Zeroed Review

Review and Discussion

Zeroed An exhibition of new artworks from Jamie Cooper, Andy Welsby, David Eaton and Ellis Luxemburg

By Neal X. March 2017

 

Ex Africa . . . as it happened

In the summer of 1980, when picture postcards were yet to be displaced by texts, Facebook images, Snapchats, and so on, I spent an adventurous holiday in Tanzania. It felt adventurous to me, though it was carefully planned and involved nothing new for the world at large; and it was definitely a holiday, with the main benefit to Tanzanians being the foreign currency paid by my companions and me.

Planning for the trip included a systematic trawl through my address book and diary, dutifully noting those who should receive a postcard from what, if you were British, was still an exotic location. Less than a year before departure I had met my future wife and parents-in-law; she, of course, was sent a number of postcards, but to their disappointment I overlooked sending them even one. Why? Because they were not yet in either of these aides memoire. Strictly speaking, they were systematically overlooked: ‘Job done’ I had thought, ‘No one left out, because I’ve checked the lists.’

This minor embarrassment brought into focus for me a key feature of human-devised systems: their liability, both despite and because of their intention to take into account all relevant data, to exclude some data unintentionally and unwittingly.

 

 

The exhibition

Zeroed is concerned profoundly with systems: existing systems that exploit, alternative systems that liberate, and what it takes to move from the former to the latter. The critical moment for all four exhibitors was the financial crash of 2008 which each see as “. . . the end of the social-democratic dream of the future; the end of the capitalist utopia.”

Absent-mindedly I started round the exhibition in reverse order (see exhibition layout diagram), from item 9 to item 2 (item 1 had only been present on the opening day). In retrospect, I’m not sure that this departure from the plan mattered, nor how far the order was intended to matter. But the effect was, that on entering the walk-in cupboard which housed Luxemburg’s Conventions, I was immediately pitched into a doubly claustrophobic environment: seated in a darkened cupboard, viewing a video on a computer screen of what appeared to be the hands of a female bomb-maker as she prepared a device on a bench in a darkened room. A sense of her anger and desperation permeated the presentation, anonymous but credibly characteristic of final resort opposition in so many locations.

 

Cooper’s Empire, item 8, could symbolise not only the pervasiveness of multinational enterprise, but its pursuit when necessary by covert, if not overt, armed force, two dimensions of the military-industrial complex. A sculpted eagle, poised above two ominous black travelling trunks (or were they ammunition boxes?), was seen on closer inspection to carry a tiny model machine gunner, nestled at the base of the bird’s neck. The eagle might be American, but one of the black boxes bore the faint stencilled word ‘RIO TINTO’, perhaps referring to the British-Australian metals and mining corporation. The overall feeling was Heart of Darkness, some thinly disguised ‘horror’ or threat thereof. One doesn’t have to look far from home to see the entanglement of economic interests and military/mercenary force: witness the disturbing story by Joshi Herrmann in The Guardian in 2015, focussing on the career of the then Secretary of State for Business (now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government), Sajid Javid.

 

Appropriately adjacent, item 7 was another piece by Luxemburg, titled Blackbird. Again a video piece, this showed a journey from within a plane at night over a city, with an autobiographical voice-over by a retired, and possibly terminally ill, security agency operative (Blackbird?). The monologue recounted his recruitment by the agency, his evolving feelings about the work, and his willingness now, in the light of his imminent demise, to speak publicly about it. Lack of specific detail about either the flight, the agency or the agent’s work served only to heighten the tension of the video, to reinforce the sense of an overseeing omnipresence, authorised by what, answerable to whom, and with what remit, we do not learn. Until the plane was finally seen to land, it wasn’t even clear if it was an airliner: might it not be a bomber, or a Cruise missile’s or drone’s-eye view of the vulnerable city below? That same claustrophobia and doom-laden anticipation created by Conventions was manifest here, but this time as part of the ‘Empire’s’ activity, rather than that of its opponents.

Cooper’s Zero Beacon and Static receiver unit, items 6 and 5 respectively, as well as Welsby’s Found Variable 2, (item 4), all appeared redolent of system collapse (or, more optimistically, emergence of a new system). But physical collapse, or the collapse of meaning, seemed more readily suggested. Static receiver unit was reminiscent of the crushing revelation towards the end of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic On the Beach (novel 1957, cinema film 1959): a U.S. submarine, cruising the Northern hemisphere looking for signs of life after an atomic war, discovers that (warning: spoiler coming) a curious Morse code radio signal was just “the result of a broken window sash swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a telegraph key” (2). As meaningless as static, as random as found variables.

 

But Welsby’s Untitled System Self-Assembly (item 3) is, for this reviewer, unequivocally optimistic. Not only does the title indicate creation and integration, as opposed to destruction and disintegration, the tone of the piece is entirely in contrast to items 4, 5 and 6. Rather than randomness, or dilapidated and haphazard structures, item 3 presents a stunning waterfall of precisely cut and inter-locked white triangles. This cascade of stars, like frog spawn spreading across the surface of a pond, urgent in its super-fecundity, bursts from the confines of a wall recess no longer able to contain their multiplication, an organic system with its own dynamic, imposing itself on the alien and disused former office space housing the exhibition.

So we arrive at Eaton’s Deformation - Grid (System Dislocation), item 2, the final piece in the exhibition as visited. In some respects the exhibition allows a tour of aesthetic theory: we see pieces which are representative, in either a directly imitative or symbolic way, pieces which express and stimulate emotion, and a piece such as item 3 with both salient form and a traditional aesthetic appeal, through the purity of its geometry. The exhibition space itself recalls the art-as-institution debate: ‘When is a room an art gallery? When it’s used as such!’ Meanwhile, critical theory and elements of postmodernism underlie the concerns of the exhibitors and are made explicit in Eaton’s piece, with its display literature, research tables and exemplars of forms emerging from the interstices of tabular rigidity. Conceptual, eh?

 

 

Ex nihilo?

As it happened . . . my progress round the exhibition followed an Aristotelian rather than a Platonic model of knowledge-development: specific experiences cumulated, allowing me to discern a common core of concern - with the collapse and/or transformation of value systems - immanent in each of the exhibits. In retrospect, this seems far more apposite to an art exhibition than the alternative, of being presented with some grand statement of intent, subsequently ‘illustrated’ with some ‘worked examples’. To do that would be to bring forward something akin to a Platonic, transcendent form, an ideal, something which really says it all to begin with, to which the illustrations would be but imprecise and perhaps superfluous afterthoughts.

 

That said, my appreciation of the works did not start from zero: naturally, I brought some preconceptions to the exhibition, these based partly on its title: Zeroed. While the exhibitors clearly hope for something positive to emerge from “the end of capitalism in 2008”, the word ‘zero’ has come to have some very grim associations over the last 50 to 60 years: ‘Year Zero’, in Cambodia, with its Khmer Rouge killing fields, echoing the scarcely less lethal attempts of Maoist China in its Cultural Revolution; then the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, leaving a site popularly referred to as ‘Ground Zero.’ Total subjection or annihilation of the external enemy, or of subversives within is, of course, nothing new: from ancient and medieval ‘putting to the sword’ of besieged cities’ inhabitants, to the total war, ‘final solution’ and first weapons of mass destruction of 1939-45, no shade of political system has a monopoly on wanting a ‘clean sheet’ to implement or continue to realise its interests and values. Even in peace time, and with multi-party systems, few if any parties will not relish achieving an absolute majority, though they might hesitate to publicly celebrate such dominance as dominance.

But what if you are not happy with any of the existing political parties likely to form a government? Then an attractive scenario might be the collapse of the economic system which underpins them all. This appears to be the premise of the Zeroed exhibitors:

“This unique show and Zine imagines that ZEROED is a return to naught: the end of the socio-democratic dream of the future; the end of the capitalist utopia. Inspired by what each of these artists claim was the end of capitalism in 2008, the artists have worked together using the concept of NOW as a ZERO time. Believing that the NOW is a moment of reset and crossroads for the future . . .”

 

Yet this premise is contradicted by the other key element which follows in their statement of intent:

“. . . the artists respond to contemporary debates centred on the denial of history and its insidious un-knowledge of the human beings [sic] failure to exist.” (my emphasis)

 

To believe a zero point or level has been reached, and that we can start anew with our political and economic forms, is not only to be wilfully oblivious of the forces that continue, patently, to shape our everyday lives, but makes a philosophical commitment, namely, to the view that something can come from nothing (ex nihilo). Unless the artists are willing to commit to some variant of this traditional theological opinion, regarding the creation of the World either out of or by God, and assume that, mutatis mutandis, the same can apply to the human world after some major historical discontinuity, their cause is better served by dropping the admittedly rhetorically impressive title ‘Zeroed’. In short, ‘the end of the capitalist utopia’ is likely as illusory as ‘the end of history’, at least at this point in history.

 

 

Creation processes

Then again, judged on the basis of the actual exhibits, their cumulative effect on this viewer as described above, and the individual artists’ statements, this criticism is unfair: the works are more tentative and subtle than the ‘Zeroed’ slogan suggests.

 

And what’s more, if theological argument is unappealing or unpersuasive, science has to step up to mark to provide, at least theoretically, answers to questions of ultimate origins. So what answers can science offer in this area of enquiry?

In the physical or fundamental sciences, there appears to be broad agreement on the origins of the Earth and other planets in our solar system, of the Sun and other stars, and of the galaxies. The notion of a Big Bang, as opposed to Steady State theory, attracts virtual unanimity as an account of the beginning of the Universe, with the hypothesis of its accelerating expansion confirmed by observational methods (see The mystery of dark energy in the BBC’s ‘Horizon’ series, 30.3.2016).

Yet cosmology is effectively mute in response to the question: ‘Yes, but what happened before the Big Bang?’ We are left to choose between, on the one hand, speculation on a perhaps endless cycle of expansion and collapse as characterising the Universe (no more or less persuasive than similar accounts from the Hinduism of more than 1,000 years BCE), and on the other hand a ‘closed book’, ‘no answer possible’ outlook, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s dictum that to ask about ‘events’ (of their nature, time-based phenomena) prior to Creation is meaningless, as God (the Creator) is not ‘in time’.

 

However, perhaps ex nihilo creation gains credibility from quantum mechanics, where “things pop in and out of existence”, a theory of what happens to really small things (such as atoms, electrons and protons) and which is probabilistic, involving intrinsic uncertainty in the nature of such things ( The mystery of dark energy, above). But this still leaves unanswered the question of how the whole kit and caboodle came into being: ‘popping in and out of existence’ lacks cogency as an account, if not complete credibility, when it comes to the big stuff.

 

In the biological sciences, discussion of ultimate origins has moved on from Darwin’s hesitant and vague reference to the spontaneous generation of life in “some warm little pond” in a letter of 1871, to more specific accounts of how, say, ‘proton gradients’ generate self-sustaining processes (the bases of life forms). Here, in under-sea hydrothermal vents, a battery-like process utilising imbalances between alkalis and acids to channel energy, along with certain gases and minerals, is theorised to have initiated primitive organic molecule formation in tiny chambers in the rock of the vents (Cox).

 

 

Emergence and reduction

Societies, economies and political systems are, clearly, complex phenomena; recognising them as such can, I think, shed light on the scope for changing them. My digression into the sciences is to highlight a key concept in relation to the formation - and reformation or evolution - of complex phenomena, namely, emergence, and its sometimes antagonistic or antithetical concept, reduction.

 

In an article published by The Guardian at the start of 2006, the question was posed to a number of commentators: ‘Which ideas will shape the coming year?’ One contributor, Tom Bentley, director of Demos, looked forward to the publication of Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny by Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning Indian economist. Bentley described the book as “an attempt to show that . . . intercommunal violence is not necessary or inevitable”. He then commented as follows:

“I hope the book will make use of a genuinely big idea that is slowly gaining ground: emergence. Popularised by Steven Johnson in 2002’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, it holds that connected systems with millions of elements can become more than the sum of their parts by displaying qualities that unfold or “emerge”, over time. We do not know how this can work for more diverse societies connected by globalisation; hopefully Sen’s book will help us find out.”

 

The sub-title of Johnson’s work indicates the potential breadth of application of the emergence concept, though the topics it mentions are all biological, social or technical; in fact, the concept’s application is far wider still. A commonly used example is from chemistry: in its non-scientific use, sugar is almost synonymous with sweetness, yet none of the individual elements of this particular compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen is experienced as sweet. So the question arises: how does something develop with qualities distinct from those of its component parts?

 

Chemistry abounds with examples of compounds that have characteristics distinct from those of their component elements. Some of these compounds’ characteristics are predictable, some are not; some are entirely objective in character, some are more dependent on the experience of individual human subjects.

 

The emergence thesis (emergentism) has its opponents: in whatever area of debate, there are those who contend that compound phenomena - ‘systems’ as we should call them - be they chemicals, brains, organisms, cities or whole societies – are nothing but the sum of their components. This view, usually described as reductionism (humans as nothing but sophisticated animals, animals as merely collections of cells, and cells as just chemicals), has some benefits. It shares an enthusiasm with the 14th. Century William of Ockham; his famous ‘razor’, or principle of parsimony, was intended to cut away unnecessary entities or concepts when we attempt to explain aspects of the world, ultimately to avoid confusing ourselves.

 

On the other hand, reductionism can be seen as laying the ground for an unwarranted and dangerous objectivity on the part of science, and of business or politics which makes use of it: if animals are just bundles of cells, why worry about vivisection?; if the purpose of business is to make profits efficiently, why worry about worker stress?; if the purpose of weaponry is to disable your enemy, why be concerned about any other effects of cluster bombs? (And let us not forget Thatcher’s “. . . there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”.) Clearly, these questions (and that infamous statement) are facile, but it is the underlying attitude, seeing events outwith their system-context, divorced from their wider effects, which is the insidious effect of reductionism.

 

 

The nature of systems

For our purposes, two issues stem from the preceding discussion:

How do systems arise?

How far are accounts of physical and biological systems applicable to social systems? (the question pondered by Bentley)

By far the most coherent answer to the first question (at least for this layperson) is provided by Fritjof Capra in The web of life (1996). Side-stepping the detail of his account, suffice to say that he sees physical and biological systems being much more than just quantitative accumulations of basic ‘stuff’. What marks them out as systems is their involvement of complex ‘non-linear dynamic’ feedback effects, self-organisation and, in the case of living systems, self-reproduction and self-making (or ‘autopoesis’).

 

When it comes to social systems, he pursues this second question, the question of more concern to us, in a later work, The hidden connections: a science for sustainable living (2003). Acknowledging a difference between functional, and human-purposive systems, he comments:

“We sometimes speak of the structural ‘design’ of a blade of grass or an insect’s wing, but in doing so we use metaphorical language. These structures were not designed; rather they were formed during the evolution of life and survive through natural selection. They are emergent structures. Design requires the ability to form mental images, and since this ability, as far as know, is limited to humans and the other great apes, there is no design in nature at large . . . In non-human nature, there is no purpose or intention.” (p.105)

 

A key feature of emergence, regardless of context, is that it “takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops” (p.102). In a political context, an example might be the dissatisfaction with corruption, injustice and inequality which led to the growth of protests in Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring (2011-2012) - a point of instability - facilitated in part by the availability of social media - a feedback loop amplifying protest.

 

In a different context, that of business organisations, Capra observes:

“Emergent structures . . . provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. [ ] The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. In every human organization there is a tension between its designed structures, which embody relationships of power, and its emergent structures, which represent the organization’s aliveness and creativity.” (p.106)

 

This would seem an observation critical to and critical of the concept of Zeroed: not only has the erasure of existing political and economic forms proved very difficult to achieve (Egypt, Syria, Yemen and so on) it has also proved very costly in terms of lives. Where the erasure has been achieved, e.g. France in the 18th Century, Russia, Germany and China in the 20th Century, it has likewise proved hideously costly, not only at the time of change but in maintaining the new status quo, with the reincarnation in other forms of the pre-existing oppression, irrationality and elitism. Thus not only does ‘zero-ing’ appear an improbable goal in many cases and respects, it may also be highly undesirable.

 

So is this criticism a recipe for political quietism, a complacent agenda deriving from a comfortable armchair analysis?

 

 

What is to be done?

One of the myths surrounding capitalism and profit-making organisations is that they are both hard-nosed (unlikely to be deflected from the target of making profit) and therefore, of necessity, protean – willing to change their core business and modus operandi as the business environment changes. These characteristics are true in many cases. For example, Penguin Books in the late 1960s and early 1970s were happy to publish counter-cultural works and books on industrial relations sympathetic to trade unions; but come the 1980s such works diminished on their list, to be replaced by an emphasis on management techniques and business biographies. Any port in a commercial storm . . .

 

But importantly, at present, some of the biggest companies in the world, the energy giants, are still clinging on to the fossil fuel base for their enterprises, flying in the face of the Paris Climate Agreement and the scientific consensus regarding global warming. While they have involvement in alternative energy generation initiatives, the scramble for new oil and gas fields and the push to develop new pipelines, wherever needed and regardless of the environmental consequences, continues. This is not hard-nosed, and this is the opposite of protean: it is an ossifying technology, being pursued in wilful disregard of both environmental necessity and commercial trends, like an ageing patriarch ignoring the legitimate claims of feminism.

 

Rupert Jones reported that, “As of May 2016 the global campaign had resulted in more than $3tn (£2.25tn) having been divested from the fossil fuel industry by hundreds of institutions around the world.” “And it’s not just the likes of universities, pension funds and charitable foundations – many individuals have followed suit or are considering doing so.” (Guardian 16 July 2016). In their Global Energy Report, industry analysts Euler Hermes recorded an energy sector value of 7,100bn USD [7.1tn USD] and commented, “Low fossil fuel prices barely provide financial breathing room.”

 

We should not be surprised to find one D. Trump, self-styled businessman extraordinaire, leading this charge of the dinosaurs. But 365 of the world’s business leaders have “just signed a letter asking Trump to keep America engaged in the Paris process to provide “long-term direction”. These are not people who have spent their lives in rightwing thinktanks. They run stuff – like DuPont, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Hilton, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, Nike and Unilever. And it’s hard to run stuff if the rules keep changing.” (Bill McKibben, founder of the climate campaign 350.org, November 2016)

 

What emerges from these reflections as important then, whether in business and politics, or in societal development, is the capacity for fluidity rather than fixity, and for an ecologically informed humanism to allow us to distinguish when to move and when to stick. Individual initiative must be allowed to thrive and not be stifled by monolithic bureaucracies, whether of corporation or state, but not at any cost. The wellbeing of the community of whatever scale, local, regional, national and international, operating through democratic oversight and consent, must be paramount.

 

Sidelining current capitalist practices by, say, reinvestment initiatives as described, relocating political decision-making to the most feasible local level, interrogating attempts to maintain oppressive social norms; these seem to be what must be done and seem more likely to succeed than annihilation of cultural and institutional capital. Sounds a bit Green to me . . .

 

 

So what about the exhibition?

Creating any system requires criteria – parameters and definitions – all of which delimit the phenomena to be considered by that system. Systems which are not open to change or review will eventually falter and stymie their own aims, whether that’s a business organisation, a form of government, or just one’s own attempt to keep track of social contacts and send them postcards.

 

As much as any human activity, art thrives on innovation, on letting the individual imagination re-present aspects of personal or communal experience, express emotion, experiment with forms for doing those things, and speculate on alternative realities. In her book Artful, Ali Smith quotes the poet David Constantine on what he said, in his work in progress, on why the arts matter:

“no society that I know of has done without poetry, which must mean it can’t be done away with (some have tried) or done without.”

 

One might say the same of storytelling, visual art and music: their histories all commence near enough simultaneously with the history of modern humans

.

In his landmark but now rather unfashionable work, The great tradition (1948), the literary critic F.R. Leavis described what he thought distinguished the central works of the writers he considered canonical in English fiction:

“. . . a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.” (my emphasis)

The exhibition gives no suggestion of any over-aestheticised, indulgent jouissance. Rather its conception and realisation suggests a marked moral intensity: this stuff matters! In their ability to put forward distinctive individual versions, of an underlying, group perception of socio-economic tendencies, the Zeroed artists give us refreshing insight into both the abyss of contemporary realities at this point of instability, and the potential for renewal in emerging, if necessarily not predictable, social formations.

 

 

 

References

 

Augustine of Hippo, Saint. [c.400] (1992) Confessions Bk. XI.xii(14)-xiii(16) Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press ‘World’s Classics’.

Bentley, Tom (2 January 2006) In: Ideas 2006. The Guardian. p.20

Berzins, Otto (1966) Nuclear weapons London: Pan. p.55, footnote

Capra, Fritjof (1997) The web of life London: Flamingo

Capra, Fritjof (2003) The hidden connections: a science for sustainable living London: Flamingo

Chomsky, Noam (2014) Excerpts from ‘Understanding power’ [2002]. In: On anarchism London: Penguin. pp.42-43

Cox, Brian (2013) Wonders of life BBC

www.eulerhermes.com Global energy report accessed 15 February 2017

Herrmann, Joshi (16 July 2015) [‘Sajid Javid’] The Guardian. pp.7-9

Leavis, F.R. (1972) The great tradition Harmondsworth: Pelican. p.18

Lenin, V.I. [1902] What is to be done? www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd accessed 18 February 2017

Morell, Virginia (2013) Animal wise: the thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures Brecon: Old Street

The mystery of dark energy (30 March 2016) BBC ‘Horizon’

Smith, Ali (2013) Artful London: Penguin. p.187

Tallis, Raymond (2012) Aping mankind: neuromania, Darwinitis and the misrepresentation of humanity Durham: Acumen

Wade, David (2007) Li: dynamic form in nature Glastonbury: Wooden Books