Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1993

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The dictates of Parisian idiom, the American Dream wrapped up in the abstraction of the New York School, the postmodern trans-avant-garde of the axis Cologne-Rome: the idea of world art has a fascinating history. As an expression of economic dominance over a certain region, world art is persistently provincial, although its great success suggests a global tone-setting. However, there are indications that this decade will present us with a kind of world art which is not directly the expression of regional power. If there is mondial consensus on anything at all, this would be the worldwide concern for the environment.

After the triumph of post-colonial humanitarian world art in the idealistic poetical ambience of the Magiciens de la Terre ('Magicians of the World', a French prestige development organized in 1989 at the Paris Centre Pompidou), the realists are back and in action. This distinct turning of the tide manifested itself last summer at the exhibition Allocations, an annexe of Floriade, the world exhibition of agriculture and horticulture in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands. With a few accents adopted from the Gaia movement and from holism and against the artistic background of the land art from the sixties and seventies, Allocations staged a happening which put a definite end to the periods of abstract innocence or poetic trans-avant-garde.

With Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Pompidou defended the image of a retrospective, nostalgic, humanistic world culture, fused together through Frazer and Freud. Allocations looks into the future, formulates a starting point intended as the beginning of a futuristic world culture; with visual artists no longer drawing on the data of artistic tradition, but making use of the input from various data bases. No expression of post-modern artistic confusion, but rather a holistically oriented approach, reflecting the conceptual aspirations of the world networks as a matter of course; and yet, at the same time, a clear artistic choice. Indeed, with a future in sight which is hardly predictable or imaginable because of digital developments, the artist will often have to behave like a shaman; a visionary who, with his artistic intuition, will perhaps be able to develop an alternative perspective of the future, in the shadow of the vigorous Gaia culture. Thus, an answer to today's artistic challenges can be formulated thanks to a post-ideological philosophy determined by ecological concern and holistic aspirations. The ecological art explosion (Robin Cembalest) is under way. In the Allocations catalogue, co-organizer Jouke Kleerebezem refers to this as follows: The story of Ecology, which began in the mid-nineteenth century with Haeckel and his contemporaries and colleagues, not only opens up an intellectual world but is also a window to a real world, and offers an abundance of facts and hypotheses on the communication of man in his environments. These investigations present us with a very extensive and relevant library of cultural models of perception, idealization and ritualization as well as the memory of human experience and related actions based on it.

Temporary Autonomous Zones

Today, the most challenging artistic perceptions are perhaps being formulated from this ecological field of vision. Is it not true that the Biosphere in the closed pyramid in Arizona, or the remarkable points of view formulated by Marvin Minsky in Society of Mind, can also be identified as artistic models? These make it clear that the arts, just as the planet Earth, can only survive by preparing for a 'close encounter'. A conception such as the Temporary Autonomous Zone, in which the world as a whole is encompassed in a restricted environment, also plays a role in this. In this sense, this is the umpteenth name for the domain claimed and set out in space by the artist. An old tradition: it includes not only Jan van Eyck's Flanders, Hubert Robert's ruinously romantic Umwelt, but also the Plain of the Po, the Canyons and the Pont Neuf, annexed by, respectively, Antonioni, John Ford and Leos Carax. In Let It Come Down, Paul Bowles uses the Tangier International Zone as his working territory, as James Joyce did with Dublin. There has never been an artist who did not allude to an existing or imaginary world to give his personal metaphor a solid basis in reality. Recognizable geographic spots lend credibility to a personal artistic atmosphere, because they create the appearance of a democratic model. A strong sheet anchor in reality gives more certainty to the rapture and flight of divine inspiration. In Hakim Bey's book, t.a.z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, we find an ontologically anarchistic, poetically terroristic variant.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 (1993)

For the exhibition Allocations

1 Allocations an exhibition of art for a natural and artificial environment, was held in the summer of 1992, in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands. See also the exhibition catalogue and visitors' guide: Allocations, Zoetermeer 1992, 248pp. ill. ISBN 90 800914 2 1

a piece of farmland near Zoetermeer was cultivated and the organizers then invited eighteen artists to submit proposals for artistic interventions. Thus, the site was gradually divided into a collection of small no man's lands, where the various contributions created their own environments. Jouke Kleerebezem and his colleagues had not been looking for conventionally working artists, but rather for work in which ecological information had priority over aesthetic discourse. They demanded particular attention for the struggle against the exhaustion of Mother Earth. In this way, they created an exhibition at which artists such as Mel Chin, Chen Zhen, Arno van der Mark and Paul Perry could make statements on environment, ecosystems, globalism and other survival strategies.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 (1993)

Although the revolutionary ideas of the land art of two decades ago have long been sanctioned, our modern critics still reacted as if turned into stone by Allocations' ecological reverberations. That the greater part of the conventional image language turned out to have been replaced by a 'survival kits' atmosphere, came as a great shock to many people; although the holistic view which claims a social responsibility for the arts has long since found its own place within the postmodern debate. But from the ivory tower of conservative aesthetics, this view is apparently regarded mainly as an unwelcome intrusion. At first sight even the most remarkable review, that by Dirk van Weelden in the Dutch Art and Museum Journal

2 Dirk van Weelden 'Vier Ansichten van de Floriade', in: Kunst en Museumjournaal, jrg.4, nr.1, p. 61-63

may be interpreted in this way: as a rejection of what was being shown, even to the point of ignoring Allocations itself and reviewing only the striking parts of the Floriade exhibition. But those who read his story a second time will see that Van Weelden, in fact very cleverly, emphasizes the new ecological trend by avoiding a direct allusion to art and entering only into a few aspects of the agricultural and horticultural exhibition. Japanese flower gardens, a dynamic electronic biotope, the art of displacing water, garden architecture and the art of horticulture; these are the standard expressions which he lines up. It is as if he wants to point out that the fashionable ecological conceptions are running the same risk of becoming clichés as the traditional categories; and that those who want to avoid the pitfalls of the great expectations of the holistically inspired and the Gaia of the present, had better not become too obsessed by them. In his review, Van Weelden creates an enlarged, not very optimistic future perspective of the image of a modern art determined by ecological moods.

This is even more remarkable because in his book Mobilhome, in which he formulates his personal vision on the ideal shape of art, Van Weelden himself appears to be part of this ambience

3 Dirk van Weelden Mobilhome, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam 1991.

At least in the novel, which is about no man's lands and self-designed locations, the above mentioned temporary autonomous zone plays an important role. Precisely the places where an individual creates his own world between, on top of, and alongside the existing buildings, attract Van Weelden's attention. However full our world is becoming, overpopulation does not exist in those places. Everyone weaves his own individual web of meanings, invisible to others. For some it may be a remote artificial island in the North Sea near the mouth of the Thames, for others a Museum island. In a way, Mobilhome is a novel on conceptual temporary artistic zones. Against this theoretical background, a few ideas are developed in this book which, even more than the texts in the catalogue, seem to provide Allocations with a theoretical foundation. Van Weelden constantly refers to the mind of the visual artist, where thoughts may come up which are not really of this world. A kind of satirical mask is smirking through, but at the same time art is being taken extremely seriously. Because while the most interesting artists certainly make the nicest swindlers, their thoughts can definitely inspire us. That afternoon I was pleading in general for more attention for no man's lands, decline and porous materials... and a bit further on we read that ...the best metaphor for art was communication, weather and espionage satellites, how these machines launched into outer space turned our image of ourselves and the place where we were inside-out and changed it visibly and audibly. The world as a compressed entity, in the grip and under the watchful eye of the contemporary communications practice! Such a point of view does not approach the new arts with aesthetical argumentation, but rather implements a no-nonsense vision of the arts. I would prefer works of art which, in a clear and seemingly irrefutable way, refuted my view, taste or sensitivities and thus shed a different light on what I thought I saw, knew and understood. Without explanation, without symbolism.


The temporary autonomous zone as a temporary shelter. It is a classical artistic topos, the site where a certain elite can spend some time to conduct its activities undisturbed, under an enlightened regime. Of course Allocations is a direct continuation of Field of Dreams, this time with an artist being able to realize his artistic dreams.

4 We find these zones everywhere. Field of Dreams, a film with Kevin Costner, is about an ex-hippy who makes contact with a sportsman from the nearby past. Together with other long-dead sports heroes, they turn a cornfield into a baseball field which enables them to make a continuous journey to the past. Thus, Shoeless Joe Jackson helps Costner gain a better insight into his own, never accepted, relationship with his father. This is a temporary autonomous zone of the trivial kind. It moves you to tears

Dreams about art and longing, about evocative language and morality, about the masses and the individual everyday practice, about the here and now and the universe. We are on the track of the no man's land, we are exploring the outskirts and the mental domain of what was called repressive tolerance in the sixties. A domain, not only of mental, but also of commercial freedom, from the international trade zones and the economic tax-free industrial zones to those of the individual leisure culture.

Allocations as a fantasy, with the miscellany of essential historical land-art texts in the catalogue lending force to the argumentation. Fantasy, at face value a commonplace reality, but ruled by extraterrestrial forces. It is the area which leaves the conventional ideas of the visual arts behind in exchange for incoming messages from a different world. Here, still unknown artistic messages circulate and chance and secret inspiration set the tone. The criteria of science-fiction culture, of the world of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, are the points of recognition; the deliverance comes from Elsewhere, depends on the Other. An annexe of the world exhibition of agriculture and horticulture is waiting for its invaders, for extraterrestrial attention, and of course for our thoughts too, our interpretations and ideas on a new organization of Earthly reality. An invasion of, at first sight, stimulating lightness. This is an environment determined by modern Gaia theories and environmental trends, with the satellites of modern design, eventually finished (and that apparently in more than one sense of the word) by that inevitable trend of contemporary modern visual arts. Or, more positively, a release from the straitjacket of present-day thinking about modern art, thanks to the help of the Extraterrestrials and the stimulating atmosphere of the New Consciousness.

Allocations shows the platform where the reception of the extraterrestrial signs will take place. The groundwork has been done; there are aerials, beacons and runways; every preparation has been made to ensure that the communication will actually run smoothly. In the sometimes uncertain image, a certain disbelief seems tangible, an insecurity which only creates a more credible aura. Due also to the nostalgically futuristic atmosphere of the photographic contributions, the catalogue has all the characteristics of a scientific publication on an extraterrestrial culture previously observed on Earth. The world of the sticker-craze from the encyclopaedic fifties and the shining contours of the extraterrestrial objects set the tone, with the attention focused on the sky. Because, behind the artistic stories, a heavenly exchange is being arranged, and the ultimate code lies hidden in the Visitors' Guide. The artistic smoke screens and the historical ballast hampering a clear perception of Allocations have been neutralized in this booklet. Later recollection holds the key to the right interpretation. This guide shows the work on location, and each photo suggests one of the possible encounters; a photographic tableau corresponding with the idea (as also formulated in Mobilhome) that the best metaphor for art is the weather and communication satellites.

It is a custom at world exhibitions to launch artefacts reflecting the state-of-the-art in science far out into the universe in satellites, or to incarcerate them, only to be dug out someday far into the next century. Allocations does precisely the opposite: this is a temporary landing place for extraterrestrial movements, for visiting spacecraft from another planet. Metaphors for intelligent inspiration. The allocations are a collection of free zones within a single, protective, zone, of a temporary nature, with the main view directed upwards. These are moments of waiting, it is the aerials that will pick up their messages from space and get to work on them.

Even more than in reality, this photographic impression gives a clue to the true nature of what is being shown. It incorporates everything you could expect at a possible reception of extraterrestrial guests, in the tradition of Montezuma welcoming the Spanish soldiers as if they were gods. Give it some attention when you are glancing through the guide. It is not difficult to come up with a coherent interpretation of the various contributions: from Jan van Grunsven's public waiting rooms to Piero Gilardi's food offerings and Q.S. Serafijn's reflections of temptations; from the visible signs for the invaders by Peter Fend, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Joke Robaard or Matt Mullican to the memories of a previous invasion by Ian Hamilton Finlay; from the images of coordinating optical instruments by Fortuyn/O'Brien to the landing signals by Mel Chin, ifp and Marinus Boezem; from diverse elementary relativity indicators such as, for example, Vito Acconci's, to the survival kits by Ashley Bickerton and Chen Zhen; and from the signs of a symbolic order and the navigation instruments by Fastwürms and Dennis Adams to the totems from canoes and the finback jaw by Paul Perry: everywhere we almost literally find indications for possible communication with extraterrestrial civilizations.

This is the symbolic expression of a science fiction reduced to an elementary image. What influence virtual reality, organic computers, brain-wave interfaces and artificial intelligence will have on our views on art is found here, realized as in a single metaphor.

translation olivier/wylie