The 1960s and 1970s mark the first time contemporary art opposed modernist art. Formalist strategies that privileged the art object were displaced by discursive, administrative and conceptual approaches that emphasized relationships, and connoisseurship gave way to the demands of the growing research-industrial complex. The concept of creativity partially shifted from a traditional craft function to intensive means of research, production and exhibition as seen in the emergence of land, environmental and ecological art, conceptual and performative practices, and spatial installations. However, in entering the information and systems age, which supplanted the industrial and machine age, art struggled to maintain (or willingly ceded) its materiality, which became divorced from message, as did content from expression, reinforcing philosophical dualisms.
In complicating and extending the ontology of art, this more conceptual mode of thought has given rise to what John Johnston characterizes as “two conflicting cultural narratives, the adversarial and the symbiotic,” in which humans either lose control of their environment at the hands of technology or merge with technological systems. Either option creates fear and alienation because humans are denied active participation in creation. With the machine, a discrepancy between technics and culture opens up, because humans are no longer “tool bearers,” but rather subjects gradually devolving from active to passive operator, reduced to a small a part of a larger system.
Black box theory was also a discursive and practical conceit to navigate the difficult terrain between mechanistic determinism and vitalist mysticism, acerbated by industry, information and systems. Ross Ashby’s Black box theory introduced the ontology of unknowability, which he exemplified through the processes of doctors treating patients with aphasis and scientists analyzing rats in a maze, as well as extending the concept to more quotidian instances. He writes, “The child who tries to open a door has to manipulate the handle (the input) so as to produce the desired movement of the latch (the output); and he has to learn how to control the one by the other without being able to see the internal mechanism that links them.” As such, black box theory is a precursor to Michel Foucault’s notion that life could emerge only through “the grid of knowledge constituted by natural history” or by becoming an invisible process within the depths of the body, or Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming imperceptible. Heidegger also famously conceived of presence-at-hand as an awareness of technology only when it breaks or its operations become askew. Systems and cybernetics theory similarly realized that scientific discourse was performative, embodied, situated and material, rendered invisible by the efficacy of science.
In light of such black box theater, this essay considers Les Immatériaux, the 1985 multi-media installation curated by Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput at the Centre Pompidou, as a dramaturgy of information theory and the post-modern condition. While Lyotard’s exhibition often runs aground into extremes, suggesting a total loss of control or complete assimilation in the face of technicization, it also evinces moments of black box beauty, dramatizing issues and highlighting the performative nature of art and technology, turning objects into instruments, and understanding that incorporeal materiality is materiality nonetheless. The classic hylomorphic model is challenged to the extent that images and artifacts attain meaning immanently, revealing a process of excess, rather than serving a predetermined end or a specific purpose.
As a constructive rather than exegetical means of informing Lyotard’s work, the essay considers Jack Burnham’s earlier curatorial and written work, which introduced systems theory, as well as the relationship between art and technology to the gallery, and, like Lyotard’s foray into techno-scientific artistic curation, elicited a melancholy and sense of distanciation, even failure, on the part of the author. Burnham’s “unobjects” and Lyotard’s “immaterials” remain distinct from the dematerialization of art associated with conceptual movements and institutional critique and serve as a valid critique of the myopia of these purely discursive practices. Where discursive and administrative aesthetics divorce materiality from message and content from expression, reinforcing philosophical divides between mind and body, form and matter, episteme and techne, Burnham and Lyotard both stage dramas of information in which software, as distinct from hardware in Burnham’s work, and immateriality for Lyotard no longer serve to free concepts from their materiality but shift materiality away from familiar objects to the techno-sciences and post-modern notions of space.
JACK BURNHAM’S “UNOBJECTS”
Burnham begins his essay “Alice’s Head” with a quote from Lewis Carroll: “‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice, ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!’” He further suggests that conceptual art marks such a disembodied presence, devoid of the materialist trappings of canvas, paint, stone and metal associated with conventional art objects. Burnham, heavily influenced by early systems theory and cybernetics, sought to free art of its institutional framework, extending the place of a less elitist and nostalgic art.
Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, writes, “Information is information not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day.” Part of a utopian view of information, messages here have no material presence, acting as pure pattern, distinct from energy, remaining immaterial until encoded in print, electrical pulse or digital bit. Shannon’s quantitative theory of information, first articulated the same year as Wiener’s cybernetics, also defined information in statistical terms based on entropy and randomness in thermodynamic systems. In short, the conjectured advantage of their concept of information was its lack of presence. As Katherine Hayles writes:
Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that “intelligence” becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld. […] All that mattered was the formal generation and manipulation of informational patterns. Aiding this process was a definition of information, formalized by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, that conceptualized information as an entity distinct from the substrates carrying it.
Cybernetics, in other words, constituted an epistemic shift in which technological progress became informational rather than material or energy.
Similarly, Burnham linked technological shifts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to an accompanying paradigm shift in thinking and creative practices in which conceptual art became nebulous information rather than defined thing. Formalist art objects were countered by “unobjects,” defined as “either environments or artifacts which resist prevailing critical analysis.” Burnham continues, “The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment.” Burnham extended the distinction between hardware as a material substrate and software as a message into conceptual art in which information is disseminated via books, catalogues, interviews, reviews, advertisements, sales and contracts.
In 1970 at the Jewish Museum, Burnham curated Software, Information Technology, its New Meaning for Art, the title of which served as a metaphorical extension of the distinction between material substrate and message, hardware and software. He described the exhibition as “an attempt to produce aesthetic sensations without the intervening ‘object;’ in fact, to exacerbate the conflict or sense of aesthetic tension by placing works in mundane, non-art formats.” Burnham continues, “As a culture producer, man has traditionally claimed the title, Homo Faber: man the maker (of tools and images). With continued advances in the industrial revolution, he assumes a new and more critical function. As Homo Arbiter Formae his prime role becomes that of man the maker of esthetic decisions.”
However, within a few years, Burnham had distanced himself from the exhibit and declared it a failure, publishing a melancholy, occasionally bitter essay, “Art and Technology, the Panacea that Failed,” which included critical takes on all the major marriages of art and technology from the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Cybernetic Serendipity, Maurice Tuchman’s five-year-long Art and Technology project at the Los Angeles County Museum, the work of EAT, and of the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT as well as Software. He speculates why these shows had not succeeded and, more generally, why the use of new technologies and related ideas such as cybernetics by artists had failed to be the – or even a – future of art. He asks, “Why should the only successful art in the realm of twentieth-century technology deal with the absurdity and fallibility of the machine? And why should electrical and electronic visual art prove to be such a dismal failure?”
Even before this post-mortem, Burnham unintentionally evinces additional critical issues in his earlier, more optimistic essays, “Systems Esthetics” and “Real Time Systems.” First, systems theory’s capacity to obfuscate boundaries between art and life was a double-edged sword. While it resisted the hegemony of formalism and elitism, it also resisted any distinction between the exceptional and quotidian and proved difficult if not impossible to place many of the works in an art historical context or respond to them. Burnham writes, “In systems perspective there are no contrived confines such as the theater proscenium or picture frame.”
Second, Burnham’s prose, like systems art, was fraught with contradictions related to organization. Burnham writes, “In the context of a systems esthetic possession of a privately fabricated work is no longer important. Accurate information takes priority over history and geographical location,” only to negate his argument a few pages later, noting, “Systems components derive their value solely through their assigned context.” He further suggests that objects have no inherent meaning, noting, “As indicated, every artist produces data by making art. Critics, magazines, galleries, museums, collectors, and historians exist to create information out of unprocessed art data. History is uncertainty about art minimized.”
Systems art, as he overtly contends, is also didactic. It leaves very little room for interpretation or emotional response, which makes it more conducive to industrial application and communications than to the more ambiguous realm of aesthetics. Burnham writes, “[T]he art object is, in effect, an information ‘trigger’ for mobilizing the information cycle. Making, promoting, and buying art are real-time activities. That is to say, they happen within the day-to-day flow of normal experience. Only Art Appreciation happens in ideal, nonexistential time.” Burnham contrasted the real-time activities of the art cycle to the idealized notion of art derived from the classical frame of reference, which simplifies and idealizes art experience and removes it from the flow of time. But this view, which is consonant with the idealizing and isolating activities of classical science, is no longer adequate to the emerging cybernetic and systems view of the world, or to the rapid development of information and communications technologies. Following McHale and Marshall McLuhan, Burnham proclaimed the then fashionable idea that, through Information systems, real-time systems challenged the traditional role of artists as purveyors of nostalgia. At a time when the potential for computers to communicate and control was far from obvious, he seems pre-occupied with empirical reification of technology into forms of art.
Burnham explored an epistemological rupture between the decline of industrial society and the emergence of information technologies, but Burnham failed to foresee how this didactic component could make works too immediate, undermining their temporality and often favoring literal hypostatization at the expensive of more complex treatments. The speed of real-time art forecloses contemplation, as well as the temporal and spatial gaps in which indetermination and indiscernibility can arise. Burnham, in other words, negated the power of perception as a process of selection, which entails subtraction from a flow of images and suffering as an awareness of memory and what is not thought. Burnham writes, “Ultimately systems theory may be another attempt by science to resist the emotional pain and ambiguity that remain an unavoidable aspect of life.” In other words, systems art and real-time technology mistakenly assumed a given and givable durational whole.
Burnham’s marriage of art and systems theory, at the forefront of thought and practice, also lacked the benefit of further developments in these fields that contend space and time can only be measured in terms of speed. As Jacques Derrida writes, “[A]t the beginning there will have been speed”. Parodying the Gospel of St John and Goethe’s Faust, he contends that speed is “faster than the word or the act”. He argues that the essence of technics is speed in that all inventions are “the invention of a process of acceleration, or, at the very least, a new experience of speed”. As Gilbert Simondon argues, technology has become autonomous, developing at its own pace and influenced by its own internal logic. As a result, technology cannot be reduced to function or utility or theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. Technology is rather an ensemble or assemblage imbricating machines, humans and environments. Technology is a process of invention rather than fixed and isolated objects, but it nevertheless contains, like the subjects who use it, materiality and agency. Technology is not the application of scientific knowledge but the precondition for it. Technology exists prior to any theory/practice or episteme/techne split. Placing ourselves as subjects before the taking-form of objects precludes us from witnessing the process of ontogenesis. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics, it becomes difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.
Thus for Bernard Stiegler our human relationship with time is governed by the technical means by which we apprehend it. Objects and techne afford access to history and time. With the rise of real-time technologies this relation is brought into question. He suggests that the conjunction between the question of technics and of time made evident by the speed of technical evolution and by the ruptures in temporalization and “event-ization” it provokes call for a new consideration of technicity, in which it is understood as constitutive of temporality as well as of spatiality. Inspired by Simondon, Stiegler contends, “The modern age is essentially that of modern technics,” and industrial (or information-based) civilization hinges on permanent innovation, yielding a divorce between culture and technology in which “Technics evolves more quickly than culture.” Between the inorganic beings of the physical sciences and the organized beings of biology, there exists a third genre of being: “inorganic organized beings,” or technical objects. These nonorganic organizations of matter have their own dynamic when compared with that of either physical or biological beings, a dynamic, moreover, that cannot be reduced to the aggregate or product of these beings.
Burnham was progressive and prescient, but he was unable to foresee the rate at which real-time and network computing would develop and has become part of everyday life. The promises made by art and technology for the future of technology were realized to such an extent outside of art (in industry) that the role of the artist as a mediator between society and accelerating social change became irrelevant, even impossible, from Burnham’s perspective. In other words, systems theory did not fail as much as succeed in fields outside of art. Systems theory has thrived in utilitarian realms in which efficiency and lack of meaningful excess count for more than in art. Systems art was caught between a compulsion to critique technology and a direct and reductive reification or hypostatization of it. Burnham’s focus on real-time technology was perhaps misguided, becoming most relevant in military systems like SAGE and SABRE that used real-time technologies to predict and guide future activities. This was problematic for Burnham, because when he was curating and writing, Heidegger and Gadamer as the guardians of culture against techno-social incursion influenced theories of technology, the implications of which were most obvious in places like Vietnam.
Burnham’s work lacked a mechanism driving the process of individuation, what Simondon calls transduction, a transfer or transformation of information through a material medium in which the materiality of the medium influences the possibilities, the virtual potentials of propagation. Individuation, that is, takes place in between form and matter, as opposed to the imposition of a preconceived form on inert matter. This process applies equally to information, which cannot elide the medium through which it is transmitted. Technology is also revealed as an ensemble capable of expansion to produce new networks of relations that mediate between the organic and inorganic through feedback rather than alienating one from the other. As Adrian Mackenzie writes, “Transductive processes occur at the interface between technical and non-technical, human and non-human, living and non-living.” Through what Simondon calls “the mentality of the technical object,” the designer can unite disparate fields, facilitating emergence, but the passing of a threshold belongs to their potential. Art in other words is an exceedingly complex system with its own dynamics with which other machines and humans can interact but which can never be known exhaustively. That is, art exists only within a certain economy of time produced by the materiality and temporality of culture’s means of inscription, storage and exchange. At the same time it must exceed the restricted economy of programmatic calculability, which would otherwise foreclose the possibility of the event and of choice.
LYOTARD’S LES IMMATÉRIAUX
In 1985, Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput, curated Les Immatériaux (The Immaterials), a multi-media installation of new technology, architecture and art that emerged as a cross between a traditional exhibition, industrial product show, experimental new media and participative performance piece. Posited as an event rather than exhibition, the program addressed a number of issues connected to installation art: the relationship between information and materiality, content and expression, the exhibition as discursive and administrative practice, as well serving as a commentary on the history of exhibitions. Most importantly, the show considered the relationship between art and technology, episteme and techne, material and form, mind and body. Lyotard’s principle curatorial question asked, “do ‘immaterials’ leave the relationship between human beings and material unaltered or not?”
Les Immatériaux was among the last exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou to embody the institution’s original ambition to remain open to all forms of expression, from industrial design and urbanism to painting and performance, instead of a modernist museum based on the neat differentiation between departments according to media. Les Immatériaux brought together a vast array of objects, ranging from industrial robots and personal computers, to holograms, interactive sound installations, and 3D cinema, along with paintings, photographs and sculptures (the latter ranging from an Ancient Egyptian low-relief to works by Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth and Giovanni Anselmo). One reason for the heterogeneity of objects represented in Les Immatériaux was that Chaput chose many of the exhibits before Lyotard was invited to join the project in 1983. In fact, the Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI) – the more sociological entity devoted to architecture and design within the Centre Pompidou, which initiated Les Immatériaux – had been planning an exhibition on new industrial materials for a number of years. Variously titled Création et matériaux nouveaux, Matériau et création, Matériaux nouveaux et création, and, in its last form, La Matière dans tous ses états, this exhibition, first scheduled to take place in 1984, already contained many of the innovative features that found their way into Les Immatériaux.
The central discursive conceit of the exhibit was a deconstruction of the theory of communication and information developed by Wiener, Lasswell and Jakobson into five separate valences or trajectories, suggesting that all objects are messages. Lyotard mapped five terms derived etymologically from the Sanskrit root ‘mât’ (“to make by hand, to measure, to build”) – medium, sender, receiver, referent and code – which in French maintain alliteration, onto the communication model first developed by Harold Lasswell – ‘Who / Says What / In Which Channel / To Whom / With What Effects?’ Lyotard’s conflation of these communication models with the etymological group of mat- terms was hardly rigorous. What it proposed, however, was an epistemological short-circuit between heterogeneous discourses, the one poetic, the other scientific, to establish the following equivalences: matériau = support (medium), matériel = destinataire (to whom the message is addressed), maternité = destinateur (the message’s emitter), matière = référent (the referent), and matrice = code (the code).
The communications model is comprised of two intersecting axes: the horizontal one moving from sender to receiver through the message and a vertical one moving from code to referent via material support in which all these discrete elements are embodied. A change in one axis or any term signifies a change in the others. Recognizing that technology, like communication, reflects a permanent state of innovation, Lyotard asks “[H]ow can it test us if we already know, or if we can know – of what, for what, it is done?” Technology continues to evolve more rapidly than humans, who stabilized biologically about 20,000 years ago, and faster even than culture. Lyotard proposed that under the conditions of a computerized information society the great meta-narratives by which modernity had been legitimized were no longer sustainable. They could only be considered language games, a concept borrowed from Wittgenstein, operating according to different sets of agreed rules. Science in particular had lost its claim to be a meta-narrative owing to the emphasis on performativity and efficiency demanded by its increasing technicization.
Les Immatériaux serves as a model of the postmodern condition, reifying the anxiety that follows loss of identity and control. Material facets of experience dissolve into an infinite, often imperceptible process. That is, Lyotard’s interest in the postmodern condition is tempered by ambivalence toward the technological sublime and the loss of modernist ideals. He provides a reactionary lament concerning the loss of grand narratives even as he proposes new means for navigating the postmodern terrain of language games. As Paul Crowther writes, “Les Immatériaux, in other words, functioned as a kind of model for the postmodern condition. It showed us how familiar ‘material’ aspects of experience dissolve, when mediated by techno-scientific data, into an infinity of processes and relations that cannot be grasped in perceptual or imaginative terms. Infinity is inscribed in the familiar.”
Like Burnham’s conceptualization of unobjects as software, Lyotard’s turn to immaterials has a history with which as a philosopher he would certainly have been familiar. Immaterialism has its eighteenth-century advent in Bishop Berkeley, whose metaphysics held that there are no material objects, only minds that apprehend. According to Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.” Immaterials, unlike matter, objects and bodies, are not subject to decay. Kant’s transcendental principles are also immaterial. In his Opus Postumun, he asserts that “the principle of the possibility of such bodies [i.e., of organisms] must be immaterial because it is possible only through purposes.” He further asks whether this “immaterial principle […] encompasses the whole universe” and, “as world-soul (which must not be called spirit),” underlies all life, or whether there are several such principles subordinate to one another as levels of determination.
Immaterial for Lyotard takes on a different meaning. He writes, “The relationship between mind and matter is no longer one between an intelligent subject with a will of its own and an inert object. They are now cousins in the family of ‘immaterials’.” That is, immaterials follow neither the classic hylomorphic model of an inert material given form by subjective expression, reconceived as software and hardware by Burnham, nor one side of the mind/matter split, as in Berkeley, nor transcendental conditions as with Kant. The postmodern condition is one of an artifice for which there is no longer any original nature to oppose, or in which the artifice-nature distinction is blurred. Lyotard writes:
The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by pre-established rules [...] Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating. The artist and the writer therefore work without rules and in order to establish the rules for what will have been made. This is why the work and the text can take on the properties of an event.
Classic immaterials, incorporeals and unobjects all adhere to a strict, linear causality by which everything has a cause, as well as effects that pre-exist those causes, which confine their matter and behavior to the logically possible realm of being. Formal logic, based on principles of identity (A is A), non-contradiction (A is not non-A) and the excluded middle (object is A or not-A, no other option), leaves matter in the same state. That is, if everything logically possible is already present in the cause, nothing new can ever emerge. Such transcendent and supersensible concepts leaves the artist to find a corresponding form of representation in which novelty is produced through the form, while matter remains passive, even if it contains certain potentialities to accept those forms. This appeal to transcendent logic also posits form external to its matter, making it incapable of conditioning real experience, objectifying all possible choices as separate and quantifiable, preventing any reserve of affect, sensation or materiality that could produce real qualitative change. As such, only old things can come from change, because the existing matter of the universe is simply rearranged without any potential for the new. To establish creativity on what can possibly be experienced is to determine in advance what can be produced within the sensible.
Lyotard conceptualizes the conditions of the new differently. Whereas logical principles determine conditions of the logically possible and transcendent categories determine the conditions of possible experience, Lyotard pursues the determination of real experience, which for him is synonymous with the new. Where others presuppose limits then seek the condition of their possibility via the transcendental, Lyotard suggests that matter must be engendered immanently, and moreover that this genetic method necessitates difference. In other words, static identity is a condition of the possible, but difference constitutes the genetic condition of real thought – neither this nor that but this in the process of becoming that, neither imitation nor representation nor resemblance but the formation of a new set of functions. As Deleuze writes:
The new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new, just as the established was always established from the outset, even if a certain amount of empirical time was necessary for this to be recognised. What becomes established with the new is precisely not the new. For the new – in other words, difference – calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model, from an unrecognised and unrecognisable terra incognita.
The conditions of becoming are not external to that which they condition, but are rather genetic conditions of experience, producing that for which they serve as necessary conditions. Conditions of real (new) experience, unlike conditions of the logically possible and possible experience, can be no broader than the conditioned, because multiplicities are the result of a genesis from differentials rather than the passive recipient of conditioning by abstract categories.
THE SPACE-TIME OF LES IMMATÉRIAUX
Unlike Burnham who sought control through systems theory, Lyotard’s immaterial focus is on the loss of control and identity – the dissolution of humans. Materials are no longer that which are given form, controlled for use, for a specific purpose by humans. Instead they reveal difference. The loss of control over nature is a loss of identity, but this loss is also the basis of difference, which supplants static identity. The exhibition featured an emphasis on language as matter, the immateriality of advanced technological materials (from textiles to plastics and holography), exhibits devoted to recent technological developments in food, architecture, music and video, and, crucially, an experimental catalogue produced solely by computer in (almost) real time. Lyotard expands this as follows:
The exhibition attempts to characterise an aspect of our contemporary situation, associated with the new technological revolution. Whereas mechanical servants hitherto rendered services which were essentially ‘physical’, automatons generated by computer science and electronics can now carry out mental operations.
Various activities of the mind have consequently been mastered. Thus the new technology pursues and perhaps accomplishes the modern project of becoming master and possessor. But in doing so it forces this project to reflect on itself; it disturbs and destabilises it. It shows that the mind of man is also part of the ‘matter’ it intends to master; and that, when suitably processed, matter can be organised in machines which in comparison may have the edge over mind.
What distinguishes Lyotard’s techno-scientific fascination and linkage to art from that of Burnham is the increased emphasis placed on space and time as complex phenomena in excess of the objects occupying them. Lyotard described the arrangement of the exhibition as being organized according to a “postmodern space time”, in contradistinction to the modern space-time of the traditional exhibition in which subject use only one of sense – sight – to experience views of heterogeneous data in a unified manner, and thereby to constitute themselves as subjects of culture. The dramatic and performative facets of the exhibition derive meaning immanently as becoming, emergence and individuation as processes. In the documents Lyotard and Chaput prepared for the press, they defined Les Immatériaux not as an exhibition but as a “mise en espace-temps”, a “non-exhibition”, a “manifestation” in order to “question the traditional presentation of exhibitions, which are indebted to the salons of the eighteenth century and to galleries”.
The exhibition rejected the conventional museum model that follows a strict narrative or program in which the spectator is to become absorbed. Instead, the space-time of immaterials is one with lines of forces, dead ends and no definitive perspectives. It is a labyrinth of questions that elicits a feeling of being lost and an incapacity to exhaust the possibilities for connections and meaning. Staging an “event” rather than mounting an “exhibition” becomes a rhetorical trope and material approach that introduces processes without a set itinerary – yet everything in the exhibition exacted control over the spectator and objects that allow for slippages into different “semantic zones.” New ideas have to be performed rather than narrated to elicit what John Rajchman calls the “theatrical or imaginary side of Les Immatériaux: the creation of a kind of ‘environment’ for the enactment of ideas.”
The installation begins with an ancient Egyptian bas-relief of a goddess offering the sign of life to the Pharoah Nectanebo II, accompanied by sound of breathing on the soundtrack: “irreplaceable witness for us of what ‘we’ are in the process of finally losing”. Visitors then proceeded through a long dark corridor, at the end of which stood a large-scale mirror, and which led to a circular open-plan space entitled “Theatre of the non-body,” where they faced five boxes, one per mat-strand coursing through the exhibition. Each box contained a miniature theatre set inspired by Beckett’s plays, designed by Beckett’s stage designer Jean-Claude Fall and by Gérard Didier. Each strand was separated into “zones”, each unified by a common soundtrack, audible through headphones distributed to each visitor before entering the exhibition. At the other end of Les Immatériaux, the visitor once again encountered the same Egyptian relief, this time accompanied by silence and deconstructed, cut up into vertical strips projected onto a screen, as if to intimate that the mythical image would have to be thoroughly transformed, spliced and reassembled before we can begin to re-imagine another founding gesture, another community.
In between visitors encountered the most expensive and diverse show staged at Beaubourg up to that time, the grandness of which was less monumental than sprawling. A labyrinth of space and content, each site was accompanied by passages from modernist authors and theorists broadcast via infrared into headphones. Lyotard and Chaput divided the entire top floor of the museum with large sheets of uncolored metal mesh hanging from the ceiling. Contrary to the neutral lighting of most exhibition environments, Les Immatériaux offered a theatrical setting designed by Françoise Michel, which played with stark contrasts between spotlit exhibits and areas of near darkness. The heavy contrast and headphones internalized the space, making it as much mental as physical and turned a public museum into a private realm. Lyotard called the less defined, interstitial spaces “desert”. In sum, the exhibition marked a philosophical discourse presented through images and artifacts rather than printed matter. The isolated visitors to Les Immatériaux would drift from site to site and strand to strand with voices indicating the passage from one zone to another. No two trajectories through Les Immatériaux were alike, the absence of guided tours and a conventional catalog made visitors into ad-hoc curators.
Beyond the dematerialization of the art object, the Pop art problem of irrealities and issues related to the techno-scientific and digital revolutions, Lyotard was concern with the artificialization of life beyond the museum. The postmodern condition is one of an “artifice” for which there is no longer any original “nature” to oppose, or in which the artifice-nature distinction itself tends to be blurred. The problem is thus no longer how to get back to a warm lifeworld from our alienation in abstract space. The issue is one of expressing sensation and hapticality, as well as movement in the diffuse space of postmodernity, singularizing it and complicating our relations with it in physical landscapes and altered ways of thought and being.
For Lyotard, one of the most successful “postmodern” efforts to translate the spatial experience of the exhibition into the temporal experience of a manifestation was Diderot’s reports on the Paris Salons of the 1760s, which relied on narrative devices deconstructed to endlessly reconstruct painting’s power to elicit the sublime. In Diderot’s report on the Salon of 1767, from which Lyotard quotes in the preparatory documents for Les Immatériaux, Diderot imagines himself wandering through a landscape modeled after a painting by Joseph Vernet, in the company of a fictitious priest who claims that painting could never possibly reproduce the sublime beauty of the landscape, which is actually based on a painting.
The nineteenth century industrial metropolis celebrated its progress in great universal exhibitions, but Lyotard modeled the scenography of Les Immateriaux on the sprawl of the con-urban megalopolis. Postmodern space-time is more difficult to define and represent. Neither town, country, nor desert, lacking an opposition between center and periphery disappears, between inside and outside, the zonal conditions of the megalopolis confronts us with erratic landscapes of objects and information Lyotard had encountered in California, where only the car radio allows the traveler to know when she or he is passing from one city to another. It is more like a nebula where materials (buildings, highways) are metastable states of energy, the streets and boulevards have no facades, information circulates by radiation and invisible interfaces. As opposed to the Enlightenment Bildungsroman and the modern city though which the Baudelairean flâneur or Situationist derive served first-person impressions, Les Immatériaux refused to grant primacy to the subject’s all-powerful subjective eye. The actual space of Les Immateriaux challenges traditional gallery space, the modernist agenda, and the master narrative, affording too much information to absorb and no directions for navigating its space. As Bert Olivier writes, “The ‘immateral’ surrounds the inhabitants of this [postmodern] society in all direction, even if it is, strictly speaking, ‘unrepresentable’, and installation art functions as an embodiment, and a vehicle for the communication of, this immateriality.” The postmodern landscape, in other words, is invisible and imperceptible but not unreal.
All of the strands feature architectural and spatial projects. Rolf Gehlhaar’s “Sound=Space”, for example, was an interactive installation in which space was subverted by sound manipulation as visitors, through their movement and interaction, created noises without touching anything in the room. “Guided Simulated” also features an interactive model, this time of a bus, in which was displayed a video of the passing scenery, which paused on one of 120 sets of photographic portraits captured along the territory of an actual bus route each time stops were requested by visitors. A combination of graphic interfaces that allowed movement and rest in virtual space and conventional means of transportation that allowed the same in physical space, the installation borrowed an industrial object for placement in museum space. Despite its attempts to evince the process of vision and perception in relation to physical displacement, these exhibits reflect the same shortcomings Burnham experienced earlier. Interactivity is still a form of control – freedom in a cage – that cannot simulate lived experience or deal adequately with the material confines of information and communications in a process of transforming along with their media.
An installation entitled “Architecture Plan” (in French, a play on words which translate as “flat architecture”, “architectural plan”, “architecture plane”) focused on the representations produced by architects, such as Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. The relationship between vision and matter is reversed as buildings are turned into two-dimensional abstract visions, expressive of a great deal more than simple form or function. As the catalogue notes, “Building materials can be produced on demand, that is to say for a project. The proposed building on paper is therefore the key architectural message. Architectural design emancipates itself from the constraints of ‘building’ and approaches those of ‘painting’. Moving from one code to the other makes uncertain the distinction between the two messages, architectural and pictorial.” The role of drawing and construction in an image-obsessed culture is emphasized as one means of evincing the excess beyond techno-scientific reduction.
Far from the informational ideals of communication, Les Immatériaux presented a condition of unease, a sense of disarray, itself given and facilitated by the great aesthetic figure of the labyrinth, disrupting a linear perception of history and aesthetic ideas as given totalities. In “Can Thought Go On Without A Body?” Lyotard suggests that creative acts involve more than just the selecting and tabulating of data, but of data giving themselves and of offering themselves for selection, which entails an emptying of the mind and a suffering in order to open up to the thought, to receive it. “Thinking, like writing or painting, is almost no more than letting a givable come towards you.” Creation is still active but necessitates a complex apprehension of the myriad scales, tools and technologies at our disposal and always already at work on us.
Les Immatériaux reveals the means by which our sense of reality has been defamiliarized and rendered insecure through technoscientific immaterialization. What it struggles, and in the end fails, to accomplish is to show why this process and experience is artistically pleasurable, beautiful or sublime rather than alienating in the extreme. In a pre-emptive strike against the type of realization Burnham arrived at years after his curatorial attempt, Lyotard refers to his scenography as “wise melancholy.” As Crowther writes, “This would mean that Lyotard’s attitude to art in Les Immatériaux involves a conflation of two rather different approaches. On the one hand, there is an empirical theory about a changed sensibility founded on technoscientific advance; and, on the other hand, there is a prescriptive grand narrative about avantgardism as authentic painting.”
Lyotard evinces a reactionary ambivalence toward technology, lamenting the decline of modernism, as well as the loss of grand narratives, even as he proposes new means for navigating the post-modern terrain of language games. This ambivalence and sense of loss is most apparent in the representations of spaces, which are no longer the utopian dreams of modernism but rather expressions of the complexity of the built environment beyond the scope of representations. This ambivalence is revealed through the installation itself. The Cartesian program of mastering and possessing nature purportedly being critiqued here (re)emerges in and through the exhibition itself. Offering an “open” itinerary does not obviate the issue of control. In fact, this trajectory offered its own difficulties that augmented the level of prescription and proscription in the creation and experience of the show.
When Stiegler calls technics the industrialization of memory, he is arguing that human intelligence arises through the use of tools, gestures, signs, language and props that make cognitive activities repeatable, and humans are defined by tools that make the exteriorization of memory possible. Through the passage from potential to actual energy, information intervenes as the precondition for actualization. As Toscano writes, “This intervention of information – as an event which produces the ontogenetic communication between a structural germ and a metastable domain – signifies that actualization cannot be anticipated by any logical, material or mathematical form.” The interactivity of information has to remain distinct from the fixity of form. Information is neither unity nor identity, but is rather a material process of ongoing individuation. That is, the subjects sending or receiving messages and the materials through which they are transmitted are in a constant state of becoming. Informing means individuating.
Information is imbricated with matter and energy. It “informs” matter in the sense that it modulates it, but matter reciprocates with immanent potential for being formed in particular directions. Most importantly, form is never absolute or complete, “transducing” itself into a material through a series of transformations that transmit energy. The resistance Deleuze identifies is possible because this process leaves matter in a metastable state in which the right force or pressure will break the system’s equilibrium and generate emergence, which changes materiality and alters milieu, making the boundary dividing living and non-living both contingent and collective, topological and temporal. Transduction echoes William James’ notion of “Plasticity,” the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” The process of transduction exposes moments of rupture in material and signifying processes, eliciting a reappraisal of techno-social relations within architecture.
“While the black box is visually and conceptually saturated in science and technology,” writes Eugene Thacker, “it is also the liminal space where something mysterious and unknown happens – the production of previously unseen forms of life, the ontogenesis of “life itself. […] the black box serves as a kind of allegory of individuation. At once engineered and yet completely mysterious, the black box of individuation functions as a crucial link between the life that is already known and the life that is unknown (or not-yet-known).” Lyotard’s exhibition never quite figures out how to reach for the qualitatively mysterious unknown. As Deleuze adds, “The work of art has nothing to do with communication. The work of art strictly does not contain the least bit of information. To the contrary, there is a fundamental affinity between the work of art and the act of resistance. There yes. It has something to do with information and communication as acts of resistance.” As such, Lyotard does not quite go far enough. His exhibition as heterogeneities, installation as multiplicities in which data does no quite cohere or falls together only in strange patterns, reveals the problems and issues of techno-scientific production and control. That his theory seems to be in a process of being worked out along with the object rather than before reveals a distrust of pre-estabished rules. As such the work takes on the properties of an event. However, Lyotard’s continual return to modernism as a model, guide or reminder of a world lost constantly threatens to undermine this effort.
APPENDIX: OVERVIEW OF LES IMMATERIAUX
12 Sites: ‘futile body’; ‘second skin’; ‘angel’; ‘singing body’; ‘shattered body’; ‘“ultra-thin”’; ‘lost surface’; ‘indiscernibles’; ‘dematerialised material’; ‘luminous painting’; ‘to paint without a body’; ‘all the copies’.
Works included: photographs by Muybridge, plastic skin, music videos by Elvis Costello and others, paintings of exploded body elements such as cells and tissue, electro-microscope images of dust, paper and various metals, various works of art relating to invisibility by Duchamp and others, works of art involving light by Moholy-Nagy, Takis, Fontana, Flavin, Ryman and others, hyperrealist paintings by Jacques Monory, and photocopies of various objects including Emmental cheese.
Nine Sites: ‘all the skins’; ‘dietary allowance’; ‘all the noises’; ‘living language’; ‘game of draughts’; ‘code number’; ‘hidden variables’; ‘small and invisible’; ‘flat architecture’.
Works included: Photographs of uniformed people by Irving Penn, musical notation, images of DNA, a computer game of draughts, photographs of stars overlain with astronomical data, a computer with a questionnaire for members of the public, rooms with the same decoration but with different forms of lighting, architectural plans.
Six Sites: ‘invisible man’; ‘habitacle’; ‘fast eater’; ‘musician in spite of himself ’; ‘self-engendering’; ‘stellar hollows’.
Works included: holographs, Japanese sleeping cells, tableaux representing different kinds of meal from the family repast to fast food, a room in which the visitor’s movements made music, film showing a polystyrene car maquette made by an automatic manufacture system, and a panoramic projection showing stellar activity.
11 Sites: ‘shadow of the shadow’; ‘trace of the trace’; ‘reciprocal space’; ‘light undressed’; ‘the unpresentable’; ‘calculated images’; ‘painted smell’; ‘simulated aroma’; ‘simulated visits’; ‘simulated depth’; ‘inverted reference’.
Works included: a piece by Joseph Kosuth on representations of shadows, a selection of anonymous photographs, images made by laser and by mathematical calculation, paintings by Seurat, Balla, Delaunay, Malevich and others, in which light is the subject as well as the means (‘vertige de l’autoréférence’ enthuses the catalogue text), tables of various kinds of data, paintings and images by Duchamp, Chardin, Kounellis and Manzoni representing smells, rooms with synthesized images and smells of fruit, simulated rides on public transport, architectural models and an attempt at a holographic film.
Seven Sites: ‘life-style’; ‘the three mothers’; ‘pre-cooked, pre-spoken’; ‘today’s currency’; ‘business painting’; ‘forgotten land’; ‘all the authors’.
Works included: images of clothing, of fetuses and pregnant women, computers which could engage the visitor in ‘false dialogue’ accompanied by tableaux of ‘pre-cooked food’, screens showing financial information from around the world, paintings of images of business from Metsys to Warhol, images of bricks and other materials used by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto.
LABYRINTH OF LANGUAGE
This was an area mostly devoted to computer systems supporting a number of different programs, including original work by artists made for telematic systems, videodiscs of images, IQ testing machines, math games, machines that solved problems posed by the public, machines that produced permutations of stories or songs, or that allowed users to make up their own stories, interactive stories, programs for generating literature devised by ALAMO, a group of literary experimentalists, with a special interest in the use of computers, closely allied with the experimental literature group, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO), and videos of spectrographic analyses of voice and text.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the Labyrinth of Language area was the ‘Writing Tests’ area, which afforded visitors access to a number of dialogues or conversations between thirty writers and thinkers, on fifty topics relevant to the exhibition. These dialogues were conducted over a period of two months via networked computers on France’s Minitel system, and were, in effect, a proto-bulletin board system. Visitors were able to read the ensuing discussions on terminals in the exhibition, as well as read them in transcripts printed as part of the catalogue material. Among the topics discussed were ‘Artificial’, ‘Code’, ‘Interface’, ‘Nature’, ‘Time’, ‘Language’, and ‘Voice’. The more well-known among those involved in the discussion included Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Daniel Buren, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Isabelle Stengers.
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———. Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1974.
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Olivier, Bert. Philosophy and the Arts: Collected Essay. Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2009.
Rajchman, John. “Les Immatériaux or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions.” Tate’s Online Research Journal: Landmark Exhibitions Issue (Autumn 2009), http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09autumn/rajchman.shtm.
Shanken, Edward A. “The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham’s Concept of “Software” as a Metaphor for Art.” Edward Shanken: Writings on Contemporary Art and New Media (1998), http://www.artexetra.com/House.html.
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Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Thacker, Eugene. “Review Article: Alberto Toscano, the Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze.” Parrhesia 7 (2009): 86-91.
Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1948.
 John Johnston, The Allure of Machinc Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New Ai (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 12.
 W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1957), 86.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Routledge, 2002), 139.
 Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A.M. Sheridan (New York: Routledge, 1973).
 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
 Jack Burnhan, Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1974), 47.
 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1948), 155.
 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), xi.
 Burnhan, Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Correspondence with Jack Burnham reprinted in Edward A. Shanken, “The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham’s Concept of “Software” as a Metaphor for Art,” Edward Shanken: Writings on Contemporary Art and New Media(1998), http://www.artexetra.com/House.html.
 Burnhan, Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, 24.
 ———, “Art and Technology: The Panacea That Failed,” in The Myths of Information: Technology and Post-Industrial Culture, ed. Kathleen Woodward (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980), 201.
 ———, Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, 17.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 11.
 Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” Diacritics 14, no. 2 (1984): 20.
 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998), 17.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 15.
 Adrian Mackenzie, Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed (New York: Continuum, 2002), 52.
 Paul Crowther, Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993).
 George Berkeley, “Of the Principles of Human Knowledge: Part 1 and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous,” in The Works of George Berkeley, ed. Bishop of Cloyne., A.A. Luce Luce, and T.E. Jessop (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1948-1957).
 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, ed. Eckart Förster, trans. Eckart Förster and Michael Rosen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 422.
 Jean-François Lyotard, Les Immatériaux, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, Thinking About Exhibitions (New York: Routledge, 1996), 165.
 Jean-Francois Lyotard, An Answer to the Question: What Is the Postmodern? (1992), 15.
 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 136.
 Lyotard, Les Immatériaux, 165.
 Ibid., 167.
 Reprinted in Antony Hudek, “From over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux ” Tate’s Online Research Journal: Landmark Exhibitions Issue (Autumn 2009), http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09autumn/hudek.shtm.
 John Rajchman, “Les Immatériaux or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions,”ibid., http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09autumn/rajchman.shtm.
 Bert Olivier, Philosophy and the Arts: Collected Essay (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2009), 34.
 Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 18.
 Paul Crowther, “Les Immatériaux and the Postmodern Sublime,” in Judging Lyotard, ed. Andrew Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 1992), 197.
 Alberto Toscano, The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 147.
 William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1 (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007), 105.
 Eugene Thacker, “Review Article: Alberto Toscano, the Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze,” Parrhesia 7(2009): 86.
 Gilles Deleuze, “Having an Idea in Cinema,” in Deleuze and Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, ed. Eleanor Kaufman and K.J. Heller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).