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Networks, faces, membranes

30 nov '99
Author: Reinaldo Laddaga
In 1993, Jeanne van Heeswijk installed in her studio a mobile room that she had just finished building: a simple cube of light wood, which could be assembled and disassembled, implanted and transported. She called it Room with a View. The interior walls of the cube were covered in drawings, texts, and objects, and some two dozen artists, critics, and curators were invited to discuss with her the concept that had given rise to the project. To discuss this concept, and also the problem of private and public spaces ­ which proved particularly appropriate, if you consider that the Room, in its later installations, would configure itself as a kind of an enclave of privacy in a public space, whether in a room at the Rheinische Landklinik, in Kleve, Germany, or in the former departure hall of the Holland-Amerika Line, in Rotterdam. These conversations were not recorded or documented, but when they were over the artist produced a poster, on which a simple caption could be read: 'Private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places.' (The phrase is a quotation from W. H. Auden.)

In 1996, on the occasion of Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam, Jeanne van Heeswijk established a temporary association with the name of NEsTWORK.[1] It consisted of a group of seven people who developed an extensive series of activities during the exhibition (performances, concerts, lectures, and films), all focusing on the notion of the 'local.' Once again, her intent was the opening of a space of conversation, where images could be generated at the same time as discourses are developed, and where the aim was the establishment of a mode of connection with the site where these generations and developments would take place. And once again, within the name of the operation or the piece (piece, operation, program: all these names and others could be given to van Heeswijk's interventions), there was an expression establishing a link between an exteriority and an interiority. A nest in a network. A private face in a public place. Are the two relations equivalent? Perhaps not. But perhaps they are, which would be more intriguing. A private face in a public place is like a nest in a network, is like...

In 1997, Jeanne van Heeswijk recorded a series of conversations with artists and with students in the M.A. in Creative Curating course at Goldsmiths College, London. The theme? 'The silence between things and the necessity to take breaks.'[2] The title of the piece? Break. Dance. Let us insert this title in our little chain of equivalents: A private face in a public place is like a nest in a network, is like a silence between things and a break in a dance, is like...

This chain of equivalents marks off the territory in which van Heeswijk's work unfolds. But in what sense? What is there in common between a break in a dance, a nest in a network and a private face in a public space? Interrupt, enclose, exhibit: what kind of action is formed through this chain? Van Heeswijk's work can be understood as a meditation on these equivalents, a meditation that is not conducted in solitude, but out in the world (but what can it mean here, 'out in the world'?). A meditation that is conducted even as the occupation of certain places, the configuration of certain circuits, the implantation of certain images, and the invitation to certain conversations takes place.

And why all of this?

II.

I receive an envelope from the artist. The envelope includes some of her texts. One of them is called 'Fleeting images of community.'[3] The text is simple and clear: a chain of assertions about what, in her judgment, would be possible (and even necessary) these days, for art in general. What is the situation in which, according to her, artistic proposals take place? 'In a time where specialization continues to increase, there is little space left to really connect things such as the communication between various disciplines and between various subcultures. It appears to be close to impossible to bridge the various social islands' (175). Can art do something to deal with the situation? Yes, she believes. Why? 'The interesting aspect of visual art is its relatively autonomous position, which provides a sanctuary where new things can emerge' (175). Beginning from the territories of art, it is possible to establish platforms making certain encounters possible. 'The direct attention in my work for the participant implies the creation of platforms where people are able to encounter each other again and design and represent their own environment' (175). Not that these are two separate things: the encounter, on one hand, and the design and representation of the environment, on the other. It is a matter of creating 'platforms' (more-or-less established sites that, at the same time, are launch sites), where it would be possible for anyone to construct representations of the environment on the basis of the meeting that takes place ­ and at the same time, to represent the environment in such a way as to encourage the extension and consolidation of the meeting.

This is why art, these days, is not simply a matter of proposing solutions to aesthetic problems. 'One should attempt to formulate a new moral attitude, since I don't believe in an aesthetics without ethics' (175). The space of art should be one where 'a new moral attitude might be formulated' (175). A new moral attitude? What sort of attitude? 'Such a moral attitude should embrace the pluriformity of our contemporary society and attempt to escape from both relativism and fundamentalism. At the same time, it has to focus on the necessity of creating contexts outside of recognized art spaces while breaking down the isolated positions of these spaces' (175-176). It is a matter of constructing an 'interstitial space,' where the formation of these modes of relation can be verified, taking into account the fact that the relations are always mediated and give rise to what van Heeswijk calls 'agglutinations': temporary fixations of elements susceptible of being exhibited.

The idea is to constitute such a space from the general region of the 'visual arts.' For no matter how far the works can be taken in the discursive domain, the artist ­ van Heeswijk says ­ does not act as a 'cultural theorist.' Why? Because 'imagination and the space for the image continue to be decisive' (177). The image? No doubt because it partakes of an anarchic exception, an event that takes place beyond all particular conditions, bearing with it the marks of its singular emergence. Of course it is not only a matter of proposing images, but of investigating 'the conditions under which images could be regenerated' (178). Because images, each of them, and the culture of the image in which they are produced, must be regenerated. Why? 'I believe that today's aesthetics has isolated art by separating image from reality, while shifting presentation to representation. Because of that, isolated images have emerged without any connection to reality. In my work, I try to create contexts for images and different possibilities so that images have the capacity to reconnect in a meaningful way to their environment' (178). And in what ways is this done? 'In order to explore those kinds of questions, my activities are primarily focused on constructing frameworks. Then I guide the processes happening inside that frame, although I don't enforce anything. At the most, I create conditions where moments could emerge which intervene with perception, so that new images or frameworks might come into being. However, because the 'anything goes' principle has led to super-differentiation and non-communication in various domains, once in a while frameworks have to be closed' (178). This recognition that 'once in a while frameworks have to be closed' is what is meant, among other things, in the title of one of van Heeswijk's works: Draw a Line.[4]

'Draw a line': how to draw a line? How to do it in such a way that the more-or-less reserved space this drawing establishes, rather than being a cloistered preserve, is a platform on the basis of which the other, friend or enemy, can be approached in full uncertainty? Such a thing appears particularly important, to her eyes, at a moment like ours: because it is true that artistic proposals deal with the concrete condition of the present described here as 'super-differentiation.'

III.

'Super-differentiation..' What does it mean? No doubt what a certain tradition of social thought considers as the decisive trait of modernity, the propensity of modern societies to differentiate themselves into subsystems: a political system differentiated from a religious system, an economic system differentiated from a legal system, and, of course, an art system with its own particular objectives and ways of proceeding. This process then opens up a space for the will to autonomy that has been characteristic of art under the conditions of modernity, an autonomy to which van Heeswijk's practice bears ambiguous allegiance. For it is not a matter, in her view, of remaining faithful to an art that proposes to create objects unfolding within a sphere separated by a distinct line from the one in which individuals carry out their daily practices, practices of action and conversation, of consent and exchange. But nor is she interested in participating in that specific type of rebellion against the institutions of the modernity that can still be identified as the neo-avantgarde, insofar as the latter aspired to an excessively simple fusion of art and life. Van Heeswijk aspires to develop her work through a complex play of distancing and interchange, which involves a strategic affirmation of certain aspects of the tradition of autonomy ­ at least insofar as that tradition involves a space of reserve for the taking of decisions that give rise to gestures that can create distance from our own present, and resituate life as it is within the framework of life as it could be ­ while also allowing images to be 'reconnected' to their 'environments.' Autonomy, in short, as 'a sanctuary where new things can emerge' ­ even if these things bear little resemblance to what modernity had consecrated as art.

But I suspect that when van Heeswijk speaks of 'super-differentiation' she does not only refer to these artistic questions, but also to what happens in the present to the individuals in those parts of the world where her work takes place (almost always regions of conflict and disintegration in the developed world). The present, considered in this respect as an epoch in the history of subjectivity, is characterized by the weakening of the forms of collective belonging that had defined late modernity: belonging to a nation, class, union, or party, to a religion or family, a form of belonging that constrained and connected one in a particular way. But there is also a particular constraint and connection for the individual who, in the world of 'flexible labor,' for example, experiences a gain in autonomy and mobility, but is also thrown entirely back on him- or herself, on his or her sheer particularity (as chance occurrence, as pure accident), a little like those 'isolated images' of which van Heeswijk speaks, exposed to all the connections, but also to all the disasters. 'Super-differentiation' means this: the situation of an epoch when all the institutions and patterns which in the world of the modern had provided average individuals with forms of assurance and more-or-less recognizable limits have disintegrated, leaving large populations at the mercy of a strictly empty exteriority, where they can be captured by phobic programs that give an archaic name to the obscure anxieties they generate: the name of security.

This individual from the world of 'super-differentiation' is the site in which new stakes come into play; and art can participate in this game, but only to the extent that it finds the resources. For this attenuation of collective belonging occurs at the same time as ever-wider networks of globalization arise. And with them arises a certain structure of feeling: one that derives from a sudden consciousness of global continuity, bringing the promise of a presence to each other as human beings ­ a co-presence quite outside the contexts that defined the same and the other under the conditions of late modernity ­ and at the same time, bringing the knowledge that humanity itself is a temporary and unstable result (and thus confronting us with a decision about the very definition of this humanity).

At the same time...

At one and the same time there is increasing individualization and increasing connection: a reduction of everyone to his or her sheer particularity, and an exposure to the other, to the human as such, in full uncertainty. But this situation offers the art of the present new challenges, at least if it seeks to connect itself to the epoch's sources of anxiety and invention. And it is here, in reflection on this situation, that van Heeswijk's work begins. For this reason, each time, in each local situation, her work is an answer to the repeated question: In a given situation, how to intervene in such a way that the people who are there can increase the number and intensity of their ties?

IV.

Nothing is more characteristic of van Heeswijk's works than the double gesture we can read in them: a gesture of rupture and reparation, of perturbation and quiescence, of imbalance and stabilization. As though it were necessary to advance polemically and yet at the same time to hold back, if indeed one wishes, from the territory of art, to approach that which in the world of 'super-differentiation' appears both as a problem and a solution. 'Super-differentiation' is characteristic of an epoch that sees both the constitution of a global scene and the dissolution of all the modernist formulas: the formulas for the interpretation of art, of the social, and of the relation between the two. But it is also an epoch that sees a decisive modification in modernity's figure of the subject.

Because the present is an epoch in which the image of the subject that modernity had taken for granted loses all its obviousness, from the field of legal or economic calculation to that of scientific or political representation, by way of the artistic culture that van Heeswijk suddenly finds incapable of offering that which it most lacks (platforms upon which meetings can take place, connections betweenimages and environments, membranes that are at once permeable and protected). Modern art had addressed itself to and tacitly taken as its objective a subject that it assumed to be solidly installed within its own reserve, distancing itself from the field of objectivities, structured as the sum of a series of more-or-less separate subsystems all assembled in a more-or-less well-adjusted way.[5] Van Heeswijk's practice, on the contrary, is designed for a subject who is always already inserted into an environment over which that subject tries to establish some control, seeing and hearing at the same time as doing. A subject in whom action and perception 'interanimate': a subject who acts out a series of minimal actions to adjust her perceptions, while adjusting her perceptions to recommence her actions. Who travels to perceive, even if the journey is only a few yards long; and who perceives to compose a position from which a journey can begin again. At the same time...

At the same time, this subject speaks, in order to establish a space of commonness with others: with the goal of separating out a platform, situating it within a network, bringing forth what is inherent in the place where it has been established, and sending whatever can be transmitted of this place through some circuit. This interanimation of perceptions and actions is also an interanimation of perceptions, actions, and discourses. Perceive, act, speak: the interplay is constant. For this reason all of van Heeswijk's proposals consist of stage-sets, programs, and incitements to conversation: constructing a cube, covering it with images, inviting some people to speak, publishing the dialogues, defining a system of exhibition and transport. Or defining a program that allows people to reconstruct their images of the city, inserting this program in computers, installing the computers in a bus, defining a circulation, proposing sites of exhibition. Perturbation and association, localization and transport, at the same time...

At the same time, all this is proposed to subjects who compose their own worlds articulated with thousands of mediators. For the idea is not only that the production of experiences be realized though the interactivation of perceptions, actions, and speech, but that this interactivation should also come into a circuit with fragments of the outside world, in a machine of knowledge, emotion, and association that, for each individual, is made not only of parts of her own body, but also of parts of her environment. Andy Clark calls 'wideware' these fragments of the environment that adhere to or break off from the subject (adhering to, and at the same time, breaking off), that connect and disconnect her images. He asserts that 'it is thus something of a question whether we should see the cognizer as the bare biological organism (that exploits all those external props and structures), or the organism-plus-wideware. To adopt the latter perspective is to opt for a kind of 'extended phenotype' view of the mind, in which the relation between the biological organism and the wideware is as important and intimate as that of the spider and the web.'[6] Like a spider and its web.

A web that is increasingly populated by creatures of the digital universe. Because this epoch of 'super-differentiation' is also the epoch when life unfolds through the thousand mediations of the digital, with its 'props and structures,' with all its modes of connecting images and environments. Van Heeswijk's practice takes place in a moment when all important art has to recognize that it is produced under conditions of digitalization: when every phenomenon appears, immediately, as a decomposable and recombinable transmission; when every subject receives every transmission as being susceptible of decomposition and recombination, at the same time...

At the same time as constant simulations unfold in her mind, at the same time as ongoing scenarios are spun out in her mind. For this is a subject who continually resituates what appears in what might appear: a subject who projects possible worlds into the slightest fissures in the real... But such a subject requires new formations of art: and to begin, it requires that art reach beyond the paradigm of the object, if the object is a more-or-less compact appearance, with more-or-less well-defined edges, which appears by distinguishing itself more-or-less clearly from an individual who receives it in her distance and retreat. Instead of this, it requires that art turn to the construction of entities like those that van Heeswijk has been proposing for years: agglomerates of images, programs of action, means of transmission, and places that are offered to individuals less as things to be seen and analyzed than as nets in which they can take their places, somewhat like a spider in its web.

V.

Van Heeswijk, I assume, conceives of art as a moment in the more general project of the invention of a new culture for the left. An invention at once of an ethics, an aesthetics, and a new link between the two. And she knows, moreover, that the invention of a culture does not simply consist in the construction of systems of ideas, but also of architecture, of modes of connection and transport, of canals and dikes, of continuities and interruptions. Modes of articulating interiorities and exteriorities, for example, in such a way that our most common notions of public and private are transformed.

From 1994 to 1998, in Overschie, van Heeswijk carried out a project with the title Buitenshuiskamer (Outside livingroom). Between two seniors' residences was a glass-covered passageway. In cooperation with the inhabitants of the home, the passageway was furnished as a living room; it was supposed to remain only a couple of weeks, but it stayed for several years.

From 1996 to 2001, in the town hall of Oud-Beijerland, van Heeswijk, 'in close collaboration with the architect Victor van Leeuw, constructed atmosphere zones, or so-called 'habitats,' that visualize what is going on in Oud-Beijerland and make the users of the building feel more at home' (her words). Note the similarity between visualization and inhabitation, the link between a way of settling and a way of seeing, the combination of the house and the observatory, the house as observatory... And so the chain of equivalents extends: A private face in a public place is like a nest in a network, is like a silence between things and a break in a dance, is like a living room in a landscape, is like a habitat in a town hall, is like...

An 'involution.'

Van Heeswijk is less interested in composing objects than in generating 'involutions.' The word might sound somewhat strange. I use it in the meaning developed by Stephen Fuchs, in a chapter of a book called Against Essentialism, where it is a question of 'modes of association.'[7] The primal mode of social association, social association at its level of greatest generality, writes Fuchs, is found in networks that tie together the meetings of persons in space and time, their communications and interactions. 'Networks come first' (191). From them, 'encounters, groups, and organizations' are generated, which should be considered as 'variable and temporary 'involutions' or condensations of networks.' These are a little like 'eddies in rivers. They emerge as certain segments and clusters of a network turn inward, separating themselves to some degree from the overall structure and from the rest of the world' (192).

'Draw a line,' 'create an eddy': the two operations are parallel (and the chain continues in Face Your World). Again and again, what van Heeswijk has been doing for years is to offer all kinds of groups of people the means to 'separat[e] themselves to some degree from the overall structure and from the rest of the world,' in order to reduce the opening of a horizon that is, at the same time, the multiplication of possible worlds and the exteriority of total fragmentation. Because a practical necessity in the epoch of 'super-differentiation' is to establish ways of reducing the overall openness, to establish nuclei of privacy for more than one individual, but nuclei which are not phobic. This is why the most common departure point for van Heeswijk's work is the definition of a membrane that provides for the relative enclosure of a portion of space and at the same time permits that space to communicate with its environment. Defining an envelope that allows an ephemeral and transitory community to separate itself from the overall structure and provide itself with its own time, while at the same time becoming the place for the projection of the images that actually generate this community: this, precisely, is the point where van Heeswijk's work begins.

Setting up a membrane and proposing a series of artifacts: the works begin in this way. Partially closing off a portion of space, opening this space to a particular collective, and providing the community in question with instruments that can be used to produce little universes, made up of parts of the world as it is, but recombined. Because it is around such universes that the encounters become denser. And the densification of a system of encounters, such that their images are multiplied, is what van Heeswijk is interested in producing.

The hybrid compositions of membranes, systems of transportation, programs of action and multipliers of images which make up these works are meant less to anchor spaces of reserve within fixed territories, than to generate partially open interiorities, where it is possible for a community (no matter how transitory) to maintain itself in its own indetermination and at the same time, to multiply its links with a world that it continually approaches ­ and which supplies it with the materials that the mediations of the common can be made from ­ while at the same time responding to the demand that some production emerge from all this (an image, a text, a sequence of sounds), a production that can be presented to someone else.

Each time, it is a matter of provoking the involution of a network into a nest, but also, of ensuring the re-exportation of this nest into a network. For van Heeswijk, it is always a matter of defining a membrane that encloses and half-opens a space, it is a matter of producing a system to import individuals within the inner space of the membrane, then exporting the system that has thus been constituted. Constructing capsules, encapsulating collectivities, transporting them elsewhere. Proposing images, giving them the means to be recomposed, laying out spaces for exhibition.

What discipline can van Heeswijk be said to practice? None that has an indubitable name or that structures itself in the way the disciplines did under the conditions of modernity. If it is worth maintaining the name of 'art' to refer to these things, it is for convenience, and also because they share a relation of descent with the things that certain people have produced in the name of this venerable name, over the long course of modernity. At the same time, van Heeswijk's practice implies a strategic approximation and use of the institutions and territories that have arisen around the figure of modern art, and a reception of that which is most valuable in the artistic tradition: the belief that a certain practice of space, action, speech, and the image is capable of intervening in that which, from epoch to epoch, forms a central point where intense anxiety meets the source of all promises. But this same faithfulness requires her to propose, not objects structured in a certain manner (or gestures of simple rebellion against the paradigm of the object), but complex formations instead, agglutinations of elements and processes; and it also requires her to focus her interest less on the definitions of contents and forms that she has conceived in her solitude and reserve, as on proposals of spaces and instruments, transports and programs, which necessarily escape her control. For no one who wishes to remain faithful to the best of this tradition can deprive herself today of recognizing that we are dealing with an original situation: that of addressing ourselves to individuals who constitute themselves through the interanimation of observations, actions, and discourses, which they receive, simulate, and recombine (which they receive at the same time as they simulate and recombine them). Individuals who reach out in advance of what happens to them, with innumerable prosthetics and mediations, but at the same time find themselves exposed to new modes of fear and euphoria: to the fear that emerges in conditions where the modern forms of territorialization and integration dissolve, and to euphoria at the possibility of non-phobic territorializations and integrations.

This is why an artist who is fascinated by private faces in public spaces, breaks in dances, silences between things, and nests in networks, who assumes that the space of art should be occupied by attempts at connection, at the weaving of continuities and even of reparations, an artist who insists on defining membranes, on stabilizing and then projecting environments, finds herself faced, each time, with the need to take decisions for which almost nothing in the historical world that she inhabits can provide sufficient orientation. 'Face Your World' also means this: situate yourself at that turning point where 'moments could emerge which intervene with perception, so that new images or frameworks might come into being...' How is this done? The problem is deceivingly simple, and in truth, of extreme complexity. But what could be more necessary than posing the problem?


Reinaldo Laddaga is an assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the books Baltasar Brum's Euphoria (1999) and Indigent Literatures and Base Pleasures (2000), as well as many articles on issues of art and literature.

Translated from the Spanish by Brian Holmes.


Notes

1. NEsTWORK is Karin Arink, Wapke Feenstra, Jeanne van Heeswijk, Edwin Janssen, Menna Laura Meijer, Kamiel Verschuren, Ruud Welten.

2. The conversations were subsequently edited by the artist and then sampled and mixed by composer Johnny Clark. They were converted into an installation, a CD, and a 'live re-mix event': the norm for van Heeswijk is that there is no action that does not result in a form to be sent and received, extended or compressed, that cannot become the object of a circulation.

3. Jeanne van Heeswijk, 'Fleeting images of community,' in Anette Balkema and Henk Slager (eds.), Exploding Aesthetics, Lier en Boog vol. 16 (Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001), 175-178. Page references for quotations are given parenthetically in the text.

4. In 2000, van Heeswijk was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. She proposed the project Draw a Line, which is based on an old Dutch game. Van Heeswijk describes the project in this way: 'In collaboration with Rolf Engelen an area of twenty-five square meters was filled with earth in the gallery which referred to the Dutch tradition of land reclamation. In the gallery the game 'landjepik' could be played, which centers on gaining and losing territory, land, and space. By alternately throwing a knife in one of the parts of the area of land, the two players try to gain parts of each other's territory. The work was accompanied by a booklet with the rules of the game that can be played in three varieties, 'Wanna play,' 'Wanna fight,' and 'Wanna act.' In the latter variation the assignment is to create space for the opposition instead of taking space away from them; an impossible assignment in a game of conquering.' But maybe the most common assignment in the games van Heeswijk proposes...

5. This is why at a certain moment (it might be called the 'formalist' moment) art seems to have addressed a subject which was no more than pure eye, seeing without touch or language; which in turn is why the first reactions to these position so often took the form of an assertion of apocalyptic corporeality, the corporeality of a body without organs, and of language approaching the sob or the scream; an assertion of the body as an exorbitant outside, of language as a euphoric flux, of the image as a receptacle of pure force.

6. Andy Clark, Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 274.

7. Stephan Fuchs. Against Essentialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). Page references for quotations are given parenthetically in the text.


Related projects

Room with a View
Private
Wan(d)klanken
Verlangen
NEsTWORK
Break. Dance
Buitenhuiskamer
Een huis voor de gemeenschap
Face Your World
related project:
Room with a view
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