[iDC] IPF09 Conference thoughts

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Sun Dec 6 16:31:00 UTC 2009

Hello everyone -

It's great to get some responses to these reflections. Especially since 
there are many on this list who are experts, whereas I'm just taking an 
art-historical tangent from some other areas... It's clear that the 
Bauhaus exhibition at MoMA stakes out a strong interpretive position, 
I'd be curious if anyone has a critical read on it. As for Christiane's 
film, the glimpses are intriguing!

Kevin Hamilton wrote:
 > I remember reading about how Moholy-Nagy in particular faced
 > pressures in this regard, where Chicago business had grown dependent
 > on the Illinois Institute of Technology for the provision of ready
 > workers in the design and application of visual identity. They
 > apparently began to complain that students under these new European
 > instructors weren't adequately prepared for working in industry;

If you dig up the reference, do tell. That fits into my understanding, 
which is that the German and Central European artists, with their strong 
abstractionist and Gestalt ideas, merely found refuge in the US at 
first, gravitating notably toward the cybernetic thinkers and finally 
having their strongest influence in the 60s and 70s. Everyone has always 
focused on the emigre figures as the bearers of industrial modernism, 
but what I'm starting to think is that the deterritorializing effects of 
the early 20th century vanguards went far beyond industrial modernism.

The social-democratic regulation of mass production society, which the 
Bauhaus artists and their Weimar peers were not able to create in 
Germany, was the result in America of a compromise forged in the 1930s 
between leftist/workerist forces and industrialists, both of whom had 
little use for vanguard visuality or trans-identity. That compromise, 
anachronistically known as "Fordism" (or the Keynesian National Welfare 
State, if you wanna get geeky about it) produced the consumer society in 
its classic forms, the cliches of American Grafitti: a society whose 
epistemological base was still more behaviorist than cybernetic, despite 
the feedback loops that started coming into play in the 1950s through 
the monitoring of consumer reception. The consumer culture was all about 
regimes of identification, working on the acquisitive desire for things, 
both as the objects of raw libidinal drives and as ego-attributes. Such 
a culture was not dynamic enough for the elites, who came up against 
real limits to corporate growth from the late 60s onward, due to all 
kinds of factors including market saturation, renewed labor unrest, 
internal hierarchical rigidities, etc.

The corporate elites saw immense possibilities for restructuring in the 
information sciences, which had already been developing for managerial 
and logistical purposes since the war. The real rupture came in the 
crisis of the 70s, which marked the decline of industrialism and the 
beginning of another economic paradigm. What would be important to 
understand today is how the vanguard European artists and thinkers (and 
not only the Bauhaus ones) eventually contributed to the entirely new, 
post-industrial paradigm of informationalism, which comes massively into 
play from the mid-70s onward. I think they did contribute the mobility, 
the superior agility of a trans-identity.

 > To my knowledge (and Orit likely knows more here), Kepes benefited
 > essentially from a patron in the form of MIT's president Wiesner at
 > the time, whose utopian vision kept CAVS alive. My understanding is
 > that when Wiesner left, CAVS tanked.
 > This happened more or less at the same time as Von Foerster's lab
 > ended here at Illinois - his patron, the Office of Naval Research, was
 > forced to drop him when the Mansfield amendment restricted military
 > funding of "blue sky" projects.

Well, fortunately there were some restrictions placed for a while on the 
military and the CIA's license to do whatever they wanted! I'm nostalgic 
for the Mansfield amendment and the Church commission. The blue-sky 
research of the 50s and 60s amply laid the grounds for the takeoff of 
the information society from the 70s onward, with a fresh influx of 
military money from Reagan's star wars in the mid-80s, then another huge 
military injection in this decade, which we're gonna bitterly regret 
down the line... Now, I don't mean to give a univocal reading of 
informationalism as some kind of dark plot. In my text "Filming the 
World Laboratory" I proposed looking at Von Foerster as a kind of 
double-agent within the military-industrial complex, a subversive figure 
who rendered much of cybernetic theory useless for command-and-control 
purposes by the reflexive twist that he gave to it. Patricia Clough, who 
studied with Von Foerster, seemed like she might have interesting things 
to say about that interpetation! Bateson, Von Foerster, Maturana and 
Varela, Deleuze and Guattari, Stengers and Prigogine, they compose a 
kind of phylum that puts a twist on informationalism and offers possible 
alternatives, a bluer sky if you will. However, at that level of 
theoretical elaboration there are always great ambiguities. The power 
complexes have a way of appropriating everything.

Over the past two days I realized that you can read the book chapter 
from which Orit Halpern drew her talk, it's really extraordinary, check 
it out: http://orithalpern.net/chapter3.pdf . Near the start of the 
chapter she says something very insightful about the way Kepes fit into 
the American context where he produced his first book, Language of Vision:

"Language of Vision is, therefore, an inverted lens upon the Bauhaus 
education. It is not so much a break from this history, as a mutation 
and extraction of certain impulses within histories of design, now 
unmoored from previous modern conceptions of material, time, and 

The words "unmoored" and "unbound" - which I associate with 
"disembedded" (Polanyi) and "deterritorialized" (Guattari) - recurr 
again and again in this chapter in the attempt to describe the way that 
Gestalt ideas, originally conceived as designating fundamental 
perceptual structures, are reworked in a radically constructivist 
fashion until they become operative schemata for the production of 
informational worlds. These mediated environments - like the ones that 
the Eameses built for the US Information Agency and IBM - present their 
own intrinsic dynamics and complexity, through which the subject 
"navigates" an existential course, but a fundamentally arbitrary one, 
cut off (unmoored, disembedded) from any traditional habitus or 
sedimented ground of experiential knowledge. You see these environments 
emerging as possibilities in the 1950s, but they couldn't be massively 
developed until semicounductors became cheap, in the 70s. It would be 
interesting to look closely into the theory of things like "sensurround" 
cinema, which was first used in 1974... Today, the city itself has 
become a screenic environment, a sensurround. These are the artificial 
worlds of simulated perception that the great corporations have 
succeeded in imposing as the leading edges of the informational economy, 
which is now the second nature that we live in. I'd say the supreme 
expressions of these radically constructive artificial worlds are to be 
found in the realms of global finance and of the imperial American 
military, in the worlds of satellite-controlled warfare and computerized 
trading, which between them make the greatest strategic use of computing 
power and informational networks.

Artistic expression allows us to look at something like the 
psycho-perceptual level of these transformations, and so art movements 
become really interesting when you trace their development over space 
and time. Orit's research confirms the "family resemblance" that I saw 
between the abstraction of the Bauhaus grid and the radical 
constructivism of a cybernetician like Von Foerster. But the resemblance 
is expressed through an inversion, or what I've described as a chiasmus, 
which reverses some of the key terms that were initially at play. I 
think this has to do with the dialectical reversal of industrialism into 
informationalism (cf. my short text "Into Information!"). Orit writes 
the following, concerning the operative procedures that evolved in the 
wake of Kepes and the Eameses, but also of Wiener and the cognitive 

"There is no single norm for vision. If, for example, the pre-war 
designers and psychologists thought there is a “natural” or essential 
gestalt form that preceded the perception of an image, then in post-war 
design that form is now manipulatable, you can build any gestalt to 
produce any perceptual field. The designer doesn’t need to learn the 
rules gestalt psychology discovered, the designer must understood the 
principle of relationality and builds gestalts. An inversion, if we 
will, of the original modernist design principles. The ideal of a 
singular, or objective form of vision is replaced by a fantasy of 
effectiveness or affect serving particular functions."

It's a brilliant insight which has everything to do with the concept of 
simulation that Baudrillard and others have developed, but here it is 
much more precise, you see exactly how the collaboration of cognitive 
scientists, designers and corporate sponsors produces the environments 
we live in, which can also be called "control spaces" (Sze Tsung Leong's 
term). Orit's work is the most precise theoretical genealogy of these 
environments that I have yet read, very inspiring.

One more point from Keith:

 > The question that remains is this - What can we learn
 > from the consequent influence of the Bauhaus grid on Chicago's image
 > industry, or of cybernetics on economics and management theory? Are
 > these examples of the familiar story of long-term capital-driven
 > projects borrowing from the avant-garde without sustaining it? How
 > else might we tell these stories?

That's the question! Telling these stories otherwise is one of the most 
important things, since the informationalism to which those figures 
helped give rise is now in crisis and the outcomes of that crisis are 
going to shape our civilization for decades to come. Keith asks about a 
pattern whereby emigre thinkers are functionalized in the US context, or 
(I'd add) remain as kinds of prophetic figures whom we still don't 
understand (Marcuse, Bateson, Varela, many others...). But the pace of 
change is such that we not only have to go back and tell the stories 
differently, but also sustain some vanguard positions ourselves, in the 
face of parallel developments in database capacities (for simulation) 
and biometric identification techniques (for control). These are going 
to take on huge importance in the coming decades. We may all feel like 
emigres in the strange new landscapes that are coming.

It's clear there was a postwar thinker who knew everything about 
information theory and was able to use that idiom to express basic 
issues of life and death and solidarity and betrayal, albeit in a 
predominantly tragic mode. That was Lacan, whose algorithms of the 
relation to the 0ther were meant to infuse an existential content to the 
mathematicized functions of the emerging communication system. In 
Lacan's time, the 0ther appeared at the limits of Western humanism, in 
the national liberation movements of decolonization. Anybody who's 
interested in media, just have a look at Lacan's "Television," it's 
gotta be available on the web, you'll see exactly what I mean. Today, as 
the capacity to produce artificial Gestalten is dramatically augmented 
through neuroscientific research, the locus of the 0ther shifts: the 
0ther is at once very near, just beyond the police perimeter of 
exclusion from the security society, and at the same time very far away, 
within us, as the radical schiz between the programmed realities that 
constitute the greater part of our own consciousness and something else 
which we can't name. I'd say this namelessness is the field where the 
0ther is blurred and obscured by anxiety over our own deaths in the 
coming deflagrations, both social and ecological, promised by the vast 
contradictions of informational rationality. The issue that concerns me 
in contemporary informatics is not play and it's not the factory either 
either, it's the abuses of the power to create worlds for mortal beings. 
In the face of the corporate-state appropriation of the very capacities 
of perception, what counts is an ontological question: How do we touch a 
human reality that persists through the successive artificializations, 
or through the flux of what I've been calling trans-identity? Orit's 
text closes on the ontological question. It's food for thought and maybe 
for some more discussion.

best, Brian

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