Introduction & Curatorial Statement
Introduction & Curatorial Statement by Michelle Kasprzak for the Speculative Realities ebook.
The way that thought, as it is expressed through language, intersects with thought as it is expressed through material forms is a central curatorial concern of mine. Particularly today, when artists collaborate with and are influenced by such a wide variety of actors, including philosophers and scientists, understanding this intersection and creating productive frameworks where these worlds meet is arguably one of the key functions of a curator.
In the case of the exhibition and eBook developed as Blowup: Speculative Realities, I was intrigued by the recent continental philosophical turn towards materialism and the object. Concepts put forward by Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism seem to hold great potential for spurring a conversation about how philosophical thought can be in dialogue with, or provide additional insights into and context for, contemporary modes of art production.
What brought me to the point of considering this particular interaction between philosophy and art was the experience of co-curating the anchor exhibition of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2012, which was themed The Power of Things. The exhibition was an overt investigation of materialism and objecthood, and was influenced by Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, vitalist philosophies, and the idea of ‘vital beauty’ as described by John Ruskin. For an exhibition that still might be classified as a ‘media art’ or ‘electronic art’ exhibition (indeed we still use the term ‘Electronic Art’ within the name of the festival itself) it was remarkably lacking in glowing screens and interactive experiences that required triggering sensors. Instead, the exhibition hall was mostly filled with objects: a ball made up of all the naturally-occurring elements on earth (Terrestrial Ball by Kianoosh Motallebi), a sculpture made of salt and ice that changed over time (Sealed by Jessica de Boer), a pool of water with dazzling reflections (Notion Motion by Olafur Eliasson), a nano-engineered artwork composed of the ‘blackest black’ (Hostage Pt. 1 by Frederik de Wilde), and numerous other examples.
Following the construction of this exhibition, containing such a range of materialities and posing different questions and challenges to the viewer, it struck me as an obligation to examine the questions that were raised by this exhibition further. And so I began to eavesdrop on the international conversation that has been taking place, significantly also through online media, about Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. The significance of these turns in philosophy are clear just from the secondary signs: debate is heated; production of writing and speaking events on the topics is prolific. Something about the return of the thing and thinking beyond the human realm is capturing imaginations beyond the halls of philosophy where these ideas tend to reside. The draw of such thought to the arts is also pronounced. As art critic Rahma Khazam observed: ‘Although SR [Speculative Realism] ‘s counter–intuitive theses and dismissive attitude towards humanity in general have their detractors, [but] for its supporters in the art world, the mental gymnastics it imposes are part of its appeal.‘ (Khazam 2012).
Certainly for me, the allure does lie in a fundamental shift of curatorial thinking, to reconsider relationships between material and immaterial processes, and between ‘matter’ and ‘what matters,’ presciently. Art critic Diedrich Diederichsen writing on the phenomenon of Speculative Realism describes the inevitability of this desire for thinghood as a result of de-reification and post-capitalist packaging of self. He suggests: ‘We might conclude that the contemporary tendency in a wide range of fields to declare things to be (ghostly) beings and to call for their emancipation is a response to a contemporary capitalism of self-optimization, with its imperative to produce a perfect self as a perfect thing’ (Diederichsen 2012). Although Diederichsen doesn’t reference it directly, one easily calls to mind the art market’s spiralling developments along these lines. From Uncle Andy’s factory (and the shambles of ‘verification’of which objects were actually fashioned by the artist or his deputy) to Damien Hirst’s hundreds of assistants that push processes of commodity production and reification to its most eccentric limits, we have observed how in step the art market is with broader processes of globalisation. It is worth bearing in mind then, that despite our radical impulses in some fringes of the art world, we too are subject to the same forces, and tasked with critical imperatives.
My curatorial process involved close conversations with a range of artists who were already looking at notions of non-human-centredness, or materialism, or a democracy of things in their work. In the end, I narrowed down to focus on the conversations with the artists whose work appeared in the V2_ exhibition component of Speculative Realities. Four new commissions from two individual artists and one collaborative duo were produced. Throughout the commissioning process, I dialogued with the artists (Tuur van Balen & Revital Cohen, Cheryl Field, and Karolina Sobecka) and gave them texts (in particular, each artist received a PDF of Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Things) and I waited some time before revealing the identity of the other artists to any particular artist. In this way, the works were developed autonomously, without any collaborative dialogue around the actual production process or outcome, with the understanding that the results would be both heterogeneous and unexpected.
The final exhibited four works, while substantially different (and described and pictured in another section of this eBook) also had several points of convergence. A fundamental return to and concern with nature became apparent; mountains, clouds, and living plants figured strongly in the group of works. Interestingly, a wry sense of humour can also be perceived in each work: the absurdity in Cheryl Field’s disembodied fingers and tongues; the chance interactions with random landowners in Karolina Sobecka’s Cloud Maker experiments; the sheer stretch of the imagination involved in Tuur van Balen and Revital Cohen’s night garden for communication between hares and the moon.
Finally, it is worth noting that while we laboured on producing this exhibition and the interviews for this eBook, interest in the wider world in this philosophical turn manifested into other exhibitions simultaneously: Resonance and Repetition, curated by Rivet in New York; Things’ Matter, curated by Klara Manhal in Vancouver; and The Return of the Object, curated by Stefanie Hessler in Berlin. What this simultaneity suggests in anyone’s guess, but to me it signals that grappling with the concepts and consequences of these philosophical movements has been assumed as a priority for art of this moment.
This eBook has two functions: as a catalogue of the Blowup: Speculative Realities exhibition, and as a platform for further thoughts on the intersections between the philosophical movements known as Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology and visual and media art. The texts in this reader consist mainly of interviews, with thinkers on the forefront of art criticism, media theory, philosophy and art practice, that speak to and far beyond the exhibition itself. It is my hope that even if you were not able to experience the exhibition as it manifested in Rotterdam in 2012-13, this reader will illuminate different ways of thinking and approaching the Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology in a broad sense.
Curator, V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media
Introduction & Curatorial StatementRotterdam, 11/01/2013
Khazam, Rahma. The Secret Life of Things. Springerin, issue 2/12
Diederichsen, Diedrich. Animation, De-reification, and the New Charm of the Inanimate. E-flux. Journal #36, 07/2012.
In addition to all my wonderful colleagues at V2_, I wish to extend deepest thanks to Michael Dieter and Rachel O’Reilly for not only their incisive interviews included as part of this volume, but for their ongoing support in the development of this project and their intellectual guidance and collaboration on all levels.