Thursday, July 30, 2009


Alfredo Triff

Is "Castrismo" a cultural Cuban trait?*
Answer: Do you have to be Chinese to be a Maoist?

What follows is not a discourse on social Darwinism,1 but after five decades of Castro's undisputed reign, perhaps it's time to admit that Cubans may not be above patrocliny:2 Something about Castrismo seems to realize glossed over aspects of Cuban culture.

An often-neglected aspect of Castrismo? Its heavy-handed HEROISM: All pretense (true heroes belong in Greek tragedies), penultimate curse coming down on Cubans like a beam of light through the solar plexus. Behind the tough posturing lies a dormant inferiority complex. Why? Jingoism is driven by an insatiable search for validation (lies presented as legitimate needs: "In politics, be as unpolitical as possible"). One doesn't know how bad it is until one gets reminded. Can Cubans escape this Third-World-symptom and march on to First-World socio-economic development?3 As the story goes, since their republican incorporation, Cubans lived comfortably in the dark corners of self-induced socio-political anomie. The Platonic/Revolutionary imperative of "facing the sun" 4 left them blinded. Cubans had no choice but to revise and accommodate their hopes to Castrismo's second coming.5 And the only good thing about this "second coming" is that it forced Cubans to pay attention to Castrismo's first incarnation.

Learn by rote!

For Cubans, any experience-memory of the present becomes automatically erased. They are happy to witness the present as if it was the first time! It must be hard not to have a (redeeming) past to fall back on. Never mind, Castrismo's "exile version"6 is no less utopic: The past gets altered, its memories appropriated (as Wall Street hedge-fund speculators do) from possible to non-existent futures. Teleologically speaking: Cubans exiles enjoyed uninterrupted progress -with minor misalignments- right until January, 1959.

Thus, the Nineteenth-Century slave refrain:

Siá, desásete cará, desásete historia, dale pa'trá ("History, free yourself, go back!").

Why is this relevant now? Castro's impending physical disappearance has very little to do with Castrismo. Watch out, all ghosts come back!7

*The question is seldom asked for fear of the truth. 1I don't take "Castrismo" as just an ideology -which it is- but as a broader set of cultural symbols and practices, transmitted through cultural habits. Given the proper environment, they flourish or become latent (or repressed). 2I'm referring to nom du père, symbolic Lacanian order, Castrismo as imago. 3History's true delivery, according to Castrismo's teleology. No doubt, this dependency theory is a product of Modern Neoclassical Economics. Isn't the very idea of "development," after Global Warming, in need of revision? Castrismo had it that Socialism would deliver humanity from the ills of underdevelopment (fifty years later, Castro's promise hasn't delivered). 4Were it not Platonic through-and-through, "Morir de cara al sol" ("To die facing the sun") would not pull such jingoistic zeal. Incidentally, José Martí is considered by nationalist Cubans as "the thirteenth apostle." 5Barely manifesting itself during pre-Modern Spanish-American colonialism, Castrismo grows to healthy maturity during the 1960's, just at the time of Cuban Revolution. Stubbornly idiosyncratic, during the 1980's it didn't sit well with Soviet-style bureaucracy and perestroika. Presently, Castrismo (as ideology) enjoys a comeback from oblivion after the apogee of Neo-conservatism. 6There is this Cuban cultural terribilità, like a two-heads-in-one-trunk syndrome (think of Lot's wife vs. Freud's Rat Man). 7Derrida's quote, referring to Marx, in Specters of Marx, Routledge, 1994).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Telematically sensing

Networking (ideal metaphor for early twentieth-first century culture): bottom-up interactivity, decentralization, layering of ideas from a multiplicity of sources. Networking as far reaching connectivity, mediated, accelerated, and intensified by the PC, leading to the amplification of thought, enrichment of the imagination, both broader and deeper memory, and the extension of our human senses: Person-to-person, mind-to-mind, memory-to-memory linking, regardless of dispersal in space and dislocation in time. Let’s make the invisible visible.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Artiste maudit?

"High art" has been retreating into the difficult, the artistic, and the painful, into refined ugliness, artful brutalities and calculated incomprehensibility, into the tragically complex and the bewilderingly capricious. Aesthetic postmodernity gives us an art of poisoned confectionery.-- Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason.

The role of the artiste maudit* has run its course to become simply the new orthodoxy: empty, vacuous, self-indulgent and pointless.
-- Sue Hubbard "Men Behaving Badly," for New Stateman, 2006.
*Damien Hirst's The Immaculate Heart-Lost, Bull's heart, Gold-plated steel, Acrylic, Silver barbed wire, Dagger, Textile dye and Steel Plinth. Sold for £505,000.

Camera Obscura: If Looks Could Kill

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Slayton: Soyuz, Apollo. How do you read me?
Kubasov: Very well. Hello everybody.
Slayton: Hello, Valeriy. How are you. Good day, Valeriy.
Kubasov: How are you? Good day.
Slayton: Excellent....I'm very happy. Good morning.
Leonov: Apollo, Soyuz. How do you read me?
Slayton: Alexey, I hear you excellently. How do you read me?
Leonov: I read you loud and clear.
Slayton: Good.

Alfredo Triff

COSMOS is an exhibit of mixed media by Cuban artist Antonio Eligio Fernández (a.k.a. Tonel) at Chelsea Gallery in Wynwood, Miami. Tonel, an important artist of the 1980's generation collaborated with DDT, a biweekly Cuban magazine that featured political and cultural satire and art. His installation El Bloqueo ("The Blockade", 1989), a 9-meter long assemblage of construction blocks shown at the Third Havana Biennial still has a reputation.

Known also as critic/historian, theorist and former cartoonist for humor magazines, Tonel's style mixes graphic design, caricature and kitsch. During the 1980's Tonel dabbled into Neo-Expressionism, but unlike other Cuban artists of the same generation with less conceptual skills, his work remains fresh and witty. To appreciate the artist's ability to percolate ideas through a -sometimes acid, sometimes detached- humorous filter, visit this Website (with artworks from the mid-1980's to the mid-1990's). Image #10: Lenin, what to do (1991), shows a postcard-like scene with the distant image of a grim-looking Lenin at the beach, checking out a group of bathers (a pun on the Bolshevik leader's 1905 treatise "What is to be Done?").

Then there's Tonel's titling,
sort of out-of-sync, usually at the bottom of the drawing, feeding on political & ideological conceptual appropriations, making the whole composition a restless, reverberating signifier whereby the statement meets the thingly object through crosswording & double entendre in the mode of not meeting it. Tonel's early Corazón, Con Razón (1985) evokes a warm -and a bit didactic- local Cuban saying: ("Of course, Sweetheart").1

Nota al pie ("Footnote") is a big plywood sculpture of a human leg supporting a life-size figure (Tonel's portrait) standing on the leg's foot. Without the
title, the piece misses its "other half" -as it were (Nota al pie is COSMOS's pièce de résistance).

Interestingly, Tonel provides written statement for COSMOS: The show tries to connect the events taking place miles away and above the earth with some of the realities of the post-Cold War period, from the expansion of suburban life with its quintessential golf courses and golf carts to the triumph of neo-liberalism, free-market ideology and world (or perhaps cosmic) trade (...) The effects of the gravitational law has clearly played a role in all of these developments, affecting the rockets that are still being launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan as well as the golf balls that fly over the artificial green grass of North American golf courses, not to mention the ups and downs of mighty superheroes.2

Lunokhod 1, Lunokhod 2, above, shows the original 1970 unmanned Soviet spacecraft (left drawing) next to an American golf cart. The superimposition of two vehicles (one meant for the moon's rugged terrain, the other for the smooth & manicured surface of the golf-course) suggests an amusing politico-economical dissonance, which does not bring back the Soviet-American Cold War head on. It's more like a rhetoric of sorts being played in neutral sidereal space. 3
Tonel imagines a Soviet cosmonaut landing on the moon, above. It may be pure coincidence that COSMOS is still up as the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of America's first landing on the moon. We live a very different world from that of 1969. Nowadays, technological feats are received with much indifference by a desensitized public with little tolerance for the old-fashioned enthusiasm that followed the space and missile race of the early 1960's.4

With the Cold War behind us, the constant tooth-gritting geopolitical crises of yesteryear have faded into bland Twenty-First Century nostalgia. Why? Immediately after the demise of the Soviet empire, post-Capitalism promised a Neo-liberal paradise known as GLOBALIZATION. Unfortunately, the economic and institutional changes that took place since the mid-1990's have not only been insufficient for prosperity; they are even counterproductive. The rise in inequality of income since the end of the 1990's translated into wider social differences, financial short-termism, uneven growth and the production of luxury goods for the well-off.
Tonel's art feels akin to a moment in history -after the fall of ideologies, between the 1960's-1980's- of détente. This is how curator and critic Aleš Erjavec characterizes a particular kind of art being produced in the ex-Socialist European countries, China and Cuba during the 1980's and 1990's:
"Postsocialist or late socialist art and culture exhibits a number of common, often interrelated, traits: Conceptualism, postmodernism the conscious or spontaneous use of what are today considered to be postmodernist techniques and procedures, profuse employment of socialist and Communist imagery, the use of national heritages and of folk, traditional, and mass culture, and frequent use of what I term a “binary” artistic approach, which results in works in which two realities (the aesthetic and the ideological, or the literal and the metaphorical) retain their mutual incompatibility."5

Along with Tonel, Erjavec includes, amongst others, artists Sándor Pinczehelyi (Hammer and Sickle, 1973), Komar and Melamid (The Origin of Socialist Realism, 1983), Yu Youhan (Untitled Mao/Marylin, 2003) and the more aggressive An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist (1992) by Mladen Stilinovic. What happened then?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, as the Eastern European countries and Russia moved from Socialism to Capitalism, their societies shared the burden of social problems presented with Capitalism: rising unemployment, crisis of values, loss of identity, commercialization, nationalism, even a resurgence (irony of ironies!) of sympathy for the former political system. The Postsocialist countries undergoing the transition away from socialism began to display not only similar kinds of social and economic stagnation, but also a specific kind of art and culture. Gerardo Mosquera writes an essay for Erjavec's book, entitled "The New Cuban Art." However, the Cuban critic prefers "Post-Utopian" instead of "Postsocialist." The socio-economic and political shift from Socialism to Capitalism that Erjavec presupposes in his analysis (of the Eastern European bloc and the ex-Soviet Union) doesn't apply for Cuba. Castro was weary of and always resisted perestroika. During the 1990's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba retrenched into an ideological fundamentalism known as "Special Period." 6
Mosquera acknowledges that in Cuba Erjavec's transition got truncated. It can hardly be called "transition" the migration to the US and Mexico of most of the artists of that genration. Mosquera concludes: "The artists react to the collapse of a dream, but are at the same time part of it. Here we live in the ruins of past glories, among the rubble of the city and the utopia."

Aside from the seductive imagery, humor and technique, one wonders what's the drive behind Tonel's COSMOS. Though he is a recognized artist from the generation of the 1980's living outside Cuba, his output still reflects -through themes and realization- the Postsocialist condition whose vestiges have become a realm of memorabilia.
Despite Tonel's admission that COSMOS deals with superimposed realities, the work is permeated by a narrative that savors specific memorial signs, charmed with the distance -not necessarily the referent itself. It is as if he avoided the present. Isn't this what nostalgia is all about?

In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym takes a look at the aftermath of Postsocialism. Boym finds two kinds of nostalgia: Restorative, which puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Then, there is reflective nostalgia, which dwells in algia: longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.7 Tonel's work is invests too much in humor to fall victim of nostos, a
--> condition which according to Boym, "enforces an emerging conception of patriotism and the national spirit."

There is no doubt that these images are charming because as Boym admits "cultural identity is based on a certain social poetics, a cultural intimacy that provides a glue in everyday life." In a certain sense Tonel's iconography compensates our separation, nearing an intimate experience, making longing available through humor. One feels one is coming home, never mind is not your home, by the time you reach it you already forget the difference.

COSMOS projects a desired past moving -beyond the present- into a future which could reactivate the present. Ok, we know the present is never what we've thought it would be, so one longs for a symbolic future (in order to resist the present). It all bears the mark of the empty promise of Postmodernism. Metaphorically speaking, it's too late for art to liberate society from oppression. We all stand as specters on the margins of the true winner: non-symbolic, factual, straight history. It turns that the struggles and narratives of history are repressed all over again, which only contains the potential for the return of the repressed.
The struggle failed and the dead died a second death, not only physical but also symbolic.

1This is what Luis Camnitzer writes on Tonel in his book New Art of Cuba(1994): "With punch lines minimized by banality and twists reduced to the effects of puns (mostly understood locally), Tonel's work sometimes evokes the covers of New Yorker magazine, with all the trappings of visual joke, but without the joke." Regarding Tonel's way of "joking around," I find Camnitzer's observation that Tonel's puns are for "local consumption" besides the point. Most jokes are "local," since they are intended to be understood within a community of speakers.2Tonel refers to the Apollo Soyuz mission of 1975. It turns "Soyuz" has another -more sinister- political meaning: It refers to the alliance spearheaded by the hard-line Soyuz faction in the USSR Congress and by the archconservative Russian Communist party during the 1990's.3Lunokhod 1 was the first of two unmanned lunar rovers landed on the moon by the Soviet Union as part of its Lunokhod program. The spacecraft which carried Lunokhod 1 was named Luna 17. Lunokud's present location is only guessed by a few kilometers. 4In 1957, Americans were startled to learn that the Soviets had put Sputnik I, a 2-foot sphere weighing 184 pounds, into orbit (Sputnik means "fellow-traveler"). The Sputnik success meant that the Soviets, not the West, had the glory of launching what was immediately called the Space Age. At the time, it was a vast gain in prestige for the Communist powers and a terrific morale blow to the West. 5 Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized art under Late Socialism (University of California Press, 2003) 6 During the 1960's and 1970's American Pop and Conceptual Art had little impact in Cuban art. Pop left a mark in Cuban poster art as political propaganda and in graphic illustration, but it did not caught up with painting. Conceptual Art did not appear until the 1980's. During the 1960's and 1970's Pop in music and painting was suspected as ideological diversionism. 7 Thinker Paul Ricoeur -following Freud- also suspects nostalgia as a type of melancholia (See Freud and Philosophy, Yale University Press, 1970).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Is it really art?

Joseph Beuys' Rhine Water Polluted (1981).

Beuys' piece can be taken as a paradigm
in the -still ongoing- discussion of "what is" and "what is not" art. With this in mind, miami bourbaki has elaborated a brief questionnaire to bring forth taste, economy, authority, etc, to examine how Rhine Water Polluted may affects notions of justification and validity in art.

1.Do you consider Rhine Water Polluted art? If not, why not?
2.Can Rhine Water Polluted be called "beautiful"?
3.Does it matter if you knew the actual content of the bottle is 1-piss, 2-orange soda, 3-toxic waste, 4-colored water?
4.Is it liking -or disliking- the artwork what prompts your judgment? Could Rhine Water Polluted grow on you? (say, in the event you know more about Beuys' life, work, etc?).
5.Would you change your mind if you knew that the artwork commands a high price?
6.Would you buy
Rhine Water Polluted if it was a good investment?
7.Once in your possession (and in the event you dislike it), would you still show it to your friends as a valuable commodity?
8. Do you find
Rhine Water Polluted humorous, trite, dramatic?
9. Would it make a difference if (instead of a ready-made) the piece (bottle and cap in this case) was made-from-scratch by the artist?
10. If people come to a consensus about Rhine Water Polluted being definitely art, would it make it art?

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? And if the body
were not the soul, what is the soul?

Friday, July 17, 2009


Alfredo Triff

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Initially, it appeared that Castro and what people usually refer to as “Castrismo,” (i.e., the unique set of characteristics that constitute Castro’s thought and influence) had to be one and the same. “Castrismo”: the behavior and legacy of the human being with that name.1
Alas, form doesn’t always follow content! 2

Through long years of maladaptive behavior, Cubans learned that “Castrismo” -as ideological construction, and (its) human embodiment are not necessarily an identity. What many repudiated -and feared- over the years as indisputable sine qua non found in Castro the human*, reflected a more intrinsic meme buried in the very nation’s character. Perchance, it could be argued that Castro, far from being the cause of “Castrismo” is just one of its manifestations. How?

“Castrismo” corresponds to a Cuban “manner” of expressing one’s political persuasion. It can easily be explained as habits transmitted through generations: speech acts, gestures, social rituals and other political strategies (coups d’etat reign as favorites).4

Could we fathom “Castrismo” as our national becoming?

Only then, so many puzzling questions about postulated divisions between Cubans “in the island” and “outside,” or “exile” and “non-exile,” or “exile” and “immigrant” are swiftly resolved. Also, the division cast between believers and non-believers is rendered obsolete. Now “Castrismo” and “anti-Castrismo” reflect only extremes of the same symptom here and elsewhere:

1. RRRRevolution! (the stressed alveolar tap recommended) is
our Eleftheria i thanatos, the First Axiom: Homeland or Death! Castroist-alpha-male yells, the Cuban version of Teutonic jingoism founded by an illustrious list of phallocentric Cuban martyrs.5 2. ¿What’s the cardinal archetype of “Castrismo”? Cuban Machismo, the Caribbean version of homophobic phallocentrism, a “blind faith” to explain Cuban RRRevolutionary justice. Ergo: “Out of the Revolution, nothing.”6 In other words, Cuban “guapería” (toughness) becomes a necessary condition of Cuban machohonor, raison d’être of the nation. ¿Surrendering? It’s equivalent to “bending down”, worthy of “maricones” (faggots), the worst possible scenario for a Cuban macho-specimen. 3. Next, is our moral imperative: “the honorable death,” either as Martiean, “dying like the good ones, facing the sun” or branding a machete, in Maceo-like fashion, “gathering the dust of his blood-soaked ground, if he does not perish in the fight.” 4. Know-it-all, ombligo del mundo: Cubans believe they possess a magic infallibility.7 5. “Castrismo” means didactic posturing and preaching of platitudes, in order to prevent the end of the world. Is it possible to fight “we-are-the-chosen”-type of ethnocentric delusions if one is born in an island? 5. Mixed feelings of omnipotence: Cubans give barbarians a good reputation, which explains Castro’s obsession with baseball and boxing, sports where one literally has “to hit hard” to win.

This overabundance of qualities only causes more social delusion, which is known as (“meterse forro uno mismo”) comme d’habitude climate for Cubans’ surreal socio-political sphere bordering on magical-realist nightmare, a state described by Cuban writer René Ariza as “la sospecha” (the suspicion).

(To be continued in part 2).

1Jorge Mañach in his “Filosofía del Quijotismo” (Philosophy of Quixotism) explains the idea as deeply embedded in the Spanish tradition. Obviously, if Don Quixote is synonymous with the Spanish character, then Quixotism precedes Don Quixote. Mañach died in exile in Puerto Rico in 1961 as result of his criticism of the Revolution, though he was supportive of early-Castro. *Generally human behavior not deemed “human,” for fear it so deviates from the norm. In this vein, serial killers and some infamous historic figures are actually “not human. See how Hannah Arendt deals with this issue in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 2Attributed to English parodist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm.3The condition begins in 1902, with Cubas Twentieth-Century Republic.4There are coups in 1933, 1952 (though General Batista referred to his putsch as a “internal RRRevolution”) and finally Castro in 1959. 5“Castrismo” is essentially homophobic (although there are many maricones castristas). 6 Famous speech delivered by Castro in 1961. 7Castro’s alleged infallibility is just a manifestation of a Cuban pervasive epistemic malaise. In that vein, Castro would automatically assume any critique of his regime as “enemy propaganda.”

Jean-Claude Risset - "Mutations"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You're like family

From Arte Callejero.
Os Gemeos, Modern Tate, London, 2008.
Photo: Jerónimo del Villar

Above is another example of street/art assimilated by the market. The whole experience obviously sold as commodity.* (What happened to old standards of High and Low?)

Make no mistake, graffiti art is still an alternative to the bizarre reality of today’s art market: Anonymous, ephemeral, pervasive and somewhat inconvenient. Graffiti art remains the twittering of political selection, non-hierarchical and emergent; a global transforming lingua franca for social denunciation. So, what does it mean when street/art ends up ostentatiously displayed at London’s Tate Modern?

Who legitimizes who? Have Os gemeos sold to the Tate? Positive. Is Tate Modern embracing street art? For now, yes, making graffiti accommodatingly democratic. As market icon, Tate Modern can be adaptable: It will embrace any new deal as long as it sells. For now, Os gemeos are “cool.”**
*To some extent this assimilation exemplifies another aspect of the fabricated tension between “High” and “Low” when it comes to art. I’m thinking of the reception of art as a sort of exulting aesthetic spectacle, inherited from the act of worship -now transformed by late-Capitalism as cultural practice: It’s generally sold (and digested) as “inner discovery.”
**Take a look at the Tate Modern press release for the Street Art exhibition. This sentence qualifies the marketability status of the group included in the show:

All six artists are represented in major collections around the world and regularly shown in gallery exhibitions and biennales but their work began in public urban spaces and remains indebted to Street Art and graffiti traditions.

Do not worry: You guys deserve Tate Modern’s institutionally consecrated walls. Sanctioned and auctioned, you are -so to speak- family.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey

The first true men had tools and weapons only a little better than those of their ancestors a million years earlier, but they could use them with far greater skill. And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each age could profit from those that had gone before.
Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future. (...)
He was also learning to harness the forces of nature; with the taming of fire, he had laid the foundations of technology and left his animal origins far behind. Stone gave way to bronze, and then to iron. Hunting was succeeded by agriculture. The tribe grew into the village, the village into the town. Speech became eternal, thanks to certain marks on stone and clay and papyrus. Presently he invented philosophy, and religion. And he peopled the sky, not altogether inaccurately, with gods. (...) As his body became more and more defenseless, so his means of offense became steadily more frightful. With stone and bronze and iron and steel he had run the gamut of everything that could pierce and slash, and quite early in time he had learned how to strike down his victims from a distance. The spear, the bow, the gun, and finally the guided missile had given him weapons of infinite range and all but infinite power. Without those weapons, often though he had used them against himself, Man would never have conquered his world. Into them he had put his heart and soul, and for ages they had served him well. But now, as long as they existed, he was living on borrowed time. -- From 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The ultimate (Faustian) technological fix

Alfredo Triff

Summer’s idleness is a good time for anarchic crossreading. This is how it happens: By chance one comes near “a constellation” -exciting and open-ended. Each “reading” triggers the next, either
as footnote, quote, or anxious influence. So, the reader sacrifices (surrenders?) her/his goal-oriented task in favor of literary adventure. Here is a list for futurist speculation @ the end of the world: “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “Thought Contagion” by Aaron Lynch, “From the finite to the infinite” by Juan Benemelis, “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil, “Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future” by geneticist Gregory Stock, “Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning” by Sir Martin Rees, “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” by Eric Drexler and “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau.

The ballgame gets split between optimists, pessimists and moderates

The optimists: Kurzweil, Stock and nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler. For them, humanity is on the verge of a new era of progress. Kurzweil foresees a merger between AI (Artificial Intelligence) and humanity, which leads to universal growth. Likewise, Stock envisions genetic engineering improving memory and prolonging human life, with a super-race around the corner. Drexler dreams with intelligent machines capable of producing atoms “à-la-carte,” fundamentally changing economy’s old modes and relations of production and human life in the process.

The pessimists: Bill Joy, founder of Microsystems, who believes that the AI can exceed human intelligence turning us into irrelevant pets. Benemelis gets into a detailed description of contemporary science and technology. He foresees a future of self-conflagration; our only salvation that of leaving earth for good. Rees presents a menu of technological disasters caused (¡irony of ironies!) by our desire to transform Nature -whether by design or by accident. On a not-so-distant planet, nano-machines designed by irresponsible scientists (how would they know?) imploding the earth in a nuclear chain-reaction swallowing all the matter in the universe at the speed of light.

Garreau is the middle-point: Human beings are neither masters nor slaves of technology. Garreau brings the vision of Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality, for whom AI is just a novel way of broadening and deepening relations between Homo Sapiens and machines. Hence the enthusiasm with which children approach computers and “interactive” video games. Interactivity has opened up new avenues in education and the transmission of knowledge.

The only problem is the danger of exponential knowledge and the possibility that technology reaches a point of no return.* Singularity expert Nick Bostrom puts it this way:
When we create the first super intelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. I don’t think we need machines for such subgoal/supergoal self-destructive scenario.

For a moderate like Garreau technology is neither friend nor enemy. It depends what we do with it. Think of it as dispassionate inquiry, what Veblen called idle curiosity, an indispensable element of creative work (I disagree, creative work usually is a passionate endeavor, but that takes us out of the present topic). How about human history since the Industrial Revolution? Just do the math: Pick ecological benefit vs. ecological loss.

Garreau thinks it’s possible to inhibit or slow down certain dangerous paths of science and technology. How? Can you know what’s “dangerous” without the benefit of hindsight? (Example: Atomic energy vs. nuclear race, antibiotics usage vs. virus resilience, more recently, derivatives in finance vs. derivatives as tools for senseless speculation). Who would doubt that animal cloning opens the possibility for human cloning?** With science, ethical and ecological problems come after-the-fact, not before.

One more book: Harvard University Psychologist Marc D. Hauser’s “Moral Minds.” Hauser defends a kind innate Homo Rawlsean*** with a “meme” in favor of cooperation and justice. For Hauser and Gerreau, technology is not divorced from empathy and cooperation. True, but I think that neither Hauser nor Gerreau entertain a sinister aspect of late-Capitalism and its impact on technology. Adam Smith
’sinvisible hand” has become a dysfunctional non-cooperative appendage subverting the system it is supposed to preserve, not unlike the so-called “Tragedy of Commons” in medieval England.****

Exactly what’s is going on in America right now.

Some of these authors could take a look at Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology. For Heidegger, technology leaves its pragmatic role as mediator for the “good of man” as soon as it pursues its own instrumental interest (very much like art for art’s sake). Technology has a serious genetic defect: its search for truth as abstraction, a cul-de-sac giving humans the impression of having the power to challenge Nature.

I am no pessimist, but take a look at our legacy after 200-plus years of Industrial Revolution: Global Warming?
*After Vernor Vinge, this is known as technological singularity. **A more recent development: parthogenesis.***An innate human ability to understand fairness and engage in cooperative schemes. ****Each member of society acts in his/her own self-interest, ultimately destroying shared limited resources even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Marvin Gaye: "What's going on"

1939-1984. Born in Washington D.C., in 1939, this preacher's son moved seamlessly from gospel to soul music. Shy, rebellious and spiritual, Gaye's talents as a songwriter and singer are legendary. Known for a succession of Motown hits in the 1960s, such as "Pride and Joy," "Can I Get a Witness?" and "Ain't That Peculiar," he scored with a number of duet hits with female singers. His duets with the late Tammi Terrell--"You're All I Need to Get By" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing "--are classic. His landmark 1970 album, What's Goin' On was one of the first concept albums. He changed gears from ecology to eroticism in the mid-'70s and 1980s with hits like "Let's Get It On" and his last hit, "Sexual Healing." In 1984, Gaye was shot and killed by his father.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Alfredo Triff

The ghost of Ch€ keeps haunting us. Not Ernesto Guevara, the asthmatic idealistic Argentinean doctor, biking through South America, nor the idiosyncratic Cuban Comandante, later Minister of the National Bank and Industries during the early years of the Cuban Revolution. Ch€, the symbol of the world’s anti-imperialist struggle,
post-modern mythogramme, the best hagiographic emblem of the Cold War.1

A shadow follows closely: “Fidel.” Not the man, but the first televised revolutionary of the Western hemisphere: A young Greek-profiled bearded Comandante en Jefe, who, at 33, with a white dove on his shoulder steers up the masses against his Capitalist enemies across the Florida Straights. Rewind this Black-&-White snippet two years, to Fidel, the guerrilla fighter during his media/launching for the New York Times by journalist Herbert Matthews (Sierra Maestra, 1957) and then fast-forward to October 1967, when Fidel breaks the news of Ch€’s death in the jungles of Bolivia to the Cuban people, (just a year before the invasion Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union). What Fidel doesn’t know is that his symbolic unction of CH€ signals the end of “Fidel” and the beginning of CДξτЯθ: dictator, bureaucrat-in-chief, future President of the Council of State and Ministers and President of State and Government and First Secretary of the PCC.2

Whereas Ch€ gives up his comfortable life in Cuba for the jungles of Bolivia, CДξτЯθ will enjoy power for decades to come. This asymmetry in symbolic destination determines two different outcomes:
Ch€ and CДξτЯθ’s popularity become inversely proportional. Symbolically speaking, as Ch€ gains, CДξτЯθ looses. These days we see less of the hirsute, gray-bearded, tragic-comic, feeble retired octogenarian. Late-CДξτЯθ wearing Adidas jumpsuit and tennis shoes, taking little walks outside his compound. Late-CДξτЯθ trembling and rambling about the past, even on the verge of tears! Who would’ve imagined?

History works in mysterious ways. In September 1968 (right about the time early-CДξτЯθ sides with the Soviet Union on the invasion of Czechoslovakia) one could not yet explain the ch€miotic transformation of Ch€: from
politicalideological→ aesthetic→ mythological virtual.

What will be the definitive portrait of CДξτЯθ? Difficult to say.

Meanwhile, Korda’s photo of Ch€ that afternoon of 1961 embodies the Byronean myth,3 frozen in our collective memory. The Heroic Guerrilla Fighter, his eyes sternly fixed at the horizon of immortality, dreaming a still unfolding -uncertain- future. Ch€: liminal, hybrid and interactive. The Camilo of the people,4 defender of the exploited of the world undergoing countless transformations: from adventurous biker and Comandante of the revolution, to ruthless executioner, Communist martyr, pin-up, logo, film celebrity, revolutionary saint.
Mithography: image/symbol. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Harvard University Press, 1980). 2 The length of these official party government titles is baffling. German critic Ernst Bloch, perhaps the first to observe title rank in bureaucratic structures says:
Rank is to Bureaucracy as medals are to the military. 3For Barthes, myth is constituted as a depoliticized message. In Mythologies Barthes explains that there is a first order of denotation of the sign which then becomes connotation. So Ernesto Guevara → CH€ through what Barthes calls “theft of language, namely, a myth becoming an empirical, irrefutable fact”. 4Not Camilo, the Cuban revolutionary, but Torres-Restrepo, the Colombian Catholic. Among the chief factors contributing to a Latin American Christianity revitalized by Guevarist precepts were Camilo Torres’ decision to join the Colombian ELN and the emergence of a Camilist Movement in response to his martyrdom.”- Donald C. Hodges The Legacy of Che Guevara: A Documentary Study, (Thames and Hudson, 1977).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stanley Fish, pundits and the meaning of spectacle

Alfredo Triff

I dig Stanley Fish’s column in the NYTimes. He is respected as a Miltonian and an expert in Constitutional Law. I’ve attended some of his FIU lectures. Professor Fish is quick-witted and polemical. So, I was surprised to read his July 6 column In Defense of Palin and Stanford. This is how Fish starts:

“I did not vote for Sarah Palin in the November election, and had I been a resident of South Carolina, I wouldn’t have supported Mark Sanford (...) Both Republican governors made rambling and sometimes halting statements of about 18 minutes (is that the canonical length for this kind of thing?), and in response the commentators speculated endlessly about why they had said what they said.

Fish pretends (too obviously) that by qualifying his political persuasion, he comes comes across as unbiased. Why? He criticizes media commentators for speculating too much (isn’t that their job as commentators?) on both Palin and Sanford’s press conferences, as if they had the ability -much less the interest- to provide the public with objective readings of the news. Who cares if they mean what they say?1 Pundits are supposed to distort and exaggerate the news so keep people watching. Conversely, this is what people expects them to do.

The one explanation they didn’t seem capable of coming up with was that they meant it, that their words were coming from the heart, from an interior that may have been fissured and rocky, but was nonetheless (dare I use the word) genuine.” (My italics).

Fish unproblematically assumes Palin and Sanford really meant what they said in their televised press conferences! IS HE SERIOUS? Fish should know by now that the media is a circus, and pundits’ comments should be taken for what they are: Platitudes in an endless game of refractions whose aim is to entertain the public. “From the heart?” Isn’t it obvious that the appearance of honesty received as spectacle is already pure simulation? What matters is the spectacle, not the meaning, whatever the meaning.

With a rhetoric that harks back to 1940’s Logical Behaviorism2, Professor Fish digs into Palin’s emotional rambling in search for meaning. Perhaps by seeking atomic units of media/ted behavior, Fish can reconstruct a mental mapping out of the emotional mess. Though he admits that Palin’s “statement was not constructed in a straightforward, logical manner,” Fish feels he can find a discursive rationale through the media spectacle. In the end, what really disappoints him is that “the pundits didn’t want to hear them or, rather, they were committed to believing that the real reasons lay elsewhere, and were strategic3 (My italics).

Of course they are strategic! How could one ignore that Palin and Sandford’s declarations are expressions of power, whose only purpose consists of being taken as sincere. Finally, Fish dispatches a disappointing Self-Help Manual-like cut-to-the-chase finale:

“So what’s the bottom line story? Simple. Sanford is in love. Palin is in pain. Sometimes what it seems to be is what it is.”

1I’m referring to Stanley Cavell’s important 1969 book, Must we mean what we say?, which defends a Wittgensteinean context-dependent idea of meaning. The meaning of “I’m really sorry” depends of who speaks, and to whom, where and when the utterance is delivered. 2 The idea that mental states are equivalent to behavioral dispositions. 3On the other hand, in his
Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980), Fish elaborates his reader-response theory not unlike that of Cavell, suggesting that readers have the power to use the value systems developed within their cultural milieus to create meanings. Fish wrote: “The objectivity of the text is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous illusion.” If we take the text as a metaphor for reality, then Fish’s demands for objectivity and/or precision on behalf our media punditry become superfluously banal.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On Koons & mass deception

From (Scene and Heard) Art Forum (Commenting on Jeff Koons' opening at London's Serpentine):

Jeff Koons knows how to make an entrance. Filmmaker Mike Figgis, former Royal Academy supremo Norman Rosenthal, and designer Stella McCartney were among the hordes that descended on the dapper artist as he arrived at the Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday for the opening of his first major survey in an English public space. With four children, two nannies, his wife, and his mother in tow (what is this? The von Trapps?), the ever-amiable Koons stepped aside for a fleeting chat. The artist may be known for his über-kitsch oeuvre, but he has emerged as a major spender on old masters and nineteenth-century European painting—not that he hasn’t invested in some twentieth-century works as well. “Dalí is very important to me,” he noted. But basking in such adulation, what did he consider his biggest mistake to be? “I don’t believe in mistakes,” came the diplomatic reply in between gentle interruptions from his bowler-hatted son.

Nothing against Koons, infallible master of glossymorous objects. But after reading the blurb, one gets the feeling of something bizarre going on at the level of culture.
Let’s contrast the paragraph above with an excerpt from Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Elightenment, p. 139:

The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.
1 The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, its draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all of the spectacle consists of, is illusory: All it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images, there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world in sought of escape. The secret of aesthetic sublimation is its representation of fulfillment as a broken promise. The culture industry does not sublimate; it represses.
1Adorno would argue that with capitalism, goods are not produced to meet human needs and desires, but for the sake of profit and further capital. While production for exchange rather than use is a feature of most economic forms, exchange -not use- has become capitalism’s main mode of production.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Jim Jarmush: The Limits of Control

From ArtNews: El Violín is one of four distinctive Spanish paintings the filmmaker uses to shape the look and characters of his new movie, The Limits of Control, recently out from Focus Features. A solitary man in a slick suit enters the Museo Nacional de Arte Centro Reina Sofía in Madrid. He looks at the floor plan and purposefully seeks out his destination. He stands in front of Juan Gris’s El Violín (1916). Psychedelic tunes kick in and for a few minutes the man loses himself in the Cubist work, hypnotized, it seems, by the deep colors and the swirling, fractured composition. Then, just as intently, he leaves. He has an appointment to meet a man with a guitar.

Gertrude Stein always says that cubism is a purely Spanish conception and only Spaniards can be cubists and that the only real cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris. Picasso created it and Juan Gris permeated it with his clarity and his exaltation. To understand this one has only to read the life and death of Juan Gris by Gertrude Stein, written upon the death of one of her two dearest friends, Picasso and Juan Gris, both Spaniards. She always says that Americans can understand Spaniards. That they are the only two western nations that can realize abstraction. That in Americans it expresses itself by disembodiedness, in literature and machinery, in Spain by ritual so abstract that it does not connect itself with anything but ritual.-- The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Craig Robins, Art+Research and the problem of technique

Alfredo Triff

An interesting piece of news that's kind of old appears today in El Nuevo Herald. Central to Robins' Art+Research is the issue of teaching style.
What's the problem? Robins has in mind a kind of amorphous, concept-driven approach. Bret Sokol's article for New York Magazine throws some light on the nature of the stir up over the Robins/University of Miami-sponsored art project:

"I like Steven very much, but I think he's dead wrong," says Robert Storr, dean of Yale's School of Art. The idea that somebody who has read all the critical literature on art can suddenly have an idea and make it is just nuts." In fact, Storr thinks knowledge of technique is central to an artist’s effectiveness. "Yes, you should teach ideas. But you shouldn't teach theory and then send people off to subcontract the work to somebody else." (...) The thing is, the University of Miami already has a conventional M.F.A. program, and many of its professors wonder why Robins doesn't just support them. "To have $2 million given to this rich man's fantasy camp is more than annoying; it's a complete kick in the teeth to the art department," says UM painting professor Darby Bannard. "We are hurting so bad over here for basic facilities. I spent two years just trying to get the floor in the wood shop fixed—it was so rotted out you could put your foot through it." Bannard's own pedagogical style eschews theoretical discussions. "It's very simple," he cracks. "I teach people to paint. Inspiration is fine, but if you don’t have the skills, it’s not going to go anywhere."

Jumping out the page is, why not u$? (meaning, not me?) Obviously, Robins is not interested in replicating your traditional MFA program (there are schools in Miami that already cover that niche). What Robins wants is a different environment: Art+Research will provide its eight-to-twelve resident artists with studio space, housing, and stipends. A sort of open laboratory for creativity, supervised by artists of international weight; a mix of experimentation, public relations and prestige1. The claim above that Art+Research doesn't care for technique is premature. Conceptual art is not -and cannot be- divorced from technique.2 Let's admit that even Merda d'artista requires know-how. I say, stop the whining and let's wait and see.


1Prestige in this case means being known and good at what you do (and have people willing to pay for it). 2 If technique refers to the right way of presenting the artwork, then it's obvious that one has to master whatever technique is required in order to execute the idea. So, the difference between Vermeer's technique for The Astronomer and Manzoni's technique for Merda d'artista boils down to solving how to rightfully present both.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Havana Biennal, performance and wacky politics

Alfredo Triff

I'm beginning to post stuff from the blogosphere. Here a paragraph from
Art World Salon:

The Havana Biennial has always stood in a category of its own, and as such a cultural anomaly it is always valuable to see what it has to tell us. It is produced with a minuscule budget, and anything done there is done against a powerful background of symbolism and—it feels to me—historical resonance. While other biennials feel like spectacles, Havana feels like a cause. But every time I visit I am left both with contradictory hopefulness, dismay, and disillusionment. Hopefulness because art really feels to have a mission and a purpose there; dismay because what flourishes there does so at the expense of repressive state policies and a yearning of freedom of expression. And disillusionment because Cuban artists, while the appreciate the attention, ultimately their aspirations are be in Chelsea, while we outsiders crave for the sense of historical mission hat they have. So, again, is there something to be learned from the remnants of this revolution?

I find Pablo Helguera's piece on the Havana Biennial pretty on target. It's not easy to talk about the Cuban issue without sounding either naive or didactic (or both). Tania Bruguera's performance attracted a lot of attention: A week after the event, the Biennial Organizing Committee published this note on La Jiribilla, a popular Cuban Website:

On Sunday March 29 at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, several people outside the cultural sphere, led by a professional "dissident" made by the powerful media group PRISA,1 took advantage of the performance by artist Tania Bruguera for a provocation against the Cuban Revolution. These individuals, at the service of an anti-Cuban propaganda machine, repeated the worn-out claim of "freedom" and "democracy" as required by their sponsors. They talked or rather acted for the cameras, and the incident became today big news in the Florida media.2

The "dissident" above is Yoani Sánchez, an internationally-known Cuban blogger who runs Generación Y. The trepidation of the organizers over
this section of Bruguera's performance goes to show the wackiness of Cuban institutional politics. What did the conceptual artist think of the performance? When Fabiola Santiago, an art critic from The Miami Herald, interviewed Bruguera over the phone from Miami, she declared: "I'm an artist who tries the impossible. This is my job and that's how I live my life."
1The reference to PRISA would automatically imply that Ms. Sánchez is acting as a foreign agent. Sanchez's independent journalism has provoked strong responses from the Cuban authorities.2 It gets better: Bruguera's performance is entitled Tatlin, which brings to mind Lissitzky's Rednertribune. According to the Constructivists, if art was to have any meaning at all, "it had to stir the people." Tatlin (the artist) would have been proud of the outcome of Bruguera's Tatlin. Maybe art is more than just an feeble apology for empty beauty-talk.