On Art and the Universal, II

Last July, I wrote a piece “On Art and the Universal, I” and promised part two within a week. It’s almost 11 months later, so here it is. The first piece stands on its own as a critique of the political cynicism of the academic-gallery nexus. This second piece stands alone as well. Read part I, re-read it, or don’t bother. 

As an art scholar and artist, I find the Greenbergian tradition invaluable. I studied for a year with Hal Foster in graduate school and was compelled by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on sculpture in the expanded field, as well as by Clement Greenberg’s efforts to find a trajectory for research within postwar painting. Briefly, Greenberg asserted that each art form should concentrate on its own unique properties or “the specificity of the medium“. Famously, Greenberg believed that the essence of modernism was to “use the characteristic methods of the discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” To this end, painting, for Greenberg would best focus on the flatness of the canvas instead of imitating the three-dimensionality of sculpture. This was of great utility for the last generation of truly productive artists in the US, from Kenneth Noland to Donald Judd to James Turrell to my father, all of whom engaged with Greenberg—even when they disagreed with him. Disciplinary self-criticism and the specificity of the medium was a research project that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of a shared project of advancing human knowledge in a particular discipline. Krauss, who studied with Greenberg, reinterpreted his philosophy, moving away from the idea of medium specificity to propose art as an expanded field of practices and mediums, including conceptual, installation, and performance art. The object of interrogation ceased to be the medium and became the institution of art itself and with this, a greater element of political critique could be introduced. Foster took this further in his writings on the Pictures Generation, shifting to a postmodern exploration of the process of art making, originality and identity, and the nature of the sign itself.

Although I empathize with the Greenbergian search for politically progressive forces in art, this aspect of the project has run aground, even if is the only part of the project that remains popular. I detail this in my previous post, but in sum, the quest for the political in art has amounted to little more than a justification for guilty consciousness and the drive to affirm one’s virtue. Far from a place of resistance, the political in art is cynical in a Sloterdijkian sense: its proponents know that it has nothing to do with actual political progress, but they claim it nevertheless.

Perhaps not coincidentally, art lost the thread since the 1970s. Even as postmodernists deployed postmodernism as a totalizing concept, they claimed that totalization was obsolete (the classic boomer move of declaring itself the best and last generation at anything). For postmodernists, totalizing historical frameworks overgeneralize the intricacies and nuances of historical events and cultural phenomena, leading to oversimplification and inaccuracies, they overlook differences within a given time period, such as the experiences of marginalized groups, and they perpetuate existing power dynamics by privileging dominant cultural or social perspectives. But the price for rejecting totalizing narratives is that where art used to make clear, measured progress, after postmodernism, it is stuck in an endless loop of pluralism, sustained only by self-justifying statements about politics. Today, the relationship between theory and totality is fractured and postmodern thought, ironically, leans toward irrelevance. In his 1979 La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (translated as the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), Jean-François Lyotard observed that knowledge—primarily science—was being fragmented into incommensurable discourse as an incredulity to metanarratives emerged. Today, the arts and humanities are also splintered into incommensurable discourses. But rather than being a position of greater strength and self-criticism, the fracture of narrative banally reflects our very existence, our selves intensely fragmented by the operations of media. Art practices and theories that exacerbate that fragmentation are merely accelerationist or, more likely, uncritical and reactive in nature. Lacking a metanarrative, however, there is little else they can do besides exacerbate fragmentation. 

I contend that it’s time we breathe life back into the Greenbergian theoretical framework. This revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

Except for the most feeble-minded of thinkers, the development of advanced levels of networked computation is the single biggest transformation in human existence in many decades. Our sense of what media is and our relationship to it has changed profoundly. Thus, although it is entirely possible for artists to pursue other, legitimate forms of research, my own work largely revolves around the role of technology in our lives. In the last year, I have specifically been compelled to explore the new generation of Artificial Intelligence software, particularly AI image generators.

What is specific to AI image generators is not the creation of the new, but rather their endless capacity to remix the history of art and imagery. We could see this as part of a dialectic, or more simply, as part of a back-and-forth process of art history since the late eighteenth-century loss of the absolute belief in the principles of classical art. After the archeological discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a consistent system, art was set adrift with its terrifying newfound freedom. Nineteenth-century eclecticism followed: rules were treated flexibly and forms could be freely combined at will. The backlash came with modernism’s rejection of all past forms and its search for a new, universal language of form, a project refined in Greenberg’s late modernist turn toward the specificity of the medium. In response, Postmodernism critiqued the new and turned toward the semiotic recombination of past forms and/or imagery from popular culture and commercial art. Starting about 25 years ago, Network Culture or Metamodernism supplanted postmodernism, largely relying on a resurgence of interest in technical effects and their capacity to elicit sensation. Think of Anish Kapoor or Olafur Ellison, for example, or the emergence of the very large, technically flawless salon-painting-sized photographs by artists such as Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall.
  
The era of AI creation is not, primarily, an era of the new. Architecture throws things into heightened relief. A furry, feathery building is not new. Nor is it interesting, except as a means of generating Instagram hits. Within a few years, AIs will be developed to effectively generate endless, plausible architectural models from a set of given parameters (site, area needed, programme, etc.), but even those are likely to remain endless permutations of the sort a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe might have done in their offices. For now, AIs are not yet capable of producing sophisticated three-dimensional models, but they are capable of producing imagery by remixing content. When something new emerges, it is through unusual juxtapositions thought up by the operator, but also through accidents. Malformed image generations can be interesting: for example, in my project on an alternative history of art in Vilnius, a series of glitched images appeared like the following image, which was supposed to be of a painting exhibit in a gallery. This process can be iterative since open-source AIs such as Stable Diffusion can be trained on specific datasets, so when accidents happen, artists can take those unusual results further. 

AI image generation reveals that all art is already intertextual, that is, shaped by, and in turn shaping, other works through allusions, references, and influences. My father was a modernist but nevertheless spent his evenings looking at coffee table art books of Renaissance and Baroque masters for inspiration. Nor was this an uncommon practice among modern painters. We now have a different way of accessing that cultural subconscious. It does not reveal itself easily either. Working with AI image generators is, for the serious artist, as time-consuming as any other practice. The virtue of a Critical AI Art, however, is to explore how artworks are developed within a network of works, historical and recent, and the cultural contexts that surround them. A Critical AI Art expressly addresses intertextuality and its relation to the idea of originality, not merely because these are the issues raised by AI image generation, but because these are issues inherent to art itself. 

On an art experiment in soviet Lithuania

Looking through my own library of books from occupied Lithuania, I realized that a broader audience was likely unfamiliar with the story of the Lithuanian SSR’s artistic revolution in the 1970s, a bold and audacious deviation from the traditional narrative of Soviet-controlled artistic expression is the midst of the Cold War that has yet to receive proper treatment in the West.

By 1960, the Politburo had become concerned about the rising cultural influence of the United States worldwide, particularly in Europe. In particular, they were concerned about the use of art in the ideological war with the capitalist and democratic West. As Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art elucidates, the United States Information Agency and the CIA weaponized modern art as a form of soft power. 

… the battle against communism promised to be a long and difficult one, and one which for want of traditional weapons would require the full arsenal of propaganda. The war may have been a “cold war” but it was nonetheless a total war. Accordingly, art, too, was called upon to play its part.

Guilebaut, 173.

The dynamism and unpredictability of Abstract Expressionism served as an apt metaphor for the freedom and innovation promised in the American way of life, a foil to the strictures of Socialist Realism that dominated the art scene in the USSR during the 1950s. The ossification of Socialist Realism, and the understanding of it outside the Soviet Union as rigid, formulaic, and bereft of individual expression was a contrast to the immediate post-revolutionary environment when Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar responsible for the Ministry of Education, recognized the power of avant-garde art as a tool of propaganda and influence and advocated for Agitprop experiments inside during the heady days of “War Communism.” Soon, seeking to convert the European avant-garde to Communism, he dispatched El Lissitzky  to Western Europe to spread the gospel of Constructivism and funded publications like Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet to showcase the exciting new direction of Soviet art to the world. Such radical projects were soon suppressed in favor of a romanticized cult of the worker in Socialist Realism. But with Soviet leaders facing the rising cultural influence of the United States, after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin tasked a committee to investigate how to reverse the USSR’s declining ideological popularity. Evaluating the profound impact that Western art was having on the global art scene, the committee recommended a course of action as unprecedented as it was strategic, designating the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression. There were a number of reasons why Lithuania was chosen: First, the small Baltic nation—literally the westmost part of the Soviet union—had long been westward looking, but the impenetrability of the Lithuanian language to Russian and the relatively small Russian minority—when compared to Latvia or Estonia—meant that if these developments got out of control, they could be contained. The committee moved slowly and, at first, chose to let Lithuanian architects lead the way. Notably, works like Elena Nijole Bučiūte’s Žemėtvarkos projektavimo instituto rūmai (Institute for the Organisation of Land Exploitation) and Vytautas Čekanauskas’s Parodu rūmai (Art Exhibition House), both built in 1967, received positive reception locally, in Moscow, and abroad. 

The decision to designate the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression signified a clear departure from the norm. It was a move that challenged the traditional model of centralized control over artistic production and expression that had characterized the Soviet cultural policy since the days of Stalin. The Soviet leaders were acutely aware of the potential for art to be a vehicle for dissent and for the expression of ideas that were contrary to the state ideology. Yet, they believed that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. They hoped that by fostering a vibrant and dynamic art scene in the Lithuanian SSR, they could demonstrate the cultural vitality of the Soviet Union, and perhaps even influence the global discourse on art and freedom. The Lithuanian SSR was thrust into the limelight. Artists were suddenly given the freedom to explore new artistic currents, to challenge the established norms, and to engage with their counterparts in the West. The impact of this decision on the Lithuanian art scene was profound and transformative, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s cultural history.

Already as early as the mid 1960s, American Fluxus leader George Maciunas reached out to his Lithuanian counterparts—notably composer Vytautas Landsbergis—to establish links between New York and Vilnius (see, for example, this 1991 article in Artforum by Nam Jun Paik). Maciunas would struggle to return to Lithuania, his efforts at obtaining a visa always subtly thwarted by Moscow authorities, who believed his brand of art could ignite ideological difficulties, but nevertheless, he managed to secure visits in the early 1970s from Western artists, notably Joseph Beuys, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (who photographed peasants in the countryside), and land artist Robert Smithson.

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Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographs from Lithuanian countryside, taken and exhibited 1970

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Robert Smithson exhibit, Vilnius, Lithuania, 1971

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Joseph Beuys Exhibit, “Labas Rytas, Lietuva,” Vilnius, 1972

For Lithuanian artists, this newfound freedom was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provided an opportunity to break free from the shackles of socialist realism and to explore a multitude of artistic currents prevalent in the West. On the other hand, it posed new challenges as they had to navigate this unfamiliar artistic landscape while still operating within the overarching political framework of the USSR. Brilliantly, the directorship of the Lithuanian Artists’ Union understood this danger and encouraged artists to work in anonymity, under pseudonyms or in groups, a process which they claimed avoided the bourgeois cult of the individual, but that also protected them from trouble should the winds of politics change. For six years, from 1970 to 1976, the Artist’s Union organized annual thematic exhibitions that received remarkable attention in both the local scene and in the West, even as they were hardly known in the larger Soviet Union or East Bloc due to concerns about the ideological content of the work. 

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1970. Objektai/Objects

The 1970 show was an ambitious start to the cycle of annual exhibitions, itself inspired by the 1966 Primary Structures Show as well as by Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Giving this work an appropriate didactic Marxist twist, artists set out to critique the processes of production, consumption, and overaccumulation in society. Exhibit halls throughout Vilnius were filled with large stacks of blank boxes and museum storage areas were opened to visitors. The show proved wildly popular with artists but confounded both the public and the authorities, who urged caution and discipline in future exhibits.  

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1971. Kibernetica/Cybernetics

Hoping to appeal to sympathetic forces in the nomenclatura, the Artists’ Union invited Aksel Ivanovich Berg, Soviet scientist and head of the Scientific Council on Complex Problems in Cybernetics to lecture on the topic to artists who would then work on the theme throughout the city. Unsure of how to apply the problems of cybernetics to art, Berg—who was also a radio engineer—showed a slide of Nicolas Schöffer’s Tour Cybernétique (Cybernetic Tower) in Liège, Belgium, a project that responded to data from its environment. Artists constructed their own interpretations of the Tour Cybernétique throughout Vilnius and added other interpretations of how art might engage with the topic, including an early work of sound art that Landsbergis included in the show. Returning to see the show, Berg was puzzled by the work, but glad for the attention to his field. 

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1972. Mokslas/Science

Seeing the potential for aligning the exhibits with themes popular with the government, the Artists’ Union tried again in 1972, this time with science, building on Lithuania’s role as a major research center for electronics. Nevertheless, the display of a  crashed mock-up of a space capsule proved highly controversial in the wake of the fatal 1971 accident of Soyuz 11 (no Russian crewed spacecraft flew again until 1973) and the overall Soviet failure to reach the moon. Leaders of the Artists’ Union were accused of subversion and only high-level interventions by sympathetic Politburo members saved the experiment.       

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1973. Feminizmas/Feminist Art

With fingers burned, the Artists’ Union set out on a surprisingly risky path, an exhibit of feminist art. This proved wildly successful in the West and did not lead to terrible consequences back home, although as with the 1970 Objects show, the conceptual nature of the show meant it was confusing to locals. Feminism proved to be a risk worth taking and inaugurated a series of shows in which both organizers and artists flew ever closer to the sun. 

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1974. Televizija/Television

Hoping to finally reach the public more broadly, the 1974 exhibit revolved around the phenomenon of television. Television, by this point, had become popular in the USSR and Lithuania was a major center of television manufacture in the Soviet Union. Video art had become popular in the West and the Television exhibit sought to capitalize on the phenomenon while critiquing the televisual spectacle. Echoes of both the Objects and Science shows could be felt in this exhibit, which achieved reasonable success with the local populace and authorities. 

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1975. Aplinka/Environment

1975 saw the beginning of the end of conceptual art in 1970s Lithuania. The construction of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which had begun in 1974, had led to widespread discontent, and the Environment theme was co-opted into a protest by a group of young artists against nuclear power. Although the project drew more attention than ever from the West, inspiring protests against nuclear power and chemical contamination in West Germany and the United Kingdom, it unsettled the Soviet authorities and they placed the Artists’ Union on notice that their methods were becoming ideologically unsound.     

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1976. Vaiduokliai/Ghosts

During the organization phase of the 1976 exhibit, which was initially supposed to be on abstraction, the Artists’ Union was notified that this was the last in the series of experimental art projects. The controversy over the Environment exhibit had proven to be too great and the program had earned the disapproval of Brezhnev himself. As a coda, the organizers swiftly rethought the theme around the concept of ghosts and haunting. Many of the works were of a strange, abstract quality, with fabric scrim and translucent panels suspended throughout the exhibition halls. “Paintings” made of oxidized steel lent the exhibit a further funereal air. 

In the fashion of failed Soviet experiments, the exhibits of the 1970s were not spoken of again, at least not in public, and it would take until Lithuanian Independence and the foundation of the Contemporary Art Centre by Kestutis Kuizinas in the early 1990s for conceptual art to find a new, more permanent home in Vilnius, but at some level, these experiments were never forgotten and helped give rise to a new generation of radical artists.


This is the second of three drafts of Critical AI Art works that I am publishing this week. AI Art that seeks to do something, not just create NFTs for profit is incredibly time-consuming and like the first piece on Pierre Lecouille, this project took months to of work to this date. For my friends in Lithuania, this piece, in particular, is likely to seem incomplete and I fully accept that. But as I stated in the afterward to the Lecouille piece, the rapid development of AI image generators—not to mention the kitsch being produced by them—means that sitting on this work for longer will simply make it stale, so here it is, incomplete but in the public sphere.

As with all of my AI Art pieces, this work began with an experiment in prompting. Initially, the images returned did not resemble Vilnius or art that I could ever envision in Lithuania. Over time, however, Midjourney has proven much better at producing uncannily appropriate imagery. Once a basic outline emerged and I could begin refining this work, it developed a threefold significance for me. First, it points to the impossibility of work like this in the repressive atmosphere of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the 1970s. Imagine what radical thought has been lost to the machinery of oppression. Second, the rewriting of history recalls the chronic desire to rewrite history (and to fake imagery) in the Soviet Union and, to a lesser but still real extent, in post-Independence Lithuania and the West in general. Finally, this work has a personal meaning to me, a spirit photography of an era of art that I knew only as a child in 1970s America and that I nevertheless miss deeply as well as a country that always existed as a lost Other until I finally was able to visit in 1991. There is no word for “Ostalgie” in Lithuanian as there is in Germany, since the Soviet times were, for Lithuania, a time of great oppression by a foreign power—unlike East Germany, which was very much the jewel in the crown for the East Bloc—and this is not that, rather  this project is, finally and foremost, a way of working with the way a particular place and time has haunted me over the years.

 

About that AI Photography award controversy and a Minor Update on AI Imagery in General

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of news (for example, the Guardian) on how Boris Eldagsen refused the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Award in the Creative Open category that he won for his AI image “The Electrician.” As the Guardian piece notes, Eldagsen’s intent was to question whether the competition would accept AI Art blithely and, prior to being announced as a winner, he made it clear (as his site does) to the competition organizers that the work was AI-generated.

Let’s look at the photograph for a minute. I suppose I shouldn’t reproduce it here without permission (I’ve asked and will add it if I get a positive response). You can view it on the artist’s site which gives an idea of his work in context.

Eldagsen’s description of the series this belongs to, Pseudomnesia, interests me. The term is Greek for pseudo-memory or fake memory, and of course AI imagery is ideal for creating fake memories. In that sense, his work is not unlike my Critical AI Art project, although I would like to know more about the intent behind the specific imagery. The artist explains, “Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality, AI will replace photography. Don’t be afraid of the future. It will just be more obvious that our mind always created the world that makes it suffer.” Eldagsen is an enthusiast of AI image generation (what he dubs “promptography”) and he argues that it should have a separate category in competitions such as this one.

Questions arise immediately. Were the judges aware it was an AI-generated photograph? If not, why were they judges in a photography competition? The hands are clearly off, with fingernails only appropriate for Joan Crawford, Disney villainesses, and strippers. There is an over-smoothed aspect to parts of the image and then other parts are grainy, giving the image an uncanny-valley feel. The surface damage is strange: one of the scratches appears to be a reflection in framing glass. From a narrative point of view, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like the woman on the right is getting her clothes adjusted, but why is the other woman cowering behind her? Whose hand is the top right one? Is this last-minute preparations for a wedding or an execution (the image is intended to be in “the visual language of the 1940s”)? Why is it called “the Electrician”? I suppose those enigmas are part of the attraction to the image.

As far as the competition goes, I’ve never heard of it before. The work that they award (reflective of is submitted?) tends to rather boring, the sort of thing found in photography magazines that have lots of product reviews and are read by people who have never heard of New Topographics, but operate websites selling giclée prints. At least there wasn’t much HDR, itself a scourge on the arts. I wonder if the judges were aware that the photograph was generated by Dall-E when they deliberated these works? Possibly not. If they were aware, I’d think they would say so, but in this interview, Eldagsen states “I thanked them later for choosing an AI-generated image and they were all quiet because they did not really want to talk about it.” Again, most of the premiated work isn’t fine art photography, at least nothing I would be interested in, but rather merely technically proficient. What were the criteria for selection? All unclear. Eldagsen neither mentions that he fooled the judges nor that the discovery of this work as AI led to his refusal of the prize, so it’s hard to tell. Nevertheless, his own goal appears to emulate Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal he titled “Fountain” to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibition and his subsequent resignation from the Society after they refused to acknowledge the urinal as art. Instead of outrage, however, the interview points out the competition’s comic ineptness at communication and publicity management, something which Eldagsen is clearly better at.

Regarding AI image generation, Eldagsen is correct. There is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle. AI image generators and filters are here and already defining photography and art in general. But when we think about the vast amount of imagery produced by smart phones—much more than with digital cameras—we already do produce most of our imagery via AI, as this blog post from Apple shows. Although the iPhone’s photographic ability is seductive, it is also very much the product of built-in machine learning algorithms and, in trying to achieve an ideal image, permanently sacrifices accuracy for image quality, something Kyle Chayka points out in this article at the New Yorker. The result, for many, is indeed self-inflicted suffering: filters and machine learning algorithms are leading people to experience body dysmorphia and then drawn, in the manner of the Kardashians, to seek needless, disfiguring surgery or suicide (see Elle Hunt’s piece in the Guardian).

Such ruminations quickly get us into the territory of philosophy and cognitive science. Our brains already apply processing to vision, for example in masking the “mini-blackouts” from blinking and apply something akin to a physics-based video stabilization to smooth out movement.

Thinking about AI image processors, I am floored by how fast they have developed during the last year. Eldagsen made his image “in 2022 with early Dall-E,” which is vastly inferior to what can be done with Midjourney 5 these days. Take three examples from summer 2022, when I was exploring a series about a fictional visit to Lithuania by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. All are produced with Dall-E.

While they recall the Lithuanian countyside and Meatyard’s approach, they break down in many places, glitching in ways I quite like. The second image and third images are poorly framed. The landscape in the third image becomes too geometric. The rightmost figure in the third image is microcephalic and perhaps leperous. And so on.

Here are some new examples. I didn’t spend long on them. These are hardly finished in my book. It wouldn’t be hard to take them into Photoshop and get them to match Meatyard’s work better. I may yet do that, as I am pondering a piece on an alternate history of Lithuanian art between 1965 and 1980.

The situation with painting is even more dramatic. Take my Doggerland project.

Much as I love this primitistic image of Cnut VI’s lament made with Dall-E in August of 2022, compare it to either of the images I made last night with Midjourney. Again, I haven’t spent any time with Photoshop or inpainting.

Inpainting would take care of that child crushed under Cnut’s coracle-throne and it could be good to muck up the water and clean up the sky a bit.

Well, ok, so in this painting we see Jesus not Cnut, but still it’s a pretty amazing image overall, nothing that some inpainting can’t cure.

I am now faced with decisions about my Critical AI Art projects. While the Witching Cats and Boxmaker works were done with second generation AI image generation services, Doggerland and the Canals of Vilnius could be revised. I likely will do so, but this means potentially all of these works could require a lot of maintenance as these services upgrade and image generation increases in quality.

Constant upgrades have been the case with photography for some time as well. My current generation of cameras, able to capture at least 40 megapixels and, in the case of my workhorses, the Sony A7RV or Leica M11, over 60mp (not to mention the Fuji GFX100S), now have enough resolution that I can’t imagine needing more. Of course 24mp seemed like plenty just a few years ago when I primarily shot with a Fuji X-Pro2, but prints have been growing in size as a glance at photography shows demonstrates. Big prints mean higher resolution. And, so earlier images need to be upscaled using Topaz Gigapixel AI.

As I’ve stated before, like most photography, most AI image generation is quite bad and seeing images of Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess of Mars [*]or whatever nonsense users of these image generators produce will discourage the more weak-spirited from exploring their potential. No doubt many artists will re-entrench in traditional media such as painting, sculpture, video, film, or film photography (while my father would have been shocked to hear me call film photography a traditional art form, acrylic paints, which he used, are a century newer than photography). The Right, which barely makes anything that can be considered art, will seek to make “trad” art, while the Left will make angry paintings about identity to provoke them. But those are both rearguard movements. Media are developing more rapidly than any time in my entire life. Artists and critics need to engage AI image generators critically on their own terms, not lament for simpler times.

art and text in AI (on Chat.openai.com)

I’ve been working with art and Artificial Intelligence image generators recently. Untalented artists are scared of AI image generators since they are tools for making bad art, which is all that is being promoted in the press. All of the image generators—save perhaps for Dall-E 2—are tuned to produce such work in order to generate revenue. Ed Keller calls this “the black light black velvet painting of our time.” AI Art is likely to destroy ArtStation and Deviant Art. But we have a jobs crisis and need people to work in more important positions like food service. Who can argue that this re-allocation of human labor is bad?

Virtually all the work being done with this—even work that is lauded as exemplary—is bad. A few friends do interesting work. I will let them publicize it, although it’s safe to say Ed is interrogating these generators as a medium, pushing their boundaries in ways that are interesting to me. A recent article on the topic in the Architects’ Newspaper highlighted only bad work. Patrick Schumacher has convened a symposium on “futuristic” work indistinguishable from his own, which means that it is midbrow and pedestrian. Archdaily published a piece that gives the impression that AI interior designs are the stuff of nightmares. I could waste my time and yours coming up with more links to bad work.

This should not surprise anyone. Almost everything is bad because intelligent thought in architecture is now nearly extinct.

Making interesting work with AI image generators requires work. It doesn’t take as much time as it might to create a painting by hand, but an AI painting might take hours, a day, or more. One needs a plan and a mind for experimentation. AI art generators are incapable of originality. Neither are almost all artists working today. That should not stop anyone as until the modern era, originality was not valued. In the Renaissance, “genius” did not mean making an unprecedented work, rather it meant the ability to shape something pleasing out of existing sources.

AI image generators create forgeries. One appropriate response, then, is to use them to create explicit forgeries. I undertook this as a project starting this summer with the Lost Canals of Vilnius, the Drowning of Doggerland, and the Witching Cats of New Jersey.

Any good forgery begins a kernel of truth. Basing texts and images on existing sources, I created alternate histories. I used a feedback effect: provocative works created by the image generators inspired my alternate histories and ideas from the alternate histories guided the prompts for image generators. Most of the work was done with Dall-E 2 since it alone is tuned to produces semi-convincing paintings and photographs.

I unintentionally duped some readers. But AI art and text generators are already being used to deceive people for political purposes, to satisfy high school and college requirements, and for work purposes. Convincing people has never been easier. This project was intended to foreground this. I intend to write an essay for this site on the topic, but this one came out first. I am in Vilnius, Lithuania which is not boring like New York City. Visiting here often jars me out of complacency, spurs new ideas, and forces action.

A related route is to use AI art in a surrealist sense. This does not mean prompts for paintings in the style of Salvador Dali. That is kitsch and awful. Rather, this is a way of accessing what Jung called the collective unconscious to produce visual automatic writing: Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” updated for our day. In a sense, the “Witching Cats” project came out of a prompt for a black and white cat that came out gruesomely misshaped, became an amusing diversion for Instagram, led me to read about photography and the occult in the nineteenth century, and that, in turn led to the essay and project. Otherwise, I have not released this work. I may or may not.

Two days ago (30 November 2022), OpenAI released a freely-accessible interface to ChatGPT, a language model capable of conversation in the format of a dialogue. Although it is possible to trip it up, it is also remarkable how effective it is at generating content, even content that can be quite lengthy and complex in nature. I began by trying to produce critical essays.

In all of these, my prompt will come first.

>In 1,500 words, compare “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg and “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried.

Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays address this question, they take very different approaches and come to somewhat different conclusions.

In Modernist Painting, Greenberg argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its emphasis on the flatness of the canvas. He argues that the history of painting is one of the progressive flattening of the picture plane, and that modernist painting represents the culmination of this process. According to Greenberg, the flatness of the canvas allows the painter to focus on the formal elements of the painting, such as line, color, and composition, and to create a more intense and immediate visual experience for the viewer.

In contrast, Art and Objecthood takes a more philosophical approach to the question of modernist painting. Fried argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its refusal to be reduced to a mere object in the world. He argues that modernist painting is defined by its ability to transcend the merely physical and to create a “presence” that is distinct from the physical object of the painting itself. According to Fried, this “presence” is what allows modernist painting to truly engage the viewer and to create a meaningful artistic experience.

One key difference between the two essays is their focus. While Greenberg is primarily concerned with the formal qualities of modernist painting, Fried is more interested in its philosophical and artistic implications. This difference is reflected in their respective conclusions. While Greenberg ultimately argues that the flatness of the canvas is the defining characteristic of modernist painting, Fried argues that it is the ability of the painting to create a “presence” that sets it apart from other forms of art.

Another important difference between the two essays is their treatment of the viewer. For Greenberg, the viewer is an essential part of the modernist painting experience. He argues that the flatness of the canvas allows the viewer to engage more directly with the formal elements of the painting, and that this creates a more intense and immediate visual experience. In contrast, Fried is less concerned with the viewer’s experience of the painting and more interested in the painting’s ability to create a “presence” that transcends its physical form.

Overall, Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays take different approaches and come to different conclusions, they both provide valuable insights into the nature of modernist painting and its place in the history of art.

>Write a 2,000 word analysis of the song “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s 1992 hit “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of aggressive and confrontational lyrics, coupled with her powerful and haunting vocals, Harvey exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship.

The song opens with a haunting and intense instrumental introduction, featuring distorted guitar riffs and driving drums that set the tone for the rest of the track. This instrumental introduction immediately establishes the song’s aggressive and confrontational atmosphere, setting the stage for the confrontational and emotional lyrics that follow.

The first verse begins with Harvey’s powerful and haunting vocals, as she sings: “I want you gone / But I want you still.” This opening line perfectly encapsulates the confusion and conflicting emotions that can arise when trying to leave a toxic relationship. On the one hand, the narrator wants to rid herself of her partner, but on the other hand, she still desires their presence and connection.

The chorus, which follows the first verse, features the repeated line: “Rid of me / Rid of me.” This chorus serves as a cry for help and a desire to be free from the suffocating and harmful relationship. The repetition of the line, coupled with Harvey’s powerful and emotive vocals, emphasizes the narrator’s desperation and longing for freedom.

The second verse continues with the narrator’s emotional turmoil, as she sings: “I’m an animal / I’m a dog / I’m a death / I’m a thief.” These lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the narrator’s state of mind, as she feels trapped and degraded in her relationship. The use of animalistic imagery also highlights the loss of humanity and dignity that can occur in a toxic relationship.

The bridge of the song features the line: “I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I’m a fault / I’m a scar.” These lyrics further emphasize the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in the relationship. She sees herself as a burden and a source of pain for her partner, and longs for the release of being free from the relationship.

The final verse of the song features the line: “I’m not a child / I’m not a pet / I’m not a toy / I’m not a doll.” This line serves as a powerful declaration of the narrator’s autonomy and independence. She rejects the idea of being treated as a possession or object, and asserts her own worth and dignity.

The song’s instrumental outro features a repetitive guitar riff that gradually builds in intensity, culminating in a ferocious and powerful finale. This instrumental finale perfectly captures the narrator’s emotional release and liberation as she breaks free from the toxic relationship.

In conclusion, “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of confrontational and powerful lyrics, coupled with Harvey’s haunting and emotive vocals, the song exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship. The song’s intense and driving instrumentals perfectly capture the narrator’s emotional turmoil and eventual release, making it a powerful and impactful anthem for anyone who has experienced the pain of a toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT can make mistakes and there are mistakes in that essay. Later, I asked it to write about the relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and George Maciunas and it stated that while they are both Lithuanians interested in Fluxus and music, they had no direct relationship, which is untrue. ChatGPT receives a failing grade for not meeting the required word count, although adding those phrases produces longer analyses.

Still, the above essays are better than what 95% of graduate students are capable of doing in an afternoon or, usually, a weekend. This should not be surprising as, while ChatGPT is incapable of original thought, so are 95% of graduate students and, indeed, 95% of faculty.

When I did my dissertation at Cornell, a dissertation was defined as a “contribution to knowledge” but the vast majority of such work in the humanities is formulaic: find an obscure topic related to an important topic (an unknown modern architect in Brazil in the 1960s who made middling buildings but met Lina Bo Bardi at a restaurant for dinner once or a failed, uninteresting project by someone who saw Le Corbusier speak) represented in an archive, go to said archive, find some obscure fact of no importance and blather on about how important said find is, add a conclusion in which Foucault is invoked to make the work “political,” and submit as a dissertation. Or at least that was a “good,” Ivy-level dissertation in the 2000s. Today one would have to add some random verbiage about marginalized communities, identity, and oppression to indicate that one is more “political.” Such work is not intended to be original, but rather to indicate that one has been properly disciplined in graduate school and is now capable of independently programming other students to also produce work of no importance whatsoever. If it is true we live in a simulation, most of these people are NPCs. Original thought is almost non-existent.

If an AI can equal or better such work today, albeit only in short pieces, imagine it in a few years.

ChatGPT can also be used to create instruction-based art. A series of these follow.

>produce a textual score by John Cage

0’00”: Silence
0’01”: A single piano note is struck
0’02”: Silence
0’03”: A second piano note is struck
0’04”: Silence
0’05”: A third piano note is struck
0’06”: Silence
0’07”: A fourth piano note is struck
0’08”: Silence
0’09”: A fifth piano note is struck
0’10”: Silence
0’11”: A sixth piano note is struck
0’12”: Silence
0’13”: A seventh piano note is struck
0’14”: Silence
0’15”: An eighth piano note is struck
0’16”: Silence
0’17”: A ninth piano note is struck
0’18”: Silence
0’19”: A tenth piano note is struck
0’20”: Silence
0’21”: An eleventh piano note is struck
0’22”: Silence
0’23”: A twelfth piano note is struck
0’24”: Silence
0’25”: A thirteenth piano note is struck
0’26”: Silence
0’27”: A fourteenth piano note is struck
0’28”: Silence
0’29”: A fifteenth piano note is struck
0’30”: Silence
0’31”: A sixteenth piano note is struck
0’32”: Silence
0’33”: A seventeenth piano note is struck
0’34”: Silence
0’35”: An eighteenth piano note is struck
0’36”: Silence
0’37”: A nineteenth piano note is struck
0’38”: Silence
0’39”: A twentieth piano note is struck
0’40”: Silence
0’41”: A twenty-first piano note is struck
0’42”: Silence
0’43”: A twenty-second piano note is struck
0’44”: Silence
0’45”: A twenty-third piano note is struck
0’46”: Silence
0’47”: A twenty-fourth piano note is struck
0’48”: Silence
0’49”: A twenty-fifth piano note is struck
0’50”: Silence
0’51”: A twenty-sixth piano note is struck
0’52”: Silence
0’53”: A twenty-seventh piano note is struck
0’54”: Silence
0’55”: A twenty-eighth piano note is struck
0’56”: Silence
0’57”: A twenty-ninth piano note is struck
0’58”: Silence

>produce a textual score by John Cage

  1. Open the piano lid.
  2. Place a single sheet of paper on the piano keys.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly draw lines and shapes on the paper, creating a visual score.
  4. Sit at the piano and interpret the visual score, allowing the lines and shapes to guide the movements of your hands on the keys.
  5. Explore different sounds and timbres by experimenting with various techniques, such as striking the keys with different parts of your hand or using the pedals.
  6. Allow the music to emerge naturally and organically, without predetermined melodies or harmonies.
  7. Continue to improvise and explore the piano’s soundscape for a set duration of time, determined by the performer.
  8. When the performance is complete, gently remove the sheet of paper from the piano keys and close the lid.
  9. Reflect on the experience and the unique sounds and melodies that emerged during the performance.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a wall in your space that has a minimum height of 8 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet.
  2. Measure the dimensions of the wall and divide it into equal horizontal and vertical sections, creating a grid pattern with a minimum of 10 horizontal and 10 vertical lines.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly select one of the grid squares and draw a line that extends from one edge of the square to the opposite edge, without crossing any other lines or touching the sides of the square.
  4. Repeat this process for each of the grid squares, creating a series of lines that fill the entire wall.
  5. Experiment with different line lengths, angles, and directions in order to create a varied and dynamic composition.
  6. Avoid erasing any lines or making any corrections, and allow the drawing to evolve organically.
  7. When the drawing is complete, step back and admire the final composition.
  8. Optional: photograph the drawing and share it with others.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a blank wall in a well-lit area to create your wall drawing.
  2. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a horizontal line across the center of the wall.
  3. Draw a second horizontal line above and below the center line, each spaced at equal intervals.
  4. Draw a third set of horizontal lines, above and below the second set, at the same intervals.
  5. Continue adding sets of horizontal lines until the entire wall is covered with a grid of evenly spaced lines.
  6. Using a different color pencil, randomly draw diagonal lines connecting the horizontal lines.
  7. Experiment with different patterns and densities of diagonal lines, creating a unique and visually interesting composition.
  8. Step back and observe the overall composition, adjusting and refining the diagonal lines as needed.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Choose an everyday object, such as a paperclip, a pencil, or a piece of string.
Place the object in a simple, unadorned setting, such as on a blank sheet of paper or a plain background.
Using a camera or smartphone, take a photograph of the object in its chosen setting.
Share the photograph on social media, along with a simple and enigmatic caption that invites viewers to interpret the object in their own way.
Consider how the chosen object and its placement in the photograph might evoke emotions, thoughts, or memories in the viewer.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Find a quiet, peaceful space where you can be alone and undisturbed.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your body and mind to relax.
Slowly open your eyes and look around your surroundings, taking in the details and textures of the space.
Imagine yourself floating in a vast, empty void, free from the constraints of time and space.
Allow your mind to drift and explore, without judgment or expectations.
Listen to the sounds around you, and allow yourself to be present in the moment.
As thoughts and ideas arise, allow them to flow freely, without attachment or resistance.
When you feel ready, write down any thoughts or ideas that emerge during your meditation.
Take your time, and trust in the process.
When you are finished, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths, grounding yourself back in the present moment.
Reflect on your experience, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Enjoy the feeling of freedom and openness that comes from exploring your inner landscape.

All of the artists I have chosen employ deliberate repetition, variations within a framework, and an element of chance. I produced these pieces in an hour and yet they are plausible variations on their work. Not all attempts were as successful. It is, however, evident that one could, for example, generate a large number of these to hand out to an audience at a performance so for participants to perform and evaluate the results.

AI has been rapidly developing this year and ChatGPT is only an early step in this decade, likely to be dominated by AI. Serious artists need to ignore the bad art and forge ahead. AI image and text generators are the tools of our time.

On valdas ozarinskas and stalker architecture

I am going to Vilnius next week and this reminds me of my last visit… in which I told myself that it’s critical to get my unpublished 2019 essay on Valdas Ozarkinskas, the most brilliant architect I ever met out there.
Well, here it is: Stalker Architecture: Design and (Private) Ideology.

Imagery is the stumbling block for this essay, as I don’t have access to an archive, so I have mainly borrowed images from other sites. I’m doing this under the principle of academic fair use since all I want to do is get Valdas’s work exposure outside Lithuania, if you own any of them and want me to take them down, by all means, get in touch!

On the Destruction of Doggerland

Satellite image showing location of Doggerland

In 1422, the long decline of the Kingdom of Doggerland came to an end with the drowning of the vast island once found in the North Sea between England, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Roughly 40,000 km2 (15,500 sq mi) in size, for over a thousand years, Doggerland remained a European Kingdom even as rising sea levels led to large areas being abandoned and depopulated in the later Middle Ages.

With the island destroyed by the tsunami (“the Great Drowning”) caused when an earthquake dislodged vast portions of the undersea continental shelf off Norway, the extinguishing of an entire European kingdom was a critical event, perhaps the critical event, in the history of Early Modern Europe, demonstrating the frailty of mere mortals and the insufficiency of human faith against the wrath of nature.

The island was first referred to in the 4th century BC by the Greek geographer Pythaes of Massalia as “the Kingdom of the Fishes,” and would be dubbed “Ictis” by Diodorus Siculus during the 1st century BC:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like knuckle-bones and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Iktis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons … Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone.

Pliny referred to Doggerland as “Mictis,” describing it as “lying inwards six days’ sail from Britain, where tin is found, and to which the Britons cross in boats of wickerwork covered with stitched hides.” A century later, Doggerland became the northernmost land conquered by Caesar during the Gallic Wars of 54 and 55AD and remained under Roman rule until the Attacotti tribes threw out the Romans in the Dogger Risings of the 364-365 and, in 367, crossed the Dogger Channel to Britain to participate in the widespread risings called the Great Conspiracy.

7th century gold Dogger mask, discovered on the seabed, 1984.
British Museum.
Seal of the United Kingdoms of Denmark and FIskeland, c. 1025.

In the early 10th century, the semi-legendary Harthacnut I became the first King of both Denmark and Fiskeland (Doggerland). Cnut the Great (c. 990-1035) united Denmark and Fiskeland with England and Norway in the brief but effective North Sea Empire. Even so, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, which began in 950 and lasted until 1250, wreaked havoc with Fiskeland as water levels rose and some of the more low-lying farmland and the fish farms (vivaria) that the Fiske peoples had pioneered were inundated.

King Cnut on his throne as the waters rise, Unknown artist from Doggerland, c 1365

No matter how mighty he was in politics and war, Cnut himself understood the futility of the rising of the waters (the Stigendevand) and, as Henry of Huntingdon later recounted in his Historia Anglorum:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”

Fishing Monks, a painting on a wood panel from Fiskeland, mid 14th century.

Inhabitants slowly began to drift away, to Britain, Denmark and Norway, but also Iceland, Greenland, and other points west. By the thirteenth century, the country was dominated by a court whose strength was primarily nautical—the powerful Dogger ships that controlled the North Sea—and by the monastic orders that alternately served, and competed with, the court. Although Doggerland (the new common name of the country after 1360) had been largely spared the Plague, by the time of Cnut VI, also known as Saint Cnut the Drowned (1394-1422), the stigendevand had become acute and a sizable portion of the remaining population inhabited floating vessels at all times.

Still, Doggerland’s Court was widely known for its accomplishments in art, music, and literature. Clockworks and complicated mechanisms were a noted specialty. With the end of Doggerland long prophesied, time-keeping had been an obsession in Doggerland—a common Doggerish saying is “Hours are a greater treasure than gold”—and spring driven clocks were developed in the first years of the fourteenth century. The precursor to the piano—the clavichord—was invented in Doggerland in the early 14th century and primitive forms of printing with carved plates had begun to be employed.

Idesbald of Drounen, Cnut VI’s Lament, 1424

On 21 April 1422, Ugo, Abbot of Drounen wrote,

Late in the morning, when the markets were full, a shudder came upon the land and the sea retreated. The waves rolled back over the horizon and the Dogger ships were left on dry land, revealing monstrous creatures that normally dwelt under the water. The good monks of the Abbey prayed for salvation from this horror, but to no avail as the sea came rushing back and we were forced to climb into the row boats I had commanded the monks to build in the case of the Flood, which God had now thrust upon us again. Thousands were swept past us and those we could haul aboard were saved, but most were drowned under the waves. To our dismay, we saw the King sitting on the rocks but the waves rose and covered him.

Exodus from Doggerland, Painting by the “Master of Doggerland,” c. 1425
Drowning of Doggerland, Unknown Painter, 1520

The exodus from Doggerland led to an influx of refugees to the continent precisely at a point in which post-plague Europe itself lay in wait for a stimulus that would trigger the Renaissance. Although chiefly seen today as a Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck was Doggerish and brought the previously closely-held secrets of oil painting to the rest of Europe while Rogier van der Weyden apprenticed there in his youth. Exiled scholars helped found the Universitas Lovaniensis (Old University of Leuven) while other experts in Latin, astronomy, alchemy, and the culinary sciences became teachers throughout Europe. For example, Henry of Drouen, a tutor for Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Francesco Colonna was the son of Dogger refugees in Venice—a natural destination for many—and in his famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili conjures a dreamscape that scholars see as a description of his parents’ lost homeland.

Jan van Eyck, the Royal Court of Doggerland in Exile, 1433

The first extant spring-wound clock wound up in the court of Burgundy after the Drowning. As is well known by now, Johannes Gutenberg worked with survivors from Doggerland to develop the printing press, a fact that the famed printer Aldus Manutius would memorialize in his logo for the Aldine press.

A picture of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, which was Manutius's imprint.

Laments for Doggerland were common in the Low Countries for centuries after. The Drowning of Doggerland or “de Doyer Overstroming” was a cautionary tale memorialized and returned to again and again by poets, painters, and musicians. A pastoral land of sheep and fish that escaped the ravages of Plague and war but was lost forever due to the vengeance of the sea could hardly be far from the imagination of the creative mind. In the late 17th century, in particular, there was a revival of interest in the Dogger pastoral as Flemish artists rejected the excesses of the Spanish Baroque and their wealthy mercantilist clients sought to surrounded themselves with visible reminders of their—often imagined—past as descendants of the Court of Doggerland.

Jan van Goyen, the Cathedral city of Aleyen, Doggerland, c. 1640
Jan Vermeer van Haarlem the Elder, Doggerland Landscape, c. 1689
Pieter Bout, Dogger Fisherman returning from the Sea, c. 1705

Such laments would dissipate over the course of the eighteenth century as a modernizing Europe increasingly abandoned the lost pastoral land for a eudaemonic narrative of growth and newfound wealth. With the colonization of North America by Europeans, a new and much larger land was—they thought—given to them by God to replace the lost land under the sea. In particular, early settlers to Newfoundland initially called it “New Dagger Land” or “Nieuwe Doyer Land” and Governor William de Doyer had pronounced “It a free land, to be inhabited by all brothers of the land beneath the sea, be they English, French, or Dutch,” a dream wiped out after his death in a storm at sea in 1686 and the subsequent events of King William’s War (1688-1697) even though the ideal was referred to, somewhat cynically, during the British development of the Canadian colonies after the seizure of New France less than a century later.

Light blue indicates areas of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark that will flood with 1.7C of global warming, salmon color indicates flooding with 4.0C of temperature rise.
Credit:Climate Central

For us, the drowning of Doggerland has a different meaning. Rather than a lost past to lament, it is a cautionary tale of the Anthropocene near future. The impact of climate change on the environment forces us to consider that rising seas will likely drown substantial areas of the world, including the coasts of Denmark, eastern Britain, Belgium, and much of the Netherlands (and of course, much, much more of the world). Unlike the inhabitants of Doggerland, we have a choice, but will we take it?

On Art and the Universal, I

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger concluded that the avant-garde’s purpose is for art to sublate(assimilate) into life. In opposition to nineteenth century aestheticism that aimed to emphasize the autonomy of art from life, Bürger’s reading of the historical avant-garde—be it Dada, Surrealism, Productivism, Constructivism, or the Bauhaus—was that it aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, allowing the fullness of artistic expression to pass into all aspects of life.

For a large group of people in the developed world, this is now an everyday condition. Members of the creative class curate their lives around aesthetic choices, work and life are inseparable. Our lives are filled with intentional choices that express our individuality: we aspire to cook modernist cuisine, clean up with Marie Kondo, and obsess over the right boots and hat to go gardening in. STEM and maker culture are not opposed but inseparable: who doesn’t make their own jewelry or design their own body art these days, often using 3D modeling software and printers? Tens of thousands of people worldwide sit on Philippe-Starck-designed toilets every day. The workplace is a playground. Even after the recent plague, design festivals and biennales are a dime a dozen now. Go glamping in Marfa, spend an evening at the local sip ‘n paint, bring your friends to the immersive van Gogh. This curated life is thoroughly documented, to be posted on Instagram for the world to see.

In fairness, Bürger believed that by the 1950s, when avant-garde techniques from Dada and Surrealism had been incorporated into advertising and television (think Ernie Kovacs or Ray and Charles Eames’s films here), the aestheticization of everyday life had been complete and the avant-garde had been dealt a fatal blow. For Bürger, this is a false sublation, but I’m twice as old and jaded as I was when I first read the Theory of the Avant Garde and I don’t see how Bürger’s historical avant-garde could have ever been anything but a temporary reconciliation with an ultimate tragic end. The avant-garde was always a historically delimited moment. And if it’s fair to say that contemporary culture is thoroughly spectacularized, you would be right, but when a book on Constant Nieuwenhuys sells for $1,892 on Amazon, what is the spectacle anymore? Writing about Situationism has earned more than one professor tenure at a top university. Pinot Gallizio’s works, once sold by the yard, now sell for tens of thousands of Euros. The practices of Situationism have long since been absorbed by the spectacle. What is Dîner en Blanc® if not a Situationist practice? What is Situationism if not an excellent guerrilla marketing project?

That the Situationists or Fluxus chose to continue on with the neo-avant-garde was merely an after-effect. No doubt there is much truth there. The historical avant-garde is long dead and with it too the promise of art sublating into life.

Much of the art world has long abandoned any pretense of avant-gardism, embracing instead the idea of self-validation and value. Take NFTs, the realm of garish cartoon apes that have escaped from a Hot Topic store to scream “I am rich.” This is no different from the art at the very top of the market, touted as an investment vehicle that cuts out the vicissitudes of corporate ups and downs, skipping price/earnings ratios and dividends for an unabashed belief in inflation and the greater fool theory, but in reality act primarily as a signifier for extreme wealth and good taste (and often a front for money laundering).

Other forms of art and architecture use politics as a form of branding, taking a page from Debord’s idea of the Spectacle. Take the hyper-branded architecture of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their ilk, often presented by academic “critics” as somehow serving to liberate people (which I suppose means from architectural convention) or progressive (which is just baffling). 

These two positions—the idea of self-validation and branding—come together in art that espouses a political position or identity politics. Now the central point of the avant-garde had been to communicate political ideas and, especially after the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, there has been a burst of interest in the art world in such art. Yet, nobody has ever gone to an art gallery and come out a communist. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb collects art by Jean-Michael Basquait, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have been political art darlings of Leftist art critics and yet is a major donor to Right-wing causes as well as a supporter of the neo-fascist menace that occupied the White House from 2017 to 2021. He is merely one egregious illustration; ultimately one’s political position hardly matters. What does it mean to have an El Lissitzky on one wall and a Frida Kahlo on another? It signifies wealth and aesthetic appreciation, not political allegiance. What does it mean to demonstrate solidarity with an identity group? Why is one lauded for affirming one’s sexuality loudly in art, even if Mapplethorpean transgression can no longer demonstrate the shock of the new? All this merely demonstrates one’s virtue.

Many members of the bourgeoisie, unable to escape the deeply engrained notions of Protestantism, but questioning its superstitions, have replaced the delusion of original sin with the notion of “privilege.” Surrounding oneself with art that trumpets the identity of its maker is a way of assuaging this guilt, even if—as the notorious Whitney “Collective Actions” show demonstrated—political art’s functional purpose isn’t to change the structural condition that it critiques but rather to underscore and cement those very structural conditions. Nor is this new, notwithstanding the newness of the phrase “virtue signaling,” virtue and art have long been linked, initially through religion, later on through connoiseurship. And, of course, for many artists, the idea that art needs to be socially relevant assuages their own guilty consciousnesses for producing useless things for the rich.

And yet, as Peter Sloterdijk explained in his Critique of Cynical Reason, it’s the habit of such guilty consciousnesses to turn to cynical. The cynic (in the sense that Sloterdijk and I always speak of) is someone with an enlightened false consciousness, someone who knows that something is wrong but goes on doing it anyway. Having read critical theory in university, the modern cynic knows that what she or he is doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Sloterdijk writes that this makes them “borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.” For Sloterdijk, once an individual has become cynical, his or her hope has been lost, abandoned for expediency. Take for example, the Marxist professor (a figure I met all too often in the university) who realizes that with Revolution endlessly deferred, the best thing they can do is to defend their academic position at all costs so they can continue preaching Adorno and Benjamin, even if that defense comes at the cost of cutting down rising faculty, avoiding any political activities outside the university, or looking upon staff as human beings worthy of consideration. Fascism—both interwar and present-day American and European fascism—is the ultimate result, of course, a politics based on brutal expediency, in which democracy must ultimately give way to a “politics of pure violence.”

There is, however, a choice that avoids the cynical, the choice of embracing the most degraded of all ideas in art today, that of “the universal,” and it may not be what many of you will think or find acceptable (although in private conversations, many of you have said that this is precisely what is necessary…). That possibility is the subject of Part II, which will come after an interregnum in which I get some work out there.

Talking about Kasuba in Ireland

I will be talking about the work of Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba at the University of Limerick School of Architecture on Wednesday, 24 February at 5pm. You can see her work at Kasubaworks

Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba is known for her large scale works in brick, marble and granite, and most notably for innovative environments of tensile fabrics. She is credited with “creating several families of closed system shapes of unbelievable richness and complexity.” In the field of tensile fabric structures, according to Frei Otto, her work “stands out as a strong personal vision […] The results of her investigation are among the most extraordinary to have emerged in years […] Forms derived from complex geometries display a mature sense of tension dynamics.” 

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Valdas Ozarinskas, 1961-2014

Valdas Ozarinskas passed away yesterday and a bad year became much worse. I had heard he was not well when I was in Vilnius last week and I feel awful that I didn't make an effort to see him. 

Valdas was a brilliant architect. For years he practiced at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, creating exhibitions that were stunning. Minimal but aggressive, Valdas's works were comparable in force only to the very earliest moment of minimalist art, before it became a style, an architectural equivalent of industrial music (I mean from the days of Throbbing Gristle, not the drum-machine driven works of the 90s). Valdas publically eschewed ideology but could probe theoretical questions as deeply as any architect I know. We had many conversations whenever I visited Lithuania, generally about the problem of the individual in a post-industrial society. Had he spoken English and had he written his thoughts down others would have understood how deep a thinker we have lost. The loss, to put it in a Lithuanian context, is comparable to the loss of George Maciunas 35 years ago, another figure of similar force, but who I only had a chance to meet once. Their minds were not dissimilar: both Sloterdijkian kynics in the best sense.  

He made many projects, but I will only reflect on one here. Valdas often collaborated with Audrius Bučas and together they produced Black Pillow, which was shown at the ŠMC in 2011 and subsequently at the Liverpool Biennial. The show'sweb site wrote that given its exhibition at the peak of the economic crisis in Lithuania,

The two architects’ formalist idea was initially supposed to appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences. However, it quickly got wrapped in various stories and interpretations due to its unusually large dimensions, menacing black colour and the moods that prevailed in Lithuania at the very peak of the economic crisis. Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives.

From our discussions in the gallery next to the black pillow it was clear that Valdas understood and intended such a symbolic dimension from the start. Or more specifically, he intended—as he often did—to give us a neutral but cathetic object that we could project onto as we wished. Never melancholy, Valdas was always relentlessly positive even about the bleakest of conditions, albeit often astounded at the stupidity of our world.

Alain Badiou's 12th thesis on contemporary art reads "Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star." Nothing could describe Valdas's work better. One night over beers at the ŠMC cafe, its Lithuanian Soviet modernism itself brilliantly reconstructed by Valdas, I read the theses to him, translating them into my broken Lithuanian as best I could and we shared our analysis of the theses.  

Even last week Valdas was putting together a final show, at the Antanas Moncys House in Palanga. That we have lost such a mind only proves how stupid our world is. To talk to Valdas was to hear the Lithuanian word "siaubas" or "horror/terror" over and over. That was the madness of this place we inhabit, a world in which we battle against zombie bureaucrats and power-mad psychopaths, where goodness is rarely rewarded but idiocy is. To remember him, what can we do but we keep marching forward, one foot in front of the other and say, anything is possible? 

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