Between Baudrillard and the Cave: Alfredo Jaar and Simon Critchley in Conversation

By Convened by David Morris, 27 April 2011

Developing their earlier discussion of news media's screening of global events, artist Alfredo Jaar and philosopher Simon Critchley consider how images can conceal, expose or recreate the reality we inhabit. This second installment of their dialogue is introduced by David Morris

The conversation continues from where it left off last time. To recap, Simon Critchley quoted Francis Bacon on violence:


When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.



To which Simon himself added:


Existence seems to me ever-more screened and distanced, a shallow shadow world whose ideological patina is an empty empathy. None of us is free of this. Maybe art, in its essential violence, can tear away one or two of these screens. Maybe then we'd begin to see. Because the whole problem turns around what is seen and not seen. We think we see what happens ‘there' and make pronouncements about ‘them'. But we do not see as we are seen because we are wrapped in a screen. There are tyrants here too. Art might unwrap us a little through its violence.


Image: Michelangelo Antonioni, 'We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is yet another [...]'


Alfredo Jaar, 18 March 2011:

To tear away one or two of these screens would certainly help, Simon, I agree, but it will not be enough. It is never enough as we cannot represent reality, we can only create new realities. That is what we do as artists or cultural producers: we create new realities. And these new realities that we create are not only a poor reflection of reality, they represent also, as Godard put it, the reality of that reflection.

Reality these days, as you know very well, is manipulated to an extreme that makes it virtually impossible for us to actually decipher what is real. Yesterday I was walking to my studio and a yellow cab passed me by at frightening speed. It had a police siren on its roof, obviously going after an emergency. A yellow cab! A student of mine had recently made a presentation in class about these under-cover cabs patrolling the streets of New York. We listened to him with curiosity, perhaps incredulity. Now I know his research was right.

This morning several European papers inform us of the most frightening manipulation being planned by the US military: Centcom, the US Central Command, is developing a software that will let it ‘secretly manipulate social media using fake online personas designed to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.' Apparently a single military serviceman will be able to control up to ten separate identities at once. A Centcom spokesman, commander Bill Speaks said: ‘The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.' Ironically, he explained that ‘none of the interventions was in English, as it would be unlawful to address US audiences with such technology.' General James Mattis, commander of Centcom, said that this program ‘supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities.' The first chosen languages? Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. So now we know, we can be unlawful when using these languages as they belong to unlawful societies, inhabited by unlawful people...

In other words, the US military is developing false online personalities - what users of social media call ‘sock puppets' - to create a false consensus in online conversations, blogs, tweets, etc.

Under these circumstances, dear Simon, what do we get when we tear away a couple of screens? More screens. As Antonioni once said, ‘We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is yet another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see. Or perhaps, not until the decomposition of every image, of every reality.'

To create art then is perhaps to decompose a given reality and create a new one, and that new one is for me just a proposition, a model of thinking that given reality, a model of thinking the world.

But as you say correctly, Simon, ‘the whole problem turns around what is seen and not seen.' Artists make visible the invisible. At least we try. Or when we can't, we stage the invisible, like I tried to do in a work titled Lament of the Images. The title of this work was based on a magnificent poem by Ben Okri. This is how I described that work in some personal notes:

Lament of the Images is a philosophical essay on representation.

Lament of the Images is a poetic meditation on what is seen and what is not.

Lament of the Images is an attempt to make visible the invisible.

Lament of the Images is a search for light in the darkness.

Lament of the Images is a lament of the images.

Images are important. Very important. In creating this work I was trying to lament their loss, mourn their absence. In doing so, I ended up creating a new image, which is unavoidable. An image of an intense, blinding light that could possibly become the blank screen on which we project our fears and our dreams. An image that Roland Barthes would call ‘pensive'. In Camera Lucida, he wrote: ‘Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repeals, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.' In Lament of the Images, I was trying to create perhaps the ultimate pensive image. A space of resistance. A space of hope. If I may refer to your work, Simon, I was proposing an Infinitely Demanding space.

Simon Critchley, 25 March 2011:

Yes, Alfredo, pensive is the right word. Art thinks. Period. And it thinks in images, even when we are trying to lament them, as your piece so eloquently shows. By presenting us with an absence, something like thought is provoked through the image's attention to form. Dare one call such an image abstract? Or is that a hostage to the unfortunate history of modernism?

The question I'd like to attend to here, albeit briefly, is the issue you raise in response to me: namely, if art - as Bacon says - strips away one or two veils or screens, then do we approach something like ‘reality'. To be honest, I don't know. I guess the philosopher in me wants to respond, ‘it depends what you mean by reality', but that sounds cheap to me. I do not think that there is any cognitive access to the Kantian Ding an sich that lies behind the image. Yet neither do I think that we are condemned to never-ending inescapable forest of simulacra à la Baudrillard. To put this in a slightly different register, I accept the critique of what Wilfrid Sellars called ‘the myth of the given'. There is no hard kernel to reality behind images, or if there is, we can know nothing about it. We live in a world of our own making, and makings of the self are makings of the world. The meaning of the Copernican Revolution in philosophy after Kant is that makings of the world are makings of the self. And this is a melancholy recognition, in say the work of the Romantic poets like Coleridge (see his ‘Dejection. An Ode') or something that we lament, as you might say, Alfredo. Anyhow, let's put it this way: we live in a world of our own confection, a world where fact is artifact and artifice. The world is a plurality of fictions, and truth is one of them. Such is the inference that Nietzsche draws from the Copernican Turn. But does that inference exclude the possibility of what Wallace Stevens called - after his teacher Santayana - a ‘supreme fiction'? Namely, a fiction in which we can believe, or a fiction of the absolute? My mind remains open on that possibility. Namely, that the acceptance of the constitutively fictive or - in our case - imagistic constitution of ‘reality' does not condemn us to a cave of simulacra. The best that Stevens imagined in his poetry was that we might write ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction'. What I think is best and most pensive in contemporary art might be conceived as contributing to a thinking of that infinitely demanding space of the possibility of the supreme fiction.

Image: Still from Pierre Huyghe's The Host and the Cloud, 2009-2010

Let me illustrate this - illustrate is the wrong verb - with an example - example is the wrong noun. I had the great good fortune to see Pierre Huyghe's The Host and the Cloud at the Marion Goodman Gallery shortly before his show closed, about three weeks ago. It is an audacious two-hour film, surrounded by accompanying aquaria with bug-eyed fish, and it is impossible to describe or summarise. To say that Huyghe's work is pensive is to risk massive understatement. He is really smart. But at the centre of the strange performative experiment of The Host and the Cloud - a work recorded over a series of three days in front of an audience in the disused building of the National Museum of Arts and Popular Television - are a series of repetitions and reenactments. We begin with the reenactment of one of the trials of the French ‘terrorist' group action directe from the early 1980s. This reenactment is then reenacted for a second time when actors pick up and read the script of the first enactors' speeches. Similarly, a (reenacted) scene of hypnoanalysis - that draws redolently on the work of Francois Roustang - is then reenacted by the ‘patient' with shadow puppets. The effect is poignant and funny. There is even a reenactment of Michael Jackson and a wonderful late 1970s disco reenactment with Kate Bush's ‘Wuthering Heights'. I could go on.

But at the centre of this work - an absent centre if you like, or a central absence that is the point of articulation for the work (its subjectivity) - is an animated white rabbit who wanders around the basement of the building. This is the host, one imagines, and the images that are reenacted are his cloud. You go down the rabbit hole of images, like Alice, and what do you find? A fucking rabbit. Who did you expect? God almighty?

But it seems to me that in Huyghe's film we are not presented with a cave of images or screens that we strip away to find another image in its place, but rather, as you said, Alfredo, in that wonderful quotation from Antonioni, a decomposition of the image and also of the reality that is composed of these images. What figures here - at least in my imagination - is a kind of descent towards the real which can only be adumbrated indirectly, sequentially and obliquely. But this is not nothing. Far from it.

Further, this affirmation of the question of the supreme fiction might also be linked back to forms of political association that have been figured in the last months in all their hopeful, resistant complexity. I see the question of radical politics as also animated by the question of the supreme fiction.

Forgive me if I'm not clear. I'm still figuring out what I think as I write.

David Morris <david.morris AT> is a writer and philosophy tutor based in London