George Grosz and John Heartfield, The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild [Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture], 1980 (Reconstruction of 1920 original).
The post-structuralist legacy tried to re-describe institutions and structures with a new reinterpreted role of materiality. After the long dominance of structural linguistics, many theorists shifted their focus from the functioning of signifiers to the concreteness of infrastructures. This can best be seen in the history of the concept of apparatus. Both Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser had an idea of the materiality of ideology in the late 1960s. An apparatus is a combination of linguistic and, more importantly, non-linguistic objects. It has a strategic orientation and a specific goal. During its functioning, power and knowledge are redistributed.1 The concept of an apparatus is close to the concept of a machine in the theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Felix Guattari established a separate field of research known as institutional analysis. He abandoned the one-on-one psychoanalytic practice and created tools for analysing small groups, namely group therapy. In addition to large-scale political entities, such as the state and the existence of individuals, there is also an intermediate irreducible level — the sociality of groups and multitudes. They cannot be absorbed in broader concepts and cannot be thought simply as the sum of individual decisions and actions.2 In my view this point is very important in describing the institutions and infrastructures of art. The artworld is an apparatus. It combines material objects (artworks) and linguistic objects (sphere of meaning and cultural values), that eventually leads to a political distribution of power and knowledge. From the late eighteenth century, the bourgeoisie created the Museum, which combined objects and specific political interests. It became clear that consistent aesthetic hegemony could be achieved by means of bringing together artworks and images. The Museum has since often been described in terms of biopolitics and body control. Critical museology owes much to Foucault's and Althusser's concepts. But the thought of Deleuze and Guattari in the late 1970s increasingly relied not just on the body, but specifically on the brain. We are no longer talking about biopolitics, but about neuropolitics and neuro-power. It is obvious that for Guattari the brain is a "machine" and an apparatus. Its materiality is inextricably linked with sociality.
Theorising art, Guattari came across far-reaching conclusions. To create an artwork simultaneously means to create it in the brain. Looking from that point of view at an institution, he gets access not just to speculation on the so-called objecthood of art, which is connected with the world of ideas inside an exhibition space — he accesses the field of cognitive control, speaking of attention, the materiality of memory and cerebral coordination of sensations. Finally, we can talk about irreversible changes in the brain — brain injury not in a medical way, but in an institutional way. In this regard, the step from poststructuralism to neuroscience made by Catherine Malabou is also important. It seems to me that modern neuroscience should not be limited to research in the field of neuroesthetics, but can be expanded to neuro-institutionality. In the current situation, I think this is the last major shift in the role of modern art institutions. In this text, I will trace the possible alternative prehistory of such an art institution and describe how this ideology becomes visible in some of today's works.
Art and its material basis. Towards neuromodernism
When we talk about the return of materiality on new grounds in poststructuralism — usually called rematerialisation — we must keep in mind that there was a long history of medium-specificity in art, highlighted in the works of Clement Greenberg. For him, a work could be seen successful if it reveals its material foundations. But for Greenberg, these grounds were primarily the characteristics of the canvas — the flatness of the painting. American critics of the time recognised this in the evolution from impressionism through cubism to abstract art and abstract expressionism. In this story, according to Greenberg, there was no place for the "false modernist" Wassily Kandinsky.
While the experience of Cubism was important for the revolutionary steps of Malevich and Tatlin, Kandinsky's art and theory was largely inspired by Expressionism. Already in their genesis, these are the two opposite historical paths of abstraction. The cubism of Picasso and Braque established a fragile and delicate balance. Holding on to the materiality and factuality of objects, embracing the still life as a privileged genre, Picasso and Braque discovered the materiality of the pictorial surface. The aim of their analytical cubism was thus to hold together both the materiality of the canvas and the materiality of the depicted object. In this way they remained faithful to Cézanne, who saw the reality of constructed volumes in things, in the portrayed people and in Mont Sainte-Victoire. Malevich and Tatlin did cross this line, they broke this subtle equilibrium. In his "Black Square" Malevich declaratively went "beyond the zero of forms", showing "the fate of all things", thus destroying the factuality of depicted objects. Picasso never went across this border — he was always faithful to the representation of real objects. In his suprematist paintings, Malevich has one-sidedly chosen the materiality of canvas, leaving it as the only material basis and the only reason for artistic practice. In contrast to this project, Tatlin reinforced materiality of represented things in Picasso and Braque and began to see the artwork as a construction in space among other similar constructions.
Cubism in these two projects breaks down in two lines. At this stage we already can see not one medium, but two — Malevich and Tatlin understand the material foundations of art itself very differently. At the same time, Kandinsky, who was far aside from the contradictions of Cubism in the disputes between Tatlin and Malevich, came to his own understanding of abstraction. Interestingly, Clement Greenberg blamed Kandinsky to be a "false modernist" and mystic, because the outlines of the objects never left his paintings.3 Furthermore, his interest in spirituality and anthroposophy did not allow for a discussion about the "materialistic" nature of his art. "He will guide young people to the wrong path".4 Even later, Greenberg wrote that Kandinsky was unable to understand Cezanne's impact on the evolution of Cubism, which clearly discredited Kandinsky's painting in the eyes of American critics. But was Kandinsky a false modernist?
If we read Kandinsky's texts "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" and "Point and Line to Plane", we may feel that Kandinsky was very interested in the psychology of perception, which at that time was inextricably linked to neurophysiology. It opens the way for materialistic interpretation of his project. I would like to show that Kandinsky's art and theory also reveals its material foundations. Although he understood it not as painting as object, nor as construction, but as material processes of perception.
At the time, Kandinsky lived in Murnau, a place near Munich. Beside its artistic life, Murnau became famous as a place where neuropathologists and creators of modern neurophysiology Alois Alzheimer, Kurt Schneider, Franz Nissl, Korbinian Brodmann, and Walter Spielmeyer worked. In Munich they participated in practice of the Institute of Psychiatry, now part of the Max Planck Society.5 In addition to this closeness to the Psychiatry Research Center, it is also known that Kandinsky's cousin was a renowned psychiatrist who contributed to the study of hallucinations. Moreover, in recent years, many scientists have expressed the view that Kandinsky's synesthesia was not just a theoretical metaphor, as Greenberg believed, but a real fact.6 Today, synesthesia is connected to the studies of crossmodal perception and neuroplasticity. It is a condition in which stimulation in one modality also gives rise to a perceptual experience in a second modality. Although the condition has been traditionally viewed as an anomaly, it seems that at least some of the mechanisms underlying synesthesia do reflect universal crossmodal mechanisms. There is a common role of spatial attention in binding shape and colour surface features (whether ordinary colour or synesthetic).
Of course, historical evidence, as well as data brought by neurostudies, needs to be further developed. However, these facts may already reveal the meaning of Kandinsky's theory from a new perspective. In the introduction I emphasised the fact that the brain is a mass that does not work with concepts, and perceptions as readymades. It means that the brain is not a subject of processing whole units of information, but a process of subjectivation itself, a becoming in matter and a matter in neuroplastic becoming.7
Kandinsky believed that we like a painting not because it has a plot and we can capture pure forms and structures that emphasise the canvas as an object in space, but because forms, colours and compositions can cause direct influence on us. They affect our psyche and our perception. In the chapter "The Psychological Working of Colour" Kandinsky writes:
"In the first place one receives a PURELY PHYSICAL IMPRESSION, one of pleasure and contentment at the varied and beautiful colours. The eye is either warmed or else soothed and cooled. But these physical sensations can only be of short duration. They are merely superficial and leave no lasting impression, for the soul is unaffected. But although the effect of the colours is forgotten when the eye is turned away, the superficial impression of varied colour may be the starting point of a whole chain of related sensations.
And so we come to the second main result of looking at colours: THEIR PSYCHIC EFFECT. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance. Whether the psychic effect of colour is a direct one, as these last few lines imply, or whether it is the outcome of association, is perhaps open to question. The soul being one with the body, the former may well experience a psychic shock, caused by association acting on the latter."8
Kandinsky's "psyche" or "soul" is understood through the materiality of affect — a purely physical impression gives way to the psychic effect of colour. The physical and psychic aspects of colour are the same. It was in these positions that psychology stood as an empirical science of that time. Dwelling on the direct influence of colors on psyche, Kandinsky sums up: "Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."9
Influencing us physically, art also leaves a psychic trace. The aim of Kandinsky's project is to free art from subject matter and to discover work of art that directly and clearly interacts with the psychic apparatus understood as a machine. "The soul is a piano with many strings" — means that it is a mechanism with which art can interact directly. We can say that Kandinsky's paintings "show" us as a medium the very functioning of our nervous system itself freed from plot and language. It is interesting that Greenberg fairly called Kandinsky's paintings "diagrammatic". But as Massumi pointed out with the cases of synesthesia — the best term for them is biograms. In his art we are confronted with the material functioning of crossmodal plasticity. In this sense, his works are not idealistic, but extremely concrete and can be interpreted from the medium point of view. Their medium is the brain itself and its processes of subjectivation and material formation. In this sense, Kandinsky is a real modernist, not just a mystic, who was alien to the coherent line of cubism represented by Greenberg.
Kandinsky's project has another important feature that distinguishes him from Malevich and Tatlin. Suprematism and Constructivism understood the artwork as a material thing, part of a material environment. This environment in a complex feedback loop aimed to produce the new revolutionary subject. Stepping in an environment designed by Constructivists, we had to change ourselves and our sociality from the outside. But Kandinsky's project, working with the psyche, traced a reverse movement: it was to reveal the psychic space that was previously thought to be the "inner world". Describing the soul as piano with many strings, Kandinsky offered tools that opened up access not only to the automation of external production, but also to the automation and production of the perception. The revolutionary nature of Kandinsky's work was to highlight this connection between production relations and the psychic affects induced by the artwork. In the same way, our brain, being a complex object, a material thing, connects us with the outside environment. The brain puts the relations between internal and external into question. In Kandinsky's theory, this coincidence between external and internal explained the so-called "elements", which are simply the components of a painting: lines, colors and forms.
Kandinsky's thesis is that every element is double: both external and internal. But at the same time the element is not double — it is one and the same element, consisting of one single reality. It is divided in such a way as to be both the external appearance of colour, as this visible layout, and internally a specific affective tonality. This tonality is also particular in its own way just as much as colour is: a tonality corresponds to this concrete red color and this gilded bronze, or in terms of graphics, this perfect curve, the thickness of which increases regularly, and this broken line with unforeseen changes of direction. Because this particular, specific tonality constitutes the ontological reality of a colour or form and because there is only one single reality showing itself to us in its two aspects — this tonality on the one side and this colour or design on the other — tonality is not joined to colour or visible graphics as the result of an association of ideas.
The concept of an element can be similarly understood in two different ways — as an external and as an internal concept. Externally, every individual linear or painterly form is an element. Internally, it is not this form itself, but the inner tension that lives within it that is the element. In other words, the theory of elements connects objects of the world with internal vibrations of perception. It is this coincidence of internal and external that is important for Dadaist artists, on whom Kandinsky had a direct influence. This is why Hans Arp once referred to him as "the first concrete artist". I think that we should understand his "specificity" and his theory of elements as the coincidence of symbolic and material-biological. This can have an astounding political outcome: Kandinsky's artworks, plunging us into the primary nature of cross-modal neuroprocesses, change the very structure of our brain.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913.
I needed this short introduction into art history to show that at the very beginning of the 20th century we had indeed multiple histories that interpreted the notion of medium in dramatically different ways. Kandinsky's theory was repressed not only by Greenberg, but also by the legacy of Freud and later Lacan. The latter, stressing that "the unconscious is structured as a language" departed from what he believed to be the naive empiricism of the mental apparatus and from the physical foundation of the psychology that inspired Kandinsky. The long domination of the art of psychoanalysis and structuralism did not permit a rethinking of Kandinsky's work and his theory. At best, he proved to be the inventor of the "language" of art. But his claims to psychic influence through affect could only be reconstructed largely from the theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In fact, this misunderstanding of Kandinsky is a trace of a wider problem. It can be articulated as, "In what sense is the psyche material?" If we understand psyche materially, then Kandinsky turns out to be a modernist whose medium is the material basis of the psyche and whose work affects the nervous system. If you like, we can call Kandinsky "the psychedelic modernist". The word psychedelic etymologically dates back to the ancient Greek ψυχή (soul) and dēloun (δηλοῦν, "to make visible, to reveal, to ravine, to manifest". Colour, paint, composition, form — all these elements are understood by Kandinsky as psychic events, which receive external, augmented character thanks to the work of art. Then the "spiritual in art" must be thought of with one well-known phrase of Tony Negri: "Spirit is the brain".
Today, thanks to the efforts of neuroscience and neurophilosophy, we can clarify this question — in what sense the psyche is material — and construct an art discourse that takes into account the work of art with this expanded notion of medium.10
For neuroscience, the concept of cerebral means the coincidence of material and mental. Of course, we cannot deny that mystics and anthroposophy played a special role in the formation of Kandinsky. But in the part where he talks about the psyche, we can read it in a materialistic way.
From psychoanalytic to neurobiological theory of trauma
Sociopolitical reality pushes us towards a multitude of aggressive external impulses, traumas, which are nothing more than a violent interruption in the symbolic texture of subjectivity. These traumas, often physical, call into question the possibility of their internalisation, because the very psyche that could internalise them is completely destroyed. The great outbreak of technology triggers hyper-stimulation of attention and all cognitive functions. Dramatic changes in mental landscapes with growing disorders such as depression, attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are constantly interrupting and restarting the reproduction of subjectivity. We experience these changes in the modus operandi of traumatism. From discourse of neurosis we move on to the brain damage.
Examining people with irreversible brain lesions and cerebral disorders, Catherine Malabou concludes that the Lacanian triad of Imaginary-Symbolic-Real should be supplemented by the register of Materiality. And this is especially evident in the cases of brain trauma. She proposes to rethink the causal role of sexuality in psychoanalysis and replace it with cerebrality as the cause, which combines the material with the symbolic. The importance of this decision is simple: it only takes a minimal damage to the brain to completely destroy a person's identity. On the contrary, psychoanalysis that works with signifiers and interpretation implicitly relies on the idea of inviolability of the psyche. But when a person completely loses his memory due to material lesions of the brain, his story as a chain of signifiers is completely erased.
Thus it is necessary to introduce cerebrality into psychoanalysis. For me, these statements by Catherine Malabou could be combined with the ideas of Felix Guattari, who opposed the chain of signifiers and structuralism to the idea of the material machine. In general, Malabou agrees with Guattari that the materiality of the brain is a machine and traumas interrupt the linguistic structures of subjectivity. I think that their neuroproject allows us to look differently at the practices of Kandinsky and Dadaists and the role of contemporary works in cognitive capitalism.
Today neurophysiologists in their research on autistic spectrum disorders draw our attention to the similarity of Alzheimer's and autism symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder observed in concentration camp prisoners and soldiers. In all cases, there was indifference to the outside world, a striking coldness about one's own destiny. Rather than interpreting autism as an isolated phenomenon, today it is suggested that it is also a response to an aggressive external environment. Comparing Alzheimer's, autism and PTSD, Catherine Malabou hypothesised that they were based on a coincidence of political and organic trauma. The term "trauma" literally means "piercing". "Wound" in "trauma" can be both mental and physical. In her work "New Wounded" and her article on "post-trauma" Catherine Malabou returns to a very important theoretical milestone in the history of neurophysiology and psychoanalysis — the question of military neuroses. She shows that Freud separates the "external" influence of traumatic factors in military neuroses and moves on to the analysis of how this trauma relates to the subject's lived history.
In his 1971 article "Machine or Structure" Felix Guattari explains his break from psychoanalysis. By structure we can understand the position of elements in a system of references, where each element is associated with another element. The same is true for whole structures. The structure itself can refer to other structures or be an element in a larger structure. A structure is always an internal relation. Machine, on the contrary, is always an external actor. It always comes from the outside and reveals the subject in an unexpected way. The machine undermines the subject's ability to fit into structures and provokes displacement. The psychoanalytic theory of trauma is thus structural — something becomes a trauma taking its place in relation to the other elements-signifiers in the subject's history. This structurality also allows us to transfer the question from external causes to the statement that the subject is always already traumatised. Traumatic experience is an expression, representation of another element, another experience — the experience of castration. On the contrary, brain damage reveals what's important: the machineity of the brain itself. The human body, being a machine that experiences the invasion of machines from outside, is no longer dependent on structures alone. Their static presence is being invaded by a register of materiality.11 A small intrusion into the brain — and the sexuality itself changes completely; changing without obeying any history. In certain cases described by Malabou, a person's identity is completely erased and this act of erasure cannot be linked to castration. If it is true that the brain, as many assume, is a social machine, it is constantly subjected to deformation and distortions — up to unrecognisability and total destruction. That is, trauma and reaction to it can be understood not structurally, as in psychoanalysis, but mechanically, as in neuroscience.
For both Catherine Malabou and Felix Guattari, the question of materiality, irreducible to structures, opens up the possibility of unforeseen change, of randomness. But how exactly can this theory of trauma be related to institutional analysis? It is important here that the term institution in French is very different from English. For the Anglo-Saxon tradition of psychiatry, institutionalisation simply means a hospital. In contrast, in French institution stands for the action of instituting, and then 'everything that is invented by humans in opposition to the facts of nature' (Littré). What Anglophones might think of as institutions, in French is captured by the term 'établissement.' In Russian, institution is also different from the word uchrezhdenie. Guattari asks: "who produces the institution and articulates its sub-groups? Is there a way to modify this production? The general proliferation of institutions in contemporary society leads only to reinforcing the alienation of the individual: is it possible to operate a transfer of responsibility, replacing bureaucracy with institutional creativity? Under what conditions?"12 This term — institutional creativity — means that we are not faced with a rigid structure in which signifiers are embedded in a symbolic order, but with unforeseen moments outside of structures. Affect and trauma are a kind of non-signifying, material events. Speaking about the brain, Deleuze constantly emphasises " subjectification, events and brains are more or less the same thing"... The problem is that [creative] activity isn't very compatible with circuits of information and communication, ready-made circuits that are compromised from the outlet... the brain's the hidden side of all circuits, and these can allow the most basic conditioned reflexes to prevail, as well as leaving room for more creative tracings, less 'probable' links".13 Thus, an institution is a productive act. The problem is that we are used to thinking of this act as a symbolic break. This is well known in art. A new manifesto in twentieth-century art always corresponds to a new institution based on this manifesto. But what Guattari offers is a completely different view. The institution itself is inscribed in the world as a material event. These artworks literally change the social brain, reframe it. This is countered by the imperious consolidation and routines of neural connections. Deleuze writes: "organised mindlessness... what happened with pop videos is pathetic" and "most cinematic production, with its arbitrary violence and feeble eroticism, reflects mental deficiency rather than any invention of new cerebral circuits".14 Thus, institutionalisation finds its material basis in neuroprocesses, and the work of art becomes a way of adapting to a traumatic event that interrupts the history of art as a whole chain of signifiers. For the first time, in my opinion, such traumatic neuro-institutionalisation was manifested in Dadaism.
The First World War had already revealed its terrible consequences for both the individual bodies of soldiers (who returned with physical injuries or did not return at all) and the collective body. It was the Dadaists who linked Kandinsky's theory with its traumatic implication. Unlike the previous cubism, which influenced structural linguistics and was itself often interpreted in terms of structural linguistics and the subsequent surrealism that linked art to Freud's ideas and psychoanalysis, the short period of Dada in Zurich and Berlin problematised chance in its radical form. The chance of the Dadaists destroyed the meaning and interrupted the history of art as a symbolic system. It was Dadaists who discovered the machine foundations of the psyche and gave us the first model of material trauma in art. Performative poetry by Hugo Ball and Tzara, the assemblages of Hans Arp differ from the cubist collage and assemblage because they do not form any sense within the realm of symbolic. They have no meaningful reference to other elements outside themselves. They combine the physical trauma of war with art that literally suffered a brain injury and ceased to convey meaning. Yes, many insist that the Dada Revolution is a revolution against meaning. However, I want to say something else. I do not mean that Dada's works represent the trauma of war or represent these hard times. I want to say that the art of Dada is the trauma of war, the material invasion of trauma in art. The Dadaists broke up with Kandinsky preoccupation with harmony and elevation, and constructed their objects as machine-traumas. In many ways, this is what Hans Richter wrote in his texts. He repeatedly stressed that the Dadaists did not think of themselves in the structure of art — they created their objects mentally, responding to an unprecedented challenge and transformation of the social brain. In "Post-Trauma: Towards a New Definition?" Malabou defends the idea that trauma is the dark work of chance, it transcends the "always already" structure.15
If Kandinsky showed the material facticity of crossmodal perception, the concreteness of dadaist works then externalised the brain trauma as the dark chance. In a wonderful essay "See: We are all neurostenics! Trauma of Dadaist Montage" Brigitte Doherty postulated that PTSD is a direct method of Dadaist collage: «the ability to traumatise is part of the collage itself and concerns its form, in which the traumatic experience of the beholder is already embodied in composite figures whose parts do not fit together».16 Her essay begins with a description of a 1995 court incident when a woman who received a reproduction of a Dadaist collage in an envelope after encountering it suffered from PTSD. This case was well-documented by clinical experts. That is, the psychic, like in Kandinsky's work, is ravaged but traumatic in its ability to injure. In his manifesto "Synthetic Cinema of Painting", Raoul Hausmann writes:
"In dada you will recognise your real situation: miraculous constellations in real material, wire, glass, cardboard, tissue, corresponding organically to your own utterly brittle fragility, your bagginess. Only here, and for the first time, there are no repressions, no anxious obstinacies, we are far from the symbolic, from totemism; electric piano, gas-attacks, manufactured relations, men howling in military hospitals, whom we with our wonderful contradictory organisms for the first time help along to some kind of just compensation, spinning central axle, reason to stand or fall."17
Far from symbolic and phantasmic totemism, these words of Hausmann show us real intentions of Dada not to represent signs and histories but to confront the beholder with the machinic intervention of trauma.In the case of Zurich and Berlin Dada, we are witnessing a special kind of traumatophilia. In their assemblages and collages, neuroplasticity becomes external in the artwork. It reaches the viewer in its materiality, affecting his psyche and perception without being mediated by meaning. There is a homology between the biogrammatic work of the brain and the formal method of Dadaist techniques. The best example of Berlin Dada interest in trauma is that of George Grosz, "The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture" (1920). Combining objects such as a shop mannequin, a revolver and military insignia, it is both an indictment of the treatment of the war-wounded and a parody of the sanitised forms of conventional war memorialisation. The figure has been decorated, not with medals, but with cutlery. Like many war veterans, it has a prosthetic limb. The light bulb refers to medical procedures used to treat shell shock. Following the exhibition, Grosz was for defaming the German military. As in Hausmann's manifesto, here the viewer is confronted with a specific object that changes the relations of the body, space and the electricity that permeates it, not metaphorically, but literally. Like Kandinsky's biograms, these works on the neural level hang the relations of the body, placing the injury in the spectator's body, not just referring to it at the level of signs and references.18
Today the techniques of assemblage and collage are integrated into the instruments of contemporary art. At the same time, their psychic sense is erased, as in the case of Kandinsky's paintings. These techniques are perceived as aesthetic objects and have lost their connection with traumatic experiences. Therefore, addressing collage and assemblage in itself does not mean working with the psyche-apparatus yet, nor does it mean launching neuroplasticity. Their techniques found its place within the normative aesthetic structure. The more valuable is to point out those contemporary works in which you can see a return to these repressed paths in the history of art.
From my point of view, the public role of institutions and art was connected with the translation of trauma to the collective field. In the XIX century, this was heavily associated with the problem of an image. The Museum as a place of art created a mode of living-with-image, living with loss. But the new type of trauma is not related to loss or narrative. The modern post-digital human is not in a state of loss - she or he is constantly open to excessive external stimuli that literally change the brain as a habit or addiction does. This is no longer a question of the conscious and unconscious - it is a new wound coming from the very structure of the brain injury. Now the role of the institution is in collective policies of radical adaptation, criticism of neuro-normativity. This is not a life-with-an-image anymore, but a life with new neural connections and their cultivation.
Just Don't Think I'll Scream and Sinofuturism
I risk assuming that the outbreak of technology, huge masses of data, and overload of information is perceived by the modern subject as trauma, opening up the fragility of our nervous systems. We respond to this condition with ADHD and other information metabolism disorders. We live as if at war. We all become "new wounded" as financial capitalism stitches our bodies with algorithmic abstractions. I chose the film "Just Don't Think I'll Scream" by Frank Beauvais (2019) and Sinofuturism (2016) by Lawrence Lek, and this choice is not random. I did not want to consider artists who directly address neuroscience. For me it is important to measure our lived experience and how our daily life affects these traumatic processes.
After a break-up with his partner, and being tired of hard life in Paris, Frank Beauvais went to his small country house in Alsace. There he was immersed in watching his favorite movies. Having crossed the line of despair, this practice became a long isolation. After watching more than 400 films, Beauvais cut short clips from them — most often not recognisable iconic images from the history of cinema, but moments where actors and figures turn away, freeze between movements and cannot be identified at all. Clear and automated rhythm of frames is echoed by the poetic autobiographical voice-over. At certain intervals, the film freezes interrupted by black void. At this moment, the speech stops and one can hear a shaking breath. Beauvais poetically dwells on his failed love story; on cinephilia, which has grown into a real addiction, and on his father, who died next to his son while watching a film together. Beauvais says that the place of the viewer is the place of the dead. What is interesting about this film is that Beauvais' step from watching films to compiling them is a pure bodily and mechanical act. The reaction to shock.
If you want to rush into defining the genre, you can hastily place it in the tradition of essay films, where the visual image is being put into complex dialectic relations between visuality and sound. Beauvais himself, in the middle of the film, says that he knows the canons of a good essay film, but he failed to fulfill them. It is primarily because the film essay presents us the movement and argumentation of images. A film essay is a form of self-criticism of images — it is built on language and structures critically overviewing the conventions of cinema. But in case of "Just Don't Think I'll Scream", the images from well-known films are more likely destroyed than re-framed. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that sometimes the film directly illustrates speech. A voice on the screen says: "It's raining" and a frame from a film where it's raining appears on the screen. Here the image is destroyed not only by losing the integrity of the reference to the history of cinema, but also by becoming an illustration of the inner world of the narrator. At certain moments of such synchronisation of speech and frame, there is confusion — the viewer forgets that these are borrowed moments and it seems as if it is a video diary chronicle or a home movie. It gives no ground for interpretation. Through its rhythm, it creates a chain of mental events of the director. Remembering the theory of Kandinsky's elements, we can say that the "found frame" for Beauvais becomes the coincidence of the inner and outer — the outer history of cinema becomes a "mental event" overestimating memory. His anxiety is what is apparent in the film, in its editing, interrupted by confused sighs. It's a somatic and cerebral cinema, an essay-trauma. Unlike the tradition of Marker and Godard, whose essay films are rich in symbolic references to film history, "Just Don't Think I'll Scream" destroys this film history, becoming a trauma to film history. Beauvais manages to create a film in which the materiality of the editing points to the automated perception of the contemporary viewer, whose memories are mediated by the cinematic experience.
A special role in this film is played by the very conditions of its creation. The modern man is open and injured by a huge Internet archive (there is a discussion of digital film archives in the film) so much that it changes his perceptual structures and his relations with the inner and outer space, which merge in a heterogeneous unity of cinematic cerebrality. For critics accustomed to orthodox psychoanalysis of cinema, this film will seem simple, but the reduction — the coincidence of material and symbolism in this film is striking. Watching Beauvais, the viewer is confronted with film history, which he is unable to comprehend and process, it crumbles, his recognition of icons and images fails in a panic attack. The memory of a film lover collapses in the Dadaist montage. Pattern and image recognition fails.
In August 2016, Lek released Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD), a digital essay exploring the idea of China's technological development of Artificial Intelligence. This intellect constructs itself from the future in a temporal loop. Lawrence Lek uses the glam of conspiracy theory to reveal the geopolitical imaginary fantasies of the West — the fear of China's rapid progress and stereotypes of Chinese culture. Anna Teixeira Pinto insists that Silicon Valley's contemporary belief in Artificial Intelligence is accompanied by fear of China. Western capitalism with a transhuman face constructs China as the radical Other. This Other is placed outside the Western world, presenting itself in flat stereotypes.19
Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism, 2016. HD video, stereo sound, duration: 60 min. © Lawrence Lek, courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Lek's intonation is important: instead of directly criticising these stereotypes, Sinofuturism glorifies and embraces them, it suggests that one should get used to them (or even implant them as devices). Using the aesthetics of a youtube educational video, Sinofuturism absolutises these stereotypes not as something external, but as a common internal process of a new coming global subject, with the blurred borders of East and West. The seven chapters of Sinofuturism understood not as something extra-human, but rather as in-human, alien processes inside the becoming human subject. We always already have been AI.
Like Beauvais 's film, Sinofuturism rethinks the role of "cliches" and "stereotypes". For Beauvais it doesn't really matter if he succeeds in creating a "correct" critical video essay. Same for Lek, "stereotype" is no longer a stereotype. Beauvais and Lek set such conditions of subjectivity where there is no need to criticise or treat cliches. The auto reflexive and critical structure turns out to be superfluous and impossible simply because there is no one who can make a conscious decision. These films work in a different logic. Their radical subversion does not come from the postmodernist source of irony. They come from the discovery of formal combinatoriality — the new, altered sensibility in which data cannot and should not be completely processed at all.
Beauvais and Lek films fortunately lack the moralising position of the "true" video essayists because their goal is not consciousness, but the radical adaptation to trauma. The interview with Lawrence Lek begins with the thesis: "Sinofuturism is not about resistance or liberation. Instead, it takes the diverse array of China stereotypes and uses them to underpin a blueprint for survival".20 For this directors turning to the essay form is a plan for survival: to become a stereotype and to live as a stereotype without paying attention to cliches. In this respect we can recall a special spirit of Warholian gestures in these films. But Warhol's interest is in the abstractions of the cultural industry, popstars and commodities. In Sinofuturism, however, the focus shifts to data and cognitive abilities of the intellect.
Both at plot and formal organisation levels, Sinofuturism marks an important rethinking of human cognitive abilities. They correspond to seven "chapters": computing, copying, gaming, studying, addiction, labor, and gambling. Lawrence Lek uses polyscreen "noisy" editing. It feels like we've opened a lot of tabs in a browser at once to watch several speeded up youtube videos. The choice of this montage is not aesthetic, but cognitive. Lek creates a mosaic surface of audiovisual data in order to reach a certain boundary of bodily perception to collapse the attention of the viewer. Artificial Intelligence is able to process a huge amount of information, while it has no "human" attention as a hierarchical mode of distribution of data.
Like the Beauvais's viewer, who is designated by the director as "dead" in front of the digital film archive, the one who perceives the Sinofuturism is also not a normative subject anymore. Themes, narratives and pictures are combined, reproducing the attention deficit syndrome. Just as in Dadaist collages there was a traumatic challenge to the normative perception of the body, the editing of Sinofuturism faces the viewer with the fact that their cognitive habits are not ready to process such amount of data. Data and information as well as the digital character of images are paradoxical. They are not tied to certain modalities and specific sensory organs. Digital data transcodes color into sound, visuality into text. Data is fundamentally crossmodal and allows us to speak about it in synesthetic terms.
With this digital essay, Lawrence Lek brings us back to the history of Kandinsky's abstraction and his theory of elements. By translating painting into music and poetic texts, Kandinsky's "abstraction" can be retroactively understood as an abstraction of data. Combined with our cognitive abilities, this "data" is understood in Kandinsky's terms as elements. So are the essays of Lawrence Lek and Frank Beauvais — they are not medium-hybrid in terms of different conventions but synesthetic. They appear to be the primary confusion of perception of images and sounds in the brain. Following Deleuze's words, we can consider these films as a machine of subjectivation, in which the concepts and precepts are given not as readymades, but as material formations in perplex.
The approach to trauma of cognitive capitalism in Sinofuturism is best seen in the "Addiction" chapter. Lawrence Lek neither criticises addiction, nor aestheticises it. He sees addiction as the system's ability to adapt. What in modern culture cannot be accepted and is still thought of as marginal, in Sinofuturism is realised as a process of survival. Today's neurobiological research links addiction and its formation to the ability to learn and acquire a habit. Addiction is the dark side of the ability to acquire habits. The automatism of habit, in turn, is what can be called the "second nature". Lawrence Lek questions gaming, addictions and gambling, but these principles cease to be scary phantoms that pursue modern culture. Like the Dadaists who put the mechanism of trauma at the very heart of artistic production, Lawrence Lek addresses addiction and games as the backside of production and learning, placing cognitive trauma both in the narrative and in the formal organisation of the digital essay.
Beauvais's and Lek's essays thus play an important role in defining contemporary trauma and reactions to it: panic attacks, addictions, attention deficit in their artworks are depathologised and destigmatised. In art, these traumas can be dialectically taken from their "other side" — not as indigestible islands displaced outwardly in phantasms, but as processes of subjectivation and adaptation of contemporary subject to the abstractness of data in cognitive capitalism. These works do not represent themes and plots, but are materialistically arranged as traumas.
What conclusion can be drawn from this alternative neurohistory of art? First of all, it allows us to connect a work of art in a new way with the materiality of infrastructure, which is understood not so much as the connection of atomic structures that are already formed, but as a political way of interacting with a non signifying event of trauma. Artists can either consolidate the existing power of neural connections, or try to critically create a new configuration of the social brain.
About the author
Boris Klyushnikov is a contemporary art theorist and independent curator based in Moscow. He is a lecturer at the Rodchenko Art School, BAZA Institute of Contemporary Art and the British Higher School of Design. He is the co-founder of the Laboratory for Art Critique at the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art and in 2015 — 2020 served as a teacher at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Department of Cinema and Contemporary Art.