cflow journal - issue 2013-2

Creative Assemblages – When aesthetics meet the economy or what do they have in Common?

Benjamin Egger

Forced Trauma

Site-specific installation, variable size, ready-made objects, sculptures, found footage and songs, HD video, 2012.

Wallpaper: Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1979

HD video, loop 12:46 min, audio, 2012. Performers: Geraldine Breuleux, Nathalie Lötscher, Bettina Gerber. Audio: Jasmin Wiesli. Assisted by Esther Kempf, Quynh Dong, René Müller, Danique Wiesli, Marcel Bleuler, Nicolas Ruffo and Nele Dechmann. Written, filmed and directed by Benjamin Egger. Funded by the Georges and Jenny Bloch Foundation.

Forced Trauma deals with the conception of the impossibility of self-determination. It raises questions that pop up when we deal with progress in technologies as well as in (neuro-) biology that enable us to rethink the idea of our bodies. At the same time it questions the distinction of body and mind, animal and human being. We see three female performers talking to each other in a reserved way using quotes from contemporary pop songs. The language they use doesn't seem to have to make sense anymore. The language itself rather becomes a space that consists of multiple spaces building a different, rampant conception of understanding.

In Forced Trauma, Benjamin Egger undertakes the task of identifying a symptom of a post-colonial trauma, as the “truth” that there is no Other. He isolates the fictional account of this trauma in order to find “a defense against the fact that the radical Other does not exist at all.” This involves decoding the pathological sign that emerged with the description of the body of the other and the development of various systems for disciplining and controlling it. Foucault argues that biopower is the regulation and normalization of individuals, power over reality, replacing the psychoanalyzed subject. This is why the abstraction is not a mirror as such, but rather in itself a construct. This marks the dispersal of the body and its disappearance along with the subject as an abstract type of mental patient. This means that the end of mythic times has come, in which our mind inhabited Oedipal realms meeting epic beings and heroes, fantasy was something unlimited and every one of us could meet their peculiar other self.

The artist focuses on the discovery of the plasticity of the brain as a complex system with tens of billions of neurons working in a network creating a common field for collective decisions such that cognitive skills and intelligence, memory and the sensual depend largely on stimulation from the outside and can be directly modulated, which turns learning into a key activity. Neuroscience proposes as the main principle of brain evolution that of “nature via nurture.” The visual system of the brain can be subjected to direct manipulation through the internal projection of what it receives from the outside and its direct integration by the brain in a map of information, as in the visual therapy of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The control over visual culture appears strategic in this context, and plays a role much more significant than if it was reduced to that of just the sign, but applies to a field open to sensations and cognition. This could be interpreted also as depressing situations and trauma not being inherent to human beings but developed as an instrument with which the accumulation of security is prevented. Human insecurity being the basis of restlessness, what is the relation between the traumatic state and the crisis, seen as an external system of control and regulation in both the economic and psychoanalytical sense?

With respect to digitalization and computer technologies, one speaks of a dislocated body. We experience the end of the body, cut into pieces and dispersed in bits because it makes this same body even more dynamic, potential and effective as its fragmentation accelerates the movement, and at the same time allows much tighter control because that control is exercised on each of the fragments. Nuclear energy for instance follows this principle, or (neuro-) biology, or the “economy of more,” also known as Nietzschean economy, the idea of growth through the fragmentation of the object (which has little to do with how Nietzsche discussed this in his philosophy). Thus the limit of language and its encoding system is reached, but also the “inner” space, the brain and central nervous system are recognized as the new frontier as neurology replaces human psychology. Is there a danger that this could lead to “a uniformity manifested by socially regulated modes of behavior.” (Denise Jodelet) If the previous great achievement of science, the discovery of genes, leads to tighter control, as in the “genetic screening of workers or insurance applicants,” what might be the effect of this discovery as part of the “soft system” in the relations of control and “disciplinary power” directly related to feelings or creativity?

Egger’s installation is a complex assemblage of ready mades, appropriation, found footage, found objects and video performance, self-reflexive through the narratives and spatial relations between the different components. In the spirit of science fiction the artist tells a parable in which he tests the relation between art and science, as well as the respect for the quality of the other, as gift-giving of your time to the other. The artist focuses on the production of social relations, linguistic experiences and the mode of production in the field of the singular sensual and cognitive. Following the linguistic turn, he asks where the place of “aesthetic objects” is in the circulation of knowledge as a non-material product that circulates mainly through technological flows. This is why the boy dummy of Egger with its frozen face like the statue of a little baby Jesus (who is gift, lamb, present, and sacrifice in one, and embodiment of the spirit) holds a plush baby monkey by the hand, making the plastic boy an object-fetish, or what Lacan calls objet petit “a” in his psychoanalytic theory – the object of desire, the body-object which has lost its value. There is no longer any space for Bataille’s “curious object” which ends up in a flea market from which only an artist will ever pick it up, and re-use it (to put it in a museum as an aesthetic object).

At the same time the artist is interested in what happens to the performative aspects of language in the film, fascinated by machines and apparatuses. In the video performance, the artist unexpectedly changes perspectives, changes the lenses through which we view the performance of the three actresses, which opens up to a manifold of interpretations. Are they mysterious dolls with their ominous force in the shape of girls? Is it a puppet theater of those same androgynous dolls on the one hand, and on the other, could they be neurons in the fabric of a brain, or rather representatives of the scientific elite, a network of white-color workers as a fragment of the web of the general intellect? Or would they be actors with masks, a simulacrum, the brain and the phallus, which is itself a type of puppet commanded by the brain, puppets placed by Derrida as automata in the ecstatic action of a Dionysian ritual, a fetishist cult of phallic simulacra, puppets as fictional figures, prosthetic representation separated from the body? Are they not in their performance like the spirit recreated by the choir in ancient tragedy, an embodiment of the social and the common space of communication? They are ambivalent figures. If on the one hand they are agents at the molecular level as embodiment of the next generation of “neural networks” in a plastic brain, on the other they act at the molar level in language, speaking an elfish tongue among themselves, appropriated from the lyrics of popular songs and the pleasure principles of the 1980s, expressing the desire of the artist to articulate a different language. They thus speak very slowly, in slow motion contrasting with the acceleration of time by technologies. We are in need of a new language because slow time is the perfect time, an expression of the vitality of life: “There is no speech and no speaking silence without breath and at the beginning of speech there would be breath.” (Derrida) The linguistic machine itself produces the human self and the world, a network of connectedness, and the mediatic field of communication, which simply means being in common.

Now, the linguistic machine writes everything precisely, in commands that immediately produce. The current crisis starts with the overlapping of production and communicative action, so that the latter is replaced by a logical, operative and precise language that becomes immediately a productive force, in which there is no longer a need for theatre, no room for interpretation of meaning or philosophy or poetry. This undermines democratic principles of the speech act and the performative aspects of language as embodied in the fictional and metamorphic, following a game of linguistic equivalences between writing machines and reading machines. Everything unclean is expelled from communication – there is no space for jokes, for instance. After the introduction mainly from the 1970s onwards of lean production and the automation of work processes that promise a “manageable virtual eternity and writing of our future,” automation is the fundamental unit around which life is organized, which leads to a scarcity of affect when the access to authentic emotions and desires becomes a privilege of an elite with the financial means to afford them.

On the wallpaper in Forced Trauma the viewer is faced with a blow-up of a found press photograph from 1979 where a big gorilla lies on an operation table, surrounded by people in white overalls busying themselves around it. What is this? A scientific experiment? A military action? The Great King of the Jungle is turned into an object, into a patient by a team of doctors, attendants, and dentists, and undergoes dental surgery. Contemporary science has the tendency to pathologize its objects, because the principles of isolation and observation of symptoms are common to biology and medicine, which does not help us invent new points of view in the already limited social and political field of ecological eruptions in which we currently find ourselves, where we treat ecological destruction as symptoms of an illness. Here is the dilemma: friendship or medical care? The health system has developed on the principle of a “system of administrative systems” and “social services,” securitized through a system of surveillance and assessment that makes force and violence obsolete.

The gorilla has the value of an object described as the total Other, still inscribed even in the lexicon of the post-order. Hollywood appropriates the beast, the gorilla king of the jungle embodying destructive and irrational forces but also super-potency and erective power while the beauty is the embodiment of social value. “The very great animal and the very great king” is hired to work under the economic regime of the spectacular and entertainment industry. The historically first King Kong film released in 1933 relates to the financial crisis known as the Great Depression and the unfolding of a scenario in which the cinema industry and Hollywood tries to gain its own profit from the crisis with a grandiose spectacle that promises the viewers a virtual cathartic experience reflecting on the consequences of the economic catastrophe and its real effects on day-to-day life, in which the doors open onto a monster, a gigantic gorilla symbolizing potency and growth that the social has lost control over, along with the exalted rituals of the “savages” in which they prepare to offer the beauty as a sacrifice. The film is more than just a hint to the mechanisms of the stock exchange and the irrational forces of the market related to the risk and panic within it, as something esoteric, imperviously linked to the nature of human behavior in conflict with rational structures, rules and control. As early as the 17th century the stock markets contained irrational elements in contrast to the rational economic model in the dynamic of which a collective panic develops (the internal conflicts of the different participants in the market and their emotional instability must not be ignored) in an ecstatic state of collective unconscious that pushes a door open into chaos, in which rational logic and choices on the basis of mathematical models and patterns of reciprocity disperse into “a phase of fear and disorder.” This is followed by a general consolidation in a phase of reorganization and of reassessment of value.

The spirit of the monster, the king of the jungle, is called upon once more in the second version of the film, from 1976, which metaphorically deals with the history of the first global economic crisis, the oil crisis. The third version of the film contains rich references to the very history of cinema, and corresponds to the beginning of the global post-Fordist production crisis. It was released into multiplex cinemas in 2005, three years before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the entire stock market collapsed in a global financial crisis linked to what has become known as “toxic assets,” i.e., assets for which the market is frozen as homo oeconomicus meets the animal spirit. This time the commercial entertainment industry finds itself camera in hand and with scripts ready in their drawers before the beginning of the events, as is expected of contemporary journalism, and celebrates the end of the spectacle itself. The film attempts to overcome the trauma of 9/11 and propose a more companionable description of the total Other, displacing the fears from the role of the king to concentrate them onto the emanation of the crisis in ecstasy and toxicity of the collective voodoo ritual of the “savages-cannibals” who themselves call forth the crisis. Here, King Kong is a reflection on the rehabilitated relation of Western man to nature. This is why King Kong looks more like a household pet or a gigantic plush gorilla rather stirring the sympathy and nursing instincts of the viewers instead of attempting to scare them.

As a post-colonial trauma the body of the gorilla fits into Western discourse as iconography of the crisis of value, of anxiety about the breakdown of borders. The body of the primate is a cartography of the territory of an object in which deterritorializing and reterritorializing forces collide over an occupied object of military-scientific subjection – a place of trauma and fears in which the relation between nature and culture of Western man is dismantled in order to assert the idea of his evolutionary and civilizational superiority over the primitive and define the classifications of race, class, male and female, empire and colonies. According to Donna Haraway the body of the primate as part of the body of nature can be read as a map of power.

In the vision of industrial man monkeys are situated at the border of the social. They are animated mechanisms denoting the fascination of that time with an automaton that could replace manual labor. Contemporary technologies aim at creating an artificial brain, at producing and controlling immaterial mental activity. But these actions, too, are determined by problems similar to those of people in the 19th century. Indeed, these contradictions relating to the determination of social value were long treated in advertising by way of the monkey, as in the advertising from 1901 for Benjamin Brooke’s Monkey Brand soap, popular in Victorian Britain, where the magic of soap with slogans such as “No dust, no dirt, no labor” promises to make an incredible spectacle of female domestic labor, merging together the idea of progress and of the spectacle. The soap with its bubbles as a fetish of domestic cleanliness and the idea of hygiene embody the essence of the alchemy of economic progress and its rationality starting with the emergence of the chemical industry, and maintains its aureole borne by ads of cleaning compounds all the way to this day. For instance, the ghostly figure of Mr. Proper (known in North America as Mr. Clean) animates the objects by spilling his chemical spirit onto them such that they get moving like in a haunted house and themselves recover the polished surface of the domestic order, for the “proper woman” of the middle class who is no longer to work in the home, or whose work is to remain invisible at least, or something she is only directing. The value of soap lies in the exchange and the ritual created around its aura as an exceptional, magical object – not in the soap as an object as such. Let us look at one of the images from the ad campaign of Monkey Brand soap. The monkey is dressed in the ragged gentleman’s suit of a beggar or artist, sat cross-legged on the ground, holding in his hands a glistening frying pan, evidently expecting that passers-by will fling coins its way. It embodies something of a fantastic hybridized body between monkey and human being, beggar and advertiser, gentleman and artist, art and commodity, something like the origins of the traveling salesman with his flexible skills of a creative worker whose labor is rather immaterial: something between an actor, magician, a cunning bird, a preacher, a gigolo, a story teller, a beggar and a beatnik.

Animals that are the object of science are objectified first through domesticity, as beasts raised from the point of view of human consumption and heavy labor before being turned into objects of scientific research and for medical purposes, military training or just as objects of pleasant interaction with humans in the sphere of affects. In all of this there is no place at all for that meta-language in which the human encounters the beast in the dark, and the beast speaks to the human in a language they both understand. Forced Trauma reflects on painful questions related to our society to redefine the relation it has to nature as well as to technologies, beyond its inherent dichotomies. We do not know where to place animals in the social order we are creating, as opposed to the scientific explanations regarding the biosphere and the ecological system, in which they find their ‘natural’ place. On the one hand they are entirely excluded from any opportunity of realizing themselves as equal players in our economic model, the integration into which is a prerogative of life forming our social fabric. Because this model is based on the speech act and the system of law, but also on language as text which excludes not only persons who cannot write for whatever reason, but equally animals which are traditionally distinguished from the human on the basis of their lack of language. On the other hand we find it difficult to integrate into the biosphere the technologies we have created ourselves.

We are hard-pressed to imagine a technological development that would overcome our thinking and cease reflecting the past, such as television being a remnant of WWII, or the Internet going back to the Cold War. Technological advances reflect power relations in ethical and moral conflict with our environment as a forced trauma. The symbolic and imaginary are subjected to managerial and integration prerogatives for creating total systems which hinder us in rethinking and understanding the positive sides of technologies, machines, apparatuses, such as the way the ‘technological unconscious’ or the intuitive software contrast with principles of the rational, systematic and objective. We are living beings prone to creating simulacra, and indeed in order for the social fabric to function we need forms of simulacra and their artificial creation and ecstatic power, as “inhabitants of the common by means of artificial creation.” We are attached to simulacra, to masks, meaningful prosthetic substitutes which merge naturally with the ‘natural’ environment, because even our ‘being-in-the-world’ always starts from an eco-logical matrix, and our survival depends first and foremost on our own bio-energy. The question is how we can come up with methods that overcome traditional bipolar structures of thinking and open up possibilities for developing a multiplicity of perspectives and a variety of forms of simulacra and creative assemblages, and how these could communicate among themselves without regrouping into another total system.

Contemporary science creates a language that describes evolutionary theory in economic terms in order to inscribe it in the development of a total business model in which the biological matrix and the driving force of live matter is a productive element of the human economic model. If Marx already determined that labor is energy, and living labor is fire, then contemporary science strives to impose a quite different understanding from Marx’s, in which evolution is not a question of a struggle for survival between species, as it was conceptualized by Darwin as well, but an economic model of partnering from which one can benefit, combined with competition that is linked mostly to territorial-spatial principles. It follows that the purpose of live matter is to achieve the creation of the perfect homo oeconomicus bio for whom even knowledge and pleasure are subject to the principles of the Western economic model as the human intellect and affects are commodified, in which the entire exchange, both at the molecular level of the body of each species and at the molar level between species is based on strategic management and partnership, investment and representation and lifelong learning. Hence the ecological system can be interpreted as the ideally balanced bio-economy, in which learning is recognized as one of the fundamental causes of the movement of the evolutionary spiral, displacing the idea that genes are the only and main motive as it was understood in some scientific circles until recently. If we talk about knowledge economy and how all spheres of human activity relate to the production of knowledge, it is interesting to see how science for each stadium of human economic conditions finds reciprocal arguments in order to claim that the human and economic order is in some way natural. On the geopolitical map, which is a human prerogative, the basic race is concentrated around the question of who will control the satellites. This coincides with contemporary evolutionary theory in which learning skills of living organisms depend on their developing a complex spatial memory as a fundamental benefit to their survival, where all aim at control over a given environment.

As Foucault says of the development of biopolitics and the corresponding adjustments to economic policy at the beginning of the 1970s: “This is the idea that the economy is basically a game, that it develops a game between partners, that the whole of society must be permeated by this economic game, and that the essential role of the state is to define the economic rules of the game and to make sure that they are in fact applied. What are these rules?”

Let us speculate that this is an element in a chain of transformations from homo faber to homo ludens to homo oeconomicus to homo oeconomicus bio. To shed some clarity on this claim, if homo faber is starting from work and tools, then homo ludens (“playing man”; a book published by Johan Huizinga in 1938) is starting from play and toys, and develops the conception that play is an activity central to flourishing societies. Since play requires structure and participants willing to create limits, he investigates how play elements and play fictions play a key role in the play of culture. He tests the logic of play as free play, play that creates order, play that is not “ordinary life” but is an act of “conception” that “takes place over and over again” as play all the way to “serious strife and erotic application.”

Bio power is a new economy of bodies and the mind, a new mode of regulation and control directed at the molecules, the safety pin of progress, the non-stop nursing strategy for lifelong pupils, operating with neurotechnologies, elaborate and precise magnetic resonance and other scanners and hyper-microscopes, military strategies of surveillance of the world of territories, or again in the field of biology, medicine, and surgery.

Text: Dimitrina Sevova