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View of the exhibition »Datumsoria«

Editorial by ZHANG Ga

Datumsoria: The Return of the Real

»The arts (to employ an old word for an old institution) entertain only symbolic relation with the sensory fields they take for granted. On the contrary, media relate to the materiality with – and on – which they operate in the Real itself.«

Friedrich Kittler, trans., Erik Butler, »The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence«, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013, Kindle edition

An upright slab of monolith shines, radiating the prismatic shades of hues from outer space; an unidentifiable thing of many elements suspended in the air, a living tree grows out of the torso of this mammoth being. Below, a colossal metal tower studded with a plethora of 80 screens both large and small, rotating and alternating images and words from the cyber void. Three large canvases flank these creatures, spiderlike robots busily stroke the fabric, and over time, the blankness will be saturated by the traces of BMW assembly lines and the trajectories of traffic at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Enter »Datumsoria: The Return of the Real«.


The Generic Real

The search for the real has long been a moral imperative for the enlightened.

Modernists persisted in a fight against the real as (an effect of) representation (phenomena) in pursuit of the real as truth-bearer (noumena or thing-in-itself) through a purification of the illusionary. Piet Mondrian progressively eliminated all descriptive faculties of the pictorial language as seen in the gradual abstractions of his apple tree paintings to find a visual rhyme of inner necessity. Kazimir Malevich had, as early as 1915, reduced painting to no more than a certain black square, claiming his transformation of the null and void to arrive at a new realism of non-objective creation. For six decades, Robert Ryman has been making entirely white paintings, all to attempt a truth in painting as its most essential worth: flatness on the two-dimensional picture plane as encapsulated and consecrated by the controversial critic Clement Greenberg.

The real of worldly affairs thus lost its cogency in the formalists’ protests and embargoes.

The art historian Hal Foster wrote a persuasive volume in 1996, summarizing art since the 1970s as an outcry for the return of the real. The real, as he contended, would be the actual bodies and social sites recognized in the form of the traumatic and abject subject. He commented, »The shift in conception — from reality as an effect of representation to the real as a thing of trauma — may be definitive in contemporary art.« [1] In other words, contemporary art as it is known today came into existence as a defiant rejection of both the pictorial real and the illusionistic surreal and as a rehabilitation of the referent and the signifying power of imagery. Most recently, in Bad New Days, published in 2015, Foster has once again resuscitated his rubrics for art from the past twenty-five years, characterizing it as either abject, archival, mimetic, precarious, or a question-marked post-critical. By reiterating a set of terms resonating with his earlier tome, Foster recalibrated his search for the real under the exigent condition of global capitalism indoctrinated by neo-liberalism. At the other end of the discursive spectrum, employing more buoyant parlances in the lightness of »zany, cute, interesting«, Sianne Ngai in her 2012 book »Our Aesthetic Categories« informs us with a suite of different qualifiers toward a rendition of the real.

Critics and commentators have always acutely observed political and social upheavals as catalysts and barometers of cultural ruptures and new artistic propositions. There have been abundant reflections on the world domination brought about by the digital revolution which saw its first inkling in the last decade of the twentieth century.1993 was the year when the first graphic web browser Mosaic made its public debut that marked the coming of the age of internet in its literal sense, making the long-promised superhighway a material reality, thus fulfilling a world picture in bitmaps and pixilation. Along with it came the ubiquitous proliferation of the binary codification that underlines all digital communications technologies. Viewed today in the Simondonian sense, the binary may well be commensurate to a state of preindividuation or meta-stability capable of all physical, technical, and psychic individuations / realities. [2] These are the generic ones and zeros.

Whereas most cultural criticisms from different camps agree that the psychosocial is the single valid object of concern licensed by the intellectual ethos of the Enlightenment tradition, such as evidently voiced in Foster’s impassioned descriptives as well as Ngai’s delightfully proposed categories, according to Gilbert Simondon, the recently resurgent French philosopher, whose prescient insights have provided timely food for thought in establishing a new theory of the ethics of technology, and for that matter a new theory of anthropology and psychology, the psychosocial is only the third order of individuation, or transindividuation posterior to the individuation of physical being, technical being, and living being. For him, the latter three present no privilege over one another; they are not different in nature but only in degrees of phase shifts. If flat ontology, which treats all beings with equal bearing, signals a new turn in recent discourse sentiments thanks to climate irregularities and environmental disruptions, undermining the regime of the anthropocentric tradition of the humanities as a whole, then the Simondonian articulation of preindividuation lends a powerful foundation to speculate on a theory of equality in renewed metaphysical terms that finds universal genesis in beings of all sorts. Immanent to the concept of preindividuation is the generic as genesis; the contemporary digital primordial gives rise to this generic reality.

Escaping the contention of both neoliberals and the new lefts, the generic renders pale and anemic any euphoria for the crescendo of technical singularity on the one hand and the laments of the diaspora of humankind on the other. The generic real is a digital virtual whose binary modus operandi is capable of assuming all analog information and thereby actualizing materiality. That is to say, insofar as data is concerned, there is no difference and differentiation between a video file and a word doc or between a sound clip and a pie chart. At the most foundational level, they are simply numerical notations of nonspecificity, actuated through electromagnetic impulses of ons and offs. The great mathematician John von Neumann once explicated the operation of digital devices which underlies its binary logic: »It must be emphasized, to begin with, that in digital machines there is uniformly only one organ for each basic operation.« [3] The crude data packets that originated in the digital can be transmitted via various protocols and assembled into whatever medium is desired at the other end of the pipeline. They are inherently malleable and transformational. The generic is therefore not a deprivation of meaning, impoverishment of sensibility, or dilapidation of originality. On the contrary, the generic in the form of digitality is the new tabula rasa, or the metastable state of preindividuation out of which materiality is inscribed; a condition in which morphogenesis takes place; phase shifts by whose stages indeterminacy procures crystallization and emotive emergence begins to erupt.


The Generic as Generative

Already in his live paintings, LIU Xiaodong’s search for the real gains ground by a degree of retreat from the real as it appears. In »Weight of Insomnia« LIU Xiaodong has developed an automated system that manipulates streaming data and computer vision algorithms to paint a canvas continually for the entire duration of an exhibition. The autonomous and performative painting is simultaneously defamiliarizing and engrossing, challenging the very notion of painting as we know it. If »Weight of Insomnia« becomes an obscurely affective object of desire through the revitalization of generic data input, Carsten Nicolai’s »unitape« renders immaculate images and sounds, illuminating an algorithmic finesse. »Voice of Sisyphus«, a study by George Legrady unleashes an undulating reverberation of pixels and sinewaves. It is the computational rigor that creates picture sound and sound picture all at once. Ralf Baecker’s »Mirage« generates a projection of synthesized landscape that is predicated on the apparatus’ own perception through an Earth sensing device. Revealing constant shifting of the "hallucination" of the Earth, the projection resembles a subliminal wandering through a machine subconsciousness.

In Zhang Peili’s »Landscape with Spherical Architecture« perception undergoes a certain uncertainty through a digital intermediary. The work conjures an emotive pathway in which subject and object entwine, rendering them interchangeable in a specific point in timespace. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s »Please Empty Your Pockets« elicits a disquieting reality in which memorabilia is preserved as precious human memory at the same time as information aggregated for consumption and profit. A memex machine no longer innocent.

The mammoth thing hovering in the air is the work »Quarterly«, an instance of many works under the auspices of WANG Yuyang# which is a software suite conceived as the artist’s equal. Through numerous and distinct iterations WYY# has constructed a paradigm by which intelligence and creativity are no longer only a human privilege, breaching the anthropocentric taxonomy of orders. In reversing the creative operation from the human artist to the otherwise subservient tool-being of the machine, WYY# has not only offered us a wealth of stunningly novel forms in sculpture, painting, and performance, but also forced us to think anew a world in which the perception of the real can no longer be reduced to that of human consciousness alone, a reality wherein the production of knowledge becomes a reciprocal conviviality between human and nonhuman.


Datumsoria and the Return of the Real

Perhaps a new descriptive register may be invented. Let’s call it datumsoria, a neologism concocted from datum and sensoria. Datumsoria denotes a new perceptual space immanent to the information age. It bespeaks the logic of the new real, a reality predicated on the virtual force of the binary impulse, of the genericity of ones and zeros from whose plane of immanence comes forth of a hardening of shapes and forms. The real, against all odds of the real as an effect of representation or the real as the surreal, is virtuality disguised; the real is the generic as the generative, it is the principle of emergence or of creation.

Nam June Paik had dreamed the dream of internet in 1994 in his great video wall installation. If only his electronic superhighway were a romantic signpost and symbolic gesture of what was yet to come. Datumsoria attests, unmistakably, to the formidable presence of a planetary membrane of the network that has forever changed the rules of the game in work and play, in politics and economics. Precipitating sentient residues and invoking emotive potentials, in the flux of ones and zeros there emerges a consciousness of technical autopoiesis that is capable of subjectivity of another order and inquisitive about the new ethics of another dimension as intuited by the late Friedrich Kittler. Datumsoria also signals that the politics of the real no longer only lies in the sphere of the actual bodies and social sites recognized in the form of the traumatic and abject subject as the predominant subject of contemporary experience and object of artistic inquiry, but also alludes to who has the ownership of this new reality that is constructed by the materiality of bits and bytes and the algorithmic power of the digital.

In the 1960s, Leo Steinberg wrote passionately in his seminal anthology »Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art« in defense of the then young and recalcitrant Jasper Johns who was often dismissed as a renegade from the abstract expressionist mainstream. Confrontations with art and the world at large in the twenty-first century now demand yet another criterion for a concept of the real. In so far as the real in question is concerned, the arts that have since inscribed piquant impressions on our sensory fields in the likes of abject, precarious, zany, or interesting may be recalibrated to register the generic and the virtual as new qualifiers for generation and signification, actuated by whatever media may be deemed necessary.


[1] Hal Foster, »The Return of the Real«, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996, p. 146

[2] Jean-Hugues Barthelemy, trans., Barnaby Norman, »Life and Technology: An Inquiry into and Beyond Simondon«, Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015, pp. 18,19

[3] John Von Neumann, »The Computer and the Brain«, Berlin: Berlinische Verlagsanstalt, 2012, kindle edition

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