Day 3 /// RESPONDING TO JENNIFER ALLORA & GUILLERMO CALZADILLA - THE GREAT SILENCE, BY VICTORIA IVANOVA
Metaphor’s Isolation Affect
What’s in a metaphor? For artists Allora & Calzadilla, the power of a metaphor lies in its ability to destabilize the fixed and the prescriptive, to relativize objectivity, to reveal the repressed and the unexpected. In fact, metaphor occupies a central role in the logic of contemporary art: both at the level of the art objects’ claims to content and in the way that they are positioned vis-a-vis reality. On the one hand, reality is posed as a place where violent overdetermination of meaning takes place, on the other hand, reality can never be known for what it is. In contemporary art, the epistemological handicap is often presented as a strength that allows the affective qualities of that which escapes fixation to shine through; that perfectly still internal hurricane on a “disconcertingly quiet night” when we know that “the universe ought to be a cacophony of voices.”
While in contemporary art the objects’ discursive clouds reorganize reality’s semantic configurations left, right and center, the aesthetic experience is assumed to reach beyond its modernist connotations with the sublime, transforming the subject through its affective qualities. Yet, for something that prides itself in its incommensurability and exceptionality, isn’t transformation a tall order? …A stroll through the Giardini and the Arsenale – or through most contemporary art shows – and a casual perusing through the shows’ mediation materials would quickly reveal that contemporary art is transforming the world and constructing all of the world’s futures. That is, only metaphorically.
The ambiguation of that most fundamental verb “to be” by splitting the signifier from the signified is the standard post-structuralist operation and the basis for contemporary art’s modus operandi. It allows aesthetics to be conflated with politics, narrative with reality, and antagonism through discourse with transformation, while leaving reality’s infrastructures unchanged. Aesthetic reorganization of the sensible may feel liberating at the level of subjective experience while also satisfying the Rancièrians amongst us. However, without a reattachment to the signified, doesn’t free play end up only offering yet another embellished perpetuation of begrudged reality?
Returning to Allora & Calzadilla, part of the problem seems to lie in what they, as most contemporary art practitioners, see as a gap between what we, humans, postulate (in other words, our science) and the deeply “subjective” and locked-in realities of our objects of study:
A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.
For Allora & Calzadilla, the aggressive overreach of universalizing concepts denies Alex his subjective agency. The formulation is underwritten by Kantian understanding of noumena as the inaccessible reality of the phenomenal world. The position also resonates with the more recent attempts to curb the hubris of human-generated rational knowledge (as for example in the work of Graham Harman and Levi R. Bryant). Yet, as Peter Wolfendale points out in his critique of Harman’s position (and concisely elaborated upon by Ben Woodard), what this “democratic” stance ultimately leads to is an “ontological liberalism” that disempowers epistemology, inadvertently making affect-rich isolation qua difference our universe’s base condition.
While few would argue against difference, it seems that targeting universalism as the ultimate form of violence obfuscates the systemic conditions that structure the very avenues available for exercising differential agency. In fact, in the case of the African Grey Parrot, it is safe to assume that what has conditioned the species’ flirtation with near extinction in the most recent past are the terms of the liberal economic policy that former African colonies were subjected to after their independence. Lack of strong regulatory policy and a vibrant informal sector that provide opportunities for highly lucrative businesses for some and the sole means of survival for others are all about ambiguity and unfixity, yet they are still full of violence.
So, where do reality-based aesthetized metaphors sit in all of this? If the proliferation of narratives is the objective, the metaphoric condition proves to be productive. Yet, if there is indeed the desire for art to make the “excess” narratives bear upon the real in all of its violence, shouldn’t it be stepping outside of its safe metaphoric zone? Aren’t the indeterminacy of affect and a near religious obsession with difference holding art back from making real systemic transformations? And if systemic transformations are outside of art’s jurisdiction, shouldn’t contemporary art and its claims be recalibrated accordingly?