Paul Stewart: To Frame this conversation with you, I wanted to discuss the way your work interacts with digital mediums but also to further examine the exhibition held at The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, Covenant Transport Move or Die (21 October 2016 - 29 January 2017). I was reading over the text by Reza Negarestani, The Children of the Eleatic Hydra, which was commissioned as part of the exhibition, and I found a particular section really interesting which was about, and I quote: “The tyranny of the place, which is at once afforded and ensnared by the gravity of the global capitalism is to reinvent thought in terms of a new material condition that opposes the old one, the non-place,” and it was just that bit, that use of the word “non-place” that related to my reflections on the work. My mind automatically made connections with the text that appears as a graphic within the video which reads “This is not real.” The two together brought to the fore the meaning of the avatar/actors, five different roles in the work that take up the main screen of the video work. I want to know more about how this term “non-place” functions and if its function with respect to the physical and the digital are understood as one and the same, considering this point through terms such as site and reality as well as the political connotations surrounding digital communities and art practice.
Amanda Beech: Yes, the video work and the Copper Plates that accompany it were strongly motivated by the traditions of location and site in politics and in the history of art, and wanted to connect with how these comprehensions of place or “non-place” have been key to claiming a particular kind of agency for art. Let's try and take a few of these points at a time, because you're traversing a set of terms to ask about what is crucial now to both art and politics. So, first, the way in which we understand our reality in which we exist, cognitively and empirically, informs the way we're going to make art, right? So, that's my basic premise, or starting point of a kind of realist art that holds an epistemological question: how we can take seriously the means by which we express reality if reality is inaccessible to us?
Second, in relation to the term “non-place”, we could say that we have valorisations of this term that go on across right- and left-wing theory… or right- and left-wing principles. The notion of the “non-place” was once captured by the Left to oppose what was seen to be the concretized, stable, and monumental forms of power in the world. We see this in Situationism and Augue, for example. But this was prosecuted at the level of formal difference, where one sensibility was opposed to the other in the name of the political and therefore led to disastrous contradictions. For example, a principle of capital in liberalism, and more thoroughly in neoliberalism, is mobility. These politics adopt the ethos that we should always be on the move and that this mobility is correlative to our happiness and success. This mobility is also the key to our self-understanding as free subjects who can self-determine. As such, the notion of being unmoored is seen as a positive and necessary form of life in capital. This principle foregrounds the importance of life as a system that is imbued with a dynamic spirit of flux. However, as we know, mobility manifests and expresses a myth of freedom and also organizes us to this principle. This notion of dynamism is also a primary identification for vitalist theory and post-structural principles of groundlessness and ontological instability. For instance, we are now accustomed to the claims that are made in readings of Deleuzian theory and capitalist aesthetics, whether these claims have integrity or not, that privilege horizontalist and networked forms of mobility and place-lessness. The things I'm saying here are pretty obvious to us now. We all know about the conflation of left-wing vitalism with right-wing principles, especially when we think about the discussions over the past few years, as well as more recently around Alt-Right. So, returning to the exhibition, the motivation of the work is hinged upon the way in which the principles and ideas that inform what we could call left-wing critique traverse the standards of right- and left-wing positioning and any consequential action. With that in mind, the idea of what is Right and Left is shown as a problem for us to consider again by the work, or how the stakes of these are complicated at least.
To develop this, it was important that a view of the political was housed in the work as a kind of problem to be complained about by the work, but this address against certain ideas is not its ‘end’ or goal, because at the same time, the piece tries to conjure a territory that can transcend these binaries in order to rationalise the very way in which we engage with reality, somehow, it seeks to provide a dimension of thought material so as to produce a space that precedes the political or is in front of the political but does not forget that it is always constructing a relation to it through its assessment of it.
To get to the work and this term “non-place” in more detail, perhaps it’s worth rehearsing some of our last points with a view of the famous book by Marc Augé. In this, he talks about airports and the liminal ambiguous sites of aporia. The history of these “non-places” are valorised as alternative “othered” forms of space, since they occupy what we could identify as a gap, or fissure, that would enable “other” things to take place. These spaces have a sense of alterity, which conjures the idea that a location can be addressed outside of normativity. I’ve always had a concern about this theory and its tenability today, and it's kind of interesting that it is connected to a Situationist critique that also was shared by the work of Michel de Certeau. In de Certeau’s work and others, we see the idea that politics requires a periphery, and this could be made manifest by the wanderings of urban walking or other apparently non-functional or unnoticed activities. Such psycho-geographies valorised temporality and ephemeral space as the support for a kind of non-representationalism that would counter dominant power. This escapism within the conditions of a system all seemed a little bit too fantastical for me, and I was interested in the way that art practice had consistently privileged access to these “other” spaces and presented them as spaces of movement, time, duration, change, flexibility, and mobility that were argued to be and go beyond the conditions of dominant power. In this case, escaping representation meant escaping power. But where did this leave art—on the outside of power? Or, was this to claim a kind of power beyond power? If it’s the latter, then any claim to power would seem to resolve itself in zones of privacy, where any claim to power would be so abstract, it would be banal. That was a problem for me, and it’s the same problem that I attempt to have in the background for the whole of the video work and the Copper Plates. This attitude toward site and time means that we've got a kind of problem of the Left, in that a critique cannot identify itself against the mechanisms and methods of capitalist power.
I wanted to bring together this format of the problem as it can be seen across different discourses and to excavate it through these avatars that my actors portrayed in the live action parts of the video work. These avatars also appear to be on a trajectory; i.e. going somewhere, but also coming from a “non-place”. They are filmed in a classic “non-place”: in a gap between warehouses near a train line, which takes the goods trains across America. Rather than claim that their aesthetic location gives them some kind of authority, I wanted to look at this very notion of site as the cliché of alternative forms of authority, and often the site of the subterranean movement. It is an image popularised in pop music videos, and we know this aesthetic pretty well. However, this group is always situated within a very strong perspectival position where they can narrate the world, and so their metaphysical status is defined in a set of normativities. What I mean by this is that the characters occupy a non-place. This is the vantage point of their understanding. This enables their traversal of empirical spaces that have been historically established as candidates for the non-place. It is my hope that, in this navigation over these spaces, the characters assert a kind of cognitive dissonance that destroys the claim that these lived spaces are equal to the ‘non’. But the empirical and visceral aesthetic experience is not forgotten or forsaken in pursuit of this cerebral conceptual landscape—and we get highway shots and train shots and an aesthetics of a camera that is in constant mobility. The cinematography that I worked with employed a kind of rule throughout the work where the camera acts as a centre-point. It conducts a gravitational pull, so to speak, on its surroundings, where the shots are mostly taken in constant rotation on an axis that is circular. This acts as a form of rule-based system of operation and production that is quite stable for the work, or consistent, as most shots are in flow on this rotational axis, but the experience of watching this also engenders a sense of instability for the viewer at the same time. At specific points, the concept of gravity and order are pushed further where the images in the work are literally upside down. This confusion is iterated in the script. The language that the avatars are employing is really on the one hand clear and literal, and on the other hand it could be read as really impenetrable and disorientating. I'm really motivated by these conditions of work that can be didactic and instructive in a literal way, while the very experience of didacticism can often be bewildering.
I wanted to explore these different experiential or sensory and intellectual forms of understanding in an installation format. This is my question of and to “non-place”, but maybe you want to say something that connects to your ideas, about how this view could link up to your later question on the digital and physical…
PS: The connection between sites the characters occupy and the depictions of travel and, as you say, the rotational axis of the work engender instability and make a literal use of techniques to depict how a place can seem regular and unsettling at the same time. I think what was interesting for me regarding what you just said was around aspects of mobility. I do not mean mobility equating to speed but how movement can become a consumption of mobility, or more how a capitalist ideology of production can equate to a trajectory that inherently consumes. As I said in my first question, the navigation has a different sensory and oratory experience to communicating or moving through a landscape physically, but I see a parallel in the two through the term consumption—of an experience, an existence, a moment. I think I am trying to see movement online as into the device of multiple levels of labour and experience.
Focussing more on the work, there is a connection to what you were saying in terms of a “non-place”. The avatars in the work could be seen to come from a “non-place”, as you have said, but at the same time they have a didactic functionality. What I am alluding to is where the idea of consumption exists within the work… Is it more about consuming the space which you traverse, whether that's fast or slow, or is it about consuming data or content? I don't know if that is of interest to you…
AB: When you say “consumption”, I think of buying, buying into/desiring. When you talk about this idea of mobility, what it seems you're describing is that mobility is a desirable idea that we can empirically purchase. I can literally buy that with my card or whatever, so I buy into it as a principle of life…
PS: Yes, where mobility across both physical and digital experiences—the mobilisation of our voices now in a video chat context as this interview is being conducted via Skype as one example. When I think about the ideas, you’re talking about in your practice in regard to digital communities; I feel that the mobility that happens is conducted by the system and not necessarily the individual.
AB: OK, this seems to be addressing the ideology of mobility through digital communication and systems that for now are entrenched within global capital, but also you are asking about how we might think of agency, authority, and so on when we are not always the ones who mobilise, or instigate action, but rather are being interpellated to mobility. For instance, I just mentioned that it’s important that my characters occupy a kind of transcendental space that affords them a kind of luxury of vantage points, knowledge, and vision, but at the same time this vision is twisted within the vistas of capitalist Kafkaesque landscapes of Dairy Queen, Coors Light, car dealerships, and the paraphernalia of capitalist mundanity that occupies the same territories as the non-places that had been seen as our redemption from capital. In this instance, occupying a transcendental position in the world, so to speak, does not hinder the possibility of saying something in the world, and speaking to the world. But this is a destructive force, for it renders the myths that have supported many aspects of belief false. In this sense, we have one form of mobility set against another.
But to think about your point on mobility in a historical and socio-political sense, we can say that technological advances in computation, industry, and mobility for humanity, our ideological notion of the nature of life and its drive in the social has not progressed or changed very much in the last century when it comes to the primacy of mobility. We can see this globally, but most specifically in America in terms of the old propaganda that tells you that getting your car out on the freeway is the equivalent to living “The American Dream”—to expressing your freedom in public, but all the while you are contained in the private universe of the car. We know that the car and other forms of industrial transport are uniquely able to index an old-fashioned idea of individuated freedom. So, we live with this today, abiding by myths from analogue industrialisations of the early twentieth century. A Fordist moment persists right into our post-Fordist immaterialist ecology. We could say the same about colonialism, where despite Empire retracting its empirical base in the occupation of Africa, for example, the reaches and thrust of global finance persist in enslaving and controlling populations and governments to the point that this form of colonialism renders the populations that do the colonising increasingly in the colonised form. I'm trying to think about how those old industrial images of trains and cars and haulage, and the physical effort of movement is just as idealised and is a necessary part of an ideology of digital capital that we can see now in global virtual technologies. So, cognitively and politically in these respects, we haven't gone very far!
PS: So, we haven't gone very far, but we've just gone faster.
AB: Yes, we do see that speed is still essentialised as a capitalist, desirable commodity. So, what is it then to move or change? How does change counter or can be seen to be non-relational to speed? And is this speed another way of expressing a fascination with the present? Given the fact that the idealisation of mobility is ultimately a constraining and non-generative condition, and when I say constraining, I mean that it's habituated; then what is it to move? What is it to think change? I guess that's what all my practice, including this exhibition that we're talking about, is trying to deal with.
But on another note, there was something that you were saying in your opening question that made me think of how the avatars function in the work. You seemed to be asking about how we might understand the agency of the virtual or the agency of the image, or the agency of the construct. As an audience, what we're looking at in the work, quite literally, is a set of instructions that come from the artwork. They come from a model; instructions come from the construction. Knowing that this is a construction, well, does that undermine the value of the instruction? I’d like to propose that it does not. Instead, this positive relation to the image as opposed to what we see in traditional theories of mobility or the “non-place” that we have talked about (where the real and art are equivalent in empirical spaces that are designated as the ‘non’ by dint of them being unregulated by traditional forms of capital). What I'm trying to think about is how the work as a model, a construction, has agency without making art equivalent to the real or arguing that the real is impossible for the image to address. Saying that something is virtual or unreal or artificial is a banal gesture and serves to undermine its power at a too generalised level. This way of destabilising power runs aground when its logic leads us to assert that “nothing is real” because “everything is constructed”. This is the weak side of art’s antirealist tradition—a move that only serves to undermine art in the process, because all images including art are made false.
PS: The relationship between “construction” and “nothing” and art’s ability to undermine its process and to be made false, are you suggesting that as an anti-capitalist trope or a tool to question what is constructed? What you mention here makes me think of how the avatar has decided not to invest in capital. The characters are aware of the “non-place” and choose not to contribute to the capitalist forms of mobility. It’s something I have been trying to question in my own work around ideas of un-learning. Where un-learning is not the process of forgetting but, quite the contrary, to remember intently. The avatars have an agency in the work, and this does not make a distinction between individuated ideas of freedom and the system/world that you've constructed with the work.
AB: Well, I think that's what Reza's essay speaks to in part—that is, how can agency or authority emerge from within a system of norms that is capable of re-orientating the system itself. And I think, from reading his text, that's what he's speaking to in response to the work.
PS: It's like the idea of algorithms being able to build themselves or that the system learns itself to the point at which it no longer needs other systems to support it.
AB: Absolutely. I was saying earlier that when I diagnosed the problem of mobility at an ideological level, there are consistencies across the industrial Fordist world and the post-Fordist one. In the world of the digital, we are under an illusion that we have exceeded the world of perspectives, positions, of binaries, or dualisms and therefore also the desire to escape dominance, because apparently, we don't have to make these distinctions—we are all horizontal. This is where we get the early dreams of the Internet as a place for new anarchic freedoms and fantasies about neutrality returning to occupy the concept of the digital in-itself, whereas previously fantasies of neutrality were sought in the liminal and the fissures; the digital became the liminal as an infinite field. The state of global economics today reminds us of the failure of this dream evidenced in the monopoly of financial models and corporate giants that organise our interaction with the web, and with each other. The political claims for the world of digitalisation have demonstrated that there is and has been an incorrect understanding of the difference between the analogue and the digital and provides evidence as to how we persist with the same principles that realise these mis-apprehensions of the world we live in and have made for ourselves. We don't have to think in terms of those dualisms, which are so easily set up between what is quantifiable and what is unquantifiable, but at the same time we do not surrender to the horizontalist dream. For example, I think in many ways the terrain of the digital highlights for us more than ever how the unquantifiable is necessary to the functioning of systems. One of the things you were mentioning in relation to systems and site was the work set in Vegas, We Never Close, and certainly this work looked to these issues.
PS: Yes, of course, just to reiterate, it was the work We Never Close, which you exhibited as part of the inaugural Middlesbrough Art Weekender I co-founded in 2017. I found the video fascinating, especially its use of sound. I spent the whole weekend just sitting in that space, and every fifteen minutes being confronted with the ‘noise’ of the soundtrack. The repetitiveness of listening and experiencing one work in a very intense way made me think more about this question of mobility in the way the camera, subtitled text, and sound all moved around an oscillated point in the work; this could be what you referred to earlier in Covenant Transport Move or Die as the gravity (camera or central axis). Reading the essay “We Never Close” that you wrote at the same time (a kind of parallel to the work), I was considering the speed at which the camera moves. The video really considered the way the image transverses the angles of the buildings. I began to think of Vegas as a site for image production, and as a hot-spot example for theorising about consumption. It seems that the video work is talking about it and visually showing it but still not really referencing it… Like it's so there… but it's not there!
AB: What you're saying is something that I've often referred to when I have spoken about other pieces that I’ve made, so it’s a very resonant comment. I guess what you're making me think about is how, in a lot of my work, I spend a lot of time shooting in different locations, travelling, and researching spaces, but I never want the work to be a portrait of that space. I mean this in the sense that I don't go to a space/location and find out something that happened there and then tell a story as if I'm doing some archaeology on a place or some kind of sociological research. The work, I guess, tries to use site as a simple prop to speak to an argument that I have. I'm just thinking of the TV series M*A*S*H, which was shot relatively close to where I live, near Paramount Ranch, and, of course, M*A*S*H was not set in LA.... We all know that the images we see in film, in cinema, aren't truthful on an empirical level, but at the same time this has no bearing upon whether the film is good or not or whether we invest in the movie. Knowing that M*A*S*H was shot in LA doesn't mean that I am unable to watch things like M*A*S*H anymore; my knowledge that it is not empirically real has no bearing upon my commitment to it as a set of ideas—a world! So, we can think of location having no bearing upon the condition of the work. I like that, I like playing or working through these conditions of saying, well, OK, I'll make the effort to shoot in this location, but at the same time, there is a non-relation between the site and the work, so it was a kind of intrinsic cut.
PS: So, we are differentiating between the location of shoot and the creation of a shot? Is it in some way a definition between seeing what the tool of the camera can capture rather than seeing a depiction of a location? It makes me think of some smartphone cameras, where the lenses are quite poor but how they collect noise rather than necessarily formulated and recognisable figure-images. The camera takes a poor-quality image, then the device, using its audio facility to record sound and through images databases, develops the image you see on your device. These become an image that is a representation of what an image of your subject could look like. So, the idea of a single lens reflex on a camera, on an analogue camera or on a DSLR, no longer applies to any accurate depiction of the thing that we encounter in the physical world. It's not a factual copy of the thing you are seeing. Instead, the algorithm produces an image of the sound the camera is hearing.
Bringing it back to the work, are there layers in We Never Close where the real place (Las Vegas), is visually there, but is the video creating a ‘non-place’ at the same time? What the work was making me think of when considering both the sound and narrative running throughout, was the terrains and systems of capital. I was then able to access the context of discussing this kind of mobility of the camera and consumption as possible ways in which we navigate capitalist markets and systems, without being distracted by the spectacle of Las Vegas.
AB: One of the reasons I wanted to tackle the subject of Las Vegas was precisely because of the traditional representations of Vegas that are given to us, as you say, whether they're in an essay or in an artwork or in a movie, or even in Las Vegas’s self-promotional marketisation. It could be said that the stable meanings that we have around Las Vegas, all the traditional ways of reading it, enable Las Vegas to act as the example par excellence of the crude reality of capital. The truth of capital is here in front of us, exposed for all to see unapologetically. It's often asserted as the true moment where capital reveals itself in this kind of Brechtian formation of saying, “I am a construct as and of capital, and here I am in all my ugliness,” but this assertion very quickly becomes a moral category. This way of looking at Vegas was a very typical reading in critical literature of Vegas as a site, and this is shared by the promotional material that Las Vegas had constructed about itself. This is seen in our general cultural love affair with promoting the life or being of Las Vegas as a real contradiction, and contradiction becomes a one-dimensional figure as identity, where the established moral opponents of marriage and prostitution, fun and violence all unite as part of one holistic space. Both Vegas and its analysts would say it’s a place we love to hate, and its redemption is its honesty! To that extent, Vegas could be seen to situated as the real, a kind of ‘non-place’ or a kind of ‘other place’, as Foucault’s work might address it via his work on heterotopias. However, again, my motivation here as part of the work was to critique these correlations between the local and empirical lived experience and the claims to the real condition of universal systems. My task then was to see the video as a site of investigation that would not reignite the myths ironically or naively.
Whereas other cities hide the truth of capital, Vegas is explicating it all the time, no holds barred. I found that moral approach to critiquing Vegas (by correlating it to the real of capital) to be pretty suspect and also limited because it simply produces the real as a mirror of the conditions of its aesthetic manifestation. This procedure takes the form of a deductive process rather than seeking to undergo a more thorough analysis of the non-relation between the city as a construct and the real. I must say it's a charismatic and engaging argument to say that cities like Vegas and Dubai hold the truth of capital in their grotesqueness, but central to this statement is a valorisation of these urban spaces as capitalistic in form and structure. Their providing an axis for critique is not enough to redeem them. This critique, as I have said, is characterised by morality. I just don't think that the logic for critique in this case is good enough, and it doesn't make any sense because it disables anything that could move past this aesthetic—it preserves the status quo. In other words, saying that Vegas is the truth of capital does not allow us to see any way in which we can live with capital more productively, which is surely a thing we need to think about in these times. To that extent, critique itself performs another mythology, and I guess the work wanted to tackle the idealisation of Las Vegas as a site of thought, as a site of a theory of capital, but also to disavow that and say, “no.”
PS: Morality is such a valuable word when thinking through this work, and I would agree that seeing Vegas as a truth of capital would be the incorrect approach. It could be that the productive process would be to take what you have said about Vegas as a site of thought and begin with the productive refuting of forms of consumption we have discussed throughout in regard to mobility.
AB: In response to your commentary on mobility, we could say that the exact problem with this critique is that it overdetermines things to thoughts in such a way that things cannot move. The very aesthetic that has configured this immobility is the dynamic aesthetics of the transcendental subject, defined by capital, the one who can go anywhere in the standard definitions of libertarianism. The camera work and sound in We Never Close has force, but it also drags in the world; the sound is developed from scratch music, and the piece is invested in the aesthetics of materialism. The text literally talks about this, the material expression of capitalist fictionalisation in places, sites, and ecologies of experience. The desert therefore becomes no escape but another version of the slot machines that people tether themselves to.
PS: That is a strong message to think through, how, if mobility is critiqued to the point of stillness, would this determination on movement mean that it creates a stale repetition of the current climate, maybe it is something through the axis you discuss – it is a pivot to forge a different or more ad-hoc movement?
When I think—it's completely anecdotal and probably a bit silly—but when I think of Vegas at this minute, it makes me think of the children’s film Despicable Me. So, when the main villain says, “Oh, and we stole the Eiffel Tower, the miniature version from Las Vegas…” or like, “Oh we stole the pyramids, the miniature version from Las Vegas…”—this kind of mythology of capitalism to produce sites that replicate the existence of the world. This is where we go to consume the world in representation, and we're transparent about it. It doesn't happen elsewhere—there's probably more in common between Vegas and Canary Wharf than there is between Vegas and a casino. Like it's those kinds of places of consumption, but necessarily places where roles are played. Vegas might be a parody, or more a tragedy; it depends on which way you want to look at it.
AB: I think so, too, and we could say that my interpretation is a particular reading of Vegas as defined at a particular time in history. The story that the video engages with is the reconfiguration of LV from when it was operating in the family-style entertainment business of appropriation and the miniaturisation of the monumental, to another kind of Vegas, one that is more ‘contemporary’. In the last twenty years, Vegas was no longer concerned with the conspicuous production of consumerist family-oriented fantasy, and instead it wanted to redefine itself as being exclusive and luxurious, a place for secret indulgences that were respectable, low-key, and cool. In the video, a part of the text that flashes up on screen directly talks about this idea, where Steve Wynn went from making Pirates of the Caribbean experiences at the front of the Treasure Island hotel to making the Wynn hotels, the ‘classy’ joints, where the fountains and the Ferrari dealership were out back, away from the spectacle of the wandering consumer. This story is quite a literal depiction of what happened to the architecture of Las Vegas as at one point in the ‘80s and ‘90s; the entertainment experience of consumption was public and shared and then in the early 2000s, you've got a shift in architectural design to this new exclusive market where things are hidden, and you've got to have a membership to get into it. Remarkably, Vegas managed to be more flexible than the very theories that had defined it. As a kind of critique of capital. I was interested in how the site was more flexible than the critical imagination. So, the site had more mobility than our thought.
PS: What it's making me think of is that text by Dr Bridget Crone in her section “Seeing Red” in your book Final Machine (Urbanomic 2013), and I quote: “We begin with violence, Red Yellow Green, but they're just circles, Red, Yellow, Green… the colour throbs.” But when you're talking about all these places and these kinds of changes, or movements, similarly with Red Yellow Green, are they becoming signifiers of certain things? This is also making me think of Brian Massumi’s work on movement and sensation in terms of affectual bodies. What I am getting at is a question of what is the subject in question? Is it the experience of the subject matter of the work proposed to the viewer, or is the viewer meant to feel the throbbing and to gather a deeper understanding of how place can be distorted and constructed?
AB: Bridget Crone’s work offers a great account of affect theory and its connection to art practice and curation. It's one of the reasons why I thought it would be interesting to have Bridget in that work. I love working with Bridget, and one of the reasons is because we don't share the same discourses so it's great to see what happens when someone comes to the work with a different vocabulary…
PS: I am thinking about how the different forms of experience that we have talked about are brought together to generate Vegas as a visceral space in this work.
AB: Well, the idea of how we experience and think “space” is pretty central to this question. First, there is the argument or theory that thought cannot match the velocity of change that we actually engineer in the world or that is present to the world in its being before us. We're out of touch with ourselves and the world in that way, insofar as everything becomes a kind of heteronomous nature, which could be quite surreal, since objects recede from our cognitive grasp. In many ways, Las Vegas demonstrated for me the paucity of thought on the Left when it made claims like this. My critique of this approach to materiality and sense experience means that thought is adequate to the task of critique. So, what the work, I guess, is proposing is that we can think of critique as a constructive action. I'm pretty optimistic that we can engineer something with thought that is different to the errors that I have focussed on in my work and that provide some of its content. Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, my work often tries to deal with and include these problems as a condition of where critique comes from, so that these problems aren’t ignored but are taken as part of a critical inheritance, a set of habits, givens, and norms that we have to navigate and work past. The works are not just stories of failed and poor ideas, and certainly these failures are powerful stories and have distinct charismatic appeal! Instead, I really hope that the work sets up new possible approaches to making and thinking that whilst including these problems also becomes something else and offers something else. A fear of constructing forms has often blighted the Left, along with a fear of representation and reason, as if they are all bundled together to produce inevitable forms of evil. We see this as narratives from negative dialectics and post-structuralism; but engineering with a sense of commitment does not mean that we've produced a monster or a form of thought that we cannot be responsible for. The fear that I am talking about is like a kind of Adornian nightmare, a theory from the Dialectic of Enlightenment where reason authors forms of horror that delimit and signify the limits of our consciousness and our intelligence. That's the kind of classic sci-fi horror-story narrative. But I'm saying that it's not actually true or logical. We might be out of step or not have found the modes of explication and explanation and understanding to narrate or comprehend what we've actually made in the world, but it doesn't mean we can't do it, not abide by the commitments that take us to new places.
As an example, we could talk about the complexities of self-producing algorithmic systems that seem to be divorced from the human once they are at work. Does that mean that we want to label them as modes of horror that spell the end of humankind? Well, no, that's a nice sci-fi horror story, and it might be a fun movie to watch or whatever, but in fact it's a misunderstanding of the role of these computational systems. Giving them an identity in relation to a conception of ourselves only serves to restrict our understanding towards the question of what and who we are, not what reality is as a structure and how we produce it. The idea of giving inanimate objects human qualities, or even alien qualities that are established against the human, still relies on having some kind of causal relation that is actually a myth. Destroying this myth is crucial. It might mean that we lose out on particular stories of jeopardy and drama, but perhaps it will produce other stories that narrate the world and make it.
PS: I think that's a really interesting point to consider a position to describe how algorithms become self-sufficient or produce new systems independently. I've never thought of a positive attitude to this process in any way. This notion of locating a series of possibilities that could happen as a result of a base programming of sets of instructions describes something similar to what we just discussed. We were just talking about how the digital in its ubiquity can be seen as something that is autonomous, and then we also talked about how our own intelligence can produce things in the world that seem to be free from us, or even refuse the understanding of them. These questions of lives that are non-related to the human or can be beyond our mastery do inscribe a kind of fear in us. But here we are talking about how this kind of AI as self-sufficient, alongside us, or with us, or against us, is not necessarily negative.
AB: Maybe a kind of analogy would be the way we talk about ideology. I mean, we can say that humans construct ideology, belief systems, and the very idea of terming them as ideological means that we've taken them as nature and as apparently independent notions that guide us—and we know it! For example, we could say theology and ethics act like this. A theological ethic such as “Thou Shalt not Kill” would be an independent autonomous directive that apparently comes from the outside. It exists independently of us, but nevertheless we can think that in other formats like the political and the theological; we have examples of this idea of something that is not from us but is for us and is only manifest because we act upon it and inscribe it in action.
So, maybe we're quite used to that idea of producing “the outside”, and it has a necessary role in life and the social. And what I'm saying in respect to this digital question in particular, with its apparent formation of a ubiquitous “non-place” is that we can ask how we can navigate this space intelligently. We might call such spaces “spaces of the negative”, or the space of what is yet to be known. Key to this is to make constructive distinctions between the pragmatic and necessary grounds that we need to conduct this study from against the mythic grounds that would render us stationary. Unlike a theology, this space is yet to be known.
Amanda Beech is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. Drawing from popular culture, critical philosophy, and real events, her work manifests in different media including critical writing, video installation, drawing, print, and sculpture. Using a range of compelling rhetorical and often dogmatic narratives and texts, Beech’s work poses questions and propositions for what a new realist art can be in today’s culture: that is, a work that can articulate a comprehension of reality without the terminal mirror of a human identity. Beech has shown her artwork and presented her writing at major international venues including most recently a new web commission This Time for the Remai Modern Museum, Canada (2017) and Covenant Transport Move or Die at The Baltic Center for Contemporary Art (2016-17). Other recent work includes her contributions to Neocentric, at Charim Gallery, Vienna, Austria (2016); Bots, Bodies and Beasts, at Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2016); What Hope Looks Like After Hope, Home Works Forum 7, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, Lebanon (2015); Speculative Aesthetics, Tate Britain, London, UK (2015); and the presentation of the three-channel video installation Final Machine at both Agitationism at the Irish Biennial (2014) and L’Avenir, Montreal Biennale (2014). Beech’s published writing includes essays for the anthologies Speculative Aesthetics, Urbanomic (2014); Realism, Materialism, Art, Sternberg Press (2015); and contributions for the Irish and the Montreal Biennales’ catalogues. Her artist’s books include First Machine, Final Machine, LPG (2015); Final Machine, Urbanomic (2013); and Sanity Assassin, Urbanomic (2010). Beech is Dean of Critical Studies at CalArts, California, USA.
Paul Stewart is an artist and curator based in Gateshead, England. He is a lecturer and course leader BA Fine Art at MIMA School and Art and Design, Teesside University. Completed a PhD (2018) titled: The Alternative Art School: Art, Hegemony and Critical Pedagogy. MA in Art & Politics from Goldsmiths College (2012), BA in Fine Art at University of Lincoln (2011)t. He was theco-founder of the Middlesbrough Art Weekender, Bad Spirits, and the Alternative Art College. He has exhibited work and published around topics sitting at the intersection between art practice, the digital, politics, and critical pedagogy.