SYNCHRONIZING WITH THE OTHER:
ALICIA BARNEY CALDAS’ POIETICS

Lars Bang Larsen

 

I have an early memory—four, five years old—of me sitting on a mound while my parents dealt with a broken jeep, and while looking at the sunset slowly everything became the sun, and then this sun-everything dissolved into nothing, including me. It wasn't scary at all, but it was confusing because I was nothing, yet I could be aware of a feeling of tranquility and plenty. A child's experience, not verbal and not rational, was it real?

Alicia Barney Caldas

 

In the glowing sunset the landscape and its destruction, the machine that has broken down, the child and her profound ecstasy. Like Alicia’s namesake in Lewis Carroll's fantastic story, she is animated, carried away, and transformed. Channeling, whether it is of ghosts or childhood memories, always was a liminal practice that conjoins worlds and uneven temporalities, and here the voice of the adult artist conjures the child as the not- yet-subject who has passed on. What is remembered is a transaction of sorts that took place between the child and the sun: By being consumed and disappearing, she gets the power to question reality. Out of this multiple estrangement—her former self experience of nothingness in a dissolved landscape—comes Alicia Barney's art.

The experience, sure. But who, or what, has it in a damaged world? How can we conceive of it when it isn't ours to possess?

 

1.

We can speculate that the Western mind is under the Sway of notions such as autonomy, progress, linearity, and monoculturalism, because the exterior of the European cranium seems to encourage such constructs. In a landscape that for centuries has been mastered by man (in the fully gendered sense of the term), the seasons follow their distinct rhythm, all four of them, one after the other. A tree in this setting carries itself like a sovereign, the forest’s density seemingly consisting of so many individuals, rising above the entanglements of roots and mycelium below. In the temperate climates of England, France or Germany, heat is not a substance; the air is absence around positive forms, pure negative breathable nullius. But "heat is a force", Michael Taussig reminds us, "that sets aside understanding in place of something less conscious and more over flowing, radiance instead of line, immanence instead of that famous bird's eye-view" (Taussig 2004). In the tropics, then, symbiosis is in evidence.

Here time doesn't pass but ferments, moving inconclusively without distance and separation, not just because of the climatic ambience but because it is plain to see how one life form doesn't exist without another. A tree is a microcosm of lichen, ivy, flowers, and all sorts of confederacies and parasitical growths with a range of simultaneous and recombinant expressions.

Such mutual poietic involvement frequently appears as a thematic interest in systems—ecological, institutional, temporal, etc.—as well as, of course, aesthetic systems. Viviendas l (Dwellings l), (1975) and Nueva sensibilidad, Antigua Presencia (New sensibility, Ancient Presence) (2016) New Sensibility, Ancient Presence) (2016) make the point with simple acts. The trees are flipped from obvious (given, mute) to miraculous, because the miraculous is that which defies nature. Barney's interventions deliver them from the passivity that humans project upon nature by making the active, systemic intelligence of trees manifest. Painted with rudimentary shapes of doors and windows, or wrapped with blankets, the trees say, "We are someone else than you thought we were," which already is quite a statement for trees. The cloths and geometries derived from human domesticity make the trunks look quite otherworldly, calling to mind ritual body paints with which people of the indigenous cultures of the Tierra del Fuego would pay ceremonial respect to their lineage, or incarnate more-than-human beings in the infra-world: ogresses and spirits. Even as the cultures of the Selk'nam, Kawésqar, and Yagán are now extinct, I would guess that Barney wants to show us that it isn't them, but us, who are out of time. If she likes to liken herself to an artist-shaman, her attitudes are so much more imperceptible-transient, multiple-than artist-shamans of the Beuysian variety.

Such works are bio-semiotic gestures, instances of communication with another life form or life system. Yet their materiality is indeterminate, impregnated by the virtual: Do the paints and the blankets signal a before or an after? Are they homage, reparation, warning signs? What is it we cannot see or understand? Have we forgotten something? Henri Bergson’s conception of the image as an energetic phenomenon—a life form in itself—goes some way to comprehending these works: An image “is almost matter in that it still allows itself to be seen, and at most mind in that it no longer allows itself to be touched” (Bergs on 1934). Vibrations, waves, a limit of almost... the image as the virtuality of a tremble.

 

2.

Let us go back a little in the history of contemporary art.  In his early installations, Hans Haacke worked with environmental feedback, understood in terms of “agency conferred on your every action” (Haacke 1968). In his 1968 Photo-Electric Viewer-Controlled Coordinate System, the audience's movements would turn light bulbs on and off by interacting with a grid of infra-red beams, and in Chickens Hatching (1969), fertilized chicken eggs in incubators were hatched with a feed- back system of lamps and thermostats. Later, for the work Norbert. All System Go, (1971), Haacke famously attempted to teach the Myna h bird Norbert—so named after the preeminent cyberneticist Norbert Wiener—to parrot the phrase “All systems go,” in what appears to be a parody of Wiener's own optimistic vision of a feedback-steered path of progress that had earlier fascinated him. In an unintended twist, Norbert the bird refused to comply with his instructions and  adapt to his new status as living sculpture, thus collapsing any of Haacke's claims to “art in real time.”

Systems theory remained operational for Haacke, when he later took it in the direction of the critical analysis of art as institution and socio-cultural system. However the specific work of his that is of special interest to us is Condensation Cube (1963-65), a sealed clear Plexiglas box that holds about a centimeter of water. A closed physical system, it is affected from the outside only by light and by the difference in temperature that makes water in different degrees of condensation circulate randomly inside the cube. According to Haacke, “The conditions are comparable to a living organism that reacts in a flexible manner to its surroundings” (Haacke 1965). Condensation Cube, in short, is an auto- poietic system: In Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s definition, a living system characterized by “continuous self-production” in a closed organization within definite boundaries (Maturana and Varela 1980).

The work of Barney's that calls up Haacke is Yumbo (1980/2008),of course. In its 1980 version consisting of    29 sealed glass cubes, with 25 cm on the side slightly smaller than Haacke's, the piece is a diary-style collection of 29 days worth of pollution from the eponymous industrial zone to the north of Cali, an accumulation of contaminated air and other materials into the pristine cubes.

The 2008 version of the piece consists of 30 cubes, showing that “the problem of pollution in that municipality has not changed.”

Despite their formal overlaps, the differences between Haacke's and Barney's respective cubes are pronounced. The refusal of context of Haacke's piece reduces it to the point of a politically innocuous classicism: The water inside his cube is any water, in part real, in part scientific-mythological. This in stark contrast Barney's samplings from her hometown of contamination that we suspect cannot be contained, even if her series of glass cubes were it be extended indefinitely in rows and rows of specimen cubes with greasy, toxic nothingness. Haacke subverts minimalism by making its industrial sublimity come alive, thereby claiming to set it free within the “statistical limits” of thermodynamics. Barney, on the other hand, subverts minimalism’s industrialism by playing its ecocidal subtext against itself, showing the limits of growth from the point of view of the open veins of Latin America and assigning a direction of art making in the Anthropocene. As Gina McDaniel Tarver has it, Barney's work "corresponds to the slow death of an epistemology of scientific progress” (Tarver 2O18).

Ultimately, the procedure of making quotas of destruction materially constitutive of the work itself places a piece such as Yumbo in a different genealogy, namely of Gustav Metzger's brand of auto-destructive art and its mid-twentieth-century critique of civilization and destruction of nature. Metzger hoped for his destructible works to perform “the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected…"; Barney's work Follows a comparable désoeuvrement—an unworking, a scattering of the art object (Metzger 1960). As she observes, "to conceive art as endless variants of one form, idea, subject, style, is not only reductive but also masculinist…better me and my work stay fragile!".

In a work created a few years before, Diario objeto (Diary Object) 1 and 2 (1977), Barney applied this logic to a sub-proletariat of objet trouvés, lost stuff, rubbish and   natural materials that she would find on the streets of Manhattan-or rather, that would find her, because they called out to her, during long walks through the cityscape. She would organize her findings in the style   of Inca calendars, quipus, thus drawing attention not onIy to the fragility of the gaze that had acknowledged their worthless existence, and to the frailty of the world of things and objects, but also of the civilization   that made and ordered them to begin with.

 

3.

If Haacke played with autopoiesis, we can call Barney's approach sympoietic. With Beth Dempster's felicitous term, sympoietic systems are “organizationally ajar”. They are evolutionary, distributively controlled, unpredictable, and adaptive (Dempster 2018). While autopoiesis has been applied as an organism metaphor, sympoietic emphasis is on systemic fusing, being together, or sharing company, between and across entities that have grafted themselves onto each other or otherwise forged alliances. Sympoiesis is the togetherness, and the mess, or mesh, of life. As biologist Lynn Margulis wrote, “Symbiotic interaction is the stuff of life on a crowded planet” (Margulis1998).

As an ethos of coexistence, the sympoietic makes for a showdown with Darwinian evolutionism. To biologist Scott Gilbert, symbiosis appears to be the rule rather than the exception: This implies that nature may be selecting "relationships" rather than individuals or genomes. When the unit of evolution changes in this way, "almost all development may be co-development” (Gilbert 2010). Organisms, then, are most likely to do best when mutualist in their environments, forming ongoing symbiotic relationships. As summarized by art historian Caroline Jones, this state of affairs describes the “survival of the most intradependent” (Jones 2018).

It should be mentioned that imaginaries of total merging and comprehensible wholeness—if this is what we associate with symbiosis—tempt aesthetic reaction. There is a risk of a throwback to late modem fantasies of harmony, such as the ones with which the hippie counterculture carried out reparations on life damaged by war and pollution. If such an anti-intellectual stance today has the status of cliché, it bears repeating that holism was a powerful worldview from this epoch that remains closely connected to how we imagine life as a systemic phenomenon. Influential ideas that followed a holistic score included Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth,” ecologist Rachel Carson's “Web of Life”, and even Martin Luther King's “Beloved Community,” which was not only a rejection of racism and militarism, but also of the destruction of the natural environment (Jones 2018). Hereby was promoted a planetary awareness through a rejection of a dialectics of otherness that the Western mind has employed to assign difference on a hierarchical scale; yet the populism and universalism of holist movements prevented them from thinking difference productive. Promises of harmony and balance, then, resonate in everyday uses of “symbiosis” (no doubt influenced by psychology´s use of the term for the infant´s pre-symbolic,  oceanic oneness with its parental body). We must insist that symbiosis is a power balance, a force field, one that in natural environments often tilts in favor of one species or life form or the other. Nature is active, and therefore also destructive. If any naturalization of human culture is a disaster from the point of view of critical thinking, harmony can be a disaster in art: It deflates intensity, plays into the dead universalism of symbols, and brings up clichés of a beautiful soul.

Art cannot project a unity that is yet to be constructed. If you agree that social problems cannot be resolved in the space of art, and artistic problems cannot be solved in a social space, then tension and differences are givens. The artistic experiment is deeply related to the performance of uncertainty: Art´s possibility is to be at the same time problem-oriented and conflict-aware, while skeptical of itself.

An intersectional address is called for, that is, to work with strings and sequences of problematics, articulated through different inseparable moments of overlapping urgencies. This would be following for instance Françoise  ’Eaubonne´s injunction of an eco-feminist questioning of class, race, and gender as well as of the rights of trees, water, and animals; feminist issues, jointly connected between interdependent groups, human and non-hu- man alike. A politicized symbiosis consisting in a tensing of relationships.

 

4.

Still, there is something in a systemic reading of Barney's work that doesn't square. Thankfully, you might add, for what is a “system,” anyway? And isn’t it necessary to escape its totalization, its tendency to  become the system? Specifically, this has to do with how, following Stacy Alaimo, mainstream representation of the Anthropocene asks nothing from the human spectator: “They make no claim, they neither involve nor implore.” Such representations are typically of a systemic-abstract kind. Zoomed out satellite views of cityscapes, infrastructure, and other networked architectures built and populated by humans “make risk, harm, and suffering undetectable, as toxic and radioactive regions do not appear, nor do the movements of climate refugees...the perspective is predictable and reassuring, despite its claim to novelty and cataclysm” (Alaimo 2017).

Even if Barney works with open sympoietic systems, there is so much happening at their limits—before them, after them, in their seams where they are coming apart—and relating to chaos and unpredictability that exceed the mere ambiguity of functioning Systems. These micro-events are virtualities that don't resemble the real, even as they are inescapably bound up with it. Sympoietic intersectionality in Barney would correspond to Beatriz Preciado's insight that “modern subjectivity is the management of self-intoxication in a chemically harmful environment.” This is, on the one hand, our exposure to a damaging and damaged world, and on the other hand a type of agency based in the ambiguous ontology of the pharmakon, by which you may answer such ecological disturbance in kind: it is not a question of being intoxicated or not; intoxicated is the only way to be, so you must consciously choose and deliberately apply you poison (Preciado 2013).

Barney makes her own antidotes. Consider El valle de Alicia, a sculptural ensemble of one hundred psilocybin mushrooms, made out of recycled cardboard and placed in Sao Paulo's Ibirapuera Park for that year’s biennial. Looking irrepressible with their pink stems, they were accompanied by four brown mushrooms of dimensions worthy of a home for hookah-smoking  caterpillars. A nearby wind organ had its numerous pipes planted in the soil, like so many spikes of a partially buried, candy-colored hedgehog lying in wait for the breeze to blow. The location and synesthetic timbre of El valle de Alicia turn the art work into a social arena, bringing it closer to a premodern fairground attraction than to a contemporary art gallery. On the other hand, the fact that tree pulp has been recovered from used cardboard to build the work places it in a non-human realm of vibrant matter: The figurations of mushrooms are undone from within by their connection to larger cycles of regeneration.

The background of the work is a trip—to use that stock term for sympoeitic experience—that the artist underwent in Cali in the 1980s. After drinking mushroom tea,

…we were instructed to find a tree for ourselves, because soon moving would become very difficult. I found the tallest and most ancient tree and sat down. It didn’t take long before the tree and I started talking, each in our own language, but we understood each other. The tree talked inside my mind through feelings and visions. The tree knew about humans. It had been surrounded by a jungle alive with animals, had seen Indians hunting, wars between Indians and Spanish conquerors passing through. Then cameother humans with their hatchets and the thick jungle around the tree went down, followed by the farmers and their cows.

The tree was a witness, full of knowledge... It seemed as if it were transferring knowledge or messages from somewhere else. It was knowledge about my future life, coming from outside me and the tree, delving into my spiritual life...Of course it was too much for me. I felt as if my mind was drowning (Barney forthcoming).

Drugs create exorbitant dynamics. There will always be the suspicion that their ecstasy produces a movement that goes too far and pushes us irretrievably over the edge. For some, the same goes for art made on drugs: Deleuze and Guattari—being more than a little uptight here—wrote some despairing lines about how artworks created under the influence of drugs often are “extraordinarily flaky” and “unable to preserve themselves, and break up as soon as they are made or looked at” (Deleuze and Guattari 1991). (Of course, Deleuze preferred the wholesome objectness of Francis Bacon, an artist who used color “as a system of direct action on the nervous system.”

There is a funny echo of Marx in that quote) (Deleuze 1981). Aesthetic traditionalism apart, the question is how you get in touch with the transcendence offered by the drug. How do you reach out to the other side without losing yourself intellectually to the essentialisms it tempts; and mentally, to madness; and physically, to the non-human realm of the imperceptible?

What the psychedelic experience offers us is effects. The effect is a force by which we may extend ourselves towards a margin or an outside without going under. Effects set free in the nervous system and distributed by the art work are allopoietic actors that carry us towards the alterity that is not us.

It is on them we can rely to get in touch with the others on which our human lives depend. Psychedelic effects are seemingly the very opposite of what Roland Barthes called “reality effects” that in the artwork convey the “omnipotence of the reference”; but if we measure “reality” against the way that Earth's ecosystems are tripped up and going crazy, who is to say what is real and what is not? (Barthes 1984).

When the power and self-presence of the human subject wane, effects come out to work and play. The paradoxical nature of the effect is seen in the way it is set to work by an initiator or effector that withdraws in order to let the effect unfold. It can be self-regenerating to the point that it takes on a life of its own: It is supplementary to its cause or origin, and yet it becomes an actor of its own. Thereby the effect becomes something as strange as an autonomous supplement, a new synthesis that is insubordinate like a child. When we trace effects and tune into more-than-human entities that are typically taken to be passive or inanimate, they can make us humans go out of ourselves—which is what we need to do to overcome our planet's life-threatening crisis.

You could hear the effects play in Alicia Barney's wind organ, or see them as so many reality samples in her work; they are echoes of the voices of objects she collected because they spoke to her, and they are traces of our intoxications, sudden losses, and visions to come. They crisscross time and come from our pasts and the futures too, to announce loss and wonder, the renewal of life and the words we need to tell about it. The lesson of her work is that only through our frailty can we pass on to new worlds. So much more than art depends on this insight, but the becoming beyond ourselves that it implies can perhaps best be brought into effect with art.

 

References

Alaimo, Stacy. 2017. “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves”, en: Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard Grusin. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

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Barney Caldas, Alicia. Próxima publicación. Texto sin título, en: Art and Psychedelia: A Critical Reader, eds. Lars Bang Larsen y Caroline Woodley. London: Afterall and Koenig Books.

Bergson, Henri. 1934. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics.2007. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1981. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 2005. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Gilbert, Scott F. (con Emily McDonald, Nicole Boyle, Nicholas Buttino, Lin Gy, Mark Mai, Neelakantan Prakash y James Robinson). 2010. “Symbiosis as a source of selectable epigenetic variation: Taking the heat for the big guy”, en: Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society B 365, 671-678.

Haacke, Hans. 1965. Citado en https://www.macba.cat/en/condensation-cube-1523, último acceso el 10 de julio de 2018.

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Jones, Caroline. 2018. “Sensing Symbiotics, or, Being with ArchaeoBacteria’, conferencia, Concordia University, Hexagram-Concordia, Montreal, Canada, 3 de mayo de 2018.

Margulis, Lynn. 2002. Planeta simbiótico: un nuevo punto de vista sobre la evolución. 1998; Madrid: Debate.

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Preciado, Beatriz. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. 2008; Nueva York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Tarver, Gina McDaniel. Próxima publicación. “‘The roar of the river grows ever louder’: Polluted Waters in Colombian Eco-art, from Alicia Barney to Clemencia Echeverri”.

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