WAR OF THE WORLDS
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ was described by many critics as revealing a vision of destruction never before seen in cinema. The American model of normality – which at the beginning of the 21st century is apparently best represented by a divorced dockworker who only gets to see his children over the weekend – is confronted with the invasion of aliens. And it seems that the tripod aliens have only one intention: to bring about the end of civilization or, in Christian terms, the apocalypse. In the first half of the movie we see only the fallout of this invasion: darkness, debris and ashes. But we soon realize that this is meant as a metaphor for the human condition; culture is a surface that protects us from the destructive powers that lie beneath. Indeed one of the most impressive scenes of the film shows the cracking up of New Jersey’s asphalt surfaces; as the (normally hidden) traumatic kernel of culture breaks through the symbolic order, the chain of signifiers disintegrates and threatens a direct confrontation with the Real, which, as we know from Lacan, would destroy everything. The story must go on however, and of course the blockbuster cannot end with the annihilation of the known world.
Although there is no human force to protect us from this invasion – the protagonist Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is not only a ‘less than perfect father’ but also a less than perfect hero – in the second part of the film something changes: The Other begins to behave like a human being, following a creative purpose and pursuing a project. In a grotesque simulation of contemporary Western agriculture, the aliens run a monoculture, in the form of a gruesome farming project that attempts to repopulate the earth entirely with their own livestock. They cover the world with ‘red weed’, a plant resembling blood vessels that requires human blood as fertilizer. When the products of this breeding programme are revealed they are predictably anthropomorphic and childlike – not unlike the ‘fruitheads’ in a Paul McCarthy installation. However this attempt by the alien invaders to install their own version of normality on earth is finally thwarted by an infection; the bacteria in a single drop of water (fortunately) turns out to be sufficient to destroy the entire species.
If we were to reflect on this chain of events from the point of view of the aliens, we might ask where they went wrong, and why their project failed. We might start by turning to the title of Bruno Latour’s contribution to the catalogue for the ZKM exhibition ‘Iconoclash’, ‘What is Iconoclash? Or is there a World beyond the Image Wars?’ (1) In the present day, the ‘wars of the worlds’ are played out in ‘image wars’: acts of global terrorism, for example, which assault our media-saturated culture with new images of destruction. Latour is perfectly right in insisting that total iconoclasm is not possible in the realm of human beings (nor aliens for that matter). If we destroy images, idols or ideologies, new images, gods or theories spontaneously arise. We cannot imagine destruction without creating new images, if only images of destruction itself.
Latour jokingly suggests that Moses, being a bit hard of hearing, misheard the second commandment as ‘Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image’ when God was actually telling him ‘Thou shall not freeze-frame.’ He goes on: “If you stick to them, images are dangerous, blasphemous, idolatrous, but they are safe, innocent, indispensable if you learn how to jump from one image to the next.” (2) So on a formal level Steven Spielberg’s reworking of H.G. Wells’ classic allows us to refresh our cultural memory with new images, but the aliens’ iconoclastic attempts to create a single new graven image clearly contravenes Latour’s modified second commandment. This, of course, is an unsustainable strategy in the long term; no single image can be the last or only image. The movie starts and ends with another graven image, a very popular one at the moment: a computer-generated representation of the matrix or genetic code of bacteria. So the ultimate invasion or destruction would either be the total flux or overkill of images which has so often been described in Postmodern theory, or, on the contrary, only one image - the Real - which of course would be no image at all. Both are utopian and neither is possible in the realm of human beings or any other beings.
So far so theoretical. This was not intended to be a text on negative theology. And what has all this got to do with Grizedale Arts and its contemporary rural arts programme? In H.G. Wells’ novel the invasion of the earth by Martians started in Woking near London. The idea of writing a story based on a Martian invasion came to Wells when he and his brother Frank were walking through the peaceful landscape of Surrey. “Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly… and begin laying about them here” (3) said Frank. With a keen sensitivity to the mood of the fin de siècle and of history having become “a sort of jog-trot comedy” (4) as he put it, Wells began his fantasy of the invasion. I can imagine having similar thoughts on a walk through the beautiful landscape of the Lake District at the end of the 20th century. Suffering from Postmodern ennui, the hiker might wish an invasion similar to that of the Martians.
Appropriately, there is another kind of invasion that takes place year after year in this region in the form of millions of tourists. It is not only the huge number of visitors that makes the term ‘invasion’ so apt but also the fact that these holiday-makers infect the region with a particular strain of (global) virus: their own conception of how the ‘authentic’ Lake District should look. In its efforts to align itself with this projection the local tourist industry is suffering the same fate as the characters in Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’ (1956) whose bodies are occupied by the aliens, implicitly becoming ‘more real than real’. Jean Baudrillard has described this effect as a global phenomenon in which reality is disintegrating into hyperrealism. Of course replacing traditional identities with perfect and timeless copies is just a futile attempt to retain things that were never real in the first place.
The activities of Grizedale Arts in the Lake District since 1999 could easily be seen as analogous to the invasion of the aliens, and have in fact been previously described this way by the local residents themselves. And one can be forgiven for saying that at first glance it really is an invasion; an invasion of barbarians from the past combined with aliens of the future, disturbing the harmony and shattering the romantic tranquillity of the area.
It also seems as if the ‘invasion’ employs a very common strategy in contemporary art, usually known as ‘contextual art’ or ‘relational aesthetics’. So it makes sense to spend some time dealing with one of these terms. Contrary to the Romantic ideals of the 19th Century, and also to the visions of the avant-garde movements in the first half of the 20th Century, one can say that contemporary art has lost its faith in the authenticity of the artist and his work, or in poststructuralist terms the ‘author’ and his ‘text’. In the past it was enough to stabilize the text through the intention of the author. Since the ‘death of the author’ there have been many attempts to stabilize and describe the intention of a work of art through the alternative external factor of the context. The term ‘contextual art’ was first used by Peter Weibel to describe the extension of art into activities in the social and political sphere. An early version of contextual art began with the insight that the artworld as social system is constructed through external factors: many of them are ideological, fictitious or symbolical. Contextual works of art first analyzed the conditions of art as discourse. This analysis was later expanded into other discourses, such as politics, for example. A single work of art for example (the text) is shaped through the institution (the context) which is itself the text for other contexts and so forth. This is true for social situations too, which are easily read as texts or contexts. We live in a polyphonic world, and as part of this world art is intertwined in a complex way with other overlapping texts and contexts.
But as Boris Groys stated: “The decisive question is: is it really possible to describe, reflect and fixate the context – the art context as well as the ordinary context?” (5) It is the idea of a socio-political context or the idea of stability surrounding reality itself (described objectively by science) which is an illusion. Like a work of art, this context is a text that is surrounded by another context and so on. The so-called reality disintegrates in a multitude of singular perspectives and different languages. Like the tripods of the aliens, in Lacanian terms, the Real itself is hidden under this textual and contextual surface, and is structurally absent. But for Weibel and Groys the possibility of shifting and widening the context consequently opens a wide space for artistic activities: “the perspective of contextual creativity”. (6)
Inspired by Nietzsche the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first scholars of the 20th century who realized these possibilities for art. For Bakhtin no theory can describe the communicative context, because a real communicative context doesn’t exist. Rather this context has to be produced artificially or literarily, so Bakhtin searches for a means in which art is able to produce this context itself. This cannot be a stable institution like the museum; rather it should be a kind of temporary discursive assemblage. For Bakhtin the only way to materialize this assemblage is the carnival, an institution that arises spontaneously and temporarily. The carnival turns things upside down so that nearly every hierarchy disappears.
Bakhtin developed his theory of carnivalization in a discourse on the culture of laughter in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (7), responding to what he saw as the irrational nature of Stalinist culture. Living under the politically repressive culture of Russia in the 1930s while suffering from a bone illness and having lost a leg, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to focus on the more cruel and humiliating aspects of the carnival. Such carnivalistic ecstasies were centred on the humiliation and destruction of the individual; ‘amusing’ forms of torture, abuse and even murder were performed for the public’s entertainment. It is easy to correlate many of the elements of the medieval marketplace to the culture of the contemporary mass media, most obviously in reality TV but also in a more extreme and unregulated form on the internet. So the ultimate question for today’s advocates of this kind of carnivalization – the Bakhtinians – is: “who wants to be pissed on or pelted with shit all the time?”
As an alternative to this cruel and frustrating version one can imagine a joyful, celebratory carnival, similar to historic carnivals, inviting participation – with no real distinction between audience and organisation; a spontaneous institution which emphasises the anti-hierarchical tendencies of the carnival, the relativity of values, doubts about authorities, happy anarchy, mocking all dogmas. Most significantly it creates the possibility for a multitude of perspectives to coexist peacefully and act together for a certain period of time. And that is exactly what Grizedale Arts is trying to do. It is not by chance that most of the activities of the organisation are festivals or have festive forms (‘shows’ in all senses) and that artists have so frequently worked with costume and performance.
The elements and the aesthetics of these projects and festivals are well-known from the alternative cultural movements of the late 1960s and 70s – from hippie-culture, psychedelia, the spectacle of rock music and the D.I.Y. practices of punk, trash-culture, actions, happenings and gatherings etc. There is, however, an important difference in Grizedale’s version of this culture in that this is not meant as an alternative form of life; this is not a separate culture. There is no critical, distant impulse in it, at least not in the sense of irony, because as Kierkegaard puts it, irony is always combined with despair and leaves us alone.
These festivals only celebrate the richness of our contemporary culture, inviting the contribution of traditional voices as well as the voices of contemporary culture, and stage-manage the hope of a peaceful coexistence with the knowledge that this state cannot be permanent. Returning to the idea of ‘The War of the Worlds’ as a ‘war of images’, I would like to finish with Bruno Latour’s definition of ‘iconoclash’ as opposed to ‘iconoclasm’: “Thus, we can define an iconoclash as what happens when there is uncertainty about the exact role of the hand at work in the production of a mediator. Is it a hand with a hammer ready to expose, to denounce, to debunk, to show up, to disappoint, to disenchant, to dispel one’s illusion, to let the air out? Or is it, on the contrary, a cautious and careful hand, palm turned as if to catch, to elicit, to educe, to welcome, to generate, to entertain, to maintain, to collect truth and sanctity?” (8)
Do we really have these problems with images, graven or not? Don´t we already live ‘beyond image wars’, to paraphrase Latour? Maybe rural areas and critters are guilty of ‘freeze-framing’, but does this apply to globalised urban culture too? Today’s iconoclasm is practised by fundamentalist groups in order to provoke so-called Western culture and lifestyle, but is ultimately futile. Images already exist in the chaotic and anti-hierarchical structure of the carnival. However in a capitalist society images are commodities too, so the exchange of images follows the rules for the exchange of goods. It was Karl Marx who saw that we have to change the economy before changing society. In its recent projects Grizedale Arts follows the spreading of the capitalist economy from West to East, from England to Japan and now China. Again Grizedale deals with the rural, but with its emphasis on the fact that the rural may not only offer the possibility of refreshing our culture but might also be a chance to venture beyond capitalism. The alternative to capitalism is communism: a utopian project that allows images, language or people to transcend their status as goods and become autonomous. The Lawson Park ‘art farm’ is such a project in miniature, a base for a new utopia very different from other (often totalitarian) utopian visions. This utopia will deal in a confusion of images and signs, accepting and embracing the paradoxical nature of the world.
1. Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”, in: Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel (eds), Iconoclash, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2002, pp. 14 - 37.
2. Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik”, in: Making Things Public, Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel (eds), The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2005, p.29.
3. Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H.G. Wells. A Study of the Scientific Romances, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1961, p. 124.
5. Boris Groys, Kunst-Kommentare, Passagen, Vienna, 1997, p. 68.
6. Ibid., p. 69.
7. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993.
8. Latour, Iconoclash, p. 18.