Total Recall

Revisited Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall yesterday, which is running at the Project Arts Centre until December 23rd, in so doing closing a pretty fantastic year of exhibitions there. Hopefully I can get some words down on what I think is an important, terrifying, and prescient work. Below is curator Tessa Giblin speaking about the exhibition, and also Oisin Byrne’s contribution to it, and also a panel discussion featuring Dara Birnbaum, Hal Foster, Robert Longo, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tim Griffin, which took place on the occasion of Bender’s 2013 New York retrospective, Tracking the Thrill. Really recommend seeing this show.



Interestingly, my interest in criticism and post-criticality is also leading me in a very different direction: namely, when critics get it wrong. And here I’m not referring to factual errors, or some gradual reneging on a judgment of an artist. I’m talking about the god-awful, crazy errors that become shockingly apparent with the passing of time. I’m interested in about-turns, and how they are verbalised and defended.

In 2012, art critic Peter Schjeldahl publicly backtracked on A Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (below, 1909), a famous and well-loved painting by Gustav Klimt. Six years prior he had deemed it ‘exquisite and brazen, compelling and brittle’ and ‘transcendent in its cunning way’. Now that verdict had changed. Instead, the work for Schjeldahl was now an almost obscene illustration of both economic and formal excess, of narcissism. In his own words:

The content of the gorgeous whatsit seems a rhyming of conspicuously consumed wealth with show-off eroticism. She’s a vamp, is Adele; and for whom would she be simpering but the randy master, Herr Klimt? The effect is a closed loop of his and her narcissisms. They’re them, and we aren’t. I think we are supposed to be impressed. And let’s be. Why not? Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach.

Quite a change. Other examples would be Greenberg – no surprises there – changing his mind about Monet, indeed coming back to it through his own justification of abstract expressionism. Another example would be Greenberg’s hyperbolic valorisation of Jules Olitski as ‘the best painter alive,’ the enthusiasm of which has been definitely undermined. I’m interested in Krauss ditching Greenbergian formalism, and how she justified that (1). I’m interested in the mutability of criticism, and how that plays alongside judgement – of the black and white variety, in particular.

Krauss wrote of her practice as a ‘perpetual inventory,’ the implication being that it is a shifting one. Some things run out, but maybe they don’t need re-stocking. In such a way, the work of writing criticism keeps itself open to change, contradiction even, in the face of a certain demand.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1909)

In respect to Schjeldahl’s reappraisal of Adele, we can put it down to two possible reasons: one, that his taste changed, and that those six years effectuated a kind of aesthetic hardening or maybe refinement: the second, and the more likely I think, is that the painting now meant something different in 2012, that its context had changed. Its ostentatious character was no longer able to differentiate itself from its own lurid context. In fact, maybe it even reproduced it.

By such an understanding, there’s actually an imperative to change your mind, no matter how committed that initial judgement was. Anyway, just a few thoughts here, hopefully I can develop them at some point. I really need to find Lucy Lippard’s 1970 essay Change and Criticism: Consistency and Small Minds, so if anyone has a copy please do let me know.

1. See Rosalind Krauss, 1972, A View of Modernism in Harrison, C. and P. Wood, eds, 1992, Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford & Malden, Mass: Blackwell, pp. 953-957


In the interest of disclosure, I should probably first say that what has been called ‘post critical’ has been a personal preoccupation for, well, the last three years. I have been trying to finish a PhD on this exact topic. In response to the ‘crisis’ or ‘death’ of art criticism, which lasted roughly the first decade of this century, it’s strange that the discourse of crisis appears to be gaining some traction once again (1). Or, rather, a strange nagging sense that maybe the theme of crisis was done away with somewhat prematurely. Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps the superficial fact that the wheels kept turning, that criticism kept being written, somehow blinded us to the thought that yes, there was a rot in criticism per se. In fact perhaps it’s the ‘post-critical’ mindset that obfuscates, blinding us to criticism’s redundancy on a wider scale.

I’m not saying that truly fantastic writing about art isn’t being produced, far from it. Off the top of my head, in very different ways writers like Martin Herbert, Hal Foster, Chris Kraus, Brian Dillon, Marina Warner, Andrew Berardini, Christopher Knight, and Caoimhin MacGoilla Leith – amongst so many more – bring a wealth of knowledge and skill to the task of writing about art. It’s these writers that I aspire to, their ease of communication so inherent the words seem to ooze from the page like speech. That there’s great writing doesn’t mean there’s a crisis, though: it just means the terrain gets smaller and smaller, until its parameters recede so far back that it’s just me – or you – and some writing we individually like.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the so-called crisis of art criticism doesn’t mean a crisis in writing about art. That goes on. Rather, it’s a question of the critical function, and what value we ascribe to it, when writing about art. Bruno Latour, writing in 2004, described the role of critique – and here he specifically means its postmodern iteration – has been rendered impotent (2). Such a critique has become aggressively vacant, treating its object to a ‘critical barbarity’ that admits no solid ground: everything can and thus should be problematised, interrogated, etc. In a memorable comparison, he compares the postmodern critical method with that of the conspiracy theory (Jameson’s ‘poor person’s cognitive mapping’! 3): both, he says, admit a paranoid view of the world, and of ‘truth’ more broadly. To Baudrillard’s theory that the gulf war never happened, Latour says: well yes, it did actually. In the latter’s view, such objects – like death, or love, or illness – present a fundamental impasse to postmodern critique: here it hits a wall and comes to look like the deranged bully that it is.

Within this context, it is easy to see why critique and theory more broadly are themselves problematised as a guiding principle for writing about art. Art is now – to paraphrase Latour – a matter of concern, rather than fact. And yet, isn’t capital a fact, however nebulous? What relationship does art have to capital? I for one don’t think all art is a matter of concern, but still begs the critical method so eschewed by Latour. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

To be ‘post-critical’ is to align too fully with the world as it is, and to perpetuate some naive Panglossian notion of it. For me it sits too easily within a horizon of individualised experience and attainment, which art – if you care for it at all – is supposed to exist as antithesis. Made by a person, art is something that should weirdly transcend the subjective.

As an aside, the Canadian art writing website Momus, which I really enjoy reading, was launched in 2014, with the bombastic tagline ‘A Return to Art Criticism’. Recently, I read an interview of its editor Sky Gooden with some other online art writing editors. In an astounding pronouncement, Gooden claims that – in little over a year – ‘the dearth of solid, evaluative, risk-taking art criticism has already begun to fill in. It’s become apparent to me that our tagline might be growing outdated, happily’. Now, to found an art writing website on that tagline is ballsy in itself, but I wondered on what criteria did Gooden base its increasing redundancy? What exactly happened in the last thirteen months, and why haven’t I heard about it?

Given the contemporary preference of art ‘writing’ over art ‘criticism’, I think it’s safe to say that Momus chose its tagline with a great amount of consideration. Arguably, it did so as to foreground its own critical agenda. After a few short months in operation, however, Gooden’s comment is indicative of the absolute co-option of criticality per se. Producing and publishing lots of art criticism doesn’t solve the crisis of criticism if that criticism is being funded by art galleries and art fairs, as it is in Momus’ case. Rather, it simply admits its deepened imbrication in systems of capitalist exchange.

All criticism is complicit, to be sure. As Boltanski and Chiapello have written in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), critique is in fact to be thought as a motor of capitalism, causing it to shift, mutate, and endure. Nonetheless, the ideology that says we’re post-critical just reaffirms and perpetuates that fact, and makes even the possibility of transformative criticism ever more unlikely.

1. Thinking in particular of Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (2015).

2. Latour, B., 2004, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Enquiry 30 (Winter 2004) pp. 225-249

3. Jameson, F., 1988, Cognitive Mapping. In Nelson, C., and L. Grossberg, eds, 1988, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 356

Glencree Intervention

Below are some images of works from David Lunney‘s solo exhibition Glencree Intervention, which is running at the Lab in Dublin until the 8th of November. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute a text to the show, which can be found below the images. And if you’re lucky enough to be participating in this weekend’s inaugural Dublin Gallery weekend, I’d strongly recommend dropping into the Lab to see this and, while you’re at it, a show by Emma Donaldson in the downstairs space. Two other interesting shows are also literally right beside it, in ArtBox and Oonagh Young Gallery.




All images courtesy the artist

For the past while I have lived away from the city. It has been difficult, at times, and continues to be. And yet at the same time I appreciate – quite reluctantly – some greater freedom outside the constraints of outrageous rents and ceaseless traffic: it makes sense. People leave for all sorts of reasons, mostly practical, and yet another reason involves simply being outside of some horizon of expectation, of being able to get away with something you couldn’t before. Most people appease this particular desire through short-term ‘Nature,’ with some kind of orchestrated ‘getting away from it all,’ like hillwalking. Things at least appear less complicated there.

David Lunney’s practice revolves around a long-standing fidelity and attraction to these kinds of places: more specifically, it turns towards the Dublin mountains. These mountains, which – though long-claimed by Dublin hubris – are in fact mostly in Wicklow, have a chequered and murky history: both the site of sublime natural beauty and the often-violent dumping grounds of the city below, there the demands of civilisation seem to peter out to a whisper. David spoke to me of strange gory altars being unearthed by unsuspecting walkers; animal organs fastidiously arranged accordant to some purportedly satanic ritual. The mutilated form of a dog was also happened upon, intensifying this image of an oddly potent environs, like the city’s image in a mirror, darkened and bloody.

Of course, these mountains are also where people go simply to get away from the city, quite innocently, or to just walk their dogs. The interventions that take place here, for the most part, are inconsequential and benign. It is somewhere within this schema of interventions – from the violent to the absolutely quotidian – that Lunney’s is to be placed.

The incident I refer to starts with a work made by the artist in March of this year, which was installed and left in a picturesque woodland clearing in the Wicklow valley of Glencree. From the documentation that remains, it comprised a large steel frame that seemed to emerge from the soft soil, with its lengths welded so as extend out in a triangular form. The steel is clad diagonally in a blanket of coarse muted threads; on top of these, six taut lengths of twine in rich reds and blue reach down the two opposite vertices of the triangle. The result is a strangely hallucinatory image, a kind of sculptural punctum against a backdrop of beautiful and lush, if monotonous, forestry. The installation breaks up the landscape, and its sense is one of definite but esoteric purpose.

At a later occasion, Lunney returned, only to find the installation greatly altered. No longer a break in the constancy of the wood, it was now exposed against a newly bare and deforested scene. The logic of the work was changed: it now seemed less aleatory, and somehow more grandiose, as though it in fact had caused the trees to unfurl and retreat around it. It was now more vulnerable, too. Two mixed-media works in the exhibition illustrate the shock of this before, and after. Strangely, the workers who carried out the felling appeared to have treated the sculpture with some baffled reverence, gingerly working around it, and leaving it unscathed amongst the fallen timber. Unfortunately, we can only speculate regarding the amusing conversations it surely provoked (Lads, will we just leave it…?).

On a more recent visit Lunney found the installation irrevocably damaged. Its steel lengths were now ripped apart and dispersed, with some violence. If there is a sense that those mountains are where someone, anyone, can get away with something, it appears this anonymous vandal’s ability to do so, trumped the artist’s. The damage was senseless, but enacted with a purposefulness that contradicted its senselessness. Bored youths, perhaps, but carried out with a worrying degree of laboured intent. To bastardise that Berkeleyian riddle: when an artwork falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Can this destructive act even be termed vandalism?

In many ways, the work here exists in a kind of post-traumatic state: desirous of a retracing, of forming conjecture, and of trying to fill the gaps in knowledge. It is of course an impossible task. All that is left is an attempt to muddy perception of this place, to mystify and demystify in one and the same effort. To this end, Lunney uses material in a way to break up the narrative specific to the place, to atomise and refract it in creating something wholly other – to the point that it becomes almost unrecognisable. A mirrored sculptural device is created, purely functional but nonetheless still embodying some kind of hulking grace. A camera rests atop one its wooden lengths, pointed so as to capture the image through the yawning gap that the pair of mirrored panels creates. The images that result are spatial composites, the sculpture’s legerdemain forming a disjointed and expansive representation of the rural scene.

A series of tacitly pragmatic decisions constitute Lunney’s recent body of work. Typically it starts with the familiar – the Wicklow countryside, chosen simply for its relative proximity to where the artist grew up. This is then broken up and disrupted through his practice of drawing and image making. The choice of materials, too, is direct: coloured pencils are used to render the images on account of their uncomplicated and familiar quality. The resulting drawings have a strangely duplicitous nature: at once comfortable and almost innocent, and at the same time somehow technological and unreal, nearly like some kitschy ‘drawing’ effect in Photoshop. To me these drawings belie the matter-of-factness of their making: instead the process they are inserted into, becomes key. The location, much like the materials, is chosen for its semantic blankness: their reluctance to connote makes them ideal for insertion into a process that is paramount above all else. Through this process, the subject matter becomes re-complicated, and rethought.

Each artwork, of course, has a life and a death. Lunney’s installation in the Glencree valley was not expected to last forever, but to degrade naturally over time, the elements working as they do. In the fear of anthropomorphising, its life was instead cut short. Here, it is put back together in another, much darker, iteration. Two of its twine-covered limbs are hung in parallel up the gallery wall, within a crucifix form: its horizontal lengths comprise two manipulated photographs of the work, one of when it was whole, the other of some vestige of steel in the wake of the incident. These photographs’ manipulation, through the rudimentary application of glue and sawdust directly onto the glass, mimes the violence of the sculpture’s tampering. The result is totemic – an image representative of its chequered existence. It’s not all loss, though: the sculpture here has a serendipitous afterlife. For the sculpture to be destroyed, after all, gets right to the rub of the place – a place that is simultaneously pastoral and vicious, natural and all too human.

More than human

Recently I have done quite a lot of research on technology. In particular, I’ve looked at technology with regard to ‘the contemporary,’ and how it might be claimed to be a central marker of the present moment. This thought presents a weird conundrum: on the one the hand, technology – throughout history – has enacted a kind of existential anxiety, a sense of the uncanny. Long before the internet, or even a whisper of A.I.,  the advent even of electricity was accompanied by unease[i]. On the other hand, though, technology does in fact seem to play a more dominant, or perhaps more embedded, part in contemporary life. In the absence of knowing any other era other than my own, my life feels saturated, almost thoroughly bisected, by technology. On this unstable ground the difficulty lies in both being attendant to technology, and resisting any existential and/or conservative hyperbole. It is a difficult stance.

One of the things I have grappled with is the way in which humanity is being mediated by technology. Of course, this has always been the case – one can say that what we call the human is predicated on it becoming technological in nature. Culture, for instance, is technological. At the current moment, though, technology appears to take root in a bodily sense – it mediates the production and indeed perpetuation of life itself. This being entertained, does this not also lead to a different conception of the human?


Let’s look at the sphere of work. Increasing automation, an offshoot of digital and remote technologies, means that the realm of work is becoming reconfigured (see above figure). Roles that workers once filled are now inarguably filled  by computers, or algorithms. This will only intensify by manner of degree. Increasingly, also, it is low-skilled, generally low-wage jobs that are being eliminated through automation[ii]. Through this, the realm of work – an undeniably crucial factor of human life – is being redefined, with jobs being valorised only to the extent that they embody something almost supernaturally human: that is, wholly creative. This might, of course, be thought in positive terms – with humans now being able to fully devote themselves to creative and fulfilling activity. To take one such positive – no, rapturous – view:

Advancing technologies will cause so much disruption to almost every industry that entire professions will disappear. And then, in about 15–20 years from now, we will be facing a jobless future, in which most jobs are done by machines and the cost of basic necessities such as food, energy and health care is negligible — just as the costs of cellphone communications and information are today. We will be entering an era of abundance in which we no longer have to work to have our basic needs met. And we will gain the freedom to pursue creative endeavours and do the things that we really like [iii].

With regard to such automation, the impetus is to become even more human (if that makes sense): the pressure consists in the ability to do something only a human could do, and economic worth constituted only to the extent that we differentiate ourselves from a computer. But what if we can’t do that? Or, contra that: what if a computer could in fact be more creative than a human? How would we define ‘the human’ if it is carried out more successfully through an algorithm, for example.

Recently I watched Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina. It is an accomplished film, shot and in particular paced marvellously with a ever present sense of dread [iv]. The possibility of A.I. is in the film given form in Ava, an advanced robotic prototype secured under lock and key by Nathan, a tech genius seemingly incapable of humility. Nathan is a pseudo-Google tech-guru monstrosity: both staggeringly rich and arrogant, he employs women (Kyoto) who (apparently) speak no English in order to demean them without recourse. (That being said, it’s likely he’d do that even if they did.) Into this picture comes Caleb, a suspiciously low-ranking, albeit talented, employee of Nathan. Brought to Nathan’s modernist fortress on the pretence of carrying out a Turing test on Ava, Caleb submits to Nathan’s eccentricity, conducting the test through an unconventional series of face-to-face conversations with Ava. Of course, she passes. She is inarguably intelligent, capable of making jokes, of thoughtful self-evaluation, even of sincere empathy. The imaginative potential of Caleb and Ava’s relationship – and the actions made upon this potential –  shape the rest of the film.

The crux of the film, as I understood it, is the muddying of the waters of the human/non-human. More specifically, actually human characters and their inverses – Nathan and Caleb/Ava and Kyoto – seem to swap places. Nathan is – by traditional and sentimental understanding – almost inhuman beside the heavy humanity of Ava. And yet though she might be moral she is a machine – a highly intelligent one, but a machine nonetheless. In such a way, the film for me presented new ways of thinking humanity and indeed inhumanity. If we are living in the anthropocene, and the means by which humanity and its environment are increasingly delimited by human (say, scientific, or technological) markers, then doesn’t a definition of humanity in itself, by extension, also change? What would it mean, then, to become even more human, and what happens if we can’t?

[i] See, for example, Melissa Gronlund (2014) Return of the Gothic: Digital Anxiety in the Domestic Spheree-flux no. 51 (January 2014).

[ii] For more on automation and employment, particularly with regard to the internet’s role in it, see Andrew Keen (2015) The Internet is not the Answer.

[iii] Vivek Wadhwa (2015) When Machines Can Do Most Jobs—Passion, Creativity, and Reinvention Rule, available at

[iv] The soundtrack in particular, by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury, adds to this sense of dread. It is available for stream here.

The Pattern Exchange

Below is a text I was invited to write in response to The Pattern Exchange, which just concluded its run at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios. The exhibition, curated by Rosie Lynch and Hollie Kearns, featured works by Paul Bokslag, Sarah Browne, Gareth Kennedy, Sarah Lincoln, Fiona McDonald, and the design collective Studio Weave, and encompassed a rich meditation on themes like communality, work, tradition, place, and labour. I tried to express some of these ideas – hopefully much more thoughtfully than I just did here – in my response. The text can also be downloaded as a much more aesthetically pleasing PDF here

Fredric Jameson, amongst many others, writes of the schizophrenic as a subject symbolic of the postmodern age[i]: as we become less fixed or stable in parallel with the incessant flux of contemporary capitalism, we begin to experience time and space in radically different terms. As he writes; now ‘temporal continuities break down, the experience of the present becomes powerfully, overwhelmingly vivid and “material”… But what might for us seem a desirable experience… is here felt as a loss, as “unreality.”[ii] In such a view, perception of the contemporary world is coupled with a peculiar estrangement from the present moment. The contemporary subject feels – and has recourse to – all times at all times, within a capricious present that paradoxically eludes her. Within such a horizon, subjectivity, labour, and even places become subjected to radical destabilisation also.

One symptom common in schizophrenic behaviour is a kind of pattern creation – of attributing sense where usually there is none, and of perceiving hyperbolic webs of meaning in which the protagonist plays a typically central, if not messianic, role. This experience goes by the name of apophenia. Considered analogously, the postmodern subject operates similarly, striving to create meaning and patterns of sense within a dizzying and multiple experience of reality. I often think of contemporary art as one such attempt: functioning as a sense or pattern-making machine, it grants a kind of unresolved and uneasy traction on the contemporary world. The Pattern Exchange offers a number of such artistic points of entry – each cognisant of a world that seems to grow ever more vertiginous and abstract. All of these entry points, in their own way, work to glean some sense of this world – even, perhaps, when there is none.

It was these thoughts that occupied me as I studied Sarah Lincoln’s digital film work, how things float (2014). In it, Lincoln steadies her gaze on the Waterford coastline, with particular attention being paid to the set of material conditions that convene there – conditions that slowly dim the fishing industries, and further contract the economic vigor of Ireland’s southeast. Sonically and visually, there is a degree of disorientation to the work, as though trying to test out and discern this place’s particular pattern. A picturesque seascape of a summer’s day is cut off hastily, and seeps into a wild vista, from the deck of a trawler. The Waterford coastline is unearthed as a site of convergence: from EU fishing quotas to tourism, coastal erosion, and economic stasis, meaning is created through forces external to its remit. No longer singular, it becomes the site of a clouding all-at-onceness.

This all-at-onceness, too, is to be sensed within contemporary experiences of subjectivity, and in particular, labour. It has become a commonplace to state that as industrial production is outsourced to the so-called developing nations, the Western worker is increasingly subject to the demands of what is termed ‘immaterial’ labour[iii]. Though valorised through ideals like ‘autonomy’ and creativity,’ this shift introduces an even further abstraction with regard to the conditions of contemporary labour. At the same time, though, the distinction between material and immaterial labour is misleading: all capitalist labour is founded on a fundamental abstraction – namely, the abstraction of the commodity form, wherein, as Marx claimed, the relations between people come to assume the relations between things[iv]. Both material and immaterial labour, then, are founded on fundamental processes of displacement, and of abstraction.

Sarah Browne’s work presented here, which assumes a two-pronged form – a series of small black and white laser prints (Hand to Mouth, 2014); and a modified clock, Zero Hour Contract (2013), alongside a Shetland Islands knitting belt – appears to similarly problematise this distinction between material and immaterial labour[v]. The series that comprises Hand to Mouth, constructed through the physical weaving of mutually incongruous images, cause a shock of recognition: in them, the contrast between the craft-industries – here, represented through historical images depicting women of the Shetland knitting industries – and the contemporary freelance worker, interminably multitasking and ‘24/7,’ is undone. The Scottish women, too, were multitaskers, invariably on the brink of precarity: to such an effect, the knitting belt was often used – and continues to be used – so as to allow the worker to carry out other tasks simultaneously. Browne reneges on the conceptualisation of any one idealised labour: instead, each form – material or immaterial – is the net result of external – namely economic and social – demands. In so doing, she problematises the dominant thinking around contemporary immaterial or ‘creative’ labour as a simple good, or as an end in itself.

Quite understandably, the ways in which we attempt to gain traction on this contemporary world often involve forms of ritual: comforting in their make-up, rituals re-inscribe the subject within a wider and more vital set of meanings. They also stop time, in a sense, by connecting this ritual to those that have happened, and those that will happen again, in the future. Gareth Kennedy’s works, I feel, operate in an analogous fashion: his ritual, though, wears the signs of its fabrication freely. Here Kennedy starts anew, commissioning an object – a butter churn – and creating its accompanying tradition. Made for a 2011 public art commission in a rural county Kerry town, the project is documented through a nostalgic super 8 film, IKEA Butter Churn for Gneeveguila (2011), which tracks the churn’s progression through the town’s main street, dragged along high atop a flat bed lorry. Finally, butter made by it is ceremoniously put into the ground. Alongside this film, the churn itself is presented with some buckets, atop the IKEA counter from which it is made.

At the same time, though, ritual is almost incommensurate with the contemporary moment. Through its composition of IKEA materials, Kennedy’s butter churn strives at a kind of deep time, to which it is structurally foreclosed. IKEA, which as Jameson might say, remodels the modern as style[vi], is synonymous with the short-life, mass-produced epiphenomena of the contemporary. Kennedy’s ritual, then, is to me one of contemporaneity itself: it comprises a heterogeneous conflation of styles and times, which at no point reaches resolution. This contradictory – and absolutely contemporary – sense of ritual is for me also present in Paul Bokslag’s work, Resonance (2015). This takes the form of six large paper works, combined so as to form a sculptural construction that bisects the passage of light into the gallery space. Cumulatively, the paper seems to teeter on the edge of its collapse: one more cut, and the balance of empty space and paper would be disrupted irrevocably. Resonance, then, is an exercise in control, and in instinct. The hand instinctively knows – or feels – when to stop. These parameters, then, are not learned, but tested out and intuited: much like with the ritual, the demands of the work are wholly given through an engagement with the material, in the moment. In this contemporary moment, though, ritual becomes a sequence of disconnected moments, adrift and almost like the process of Bokslag’s paper cuts – each mark made separately, and disjointed from the next.

Let’s return briefly to place. Many theorists have discussed the postmodern turn as one encompassing the supersession of space, over time[vii]. In short, this hinges on a reorientation of value – it is in terms of place, and of space, that the contemporary moment is staged: more importantly, who has access to these places and spaces? Privatisation of once-public spaces (or indeed services) create an economy of access: increasingly, these spaces recede – or are receded – from view. Fiona McDonald’s work here is similarly marked by a preoccupation with access, through a study of Dublin’s Great South Wall. Completed from 1730-1731, the embankment constitutes an iconic landmark, constructed to bisect Dublin Bay, in so doing rendering it more amenable to trade. The Wall juts out into the Bay, the Poolbeg Lighthouse – its days also now possibly numbered – towards its most easterly frontier. McDonald traces its path, both historically and physically: on one wall, five spare diagrammatic pictures illustrate the public’s access to the wall, over time (Mapping: Public Access, and 2015 Mapping Levels, 2015); alongside these, a slide projector on the floor documents her route along its reaches through a series of light drenched stills (Walking the Wall, 2015). The Great South Wall, too, is under threat. It is now a site of conflicting interests, economic, political, preservationist or otherwise. It appears though as Dublin grows strangely atemporal – 24/7, and all times, all at once – it grows ever more contested on spatial terms.

Above are some slight thoughts in response to The Pattern Exchange. The works, as I claimed above, offer different paths and responses to a world that grows – at least in some respects – increasingly imperceptible, and maddening. Their approaches, too, are slight: each strives to reorient a certain thinking about this or that, or to muddy one particular way of looking at the world. Their world is the contemporary one: by all accounts fast as light, weightless, and even invisible. But the artists offer a kind of sense-making machine – or even a pattern – a way of implicating the viewer within situations seemingly exterior and unrelated to them. They build spaces to which we have access.

[i] See also Deleuze & Guattari (1972) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and

(1980) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Also, Jean Baudrillard (1983) The Ecstasy of Communication.

[ii] Fredric Jameson (1983) Postmodernism and Consumer Society, pg. 120.

[iii] For example Maurizio Lazzarato (1996) Immaterial Labour, in Paolo Virno & Michael Hardt (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy, pp. 132-146.

[iv] Karl Marx (1990) Capital vol. 1: A Critique of Political Economy London: Penguin, pg. 373-4.

[v] Browne’s two contributions to the exhibition ran sequentially, with Zero Hour Contract and the knitting belt being installed first, and the series Hand to Mouth after. Unfortunately I did not have an opportunity to see the first instantiation.

[vi] Jameson (2002) A Singular Modernity, London & New York: Verso.

[vii] Most recently Jameson (2015) The Aesthetics of Singularity, New Left Review 92, March-April 2015, pp. 101-132.

Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems

The following is a response to recent work by Dr Francis Halsall and Kelley O’Brien, carried out as part of their on-going collaborative project Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems. In particular, this text responds to some of the issues unpacked in their lectures delivered recently in the Philippines and in Detroit. Those lectures can be viewed here. I know the guys are keen to get a conversation going, so do feel free to leave any comments below.

In Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, Julianne Moore plays Carol, a strangely disinterested south California woman. Carol fills her days by working on ‘some designs’ for her home, meeting similarly disposed women for lunch, and attending joyless aerobics classes. After one such class, a woman exclaims to Carol “you don’t sweat!” She responds, sheepishly, in the affirmative; “it’s true.” However this hint of atmospheric imperviousness is a red herring: throughout the film, we learn that Carol does not underreact to exterior conditions, but rather feels them with far too much acuity. Quickly and mysteriously, she succumbs to what is termed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS): Carol is by all intents and purposes allergic to the contemporary world.

For Carol the boundary between self and world is rendered far too thin. I was reminded of this film as I listened to these recent lectures. For it is only through an appeal to a systems-oriented conception of the world that a case like Carol’s can happen – and whether her symptoms are made manifest physically or psychosomatically is absolutely beside the point. Something like MCS attests to the inchoate boundaries of human and inhuman, and of the absolute interdependence of these systems: it is in fact a kind of aestheticisation of it. Much like Jameson’s (or Deleuze & Guattari’s, or Baudillard’s) conceptualisation of the schizophrenic, the subject of MCS represents another actualisation of postmodern subjectivity – one radically ajar to the dizzying abstraction of contemporary life.


As Halsall affirms, the adoption of a systems-oriented conception of the world is troubling for a number of reasons. Preeminent among them is the necessary requirement to think in terms of overviews, rather than in terms of individuals or persons[i]: social systems, economic systems, technological systems – each of these does not start with the human per se. Instead agency is refracted and dispersed within a systems view of the world, and the body becomes instead a site of convergence. This has as its effect an inability to figure the vertiginous totality of the world to any coherent or binding standard. This foreclosure to (social) totality, to paraphrase Jameson[ii], results in the failure to imaginatively concretise, or ‘map’ it: by extension, the formation of a viable counter-image is stymied also. For Jameson, then, the inability to figure the totality of the system represents a fundamental impasse to the possibility of socialism, based as it is on a kind of imminently thinkable figuring of totality.

Capital is not thinkable: it is not a thing, but a process. Likewise, it is not located in any one place, but constantly shifts and morphs, traversing and binding other systems. How might it be possible to forge an alternative to it, or even any form of viable critique on which this alternative might be founded? And furthermore: how might a systems-oriented striving towards totality be capacious of holding such a critique? How do systems not simply reiterate the conditions of global capital?

The filmmaker Adam Curtis describes his practice as a means of creating – admittedly wholly subjective – narratives within a general atmosphere of contemporary abstraction. As he says: ‘I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time[iii].’ I think, instead, that is not a one or the other choice – narratives and intelligibility can indeed be created, but only within a backdrop of unintelligibility. A systems view of the world can be sharpened and politicised – and I think Curtis’ work does this to some degree – but only within a schema of general noise. This view might be a means of thinking many things, simultaneously.

Jameson also refers to the preponderance of paranoid conspiracy theories as ‘the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age[iv].’ Certainly I don’t know how many people recommended Zeitgeist to me when I was in art college, but it was a considerable amount. Typically, there was a tangible excitement as they recommended it – like they’ve been granted access to a kind of valuable and sacrosanct Truth. And in many ways, this makes sense: these typically ludicrous confections imbue the world with a kind of ecstatically perceptible cogency – they provide an entry point, or a kind of pseudo-Copernican viewpoint on which to ground subjective existence. And, as Jameson says, they do in fact provide a kind of truth: the parameters of their untruths are grounded in the ‘degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content[v].’ The conspiracy theory embodies a particular yearning for sense: similarly, Jameson’s postmodern subject par excellence – the schizophrenic – is typified by the presence of apophenia: that is, the perception of patterns or connections within meaninglessness.

Within his lecture on system aesthetics, Halsall referred to three case examples: the first, the supporting of ‘immaterial’ technology, and its disavowed irreducibility to the body within the outsource centres of the Philippines; the second, the topographies of Detroit and the infamous practice of ‘redlining’; and the third, the container ships through which global consumerism is supported and perpetuated. All three present key sites of convergence – or indeed visibility – wherein particular systems meet, effectuating an almost grotesque material signifier. I would add another: the contemporary luxury storage facility, where a vast amount of art is currently stored. Here, global capital just stops. This is the obscene counterpoint created by contemporary capitalism: halting, stopping, and taking these goods out of a global economic system. Capital renders them spectral, like a landfill in reverse.

Contemporaneity is fundamentally inflected by the discourse of system: whether technological, economic, political, or subjective, each conceptual horizon’s parameters are dispersed to scopes almost sublime in makeup. The rub, as Jameson has affirmed, is that postmodern ideology is enacted on the basis of reality itself: a systems reality is thus arguably commensurate with the dominant – namely late capitalist – ideology. Now, this is just thinking aloud here, but: how productive is it, in this light, to think the world-as-system? It obviously is one: from what point can its critique stem? O’Brien’s modest (albeit time consuming) project in the Philippines offers one possible example. Having noticed the vast dominance of the national fast food chain Jollibee, over McDonalds, O’Brien went out to photograph each and every of the two hundred and fifty-six franchises in the national capital region. These photographs offer a cumulative affront to global capitalism, and a point of possibility. Within a system of global capital, blips happen – the system can create moments of idiosyncrasy, rather than simple abstracted homogenisation.

[i] Halsall & O’Brien (2015) Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems, University of the Philippines, available at

[ii] Fredric Jameson (1988) Cognitive Mapping, in Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg, eds (1988) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-58

[iii] Paul MacInnes (2015) Adam Curtis: “I try to make the chaos and complexity intelligible’ The Guardian, 25th January 2015, available at

[iv] Ibid ii, pg. 356

[v] Ibid