“There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.” This system “branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissue of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess”. These are the words of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, writing on matters as diverse as the ecologies of Lake Erie and dolphins in Hawaii. His ideas were published in 1972 in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, where he defines ecology as a study of the “interaction and survival of ideas and programmes” in various environments. It would be hard to find a statement that better defines the so-called second-order cybernetics of the 1960s, a range of theories that explored potential relationships between biological and technical systems. Eventually, these issues also reached, or perhaps even correlated with issues at the fore of contemporary art.
This is the history of ideas that the international group exhibition On Circulation at Bergen Kunsthall aims to enter into dialogue with. The show consists of works by nineteen Scandinavian and international artists, presenting investigations into the mess of our contemporary condition: global warming, new labour relations, technical innovations, nasty wars over natural resources and sovereignty – all of them forces that constantly push human bodies and matter into new flows and circulations. “Since the 1950s,” reads the press release, “cybernetic researchers have envisaged a society governed through the connections and relations of its different parts, not from a centre.” Over five rooms, these issues are explored in art works that scrutinise relationships between nature and culture, the technical and the biological.
Upon turning around after entering the exhibition, visitors will see the words “Spinosaurus Aegyptiacus” in large colourful letters above the main entrance door. This is the title of Sean Snyder’s Spinosaurus Aegyptiacus (Visual Identity) (2018) – a project dealing with corporate codes and information technologies as language and as art. The letters are constructed from corporate logos: S for Sony Corporation, P for Deutsche Post, I for IBM Corporation, and so forth. The work also comprises a QR code, placed in a vitrine alongside other documents (compiled for the show by Snyder and the artist Sam Lewitt). The Spinosaurus Aegyptiacus could be interpreted as a metaphor pointing towards a historical reading of the entire show, reminding us of an evolution that has come to an end. In this show, however, it still exists in the form of logics, codes and mathematical numbers. Placed under glass, these numbers are on display like artefacts of natural history. This points to a larger question: where is history constructed and processed? Is it in machines or in the strata of the actual earth? This question haunts the entire exhibition, which has is a site for the re-evaluation of natural history and the science of earth.
In the second room, Sam Lewitt’s installation CORE (2018) dominates. BMW car parts, transportation crates, containers of sand and discarded moulds are placed all over the floor. The subject seems to be perfection, matter and form. Not in the shape of the actual car parts, but in terms of the collaboration entered into between Lewitt and the Bayerische Motoren Werke. Like the long gone Spinosaurus, the installation can be interpreted as archaeological layers arranged on the floor and on the walls, this time representing desire and capital, cast in steel. The resulting forms are powerful, yet vulnerable. Above this ambitious, full-room installation hovers a single, modest painting by Ulla Wiggen, one of the artists who introduced cybernetics into the Swedish art world in the 1960s. The painting Kretsfamilj (1968) shows electronic wires and receivers which, according to the title, manifest a “family of circuits”. A large pole holding two electronic receivers is seen against a blue sky. Earth is revealed as groundless, controlled by signals forming an electronic circuit, connecting the sky and the surface of Earth via the canvas. The painting describes the circuit as an open or endless entity, imagined in constant operation as it traverses the globe. Kretsfamilj and Wiggen’s two other paintings, Översättare (Translator, 1967) and Kretslopp II (Circuit II, 1967), installed in another room, remain the only historical references in the show.
From the next room comes a sound that connects the viewer’s body to these technologies, materials and signals. It is the sound of Park McArthur’s work Pits (2018), a recording from a quarry in Larvik, Norway. The quarry is mined for larvikite—a type of stone commonly used for the construction of museums and churches. The power of stone as a material and a natural resource resounds through Bodil Furu’s film Manguers de Cuivre (Copper Eaters) (2016), a work that, adopting a traditional documentary style, deals with conflicts surrounding the production of copper in Congo. Projecting a Marxist view on materiality, the film relies (perhaps too heavily) on generating empathy and emotions to prompt awareness of the victims of the copper wars. A reading of matter as an active entity could perhaps have provided other perspectives on the relationship between humans, nature, capital and the history of the Congo villages portrayed in the film.
The show also encompasses death, or, to be more precise, artworks dealing with the relationship between materials in various states of decay. On a white glossy pedestal, Tyler Coburn has placed Waste Management (2013–15) – an installation of two objects that appear to be precious stones. They are, however, cast stones made of recycled materials from the electronics industry: CRT monitor glass and fibre powder from circuit boards. Some of these materials are known to damage our natural world. They have now been transformed back into stones perfectly positioned on a pedestal, as if they were Earth-works of the 1960s. This material transformation once again points to the problem of distinguishing between the natural and the technological world, indicating that there is no opposition between the two. Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton and other theorists have said this for years: nature, as a modern invention, is dead. In Waste Management obsolete media become nature, become technology, become nature in a never-ending loop.
Behind Coburn’s work, Diamond Stingily’s installation Spine (2018) is presented on the wall. It consists of a white telephone cord knotted into the form of a human or animal spine, the knots suggesting a similarity between the spine and the telephone signal, now materialised as a fossil – a dead medium. The question is, however, whether obsolete media ever die? In both Coburn’s and Stingely’s works, electronic waste and obsolete media are portrayed as objects that are neither dead or alive, but poisonous materials that re-enter our ecosystem, slowly tearing it down.
Nina Canell’s three installations, all shown in the same room, pose further questions pertaining to the issue of life and death. Cucumbery (2018) is a small wall installation consisting of a central processing unit connected to thin slices of cucumber. The cucumber slices appear wet and fresh, a contrast to the dark, small machine, which has been detached from the hardware it usually operates. Together they form a new unit, a new collective, where the electronic signal gives life to the cucumber and vice versa, suggesting a new way of developing the ecologies of media and plants.
I read On Circulation as a profound comment on our post-capitalist condition of acceleration. The exhibition salutes the legacy of second-order cybernetics and represents the world as a network in which bodies, objects, codes and media make interconnections. However, the curators seem to have overlooked the fact that the exhibition space itself is a site where knowledge and relationships are generated. Isn’t that what the history of the avant-garde has told us, again and again? That visual art has the potential to cut, juxtapose and create networks and expanded ecologies in order to critically ask questions about the world, as well as to explore new potential worlds and realities? I have tried, both as a viewer and a writer, to link up the works and rooms, but in this show, the artworks, although strong in and of themselves, remain single entities rather than nodes in a network. They do not connect and form the kind of unity one expects to find in such an ambitious exhibition. Even so, the show reveals the enormous capacity for artworks to make visible the symbiosis of living and dead matter, and its urgent implications for our future worlds.