Friday, June 18, 2010

The Future of Art: Rosalind Krauss is a Jedi

Rosalind Krauss is Princess Leia 

A year and a half ago, about the time I had finished writing the essay Star Wars: A New Heap for Triple Canopy, I was killing time on a long flight and I started doodling an idea: could I rework the Klein group diagram from Rosalind Krauss's essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, to describe the visual program of Star Wars? For those of you not familiar with Krauss, in the logic of my Primer, she is Princess Leia to Robert Smithson's Luke Skywalker and Michael Fried's Darth Vader. If you are unfamiliar with her essay on the Expanded Field you can check it out as a PDF here

Xerox copies of the Expanded Field was handed out by every sculpture professor I ever had. It is standard art school fair, the steady-state of studio pedagogy. I didn't go straight to art school however, so I was in my mid-twenties, and pretty far along in my thinking about sculpture before I first read Krauss. When I was 19 I apprenticed with the sculptor and worked at a hippy foundry (we had power, but no running water). For six years I cast bronze using lost wax technologies and materials that would have been familiar to Michelangelo. My master, the sculptor and poet Tom Jay, considered himself a folk artist and a Ludite, so there wasn't a lot of art theory in those years, but there was a lot of thoughtful discussion of sculpture in all its particularities. 
With Tom's encouragement I chose my first fine art hero,the 19th Century sculptor Auguste Rodin. I read Fredrick Grunfeld's biography, made a study of his drawings (the erotic ones are top notch) then bios of his mistress Camille Claudel (with whom I fell in totally love with - and still have a bit of a thing for), the poetry of his secretary Rainer Maria Rilke, and finally made a trip down to Stanford University to look at their Rodin castings ( they had The Gates of Hell and an installation of The Burgers of Calais, but not the original formation)

Princess Leia and Rosalind Krauss's Klein Group diagram of the Expanded Field

My work with Tom was my first introduction to fine art (I was a comic book guy before my apprenticeship), Rodin was my first deep consideration of great art. Rodin is key to Krauss's idea of what is and isn't modern in art. In the acknowledgements to her book Passages in Modern Art she admitted, "the impossibility of a view by which modern sculpture was seen as being antithetical to Rodin's work." Sculpture in the Expanded Field was one of the first at theory essays I was able to engage with, because it was the first I was able to understand enough about to disagree with (like everyone else theory is difficult for me to read, I need to like where an author is coming from, but  violently disagree with their conclusions in order to enjoy reading it). Expanded Field is one of my favorite pieces of writing about art.Fifteen years later as I sat on that plane trying to redraw Krauss's diagram I realized that I still found it one of the most engaging bits of theory I have ever read, and that I disagreed with it now more then ever. 

For those interested in what is going on in the Star Wars Klien group I drew, I started with Krauss's not-lanscape/not-architecture. She explained that "these terms express a strict opposition between the built and the not-built, the cultural and the natural. The not-brown and the not-white are exactly the same opposition of built and not-built, nature and culture, only I used terms used by the modernist architect Le Corbusier. In his book The Modern Mind, Peter Watson explains:
Le Corbusier sought to achieve simplicity and a purity, combining classical antiquity and modernity with the ‘fundimentals’ of new science. He said he wanted to celebrate what he called the ‘white world’: precise materials, clearity of vision, space, and air, as against the ‘brown world’ of cluttered closed muddled design and thinking. 
If Krauss is Leia, Le Corbusier is a pretty great candidate for General Tarkin. 

Star Wars Modern Venn Diagram & Klein Group Diagram

For most of the rest of the diagram I was relying on Lucas's explanation of his visual program for Star Wars, but alos the greater context of American science fiction film. A George Lucas quote I found in J W Renzler's book, The Making of Star Wars, was the basis for my Klein group:
Leia is dressed in white and is part of the technological world - black white and gray... She has a spaceship, but she would have been a stranger if she had gone to Tatooine, the natural world, tan, brown, and green. She would be like Artoo. I really like the idea when Luke, Ben, the Wookiee, Threepio, and Artoo are all together, everyone except Artoo blends into the real world, Tatooine; it works very well. But when you go to the Death Star it works just the opposite. Artoo fits in with everything [on the Death Star] because everything is black and white, and he is primarily white. We made the stormtroopers white, too (also to mix things up, so not all the bad guys were dressed in dark colors). Even Threepio is out of place in the Death Star, more then Artoo. That was a creative descion to make Threepio part of the people, earth side, which was an esoteric idea, but I liked it. The only thing that we varied a little bit was the Han Solo costume: He's dressed in browns and has a spaceship, because he is an eclectic. He takes from everything. 
I the original essay Krauss writes that what she refers to "is called a Klein group when employed mathematically and has various other designations, among them the Piaget group, when used by structuralists involved in mapping operations within the human sciences." Krauss never returned to the diagram, and besides some great satires of her formation (none quite as awesome as mine), the only other writer I read who uses them is the Marxist scifi theorist Fredrick Jameson. 
I should admit now, that despite reading Krauss's essay dozens of times, I still cannot explain to myself in any even remotely satisfactory manner what Krauss meant by the terms neuter and complex (other than sculpture is the most neutered - which can't be good). She explains herself in a footnote, but I am terrible at math and don't get what she is trying to indicate. That Jameson uses them make me thing they might be more common in Marxist theory, and perhaps those terms come from there. (if anyone knows, and wants to try and break it down for me I would actually really appreciate knowing why those terms are included in her diagram, and if they could be replace with a logical corollary relating to Star Wars.) The other points on the diagram however, hew pretty close to Krauss's original logic.
 The Savannah vs the vacuum of space - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

George Lucas is not shy about how big an influence Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was on the development of his vision for Star Wars. John Barry, the production designer on Star Wars, says Lucas wanted the ships in Star Wars to look like a spaceships "from 2001 that had aged two hundred years." That is one quote I can nail down, but it is something I've heard a lot over the years. 
The visual program of 2001 is very sophisticated, but it is also pretty straightforward. It reflects the ethos of it's time, which Krauss explains, "the modernist demand for the purity and separateness." If I were to draw a diagram of the visual program of 2001 it would have a single axis and a single opposition. On one side would be the desert (or savanna where we are introduced to the Monolith as it interferes with human evolution), represented by a dry flat and an Acacia tree. At the other cardinal point would be the void, represented by the silhouette of Kubrick's Jupiter mission ship, the Discovery 1 (where Dave Bowman has his life and death battle with the on board artificial intelligence HAL). There would be no Klein grouping however, because there is no meeting of these two worlds in 2001 it is a simple modernist binary. 
For Krauss the position that is most natural (or least cultural), suspended between landscape not-landscape is what she calls marked sites. She wrote that: 
The term marked sites is used to identify work like Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) and Heizer's Double Negative (1969)... But in addition to actual physical manipulations of sites, this term also refers to other forms of marking. These might operate through the application of impermanent marks - Heizer's Depressions, Oppenheim's Time Lines, or De Maria's Mile Long Drawing, for example - or through the use of photography. Smithson’s Mirror Displacements in the Yucatan were probably the first widely known instances of this... Christo's Running Fence might be said to be an impermanent, photographic, and political instance of marking a site. 
The desert planet Tatooine (brown) and the built world of the Death Star (black, white & gray).

In Star Wars the position of brown/not brown is the desert world of Tatooine - "If there is a  bright center to the universe," Luke Skywalker explained, "your on the planet it's the farthest from." It is a nice echo, since most of the work Krauss dubbed marked sites we now would describe as earth art, and most of that kind of art was done in the verge of the American west. 
Across the expanded field from marked sites are "axiomatic structures." Krauss is a little less specific about these, naming fewer works:
The first artists to explore the possibilities of architecture plus not-architecture were Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Christo. In every case of these axiomatic structures, there is some kind of intervention into the real space of architecture, sometimes through partial reconstruction, sometimes through drawing, or as in the recent works of Morris, through the use of mirrors. As was true of the category of the marked site, photography can be used for this purpose; I am thinking here of the video corridors by Nauman. But whatever the medium employed, the possibility explored in this category is a process of mapping the axiomatic features of the architectural experience abstract conditions of openness and closure-onto the reality of a given space.
Like the term marked site, "axiomatic structure" never caught on - this kind of work is now most commonly referred to as installation art. And while the term itself is as cryptic as neuter (to me, again, if anyone cares to explain...), here at least it is easy to understand what is meant - these are the most built. While she doesn't name works, I imagine she means Sol LeWitt's wall drawings, and Richard Serra's props (which used gallery walls and corners for support).  In Star Wars the most thoroughly constructed element was the machine world of the Death Star. It is worth noting however that this is not a good/evil opposition in Lucas's imagination: "Leia is dressed in white and is part of the technological world - black white and gray... She has a spaceship."
Richard Serra Prop, Star Wars prop.

At the top of Krauss's diagram is the opposition of landscape/architecture that she calls site-constructions: 
But whatever term one uses, the evidence is already in. By 1970, with the Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in Ohio, Robert Smithson had begun to occupy the complex axis, which for ease of reference I am calling site construction. In 1971 with the observatory he built in wood and sod in Holland, Robert Morris had joined him. Since that time, many other artists-Robert Irwin, Alice Aycock, John Mason, Michael Heizer, Mary Miss, Charles Simonds-have operated within this new set of possibilities.
Here a new term seems truly necessary and hers is as good as any I might have come up with ("outdoor installation" is probably the term I would use, but only because it is the most descriptive and least pretentious). I originally had the Millennium Falcon in this position because I think it is such an amazing innovative visual devise it seemed a shame to lump it as neutered, but as I wrote this, it became clear that the best corollary to Partially Buried Woodshed is the Moisture Farm. This sort of  intermixing of the natural and the built, is original to Star Wars. The modernists appreciated vernacular architecture and folk art, but only to a point. In the book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, the artist Robert Irwin relates his frustration with a critic described as a "New York Artforum type" (who I am pretty sure in Max Kozloff). What pissed Irwin off was the blindness caused by modernist purity. The critic refused to acknowledge that hot rods were folk art:

He was one of those Marxist critics who likes to think he’s really involved with the people, making great gestures and so forth, but they’re hardly in the world at all. Anyway he was talking about pot-making and weaving and everything. And my feeling was that was not all historical art but not folk art. As far as I am concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use everyday, and you give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life. And folk art in the current period of time would more appropriately be in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean, a motorcycle can be a lot more than just a machine that runs along; it can be a whole description of a personality and aesthetic. 

There is nothing in the visual program of Kubrick's 2001 that could have fit within the opposition of the natural and the built (maybe the bone bludgeon, but that is a stretch). The Skywalker homestead however was a mud-baubed pit dwelling outfitted with robots and a shield generator. It is a jumble of the vernacular and modern. This is the sort of mixing the modernists had no truck with. Tony Smith, the architect and sculptor (so modern he was a minimalist), explained: 
I’m interested in the inscrutability and mysteriousness of the thing. Something obvious on the face of it (like a washing machine or a pump), is of no further interest. A Bennington earthenware jar for instance, has subtle color, largeness of form, a general suggestion of sustance, generosity, is calm and reassuring  - qualities that take it beyond utility…
The Skywalker homestead is both washing machine and Bennington jar. It has the substance of whitewash on adobe but is as obvious as a Skyhopper.

Robert Smithson, Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), George Lucas, Partially Buried Homestead (1977)

Finally we come to the most neutered position on the field, for Krauss this was sculpture, which, she wrote,"we know very well what sculpture is... it was what was on or in front of a building that was not the building, or what was in the landscape that was not the landscape." The examples Krauss gives are high minimalist classics:
The purest examples that come to mind from the early 1960s are both by Robert Morris. One is the work exhibited in 1964 in the Green Gallery-quasi architectural integers whose status as sculpture reduces almost completely to the simple determination that it is what is in the room that is not really the room; the other is the outdoor exhibition of the mirrored boxes-forms which are distinct from the setting only because, though visually continuous with grass and trees, they are not in fact part of the landscape.
Minimalism was described by Krauss's protégé, the art theorist Hal Foster, as the apogee and break of modernism, it was simultaneously the minimalist objects fulfilled the modernist project, but jumped ahead opening the door for postmodernism. With her expanded field Krauss was proposing what we would now consider a modest form of postmodernism (which is to say,still deeply modern). For sculpture, she chose an example that highlighted the apogee, for our purposes it is important to focus on the break, so I chose a John Chamberlain crushed car. A work that can be described as post-minimalist. 
For my neutered position (sculpture really gets no respect) I chose the term "pirate ship" because it highlights  used by Lucas and his crew to refer to Han Solo's ship because it also highlights the break, and because the other term Lucas used would have made my diagram look sillier still:
The flying hamburger was my favorite design... I wanted something really off the wall, since it was the key ship in the movie; I wanted something with a lot more personality. I thought of the design on the airplane, flying back from London: a hamburger. I didn't want it to be a flying saucer, but I wanted to have something with a radial shape that would be completely different from anything else.
This is the last, and most radical part of Lucas's visual program. The part that superseded everything that had it had preceded. Pre-modern societies were orientated towards the past, they were based on the unassailable narrative knowledge of myth and tradition. Modernity is an orientation away from the past and towards the future. If you have read this far you must see some merit in thinking about a blockbuster science fiction film in terms of fine art, part of that small sliver on the Venn diagram above. hanging over art and architecture, over all of the most serious expressions of modern culture is what Ken MacLeod calls fictional capital, in what he calls, "the political economy of promise":
That science fiction, by treating future possibilities as actualities, may function as an even more literal fictitious capital… the 'promise' of new technologies or scientific breakthroughs is used to mobilize resources – of labor, capital, research grants, political credibility, public acceptance – in the real world. 
Stories of utopia, and their accompanying maps and architectural plans have been a key element of modern fictional capital since Sir Thomas More published the very first Utopia in 1516. Until Star Wars all of those worlds of promise were characterized by total design. An ethic of harmonizing all elements to create an order akin to what Krauss describes as "The great Chain of Being, where God as the first cause of the universe was likened to the supreme clock maker." The Utopians had worked to rationalize the built world. "The very existence of the clockwork," Krauss continued, "was used as proof of the logic of and 'Good Design' of an inherently just world.  Even with Dystopias, the promise of something terrible, the ethic of Total and Good design reigned, because that is inevitably what the Dystopian was warning against. In the context of that 500 year historically bounded category the Millennium Falcon was a definitive rupture with the past. Lucas explained that unlike like the Utopian purity of the Death Star (the purist vision of a Utopia ever realized), the Millennium Falcon was at odds with all previous fictional capital:
I was working very hard to keep everything nonsymmetrical. Nothing looks like it belongs with anything else. You walk into a set and there's lots of different influences, not just one influence. It's a very common thing in science fiction to see a set that has one influence. Everything matches. The chairs match the table, match the rug, match the design of the doors, match the door handle, match the lamps. I wanted it to look like one thing came from one part of the galaxy and another from another part of the galaxy.
John Chamberlain, Gondola Ezra Pound (1982), Millenium Falcon (1977)


  1. john, this is fascinating! love the juxtaposition of images.

  2. Last night I was explaining this post to some friends over beers (and wines, and smokey treats...) and I realized I hadn't mentioned the source for my use of the terms brown vs white. I tucked an update in to the text - sans strike through or other indication, I realize that that is probably bad blogger etiquette, but I'm a sculptor, so I figure its OK.

  3. as I see it, from almost absent hints in Krauss's text, a complex is something that unites architecture and nature in a form which makes them more cooperative than opposing. it is both architecture and nature, not one trying to overrule the other. sculpture would be neuter because it doesn't bind the two together, it stands separately between the two, claiming it's neither.

  4. Thank Bono, that sounds pretty spot on. A while back I asked Joshua Glenn about that via email. Here is what he had to say:

    "Complex refers I think to the both/and term synthesizing your two main terms - so it refers here to the droids. Neutral refers to the neither/nor term that rejects your main terms - refers here to Sith. A common example, if main terms are Male and Female is to think of neutral term as ungendered (like an angel, i guess) and complex term as hermaphroditic."

  5. I'm using a semiotic square exercise in a capstone course for my students, and ran across this really useful post. They didn't get Krause but they sure got Leia.

    I think the problem of "complex" and "neutral" is this: simply semiotic jargon that has loaded connotations in actual English. If I understand it correctly "complex" is the originating pair of contrary signs, out of which the "neuter" derivative pair is expanded. X/Y is the complex, or original contrary sign set, not-X/not-Y the neuter. To say not-X is to neuter X... the term neuter has no quality or value connotation beyond manipulating the sign.

    Anyway, you really helped my students "get it" with this. Thanks a million!

    1. Very late to the party but the complex/neuter thing is just a bit of Latin.

      "neuter" literally means "neither of both" (ne-uter), "complex" means "having embraced [both things]".

  6. Nice blogs provide a lot information about arts, museums,history.Keep it up.