Friday, February 20, 2009

Hoegen&Stikker at the Samuel Dorsky Museum

Hoegen&Stikker, Residency (May/June 2009) and exhibition (September 2009) at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, New Paltz, New York



400 years ago the Hudson River was ‘discovered’: It received it’s name and became part of a system of identified, mapped and appropriated territories. The system, a web of borders, margins and demarcations descended upon the landscape and has covered it entirely. This web or layer consists in part of physically visible demarcations, of lines drawn on paper, documented treaties or even just oral agreements.

Dividing the Land

Hugo Grotius stated in 1625 that the sea is undividable because it is not possible to make visible borders (you can’t put up a fence at sea). He considered the use of the sea as in-exhaustive (if I sail my ship it doesn’t take away from your possibility to sail your ship) so the need for delimitation would be less urgent than on land.
Nowadays, of course, practically everything is considered exhaustible. (At sea: fish, oil etc.) We are all interdependent of each others actions, from the consumption of raw materials to pollution. Many interests are mutual and intertwined. Therefore there is a need for something more extensive than a system of borders. (This is not necessarily a symptom of modernity: the African Masai, a nomadic people, have, rather than bordered territory, an intricate web of agreements with other users and inhabitants about land use, right of passage etc.)
So this layer covering, as it were, the land, this ‘superstructure’, is as much a web of borders as a system of agreements, quotas, protocols etc. that are linked to use and function.

Quote from: The Production of Space, by Henri Lefebvre
Page 38/39 in which he defines 3 concepts of space:

Spatial practice
The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it. From the analytical standpoint, the spatial practice of a society is revealed through the deciphering of its space.
What is spatial practice under neocapitalism? It embodies a close association, within perceived space, between daily reality (daily routine) and urban reality (the routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, ‘private’ life and leisure). This association is a paradoxical one, because it includes the most extreme separation between the places it links together. The specific spatial competence and performance of every society member can only be evaluated empirically. ‘Modern’ spatial practice might thus be defined-to take an extreme but significant case- by the daily life of a tenant in a government-subsidized high-rise housing project. Which should not be taken to mean that motorways or the politics of air transport can be left out of the picture. A spatial practice must have a certain cohesiveness, but this does not imply that it is coherent (in the sense of intellectually worked out or logically conceived).

Representations of space:
Conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic sub dividers and social engineers, as of a certain type of artist with a specific bent – all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived. (Arcane speculation about Numbers, with its talk of the golden number, moduli and ‘canons’, tends to perpetuate this view of matters). This is the dominant space in any society (or mode of production). Conceptions of space tend, with certain exceptions to which I shall return, towards a system of verbal (and therefore intellectually worked out) signs.

Representational spaces:
Space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’, but also of some artists and perhaps of those, such as a few writers and philosophers, who describe and aspire to do no more than describe. This is the dominated – hence passively experienced – space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects. Thus representational spaces may be said, though again with certain exceptions, to tend towards more or less coherent systems of non-verbal symbols and signs.

End of Quote.

Superstructure, Survival and Undividability

Whether marked in the landscape or not, it is second nature to us to navigate this ‘more or less coherent systems of non-verbal symbols and signs’, or, as we like to call it, the superstructure, almost as though it had a physical presence. Going for a walk around the block, down the road or by the river, we are constantly aware of properties, crossing territories, abiding by agreements on where to walk, how to behave etc. etc. We have internalised the superstructure.

This internalization of the structure has to do with our dependency on it as the condition, not only for survival but for wellbeing, for freedom. One could argue that freedom is having the correct status within the structure so that the rules work in your favor, and understanding the superstructure so well that one can move safely within it and navigate it optimally.

Quote from: De Capsulaire Beschaving (The Capsuler Civilisation), by Lieven de Cauter
(our translation)
Page 89

The Rise of Biopolitics

Biopolitics is a term Foucault used to indicate that biological life is an object of direct political interference. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has made this the focal point in many of his books. Illegal immigrants and refugees aren’t citizens and as long as they aren’t, they have a very peculiar status between the internal and the external, bios (communal life) and zoë (biological life), being on the inside and the outside of the law, between human and homo sacer. Registration in the bios (life in the polis) of the modern state happens on basis of ‘nation’, the fact that you were born in a specific place. Once you live ‘outside’ this nation (in fact unprotected, like in the case of rejected citizenship), then your legal status becomes insecure. The risk to be reduced to zoë (the bare life) is, as reports on refugees show us, all too real.

End of quote

Yet the fantasy of freedom persists as an image of unlimited (borderless) and undivided space. What then is this ideal landscape, where does this notion come from and how is it of use to us?

Quote from: The Production of Space, by Henri Lefebvre
Page 234

The cradle of absolute space – its origin, if we are to use that term – is a fragment of agro – pastoral space, a set of places named and exploited by peasants, or by nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. A moment comes when, through the actions of masters or conquerors, a part of this space is assigned a new role, and henceforward appears as transcendent, as sacred (i.e. inhabited by divine forces), as magical and cosmic. The paradox here, however, is that it continues to be perceived as part of nature. Much more than that, its mystery and its sacred (or cursed) character are attributed to the forces of nature, even though it is the exercise of political power therein which has in fact wrenched the area from its natural context, and even though its new meaning is entirely predicated on that action.

End of quote.

To go back to Grotius and the undividable sea: Although our ideas of exhaustibility have changed and therefore the need to divide, his point is still valid. In a sea, ocean or river, the cursory water itself is still impossible to enclose, define, outline or limit, and as such water is a symbol for the undividable.

The De-contextualized Landscape

It would seem that the only way to see or experience a landscape without the superstructure is by completely de-contextualizing it. One has to ‘cut it out’, lift it out of context. Here is a role for film and/or photography, media that imply a kind of ‘truth’ yet can effectively manipulate context and meaning to a great extent.

But when you strip the landscape of its symbols, does anything remain? Without context there is no superstructure (or at least an unclear, maybe false superstructure). Without superstructure there is no means to identify or navigate or use an environment. Is it not then meaningless? Perhaps an unnamed river doesn’t, in any meaningful way, actually exist at all.

Quote from: Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas
Page 141

External boundaries

The idea of society is a powerful image. It is potent in its own right to control or to stir men to action. This image has form; it has external boundaries, margins, internal structure. Its outlines contain power to reward conformity and repulse attack. There is energy in its margins and unstructured areas. For symbols of society, any human experience of structures, margins or boundaries is ready to hand.

End of quote.

Locking Up the Neighbour

When thinking about borders, forms of enclosing, securing and protecting, the question that necessarily imposes itself is that of who is keeping who in, or out.

Dostoyevsky wrote (as quoted by Foucault): “You can’t prove your own sanity by locking up your neighbour.”

To that we can add: Are we locking up our neighbour or are we locking up ourselves

Quote from: De Capsulaire Beschaving (The Capsuler Civilisation), by Lieven de Cauter
(our translation)
Page 81

Anthropological preambule
The word capsule has its origin in the Latin word capsa which means box or container, and capsa comes from capere which means enclosing, holding, keeping, imprisoning. A capsule is a holder, a container. A capsule in a more specific way, modeled after the space capsule, can be defined as a tool or an extension of the body that has developed itself into an artificial entity which shuts out the hostile external surroundings. It is a medium turned into casing. Honoring McLuhan the shortest definition could be the following: a capsule is a medium that has literally become a centre, a milieu.

But in a sense the capsule is as old as mankind, or as old as culture. Because people need artificial milieus and are always encased by their extensions (ranging from clothes to houses and even to language as medium). Culture, one could say, is the capsule of a human being. That’s how the capsule (an extension or tool which becomes an artificial mileu encasing us), the matrix of mankind.

End of quote


- The Production of Space, by Henri Lefebvre, translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Original first published 1974.
- De Capsulaire Beschaving, Over de Stad in het Tijdperk van de Angst, by Lieven De Cauter. Nai Uitgevers, 2005.
- Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas. Routledge Classics, 2002. First published 1966.
- De Geschiedenis van de Waanzin (The History of Madness) by Michel Foucault, translation by C.P. Heering-Moorman. Boom Meppel,1989. Original first published 1961.

Philippine Hoegen en Carolien Stikker, february 2009

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