Collective definitions not definitive collections
Thanks to all of you who responded to my first Is there a field of ‘arts reading’? text. Many of you confirmed similar libraries of influence and affection, and many of you had additions for my own library with books that I have not yet read, and reminders of works that I will return to.
One response was from darren (thanks darren!), who uses the term ‘canonical’ to describe what I might be searching for, or trying to develop with Is there a field of ‘arts reading’?. But, I should clarify, this project, and my approach to the idea of a ‘field’ as not analogous to the canon, but a way of organising that might respond in a more horizontal way — a kind of logic that helps me speak to you, and for us to speak with each other, not to establish hierarchies but to create communication. In that way, its refusal of shibboleths does not mean refusing judgement, it means asking others to speak with, to and against, as a way of understanding the importance of reading for art now. What it might mean to be in the field together? What is it to come to collective definitions not definitive collections?
In Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society (1976), Raymond Williams asks: do we speak the same language? This is not to ask, ‘do we speak the same words?’, but rather, ‘do we have the same immediate values’ and do we share the same systems of valuation? Williams’, an influential Welsh theorist of literature, art history and cultural studies, who proposed new readings of Marx during the immediate post-war era, challenged us to be aware of the annoyingly intangibe formations and distributions of energy and interest that crystallise in the language that we use. Keywords was a key text that introduced readers to a new way of looking at lexicon, and continues to help me think through the difficulty of describing the nuance of language.
So back to darren’s evocation of the canon. Is there a field of ‘arts reading’? is not seeking to describe a field of ‘arts reading’ by signalling individual ‘canonical’ or authoritative texts that might rise up from responses given me. Instead, I’m interested in a kind of frenetic and fractured mosh-pit of examples. Something that mimics our many open browser tabs or many active screens. It might also gesture to that sickly contemporary phenomenon of the ‘listicle’, but hopefully adds nutrients by stringing sentences and thoughts in between. I might not agree with the evocation of canon but I definitely concur that genres like science fiction and cyberpunk have and continue to be points of interest for the artworld — many of you mentioned the continued importance of Donna Haraway and her various works of speculative fiction, of which her essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1984) is of particular note.
It is not that Haraway becomes a figure of authority that we need to place on a pedestal (although I might pray at that alter) it is that she emerged from a contextual moment when this discourse mattered beyond itself. Her work is implicated with global academic systems of power that allowed ‘the theorist’ as a figure to emerge in the 1970s and 80s with status and meaning. In recognising this, it is less about a citational referentiality that wins us points today and is instead about suggesting that she coined phrases, wrote sentences, participated in dialogues, that continue to matter because of their futuristic vision and contemporary salience. That might be what it is to perform a philosophy of history and how it matters here and now rather than to simply swallow hook, line and blinking, red-light, cyborg sinker the history of philosophers who are from another time if not another planet as well. And so, it becomes a reading practice to approach Keywords, Haraway, and science fiction, which can help us develop a critique of our moment and ourselves, not as mythic origin points that cannot be questioned, but as possibilities for what we can become when we are just as generic and oft-cited as the books below.
Within the world of art, sci fi has maintained an enduring influence as a mode of thought. Texts such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961/1970), and anything by Philip K. Dick have been mainstays of influence in art and cinema, and the various places where those spheres collide. Many have attempted to adapt the Dune epic, including David Lynch who was so disappointed in his own effort that he removed his name and credited the project to Alan Smithee. Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted to create a psychedelic adaptation in the 1970s that would include a score by Pink Floyd, a cast that included Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger, and a handful of artists including painter H R Giger, and illustrators Chris Foss and Jean Giraud to create the many visited worlds. The recently documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) records this failed venture in lavish fanboy glory. These sci fi works lend themselves to the visual arts because (among other things) they interrogate what it is to create dialogue and empathy between alien beings within constructed and defined environments, whilst often fatalistically gesturing to eventual incapacity to do so. Think, Chris Marker La Jetée (1962); the the smoke-machined landscapes in the films of Pierre Huygye; Hemon Chong’s Solaris a roving library of editions of Lem’s novel for the 2016 Biennale of Sydney; Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s recent excursions into virtual reality at the National Gallery of Australia; the cut up films of SodaJerk, particularly projects like Astro Black (2007, ongoing) that riffs off the intersection of popular forms of sci fi film and social politics; performance art collective Aphids’ Forever now (2015) that payed tribute to the 1977 Voyager Golden Record; and so on and so forth.
Sci fi can be thought of as a series of speculations on the near future, or a process of building a world and narrative in a reality that is often only a slight shift away from ours — although other, it is still potential and hinges on the audience believing in it as a relatively probable reality. Even in the most fantastical and other of worlds, structural realities persist. For instance The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair, a political text about labour politics in America, presents the reader with an exaggerated then present-day turn of the twentieth century Chicago Stock Yards, when labour conditions were horrific, and which is still seen as the political antithesis to the later Ayn Rand sci fi manifesto Atlas Shrugged (1957). Margaret Attwoods’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), became iconic for creating the parasitic military world of Gilead inside contemporary America for second-wave feminists to think through the hypothetical horror of female subjugation, and that which now in the age of Trump has become something of a rally cry. (See also the Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984) where women have likewise been stripped of their civil rights but have joined alien races to create a new-female-alien specific language!)
Sci fi reading helps us build a capacity to formulate our own values, politics and identity even in circumstances where the processes of education and government are doing all they can to propagate a set of counter principles, beliefs and orthodox. Texts by non-male and non-white authors have offered audiences an invitation to read in a resistant way and read against the grain of patriarchal ideology in which they were officially educated and brought up. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), presents us with perhaps the most intimate, androgynous, inter-sex, inter-species romances of all-time(!); Octavia E Butler’s works including the Patternist series or Kindred (1979), set in distant futures and historical pasts use sci fi tropes like telepathy and time travel to imagine alternate power relations between race and gender; Alexis Wright in The Swan Book (2013) gives us a ruthless examination of contemporary realities facing Aboriginal people thought a dystopic future where the Northern Territory, still living under Intervention, has become an environmental lawless disaster dominated from the South by a hamstrung yet villainous Aboriginal President. Other writers of note here are transgender novelist Imogen Binnie whose multiple point of view work Nevada (2013) presents us with alternative understandings of gender and dystopia, and theorist José Esteban Muñoz, whose Marxist inspired Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) revisits a number of historical queer works including those by Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, LeRoi James, Eileen Myles and James Schulyer to trace their influence and future world-building potentials.
As mentioned above, the modes of world building adopted by sci-fi authors like Dick, Herbert and Lem have been for many years a continuous source of interest to artists and curators. I would argue however, that the pendulum of recent interest has swung toward texts by Le Guin and Butler and co. with their critiques of space exploration as expanding empires and interrogation of what it is to be non-binary human-alien-cyborg. Offering up new possibilities of living, as well as anticipating the darker repercussions of technology for marginalised people, these texts have more purchase on the contemporary. Perhaps it is their perspectives that better equip them to portray hostile dystopias? As Sarah mentioned in one of the comments on the last column (thanks Sarah!), The Otolith Group — a collective of artists and theorists — use science fiction to engage with the legacies and potentials of non-aligned movements, new media, Indofuturism and Afrofuturism. In a recent interview they discuss the importance of Butler’s science fiction on their own work, but also her importance upon generations of feminist theorists, particularly Haraway, who has intern continued to influence them… you can read the conversation here.
Recently curators have used sci fi as a curatorial method to deal with the ever expanding worlds of Biennales, of which Stephanie Rosenthal’s 2016 Biennale of Sydney The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed titled after a quote from sci fi author William Gibson, is just one. Another is Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories, the 11th Shanghai Biennale curated by Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective, whose curatorial rational revolved around Chinese author Liu Cixin’s cult sci fi trilogy The Three-Body Problem (2008) about orbital mechanics and the difficulty in predicting gravitational forces while placing Cultural-Revolution era China in contact with the far away Trisolaran galaxy. There is much demanded of curators working within the ever expanding international biennale structure with its multiple audiences and stakeholders so the flexibility of the sci fi frame offers a readymade narrative that can work across disciplines of science and technology while maintaining the arts’ traditional role as speculator; present complicated opposing political narratives through dystopias and utopias; all while explicitly evoking ideas of territory, the movement between territories, and the various perspectives of said territories.
In the world of literature, science fiction has often been relegated to the periphery and labeled ‘genre fiction’. In its world building, sci fi becomes a field of defining things itself, not a genre, not a canon, not a sensibility alone. It can be a contemporary egalitarian and autonomous version of William’s Keywords. We see this in the new words that are introduced, in the other worlds that are imagined. Maybe it’s useful to think about how the arts world might learn from this, as a refusal of the canon, whilst learning judgement, creativity and critique. This means seeing the field as a methodology, as a process, as a collective labour. And so in the very creation of a field, we are making up keywords as we go along, building worlds through words alone if not texts, people, artworks too.
So here I have started to collect key texts, not as an exercise in the canon, or even the counter canonical for fear we might simply establish a parallel negation! The significance is in what Williams might say is the conversation aroused by said list, a kind of index, a kind of genealogy. Again, thanks to everyone who has responded, please continue to let me know what should be on my ever evolving syllabus of ‘arts reading’, what should have been included/excluded here, and what subjects, topics I should continue to think through in the comments below, or via email, please and thank you.
Is there a field called ‘arts reading’? is an ongoing series by Kelly Fliedner exploring the influence of reading on Australian contemporary art.
We want to hear from you! Comment below or email Kelly directly to let her know which texts are on your to-read list; texts that are important to you; texts that have informed your practice; texts that have helped you belong in the art world; texts that are entertaining; or texts that have validated your connection to contemporary art.
Kelly Fliedner is a curator and writer based in Perth. Most recently she was the Writer and Editor of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale based in Kerala, India. Before that she lived and worked in Melbourne where among other roles she was the Program Curator at West Space https://kellyfliedner.com/