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Art and Other Hard Questions: Maria Lind interviews Metahaven

Interview
Acknowledged Dependency
Chaos Theory
Empathy
Fiction
Hard Questions
Hometown
Materialism
Nord Stream Studies
Ruptures
Technosignatures
Tolstoy
Worldmaking

The artist collective Metahaven was founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden in 2007 and is known for their interweaving of information technologies, geopolitics, and philosophy, as well as poetry, fiction, and storytelling. Their work, which spans filmmaking, textiles, design, and writing, has been exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, MoMA PS1, ICA London, Izolyatsia, Kyiv, and the Gwangju and Sharjah Biennales, among many other places. In one of their latest video works, “Chaos Theory” (2021), they dive into the notion of parenthood. Curator, critic, and educator Maria Lind has worked with Metahaven in various contexts since 2011. She talked with Kruk and van der Velden about their more recent work, discussed the “hard question of art,” how to escape the contemporary need of categorization, and how their film work “The Sprawl: Propaganda about Propaganda”(2015) could now be read as an omen for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war, and how continuing to offload the main conversation to information technologies, as it happened during the first months of the war, is missing the point of the current events and in a sense also missing the point about ‘art about current events.’

Interview Maria Lind
Images provided by Metahaven
Metahaven, “Chaos Theory,” 2021. Film still.

MARIA LIND: I take your recent film “Chaos Theory” to be a kind of love letter to your daughter, and in a wider sense to children at large, and perhaps even to those who maintain a certain naivety. People who give space to “the abyss,” to fantasy and “fiction zones.” Does that resonate with you? And if yes, how?

METAHAVEN: Very much so. It may not be obvious, but it is much more difficult to articulate something like a love letter to one’s child or to children—in a sense that it’s public and accessible to all—than it is to create implicitly or explicitly “geopolitical” or “technological” work, for example. “Chaos Theory” has organically emerged from the concerns of earlier films, like “Information Skies” and especially “Hometown.” And as you say, it is focused on fictionalization, fantasy, and daydreaming. We do not idealize children, but we are interested in the cognition and the recursivity of storytelling, in fictionalizing, world-building, and some kind of unstoppable desire to imagine.

Metahaven, “Hometown,” 2018. Two-channel film work. Installation view at Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg, 2020.

In the context of “Hometown,” we discussed the relationship between absurdism and lullabies with Ukrainian curator, author, and translator Lesia Prokopenko. She talked about these poetic and social forms as coping with “ideological languages.” While absurdism proposes poetic and humorous approaches to making propositions that are logically impossible, fiction is not simply something untrue; it is not juxtaposed to telling the truth or to making verifiable claims. It is a form of narration, of worldmaking, in its own right. In “Chaos Theory” we also visualize a parent who does not need to be a biological parent; the film does not go into biological essentialism but tries to cover the kinds of feelings that philosopher Cornel West has described as “acknowledged dependency.”

The impetus of “Chaos Theory” is the moment children are picked up from school and the gathering of parents all gazing at the school’s gate just before the children emerge, a moment when all these parents seem weirdly alike and identical in their focus on one thing only, like a single entity. This likeness dissolves once the gate opens and the reunion takes place.

We would like to mention that the two actors in the film, Georgina Dávid (playing Y/Z) and Valentina Di Mondo (playing X, the child), are both people we’ve worked with before. Georgina Dávid was both in “The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda)” and “Information Skies,”whilst we first worked with Valentina Di Mondo on “Elektra.”

ML: Your work defies any easy categorization although you mainly operate within the field of art. Your upcoming book, “The Hard Question of Art,” centers on art. What is the “hard question of art”?

All art is projecting itself toward some kind of spectator or receiver, some kind of “community of reception.”

MH: It’s the working title! Reminiscent of the “hard problem of consciousness” once posed by the cognitive philosopher David Chalmers, the “hard question of art” asks what’s irreducible about art vis-à-vis cognition, consciousness, and technologies that reconstitute language, music, or images as computational processes. All art is projecting itself toward some kind of spectator or receiver, some kind of “community of reception.” And in doing so, art is some kind of evidence of the modeling of other minds. For what it’s worth, the word “empathy,” for example, was first coined as a way to denote an observer’s connection to an art piece, well before it became established as a (neuro)psychological concept.

Also, art is an inferential object. It exists in some parts out there and in other parts in here. But then again, every object that we perceive is inferential because that’s the nature of perception. We’ve learned that in much of neuroscience, perception is considered a two-way street of outgoing “best guesses” by the brain and incoming information streams from the senses; it is neither purely what’s imagined, projected, or hallucinated, nor is it purely what exists out there. The neuroscientist Anil Seth talks about perception as a “controlled hallucination.” Art is, perhaps, inferential in a more structural way than everyday perception because essentially meaning itself is determined in the inferential space. The established term for this is the “beholder’s share”—the part of art experience that is (or was) considered “private.”

You may recall that in “The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda),” we included a lengthy citation from Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?. In this essay, or manifesto or diatribe, published in 1898, Tolstoy set out to argue what art was doing. In his view, art transmits what we today call “information” and what he called narrative, so that a narrator and listener join in the same feeling. Notwithstanding the problems with What is Art?, such as Tolstoy’s pastoral idealization of Russian peasants and his maddening obsession with Christianity, something about his base definition of art still holds. He is proposing this transfer-based model and that art can be about lots of different feelings exchanged between narrator and listener. Then he becomes picky about those feelings that he considers to be in need of transfer. And he begins to criticize works in which such feelings are faked or not even there—the vast majority of professionally made art in his view. He begins to criticize and dismiss many well-known artists including a whole bunch of French poets. What Is Art? asserts hat homemade dolls and drawings and other intimate everyday artifacts categorically constitute better works of art than this-or-that famous painting, poem, or opera. Tolstoy favors “an anonymous story about a chicken, the singing of the peasant women on his estate to the banging of scythes, the most sentimental of genre paintings, doorknobs, china dolls,” as translator Richard Pevear recalls, continuing that “there is deliberate provocation in all this, but there is also a sort of logical helplessness, as if [Tolstoy] were forced to go where his demons led him.”

[…] it seems to us that at some point or somewhere down the line, there might be some (forced) consideration for art to not be plugged into a metaverse.

It seems unlikely to us that art, in response to planetary crises and their abstract recursive cycles of causation continuing to wreak local havocs, will only continue to grow more complex. Rather, it seems to us that at some point or somewhere down the line, there might be some (forced) consideration for art to not be plugged into a metaverse. The kind of objects that Tolstoy wanted are, today, objects studied in cognitive science and artificial (synthetic) intelligence. Think about researcher Rébecca Kleinberger’s work around lullabies or computational cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum’s interest in what computational scientists have called the “naive utility calculus,” but which might harbor ethical paradigms.

Metahaven, “Arrows” (2020), “Blossoms” (2021), “Secrets” (2021). Jacquard weavings, embroideries on plastic bags and second-hand jackets. Installation view at “Passphrases,” State of Concept Athens, 2021.

There is also the work historian and anthropologist Claire Webb is developing around the concept of commensurability and “technosignatures” (the sign of technology of an extraterrestrial origin). Here is a citation from her 2020 dissertation:

“In that 2020 discussion at the Breakthrough lab, Croft considered interspecies communication through the idea of commensurability, looking to his husky Laika (apropos, named after the dog that orbited Earth in a Soviet space missions in the 1957) as a being with whom he might be able to communicate on some level, but his understanding of her—like hers of him—would be stymied. Through her, he posited an ontological chasm between humans and ET: an alien transmission, like a canine-human interaction, would be recognizable as communication, but its deeper meaning would be ungraspable. Croft’s lighthearted comment here points to a question that has dogged me throughout four years of participant observations with this science team: If Breakthrough received what the community calls a technosignature, would it even be necessary to know who—or what—was behind it?”

Metahaven, “Chaos Theory,” 2021. Film still.

So the book we’re working on is about art at a crossroad of cognitions. You recently wrote a powerful text on rewatching Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” in the context of Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine. You write that the film’s “collapse of distinctions,” its way of mixing childhood dreams and war memories, past, present, and future, “is the ability and privilege of art works.” And we agree, at least in the abstract. Yet your chilling conclusion tells us that the film’s protagonist, the young Ivan, grew up to become a far-right member of the State Duma. Today Tarkovsky’s antiwar child hero is an ultra-conservative politician, “first on a list of cultural figures endorsing the war in Ukraine.” It makes us wonder about the future of emotions, and if the Tarkovskyan emotion, with its stark, gendered archetypes, can yield anything new or whether it eventually just flips back to religion, pulling up the drawbridge to the fortress of great Russian culture. We know it’s not true: Tarkovsky died in Sweden, practically a Russian exile, having made “The Sacrifice”there and “Nostalghia” in Italy.

ML: There are many such urgent questions connected to Russian culture at the moment. Let’s return for a moment to your film “The Sprawl: Propaganda about Propaganda” from 2015, which takes the 2014 Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine as a starting point and discusses digital platforms as mighty weapons and the question of interpretation of information and disinformation. It is almost an omen, a dreamy documentary involving YouTube footage, talking heads (for example thinkers and writers Benjamin Bratton and Peter Pomerantsev), green screen settings and nocturnal images of a forest. And not to forget, an amazing atmospheric sound that envelops you as a viewer/listener. Five months ago Russia attacked Ukraine again, and a horrible expanded war is now a fact. Can you please talk about your film in this context?

MH: At the time, “The Sprawl” formulated something about the world that many people who first saw it appeared to experience as a form of surprise. Russia’s covert invasion of Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, and the surrounding online technological dispositions that tactically used the idea of “media freedom” to spin narratives and positions via state-owned TV, social media platforms, and other campaigns, distracted from the epistemology of the events on the ground. The cracks in these narratives further seemed to contribute to their realness (in all fakeness). All these things were not historically new to Russia (or the Soviet Union) or even to the West, but they were kind of new in combination with the usage of and dependence on Silicon Valley-owned platforms at the time.

[T]he 2022 Russian invasion […] is no longer a proxy war or a post-truth conflict—as the epistemic character of the events on the ground is clear from the start.

By comparison, these tactics are widely known today, and when it comes to the novelty of these technological offsprings of propaganda and disinformation, much less is new about “The Sprawl” in 2022. There is no joy in having produced an omen. The truly “new” thing about the 2022 Russian invasion is that it is no longer a proxy war or a post-truth conflict—as the epistemic character of the events on the ground is clear from the start. Both what is at stake and at risk—the continuous existence (and thriving) of a sovereign Ukraine within its original borders, and with that, European liberal democracy with all of its virtues and flaws—far exceeds the situation in 2014, and the disposition is also fundamentally altered by the role of climate change and energy. It is impossible to ignore the dialectical materialism of the war, with Russia owning and using its control over (mainly Germany’s) gas supply, and Europe—by buying Russian gas—effectively sponsoring a war it says it opposes.

Without wanting to cast judgment on this work, we feel that continuing to offload the main conversation to information technologies (of deception or control), as happened during the first months of the war, is missing the point of the current events and in a sense also missing the point about “art about current events.” We now have the media literacy that “The Sprawl” was about. Yet this is not the deeper issue at stake. In a way we require an almost communist literacy about materialism and resources. Such a literacy is provided by a work like “Nord Stream Studies” (2022) by filmmaker Oleksiy Radynski, commissioned by the 2022 Warsaw Biennale, which consists of almost invisibly edited but essentially untouched video materials downloaded from the Nord Stream pipeline project’s web site before it was taken offline.

ML: It seems to me that you have developed a practice which in several senses captures our time, the second and third decades of the new millennium. On the one hand it is a “look” intimately connected with the visual world of today, characterized by an overload of layered patterns, by abstraction and opacity, and reflections, often through chromatic effects. On the other hand it is an approach to art and art making which is at one and the same time research-based, pertaining to factual events with geopolitical implications, mystery, plenty of affect, and seductive beauty. How would you comment on that?

MH: All geopolitics, all planetary politics, all forms of “mind,” trickle down to intimacies, or as might have been more accurate in regard to our work made more than a decade ago: to vernacular. This is, for us, a more important starting point than work (or something) being geopolitical or seductive, which is merely a classification of content on the one hand and appearance on the other. Can we use this scalar idea of trickle-down causation? The “butterfly effect” of a butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane affects, categorically, all butterflies and all hurricanes?

ML: And yet the “what” as well as the “how” are essential both in the making of and the encounter with a work of art. What are the butterfly wings flapping that have marked your creative trajectory, that have made you choose particular visual language or subject matter? I am also interested in your take on “the vernacular” and how it pertains to what you are doing now.

Depending on the vantage point, any margin can be a center.

MH: The way we feel about a word like “seductive” would be similar to how we feel about a word like “ornament.” An ornament maker would not think of their work as ornamental. They would consider the ornament to be the central element. Depending on the vantage point, any margin can be a center. This is similar to the vernacular. The word vernacular is sometimes used to indicate a form of work produced by non-artists or non-designers, thus maintaining some kind of classical center-periphery classification. But objects created with no particular intent to belong to an official regimen of art or design have a way of testifying directly to the spirit of their times, of being a direct sponge of their environment or Umwelt, and in that sense they are the opposite of something like an iPhone.

We have always been interested in uncharted, undeclared, and unofficial regimes of visual culture, including the ragdolls and lullabies in What is Art?. Most recently, while editing our new film, “Capture,” we have been working with materials from the video archive of CERN, the European Organization for Particle Physics in Geneva. Starting from the post-war period in the 1950s into the 1990s, in this archive we see the self-narration of the laboratory change sharply, first with 16 mm near-feature films narrated by Jean Cocteau and then turning to stripey home videos with 1990s PC music. These films are self-narrations in the sense that they are uncharted; they are governed or guided by an official narrative, but they are absorbent, like sponges, of their environment and conditions of making.

Metahaven, “Mise-en-Anthroposcene,” 2019. Jacquard weaving.

ML: You often refer to poetry, to the work of, for example, Marina Tsvetayeva and Clarice Lispector. What does poetry do today, as opposed for example 20, 50 or even 100 years ago?

MH: Clarice Lispector was a Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist. We love many aspects of her work but primarily the way in which she, using narrative fiction, created rollercoaster-like reversals in the perceptual hierarchies of her lived experience, foregrounding a constant flux of psychological, cognitive, and ethical processing. In the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, description is overcome by an excess of affect, a kind of feeling-made-public that is conventionally suppressed when—in poetry or prose—reality needs to be presented in a more orderly way. In Tsvetaeva, affect “colors” the descriptive tools of the writer—the feeling affects the way in which the feeling is described.

What poetry “does” is not something we can say for sure. Poetry is a form of expression that has a very low bar of entry to practitioners. Think how young children create poetry by learning to speak. And in this sense poetry is kind of a model for how accessible art, in a larger sense, can be. Poetry can be said to constitute a dedicated form of speech, an articulation of publicness about speech (think of rap lyrics), and a form of speech contingent on its surrounding ideological languages. In addition, it is an invitation (to the listener or reader) to infer, by which it is—like in visual works of art—not fixed or set in stone what a poem ultimately “means.”

Our times want to constantly fix and categorize what things mean, looking in art for a certainty lost from life. Poetry frustrates this search for certainty in productive ways, yet at the same time offers readers, listeners, but also speakers something of a home or ground, in recognition of the imaginative and imaginary nature of that ground. And we cling to it; words have a substrate.

In the long poem “State of Siege,” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

To a reader: Do not trust the poem –

The daughter of absence

It is neither intuition nor is it

Thought

But rather, the sense of the abyss…

Poetry carries something of what philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin called “unfinalizability,” the idea that the multitude of expressions in a language and their social meanings can never be closed, and that they keep mattering.

ML: I like the term “mattering.” You once did a talk with two titles, “From Transparency to Fantasy” and “Aesthetics as Weapons,” and they seem to be still “mattering,” they sum up a number of things in the process you just mentioned. What keeps mattering for you in your work, right now?

MH: To us, these titles you mention do not sum up the whole process with regard to poetry or fiction as just described. Rather, they speak to a previous phase in our work, now about a decade ago, in which we were interested in the idea of the “weapons of the weak” coming out of a convergence of design and digital networks; the idea, now retired, that digital networks favor the voices of the oppressed. Here is why that idea of weapons is also dangerous: it is because no weapon can or will be used only for the outcomes considered beneficial. Even the very word “weapon” reinstates the violence against which it reacts. All this, however, does not undo the analysis that this talk presented. A cult of transparency and fact-verification comes with its opposite: scalable fantasies, the kind of online narratives discussed in “The Sprawl,” about which we can say that if this scalability of political fictions was ever technological per se, it no longer is. But that kind of fiction is still different from Clarice Lispector’s or Ocean Vuong’s or Daniil Kharms’ and their usage of the imagination; not all fiction boils down to geopolitics in the way that geopolitics or planetary politics or even the weather and the climate boil down to life circumstances. Fiction and dreams can be intimacies and they can be political—think about Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism in this regard, and the way in which this work recalls Rosa Luxemburg’s letter to Sophie Liebknecht in relation to incarceration.

The word “mattering,” then, is borrowed from the physicist and philosopher Karen Barad. In order to talk about this, let us go back to a story you’ve often told us about your great grandfather, who was a worker who became a journalist and an art collector. This story is about a beautiful idea of what a person can be in the multiple, and how intersections and new possibilities form in our lives. How did this transform art for you? Somehow this story to us represents art at its maximum potential for change. This potential is not associated with false narratives, or with aesthetics as weapons, but with the small (or big) changes that art can make in the way the world is to a person and who a person can be in the world. Your work as a director at Tensta konsthall, during which we began to collaborate extensively, also testifies to this potential of art and the everyday. It seems we need to move towards an art that takes this kind of intimacy, again, pretty seriously.

Metahaven, book designs for “Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden,” edited by Maria Lind, 2021, and “The New Model: An Inquiry,” edited by Maria Lind and Lars Bang Larsen, 2020. Sternberg Press.

ML: My encounter with art through my family was a sort of silent presence, gently interpellating me from the walls. The experience of directing Tensta konsthall in a Stockholm suburb brought the notion of “the proximity principle,” of art being in close proximity with other activities like neighborhood gatherings, activist meetings, language schools, and craft classes. It is different from “art in public spaces,” whether indoors or outdoors, because at the konsthall art is the host, with various pursuits happening next to it. Art being on its home turf co-existing intimately with non-art activities, without forced mediation. Your visual communication work during the eight years I was there offered handouts, posters, “flags” or banners, “marks,” signage, several publications, a tote bag etc. which brilliantly manifested both the complexity and the simplicity in trying to be “the generous edge” of contemporary art.

MH: Thank you.

Interview Maria Lind
Images provided by Metahaven
Interview
Acknowledged Dependency
Chaos Theory
Empathy
Fiction
Hard Questions
Hometown
Materialism
Nord Stream Studies
Ruptures
Technosignatures
Tolstoy
Worldmaking
Close