aesthetic judgments of spacetime that collaborate with physio-chemical processes and interactions between natural and human systems, where the artwork becomes an autonomous, autopoetic object-event, and anthropomorphism, human action on the world, is viewed in anti-representational terms, destructive and entropic. Roloff inverts 19th century Romanticism that took ‘nature’ to be a transcendental, creative and sublime force; for him, the human-nature relationship is imminently, tragically, catastrophic. What I will continue to elaborate is how his work shifts from negation of the regime of representation explored in his photographic work, to landscape and architectural works in which spacetime imaginaries are raised to full four-dimensionality at a literalized planetary scale that constructs viewers as geologists and meterologists, as those with an uncommon perceptual imagination able to comprehend spacetime scales measured in such trans-human units as climate, millennia, and terranes.[i]



A considerable part of Roloff’s art practice has been devoted to complex, large-scale public art projects. \] My analysis turns now to Seventh Climate: Paradise Reconsidered (2006-8), commissioned by Seattle’s Public Art program in 2006 for the I-5 Colonnade Park in Washington, USA. This work, like his radical, sculptural treatment of photography, breaks with both Rosalind Krauss’s taxonomy of sculpture in the expanded field, and that of public art, commonly sieved into the categories of plop, site-specific, and site-generated public art. (Krauss, 1979) Though the I-5 project might be described as some combination of the latter two categories, as we will see, it expands the ‘field’ so far that a description of this sort soon proves pointless. Krauss’s spatial metaphor – the field – and the art practices she famously used in her semiotic square to deconstruction it, are far too discipline-specific, and far too art historically predetermined to account for Roloff’s public works. The ‘field’ in Krauss’s use in deliberately polysemous, referring to the field of art history and theory, to the ‘field’ of artistic practice, and to the ‘field’ of semiotic analysis. None of these ‘fields’ is adequate to account for Roloff’s aesthetic use of climate. The one connotation of ‘field’ that would be serviceable here, that of ‘force field,’ escapes her analysis. A force field, the essential instrument for describing and understanding spacetime, is the general description of the ‘site’ to which Seventh Climate is specific, and from which it is, literally, generated.


On initial visual inspection, Seventh Climate (Paradise Reconsidered) is an elegant and relatively simple work. Developed from the concept of a palm tree forest spreading among the ‘forest’ of highway columns,  Roloff radically simplified his original design to a dramatic, almost science fictional vignette, a biological play taking place in the cavernous concrete theater of the I-5 colonnades. Consisting of just four species, the imported Asian trees are representative migrants each from different climates, biomes and terrains alien to those of contemporary Seattle, planted to form a ‘single,’ suggestively mutated arboreal organism growing wondrously up through a ground plane consisting of recycled concrete, where roots, trunks, branches and leaves morph in mutual accommodation, and share the same futuristic, urban, newly emergent ecosystem – the 7th climate. Roloff uses space here as a transmutation of time, in a hermeneutically quite rich way; the concrete ground plane refers simultaneously to three temporalities – to its biological present moment as the young trees grow to maturity, to the imagined inevitability of a future entropic demise of the freeway above, and to the construction materials of the neighborhoods that were destroyed in 1959/1960 to make room for I-5’s mega-structure.

It is important to recognize though that the imaginary, symbolic registers of the work are subordinated to its empirical, literal conditions; the work’s success entirely depends on that of the genuinely experimental planting of the four species of biotically different trees in a general climate (that of Seattle) alien to them, and one that is particularly hostile to flora of their type, the freeway’s desiccated, dark and shadowy underspace. In order to overcome this inhospitable environment, Roloff was required to provide the water and light necessary for Seventh Climate’s survival. His solution was not simply pragmatic, but the main aesthetic principle of the work. To sustain the sole multi-species denizen of this ‘paradise,’ he chose to also stage, or rather restage, the temporal setting in which this seventh climate is “reconsidered.” After determining that I-5 was built in 1961, Roloff installed precision, elevated mist/rain emission and solar and moonlight lighting systems controlled by a complex computer program, to simulate the weather patterns for Seattle during the entire year 1960. In effect, he theatrically expanded the aesthetic field to include ecological and Gaian principles, materials and their agents – interdependency, homeostasis, the urban gardener, and the technologist – as the protagonists of an environmental polemic, and a moving tribute to the victims of “urban renewal,” staged beneath the relentless flow of the mechanical, environmentally destructive highway traffic above, and the spread of Seattle’s cityscape that forms the work’s backdrop. Collectively, these agents define the parameters of the force field that is the parergon of this complex work.


We find in Seventh Climate all of the themes discussed above in the photo works. Here he uses the elevated roadway and the space beneath as a 3D parergon to create an anachronistic 4D spacetime warp. The cumulative effect of the year-long light and precipitation simulation is a symbolic and actual form of his negative aesthetics; in Roloff’s words, Seventh Climate “dissolves” or “makes-transparent” the freeway above the work’s main mise-en-scène by restoring the climate of precipitation and illumination that existed before the freeway’s construction. His work temporally displaces the site, negates its present environmental conditions both symbolically and literally, by returning it to its meteorological past. He intervenes in the historical, economic, and political ‘fields’ of inscriptions by refiguring this urban mise en abîme in a double sense; as a traumatic memory, and as an optimistic, possible return to ‘paradise.’ The work is therefore not only a monument of tragedy beneath a monument to the ideology of progress; Seventh Climate is simultaneously an invitation to “reconcile and engage with each other, to form new relationships across bio-geographic, meta-ecological boundaries and languages, and to question cultural, industrial, and natural interdependency, collaboration, and production.”


Roloff’s works express a radical ecological consciousness of the networked fabric of all energetic systems, within a parergon that is powerfully and poetically figured as an historical, spacetime object-event. Its theatrical structure and its dramaturgy construct a new type of spectatorial gaze, one that must be expanded to that of the geologist, ecologist, and meteorologist, an agent whose perception is that of time traveler with a god’s-eye-view akin to an astronomer able to perceive in the spatiotemporal units of planetary dimension and epochal duration. Roloff’s intent is to force us to contemplate just how limited and inadequate is our inherited Enlightenment sensorium when compared to the temporalities and spatialities of ecological, geological and meteorological spacetime. Spatiotemporal scale shifts of this magnitude, in Roloff’s hands, expand the sculptural imaginary all the way to infinity. Infinity is in fact the àbord, the edge against which paradise must be reconsidered, because in fact, humankind are now firmly up against it, up against very finite climatic limits that are quickly diminishing. Enlightenment spatiotemporality makes a forceful argument for just how imaginary, ephemeral, and artificial human territorializing has been, and is. Roloff’s work is an aesthetic expression of what Freud once called the Copernican revolution: just as Copernicus argued that the universe was heliocentric and that the apparently stationary earth moved around it; just as Darwin placed humans in the evolutionary chain of chance operations of natural selection; and just as Freud himself decentered and destabilized human psychology and consciousness by placing it in an orbit controlled by the Id’s love and death drives; so Roloff’s avant-gardist task is the undoing of the presumptions of the mind with respect to spacetime, in order to displace us from the narrow perceptions of a world in which space and time are narrowly conceived only as absolute, independent, abstract entities.


I will end with a brief reflection on an earlier work, Metabolism & Mortality/O2, (1992) that consists of two opposing, spherical, sculptural forms; an only apparently empty greenhouse (Metabolism), and a kiln (Mortality/O2) that figures an exploding star. Roloff’s describes the work in this way.

Sited along what was the drip line and furthest lateral extent of a large, now dead beech tree… are the project’s two principal elements: Furnace Element and Greenhouse Element. These two instruments symbolically represent the beech tree’s past life and current death systems on both macro and molecular levels. Furnace and Greenhouse were envisioned as ions of an oxygen molecule (O2) separated by the primal and arboreal forces of entropy and dissolution but are still united and activated by similar thermal processes: the Furnace by ignition of fossil fuels developed by the photosynthesis of sunlight in ancient forests and their subsequent geologic distillation, and the Greenhouse by collecting and demonstrating the present fluctuations in contemporaneous solar energy. The solar heat within the Greenhouse is measured differentially from the outside atmosphere by its internal thermometers.



The àbord, the parergon, the edge and the frame, are given particularly elegant form here. Roloff’s entire spatiotemporal practice achieves a taut, minimalist resolution in the two temperature gauges. Almost every aspect of his work is condensed in them; allegory, narrative, environmental contemplation of the invisible, continuously fluctuating forces of nature, negative aesthetic judgment based on spacetime, the interpolation of subjectivity as caught in the aporia between organic and inorganic, global systems that suspend anthropomorphic egoism, and the interactive connectivity of all things and its imminent demise. Roloff’s entire experimental oeuvre finds a fitting representative in this particular work that ironically implies a fundamental refutation of Protagoras’s famous claim: man is NOT the measure of all things. For the aesthetic philosophy that informs his practice, he has coined the term, synthetic ecology, with which I conclude:


Synthetic ecology strongly argues against the concept that nature is “unknowable” or even at many levels distinguishable from humanity. Synthetic ecology morphs into trans-scientific forms of empathetic vitalism/aesthetics, über-deep ecology, and themes of alignment, indivisibility, and equilibrium between living and non-living systems.

Roloff here suggests that ‘our synthetic planet’ is knowable through empathy, through our latent ability to emotionally identify with our inseparable spacetime Other, nature, and constructs us as Seventh Climatologist-Witnesses to the force field fluctuations of the temperature gauges in the Greenhouse as the Furnace burns on the drip line beneath the dead Beach Tree. His aesthetic judgment is that spacetime in our ‘enlightened’ anthropo(s)cene is quickly running out.

Reference List:

Crome, K., and Williams, J, eds., 1996. The Lyotard Reader and Guide. New York: Columbia University Press.

Derrida, J., 1987. The Truth of Painting. Translated from French by G. Bennington, and I. Mcleod. Chicago: Chicago Univeristy Press.

Krauss, R., 1979. Sculpture in the Expanded Field. October, Vol. 8., Spring issue, pp. 30-44.

Spivak, G., 2003. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press.

[i] Reads are alerted that the term “terrane” is a geological terms distinct from its homonym, terrain. A terrane is an often very large fault-bounded area or region with a distinctive stratigraphy, structure, and geological history, sometimes referred to as a proto-continent.



further to the previous post about the geometric imaginary… john roloff’s geological imaginary: draft. AND, in relation to my posts on paul demarinis, with only a nod so far, to bernie lubell [more to come on his work]

the non-euclidian geometric imaginary and the approach to a ‘scientific-aesthetic’: draft

this was written around 2002.. but, abandoned because it was erroneously judged as incorrect… but it’s fundamental here for many reasons to be further elaborated:

On the Geometric Imaginary

Since this introduction cannot be a full history, let it be more anecdotal and suggestive of the elements in the field I want to bring into focus, and the problems they entail.

This field includes but is not limited to the “truth and beauty school of aesthetics.” For this school, as for idealistic philosophy, mathematics is the model of truth, grounding its aesthetic approach largely on composition, specifically on geometric order, through which it attempts to achieve perfect proportionality by deploying naturalized criteria like the golden section and dynamic rectangles.[i] Perspective follows the same logic, bringing the “real” into visuality. Most of the work of the European periods from the Renaissance through Modernism actually practiced, or are considered to have practice, these same strategies. Because these artists claim to be imitating natural truth, modeled on a Pythagorean, mathematical essentialism, they practice a variety of Platonic idealism; the truth of any proposition is deduced from a set of “self-evident” definitions and axioms, and the simplest proof is the most “elegant” or beautiful, and as such is a representative of the ideal truth. The epistemological strategy of the geometric imaginary here, is to establish “visual truth” through what might be called “visual deduction” of the “true” arrangement of the artwork’s parts to the ideal, perfectly expressed whole, as derived from already accepted aesthetic-geometric truths – those of the golden mean, dynamic rectangles and perspective. This process, when articulated in this way, does indeed qualify as a form of scientific-aesthetic. The art historical narrative is now hackneyed.

What is not is to consider this aesthetic-geometric imaginary an epistemological method in practice that governs the invention/interpretation of content, as it’s form. Art historical interpretation speaks primarily in terms of iconography, of form, of the product, of the building or fresco that results from the application. It speaks in terms of the development of the visualization of the “real.” However, it has been pointed out in recent years that perspective is a disciplinary technology comparable to the disciplinary practices revealed by Foucault.[ii] While these accounts have done much to deconstruct the naturalization of perspective as constituting the “real” of visuality, they haven’t gone so far as to claim that this aesthetic-geometrical imaginary has the status of an epistemological strategy; in other words, blinded by the historical conditions that deny thought to artists, they have not interpreted these visual practices as a methods of producing visual form that cannot be reduced to the geometrical principles of perspective formulated by Brunelleschi, Alberti et. al.[iii] Nor can they be reduced solely to the tradition of platonic idealism and its truth and beauty axiom.

Though I must leave it without demonstration here, my claim is that the dominance of philosophical, historical discourses have failed to give this variety of visual epistemology a role sufficient to its impact in the construction of cultural world views; artists represent cultural knowledges, so goes the standard narrative, but not because of knowledge “inherent” to their epistemological practice, but merely because they arise from epistemologies of other practices. Artists are always reduced to illustrators of the principles of other disciplines.

Morris Kline’s description of Leonardo is typical:

Nevertheless, Leonardo did not fully grasp the true method of science. In fact, he had no methodology, nor any underlying philosophy. His work was that of a practical investigator of nature, motivated by aesthetic drives but otherwise undirected. (1972:224)

Coeval with the rise of perspective and its aesthetic-geometric productions, was another “tradition” that to my knowledge remains unacknowledged. One artist worked according to another principle, not reducible to those of the idealist, platonic school. Piero della Francesca is a prominent member of the Renaissance canon, but incorrectly assimilated to the tradition just described. It is true that his works use idealized forms. And though the spatial configurations of his paintings conformed to the laws of perspective, and he wrote one of the most widely used books on the subject for artists, his visualization practices also interfered with it. Flat vertical planes of walls interrupt the depiction of perspectivally ordered spatial volumes. He was not interested in the visualization of coherent wholes that subjected visual logic to a singular visualized “truth.” He works offered representations of disjunctive spaces and times out of sync with the perfectly constructed wholes of perspective. While not denied in his work, perspective is but one among other options in his aesthetic-geometric imaginary. Hence, his spatial investigations are far more complex than the geometrical reductivism in other work of this period.

This begins to make sense once we know the following fact. della Francesca was the only Italian of his day to invent a new mathematical concept. He invented a form of mathematics, in anticipation of what would eventually become, with Liebniz and Newton, the integral calculus. It was both a descriptive and constructive method determining the gradient of the curvature of a body. He used it to construct the gradient of curvature of the human head.[iv] The implication here is that his interest in the curvature of bodies, the very particular curvature of very particular bodies, pointed toward a geometric practice not reducible to planar, Euclidean geometric methods of construction of curves based on the circle, and on the assemblages of circular arcs to produced more complex curves. His system was at once constructive, and numerical. To the degree that it was numerical, it moved away from the assumed standards of the geometric imaginary of his day, based as they were on the ideal of ‘self-evidently’ intuited spatial perspectives. Arithmetic techniques retreat from the privileged arena of sight, and from the hegemony of geometry, tending toward the formalisms of algebraic unrepresentability. Francesca’s epistemological practices must be considered in contrast to the strict linear logic of perspective, generated by the grided determinations of vanishing points. His imagines a more complex spatial world then other artists of his time. One that begins to question the very possibility of representation. Hence, his planar interruptions of deep perspectival space is in league with his pursuit of the curve and its methods of constructing them. It is thus to him, that I want to ascribe the historical emergence of an epistemological process uniquely formative of the scientific-aesthetic, in its geometric form.

After Francesca, we skip more than 250 years to the work of the Jesuit priest and mathematics professor at Pavia, Gerolamo Saccheri, whose works fall in with attempts to prove the truth of Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate, through the long accepted technique of the reductio ad absurdum (the method of demonstrating the correctness of a proposition by reducing its assumed opposite to contradiction). In his attempt to prove the fifth postulate, Saccheri produced a series of theorems following from a line of thought that did not lead to contradiction. The results, however, were too bizarre for him to accept, and he simply pronounced them false. This story also follows a well-worn historical narrative. Saccheri’s work led to several moments in the history of mathematics that need recapitulation here. These moments illustrate the process by which a radical geometrical imaginary emerged, and was then again repressed. The fact of this repression is interesting by itself, but the reasons are far more compelling.

In 1763, the German mathematician Georg Klugel

made the remarkable observation that the certainty with which men accepted the truth of the Euclidean parallel axiom was based on experience. This observation introduced for the first time the thought that experience rather than self-evidence substantiated the axioms. (Kline 1972: 868)

Klugel’s work was taken up in 1766 (not published until 1786) by Johann Lambert, who realized

that any body of hypotheses which did not lead to contradictions offered a possible geometry. Such a geometry would be a valid logical structure even though it might have little to do with real figures. (Kline 1972: 868)

We witness here a double epistemological extension of mathematics; extension to “experience” as the ground of “certainty,” and the extension of what was considered properly “logical” beyond “real” figures. But as Kline points out, Lambert’s recognition, while remarkable, doesn’t make the leap from logical consistency as mathematical statements, to applications to physical space. This was achieved by Carl Gauss beginning in 1799 when he reports in a letter to Bolyai that he has begun “to doubt the truth of geometry itself.” But it was not until 1813 that he used the term non-Euclidean geometry. In 1817, in a letter to Olbers, he writes:

I am becoming more and more convinced that the [physical] necessity for our [Euclidean] geometry cannot be proved, at least not by human reason nor for human reason. Perhaps in another life we will be able to obtain insight into the nature of space, which is now unattainable. Until then we must place geometry not in the same class with arithmetic, which is purely a priori, but with mechanics. (Kline 1972: 872)

These three historical moments, when combined, lead to, for this moment in history (the early 19th century), a radical philosophical position; one for which the very premise of logical truth, self-evidence (mathematical reason) is insufficient; for which “experience” is the ground of axioms; for which a multiplicity of geometries based on noncontradictory sets of axioms exists; and for which geometry, no longer founded solely on a priori principles, must be treated physically as a subset of mechanics. The implication is that non-Euclidean geometries are equally applicable to physical space as to abstract, logical space; that Euclidean space is not the only form of geometry that may account for physical space. The transfer to mechanics, and proof of Gauss’s claim, required almost another century.

In his essay, “General Investigations of Curved Surfaces,” Gauss considered a surface as a space in itself. This is a radical departure from any previous mathematical conceptions of space, still under the Newtonian dominance of absoluteness, homogeneity, etc. Gauss showed that all of the properties of a surface space can be determined by the second derivative, the process by which the rate of curvature is determined. In other words, for mathematical purposes, one can forget that the surface lies in a 3D space. If one takes the “straight lines” of this surface as geodesics, (the shortest line between two points on a surface, not necessarily “straight,” as in the case of the spherical geometry), then the geometry becomes non-Euclidean. If the sphere is considered to be located in 3D space, then its geometry is Euclidean (i.e., the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line not lying on the surface). This is as far as Gauss went. An even more radical step was taken by his student, Bernard Riemann, in a lecture delivered in 1854 entitled: “On the Hypotheses which Lie at the Bases of Geometry.” Riemann clearly realized that spherical geometry implies a geometry unique to the characteristic of its surface conditions. What is of significance to us here is the shift from an absolute hegemony of Euclidean space to a fracturing of space into myriad varieties.

With this concept, we arrive at a mathematical correlate to concept of multiplicity as understood by Nietzsche and Deleuze. We must also recognize that this movement came about through a metonymic process equivalent to Derrida’s concept of differance. The concepts of intrinsic and extrinisic geometries arises in a way analogous to the use of “inside” and “outside” in deconstruction. The intrinsic geometry is the surface geometry of the sphere independent of it’s location in 3D space. Extrinsic geometry would be the 3D space in which spherical geometry exists. But there is no necessity which compels us to “zoom out” to a privileged Euclidean container. Euclidean space is one species of space among many. Indeed, in “physical” terms, Euclidean space becomes a special case of non-Euclidean spaces. One main result is: the same surface can have different geometries. A second implications is the reverse of this: the Pythagorean formula is only one functional expression of the second derivative; in other words, dx2 + dy2 + dz2 could be replaced by other functional expressions, thereby determining within the conventional frame of Cartesian rectangular coordinates, a non-Euclidean geometry. This is what Riemann did. We may see this as a significant, mathematical break with essentialism, one which undermines the Platonic, idealist philosophical schools that predicate “truth” on the model of mathematical certainty. Again, the significance is that the concept of “whole,” or “unity,” is simply eliminated. There is no whole, only parts, which are at most unities only in signification, or under the semiotic dominance of interpretive trajectories. This is a clear alliance with Nietzsche’s “perspectivism.” What has yet to be determined, however, is the impact on aesthetics.

In the service of being brief, I will summarize three further points to illustrate the historical reasons that non-Euclidean concepts have had so little impact. Interestingly, at least according to Kline, the reason lies with mathematicians themselves on the one hand, and on the other with physicists, who are responsible for the erroneous popularization of the legendary difficulty of relativity theory (the cliché, “only three people in the world understood the theory at its inception”).

Kline points out that Helmholtz, in his fundamental paper, “On the Facts Which Underlie Geometry,”

showed that if the motions of rigid bodies are to be possible in a space then Riemann’s expression for ds (the derivative) in a space of constant curvature is the only one possible. (1972: 921)

Helmholtz’s point was that for a mathematical description of observed physical motions of the types of bodies physics specified, then the concept of constant curvature was a necessary condition; and that it was exactly this that Riemannian geometry provided. Hence, of the myriad possible geometries, only this was adequate for physical description of observed phenomena. What happens next is characteristic of the power and hold of the Euclidean imaginary. It is re-naturalized by very influential mathematicians and scientific institutions. Despite Helmholtz’s paper, as Kline points out:

Another reason for the loss of interest in the non-Euclidean geometries was their seeming lack of relevance to the physical world….. Cayley, Klein, and Poincare, though they considered this matter, affirmed that we would not ever need to improve on or abandon Euclidean geometry…. In fact, most mathematicians regarded non-Euclidean geometry as a logical curiosity. (1972: 921)

Cayley was the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1883, at about the same time Nietzsche was writing Thus Spake Zarathrustra, claimed in an address to the BAAS:

… that non-Euclidean spaces were a priori a mistaken idea, but non-Euclidean geometries were acceptable because they resulted merely from a change in the distance function in Euclidean space. (1972: 922)

Cayley thereby threw the weight of the prestigious BAAS behind the suppression of the more radical thought, thus re-founding “common sense” on the basis of traditional Euclidean notions. What is compelling here, and can only be briefly indicated, is the role played by institutions, prestigious reputations, models of the physical world, and an ideological commitment to methodological blindness. It is here that a discussion of Kuhn’s turn toward the role of aesthetics in scientific motivations will be useful, independently of whether his position on paradigm shifts is adequate or not. What it is important to note here is that the availability of a non-Euclidean imaginary arose briefly in the mid 19th century, only to be lost because of its demotion to the status of a “logical curiosity,” a position essentially equivalent to Saccheri’s during the Renaissance. Once again, British imperial institutions work in the service of suppression of cultural opportunities.

That non-Euclidean geometry, and in particular, its Riemannian version, was retrieved and given renewed credibility by the work of Einstein is well known. The language with which he conceptualized this shift deserves to be revisited.

The only justification for our concepts and system of concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have no legitimacy. I am convinced that the philosophers have had a harmful effect upon the progress of scientific thinking in removing certain fundamental concepts from the domain of empiricism, where they are under our control, to the intangible heights of the a priori. (1955: 2)


In this sense, we cannot speak of space in the abstract, but only of the “space belonging to a body A.” The earth’s crust plays such a dominant role in our daily life in judging the relative positions of bodies that it has led to an abstract conception of space which certainly cannot be defended. In order to free ourselves from this fatal error we shall speak only of “bodies of reference,” or “space of reference.” (1955: 3)

Not only does Einstein retrieve the Gauss-Riemann-Hemholtz non-Euclidiean break with mathematical abstraction, and its embodiment in physics, but his acknowledgement of this historical recovery is significant. It signals an end, scientifically, not only to the dominance of Newtonian conceptions of absolute space and time, but also, in general, to the idealism of the truth and beauty schools of science, mathematics, philosophy and because based on these, to aesthetics. Einstein’s clear allusion to the damage Kant and his followers have done to science, (though as Kline has pointed out, mathematicians and physicisits share equal blame), while creating an entirely new conception and language for spacetime, has had little impact on the reception of Kant’s aesthetic theories. This is in part because of the legendary, if erroneous, conception that relativity theory is just too difficult for anyone but geniuses to understand. This in turn, as astrophysicist, Chandresekhar points us, has had and equally pernicious effect on scientific thinking. Yet, Einstein’s condemnation of philosophy is consistent with, and “foundational” to, Adorno’s call for the right proportion between practical experience and philosophic contemplation.

A scientific-aesthetic must thus, be one consistent with the challenge to Kant’s essentializing of Euclidean space and time. The question I wish to pose is how to develop a scientific-aesthetic on the basis of non-Euclidian, physically geometric, grounds? If the requirements of relativity, of speaking only of bodies and spaces of reference, in spacetime frames, is imposed on aesthetic interpretation and aesthetic production, what would be the results?

It is worth pointing out that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was written in the years 1769-80 and published in 1781 at the same moment as the works of Klugel and Lambert, also published in Germany. The Critique of Judgment was published in Berlin in 1790, after Gauss had come to entertain the fact that non-Euclidean geometries could account for physical space as well as Euclidean spaces. And yet, Kant does not take into consideration any of these developments, and sets the course for aesthetics through a geometric imaginary that naturalized Euclidean space and time. We are faced with the chiasmic historical trajectories of a mathematics and physics turning to a non-Euclidean geometric imaginary, briefly, on the scientific hand, and on the philosophical hand, with an aesthetics mired in a Renaissance, Cartesian geometric imaginary able to maintain its cultural hegemony firstly, because of the mathematical coup that derailed the non-Euclidean from emerging; and secondly, because the non-Euclidean then became hostage to a physics accessible only to a tiny elite. A turn to a non-Euclidean “imaginary” is therefore a turn to something which either does not yet exist, or exists but is not recognized as such, or cannot exist.

The aesthetic component of the scientific-aesthetic must therefore derive from mathematics and physics rather than from art. And the scientific component must derive from art, because some artists are indeed investigating the non-Euclidean that some domains of math and science still eschew, or perform investigations that might at least lead to what a non-Euclidean-aesthetic might be. This requires a radical break not only from Kant, but from a naturalized privileging of sensory perception as Euclidean. The project is to begin a process by which an “aesthetics” based on a non-Euclidean geometry may begin to be “imagined.” Such an imagined scientific-aesthetic will be quite different than the truth and beauty school of traditional, Kantian aesthetics. It may best arise, I claim, in the gaps opened by the space of differance opened by Mallarme; but entered by Roussel, Artaud and Kafka in a “literary” appropriation based not on narrative, but on a challenge to master narratives, to signification, and to language itself. Roussel used a mechanico-chance method to produce his “novels,” an extra-linguistic process through which language is produced. Similarly, Artuad sought in his Theater of Cruelty, not “psychological states” of identification between audience and actors, but “spiritual states” expressed “between gesture and language,” based on bodies moving in relations that suggest meanings language prohibits. Kafka sought a writing which mobilized the non-Germanic components of German through mobilizing the non-written elements of Yiddish and the dialectical components of the Chech German dialect, mobilizing systems of extra-semiotic exchange. It is in this work, that a literary representation may diverge into a non-literary art practice situated and oriented with reference to what Derrida, speaking of Artaud, calls the closure of representation.[v] This is a complex term with several meanings; here I will only say that it refers to the problem of subtracting unity from multiplicity; to the necessity of limiting theory to a metonymic range. In Einstein’s language, we may speak “only of the space belonging to a body A.” We can only recover the non-Euclidean potential repressed by Kant’s work, however, within a critique of science that begins the deconstructive project. Still, we must be careful not to privilege the non-Euclidean over the Euclidean. We must recover the non-Euclidean moment of the late 19th century, and use it to re-erase the hegemony of the Euclidean imaginary today.

Methodologically, by stepping “outside” science and into art, we may criticize science; and, by stepping “outside” of art and into mathematics, we may criticize art. Art, in its dominant expression, continues to aid the Euclidean imaginary; one need only look at Modernism’s commitment to pure, positivistic expressionism based in a rigorous reduction to Euclidean elements. The flat plane, more than anything, is the symbol of standardization, the absolute, the rational, embodied in its most ideal form by the grid. What could be more Cartesian? And this commitment has not lessened during the post-modern period, though formalism is not the driving force. It is because art and science are so unconsciously intertwined, that I pursue the pendulous trajectories between both discourses.


[i] There is a large body of work that goes by the general term, sacred geometry, that addresses these issues. Much of it speculative, popular, and often of a new age sensibility, though some of it is scholarly work as well. See Bruno (1967), Dunlap (1997), Ghyka (1946, 1952, 1958) Hambidge (1920, 1924, 1962), Hartel (1988), Huntley (1970), Lesser (1957), Pennick (1980), Vajda (1989).

[ii] Crary (1990), Foster, (1988).

[iii] Baxandall (1988), Panofsky (1990).

[iv] See, Baxandall (1988). Today, his mathematical techniques are still used by the airline industry in the design of airplane bodies.

[v] “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Derrida (1978: 232).

the non-euclidian geometric imaginary and the approach to a ‘scientific-aesthetic’: draft

moondog, another example of a great artist known, somewhat, locally [NYC] but only a shadow, if that, within the music art world/market

once again, i thank my great interlocutor, GUN, for sending this to me in response to recent posts, or, just because:

Moondog dressed as Odin.jpghos

Moondog (born Louis Thomas Hardin; May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) was an American musician, composer, theoretician, poet and inventor of several musical instruments. He was blind from the age of 16.

Moondog lived in New York from the late 1940s until 1972, and during this time he could often be found on 6th Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Streets, wearing a cloak and a horned helmet sometimes busking or selling music, but often just standing silently on the sidewalk. He was widely recognized as “the Viking of 6th Avenue” by thousands of passersby and residents who weren’t aware of his musical career.

for those not aware, Bird, was the nick name for the great jazz musician/composer, charlie parker. Moondog’s tribute to him is nothing less than brilliant, 1969, i think…


moondog, another example of a great artist known, somewhat, locally [NYC] but only a shadow, if that, within the music art world/market

An attempt at a clarification of my view of history and historiography: a response to B

from Hayden White’s essay, “The Burden of History,” of 1966:

Such a conception of historical inquiry [in which the historian and scientist organize facts through tentative metaphoric approximations] and representation would open up the possibility of using contemporary scientific and artistic insights in history without leading to radical relativism… It would permit the plunder of psychoanalysis, cybernetics, game theory, and the rest…. And it would permit historians to conceive of the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representations for dramatizing the significance of data…. [p. 47]


stylistic difference.001

‘historiography’ is the philosophical study of how history is written, constructed, told, assembled, in short: it’s the study of the often unconscious assumptions historians make in producing their histories. it’s important to note that historians don’t exactly ‘make history’. people ‘make’ history, but it’s not only people who make it, in fact; though humans do have considerable impact on history making. it is possible, or is it? to write history that reflects only on human activity. but any such history would be woefully incomplete because it would give no account of very important historical events that have made humans human. For example, the now deceased anthopologist, Paul Sheppard, wrote a book entitled: The Others: how animals made us human. Some of those ‘animals’, would include Neanderthals, our direct ancestors, who it turns out were making art long before humans were, and with whom homo sapiens interbred. One of Sheppard’s examples is while it’s true to a degree that human’s domesticated the dog, he shows that dogs also helped to domesticate humans because they co-evolved together, co-determining each others behaviors. It doesn’t take much analysis to recognized that purely environmental factors have had considerable impact on human history; climate change is doing that as i write, and geologists have named a new period of history to describe this feedback loop: the anthropocene dates to the beginning of the industrial revolution, when humans began to pump CO2 in the atmosphere in enormous quantities. the examples of human-animal-forest collaborations are too many to list: nomadism was dependent on animal migrations and seasonal changes that effected agriculture. We only have to look at the last hurricane season to see just how much impact the environment can have on human history on texas, florida or the caribbean.

but even ignoring the impact of the histories of the non-human world, of non-human ‘actors’, we must consider that what is typically thought of ‘history’, itself has a history and therefore must be considered not something ‘natural’ like air or water, but like everything human, a human invention that over time has taken many different forms. history as it’s typically taught and thought of today, is largely an invention of the 19th century. It’s true that many historians cite the early precedents of classical greece, Herodotus and Thucidedes, or for biograhical histories, Plutarch’s Lives. And there are of course many other examples. But they lack many of the criteria by which ‘modern’ history has been written. Specifically, they lack the criteria of ‘modern’ science, rules for determining what is or isn’t a ‘fact’, what constitutes a ‘document’, generally, what constitutes ‘evidence’. ‘modern’ history also requires a particular form of writing style, of what might be called a style/voice of ‘objectivity’. It requires the production of ‘proof’ through the making of ‘arguments’. It requires the ‘art of persuasion’, which ‘art’ in classical times was called, rhetoric. It requires ‘logic’ and combining logic with various forms of evidence.

To step back, historically, a bit, history as we think of it today, was made possible by the mechanization of language and images with the printing press. this made illustrated pamphlets and books possible for the first time. it made record keeping reproducible and able to be disseminated. It made libraries and archives possible on a widely available scale. Sure, there were libraries full of handwritten or hand-printed books before 1462. And such books are now part of ‘history’s ‘archive’. But such books were every expensive, and their availability very limited. And in the West, there were written only in Latin. So they were only available to a very small class of aristocratic scholars and priests, to in fact, scholar-priests; because to be educated in the early universities, was to be educated in what today would be considered a very narrow range of subjects designated by the categories of the Trivium [grammar, logic, and rhetoric] and Quadrivium [astronomy, arithmetic, .geometry, and music], and a fluent knowledge of the ONLY language in which was generally written, Latin. [Classical Greek came much later, after the Medici founded the Platonic Academy for the teaching of Greek and Arabic during the Renaissance so after the Arabic scholars fled to Italy to avoid being murdered, for the translation of long lost works of the Greek and Arab scholars]. But there was another catch for being able to study at Cambridge or Oxford or University of Paris or Heidelberg or Padua; a scholar was required to become a christian theologian. Thus the scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume, was barred from teaching in the university because he was an self-proclaimed atheist.

Another important ‘fact’ in this history of history relates to my earlier claim, that ‘modern’ history would not be possible without a particular form of written style, that included argument, logic, and evidence, of a voice of ‘objectivity’. This did not exist as we today understand ‘objectivity’. The ‘style of objectivity’ arose only in the 16th and 17th centuries with a small group of ‘scientific’ writers, then called ‘natural philosophers’. [the term ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until 1840 by the polymath William Whewell in England.] What we today think of the ‘essay’ was invented first by 3 writers: Galileo, Descartes, and Hume. Others contributed to the ‘genre’, like Montesque and Pascal and later, Newton and Leibniz and, particularly important to the history of history, Giambattista Vico. these scholars, as stylists, crafted the first time, the ‘essay’ as a form of presentation of scholarly knowledge, that developed into the style of academic writing in general, and the scholarly ‘treatise’. As importantly, these authors were the first scholars to write in their vernacular languages, suddenly opening up their work to a more ‘popular’ readership and breaking the hold on ‘knowledge’ by the aristocratic, educated, elite. [Galileo even gave highly popular lectures in Italian about his scientific investigations. Later, in France, the first proponents of the Enlightenment, the Philosophes, Voltare, D’Lambert and others, would write and publish, in French, the first, highly illustrated, Encyclopedia to make ‘all’ knowledge available to everyone.] This is not by a long shot a complete history of the ‘essay’, but it hits some main points.


Okay… I need to mention two more seminal authors in order to restate my account of history and historiography so that i can clarify for B what i said insufficiently previously. The foregoing brief cultural history of history is meant only to roughly demonstrate my claim that there is in fact, a history of history that means, because history in fact has a history, it’s not some kind of ‘natural’ thing like air or water. I haven’t described the other can of worms, ‘oral history’… like that of the native hawaiians, who ‘sing’ their histories in the form of chants, that are so specific and detailed that they are able to guide voyagers in small canoes well enough that they can make the 12000 mile trip between hawaii and new zealand…

There are two works about history and historiography without which, Hayden’s work, and my orientation to them, would be impossible, probably. At least not in the terms that have become so contentious since White wrote some of his highly influential essays beginning in the mid-1960s. The first is a series of lectures Hegel gave at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828, and 1830, since complied in a book called, The Philosophy of History. This is the book that has had profound influence specifically on how art history has been written, since his lectures recounted his philosophy though recounting a ‘history of art’ since Homeric times in ancient Greece, through the Roman Period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. This history was based on Hegel’s more general philosophical, systematic account of human development of consciousness in general, in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. In this work, Hegel developed a ‘historical’ philosophy based on what he called ‘dialectics’. Dialectics is complicated, more complicated than the popular accounts of that art history subsequently absorbed. But i will use that over-simplified version here simply so i can get to B’s question… Hegel was a christian, so he thought that ‘god’ was the ‘spirit’ that drove historical development in time. Since ‘god’ was both omniscient and infinite, his spirit could never be manifest within the paltry limits of human perception or even within the physical constraints of the ‘phenomenologically’ determined world human’s ‘experience’. He was reacting to Kant’s equally influential treatises, the 3 Critiques: The Critique of Reason, the Critique of Morals, and the Critique of Judgment; which collectively argued that the ‘world’ was irreparably dived into two pieces: the ‘noumenal’ [the world as it ‘actually’ is], and the ‘phenomenal’ [the world as it appears [to humans]. According to Kant, the noumenal world can never be known/perceived, ‘in and of itself’, because it is always filtered through the structures of the human mind and perception. the human mind/perceptual apparatus, projected itself on the world, and constructed it in terms of it’s innate biological and moral and judgmental systems/structures. This is why Hegel titled his philosophical treatise, the Phenomenology of the Spirit. We can never know anything about ‘god’ directly; we can only know how he partially, appears, phenomenologically, manifests his spirit in the world.

The way god does that for Hegel, is through an evolutionary process through which human consciousness grows over time ‘progressively’ more enlightened. To attempt to cut to the chase here, this happens according to him, through the process of ‘dialectic’, which moves through 3 stages he called: affirmation, negation, and synthesis.  [again, this is oversimplified] the spirit of history, god, first manifests in one form affirmatively – during the homeric, geometric period of early greek art; but the greeks eventually come to consciousness that that expression of human form is inadequate, doesn’t account sufficiently for what humans are, so the reject it, negate it, and develop a new aesthetic style, high attic greek style; but that under the romans comes to be seen as equally inadequate, so the hellenistic style develops that synthesizes aspects of the homeric with aspects of the attic period, in a ‘supercession’ of both previous stylistic forms. He goes on to ‘demonstrate’ this same triadic, evolutionary process during the middle ages, the renaissance, and Baroque. This version of art history becomes entrenched as what has been taught since hegel as the ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ periods. to give one example, early renaissance [Giotto’s Assisi Chapel], to middle renaissance [Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel], to late renaissance [Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross]. ETC…ETC…ETC… Affirmation-Negation-Synthesis…


Most of the major art history surveys, like Jansen’s, etc. present art history as an evolutionary, progressive development of early, middle, late periods. Which carries the very unfortunate result that has the spirit of history progresses through time, human consciousness becomes more and more enlightened; with the unfortunate corollary that the humans of the renaissance are more enlightened and therefore ‘higher’, ‘better’, humans than the humans of the middle ages and the greco-roman period. Not to mention how far superior the Greeks were than the Egyptians and the sub-sarahan Africans. ETC ETC ETC. the history of modern art essentially follows the same hegelian dialectical ‘logic’ – Manet to Picasso to Malevich…. you can see how wobbly this gets and quickly. but the general scheme is maintained – naturalism, to quasi-realism, to complete abstraction = modernism. minimalism to conceptualism to materialist formalism = postmodernism… pretty wobbly too, but these art historical narratives are very common. [i fall into this same trap in some of my brief cultural history diagrams below… hegel goes as deep as freud’s concepts of the ego-id-superego… ]



the second book of importance, written in opposition to Hegel in part, as well as against Kant, as well as against what he saw as an ‘unhealthy’ 19th century obsession with capital “H” history, was Nietzsche’s early essay,  sometimes translated as, ‘The Use and Abuse of History’, but more recently better translated as ‘On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life; written and delivered at the University of Basel shortly after obtaining a professorship there at the ripe age of 24. This essay has become a very important work for the ‘poststructural’, ‘postmodern’ phase of philosophy, cultural theory, art history, and the like, since the late 60s in France, and because everything is so delayed in the US, there, since the 1980s.

Nietzsche argument is of course complex, and i will not attempt to do it justice here. I will only quote it’s opening paragraph to give a pale flavor of its brilliance.

it begins:

“Moreover I hate everything which merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.” These are Goethe’s words with which, as with a boldly expressed certerum censeo [I am of the opinion], we may begin our consideration of the worth and worthlessness of history. Our aim will be to show why instruction which fails to quicken activity, why knowledge which enfeebles activity, why history as a costly intellectual excess and luxury must, in the spirit of Goethe’s words, be seriously hated; for we still lack what is most necessary, and superfluous excess is the enemy of the necessary. Certainly we need history. But our need for history is quite different from that of the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge, even if he in his refinement looks down on our rude and graceless requirements and needs. That is, we require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it: but there is a degree of doing history and an estimation of it which brings with it a withering and degenerating of life: a phenomenon which is now as necessary as it may be painful to bring to consciousness through some remarkable symptoms of our age.

i cite this articular passage in order to give some context for the white citation with which this post begins. and i mean of course, only ‘some’ context. white suggests that some types of science, and some types of art, are perhaps the best models for history that serves life by quickening its activities. unlike hegelian history which only enfeebles it. as does that type of art history which only accounts for those artists who have conquered the art market.

it’s my view that paul demarinis accomplishes White’s type of Nietzschean history in exactly its articulation of science, art, music, sound, performance, and technologies. his work is as humorous as it is erudite, as ironic as it is romantic, as comic as it is tragic, as ‘pop’ as it is ‘high’ culture. it’s as self-critical as it’s arrogant. i’ll remind readers here of all these false dichotomies with one example:

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 1.54.18 AM

paul discovered through very sophisticated research that he could play a hologram of a vinyl record or recreated edison wax cylinders using a directed laser beam instead of a diamond needle. that’s hilarious, as well as profoundly challenging to our ‘hegelian’ belief in the ideology of scientific and technological progress. his work forces us, once we engage it on it’s own terms, which are ‘our’ own terms, in historical terms, to face both the, ‘what might have been’, as well as, ‘what might be’. and well, also and perhaps most importantly, what should be called the deep history of our own ‘present’. while i’m deeply critical of hegel, one can only respect to a degree his brilliance no matter how wrong he may have been: and one of his philosophy of history adages was, to paraphrase: the depths of the past are contained in the present. paul’s work is definitely and demonstrably, non-heglian, by political commitment. it shows us a way to think about ‘history’ in a non-progressive way. in a non-linear way. it breaks open our ‘present’ to reveal the depths of history. and in so doing, it invigorates life rather than enfeebling it. some of his work is as challenging as hegel himself was; but some of his work is entirely ‘superficial’, as nietzsche suggested ‘life’ should be: by which he meant, directly active, performative, present, and, profound. like shooting a laser beam into a goldfish bowl, with practically speaking, zero possibility of hitting it, to the tune of polka.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 1.53.58 AM

So that is hopefully clarification #1… in historiographical terms.

Clarification #2: Art history is not unlike the quip: history is written by the conquerors…

that is: artists who fits the hegelian dialectical pattern get into major museums and make a lot of money… those who don’t, don’t. modernism linked to capitalism, to market forces, once the two forms of early patronage, the church then the wealthy early mercantilists like the medici, lost power, when a middle class developed and became less religious and interested in worldly mundane everyday life, as was first the case in Holland. When the middle class had enough money and the patronage of the aristocracy and the church no longer support artists, artists were like everyone else, thrown into the market place. thus artists like rubens who ran essentially a painting factory staffed with assistants who specialized in painting fur or skin or drapery… ETC ETC ETC…

art history is written by hegelian art historians who become linked to the art market: galleries or repute, art magazine reviews, major museums, through the intercession of curators. that is obviously oversimplified, but not by that much. art history as produced by most academics tends to reinforce the hegelian/market/1% dialectic…

the 8th edition… blockbuster art history

Davies, Hofrichter, Jacobs, Simon, Roberts & Janson ...

It became the holy grail for any blockbuster curator: a cultural event that grips the public imagination. As Engels reported to Marx: “Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition.”

Blockbuster, a highly explosive word not usually associated with art, has now entered the lexicon as a term applied to art exhibitions. By 1996 so-called blockbuster exhibitions–big, popular, moneymaking showcases that delivered a powerful impact–had become important sources of direct and indirect revenue, visibility, and prestige for museums worldwide.





An attempt at a clarification of my view of history and historiography: a response to B

alvin lucier, i am sitting in a room: history of the voice, continuation, along with derek jarman’s, blue

one of the great works of the sixties, 1969.

January 20, 2015  |  Artists, Behind the Scenes, Collection & Exhibitions, NYMOMA

Collecting Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room

Posted by Martha Joseph, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art

In 1969 American composer Alvin Lucier first performed his landmark work I Am Sitting in a Room, conceived for voice and electromagnetic tape. Lucier read a text into a microphone. Attempting to smooth out his stutter, he began with the lines, “I am sitting in a room, the same one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice.” As described in the text, his voice was recorded, then played back into the room. This process was repeated, and with each iteration Lucier’s recorded speech grew muddled, sounding distant, and specific sonic frequencies started to dominate the recorded sound. These tones that began to overwhelm the text and abstract the sonic landscape are the room’s resonant frequencies and are entirely specific to the architectural particularity of a given space. As these frequencies grew, reinforced with each playback, the result was an erasure of the human performer and the dominance of an environmental music.

[pearodox note: DeMarinis studied not only with riley, ashley, and tudor, but also with lucier. he was part of tudor’s group at Mill’s center for experimental music and helped compose, and play, tudor’s work, Rainforest, performed with Merce Cunningham’s dance of the same name, though there were several versions, and i’m not sure which Paul contributed to. but i did see him perform it as part of the ensemble at Zellerbach Hall, U of C, Berkley: i’m pretty sure it was there…]

Alvin Lucier recording I Am Sitting in a Room at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, on Saturday, December 20, 2014. Assisted by James Fei and accompanied by his wife Wendy Stokes. Photo: Amanda Lucier. © 2015 Amanda Lucier

to be sequentially experienced, optimally, in a single setting with lucier’s piece above. for several years, i taught a graduate class called, Power and Poetics: Scanning the AudioVisual Archive, at the California College of Art, in San Francisco, sometimes co-taught with my then grad student, David Goldberg, who went on to develop this course with his own students [see below]

Jarman’s Blue, 1993

Derek Jarman: no characterisation, no narrative, no poetry ...

A montage of poetry and music as Derek Jarman meditates on metaphysics and death in his contemplation of the colour blue and his own experience of living with AIDS.

The film was his last testament as a film-maker, and consists of a single shot of saturated blue colour filling the screen, as background to a soundtrack where Jarman’s and some of his long-time collaborators’ narration describes his life and vision.

On its premiere, on 19 September 1993,[1] Channel 4 and BBC Radio 3 collaborated on a simultaneous broadcast so viewers could enjoy a stereo soundtrack. not available on youtube.

Rough Syllabus David and I taught:


mark bartlett and david goldberg

Graduate Seminar


The Arch-ive

Pre-Archival Archives

Blue, Derek Jarmon, the film

Audium field trip

Derrida, “pages 1-5”, Archive Fever, plus you should get a jump                              start on the readings for the next two weeks because it’s heavy.

Vilem Flusser, Toward a Philosophy of Photography

The Poetics Archive

Poetic Knowledge I

Jarmon          Blue, text of film

Artaud              “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” “The Theater of Cruelty                           (Second Manifesto),” Letters On Cruelty”

Valery            “Poetry and Abstract Thought, The Art of Poetry

Poetic Knowledge II

Stein               “Sentences and Paragraphs,” How to Write (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1995), Tender Buttons, (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991), Stanzas in Meditation, (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1994)

Hejinian         “The Rejection of Closure,” “Two Stein Talks,” “Line,” “Strangeness,” “A Common Sense,” all from The Language of Inquiry, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

Zorn                Treatment for a Film in Fifteen Scenes, Arcana

FILMWORKS III: with Marclay on some tracks, audio

The Power Archive

2.11                Power Diagram I

Artaud                        “To Have Done With the Judgement of God,” text and audio,

Foucault:       “The Eye of Power”, and “The Confession of the Flesh”

Lucier             “I am Sitting in a Room,” audio

Power Diagram II

Jabes             “At the Threshold of the Book,” “And You Shall Be in the Book,” The Book of Questions, “The Pre-Existence of the Last Book,” The Ineffaceable   The Unperceived, “The Question of Subversion,” The Little Book of Subversion Above Suspicion

Derrida,         “pages 1-5”, “Exergue”, p. 7-23, “Preamble,” pp. 25-31, Archive Fever

______                      “Outcry: the Chicago Stock Exchange”

The HipHop Archive

Hip-hop vocal archive 1

Michel de Certeau, “Story Time,” in The Practice of Everyday Life

Jacques Attali,          “Repeating,” and “Repetition, Silence and the End of Sacrifice and Repetitive Society,” in Noise: the Political Economy of Music

James A. Snead      “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Robert G. O’Meally ed.

Hip-hop vocal archive 2

Paul Garon, “Blues and the Poetic Spirit,”

  1. Appendix: “Surrealism and Black Music,”
  2. “Notes on the Psychology of Enjoyment,”
  3. “Work,”

Norman Stolzoff       Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica

  1. Talking Blues: The Rise of the Sound System,”
  2. “Run Come Inna the Dance: the Dancehall Performance,”

Tricia Rose,              “Soul Sonic Forces,” in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America

Digital Archive I

Chris Brown             “Pidgen Musics,” and presentation


Delueze         “Cinema, body and brain, thought,” , Ch. 8, pp. 189- 215 Cinema 2

“The components of the image,” Ch. 9, 225-261, Cinema 2

Steven Feld, “From Schizophonia to Schismogeniesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat,’” in Music Groves, Feld and Keil

Leary, T.         “L.S.D., Dr. Timothy Leary PH. D.,” audio

DeMarinas    The Edison Effect: A Listener’s Companion, audio

Digital Archive II

Interview with Pamela Z, by mark bartlett and john roloff

Pamela Z      parts of speech, audio


Hark               “Time and Tide”

Deleuze         “The Crystals of Time, Ch. 4, pp. 68-83, Cinema 2

“Thought and Cinema,” pp. 156-168, Ch. 7, Cinema

20th Century Time Capsule, Buddha Records, 1999


Presentations at Betalounge: David Goldberg’s Studio/Lab/Experimental Exhibition Space

Betalounge A/V Archive student presentations : the students were expected to create their own A/V Archive for their final project, and present them at David’s venue.




alvin lucier, i am sitting in a room: history of the voice, continuation, along with derek jarman’s, blue

robert ashley and paul demarinis: history of the voice part ‘continuation’

the following work is one of my all time favorite works, and i include it here as part of my exploration of the ‘history of the voice’. it demonstrates that ‘music’ has many latitudes and longitudes, and falls sometimes into the intersections between them. next up will be alvin lucier’s, i am sitting in a room, another very important, little recognized, work.

robert ashley and paul demarinis: history of the voice part ‘continuation’

paul demarinis: excursus: draft: there are media problems below to be corrected: and a continuation of my brief cultural histories, below. though paul’s take is completely his own. he ‘tells’ a cultural history through his own means that includes the history of science/technology/sound/experimentation/art, and much else

Scanning the Frequencies: The Ironic Occult in the Work of Paul DeMarinis

Modernism, Occultism, and Evolutionism: a day-long panel of 8 scholars, convened by Linda Henderson and Fae Brauer. Association of Art Historians Conference, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. 9-11 April, 2015.


My paper will discuss the work of the contemporary, American artist and electronic music composer, Paul DeMarinis, whose sculptures and installations use computer programming, bespoke electronics, sound, and communication devices. Profoundly mining the 19th and early 20th century histories of scientific and technological concepts and inventions, his works are media archaeologies of great wit, irony, philosophical and political critique. Currently a professor of art at Stanford University, DeMarinis’s work has developed from two quite different cultural traditions; first, from the popular tradition, almost a folk tradition, of what in the US is called the ‘boy mechanic,’ based on a DIY manual of that name that began publishing at the turn of the 20th century, and the magazine, Popular Mechanics still in circulation today.


The second is that of experimental film and electronic music traditions of the American avant-garde of the 1960’s and 70’s; DeMarinis, unusually, studied in the late 60s and early 70s with important members of both east and west coast avant-gardes, at east coast Antioch University with filmmaker Paul Sharits and composer John Ronsheim; and Robert Ashely and Terry Riley at the well known Center for Experimental Music at Mills College in Oakland, California. While there, he also worked with David Tudor on the development of the watershed work, Rainforest. Another significant influence on DaMarinis was participation in the artist-in-residence program, which paired artists with physicists, engineers, computer sciences, biologists and the like at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a science museum devoted specifically to the sciences of perception, founded by theoretical physicist Frank Oppenheimer, [brother of Robert], in 1972. Paul was an early resident of that program, where he learned a great deal of the science and technological knowledge that has been foundational to all his subsequent work. He also found there a political kinship with the Exploratorium’s socialist spirit of engaging the general public in hands-on pedagogical experiences with science and technology.


DeMarinis’s complexly exquisite ‘works,’ therefore are the result of the contradictions between those three lineages – the boy mechanic, high art avant-gardism, and popularism. They are best understood not in terms of aesthetics form, but as ‘thought experiments,’ or rather, as an increasingly refined, though nonlinear, series of ‘critical investigations’ into one central problem – the techno-evolutionary displacements of, and substitutions for, the pre-industrial human body and its biologically historical sensory ‘meanings,’ and lack/loss there of. The results of his investigations, his specific ‘works,’ are uncategorizable. They have an uneasy home, if any home at all, in any traditional narratives of early or late, modern, or postmodern, art histories. Even his most influential teachers – Cage, Tudor, Riley, Ashley – might not comprehend him as part of their lineage because they were modernists who were driven by uncritically riding the wave, and each new subsequent wave, of techno-possibility. As suggested in Mechanization Takes Command, a performance based on Siegfried’s Gideon’s book of the same title, DeMarinis aims to bring critical attention to what Jean-Luc Nancy has called in his book, Corpus, the ecotechnical, the fundamental condition of modernity, an operational or functional world comprised of technical apparatuses that link our bodies to their networked ecologies. Erik Davis expands on what Nancy refers to as our vain search for the spirit; Davis, in more psychological than spiritualist terms suggests this vain search is driven by a “secret history of mystical impulses that continues to spark and sustain the Western world’s obsession with technology.” Taken together, Nancy and Davis define the territory that runs through all of DeMarinis’s work.


My talk today will negotiate three themes that drive DeMarinis. 1. He took the Cage/Tudor tradition of the music of technical re-invention of sound to their still unrecognized ends. 2. To achieve that, he immersed himself in the pragmatics of technicity – electronics, physics, chemistry, computer programming, music, and language – with the very sophisticated ability of the ‘amateur’ popular applied mechanic, engineer and scientist, emblemized by the figure of the boy mechanic. 3. He is both a social historian and political philosopher of science and technology, in the German art historical tradition of Bildwissenschaft that derives from the work on symbolism and iconology of Aby Warburg.

Though for the rich and various German term Bild – image, illustration, picture, photo, scene, metaphor – we must substitute the term, Ton – sound, tone, note, intonation – and speak instead of a Tonwissenschaft. But because that term is too restrictive for DeMarinis’s musicological avant-gardism, we need to supplement Ton with, Geräusch – noise – understood both in its common, vernacular sense, but also in its information science sense – random, incomprehensible electronic fluctuation. Thus, we must imagine a Geräuschwissenschaft. This way of framing his work is critical to understanding the role that the occult, ironically, plays in it – noise in its informational sense IS occult because it is scientifically and mathematically, while perhaps containable, essentially incomprehensible and impossible to completely eliminate. It is a transmission of ‘something’ beyond reason, and therefore irrational.



Warburg specifically cites Benjamin Franklyn and the Wright Brothers as early modern Prometheans, as ‘destroyers of the sense of distance, who threaten to lead the planet back into chaos’; while linking them directly to the telegraph and telephone, which in his view, sever ‘the spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world,’ by means of the ‘instantaneous electric connection.’ DeMarinis’s view is more nuanced than Warburgs, as we can see in his early work, The Pygmy Gamelan, designed to play the 5-tone scale of Indonesian gamelan music, but also so that it’s circuitry, it’s instantaneous electronic connections, are susceptible to, sensitive to, fluctuating, ambient electrical fields generated by everything from human motion to radio transmissions, to the birth of galaxies, which continuously and randomly alter the melodies programmed into The Pygmy Gamelan’s circuits. The work at least diminishes the distance Warburg so apocalyptically describes. But it also clearly illustrates that we must approach DeMarinis’s work as a tension between Tonwissenschaft and Geräuschwissenschaf, between sound-science and noise-science. Additionally, it condenses the three themes I mentioned above: made of inexpensive components used in consumer products, it adheres to the tradition of the boy mechanic, it’s minimalist electronic music style to the avant-garde, while philosophically commenting of Warburg’s worry over the instantaneous electric connection by physically and sonically relinking humanity to the cosmos, literally enabling us to hear the music of the spheres. Though DeMarinis was not aware of Warburg’s comments on Edison,


comparing electrical wires to Pueblo snake-lightning, the recognition of the important juxtaposition between pre-modern cultures and modernity’s ecotechnical condition is common to both.

Before turning to the main works I’ll discuss in detail, I want first, by briefly showing two more early works, to reinforce the articulation in them between the occult, modernity, and technology, and my three themes. Here,


we see that the Kim-1 Computer, as popular with hobbyists, is a digital extension of the analog period of the Boy Mechanic ethos, while the avant-garde aesthetic is found in the ‘slowly shifting composition made of filtered white noise, and historically and philosophically, light in terms of Newton’s spectrum, is the analogy for the spectrum of sonic frequencies derived from the ‘interstation noise of a police-band radio.’ Newton’s term derives from the spectral, the ghosts of the spirit world which he certainly believed in, not unlike his conceptions of gravity, an action-at-a-distance, as an occult force because he lacked a mechanism by which to explain it. Demarinis transfers this form of the occult in Sounds and Shadows of Sounds to its 36 bandpass resonate filters of radio transmissions conceived as acoustic channels able to pick up communications from another world.


Similarly, Voice Creatures uses voice recognition software to ‘translate’ museum visitors’ voices into the those of the spirits, Ted, Bud, and Ramon who, respectively, inhabit two radios and a kitchen sink, all of whom speak in parapsychological codes.

In an essay on his friend and comrade-in-arms, artist Jim Pomery, DeMarinis comments on the cultural political significance of the Boy Mechanic not only in American culture, but for the technocultural aspects of modernity, generally.


He wrote:

The Boy Mechanic has his origins in stock characters of American historical folklore: Benjamin Franklin (printer’s devil, researcher, tinkerer, lover, patriot, statesman); Thomas Alva Edison (telegrapher’s assistant, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, icon of genius); and David Packard (boy mechanic, engineer, inventor, industrialist, secretary of defense). The contemporary exemplar might be Bill Gates, whose progress from nerd to corporate magnate is crowned by a consuming desire to own the electronic rights to every major work of Western art. The evolvement of the mythical Boy Mechanic is clearly laid out here: curious child, boy mechanic, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, potentate of the ruling taste. In the end, the Boy Mechanic becomes iconic, a trademark himself. Pomeroy used the various stages and images that constitute these personae as points of departure in his performances, subverting them into a set of social and aesthetic criticisms.

“The Boy Mechanic – Mechanical Personae in the works of Jim Pomeroy,” 1993, Paul DeMarinis

What DeMarinis says of Pomeroy, is equally attributable to him. As we will see, he too uses the various stages, images, and particularly, sound and noise as departure points for his own subversive social and aesthetic criticisms. Elsewhere is the same essay, he elaborates this point relative to technology: “The Boy Mechanics,” he comments, “were artist-tinkerers who bypassed or defied the intended uses of technology, who disrupted the hierarchy of the messaging apparatus.” Nowhere is the artist-tinkerer disruption made more clearly than the series of works the make up The Edison Effect, to which I now turn to analyze what DeMarinis means by the messaging apparatus. At this point, rather than continuing to read, I’ll rely on a series of slides to explicate them in terms of my third theme: his Tonwissenschaft and Geräuschwissenschaft. or, sound-science and noise-science.





In his, ‘Essay in Lieu of a Sonata,’ 1993, DeMarinis describes three specific ways in which we should understand the Edison Effect, but what he says about that work can be said about all his work.

First, he tells us,

it refers to the profound and irreversible effect the invention of sound recording has had upon music, the soundscape, upon the time and place of our memory and sense of belonging.


It should call to mind Thomas Alva Edison’s illicit claim to the invention of the light bulb, and his general propensity for copying and appropriation as an emblem of the inherently uncertain authorship of all recorded works.

And lastly,

it invokes a metaphorical allusion to the physical phenomenon known as the ‘Edison Effect,’ wherein atoms from a glowing filament are deposited on the inner surface of light bulbs causing them to darken… [and that] made possible the invention of the ‘audion’ or vacuum tube… to sound amplification as well as radio, television and the earliest digital computers.

Each of these three effects specifies a type of ecotechnical disembodiment. All of his work critically addresses aspects of telecommunications, by taking the occult as a reference point with which to invert the consequences, on modernity, of these effects.


One genealogical origin of DeMarinis’s work is obviously traced to the 19th century concept that “the invention of the telegraph in 1844 led spiritualists to claim that an unseen “spiritual telegraph” to the dead also existed…” A second genealogical line is figured by the 19th century automatist cited by Roger Luckhurst – “When [British journalist] William Stead described the body of the automatist as a ‘two-legged telephone’, he was borrowing from an established conjuncture of electricity, technology, and the occult.”, the very same conjuncture we’ve seen operating in DeMarinis’s works. The automatist so vividly described is the paradigm for the telepathist. But if, as Lockhurst has demonstrated, “Telepathy was coined as a strategy to protect a terrain of scientific legitimacy.”, (because it framed it as an object of scientific study), then DeMarinis subverts that legitimacy by demonstrating that the scientific, in the form of the ecotechnical, delegitimizes the human body and its sensory organs, by occulting them. And therein lies his ironic use of the occult, about which more in a moment. DeMarinis in effect combines the figures of the telepathist and the telegraph, the ‘subject’ and the ‘device’, the messenger and the messaging apparatus, but by inverting the significance of their roles in the hierarchy of communication processes and systems. The three Edison Effects have resulted in the occultation of the human sensory organs, leading to the general condition of modernity, disembodiment.


DeMarinis makes this aspect of his work explicit in his description of Gray Matter, a work I don’t have time to discuss. He comments:

Our electronic media may be regarded, in large part, as the outgrowths of nineteenth century laboratory apparatuses designed to isolate & investigate the functioning of human sensory organs. Viewed thus, they fracture the wholeness of sensation in an effort to preserve, replay or transmit over distance the specters of our sensory experiences…


The ‘irony’ of the occult is that its anti-rationalist use in DADA and Surrealism, for example, has become completely rationalized with digital productive and reproductive technologies. Whereas Breton’s 1933 essay, ‘The Automatic Message,’ defined a fundamental surrealist tactic, DeMarinis’s The Messenger, understood as a follow on of the Edison Effects, establishes that recording technologies make the occult an empirical, ecotechnical fact. But more than that, DeMarinis radically refigures the occult as pure automaton; his ‘messenger’ eradicates not only the surrealist unconscious, but subjectivity altogether. In effect, the messenger transmits only noise to non-human receivers. Only the network of technical linkages, mediated by the internet, are capable of sending or receiving messages, and humans become irrelevant to the automaton’s ecology. This is a tragic view of technology. The ironic occult has a another meaning; relative to the systems of ecotechnicity, it is humanity itself that has become occult. Humanity has been relegated to the shadows, to a lived existence that paradoxically is simultaneously an afterlife. We are literally ghosts in the machine.

In his “Theses against Occultism,” Adorno notes: ‘The hypnotic power exerted by things occult resembles totalitarian terror.’ [Minima Moralis, 240]. Adorno was of course thinking of early modern occultism and not Nancy’s world completely subjugated by ecotechnicity. My interpretation of DeMarinis’s messaging apparatuses as having completely succumbed to automatism suggests that humanity is now in the grip of technicity’s totalitarian, hypnotic power, that the ironic occult offers only a tragic world view.


This seems born about by his 2004 work, Firebirds, in with “‘oracular flames’ kept captive in birdcages, enchanted prison cells in the afterlife of voices that wielded enormous political power during their lifetimes,” those of Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, and Mussolini.

But DeMarinis does not ascribe, completely, to the pessimism of my interpretation; he continues to resist such an extreme dualism, as is apparent in the comedy found throughout his work. Even the danse macabre of his jumping telegraphic skeletons makes us laugh. Isolation does not entirely preclude solidarity; equality is not entirely eradicated by totalitarian oppressive forces; life is uncertain and precarious, but it remains rich.


IF the ironic occult does not hold sway absolutely, it’s because for DeMarinis, we can escape the closure of the automaton’s codes through adding noise to the iron-clad dictates of their circuits, codes, and algorithms. He completely concurs with Avital Ronell when she comments in the introduction to The Telephone Book:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to read with your ears. In addition to listening for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness—in a word, you are expected to stay open to the static and interference that will occupy these lines. We have attempted to install a switchboard which, vibrating a continuous current of electricity, also replicates the effects of scrambling. Ronell, “A User’s Manual” in The Telephone Book, pg.xv.

The ironic occult, then, has a third potentially liberating sense: it’s the static in the lines, the clicks of the Geiger counter, the indeterminate transmissions of email to three different receivers, the effect of birthing galaxies on the tones of The Pygmy Gamelan, the effects of scrambling fundamentally part of every DeMarinis work, that offers us a strategy for countering the complete closure of ecotechnicity’s automaton. As long as the Messenger operates with the principles, with the dice, of Geräuschwissenschaft, then no message can be completely determined. And as receivers and decoders of noise, we might escape the Edison Effects of the occult forces of the messaging apparatus, of the telepathist/telegraph and become something other than a two-legged telephone.







paul demarinis: excursus: draft: there are media problems below to be corrected: and a continuation of my brief cultural histories, below. though paul’s take is completely his own. he ‘tells’ a cultural history through his own means that includes the history of science/technology/sound/experimentation/art, and much else