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The feeling of being alive

To be alive is to find space for the speechless, space for loss, for the superfluous, the death, the mere being, the unproductive.


Let’s start with a photograph. In 1972, Jack Schmitt took a picture of the Earth from the space shuttle Apollo 17. “Because it showed the spherical globe dominated by the blue ocean overlapping with the green bodies of water and swirling clouds, this picture became known as Blue Marble. In an effective way, the photographer managed to portray the planet as a whole and in space: No human presence or activity can be seen. The picture was shown on almost all newspaper covers around the world… People who watched Blue Marble said it changed their lives. "(Nicholas Mirzoeff: How to See the World)

Today we see photographs of refugees, war victims, catastrophic climate change – and for most of us they leave no lasting impression; we do not feel any responsibility. Characters and pictures are everywhere. And we're talking about the crisis of art. But perhaps it is not the art of photography (or literature) as such that is in crisis, but the thinking itself, orienteringthe waste? We are facing a new era which requires renewed thinking also within art's own ranks. We are surrounded by images, signs and literature, but the importance of these art forms is diminishing day by day as a result of the overheating of communication. Literature, visual art and photography have within each of their fields become a form of communication among many. Artists today therefore ask themselves: How can I make a difference? Let us try with three inputs: 1. Art and politics; Art and the wounded; 2. Art and free thought.

  1. Art and politics

What does it mean that art is in relation to the surrounding community? Is the art revolutionary / socially overbearing or, first of all, a sensitive, critical force that can later become politically significant? According to some authors (Boris Groys), the loss of the meaning of tradition and the death of the Enlightenment philosophy puts us in an acute political situation where the individual is left to his own body, his own vulnerability, his naked life. Every artist today asks the question: How do I explain what I do? Am I alive? And is it not precisely the art that, above all, is the practice that can make us feel alive?

We see photographs of refugees, victims of war, catastrophic climate change – but for most of us they don't make much of an impression.

In his book on David Bowie, Simon Critchley writes that Bowie made us free to develop another self, more peculiar, strange, open and exciting; life became a little less ordinary, less boring. Bowie stuck out because he managed to create variations over different characters (Ziggy, Major Tom, Low), and we knew none of them were real, yet they hit something true. A basic mood. "A mood that shows that everything in the world is not voting – that is, not conforming to the self, which allows for some dehumanization, a withdrawal, enables us to see the world in a utopian light." No doubt a marvelous ability to bestow something that feels right with the whole body even if it is inauthentic. Bowie's art, strong art, shows us that there is a life before magt. A free space that holds on to an openness that is neither political nor private, but linked to bodily experiences.

This is where the art is, "as a reflected conscious illusion, whose lostness is not false but serves a felt physical truth" (Critchley). The art is this radical question that does not necessarily have to meet a contextualization requirement. Because a work of art is placed in a social context, it does not speak from a direct political place. A painting of drowned refugees in the Mediterranean "succeeds" not because it is the bearer of a political message, but because in its way of working with the material (sense and form) it makes me realize my own fragility and that I am therefore in the same boat as them. The art is this space of thinking.

With the death of God, the death of tradition, the death of reason, the death of the family and the emptiness of work, art, according to Groys, faces direct action. But here he overlooks that the power of art will always take place through the indirect action, expressed through figures, images, sounds, like Kafka's art, like Bowies when he was at his best. The suffering today is that we are trapped within ourselves, that we can do nothing but just enjoy. The system-preserving power does not work through oppression, but through seduction. Power rules people, not through prohibitions and needs, but by making us addicted to pleasure. The entrepreneur's and the artist's self-exposure and self-exploitation go hand in hand. The individual becomes lord and slave in one (He). If art is to help us with anything, it is to look beyond ourselves. To give us a hope that we are not alone. Strong art must show the alienation and at the same time be a longing to escape from our isolation, a desperate attempt to overcome and abolish loneliness, a connection to other people. To escape from this loveless place where we are and find memories that burn and that make us stop and ask: Where are we now? We must love the alien while destroying the belief in any sublime illusion, be it Ziggy or Nietzsche's superhuman. “The overcoming of the human condition is a disaster, but at the same time man is still an obstacle. We are human, far too human, but still long to overcome this condition. " (Critchley)

A good work of art does not overflow, does not disperse, but holds on to something, has its own distance, hovers like through time, over and over again.

  1. Art and the wound

The weakening of art is associated with the enjoyment culture of consumption, but is perhaps even more closely linked to the myth of mastering the world, of being in control. I have seen the strange light in the eyes of the young people, the light of a magical digital control of their own lives, narcotically overwhelmed by the prospect of providing and shopping around between parties, partners, jobs, education. Cocaine economy. The real substance: nothing to feel. It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to spot our own limitations. We have created a way of life and a society that directly counteracts our ability to be conscious of the fragile, self-limiting, death. Everything is too close and yet too far away.

In his little book on Giacometti, Jean Genet writes that beauty has the same origin as the wound, which is something peculiar to every human being. A good work of art does not overflow, does not dissipate, but holds onto something, has its own distance, hovers like through time, over and over again. It has no beauty without being alone, lonely. It's about life, about the dark, the secret, the useless, about freeing yourself from history in the middle of the story. This stone's mass of life (which is also a picture) er the resistance, the bearer of the wound, the loss, that which we otherwise cannot access. When the beauty becomes smooth, smooth, we get Jeff Koons, iPhone, Brazilian wax, therapy literature we can reflect on. No friction, no resistance. The ugly and the strange lose their power of negativity, as Byung-Chul Han puts it. Even the diabolical and the homeless are smoothed out for consumption, for enjoyment.

By encountering my own boundary, being a stranger in my own language, I might be able to say something worth listening to.

  1. Art and free thought

"Actually, I can't swim. I've long wanted to learn how. " It's an Olympic champion talking. The words are from a small fragment of Kafka. The skilled swimmer never quite learns to swim. He is a stranger in his own element. Isn't art, critical thinking and inventive life just about becoming a stranger in one's own element? By encountering my own boundary, being a stranger in my own language, I might be able to say something worth listening to. By being alien to what I see, maybe I can start taking pictures that see the world? But maybe it's gotten harder? Activities we see as goals, and lose sight of the sight that is receptive to the familiar, so that it can appear at once marvelous and strange, thus real.

The relationship between rest and non-rest is reversed: Rest has become recreation and charging in favor of work. Free time is defined through work time. As if we forgot that aimless thinking is the most active of all our activities: in the retreat becoming receptive to the world. For a period of time, I did not want to join the community. In any case, no longer having to produce on the same terms. Instead, I practiced a kind of participatory passivity – and gradually felt a sense of belonging with the poor, the sick, the lonely in the parks, in the libraries, in the cafes. By not participating in community life, I was brought closer to people. The world grew bigger.

Today we learn to look at people as an infinite potential that can and must be realized through constant productivity. What we sacrifice is not potentials, but im-potentials, our ability to not to be. Not to be a means to a goal. Not to be this or that, but completely open, empty and alien. To be alive is to find space for the speechless, space for the loss, for the superfluous, death, the mere being, the unproductive. For what to do when you cannot find comfort in false gods? You have to keep creating, asking questions, surprise, delight: today, tomorrow. Just as long as a song lasts, a poem lasts, a movie, we can "cut off" everything, with Simone Weil's words created by us, and imagine another way of life, something utopian. It is this hope that we find flowing through the best Bowie songs, Rilke's Duino elegies, Tarkovsky's stalker, Bach / Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations.

FACTS: Lecture in Kulturhuset Oslo 8. Sept. on the occasion of the seminar Framing Content on the crisis of photography and image culture. Invited by Fotogalleriet (Stephanie von Spreter) and the artists Nina Toft, Iselin Linstad Hauge, Hilde Honerud and Line Løkken, they wanted a broader dialogue about the situation of photography and image culture today, about the image's relationship to art, to thinking and the existential. Other participants: Klara Källström (artist, Sweden); Lars Willumeit (curator, Switzerland); Beate C. Rønning (artist and writer, Norway); Hester Keijser (curator and director, The Netherlands).


Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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