Tauba Auerbach at Paula Cooper: Sexy Glass Meets the Mathematical Sublime

What started as a review of Tauba Auerbach’s current show at Paula Cooper led to the question of how indeed a successful work of art might engage with mathematics – what might be some approaches to visualising abstract and often inaccessible concepts?

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Tauba Auerbach The New Ambidextrous Universe (2014) Source: ICA

Prior to seeing the New York exhibition, I visited the artist’s 2014 show at London’s ICA, The New Ambidextrous Universe.  In London, Tauba Auerbach exhibited about 7 objects, made of plywood, glass, perspex, and powder-coated steel.  The objects, smooth-surfaced and minimal, yet elaborately turned and possibly machine-made, looked sort of like useless furniture.  Formally, they were united by a concern with chirality: some carried a right-handed orientation, others left, while (and here my memory may fail me) a glass piece demonstrated a similar idea through light-polarisation.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the show’s sophisticated intellectual premise, I found myself oddly un-moved by it – there was no punch to the gut.  All I saw was reasonably nicely-made objects on low long plinths, in designer colours – stuff that would look great at Heal’s or an expensive Knightsbridge condo, and definitely looked like what art is supposed to look like.

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Tauba Auerbach The New Ambidextrous Universe (2014) Source: ICA

Reading interviews with the artist, it’s clear that she has a fascination with the idea of maths, and while that undoubtedly finds its way into the work, I felt her pieces added but little to my understanding, or even appreciation, of chirality or of the eponymous book by the late Martin Gardner.

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Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: Author’s own image

Her current exhibition, Projective Instrument is also built around a book, this time by an eclectic American architect, Claude Bragdon, whose interests spanned higher-dimensional geometry through to Theosophy.  The exhibition had a number of her trademark objects, made during a glass residency, as well as woven paintings.  These, or similar, paintings unfortunately were displayed to much greater effect, alongside Charlotte Posenenske’s work, in the gorgeous rooms of Indipendenza Roma  (2015).  The Paula Cooper show also featured seductively-coloured paintings made with custom-made implements ‘inscribing patterns derived from chain-maille, fractal curves, and four-dimensional tilings into the paint’ (press release).  At the end of the day, however, they were pretty simple, inoffensive wall decorations that neither illuminated the mathematics nor particularly pushed the boundaries of artistic practice.  Auerbach’s imprint, Diagonal Press, was, if anything, more interesting, showing copies of Bragdon’s book, amongst others.  I couldn’t tell if they were for sale, or if they’re thrown in gratis if one spends (apparently) $150,000 on a painting.

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Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: Paula Cooper Gallery
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Tauba Auerbach Projective Instrument (2016) Source: author’s own image of ‘library’ at Paula Cooper Gallery

A second take on maths-in-art comes from Falke Pisano’s rather good show at Hollybush Gardens (London, 2015), entitled The Value in Mathematics.  Pisano’s approach was more cerebral, less apparently infatuated with maths: in fact, there was very little about maths per se.  It was more about the teaching of mathematics, and how the subject is presented in society.  The exhibition consisted of a number of flat works, sculptures, and videos.  The flat works seemed to be unified by descriptive texts or titles on the wall, while the sculptures had in common an open structure, relatively humble or light materials, and open plinths.  For me, the overwhelming aesthetic was that of Modernism, of graphic design from a pre-computer era.  However, on closer viewing, particularly of the prints, the organising principle revealed itself: the various prints described what could be characterised as systems of valuation or exchange.  What animated the exhibition were the videos which, curiously, brought a more human and less conceptual feel to what could have been a cold and information-heavy exhibition.  Only at the end did I read the press release, and worked out the political sub-text of the show: as I understand, it challenges the impression, apparently promulgated by mathematicians, that mathematics is somehow objective and ‘value-free’, whatever that means.  The exhibition proposes that the teaching of mathematics makes it inherently political, context-dependent, and hierarchical.  Whether one thinks Pisano’s particular programme is interesting or not, her handling of the material is deft, a collage of politics and the scientific, woven into a fictional system of thought, perhaps intentionally layered, obscure, even obtuse [1].  I found Pisano much more convincing than Auerbach, where the maths seems just grafted onto a high-end design practice in order, one might surmise, to lend gravitas.  At a presentational level, I liked the fact that Pisano’s show gave the impression that it could only be bought in its entirety, or even if bought piecemeal, the individual works would always be somehow connected to the installation.  Auerbach’s were as distinct art-objects as they come: almost painfully asking to be collected.

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Falke Pisano The Value in Mathematics (2015) Source: Hollybush Gardens
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Falke Pisano The Value in Mathematics (2015) Source: Hollybush Gardens

Having looked at two artists working with maths, I wanted to highlight the counter-example: a mathematician attuned to visual aesthetics.  Thomas Banchoff, a geometer at Brown University, pioneered the use of 3-D computer graphics to explore higher-dimensional geometries.  In the old days, mathematicians used plaster Schilling models, such as those in the Harvard, MIT, or Oxford collections, to visualise complex geometric objects.  Banchoff’s contribution was to use CGI to animate the shapes, allowing the viewer to perceive the model as it unfolds in time and thus form a mental image of what a 4-D object might look like and how it might behave.  I would argue that, by allowing manipulation of the objects, the viewer could ‘fly’ around the shape in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, and intuition could be built directly from the image, rather than being mediated through the symbolic logic of the maths, or the drudgery and expense of finding physical models.  Moreover, the physical models remain in a fixed 3-D configuration, whereas the digital allows for any 3 of the possible 4 (or higher) dimensions to be projected.

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Schilling Model in Harvard’s collection of geometric models. Source: Harvard University

 

However, as Banchoff doesn’t reference the conventions of the Artworld, either by contextualising his images vis a vis Theory or presenting them in an arty way, perhaps he wouldn’t be thought of, nor call himself, a practicing artist [2].  Yet, I feel his works are of far greater profundity than either Auerbach’s superficial approach or Pisano’s valid and interesting, sociological critique.  They marry visual aesthetics with a potential for conceptual or perceptual access to a reality that lies beyond the mere image.

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Real and imaginary parts of the complex exponential function w=e^z. Source: Thomas Banchoff
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Rotation of the Clifford Torus/Hopf Fibration in 4-D. Source: Thomas Banchoff

An artist whose approach parallels Banchoff, while acknowledging, and being acknowledged by, the Artworld, is Manfred Mohr.  Still producing, with recent shows in London (Cubitt Gallery [2015] and Carroll/Fletcher [2016/2014/2012]), he used some of the earliest plotters to produce works on paper, notably a series exploring views of the 4-D cube, a so-called hypercube or tesseract.  Mohr’s work visually has an affinity to Minimalism’s serial tradition, but genealogically is better placed in relation to Concrete Art, particularly artists such as Jeffrey Steele and Anthony Hill.  Mohr’s geometric focus, and a methodical exploration of all combinatorial alternatives, impacts the viewer through its sheer exhaustiveness and perceptual immersion.  Some of his pieces, even more than Banchoff’s, imply the physically-impossible and the infinite.  It is notable that he achieves this without colour, without any quasi-mystical or metaphysical twaddle, and his works are entirely governed by the internal logic of their generative rules.

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Manfred Mohr P-231a (1978). Source: Manfred Mohr

The last, and potentially most interesting approach, is to view maths as an essentially performative practice.  ‘Performative’, a over-used word in art-speak, is utilised in a specific sense here: the act of drawing a picture, handling a plaster model, manipulating a digital model, are ways of understanding, visually and haptically, how a given mathematical concept, for instance a multi-valued complex function, behaves: where are the zeroes, where lie the saddles and branches?  This sense of the term ‘performative’ is taken up in the papers of Xin Wei Sha, a professor in Differential Topology who has sought to look at the practice of mathematics in light of analytical constructs used in art and critical theory.

In my view, what’s interesting about this approach is that it can be seen to break the understanding of a given mathematical problem into three levels: an intuitive grasp of the problem, let’s say the true knowledge; a symbolic quasi-linguistic analysis, such as a proof; and a graphical or haptic ‘feel for the thing’, which I equate with the performative.  The actual drawing, digital image, physical model, blackboard scribbled with equations are residues of a symbolic or performative method.  These physical residues can be put in a book, and indeed, if packaged a certain way and accepted as such by relevant competent judges, can be called art.  But if the primary content of mathematical understanding is fundamentally intuitive, lying somewhere between the visual, the symbolic, and the physical, then it’s likely that a non-mathematician may never really access that content.  Moreover, without facility with these tools, he/she is unlikely to communicate effectively with trained mathematicians operating in a network of peers [3].  The most we can do is ‘poke’ at it, try to access it by manipulating the geometric objects, or, more interestingly, engage in a Wittgenstinian project of ’drawing connections’ between the mathematical objects and the world-at-large.  To the extent these syntheses, these connections, are haunting and unexpected, we judge the success (or lack thereof) of art like Auerbach’s or Pisano’s.

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Walter De Maria Silver Meters and Gold Meters (1976-1977). Source: Prufrock’s Dilemna blog

I end with an analogy to Land Art. Certain artists such as Walter De Maria were concerned with documenting an ungraspable moment in time and space, or in the case of his Dia Beacon pieces, an apparently obvious yet subtle mathematical idea.  Yet in the case of The Lightning Field, the primary aesthetic experience remained in him, and an element of it now invests the few viewers who can actually make it out to New Mexico.  Similarly, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long made their experience, their walks, often in the countryside, the apparent content of their work, accessible substantially to themselves.  The documentation is entirely secondary, from an aesthetic point of view, if not from a financial/re-sale perspective.  It is as if, knowing they can never compete with the immensity of nature, they made minimal, repetitive but exquisitely calculated sculptural gestures: Et in Arcadia ego.

 

1  Fiduccia, Joanna Report: Bullshit ! Calling Out Contemporary Art, MAP Magazine, 1 June 2010, http://mapmagazine.co.uk/8981/report-bullshit-calling-out/ , accessed 23/12/15.

2 See Arthur Danto’s What Art Is (2013) for an introduction to how the late Danto analysed the perennially interesting question of what art is, and the circularity in art’s definition, particularly in the age of the ready-made.

3 Subject obviously to exceptions such as M.C. Escher, and his collaboration with Lionel & Roger Penrose.

No Collars: A Sicilian Mediation

This essay was posted on the blog of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, to coincide with Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2015/2016 (an annual exhibition of newly-graduated students from UK art schools, which ended 24 January 2016).  The essay accompanies a video Almadraba 38.17° N 13.24° E , and uses the colours, buildings, light and poetry of Sicily to project a multi-layered narrative.

(Im-)Migration, a topic of contemporary urgency for Sicily and Europe, as for the U.S., is given a contrasting, complementary, treatment here.  The artist, U. Kanad Chakrabarti, mines his own biography to subtly explore skilled, middle-class immigration that has contributed to American technology, medical, and academic success between the 1970s to September 11, 2001.  Moreover, Sicily itself, between 1900 and the 1960s, exported thousands of economic migrants, who contributed to the building of New York and the re-building of Northern Italy.  The artist’s treatment, perhaps, can be seen to present some light at the end of Europe’s present dark tunnel of migration.

The video’s perspective on Sicily is also informed by the island’s 12th century fusion of Arab, Byzantine and Norman culture.  As in Spanish al-Andalus, the Arab culture inflected language, food, architecture, and social norms in Sicily.  A symbol of this was the great map and atlas produced by an Islamic cartographer Ibrahim al-Idrisi.  Chakrabarti, as in previous works such as Clifford Torus (2014) or the video i j k w (2014), relates this historical world map to more abstract mathematical approaches to projection and mapping.

Houdini

So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.

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I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.

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Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

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Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

Planetary Fluff: On e-flux‘s Supercommunity Day 29

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I picked up e-flux’s elegantly produced Supercommunity online journal with considerable anticipation – the topic was ‘Planetary Computing (Is the Universe Actually a Gigantic Computer?)’.  This idea, of course, has been quite fashionable for a while in cosmology circles, and I briefly return to it below.  But I was particularly interested in what light we as artists, and arts writers, could shed on the conversation.

It started promisingly enough – the header (http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/topics/planetary-computing/) wrote that 3-D modelling software basically simulates the laws of motion, so as to realistically model movement. I would add: fluid dynamics (to model explosions or water), light’s interaction with gas, solid, and liquid, 4-D complex numbers (to better model rotations), and fractals (to get that natural look of ‘nature’).

Allora & Calzadilla and Kader Attia had great contributions – poetically wandering around the brief. Attia considers the idea of repair, as in, fixing things that are broken or dealing with mistakes and failure. These are inherent in the process of making physical art.  In the digital realm, ‘Ctrl+Z’ is so powerful that mistakes rarely are visible, and leave little permanent trace.  Attia somehow linked repair to cosmology and mathematics – I don’t get it, but I like thinking about it.

Reading on, I came upon Adam Kleinman’s essay.  This essay evidenced extensive research and the broad erudition of its author, a respected curator associated with dOCUMENTA (13) and the Witte de With Center.  It also highlighted certain features of art writing that I find a noxious cocktail of viewpoints that are both painfully orthodox and right-on, and that don’t really offer much insight into the world, or art.

Random Associations

The essay starts with an anecdote about a DARPA project: a 1.8 gigapixel surveillance camera with 368 lenses. It then quickly makes an associative leap to another programme that funds solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for five years.  The connection is via an aside on the Greek myth of Argus, Juno, and the peacock’s feathers, and the section ends with an obligatory rhetorical question (presumably accompanied by theatrical hand-wringing)

‘How did such terrors come to pass?’

Backatcha…or…an Essay About Nothing

As I read the essay, I noted a remarkable feature – the number of times (three, by my count) Kleinman, in a rather self-conscious tone, brought up the e-flux brief:

‘Coming back to the concept of cosmology though…’

‘In the brief for this meditation, I was asked: Is the universe a gigantic computer?…’

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then…’

Yet, for all that repetition, the portentous question remained unexplored.  Each one of these statements leads to a flight of fancy, and, in one case, simply somersaulted into three questions back at the reader.

‘Is the universe a gigantic computer? Instead, I would like to ask: Are supercomputers universal—in the sense of equality or universal justice—or are they simply ubiquitous?  Furthermore, do they have a cosmology? And lastly, what is their nature when we train them on our planet?’

WTF ?? how does one even constructively think about that? These are strings of words that are grammatically and syntactically correct but convey little, or no, sense.  I’m not sure they even read well as poetry.

Art Writing Shibboleths

The essay then goes on to give a potted account of how the Internet developed out of various U.S. Defence Department and corporate projects, and somehow jumps from that hackneyed topic to the following non sequitur:

‘And like the rise of the drones and the rise of the bots, the rise of secretive and proprietary inter- and intra-nets, which link both private and secure supercomputers, needs more discussion today.

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then we should be able to zoom in and check whether differing galaxies and solar systems are contained within it. On a low level of magnification, we might eye the so-called internet and its “evil twin,” the darknet.’

Things continue in this vein, making the obligatory stops to hammer Facebook, high-frequency trading, and the section ends with an anodyne statement about how computers replace human and human labour.  If one substituted ‘technology’ for ‘computers’, this reflection on the relationship between machines and the labour of man could easily date back to the shutting of U.S. steel factories in the 1980s, Detroit’s car factories around the same time, extinction of market-makers today, maybe computer programmers tomorrow….neither novel nor insightful.

Finally, proving that if you trawl broadly enough, you will catch some decent fish, Kleinman relates (or rather, quotes copiously) an interesting story about the Soviet effort, in the 1960s, to network factories and government bureaux, with a view towards increasing efficiency and reducing personnel.  The Soviet experiment never got off the ground, but may have inspired American efforts to develop what would eventually become the Internet.  Kleinman doesn’t really explore the political implications of this – or what this anecdote had to do with the universe or art. All we got was another gnomic utterance:

‘Juno stripped of the state is simply the goddess of the family, or, more directly, the goddess of motherhood. As we continue to nurture more and more supercomputers, and possibly populate not only the earth, but the entire sky with them as well, we have to ask: Are we really going into this whole thing as responsible and mature adults?’

Simulation (or Simulacrum)?

But rather than continuing to pick apart that essay, I wanted to gloss the nominal topic of this e-flux module, since none of the contributors seemed to do so: the thought experiment that our universe may, in some sense, be a great simulation running on some rather advanced computer.

Nick Bostrom is the best-known advocate of this position.  His hypothesis, strictly speaking, one part of a group of three statements, all of which cannot be untrue (http://www.simulation-argument.com/matrix.html), is that there is a good chance that we (humans singly and collectively) exist as simulations within some sort of computer.  The creators of the simulation are ‘post-humans’, that is, entities that are our descendants, who, for some reason, want to simulate what the universe was like in the time of flesh-and-blood organic humans.

In this view, the universe is a simulation ‘running on some computational substrate’ (Ray Kurzweil quoted in Is Our Universe  A Fake? http://www.space.com/30124-is-our-universe-a-fake.html) and ‘physical laws are sets of computational processes’ (ibid).  The philosophy, and physics, involve fall out of scope of this essay, but an immediately interesting question arises: how we might be able to tell if we are subjects in a simulation.  It might be possible to test the laws of physics to work out whether there are slight errors, inconsistencies, or unexplained phenomena that might be evidence that the world we live in is not quite ‘real’.  These traces may be left by the programmers unintentionally, or may be ‘back doors’ intentionally left in the programme, to be found by the inhabitants.

As an analogy consider a 3-D CGI simulation: if an advanced (say artificially intelligent or self-aware) character could somehow look behind a wall, at a so-called hidden-surface, and find that the programmer, to reduce rendering time, had chosen not to model or ray-trace light reaching the hidden surface (because the surface is invisible to the camera), he/she might interpret that as evidence of a simulated environment.

A readable article on this topic, that, given it is in The New Yorker, is as equally about Bostrom as it is about his philosophy, may be found in the November 23, 2015 issue. There are a number of researchers who take issue with Bostrom’s arguments, and indeed, the very idea that the mind is at all computable: see Sir Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) or Ken Wharton, in The Universe is Not a Computer (http://arxiv.org/abs/1211.7081v2 ).

On Poetry

Judging by the trouble I have had in concisely summarising the Simulation Hypothesis, I do sympathise with the approach taken in the e-flux essay: essentially repeat the question, then talk about something else.  Whatever it is trying to say, I would, inelegantly, summarise it as

‘The military-industrial complex is building (lots of) spies in the sky that are watching over us (all the time). Something like this has happened before in the 1960s and led to the internet.  The Soviets might have done it first but it would have trashed the Worker’s Utopia. Oh dear, I’m not sure where all this technology will all lead.’ [more vigorous hand wringing]

Perhaps a certain type of art-writing is not to be judged on content, but rather, as poetry, on style.  A style of writing where one strings together fancy words, quickly jumps from topic to topic, throws in some truisms, garnish all the above with a splash of Greek mythology, and nod sagely in an auburn haze of profundity and critical-engagement.

Contemporary Art in Rome Summer 2015

Every self-respecting hipster needs a smattering of culture, so we spent some time in Rome staying near the piazza of Testaccio. Between lovely meals, walked off in the (relatively) cool shade of the Tiber banks, and a daily siesta during the hours of the sun’s anvil, we tried to catch a few galleries. Rome, probably owing to the many of young foreign artists on residencies at the British School, the American Academy, the Swiss Institute, etc., and the not-inconsiderable amount of, probably ill-gotten, money there, has a decent whack of good galleries, and has had so for many years. While Milan, Trentino, and the Veneto may have the lion’s share of wealthy patrons, foundations, and galleries, there are quite a few interesting spaces in Rome, Naples, and increasingly, Sicily.

Fuel for the galleries: pasta with the intestines of a newly-weaned calf ('pajata')
Fuel for the galleries: pasta with the intestines of a newly-weaned calf (‘pajata’)

Anyway, to start with we dropped by Fondazione Giuliani: a lovely space improbably housed in the basement of a large, reasonably attractive early twentieth-century apartment block in Testaccio. It shows specially commissioned projects and collaborations, but also presents the collection of Giovanni and Valeria Giuliani. It was a group show of high-calibre international artists, amongst the standouts of which were Daniel Steegmann Mangrane’s theatrical screens made of coloured metal chain-links. Alexandre Singh’s evocative sculptures alluded to his play The Humans, a riff on Aristophanes. Haris Epaminonda’s floor and wall pieces were placed around the show, and Fischli/Weiss’ seminal film The Way Things Go was riveting. The exhibition was beautifully curated by Adrienne Drake and produced in conjunction with Kunsthallelissabon in Lisbon.

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Fondazione Giuliani: Daniel Steegmann Mangrane, Alexandre Singh, Amalia Pica, Haris Epaminonda
Fondazione Giuliani: Daniel Steegmann Mangrane, Alexandre Singh, Amalia Pica, Haris Epaminonda

The highlight of the trip was identifying a rather unremarkable deconsecrated church in which NY gallerist Gavin Brown has opened a non-traditional exhibition space, roughly at the same time as his much-better-publicised valedictory show in the West Village, with its re-staging of Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses). Located, un-numbered, on one of the smaller streets in Trastevere, we had to ask a few crones whether they remembered a church in the area, and as we got warmer, we enquired at the neighbourhood stalwart Trattoria Da Enzo. We guessed, correctly, that this would be the place where the gallerist used to lunch, back in 2005 when he first spotted the church, when he ran a gallery in Rome with 2 other gallerists, Franco Noero and Toby Webster. We finally found it, but unfortunately lost the photographs of the inside – but it is very far from the typical ‘white cube’. Essentially it is an austere church, stripped of any baroque decorations it had, and just in front of the altar were a number of pots on portable burners, with what looked like black (marble apparently) sheep skulls and bones in them. On one of the two marble slabs was a well-dressed lady, to all intents and purposes, passed out with a couple bottles of beer next to her. The space was open to visitors, but it wasn’t so comfortable: we seemed to have stepped into an performace and installation of Rirkrit Tiravanija, an Argentine-Thai artist and professor at Columbia. I had one more reason to find his space – I remembered a bar called Passerby that Brown founded. It had a disco-lit floor that I and a coterie of Sicilian artists, in the much more affordable Chelsea of the 1990s, used to colonise.

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Gavin Brown's new space in Trastevere. Interior shot courtesy Forbes.com
Gavin Brown’s new space in Trastevere. Interior shot courtesy Forbes.com

Galeria Indipendenza had a joint show of Charlotte Posenenske and Tauba Auerbach. Auerbach had some rather lovely textured and woven paintings inspired by the architecture and decoration of Rome, which worked beautifully in the the gallery’s elegant rooms. The late Posenenske was represented by gorgeous non-functional ducting: galvanised steel or cardboard sculptures, which were either originals or replicated by Auerbach (Posenenske in her life rejected notions of unique works in an apparently political statement). The sculptures remain highly contemporary, reminiscent as they are of restaurant ducting, high-volume air conditioning (HVAC) ducts, or the cooling equipment found in, say, a server farm.

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Charlotte Posenenske & Tauba Auerbach at Galeria Indipendenza
Charlotte Posenenske & Tauba Auerbach at Galeria Indipendenza