Apologies for the academic language but I don't have the energy, headspace or the smarts to work through and rewrite it. This essay was written last year, during what I'm calling my Bourriaud phase when I was knee deep in art theory. Thankfully that's over, but he has plenty of worthy ideas as a result of the Tate Triennial Altermodern as well as The Radicant (a companion book he wrote at the same time as curating the show). Which is why I'm posting this essay after all this time. Consider this a conceptual precursor to my other blog – Heterochronia – as it works through some of the ideas I was stumbling my way through in a previous post. Thinking in Tumblr, while fun, is hard to make a comprehensive point. It's more about falling through links as I come across them. It's all too easy to forget about any sense of direction.
Reading through this essay I forgot about one of the key distinctions about the way in which we percieve time and progress. Less teleological direction, more about moving through multiple temporalities, evolving through a network of differing periods and possibilities. Moving through time as if it were space. It's interesting to go through this essay nowand remembering grasping these ideas and spending a few solid weeks with them. That is, instead of throwing up a quick link here and there. That's the beauty of studying: the forced concentration, the singular depth of thought. As I write these words I realise I'm going to have to quote myself and turn this depth into easy bite size links for Heterochronia.
The images aren't connected in anyway to the essay, but should be seen as a visual counterpoint. I came across this project (Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza) on we make money not art at the same time I was writing the essay and I always imagined pairing the two. Regine Debatty
Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and 'drink' water from it. Through a process of microbial fuell cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle.
They don't really connect with Bourriaud's notion of the vine or creeper as the botanical metaphor for our time, but it's a plant that lives in a robot and moves about a polluted landscape. What more do you need? I'll stop faffing about and let you get on with the essay.
The theme of travel is the most dominant of all concepts articulated in the Altermodern Manifesto. Travel is a part of our daily lives, and the effect it has on our way of being affects the way in which we inhabit and view our globalised world.
Travel, cultural exchanges and examination of history are not merely fashionable themes, but markers of a profound evolution in our vision of the world and our way of inhabiting it.1
Considering this emphasis on travel, then we need to explore what forms of travel are implied, and what are their reasons and effects. We can see the beginnings of an answer in the Altermodern catalogue:
The artist turns cultural nomad... Thus the exhibition brings together three sorts of nomadism: in space, in time, and among the ‘signs’.2
By constructing the identity of this nomad and how it is suited to Altermodernity, we can look for comparisons to differing identites found in Modernity and Post Modernity. Through this construction we will then articulate how this nomad exists in the parameters set forth by Bourriaud and what journey forms are made and how.
This essay will not look at the art or artists of the Altermodern exhibition (Tate Triennial 2009), but instead extend the central thesis put forth by the show’s curator and lead theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud. Using his ideas as a base in which to begin the journey, the discussion will wander through other ideas and theorists who share similiarities and correlations in describing the world in which we now inhabit.
If we are to discuss the nature of Altermodernism as a third stage of Modernism, then we need a set of tools that others have used to explore the two previous modernities. Bourriaud looks to the world of botany in which to explain the new world.3 In ‘The Radicant’ a book considered as a companion to the Altermodern exhibition, he explores the notion of roots and extends the ideas set forth by Deleuze and Guattari in the opening chapter of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’.4
Through the use of lexicography, Bourriaud equates the Modern individual with that of the tree root, a Radical.5 While Modernity is predicated on a rupture with the past and a desire for progress, it was also concerned with it’s historical roots. The duality of the sprouting tree encapsulates Modernism and the Radical individual: focused on the future but aware of it’s heritage.
Not content to view their writing as a mode of binary oppositions, Deleuze and Guattari look to the image of the Rhizome: an underground root system consisting of only horizontal offshoots, such as ginger. This metaphor is one that indulges in it’s plurality:
Any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. 6
The need to create this distinction was to delineate away from Cartesian dualisms, that of the vertical tree and root system, and instead to comprehend the notion of horizontal multiplicities. However, this multiplicity has neither subject nor object. It is only able to reference itself, forever deconstructing the environment amidst a desert of self referentialities. By continuing with the botanical metaphor Bourriaud utilizes the image of the Radicant: a vine or creeper plant that plants it roots constantly as it moves along.
Unlike the rhizome, which is defined as a multiplicity that brackets out the question of a subject from the beginning, the radicant takes the form of a trajectory or path; the advance of a singular subject. 7
This is a clear difference than the others. It accepts the need for multiplicities and the need to not be fixed upon one stable point. It articulates not only the need for movement, but the way in which it can be done. The conceptual link between the constant daily travel and the idea of the radicant are unmistakable.
Bourriaud continues by stating that “it [the radicant] exists exclusively in the dynamic form of wandering”.8 This denotes an identity that moves away from a static existence to one in which we are only able to understand our identity through a dynamic process. This notion of existence as only made visible by it’s trajectories echoes sentiments by Emirbayer in discussing the identity of an individual where "a dynamic, unfolding process, become the primary unit of analysis, rather than the constituent elements themselves". 9
Emirbayer is elaborating on ideas put forth by Dewey and Bentley in the idea of the Trans-Action. In looking at systems of naming and linguistic taxonomies ‘elements’ or ‘entities’ are not in isolation, but are a part of their ‘relations’.10 The act of ‘relating’ overrides the reductionist tendency to look at the subject unto itself.
Thus, in the context of Altermodernity, the wanderer is inseperable from the act of wandering. By existing only in this nomadic state of constant travel, the act of travel overrides any notion of singular identity. In accord with the nomadic method of wandering through the signs, we see that the process of organising connections between signs is what constitutes a radicant identity. Continuing on with relational and trans-actional linguistics, Brown looks at the difficulty in percieving this dynamic unfolding process in Western languages.11 The issue here is in the ability to hold both noun and verb at the same time. Being a radicant and the act of radicantity as one.
This ability to nod at syntax and carry on is a result of the re-introduction of pragmatics. When the intent and reception of language is included while considering the fluid process of signifying, there emerges a coherent rambler. 12
This ability to nod and carry on is central to our need to move past the impotency of Post Modernity and towards our abilities as nomads.
Having revealed why the Radicant identity is predicated on movement, we now need look at how we’re moving through time, space and the signs. Leading on from the Enlightenment, Modernist notions of time were teleological. Post Modernism saw fault in this linear direction as hegemonic and saught to dismantle the notion of progress through deconstruction: “A levelling of chronological systems by criticizing the Western one.”13 Time was instead seen as a catalogue, something in which all cultures are situated on a horizontal plane of relativism. The result was that ideas and cultures could be mined for their stylistic attributes.
Through the eyes of the nomad, time is somewhere that can be travelled to and inhabited. For when we travel, are we not also travelling to cultures with a different temporal sequence than our own? Appropriated from biology, heterochrony is the timing of the developmental variation of an organism in a species, leading to differing results. It is with this application of evolutionary understanding of history that the radicant travels through Altermodernity: a multitude of possible worlds, each with their own narrative of events.14
This notion of history as geographical and “constituted of multiple temporalities”15 is similar to the idea of Atemporality put forth by Bruce Sterling.16 He defines the difference between previous notions of history and our current one as a result of the intrinsic capabilities of the dominant medium of our day. The contrast between moving through a history book understanding the narrative as a linear process as opposed to the result of attempting to search online for an aspect of a historical narrative is a important one.
A book is a linear piece of text. It has a beginning, an end and an author with intent. To continue along this line into Post Modernity – a period of time punctuated as after the death of history – one could look at Barthes and the Death of the Author as a lack of regard to any historical narrative.17 But the internet has brought a levelling of authoritative knowledge: “A single historical narrative is a paper narrative”.18 We shouldn’t be expecting a new meta narrative while network culture is the dominant framework in which we view the world.19 It is only through network culture that are we able to understand heterochronic multiple narratives.
It is this network culture that has become the dominant cultural logic of our day, though this is not to say that it defines all systems of logic. The machine as cultural metaphor did not extend into all forms of thought in Modernism, it only acted as a suitable metaphor.20 Instead of an autonomous individual – a result of the Western Enlightenment – we now see ourselves as nodes in a network, as an individual situated and contingent upon other nodes. As Varnelis argues: “affirming one’s identity today means affirming the identity of others”.21
It is at this point that we need to refer to one of Bourriaud’s previous works, Post Production. In it he comes up with the term seminaut: one able to move through the signs, to create new paths through culture and semiotics. Relying on previous notions of authorship – both Modern and Post Modern – and originality as points of departure is no longer productive as “The seminaut imagines the links, likely relations between disparate sites”.22 For while artists like Duchamp and Burroughs bravely constituted works by blurring the notion of authorship, we have witnessed this logic be appropriated everywhere. The DJ and the idea of the remix has firmly entrenched itself in our society and is now taken as a given, it’s practices no longer informed by a degree of ironic self consciousness.23 The notion of context within a given network is what gives the artist or author an instinctive understanding of use: “exhibiting a work composed as a network of signs”.24
If the seminaut imagines the links, then the radicant set these forms in motion.25 Perhaps instead of wandering through the ‘signs’ we should be wandering through links. As Bourriaud explains:
The journey format... goes hand in hand with the generalisation of hypertext as a thought process: one sign directs us to a second, then a third, creating a chain of mutually interconnected forms, mimicking mouse clicks on a computer screen. 26
If this metaphor is to extrapolated, then this is a form of travel with no particular endpoint in mind. This applies to all forms: temporal, spatial or through the ‘signs’. This differs from the teleological direction of Modernism or the looping tendencies of Post Modernism.27
In order to summarise the nomadic facet of Altermodernity, we need to look at one last image: travel. The Modern era was informed by the explosive power and superabundant energy of both the train and automobile.28 The direction and progress implied by these modes allow for the arrangement of events into causally linked sequences, correlating with the teleological notion of history that we have discussed. The 1973 oil crisis as a precursor to the Post Modern condition is an event that Bourriaud places great importance, making us aware of our limited energy reserves.29
The object that neatly sums up the current spirit of our directionless travel today is that of the mobile phone. While both the train and the automobile are objects that create travel, the mobile phone presumes an inherent mobility on the part of the user. It allows us to connect to our roots at any point amidst a state of wandering. Technological progress allows us to carry the network in our pocket, no longer attached to the home. This enables us to situate ourselves within a network of signs while in the act of movement in time and space. Considering worldwide demographic shifts to the city, the mobile phone seems perfectly suited to our new built environment, especially considering the speed at which both the developing and the developed world have made it a central part of this new Altermodernity.
Whether or not the Altermodern exhibition was a success, the ideas put forth by it’s lead curator can not be discounted. Not just as a consideration on the changing face of art, but in the way in which it has made links and correlations in our contemporary world. Only as nomads are we able to inhabit this new world and must set about doing so.
1. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Tate Britain, ‘The Altermodern Manifesto’
2. Bourriaud, Nicolas et al, The Tate Triennial: Altermodern, (London, Tate Publishing, 2009) 13
3. Bourriaud, Nicolas. The Radicant, (New York, Sternberg Press, 2009) 21
4. Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix, A Thousand Plateus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
5. Bourriaud, op. cit., p22
6. Deleuze & Guattari, op. cit., p6
7. Bourriaud, op. cit., p55
9. Emirbayer, Mustafa. ‘Manifesto for a Relational Sociology’ The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 2. (Sep., 1997), 287
10. Bentley, Arthur & Dewey, John. Knowing and the Known. (Boston, Beacon Press, 1949) 108
11. Brown, Colleen. ‘The Relational Meme’ Fillip Vol 1 (Summer 1996)
13. Morton, Tom & Bourriaud, Nicolas. ‘Looking Forward: Tate Triennial 2009’ Frieze Issue 120 (Jan-Feb 2009)
14. Bourriaud, op. cit., p13
16. Sterling, Bruce. Beyond the Beyond ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’
17. Barthes, Roland. ‘The death of the Author’ Aspen No. 5-6 (Fall-Winter 1967) Roaring Fork Press NYC
18. Sterling, op. cit.
20. Varnelis, Kazys. ‘The Immediated Now: Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality’ Networked: A (networked_book) about (networked_art).
21. Varnelis, Kazys. ‘On Atemporality’, http://varnelis.net/blog/on_atemporality, accessed 18/03/2010
22. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Post Production: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (New York, Sternberg Press, 2002) 18
23. Kazys, op. cit.,
24. Bourriaud, loc. cit.
25. Bourriaud, op. cit., 23
26. Bourriaud, op. cit., 20
27. Bourriaud, op. cit., 18
28. Bourriaud, op. cit., 16
29. ibid., 15