When they were young they would play there. Once everything had finished up for the day. Before everything would come to a stop. They would slide on their backs from the verge down the concave sloping sides, each of them rolling in towards the centre like grains falling through a funnel. They had heard about gatherings that took place there long ago. It used to be narrower and deeper and lined with other kinds of rock, it was said, but the newer arrivals had insisted it be put to other use. So they chipped away at it and built other things and it grew larger and shallower and empty. But still, they found, it retained a special kind of sounding. So they would circle there and speak and sing and recite lines from pages and scraps from papers and passages from the maroon books with golden letters that they stole away from the splintered wooden shelves of the dilapidated library. For some time everyday, in the absence of anybody there to see them, and while they still could, they would make of this place their theatre.
In 1866, the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill finally completed his painting of the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, which he had begun twenty-three years earlier. To create the painting, Hill collaborated with the photographer Robert Adamson, working from his images of the ministers involved in order to achieve a likeness of the men who could not be present for their portrait. The finished work, known as the Disruption Picture, is deemed historically significant less due to its subject matter than because it constitutes the first work of art that consciously utilised the newly invented medium of photography. It was a kind of visual mise-en-abyme: an image of images, a representation created from representations. Despite the time and innovative methods that went into the painting, it was not generally received very well. Pieced together as it was from myriad photographs, its composition was not thought pleasing to the eye. Hill and Adamson’s hitherto untried methods also led to some figures appearing as they did in the 1840s, while the faces and fashions of others reflected their appearance many years later. At the time, this was deemed contradictory, inaccurate and unbelievable. Yet, one might say that this made the painting a more accurate and authentic reflection of the time that went into its making. The phases of its production remain visible such that the picture becomes a veritable record of the process of its painting, despite the shortcomings of the veracity of the depiction. It wears its duration on its surface. It embodies the spectral qualities and temporal strangeness that would, given time, often be attributed to those photographic images that would invariably enter and ultimately disrupt the history of art.
She had always been sure that she could feel something before the rest. It was the kind of sensation that ends in your ears but begins everywhere else. She had heard about a place once where large round stones had been gathered by ancient peoples. A place where, if you could tune in, everything resonated in tandem, in synchronicity, subliminally. Where they made marks on the stones and the stones marked the place. Such places might harbour these sounds still, she thought, these vibrations they call a holy frequency. She sensed the sanctity of this hollow when she went. Yet she had always felt there had been – or perhaps would be – a wreck. It is said there was something of that in the name given to the site before it had been replaced and forgotten. She could sense the waves. She could feel them move over her when she was there, like an eyelid moistening an eye. Particles would stir up around her and she would emerge cloaked in a thin veneer of sediment. This was before all of the air around them became thick and coagulated and forced them to cower away.
A story goes that the symbol we use for the number zero arose from a stone. The 0 did not always exist, although the idea of nothing has concerned people for millennia. It is bound up, after all, in the question of what came before and what will come after and, it is now thought by some, that it might be central to everything. Upon lifting a stone from the ground and seeing the impression left behind, it is said, a mathematician realised that there is indeed something in the place of nothing. That small round shape in the earth became the symbol, the cipher, for the naught we know today: 0. Or so the story goes. Humans, of course, have long created symbols. It is thought that the first marks made on cave walls were of similarly small circles. These, however, were intended to denote the moon, acting as a means to document and communicate the lunar cycle so that early hunters could best stalk their prey. Today, we call these markings paintings and consider them to be some of the earliest signs of human culture, a culture that has developed with symbols at its core. Symbols, as visualisations of archetypal images, are thought to reflect the “psyche’s imaginal forms” and to cross the continents and epochs of human space and time.1 Yet while many of these archetypal images can be catalogued and continue to circulate, the meanings attributed to them inevitably shift. One might think of the contrast between the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s ruminations on the snail shell in his meditation on the intimate spaces of the home, with the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli’s recent invocation of the same image to describe the cosmos. “We are not contained within an invisible rigid infrastructure,” he says, “we are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail-shell. The sun bends space around itself and the Earth does not turn around it because of a mysterious force but because it is racing directly in a space which inclines, like a marble that rolls in a funnel.” 2
- The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, Ronnberg, Ami & Martin, Kathleen (eds.), The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, Cologne: Taschen, 2010, p. 8
- Rovelli, Carlo, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, London: Penguin Books, 2016, p. 39
They used to race snails down windowpanes. They would pluck their viscid bodies with their plump patterned shells from the bellies of the hedges and the bushes before they withered to tinder and then failed to return. For a while they could still find them in the crevices of building blocks, under bricks and in the damper recesses of the more dishevelled yards but they soon dried up as well. They used to marvel at the feint silver tracks they would leave behind on the glass, like a map of river trails of the kind it was said once ran beneath them in warrens underground.
The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has recently speculated upon “the end of the end of history.” 1 Not long after Fukuyama first declared the “end of history” some 30 years ago, the philosopher Arthur Danto proclaimed the “end of art.” Having already been liberated from the burden of representation by photography, the consequences of which were taken up and then exhausted by Modernism, Danto concluded that the primary historical function of painting –what Renaissance scholar and early art historian Giorgio Vasari described as the “conquest of visual appearance” – had been fulfilled elsewhere, now that “moving pictures proved far better able to depict reality than painting could.” 2 Pop art, in his view, signalled the end of art altogether, because it made it so that there was no longer any particular way that an artwork had to be. Thus, in terms of its philosophical identity and the narrative that defined its history, art, according to Danto, was over: “Nothing is more right than anything else. There is no single direction. There are indeed no directions.” 3 This, of course, could not account for the developments in technology, the expansion of the world wide web and the proliferation of digital images that would weave our visual worlds with the virtual, which were to follow. This is less an end or an afterward than it is a new chapter, a phase furnished and manipulated by a “logic of representation [that] is augmented by the logic of self-duplication and mutation. It is as if the photograph is not the mirror of the world any more, but is itself placed between two mirrors triggering an endless circulation of reflections.”
- Gibson, Megan, ‘Francis Fukuyama: We could be facing the end of “the end of history.”’, The New Statesman, 30 March 2022 [online: https://www.newstatesman.com/encounter/2022/03/francis-fukuyama-on-the-end-of-the-end-of-history]
- Danto, Arthur, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 125
- Ibid., p. 126
It was during a period of convalescence that something had first shifted. It was in this quiet time, this time that was both full and heavy, vacant and bereft, that she had begun to think differently about things. This was not uncommon, she would learn, a known phenomenon experienced by those who had been forced to sever themselves from the usual flows of time and the order this imposes. This period allowed her to see differently, to feel differently, to find clarity in what she would previously have seen as disorder. It is all a question of measurement, which is an imperfect practice, which is a relative endeavour, she had come to realise. She became convinced that with the right orchestrations and attunements she could detect the transmissions that she sensed had been waiting all this time.
In 1977, in an effort to escape the art world, Lucy Lippard went to live for a year on an isolated farm near Dartmoor in southern England. Despite intentions to relinquish the trappings of her life as a curator, critic and activist, Lippard found herself, while walking across the moors, in front of an ancient “ring of ragged stones.” 1 It brought her right back to the art that she had hoped to leave behind in the modernised environs of an urban elsewhere. The resulting book Overlay, published six year later, documents Lippard’s speculations about the links between the contemporary art of her time and the primeval ruins that speak of prehistoric rituals that dot landscapes around the world. In Overlay, Lippard excavates the symbolic and social significance of these ancient sites and structures, exploring the interplay between these “prehistoric images and [rather than in] contemporary art.” 2 Her “internal method” is “collage – the juxtaposition of two unlike realities combined to form an unexpected new reality” 3 as a means to explore “the crucial connections between individual desires (to make something, to hold something) and the social values that determine what we make and why.” 4 Lippard puts forth a perspective on art as necessarily spiritual and as not invariably allied to progress. She leans into an art that is more aligned with myth, more connected with nature and more animated by its social function, which “might be defined as the transformation of desire into reality, reality into dreams and change, and back again.” 5 Across the texts, images and observations overlain throughout the book, Lippard assembles a map, a manuscript and an artefact of her approach that both chimes with and embodies the now commonplace idea that humans have an innate need to symbolise and to invent, invoke and invest meanings in our world. This idea was initially explicated by the philosopher Susanne Langer in 1948, when she also said, “The modern mind is an incredible complex of impressions and transformations; and its product is a fabric of meanings that would make the most elaborate dream of the most ambitious tapestry-weaver look like a mat.” 6
- Lippard, Lucy, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983, p. 4
- Ibid, p. 1
- Ibid, p. 1
- Ibid, p. 4
- Ibid, p. 5
- Langer, Susanne K., Philosophy in a New Key: A Study of the Symbolism in Reason, Rite and Art, New York: New American Library, 1948, p. 227
When there was rain, she would go there as quickly as she could, before it dried up again. The downpour would invariably turn the chalky dust to a thick paste that she revelled in rolling into small, stout rounds. She pretended there had been snowfall as she cupped the rocky residue into spheres that she lined up around the perimeter, making as many as she could while the consistency was amenable to the moulding of her hands. They would curve elegantly, making a temporary garland for this, a temporary altar. On days like that, she would stay until the charcoal light of just past dusk fell, knowing that by morning, depending on the elements, she would return to an array cracked, dislodged and broken or disintegrated and disappeared altogether.
The invention of the Jacquard machine in 1804 is considered a pinnacle moment in the history of computing. This device, which could be attached to looms that were previously operated by the human hand, consisted of a chain system of punched cards with holes, each corresponding to a row of design, that were laced together to form a continuous sequence. This invention simplified the manufacture of intricate textile patterns, facilitating the production of more complex tapestries and thereby revolutionising the weaving process. This system of punched cards to control a series of operations was adapted by the mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage in 1837 to create his Analytical Engine, an early prototype of the modern computer. The 0’s and 1’s that we know today as binary code derive from the ‘holes’ and ‘not-holes’ of this pioneering apparatus, although this code has come to carry more than the early mechanisms from which it sprung. As Sadie Plant notes, “It takes two to make a binary, but all these pairs are two of a kind, and the kind is always kind of one. 1 and 0 make another 1. Male and female add up to man. There is no female equivalent. No universal woman at his side. The man is one, one is everything, and the female has “nothing you can see.” 1 In her book, zeros + ones, Plant resurrects and refigures the place of women in the narratives that have come to dominate technoculture. Plant begins by foregrounding the significance of Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who produced extensive annotations and advancements on Babbage’s Analytical Engine and is widely regarded as the first computer programmer. Lovelace was the first to recognise the Analytical Engine’s potential for computation beyond simple calculation and she published the first algorithm for such a machine. The book also illuminates the contributions made to modern computing by Alan Turing who, with the invention of his Turing machine in 1936, would formalise the concepts of the algorithm and computation that Ada Lovelace had initiated almost a century earlier. Turing was persecuted in his time for being homosexual, subjected to chemical castration and ultimately died from cyanide poisoning, largely thought to have been ingested from a half-eaten apple that lay beside his bed. While some have supposed a connection with the poison apple of Snow White and Turing’s keen admiration of the recent Disney film of the fairy tale, Plant connects his legacy to another symbol that has embedded itself within contemporary daily life. It is often supposed that the partially bitten apple on every Apple Mackintosh machine is a semi-cryptic homage to the groundbreaking mathematician. The designer of the logo, however, claims that the apple appears as it does in order to distinguish it from other kinds of smaller fruit. But the story now circulates with the symbol and, with a symbol, generally comes a myth.
- Plant, Sadie, zeros + ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, London: Fourth Estate, 1997, p. 35
She was sure that she could see it all before they could. This would happen often when she was sleeping. Sometimes when still awake. Some times in the drifting in between. She had been told about the premonitions and the apparitions and what had long ago ceased to be spoken about this place. She would trace the fine lines between what they said she must and could not have seen, sensing she was speaking from other times that did not align with what they had willed themselves to become accustomed to. And so remembering had never been the same. Beginnings and befores were fed by that which followed but, for most, became adept at masquerading as that which happens in advance. But this was all before then. And there would be no time to see afterward.
In his 1983 text, The Object of Post Criticism, the philosopher and critic Gregory Ulmer declared collage to be “the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century.” In his view, it “finally provided an alternative to the “illusionism” of perspective which had dominated Western Painting since the early Renaissance.” 1 Pioneered by the Dada artist Hannah Hoch’s photomontages, which troubled, thwarted and dissected the myths, dichotomies and duplicities of the idea of the “New Woman” in Weimar-era Germany, collage could be said to reflect the increasingly fragmented, disorienting and disrupted nature of modern life at the time and in the aftermath of World War I. More recently, the artist and theorist Hito Steyerl has addressed the alterations and implications that have arisen from the “formal shifts and aberrant distortions of accelerated capitalism” 2 that define the 21st century. She too recoups that which might be disregarded or demeaned. She defends the “poor,” “dilapidated” 3 image that only digital technology could produce. The image, once cut + pasted, finds itself copied + pasted, “a ghost of an image,” “a copy in motion.” 4 This new image, a digital-born image that replicates and dissipates, disseminates and proliferates, embedded within and roiling throughout the vast distributed networks that we inhabit, not only reflects but now produces new modes of materiality and subjectivity, of representation and reality itself. Steyerl travels backward too and unpicks the ideologies that underpinned linear perspective as a determining logic of space, exposing its roots in the Western exaltation of the individual subject. She ends up with the perspective of “free fall” in which “falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place. Grappling with crumbling futures that propel us backwards onto an agonizing present, we may realize that the place we are falling towards is no longer grounded, nor is it stable. It promises no community, but a shifting formation.” 5
- Ulmer, Gregory, ‘The Object of Post-Criticism,’ in Foster, Hal (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983
- Aranda, Julieta, Wood, Brian Kuan and Vidokle, Anton , ‘Preface’ in Steyerl, Hito, The Wretched of the Screen, London: Sternberg Press, 2012, p. 5
- Steyerl, Hito, The Wretched of the Screen, London: Sternberg Press, p. 32
- Ibid, p. 32
- Ibid, p. 28
The gatherings began to happen in larger droves, where those that came would hold close to the softening, crumbling curves that had once been as staunch as a walled enclosure. It could no longer be their private theatre for nothing sounded the same. It had become the place to take cover. Those that came kept to the edges and clasped in their hands whatever they had been able to carry with them. Slivers of lives that were fated now to become ever-finer fragments under the weight. And there they waited. Still. In time, it would become impossible to discern what had been precious to begin with and what seemed worthy of preservation simply because it still was.