Writing

Not standing still Written by Raewyn Martyn

Mane 25 Oketopa

Monday 25 October

2021

Biophilia means love of living systems. Artists have long used artworks as testing space for new and idiosyncratic systems, systems that do not stand still. Systems that confront reality, systems that emerge in daily life and look toward the future. Our understanding of what is ‘living’ has expanded through appreciation of interrela- tions within geological and biological systems.Not standing still brings together artists and works that involve visual and embodied systems, along with phenomena of changing conditions.

In The Biophilia Hypothesis, Warren Wilson argues that biophilia can be understood as the innatelyemotional af liation of human beings to otherliving organisms in the sense that innate means hereditary, it passes along through genes. He goes on to explain that biophilia, rather than a singular emotional impulse or instinct, is a complex pattern of behaviour, and that the learning of behaviours in response to particular conditions influences our emotional spectra: from attraction to aversion, from awe to indifference, from peace- fulness to fear-driven anxiety.

Stasis is one way of becoming or describing a closed system. Closing or closed systems are prone to entropy4 because the closure means they’re unable to receive new energy. Energy sustains live order through a kind of agitation,
a little faster and a little hotter. Lack or loss of new energy leads to breakdown of order; perhaps into a collapse, or static equilibrium. Alternatively, negentropy expresses change differently, import- ing excesses of energy, leading to an agitated reordering that resists stasis. Within a closing system, or a system prone to closure, that capacity to import and export excess or lost energy creates living change.

The term ecology, with its roots in ‘Ökologie’, is the study of living things in their ‘oikos’, dwelling place
or environment—not necessarily a closed space.5
A space of interaction and intimacy between human and non-human. ‘Ecology’ came into more common usage in the 19th Century and was re- considered through the logic of excess and trade, to be understood as the ‘economy of nature’6. Bataille developed ideas relevant to this kind of economy in The Accursed Share: the Meaning of the General Economy7, which describes ows ofexcess energy within human industry channeled in several possible directions, including art. Creative, sexual and monumental expressions of this ex- cess, go someway to preventing its manifestation in wars and other aggressive expansions8.

Entropy and negentropy teach us that energy is also agitation. Agitated molecules are higher in temperature and energy. And entropy is also about loss of agitation within a system. Maxwell’s demon, a 19th Century thought experiment by James Clerk Maxwell9, attempts to explain negentropy as a ‘violation’ of entropy through the story of a partitioned system—one side agitated hot mole- cules, the other side cold. Between the two sides, there’s a small trap door, opened and closed by a demon. Maxwell’s demon allows faster or slower molecules to pass through in the desired direc- tion to alter temperature, and levels of entropy, sustaining the ‘life’ of the system. Without such breaching of the partition, the temperature would remain even on each side, or would even outthrough constant con ict. Agitation would reachsome kind of equilibrium. But with the trapdoor, Maxwell’s demon can allow for agitation to be reintroduced as necessary for life. Maxwell’s demon thinks very carefully about ‘the living’.

Human beings experience openings and closures as individual organisms, and as groups. Closing in, as normative family unit, or an insular indivi- dual. And opening up, as family breathes into wider community, or transgresses conventional boundaries of care. These openings might involve sharing individual resources and bodily or psych- ological systems, while a closure might forget

to breathe, might not share food, make space
to speak, listen, or express in other ways. There might be a closing to interactions with other beings and non-human networks, shutting down the connectivity of empathy. Not open to the expe- riences of others, or the experience of an other. The risks of expressions and expansions are each felt within these relational economies.

At art school, in the United States, my fellow MFA students spoke of making decoy-work, works
made only for a critique or studio visit, to distract from their actual work. To protect their actual work from interrogation. The ‘quasi-causal’ work or gesture, an effect, runs parallel to the actual cause and effect of what is happening in the studio, or on the screen. The decoy work protects the autonomy of the actual work from whatever form of critique might close it down, seal it off. And alternately, the decoy and its protective pres- ence might risk closing down the work entirely. Or perhaps this form of closing allows the work to reach its negative entropy.

On the one hand, there is real, or physical, cau- sality: causes relate to other causes in the depths of matter.10 The relationships of matter that lead to a car crash. Or the relationship that matters and crashes with lust in dispersal. And what might have been happy marriages of lust and love that fold over into some other matter. A compositionthat calci es into kitsch, losing its iconoclasmand life, its claim to matter. This is the material -ist realm of bodies penetrating other bodies...

of passion-bodies and of the internal mixtures which they organize or submit to.11

On the other hand, there is the idealised, or transcendental, “quasi-causality” of effects relat- ing solely to the other effects, on the surfaces
of bodies or of things.12 Like the resistance felt within circulations of gossip and hearsay, the intimate non-truths and almost-truths. All trueenough to shine truth on un-true lines of of cialinformation, which then can have their true effect. The marks and gestures that provide chiaroscuro;

highlight, shadow and contrast, for what might bethe gures and the agents given ground within the painting. Figurative but not a gure. This quasi-causality is “incorporeal...ideational or ‘ ctive’,rather than actual and effective; it works, not to constrain things to a predetermined destiny, but to assure the full autonomy of the effect”.13

Can we imagine a form of self-organisation that is not also one of self-preservation and self-reproduction?14 For Alfred Whitehead, these kinds of causality become understood in polar terms; the physical pole and the mental pole, with every physical experience or feeling,supplemented by its conceptual feelings.15Understanding causality as a passage, a trans-mission, an in uence or a contagion.16 An art- work, like a painting, a video or a text, reaches or creates a surface. This surface might be asupport or screen and becomes an objecti cationof the subjective experience.17 A subjective expe- rience simultaneously produced and reproduced within itself.

The Te Ara—Encyclopedia of New Zealand website documents a history of arts criticism, and locates the (belated) arrival of Dadaist ideas via the work of Alan Brunton and the magazine Freed18. The
heading for this subsection reads something like:

Issues of identity, 1960s onwards; Questioning the old order. Artists and writers of 1960s New Zealand had somewhat belatedly embraced Dada as a way of reopening what had come to feel like a closed system. These were the children of the generation who were contemporaries of European Dada.

Recent analysis of European avant gardes uses ideas of systems theory to understand tensions between creation and destruction, in the ways
of entropy and negentropy, and the logics of late capitalism (Hito Steyerl amongst others).19 There is a lot there to understand about the ways artists in the early part of the 20th Century responded

to the crises and con icts in Europe. Attitudes
of experimentation within systems of represent- ations and abstractions helped them understand what was happening but also what could be happening instead. This revisioning of experimen- tal modernisms suggests we might also want to adjust our attentions to the possibilities of experi- mentation and improvisation, here and now.

Dada artists thought of themselves as engineers, pretending “to assemble our work in the style of a mechanic”.20 An industrious intimacy. DIY.

Thinking about art here in Aotearoa New Zealand, I wonder if there were New Zealand artists working within Dada, in Europe during the interwar period, who returned home and attempted to continue here. Or, perhaps there were peace activists, soldiers, or medical work- ers who encountered something of the spirit, and returned home to pass along an epigenetic signature. Dada data. This imagining of experi- mental practices in Aotearoa New Zealand again suggests possibilities for here and now.

Within contemporary practice there are regularly works made to reference parts of modernism that created clean and concrete aesthetic regimes,that hoped to in uence the imaginary of possiblefutures. Regimes that came to dominate some parts of mid-late 20th Century reality, like the realities presented or constructed within publicly funded art galleries. It’s still worth wondering if all this continued reference or deference to zombie modernism21 and its systems of presentation might be taking up too much space. Not because it worries originality or authorship, but perhaps because it holds onto a false reality. And obscures the circuit-breakers wanted within that system. Surely the imaginary and aesthetic regimes can keep changing?

Health and safety concerns aside, where are the messy edges in these chambers?

Tight formal languages of exhibition are spread through jpegs of super clean installations inEurope’s art houses. Re ecting or manifesting
various forms of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism22, and sleek systems of representation and communication. Replicating themselves in our art schools and galleries. Meeting immunity here and there, that might easily go unnoticed, unrepresented in clean-cut discourse. These styles of exhibition are also complementary to themore painting-speci c zombie formalism23 gener-ated by young artists keen to nd a market forinterior design friendly work that may fund other parts of their practice, or just secure a lifestyle.This practice is known as ‘ ipping’24, decoy-likework made to in ltrate a market.

Exhibition making constructs markets and audi- ences for the possible realities and imaginaries artists might generate. In the sense that people often see what is put in front of them and come to expect more of that, that’s what we engage as art, or reality. And those conceptual and formal markets seem pretty tight and clean right now, there are very recognizable or regulated forms and ideas of art repeating between large white rooms, echoing back and forth, in a sparse con- versation. While at the same time, there’s a lot ofnegative space. A lot of half-empty walls and oorswhere other ideas, shapes, and processes could materialise, perform, or take place.

Where are the trapdoors?

Raewyn Martyn