The Unending Etcetera

  • The Unending Etcetera
    Boris Groys , 2004

    Peter Kogler’s art can be interpreted as answering the question of how to represent infinity in a finite art space. The question is certainly a traditional one that, inevitably, each generation asks and attempts to answer. At the same time, our understanding of infinity, and of the nature of the spaces available to artists, is undergoing in a process of historical change, so that the strategies behind the artistic representation of infinity are also in a corresponding state of flux.
    In the past, artists used in their pictures particular symbols that were intended to suggest infinity, and these were taken from religion, philosophy, and science, or invented by the artists. Thus, in the art of the Middle Ages, infinity was symbolized by the figure of Christ. In more recent painting, representations of nature served the purpose of referring to the infinite. Avant-garde artists used geometric shapes portrayed as floating freely in endless nothingness, as did Malevich, in his paradigmatic manner. Nowadays we associate infinity less with nature than with a computer-controlled machine. The endlessly self-repetitive computer program embodies for us that “eternal return of the same” that Nietzsche, in his time, elevated to a genuinely modern definition of infinity, thereby radically democratizing infinity, or eternity. Since Nietzsche’s day there has been no notion of specific, metaphysical striving towards infinity; instead, every wish can be understood as striving toward eternity—toward the eternal repetition of itself. Accordingly, there can be no particular symbol for infinity, since every wish can serve as such a symbol.
    Nietzsche’s insights could be reformulated in more contemporary language: every program and every process that develops through time becomes infinite if set up as a loop. Infinity, as we understand it today, is the unending recursiveness of a loop, the programmed repetition of a program that is always the same—no matter what program it may be. On the other hand, it can admittedly be maintained that the item-by-item repetition of something that is always the same is not in fact infinite, because the concept of infinity includes difference. However, if a random number generator produces not only an item-by-item repetition, but also repetition of the difference, then the programming of infinity is perfect. The machine thereby becomes definitively infinite, because every phase of the actions it carries out merely provides an example of how this machine functions for ever, eternally. In that case, we are dealing with the infinite nature of reproduction (which is superior to production, in that production is always finite because it stops with the product itself—and that is the end of it). Humans, as productive beings, are also finite. Only when humans become reproductive, machine-like, do they have a chance of achieving infinity. Here we are dealing with a definition of infinity, or eternity, that characterizes the historical period we are living in—and the image of infinity that Kogler creates in his work corresponds closely to this.
    All Kogler’s works present themselves as fragments of virtual, endless rows, whose beginning and end remain hidden from the observer. When contemplating these works the observer feels as if he or she has not missed anything, despite having only seen the mere fragment of endlessness that Kogler shows him—because it is obvious that everything will be continue in the same way. Kogler’s works suggest an unending etcetera—the eternal continuation of something that always remains the same. In this respect, Kogler’s works stand in succession to those of the Minimalist artists of the sixties and seventies, such as Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd. At that time, Minimalism had already discovered repetition as a program that generates eternity—and, seen thus, Minimalism was at the same time a thoroughgoing, megalomaniac maximalism that wanted to blow apart all the limits of the finite. Yet Kogler belongs to a later generation of artists who work with repetition. This difference in the generations is immediately visible if one compares his work to that of the Minimalists. The geometric shapes of Minimalism clearly show the distance separating Minimalist artistic production from the living, mortal, finite organisms of this world. The potentially infinite nature of minimalist programs is further emphasized and illustrated by their application to eternal geometric shapes, which explicitly highlights their break with everything that is perishable, of this world, imperfect. Kogler, on the other hand, works in our day and age, in which infinity is above all associated with the omnipresent and yet invisible interlinking of all computers via the Internet—a networking that at the same time encourages an analogy with the universal metabolism in which all living organisms are caught up.
    It is no coincidence that the thoroughly organistic term “rhizome”, which Gilles Deleuze introduced in the eighties, has since become the most popular metaphor for the World Wide Web. This drawing of parallels between computerized and programmable networks, on the one hand, and organistic, rhizomatic networks, on the other, has played a considerable role in making networking a positive concept, even a locus of utopia. Via a total network the organic, mortal, human body appears to gain access to infinity—to an infinite “body without organs”. In recent decades, the utopia of the total network has become dominant worldwide—even though its main proponents are extremely willful, idiosyncratic spirits, who could in no way be seen as representing one particular doctrine. We enthuse about how the subject loses itself in the potentially endless medial play of symbols created by the total network, and about constant, endless flowing of the symbols, and the fact that this flow of symbols can be neither overseen nor controlled. And therein lies the happy, revolutionary, optimistic message behind the philosophy of networking: The symbols defy any deliberate control by the powers that be, because they are constantly moving and shifting their meaning. Those who continually flow with the symbols are free—they escape every possible form of control, surveillance and disciplinary action.

    The feeling of circulating in an infinite web that cannot be overseen is perceived as an ecstatic, exalted feeling. Yet there is a growing skepticism about this ecstatic losing of oneself in the web. Web ecstasy has all too many similarities with the ecstasy of the market, which appears here to be heralding the forbidden name of the networked whole. What was intended to be an anti-authoritarian discourse that would free the flow of speech from surveillance, control by authority, and censorship has subsequently revealed itself as a contemporary market and management strategy. The oceanic feeling of swimming in a subject-free, endless, complex web is nowadays part of normal market behavior—a behavior extremely familiar to every shareholder.

    In general, Kogler’s works can be perceived as a metaphor for a total network—a network that potentially can repeat its own structure endlessly. However, at the same time as the artist’s enthusiasm for this network and its never-ending continuation is manifested, so too is a certain irony and alienation with regard to this enthusiasm. The metaphors that Kogler uses for this networking are ambivalent. Now it is the continuous, well-organized movement of ants, now a never-ending digestive system, and at other times it is ornaments in which one repeatedly thinks one sees a swastika, ever and again. And then again, the eye is continually met by dead ends that halt the forward movement and force one to turn back. The comparison between a technically perfectly organized human society and the way of life of ants is widespread, particularly in the anti-utopian current of literature—and all other metaphors that the artist uses for networking in general are equally unflattering. The spaces that Kogler creates are optically fascinating, and in the best sense theatrical. They trigger a feeling of optimistic enthusiasm in their audience through the strong immediacy of their visual effect, and this means that an unobservant person can easily fail to notice the ironic, critical, skeptical side of Kogler’s work. Yet even such a person can sense the atmosphere of uncanniness that accompanies the optical opulence and fascination of Kogler’s spaces. The endless etcetera that these spaces conjure up inevitably sharpens the observer’s awareness of his or her own finite nature.

    For all the decorative, attractive nature of Kogler's spaces, they convey an unsettling feeling of having come into contact with an artistic process that systematically disregards the limits of human existence. The spaces Kogler creates conjure up the idea of God as a machine, albeit in a mildly ironic way. And we all know that the God-machine was worshipped time and again by the twentieth-century avant-garde. The machine really does seem to be the last place for the divine, for the sublime in the midst of a secularized Moderne style, because the working of a machine transcends human existence. Interestingly, this view serves to revise the well-known theory of sublimity that Jean-François Lyotard formulated in his famous 1984 essay “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”. Lyotard begins his interpretation of the art of the avant-garde with the assertion that art—just like every other social institution—assumes a certain duration for its existence and a particular temporal perspective, which allow this institution to plan, calculate and create its future—one that extends far beyond the horizon of an individual life. Schools, programs, projects and styles back this up by specifying the course of the institution Art and the aspect of Art's endless etcetera. If one follows these rules, one knows exactly what the next step should be, what the next art product should look like. And because of this regulated and predictable production, the Institution Art continues to reproduce itself into the future. According to this, every kind of art has something mechanical, automatic, about it—it continues ever onwards, on the premise that it can maintain its course for as long as nothing notable happens that could disrupt it. But Lyotard sees the sublime nature of the artistic avant-garde precisely as a sign of refusal to let things go on as they always have done, with the production of new works of art based on old patterns, and the continuation of old projects, schools, trends and programs on into the future.
    Lyotard maintains above all that the avant-garde itself has no poetic: i.e., it has no system of rules governing the production of art. Instead, it sets out to make a direct impression on the audience—and this impression should be a shock. The avant-garde shocks people, unsettles them, ruffles their feathers. And this intention really does seem to correspond to the classical, Kantian definition of sublimity; true, the audience’s life is not directly threatened in this process—but their cultural expectations are scandalously betrayed. Thus, it is believed, for sensitive souls at least, such an aesthetic shock could be strong enough to really rattle them. According to Lyotard, the avant-garde does not follow a plan or a program but simply demonstrates that “stuff happens”—though this “stuff happens” is understood to mean an interruption, a disruption of the program.
    The reality of avant-garde artistic practice is completely different, though. Time and again, the avant-garde in particular has formulated quasi-mechanical programs for art production in order to disconnect itself from the insecurities of human existence. It reacts to the well-known transience of all historic art trends and styles by trying to drop out of the historical, “all-too-human” concept of time and to open up for art an infinitely virtual, mechanical perspective of time—the future as a program, project, plan. It was the radical avant-garde, in particular, that formulated programs and projects aimed at a new, programmable future that, like technical programs, was subject to strict rules,. These programs and projects were mostly extremely reductionist; but in order to be able to formulate a clear and achievable program, a great deal of historical ballast needs to be discarded—everything coincidental, specific to time and place—in order to be able to concentrate solely on what is essential and universal. With such clearly defined projects, the classical avant-garde marks the beginning of a reduction back to the essence: Cubism, Suprematism, De Stijl, and Bauhaus all devised such projects. And, likewise, it is precisely the artists and artistic movements that Lyotard mentions in his essay, among them Barnett Newman, Daniel Buren and the American Minimalists, who have developed clear, comprehensible programs in the classical avant-garde tradition. In this respect, one can speak of a fundamentalism of the future, which characterizes all avant-gardes—it should be noted, though, that what we are dealing with here is a fundamentalism of the future and not that belief in progress so often imputed to members of the avant-garde. For progress is precisely what the avant-garde did not believe in, because progress means historical change, variation, the alteration of styles and artistic practices over time. Instead, the avant-garde wanted to expose that unchanging irreducible which in any period marks art out as art. But it was to this minimum that art should then cling unconditionally for ever and a day: the avant-garde agenda consists in attempting to brake art's rate of progress down to nothing by reducing its variable, historical features. It has sought to reach level zero in art, in order to withdraw art as an institution from the historical process of change, and thus to make it future-proof.

    The avant-garde is not reductionist because it wants to end the tradition of art as a kind of shock treatment, in order to evoke a feeling of sublimity in the soul of the observer, but because avant-garde artists assume that all regional and temporal art traditions are in any event destined to future extinction. In actual fact, the avant-garde wants to save the little that there still is to save; it seeks not the demise of tradition, but rather to save it from this unavoidable fate—albeit with less impedimenta. Only those who have not noticed that their historical house is ablaze can mistake the rescuer, who is trying to save what little is to be saved, for the arsonist. It is this very confusion that underpins Lyotard’s theory of the avant-garde. And that is why Leotard is not interested in concrete programs of the avant-garde, nor in the promise of the future that avant-garde works contain. He is interested only in the ballast that the avant-garde has left behind—what was burned, not what has been saved. Hence he also does not realize that the past can only be understood when seen in the light of the avant-garde, and can itself be perceived as a program and a project only against a background of avant-garde programmatics. Only after the emergence of the avant-garde can the past be perceived as a future project—by means of an interpretation, which treats the artistic styles of the past as, in their own way, avant-garde programs and projects.
    Thus, one can, if one wishes, perceive Kogler’s art as a radical, genuinely avant-garde program, which allows him to continue the Austrian tradition of palace art in the future. Murals, in contrast to the easel-paintings, are created for palaces and not for museums, and everyone who has ever visited Vienna knows that it is the almost omnipresent murals that make the biggest impression. The explicit thematization of wall surfaces, such as Kogler undertakes in his work, in many ways calls to mind the thematization of the canvas surface that Jackson Pollock practiced in his painting and that Clement Greenberg reflected theoretically in his writings. While, due to a productive misunderstanding, Austrian actionism believed it was picking up on the gestural and actionist aspects of Pollock's work, Kogler develops Pollock's all-over principle and focus on the surface. However, continuing them through the medium of murals, rather than easel painting, gives him the chance to create spaces specific to their location—and he is thus able to use the Minimal Art and Concept Art techniques productively. However, this gives him above all the opportunity to continue practicing an unmistakable Austrian form of art, but one that has been radically freed from all local traditions and usages. By focusing on the theme of the wall as a surface, Kogler makes this wall potentially endless, and so creates the opportunity to carry forward palace-style mural tradition—in a thoroughly contemporary way. The avant-garde opens up a future for art by drawing attention to a medium that can carry art even further forward. This potential for an infinite overflow into future time creates hope and enthusiasm, yet also a feeling of being completely at the mercy of the mechanical monotony of the universe. It is the great merit of Kogler’s spaces that they can give this emotional ambivalence a visible manifestation that is at once convincing and attractive.