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deaf2012: sealed

Some interesting work at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2012 exhibition that's on at the former post office in Rotterdam. One highlight is 'Sealed' by Jessica de Boer, part of a trend at DEAF2012 to employ basic natural elements and processes to create stunning organic and ever changing abstract patterns.

Sealed - Jessica de Boer - 1

'Sealed' consists of a cube of salt sealed inside a much larger block of ice. The resulting thermodynamic process - i.e. the salt melting the ice inside the cube - generates a beautiful and slowly evolving frozen sculpture. While the starting point of this work is clear, seeing it 'in progress' makes you wonder how it will end. Does the whole block eventually melt and collapse, or do the salt and ice reach an equilibrium, a permanent version of the sculpture?

Sealed - Jessica de Boer - 2

Sealed - Jessica de Boer - 3

Unfortunately, the work also requires quite a bit of energy to function, as the ice block is showcased inside a large freezer. (Note to DEAF and/or the artist: how green is the energy consumed for this work? Is this carbon neutral art?)

Another work worth mentioning is 'Notion Motion' by Olafur Eliasson. Seen before at Boijmans, this piece reminds of 'Ondulation', which was exhibited at DEAF07. 'Notion Motion' creates complex wave patterns in a large pool of water and displays their reflections on a screen. Like a mesmerizing abstract film, it invites sitting down to watch the whole cycle of disturbance and settling down repeatedly.

Notion Motion - Olafur Eliasson - 1

Notion Motion - Olafur Eliasson - 2

The DEAF2012 exhibition runs until this weekend (3 June).

Update: DEAF kindly responded to my question about carbon neutral art:

Though it wasn't feasible for this temporary location, we are working on a program with our landlord to make our office (the V2_ office) carbon neutral... the green rooftop is here, the solar panels will come soon... getting there.

the futurological congress

In 20th century science fiction, both Philip K. Dick and Stanisław Lem were intensely preoccupied with the nature of reality - what is real, how can we know what is real, and what might lie behind it? Lem's 'The Futurological Congress' (1971) is a prime example of the kind of heady cocktail of philosophical probing and plain paranoia this results in. It reads like a metaphysical rollercoaster, but it's also bitingly funny, and like all good science fiction offers a satirical mirror to our own society.

Intriguingly, the book is currently being (loosely) adapted into a film by Ari Folman, director of 'Waltz with Bashir'.

'The Futurological Congress' depicts a future society where advanced drugs have replaced virtually all aspects of reality. In this chemocracy, or psychem (psycho-chemical) society, all mankind's problems have been solved. Warfare has been abolished, issues like overpopulation and food shortage have all been addressed, and man has created a veritable utopia.

New York, formerly a garbage dump choked with cars, has been transformed into a system of high-rise gardens. Sunlight piped in by solareduct. I never saw such polite, considerate children in my life - they're like out of a storybook. On the corner of my street is the Registration Center for Self-nominating Nobel Prize Candidates. Next door are art galleries, where they sell only originals - Rembrandts, Matisses - guaranteed, with certificates of authenticity. All dirt-cheap!

And it is all illusory, maintained by a staggering variety of hallucinogenic drugs available in psychem supermarkets, psychotropic groceries and psychedeli. There is a drug for everything from mood (e.g. Optimistizine, Amicol) to knowledge (e.g. Authentium, Dantine) and to events (e.g. Congressil, for scientists).

The main character, a professor of futurology called Ijon Tichy, wakes up in this chemocracy after having been cryogenically frozen for decades. It is soon explained to him how this psychem society works:

...humanity was torn by the contradictions between the old cerebralness, inherited from the animals, and the new cerebralness. The old was impulsive, irrational, egotistical and hopelessly stubborn. (...) Psychem eliminated these internal struggles, which had wasted so much mental energy in the past. Psychem, on our behalf, does what must be done to the old cerebralness - subdues it, soothes it, brings it round, working from within with the utmost thoroughness. Spontaneous feelings are not to be indulged. He who does so is very bad. One should always use the drug appropriate to the occasion. It will assist, sustain, guide, improve, resolve. Nor is it it, but rather part of one's own self, much as eyeglasses become in time, which correct defects in vision.

As an outsider, Tichy can't get used to this "new cerebralness", and he resolves to stop taking any drugs and experience reality as is. He now discovers that behind the hallucinogenic drugs is a new generation of psychotropic drugs called mascons that not just alter but positively falsify the world. A colleague of Tichy explains the working of mascons:

"By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image - superimposed - and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is - undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored - you would drop in your tracks!"

Tichy does get a glimpse of this real world behind the manylayered illusion, and it is a bleak dystopian vision: a depleted, overpopulated (on a Malthusian scale) and dying world where only a few "eschatological anesthesists" are aware of reality - or at least enough of reality to continue to supply the rest of humanity with their utopian drugs.

Lem has a few more tricks up his sleeve to make sure that by the end of the book it is almost impossible to know which layer of the narrative is 'real'. But this disorienting reading experience serves to underline his point that no matter the technological and pharmaceutical progress, not all utopias may be desirable. And it certainly makes a case for good old "impulsive, irrational, egotistical and hopelessly stubborn" humanity.

To immerse yourself further in Lem's wonderfully inventive pharmacocratic world, here is an annotated list of all drugs in 'The Futurological Congress'.

Continue reading the full post »

andalucia: mulhacén

To top off the GR7, a detour to climb the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada, and of the Iberian peninsula: Mulhacén. Its snowy peak afforded views of the Mediterranean and all the way to Africa...

Mulhacén - 1

Mulhacén - 2

Mulhacén - 3

Mulhacén - 4

andalucia: alhama de granada - sierra nevada

Some impressions of walking part of the southern fork of the GR7 in Andalucia, roughly from Alhama de Granada, through the Alpujarras and towards the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada...

Andalucia - 1

Andalucia - 2

Andalucia - 3

Andalucia - 4

Andalucia - 5

Andalucia - 6

Andalucia - 7

freedom and security, a case of hassliebe

Last night saw the opening of the 'In Me, the Paradox of Liberty' festival in Amsterdam, organized by Castrum Peregrini, with a keynote speech by the eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

Bauman's speech, titled 'Freedom and security, a case of hassliebe', illustrated a central theme in his recent work. Security, broadly defined as peace of mind, a feeling of control over one's life, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from freedom, which is the ability to follow one's desires and live a life full of adventure.

As Bauman said:

Both freedom and security are equally indispensable for a dignified human life, but to have both at the same time, to reconcile the two is incredibly difficult. In all of history, I haven't found a single example of a society that found the golden mean. We seem to be condemned to swinging between the two extremes.

This poses a great societal challenge, as the flipsides of these concepts are on the one hand serfdom (a complete lack of freedom), and on the other hand chaos and uncertainty (a lack of security). This problem goes back all the way to Freud's 'Civilization and its Discontents' (1930).

To characterize our current era Bauman has coined the term liquid modernity. For Bauman modernity started with the Enlightenment (and is thus not to be confused with the art-historical concept of modernism). Its current liquid state is defined by globalization, the network society, and the continuous flow of people, goods, money and information through (virtual) space. Manuel Castells has called this the "space of flows".

Liquid modernity is also characterized by an unprecedented freedom, or put negatively, by endemic uncertainty. As Bauman stated pointedly, "uncertainty is now the only certainty," and "constant change is the only permanence". For many people this changes the meaning of freedom: the free world becomes a scary place, full of risks and threats.

Thus, while for much of our modern era the idea that history would ever progress towards more freedom was a given (and with the babyboom generation became a dogma), Bauman suggests this may not be the case after all. Instead of a linear history, he proposes the image of a pendulum. And it looks like the pendulum in the Western world is starting to swing from this unprecedented freedom back towards more security. Whether it's gated communities, Fortress Europe or the rise of populist politics (which thrives on feelings of insecurity), the signs certainly seem to be there.

Among the causes of this uncertainty, one is the divorce of power and politics. As a consequence of a rapidly globalizing world (where out of the hundred largest economies more than half are corporations), power has escaped from within the confines of national states and into a global, virtual and lawless space. This means the rhetoric of politicians, populist or not, rings increasingly hollow – including, ironically, their pleas for more security.

Another cause which Bauman elaborated on in his speech is what he calls diasporization. Emigration has always been a way for modern societies to get rid of the "redundant people" it produces. Over the past centuries this was a strictly European phenomenon, and the world was large and empty enough to accommodate their "disposal". Today migration is global – its rate hasn't changed, only its direction – but the crucial difference is that there is no "large and empty" world anymore. Migration now causes friction on all continents, and especially in or at the gates of Fortress Europe. In short, diasporization creates large numbers of strangers in society, and this in turn exacerbates feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

However, from this rather bleak sketch of our modern society, it is precisely in our behavior toward strangers that Bauman sees a glimmer of hope. To answer the question of how to live with strangers, Bauman borrows an answer from that other eminent sociologist, Richard Sennett. In his recent book 'Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation' (2012) Sennett proposes an attitude of what he calls informal, open cooperation. More generally he reminds us that cooperation is a craft, based on skills like listening, debating, learning and teaching, and that while we may have neglected this craft in our infatuation with newfound freedoms, there is no reason why we can't relearn it.

For Bauman this kind of cooperation with strangers would be a meaningful foothold in our liquid times, and could eventually lead to what Gadamer called a "fusion of horizons".

For further reading, Bauman’s short book 'Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty' (2007) offers an excellent introduction to his theory of liquid modernity, and a summary of sorts of a whole series of books on the subject, including 'Liquid Modernity', 'Liquid Love' and 'Liquid Fear'.

For Dutch speakers, Castrum Peregrini has also published a magazine on the theme of freedom, 'Vreihijd' (pdf), which contains an article by Bauman.

the party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek is of course best known for his immortal satire, 'The Good Soldier Švejk'. But he also wrote an astonishing number of stories - reputedly some 1500 - displaying the same anarchistic wit and dark satire, relentlessly exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of politics, bureaucracy and war.

Only a few of Hašek's stories show up online. But in English a couple of collections of his stories have been published, while in Dutch the collection 'De mensenhandelaar van Amsterdam' ('The Human Trafficker of Amsterdam') is still available.

Anyway, an interesting story from Hašek's own life is the history of the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law, a political party that he and some friends started in 1911, and which despite (or because of) its satirical aims did surprisingly well in the Austro-Hungarian elections of that year.

There is a great booklet (PDF) collecting available sources on the party. It includes an account by playwright František Langer, taken from his book 'They Were and It Was' (1963), as well as the surviving part of 'The Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law', which Hašek wrote and compiled at the time. It also records the official hymn for the Party:

A million candidates rose up
To hoodwink honest people.
The electorate would give them votes
And they would gladly take them.
Let others call for violent progress,
By force world order overturn.
Moderate progress is our aim
And Jaroslav Hašek is our man.

Of course the whole idea of a political party, let alone its pretentiously titled annals, was a) an excuse for raucous nights of drinking and b) a deliberate mocking of the election process. This was half a century before the Situationists and before the invention of happenings, but the whole venture resembled a kind of public theatre using Hašek's satirical and storytelling talents.

Hašek's speeches, which make up the bulk of 'The Political and Social History' are long, rambling and no doubt improvised affairs, often with complete stories mixed in, like when he recounts a series of completely irrelevant adventures of the party treasury. At other times his speeches are interrupted by worried calls that the inn's bar is closing, prompting Hašek to seamlessly address the situation:

Because one of the first precursors of our Party, Mr. Galileo Galilei, said as I do, "But, all the same, it goes round," Miss Boženka, please serve one more round...