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A pioneering figure in visual culture, the artist and theorist Victor Burgin was this year recognised with a major retrospective, Ça (“That”), at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, the French capital’s most important museum for photography and new media, as well as a parallel show at Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France. TANK’s editors spoke to Burgin about his work and the idea of “immediacy,” AI, and our ever-increasing loss of context.

 

TANKWe’d love to know what appeals to you in the work of Anna Kornbluh. How does her critique of immediacy in her recent book Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism connect to the project of your work?

Victor BurginBy “immediacy”, I understand Kornbluh to mean the tendency in neoliberal society to abolish the distance between subject and object, between spectator and spectacle. She finds the hegemony of immediacy across all cultural production, from politics, through economics, to literature and visual arts. For example, she cites autofiction: “The aggrandising, first person singular that dominates the field of writing.” In art she cites the performance artist who installs herself in a gallery, her own person, nothing more; the title of the work is “The Artist is Present”. To the immediately present Kornbluh opposes mediation, defined as “composites of language, composites of images, compositions of meaning, composed ideas – that produce something more than immediate experience,” which allow “a capacity to represent ideas that exceed persons … to construct generality in contrast to the manifested personal”. Kornbluh’s idea of immediacy has no direct bearing on my artwork, but it may help all of us in our various critical projects. While it operates in a different political register, I see the term “immediacy” as functioning analogously to “sexism”. Sexism is not some independently existing thing which waited to be “discovered” by women, it is a discursive construct of feminism, an act of naming which helps shift the structures of real social relations and practices. Marshall McLuhan said that although we don’t know who discovered water we can be sure it wasn’t a fish. Kornbluh brings suffusive but previously transparent habitat into visibility by naming it. She moreover encourages us to track the phenomenon of immediacy across disparate fields. I see a recent example from politics in the British government’s proposal to transport illegal immigrants to Rwanda. This example of what one journalist named “performative policy” would have resulted in the deportation of about 300 people per year, the maximum Rwanda can receive, whereas there were about 29,000 illegal Channel crossings last year. As an example from a different sphere: the documentary photographer Susan Meiselas published a book about the BDSM scene in which, alongside her photographs, she included letters written by “slaves” to their dominatrixes. A Spanish art museum included some of the photographs in an exhibition of her work – blown up to spectacular proportions and without the writings. When the exhibition subsequently moved to the Jeu de Paume, the Paris curator chose mediation over Barcelona’s immediacy by representing the book as a slide show, with scenes of bondage interspersed with slides of the letters. Or again, I’m reminded of a recent French radio interview with a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst specialising in the treatment of psychically disturbed adolescents. He described how increasing demands on overextended and underfunded public services are pushing his profession into prescribing drugs as a treatment of first resort – a problem, he said, compounded by the universal clamour for instant results. We live, he said, in une société de l’immédiateté – independently endorsing Kornbluh’s perception of immediacy as the contemporary “zeitgeist.”

 

TANKThe last few years have seen the emergence of a wide range of immersive art forms, which Kornbluh calls the “VanGogha”. She writes of the immersive exhibition that “The work of art becomes indistinguishable from its installation and the corporeality of its spectators, while the aesthetic experience stretches toward total engagement, mixing miasmic emanation, everything simultaneously without rest or distinction.” How can or should artists reckon with what seems to be an inescapably growing form of art?

VBI assume the “wide range” of immersive art forms you have in mind includes “installation art” in general, “video installations” in particular, and virtual reality experiences. I’ll further assume a dictionary definition of “immersive” as a “three-dimensional image which appears to surround the user.” In this sense, I see the mediaeval cathedral as the prototype of the contemporary VanGogha experience Kornbluh describes on the first page of her book. Imagine leaving the everyday environment of 13th-century France – without chemical dyes, bright paints or plastics – to enter Chartres. Sunlight exploding through stained glass, soaring arches, choirs and thundering organ music – a Gothic VanGogha. Here and elsewhere I find some of Kornbluh’s observations anticipated in the work of the French philosopher Marie-José Mondzain. In her 2002 book L’Image peut-elle tuer? (“Can the image kill?”) Mondzain distinguishes between two types of image: the image that preserves a symbolic distance from what it represents, and the image which in effect swallows the spectator. She finds the primitive origin of the latter in the infant at the breast, absorbing the mother not only through the mouth but through the body and the eyes – feeder and fed are one. I think now of those New York cinemas with cushioned seating that reclines to cradle the spectator, with holders for the sweet drinks and buckets of buttered popcorn ingested along with the image. Many video installations seem to aim for such immersion without the accompanying food franchise. How should artists reckon with the tendency? If their “shock and awe” gigantism has no formal or semantic function, no purpose other than to puff up and impress, they might simply cease-and-desist. The only totally immersive spectacle, however, is the hallucination. Outside of delusion no experience of immersion is without a degree of distance. Immersion of a very different type from that provided by the mediaeval cathedral was introduced in the 18th century with the novel; the reader is immersed in its world, but at the same time participates in producing meaning. The century which gave us the novel also introduced the panorama: the immobile but productive reader becomes a peripatetic consumer of spectacle. In the case of VR technology, immersion is limited by the fact that the body occupies real, not virtual, space. This mismatch is largely resolved only in the limited case of vehicle control simulators,  where there is full integration of the actual setting – the cockpit and navigation instruments – into the virtual environment, and bodily movements are constrained within predictable parameters.

 

TANKSince your 2010 work A Place To Read, you have used VR design engines to create many of your works. What drew you to this technology?

VBI work with a game engine, software originally developed for the production of video games but now used in such other fields as architectural rendering and film production. I was drawn to this technology for much the same reason I first turned to photography because of its ubiquitous contributions to the everyday environment of images. But although game engines can be used to produce VR experiences, I don’t myself make VR works.

TANKWhy is that?

VBFirst, I don’t want to put physical obstacles, whether headset or headphones, between the viewer and the work. Secondly, I work with the image, with the frame I’ve inherited from painting and cinema, with what it includes, excludes, implies; with its discrete units, articulations – its language. There is no frame in VR and therefore no image. By definition, VR aims to produce a faithful impression of an actually existing reality. Setting aside the optics of the eye, if I look at a tree in a public park I see a tree, not an image. I see an image of a tree if I make a painting of it, or if I model it in a game engine. On a number of occasions I’ve described my work with game engines as “painting by other means.” As an epigraph to That, the book accompanying my Jeu de Paume exhibition, I have a citation from Proust: “One can only recreate what one loves by renouncing it.” At the beginning of À la recherche du temps perdu the narrator finds himself incapable of writing a novel. He had assumed he would become a writer because of his acquaintance with, and love of, the great works of the past. This very knowledge however prevents him from writing, as he cannot reproduce what has already been achieved. He therefore abandons himself to “frivolity” (Proust’s term) – the life of Parisian high society, of social climbing, of chatter and boredom, of “lost time”. But in the final chapter, ‘Time Refound’, a series of involuntary memories triggered by encounters with the real unblocks him. He turns his back on “frivolity” and begins to write. But what exactly is the status of his text in relation to what came before? Is it even a novel? Proust himself agonised over this question. We should remember he was a contemporary of Joyce, and no less foundational to modernist writing.

River Don
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TANK The experience of memory in encounters with the real is very much at the forefront of your most recent work in the exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, Adaptation (2023). Could you say something about this?

VB While browsing the internet I came across a photograph of Sheffield in the industrial North of England taken at the time I was growing up there in the 1950s. I instantly recognised the district where I had lived and first went to school. I’m unable to say why I then found myself thinking of the Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel Solaris. But I work through such spontaneous associations – however arbitrary they may appear I accept them as facts. Adaptation stands at the intersection of my memories with Lem’s novel and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation. There is no direct appropriation of frames from the film in my work. There are rather written and visual paraphrases of images from the film alongside what I might have called “images from childhood” if psychoanalytic theory had not made me more cautious. The relation of an optical or mental image to memory, and the relation of personal memory to historical fact, can never be certain. Freud said it is possible we may only have images of childhood, not images from childhood. With the idea of “screen memories” he further undermines the idea of “images from childhood”. A screen memory stands in place of another memory, but the “memory” screened from view may itself be largely a fantasy construct – the mise-en-scène of a desire. Freud also observed that a memory may be, as it were, “adapted” to emotions experienced in the present – a process he calls “retranscription”. In Adaptation there is an image of a river running between industrial buildings in a snowstorm. In making the image I was recalling the view of the River Don from Lady’s Bridge close to Sheffield city centre. When I looked on the internet for photographs of this view they looked only partially like my memory of it.  Moreover, this memory led me to other memory images of salient features of my childhood environment, which included the blast furnaces of the English Steel Corporation of River Don Works, which lay about two miles downstream from Lady’s Bridge – flares from which were a prominent feature of the nocturnal view from my bedroom window.

 

TANK Would you describe the work as autobiographical?

VB It contains elements drawn from my personal history, but they’re not identified as such. Anna Kornbluh bemoans what she calls the “absolute hegemonic dominance of the first person in contemporary literary fiction”, the result of which is to, “stamp out what fiction promises, which is to construct a point of view that none of us get to have in our stupid bodies.” She finds it crucial that, “no matter how much psychological introspection there might be, there is the project to produce that knowledge in dialectical relation to exterior knowledge.” As I share Kornbluh’s view of the confessional mode in contemporary art, I had given myself a problem when I decided to draw upon memories from my own childhood. Of the eight childhood memory images in Adaptation, two are pictures and six take the form of intertitles. There are two forms of language in the intertitles. The minimal narration is in expository indirect speech, for example: “Of all his memories, only the most painful takes human form.” The written memories take the form of haiku. For example, where I might have written: “I remember, as a child in Sheffield, as darkness was falling, playing with my friends building castles from industrial waste.” I rather write: “Gathering evening / The children building castles / from industrial waste.” In the course of my exchange with Pia Viewing in That I say: “I have a desire to picture things, but not to picture myself as anything other than a thing amongst the things of the world.” Seeing this on the page, the statement looked somewhat strange, and I wondered what others might make of it. But then I recalled the French geographer and orientalist Augustin Berque writing that, in Japanese, “The first person, that’s to say the existential subject, does not exist in itself but as an element in a contingent relation to a given scene.” This is how I understand the linguist Alexis Rygaloff’s characterisation of the Japanese language as “lococentric”. In his 2004 book Le Sens de l’Espace au Japon, Berque provides an anecdote which gives some sense of the alterity, in a Western perspective, of the linguistic subject in Japanese. He is watching a Japanese war film in a French cinema. The story has reached a moment when, in spite of great danger, a nurse refuses to leave her post. Berque writes:

…the doctor asks her why; she is silent, then suddenly says without looking at him: suki desu. Subtitle: je vous aime … very clear: the subject … (je), the verb … (aime), the complement … (vous) … But, in the Japanese sentence, there was … neither subject nor object that might indicate who loved who. The woman did not even look at the man! The enunciation strictly indicated nothing other than the existence of a feeling of love somewhere in the scene.

We must further understand this “scene”, the locus of the lococentric subject, in a non-Western framework. The historic Japanese understanding of space emphasises relations – intervals, gaps, distances – and attenuates objects. It is also inseparable from the formulation of time. The historian and anthropologist Alan Macfarlane writes: “Tenses are rarely used in Japanese, so everything is potentially simultaneously past, present or future.” The architect Arata Isozaki notes: “In Japanese, when the concepts of time … and space … were first written down, the Chinese ideogram ma – an interstice – was used as the second character for both.” The concept of ma, he finds, dates from “the moment at which time and space had not yet been disentangled and rendered as distinct notions”. The ma is the interval, both spatial and temporal, between two successive events – an interval charged with the meaning produced in this succession. I think of myself as working with the ma between two psychological events: the image formed while reading the text, and the image formed while looking at the picture. In the cinematic tableau Berque describes, the subject occupies the kind of uncertain and non-hierarchical space we find in psychoanalysis. In his 1919 paper “A Child is Being Beaten” Freud encounters the eponymous fantasy expressed in much the same words by a number of his patients. When he asks them to say more they are unable to. In his analysis of the fantasy, Freud finds an unstable subject in movement between the three positions available to them: as spectator of the scene, and as passive and active subjects on stage. “A child is being beaten” is a simple declarative sentence that easily suggests a coherent image – paintings by Max Ernst and Balthus come to mind – but in most instances, unconscious fantasy is only ever encountered in the form of what the psychoanalysts Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire describe as “short sequences, most often fragmentary, circular and repetitive”.

 

TANKWords you’ve used elsewhere to describe works such as Adaptation.

VBIn Lacan’s expression, I see my works as made up of “metonymic ruins”. I haven’t always used the model of the fantasy. The image-text relations structuring my earlier works are derived from classical rhetoric. For example, one of the panels of UK76 shows a young black woman at a bus stop in Sloane Square. The text reversed out over this image is a passage of fashion burble from Vogue extolling the colour white. Antithesis. I wasn’t aware at that time of Lacan’s description of the “language” of the unconscious in terms of rhetorical figures. I subsequently became unhappy with the way such works position the viewer as simply a consumer of my political positions and my irony. I wished to allow the viewer more space to participate in the production of meaning.

 

TANKDoes that present your viewer with more of a challenge?

VBNot necessarily. When UK76 was first shown a critic said to me, “I don’t get it. The words don’t go with the images.” A literature professor friend reacted with almost exactly the same words! I tend not to hear such responses today. On the other hand, I still hear: “Do I really need to know semiotic and psychoanalytic theory to understand your work?” My answer is “No, you don’t, and moreover there’s nothing to understand.” When I lived in San Francisco, which is built on a seismic fault line, I heard a local architect complimented on the design of the house he’d built for himself. He replied that the house was only the visible part of his building, and that most of his ingenuity and budget had gone into the foundations. If the house subsequently passed to new owners they would not need a knowledge of structural engineering to inhabit it in their own way. Much foundational research goes into the construction of my own works, but it is not necessary to have any knowledge of it. Having built the work on what I believe to be secure foundations, I then assume that the reader/viewer is competent to “inhabit” it in their own way through knowledge they already possess, albeit unconsciously. You don’t need a degree in linguistics in order to speak. You don’t need to read Freud to daydream. When I say “there’s nothing to understand”, I mean simply that my works are not enigmas to decipher. They are not puzzles, they’re construction sets. In his 1937 paper “Constructions In Analysis”, Freud considers the relation between the patient’s own account of his life and the analyst’s constructions – pictures of the patient’s past with no necessary correspondence to historical fact, but which may have the same therapeutic effect as a recovered memory. Although an encounter with an artwork has little in common with a psychoanalysis, I nevertheless see the structure of the relation between viewer and work in analogous terms, as an equivalent exchange of constructions – shifting coalitions of fragmentary meanings and affects which draw on different personal histories.

Sloane Square
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TANKKornbluh writes: “Psychoanalysis enacts an unprecedented science of mediation: a study of how language and norms inform desires; how desires can only make themselves legible in the distortions of parapraxes, dreams, fumbles and symptoms; how the self is not self-evident but rather a product of social relations. With its conviction that psychic experience is socially produced, psychoanalytic theory can help explore the ways that circulation impresses upon the psyche: an overemphasis on instantaneous fluid exchange, an overabundance of images, an overweighting of presence, and overvaluing of identity can all preclude or foreclose the functioning of the symbolic.” What for you is the relationship between art and psychoanalysis?

VBIn the terms Kornbluh sets out there, mainly absent. Where psychoanalysis shows the insecurity and dependency of the subject, the public face of contemporary art is one of narcissistic hubris. The confident smile is that of extreme wealth. In their 2017 book Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre give a detailed account of the way the visual arts, the luxury goods industry, and the creation of foundations and museums have entered into symbiosis. I was reminded of their observations recently by the facade of the Musée d’Orsay, where modest posters for a Degas exhibition were literally pushed to the margins by a gigantic Louis Vuitton advert. Across the river François Pinault’s appropriately appropriated Bourse de Commerce is a temple to immediacy. On the occasion of its opening, a eulogy on the Ville de Paris website gushed, without irony: “every step [the visitor takes] is ‘Instagrammable’.” I am no more “against” fashion and entertainment than anyone else. I’m appalled by the appropriation, seemingly as ineluctable as global warming, of public institutions and public space by the fashion and entertainment industries, by the reduction of the heterogeneity of the arts to a meaningless market-driven monoculture.

 

TANK“Drowning in a deluge of images without context, words without meaning, information without distinction – this is the subjective experience in an economy of immediacy” (Anna Kornbluh). How do you see the state of meaning-making?

VBI see the meaninglessness of the media environment much as Kornbluh presents it in your citation. I see critical theory of the type she writes as a response to it, as are your own publishing initiatives and my own artworks. Faced with the “deluge” we must all of us construct our islands of meaning, within the terms specific to our various practices, and – most importantly – build bridges between them. However, although we may all agree we are drowning, Marie-José Mondzain disagrees we are drowning in images. In her 2003 book Le Commerce des regards she makes a distinction between “image” and “visibilities” which we might broadly map onto Kornbluh’s opposition between mediation and immediacy. The image – “in solidarity with speech and thought” – maintains its object at a distance, whereas visibilities effect an imaginary fusion. She sees a two thousand year “iconocracy” of the image in Western culture now giving way to a “market of visibilities”. Far from drowning in images, she says: “There are fewer and fewer images.”

 

TANKWe’re interested in the way in which AI image creation underlines a sense of the revenge of language on the imaginary, which has long been your preoccupation.

VBIt can certainly call out the disavowed language dependency of contemporary art. For example, the genre of “monochrome painting” is over a century old. One might suppose it would be difficult to plausibly claim originality for yet another such painting today. But suppose I nevertheless make a monochrome painting, and it’s grey. You object, perhaps, that the British painter Alan Charlton made grey monochrome paintings decades ago. I reply that he used paint from a pot, but my grey pigment is made from ashes from the burned Amazonian forest, and if you had only taken the trouble to read the handout you would be aware of this. My example is fictitious, as I don’t wish to offend the two contemporary artists whose works I have in mind. Their monochromes are in different colours, but both are similarly accompanied by texts voicing current “issues”. My example is of what I’ve elsewhere called “backstory art” – art in which an expository text supplies meanings claimed for the work, but which the work itself is unable to propose in its own terms. In the context of an art gallery, standing in front of my hypothetical painting, I am more likely to be led to thoughts of its antecedents than to thoughts of the rainforest (unless I’m an obsessive who can think of nothing else), but then the text steps in to invest the work with a spurious political gravitas. I don’t doubt that AI could be used to generate backstory art. Feed it with a description of the anodyne object or objects in the gallery, then ask it to generate backstories with the content of your choice.

 

TANKHow do AI technologies shape and change the nature of our encounter with “the real”?

VBThey threaten the very possibility of this encounter. The first thing to bear in mind is that there is no encounter with the real on the part of AI itself as, by definition, AI is not embodied. Image generators such as Midjourney do not reference the real but only already existing images. The danger of AI, however, is that it might, in the fullness of time, close the gap between embodied human experience and its mimicry, a danger inherent in the anthropological fact of machine-human symbiosis. In his 1958 book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects the French philosopher of science Gilbert Simondon argues, in a view empirically supported in the work of the French paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan, that technology is not something added to an already-existing human being. Rather, it was only through technology that “humans” came into being. Leroi-Gourhan writes: “Tools and skeletons evolved synchronously”. In her 2010 book The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious the American cultural theorist Lydia H. Liu relates how, around 300 BCE, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi imagined a confrontation between a disciple of Confucius and a Daoist gardener. Having watched the gardener labouring with a rudimentary and inefficient means of watering his plants, the Confucian informs him that a machine exists that can water a hundred fields in a day with much less effort. The gardener replies that whoever uses such a machine will have a mind like a machine, and that whoever views the world with such a mind will lose oneness with the world. The dark promise of AI is that, as we progressively enter into algorithmically determined patterns of relations with the world and each other, we will be drawn into closed-circuit loops – leaving us as effectively brain-dead components of the machine. As market-inspired neoliberal management practices take over our cultural institutions – most disastrously, the university – the ideologies they enshrine are being algorithmically codified in machine-friendly check-the-box control mechanisms. We’re threatened with a Taylorism of the mind – the digital revolution counterpart of the industrial revolution’s assembly line in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

 

TANKYour work seems to have presaged the present moment in many profound ways. How have you found the reception of your two shows in Paris this year?

VBThere is a short and a long answer. The short answer is that the reception of the parallel shows at the Jeu de Paume and the Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France has been overwhelmingly positive. A long answer would have to specify what we might inelegantly call “conditions of receivability” – which have changed greatly since I began exhibiting a half-century ago. Coffee table art histories periodise Modern Art in terms of avant-garde “movements” characterised as a succession of “styles”. What they leave out are the theoretical debates from which the works emerged. My works from the late 1960s and early 1970s would have been largely incomprehensible outside of a small circle of artists and critics. They made sense only within a framework of historical, aesthetic and political criteria assumed in that milieu. References to works of the distant and immediate past, and historical and philosophical commentaries on them, provided the lingua franca through which artists of my generation exchanged. The exchanges could be acrimonious, but the conflicts were fought on common ground. This changed radically in the mid-1980s when the deregulation of the financial markets by Reagan and Thatcher converted the space of art into a parking lot and playground for the surplus wealth of the hyper-rich. I described this process as it was taking place in the title essay in my 1986 collection The End of Art Theory. I remarked there that the space of art theory and criticism was being occupied by what I characterised as a “vapid art speak” serving mainly to lubricate the flow of money in the art market. It became clear to me then that the Conceptual Art movement to which I’d contributed, a historical event as short-lived as Analytical Cubism, was the last avant-garde. Avant-gardist gestures continued to be made, but where there had been innovation – assessed, as it were, by “peer group review” – there was now novelty, often in the form of media-friendly stunts and kitsch, the cultural counterpart of an ascendant political populism. In a 2010 essay the literary theorist Philippe Forest remarked on the decline of the word “modern” and the rise of “contemporary” to mark synchrony with the present. Like the word “modern”, “contemporary” implies the new; unlike “modern” however, “contemporary” connotes, he writes, “a ‘new’ that implies no contestation of the world in which it arises, which satisfies the criteria of a society that manages, in its own best interests, the circulation of forms and the turnover and diffusion of works.” It was in response to such “contemporary” art that in The End of Art Theory I proposed a secession of art theory from the mainstream art world and its integration into the general field of theories of visual representations. Jean-Luc Godard said that cinema is made “to show, so one can talk after”. In addition to the published responses to the exhibitions, not least this present one, the most rewarding aspect of the reception of my shows was the day conference around my work at the Jeu de Paume, organised by Université Paris (Nanterre and Sorbonne Nouvelle), which brought together speakers from art history, film studies, sociology and philosophy. “Contemporary” art mortifies the art object in its immediacy and embalms it in investment and exchange. Artworks live only as discursive objects. To work with the image in Mondzain’s sense, with mediation in Kornbluh’s sense, is to open a dialogical space not only within the work but beyond it. ◉ 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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