A global video collaboration by John Gillett and Beth Harland, 2013
Exhibited in Cairo, Southampton, Porte Alegre, Canterbury and Cambridge. Curated by John Gillett and Beth Harland
Artists: Maria Lucia Cattani and Nick Rands, John Gillett and Beth Harland, Naoya Hatakeyama, James Muriuki, Ayman Ramadan
1) Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
2) Solent Showcase, Southampton
3) Galeria Mamute, Porto Alegre, Brazil
4) Herbert Reed Gallery, Canterbury
5) Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge
A Measured Response
by John Gillett and Beth Harland
Jean-François Lyotard, writing of Barnett Newman’s texts on the sublime, highlights Newman’s characterization of the eighteenth century sublime of Edmund Burke as overly ‘surrealist’. Burke had distinguished the sublime from the beautiful, as an aesthetic quality which is destructively fearsome yet compelling. Newman, in the middle of the twentieth century, wanted instead a sublimity of the here and now, breaking with the ‘eloquence of romantic art’. And yet he did not reject the fundamental function of the sublime, to bear ‘pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible’ (Lyotard, 1998: 93). For Lyotard, the inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time, but in this instance of (something) happening. Moreover, when he turns to Cezanne’s painting-research, into ‘perception ‘before’ perception’ through colouristic sensation, Lyotard is clear that it is the artist’s task to bear witness to the indeterminate.
How are we to go about expressing something we cannot properly grasp? How should we react to something whose dimension is at once not fully knowable, and yet almost its only characteristic? This was the principal challenge of The Seven Billionth Citizen project, in responding to the announcement by the United Nations of the birth of the seven billionth citizen of the world, on 31 October 2011.
World population is a function of the birth rate and the death rate; it describes both birth and survival. The exact moment at which a particular total is reached therefore remains indeterminate. In this, it is like another portentous moment, Peak Oil, when world oil production reaches its maximum. But Peak Oil, a deceptively gushing moment of plenty, is, of course, the decisive point at which inexorable decline commences, and any number of vital resources start to become scarcer. The birth of the seven billionth citizen also has severe implications for resources, but is anything but decisive: it is an arbitrary point on a steep upward curve: a point poised between a past in which life was short and resources were limitless but inaccessible and inequitably distributed, and a future of material scarcity amongst a super-abundance of long-lived people; a point at which society’s concerns flicker between a collective panic at daunting statistical truths and remarkable recognition of the value of individual existence.
To make an artwork in response, as the two of us were invited to do, we might have sought to understand and represent the numerical scale involved. Or we might arbitrarily have imagined the life of this seven billionth individual. But an unthinkably huge number is unthinkably huge, and the life of the individual is already ours to experience daily. So instead, we chose to focus on the particularity of the moment, on the strangeness of the fact that we live now, on the steep part of a curve on the population graph.
As artists in a university, we entered a conversation with our social scientist colleagues with curiosity and enthusiasm, and agreed on collaborative action. Following their briefings on population change and the surrounding issues – health, energy, food security, migration and employment – we would develop a new work to mark the UN-inspired occasion and prompt reflection on its significance. It seemed initially as if our new engagement with science would necessitate a transparent rationality in our work. But the truth was the opposite: the introduction of creative practice to the examination of issues surrounding population change offered a space for the lay voice in the scientific discussion, and for an intuitive response. The scientists expected us to jump right in; they expected the unexpected and the inexplicable; and they hoped it would trigger their own natural tendencies to fresh insight.
Our intuitive response was to turn to a formula established in the late eighteenth century in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, whose romantic paintings, in which figures have their backs to the viewer and gaze into the wilderness, are the archetypal engagement with the sublime. From there, our thinking proceeded as most research should and usually does, and in a way that our scientific colleagues would recognize: with the existing knowledge, and early reference to the work of certain other artists.
The strangeness of mood and moment which we were seeking to convey had resonances in other video work on exhibition in the UK around the time we were developing the project. In particular, the remarkable sound and video installations of Anri Sala, whose solitary performers play their haunting music to echo from suburban architectural structures, buildings that speak of large populations which yet pass unseen; and Frances Alÿs, who makes a solitary stand around the globe, either standing apart from the rest of the population, or leading it in collective action, somehow in defiance of an awesome nature. In Alys’s Children’s Games #2, boys on a beach, their backs to the camera, are boys on the beach anywhere and everywhere, absorbed endlessly in the rhythm of their game, and the feeling of command over nature, as they skip their stones across the ocean’s surface.
We were drawn to the work of the French artist Pierre Huyghe, and in particular his project Streamside Day, a highly ambitious, complex mixture of participatory performance, made objects, and photography that is simultaneously documentary and lyrically allusive, with an unmistakable tone and atmosphere. It is centred on the script or pattern, devised by the artist, for a day-long festival for the inhabitants of a brand-new town in America. The festival is conceived as an annual event, able to be staged without the involvement of the artist, the core of his work essentially the template for the actions of others. The idea of the template seemed to suggest the potential in our project for establishing behavioural common ground between citizens around the world. But more significantly, we saw Huyghe as setting up scenarios which bear witness to the indeterminate and engage with questions of information.
Lyotard, in discussion of the ‘crisis of over-capitalization’ and its threat to the search for the artwork event, which he acknowledges as ambiguous in its relation to sublime aesthetics, says ‘the experience of the human subject – individual and collective… are being dissolved into the calculation of profitability…’(Lyotard, 1998: 105). Here, the only thing of importance is the availability of information, in short-lived form, in fact over in an instant, submitted to the ‘machine memory’ as soon as it is shared.
In this time in which everything seems measured out as information, the consumption of which is catastrophically immediate, Huyghe’s works present us with something much slower; we need to stand and stare. He speaks for a different experience of duration, one which is the result of distance (the distance that information seeks to eradicate) and displacement: ‘This non-mediatised space that exists in the folds of information is attached to sensation, to affect, and to what Roland Barthes called the ‘third meaning’, the obtuse sense.’ (Huyghe, 2004: 201) He suggests that it is no use coming at the act of representation head-on, one must approach a subject from the side, carving out a different route from the obvious, in order to begin to make something visible, to re-mark it in some way. His exhibitions are so often journeys punctuated by moments of wonder; visual, sensual, musical, intellectual expeditions. He defines the art exhibition as ‘something you cross, where you suspend your conclusions’ (Huyghe, 2004: 112).
Reaching for other expressions of ‘otherness’, for the unmistakable mood associated with contemplation of the immensity of things and one’s place within it, also reminded us of the work of AK Dolven, whose studies of figures in the stillness of deserted coastal locations seem to encompass an eternity of time and a timeless sublime.
As a word readily on the lips of many, even in everyday conversation, the sublime represents a concept most of us presume to grasp and seldom question. And yet, identified in the writing of Longinus on rhetoric, and developed in Burke and Kant, it has been a territory long fought over. As we have seen, the debate continued into the modern era, and remains current. Much discussion has centred on whether it describes an intrinsic quality of the observed universe, or is somehow a characteristic or predisposition of mind.
Lyotard discusses Kant’s aesthetics of the sublime as ‘a pleasure mixed with pain’. In the face of an object enormous in scale or power, which like all absolutes can only be thought, ‘the faculty of presentation, the imagination, fails to provide a representation corresponding to this Idea. This failure of expression gives rise to pain, a kind of cleavage within the subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented.’(Lyotard, 1998: 98) He goes on to explain that this pain gives rise to pleasure in two forms: firstly the efforts of imagination to connect with reason to ‘figure even that which cannot be figured’ (Lyotard, 1998: 98); secondly the apprehension of the vital power of ideas, which renders images inadequate.
But perhaps the corollary to this view is the thought that images, for all their inadequacy, and indeed, through their inadequacy, can stimulate both an awareness of the power of ideas and new ideas. Thanks to Friedrich and others, who established nature, the landscape out there, as the arena for engagement with the sublime, we were able to see it as a metaphor for contemplation of the daunting, ineffable scale of population change. And when we do stand alone and gaze out there, we are looking towards seven billion of our fellow citizens. And so we arrived at the idea of our own video version of Friedrich’s formula.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s project called 1987 Chernobyl includes photographs taken within the evacuation zone of the ill-fated nuclear powerplant, distinguished in part by the persistent presence of a yardstick, functional yet obsolete, apparently to denote a sense of our need to measure even that which, in emotional terms, is beyond measurement. We wished to reflect in a similar way on the impossibility of truly comprehending even that which is thoroughly known to science, to acknowledge that urge to measurement along with its futility. Where once an experience of the sublime hinged upon the unknown and the unknowable, now it is the known which yields the same sensations; measurements are taken; statistics are collated; dimension is intellectually assimilated but its significance remains beyond our inner grasp. So we added a three-minute sand-timer to our formula, to which the video would be calibrated, additionally acknowledging that the demographer’s charts indicate not only numbers of people but also the passage of time.
Finally, we proposed five versions, each created by a different artist in one of the world’s five major population zones. In each case, the empty, sublime landscape under their gaze would stand in for the unthinkably huge population it conceals. And in each case, the watcher would be unknowingly looking towards his or her fellow watchers in other continents; artists’ eyes encircling the earth.
LYOTARD, J.F. (1998) The Inhuman, Polity Press, Cambridge
HUYGHE, P. & CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV, C. (2004) Pierre Huyghe, Skira, Geneva