The following is a text that was written after attending the Former West congress in Berlin in 2013. Former West was an event that sought to examine the status of art production, particularly politically engaged art production, in the context of a post-1989 Europe. In the piece below I discuss one particular strand of the congress. This was led by Irit Rogoff and was based around the theme of infrastructure. I mainly discuss Rogoff’s contribution but also briefly allude to some of the others as well.
Rogoff started by noting how we in the so-called West tend to pride ourselves on a functioning and superior infrastructure. This takes many forms: a logistical infrastructure that includes transportation elements such as roads and railways; a technological infrastructure consisting of various forms of communication networks; a financial infrastructure dedicated to the movement and circulation of capital; as well other infrastructures dedicated to the facilitation of activities in specific fields of endeavour such as education, law, and all the myriad forms of cultural practice, including of course, art. While infrastructure takes many forms, its defining characteristic is a focus on delivery – delivery of material things such as goods, services, cash, people – or delivery of immaterial things such as credit, data, information, thoughts, ideas. One way or another it moves things from place to place. It facilitates connections between things. It allows things to enter into various forms of relations with each other. Rogoff’s proposition is that infrastructure is a defining characteristic of the contemporary condition, and that therefore we need to think it critically. We need to be alert to both the problems and the possibilities that it presents, in order to figure out how we should operate effectively within it.
Infrastructure is often presented as an enabling force – something that promises us agency and thereby allows us to get things done – but we often fail to recognise that it is also, as Rogoff put it, “a set of protocols that bind and confine us”. It is perhaps obvious that something that facilitates delivery also exerts control over that delivery – control over what can be delivered, how it can be delivered, by whom and to whom it can be delivered. When we consider that what gets delivered includes thoughts, ideas, and other outputs of cultural production; we can see how it is critical to at least question to what extent, and in what way, infrastructure helps ensure the kind of hegemonic situation that Former West was seeking to examine.
But there is something else at work here also. Sometimes the mechanisms by which we deliver things, the elements of the infrastructure if you like, become more important to us than the actual things that the infrastructure is designed to deliver in the first place. Every few years I seem to have to get a new computer. This is not because the newer models offer me features that will open up new possibilities for me, but rather because the technological infrastructure that my computer is part of – the network, the operating system, the software, the peripherals – demands that a newer model is required in order to be properly integrated into it. Maintaining infrastructure becomes an end-in-itself. Meanwhile I am still using my computer for much the same things I have always used it for – emails, web surfing, writing documents. Another example. Ireland prides itself on a being a hub for Information Technology. Not for information itself, not even for technology itself, but rather for the infrastructure by which this information can be stored, processed, transmitted and delivered. No-one seems interested in what this information might be, but we know it’s out there, and we know that it needs to be delivered.
Perhaps the starkest example of how infrastructure becomes a force-in-itself, something with its own desires and needs that override and negate our own, was provided by Stefano Harney, who improvised an engaging account of how processes of financialisation can compromise and ultimately destroy institutions. Harney described how, by means of various forms of deregulation that have occurred since the 1980’s, the financial infrastructure has become not just a mechanism for the circulation of capital, but rather a mechanism for the circulation of associated entities such as debit and credit, and a mechanism for speculating on the elements of difference and risk which those entities reveal. Harney took us on a whirlwind tour of how a public art institution, when subjected to the ministrations of management consultants from accountancy firms, becomes embroiled in this financial infrastructure; an infrastructure that severs it from the needs of its publics and its employees (if there are any employees left that is) and instead dedicates itself to the servicing of debt – debt that it didn’t even have before it started in on this process.
There are a number of theoretical precedents for this discussion of infrastructure, or at least obvious parallels with how other theorists and thinkers have sought to characterise a contemporary condition whereby the subject exists in some sort of relation to a larger, connected entity. I am thinking here of Niklas Luhmann and his systems; Bruno Latour and his networks; Michel Foucault and his description of contemporary space as consisting of connected sites. There seems to be a slight difference though. All of those thinkers I just cited are concerned with developing various models of how things are connected together, whereas with Rogoff and co., the emphasis is on the connections themselves, abstracted from what it is exactly that they are intended to connect. The downside of this is a certain alienation that results from the fact that the infrastructure doesn’t really care about the subject. This is the process of de-subjectivation so terrifyingly described by Harney. However the upside is that this complex, abstracted infrastructure may open up new spaces of potential for us.
To try and explain what I mean by this I will use the analogy of the human brain. As everyone knows the human brain is comprised of an unimaginably complex network of neurons. Electrical impulses are delivered from node to node along this neural infrastructure. These impulses have no meaning or agency in and of themselves, yet collectively they form thoughts and ideas and thereby participate in processes of subjectivation. Unpredictable outcomes emerge from the underlying complexity of the infrastructure, and the result is that the brain becomes the ultimate space of possibility.
Rogoff and her colleagues draw heavily (both explicitly and implicitly) on Deleuze and Guattari, and it gradually became apparent to me that the core idea here was to think of infrastructure as a rhizome. A rhizome is a networked structure where any part of it can connect, disconnect and reconnect with any other part – processes that Deleuze and Guattari refer to as de-territorialisation and re-territorialisation. The rhizome is not fixed, rigid, or hierarchical – so while at one particular point in time our infrastructure might seem to be oppressing us – the rhizome ultimately resists any kind of permanence (or what Deleuze and Guattari call overcoding) – and therefore it allows a constant process of reconfiguration into something new – a becoming as opposed to a being.
So, the brain’s neural pathways can be reconfigured to become new thoughts. The Internet’s data channels can rearrange themselves to become new ways to deliver information that escape the gaze of those entities that seek to control that delivery. An infrastructure might indeed bind and confine us, but its very agnosticism with respect to common notions of subjectivity allows the possibility of the formation of different kinds of subjects, and its infinite ability to de- and re-territorialize allows the possibility of connecting these subjects together in dynamic and ever-changing ways. It might then be a mechanism for forming the sorts of collective subjectivity that both Boris Groys and Franco Berardi were earlier calling for during their contributions to the congress.
I’ll conclude by quickly considering a rather obvious but crucial question – what does any of this have to do with art production? Rogoff’s answer to this is that we should constantly be seeking to introduce incoherence into the infrastructure. By doing this we can generate what Deleuze and Guattari called asignifying ruptures – moments of disruption that cause reconfigurations of parts of the rhizome – moments where assigned roles are de-assigned – moments where fixed meanings are destroyed and new possibilities emerge. The job of the artist, in fact the job of all of us, is to try and cause such asignifying ruptures. This is not a call for a world without infrastructure, but rather a world in which infrastructure is productive rather than restrictive.
A version of this text was included in a recent NCAD publication, “In Situ: NCAD Research & Public Engagement 2013”, and it was also presented at an event in the Goethe Institut Dublin in May 2013 called After Former West. In both cases it was accompanied by contributions from Ciara Hickey, Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll and Barry Kehoe. The image at the top is of a piece in an exhibition by Tomás Saraceno which was running in Berlin at the same time as Former West.