Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


In his seminal 1967 book, French philosopher Paul Virilio documented the WW2 fortifications of the Atlantikwall, laying on the French coast like colossal fossils. Ominously resonant with present-day wall-building delusions, these surreal relics of war provide here the backdrop to interrogate the technical challenges of a dystopian future, as imagined by Virgil Abloh in the LV 2054 collection.

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Monolithic blocks of washed-out reinforced concrete lay stranded on the beaches and dunes of the French Atlantic coast like colossal fossils. Half- submerged, broken up, covered in moss and algae, these surreal relics of war today serve as the backdrop for official commemorations and scenic tourist shoots.

Long before any public interest in these bunkers, twenty-six-year-old Frenchman Paul Virilio (1932 2018),a self-described graduate of the “university of catastrophe”—i.e., the Second World War—turned his attention and camera to them. During his excursions in 1958, many of the fortifications of the Nazi-built Atlantik wall were in better shape than they are today, yet the collective memory of the atrocities that they evoked were, at the time, often buried under notions of progress, restoration, and national renewal.

Moving through the scarred landscape, Virilio took black-and-white photographs using a large format plate camera. His methodical yet autobiographically driven investigation produced an archaeology of the material culture of war, one which he described as “at once prospective and retrospective.” Compiled for an exhibition in 1975 at the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris titled “Bunker Archéologie,’' these images and ideas would also be featured in an eponymous catalog. Published at a time in which bunkers in many European cities were being retrofitted and re-erected in light of the threat of nuclear confrontation, the book paints its subject of study not just as a functional object of military engineering, but also as a symbol of 20th-century modernity.

In the publication, Virilio interweaves personal narrative, historical analysis, “found” texts such
as war directives by Hitler, and typological studies of the bunkers in the form of photographs and architectural floor plans and sections. Both formally and conceptually, the gridded layout of the photographed buildings anticipate German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s images of heavy industry. It was not only Virilio’s and the Bechers’ shared interest in capturing the disappearing per se, but precisely the historical condition—the waltz of productive forces, industrial capital, and fascism—that connects the bunker and the blast furnace. This condition is particularly embodied by the figure of Hitler’s chief architect and later Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer, to whom Virilio dedicates an entire chapter in the catalog. Speer, a master of technocratic efficiency, had realized genocidal ideology with rational planning: as Virilio writes, he was a “constructor that had become the destructor.

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The architect in power had become the architect of power.” When tried as a war criminal in Nuremberg, Speer proclaimed himself as only an “instrument.” As Virilio noted, while partly admitting his guilt, the architect argued that technological innovation, specifically in the field of communications, was in large part to blame for the war. Virilio's own life and project of envisioning an expanded, humanist architectural practice can
be seen as a fundamental antithesis to Speer’s complicity and surrender to totalitarian thought and the destructiveness inherent in modern technology. Bringing to mind what Ariella Azoulay described as “citizenry of photography,” Virilio’s work lent a critical eye to the then-fast-accelerating technological development of the era. By using the available means and techniques of media, he aimed to make visible its power while establishing a distance so as to escape its subjectivation. Furthermore, Virilio’s work as an architectural educator, organizer of exhibitions, painter, artist, writer, and thinker, particularly in his collaborations with French architect Claude Parent, purposefully resisted specialization. For him, only a kind of dedicated “generalist” would be able to cut through the web of the world’s technological mediations and counter its ever-increasing pace. He saw this speed—primarily brought about by developments in military technologies—as altering real (built) spaces and ultimately further- ing a total deterritorialization. Here, the bunkers on the coast of Normandy can be understood as being built to obstruct this speed. In their sturdiness and immobility, these sculpted masses of sand, water, and cement not only withstand flying projectiles and shelling by air and demarcate rule over a territory, but also symbolize a notion of rootedness in the ground—a prominent idea in Nazi thinking, as Virilio points out. Tellingly, at a time of widely perceived fragmentation in a highly globalized world—and one in which humans are becoming increasingly detached from the surface of the Earth, as Virilio observed in a 2018 interview—the term “Festung Europa” has gained currency in recent years. Originally coined by the Nazis, it described the Atlantikwall, which, besides being of strategic military importance, also walled in the population and kept the open horizon of the ocean out of sight. The decaying bunkers on the French coast attest to what is welcomed in nativist circles as a present-day Festung Europa, one which, with its mobile fencing, frontex border patrol operations, and drone surveillance, is ultimately a flawed and fundamentally racist answer to the disruptions caused by technological acceleration.

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This interview is an excerpt from an unpublished conversation held in Paris on 8 June 1991.
HUOThe public nature is an important aspect of artistic practice—its construction and/or destruction. The monument has a function of reminding. With the invention of techniques of replication and the acceleration of pictures, this commemorative function has been placed into question. In your opinion, how has the role of the monument changed due to the acceleration of public pictures?

PVThe monument is primarily a signal, a sign, an appeal. A monument thus is not bound to refer
to past, to an historical or other event. It is primarily a moment of pausing in the habits of everyday life, which to me is the monument’s most important function. Where everyday urban life is one of mobility, of mobilization, of forgetting, of habits, of rituals, and so on, the monument interrupts repetition. It is intended to awaken, to provoke. The monument can be architectural, such as all great memorials, but I feel we identify the monument too much with the colossal.

I believe there are pictures that have the function of a memorial, just as there are paintings, sculptures, and architectural works that have a memorial function. To me, this aspect seems to be an important element of the public image. The public image, however, is far more than just this monumental dimension. Indeed, there is no private image anymore. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, every structured society organizes first the perception. Tell me how you perceive, and I’ll tell you who you are. Tell me which collective public view you have, and I’ll tell you who you are.

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HUODue to loss of individuality, the importance and function of the monument change.
PVThe monuments are mass media. When the people from the Middle Ages went into a cathedral or a Protestant church, they did so in order to obtain information. Thus, the monument is the first means of mass communication—and as a consequence, a dematerialization takes place in the book, then in the press, in radio broadcasting and on TV. In a certain respect, the audiovisual media are the heirs of the monument.
HUOThe one who observes becomes the one who is observed.
PVHere we come back to the sentence by Marcel Duchamp: “It is the spectators who make the pictures.” The picture does not exist through the view or the hand of the artist who creates the picture, but through the view of the potential spectator. Therefore, the view multiplies. Rather than an individual view, a collectivizing of the view takes place. This is probably the reason why some exceptionally important artists have disappeared from art history: because they have not found any spectators who looked over their shoulders, because they have remained alone in their view. They have created on their own and no one has come to look at their work, to discover it. I am convinced that there is an entire Pantheon, a Louvre, an Alte Pinakothek’s worth of exceptional, unique artworks that have disappeared because this view has remained alone, has not doubled through the public spectator, be he an art lover, a bishop,
or an art critic.
HUOMichael Klier’s 1983 film The Giant shows the perma- nent presence of surveillance cameras as a scenario between Huxley’s Brave New World and Mussak. The movie lives in the tension field of a supernatural aura of removed pictures on the one hand, and the underwater character which threatens to drown everything on the other hand. The world of the cameras proliferatively goes from the outer space again back into the inner space. It resembles Escher’s endless loop, a stream of surveillance pictures from which no escape seems possible. The artist Julia Scher continues this idea by actively using surveillance techniques—she even has her own company, Security by Julia. In her exhibitions, Scher installs cameras and other instruments of surveillance at strategic spots throughout the museum or gallery. Her work has an interactive character: he sees himself on the screen and thus becomes part of the installation. The system which creates its own pictures returns the view of the spectator: the artwork looks back.
PVThe very term “feedback” suggests that one looks together—the view is collective, never done individually or alone. Today, however, what’s new is that the spectators are no longer amateurs, nor critics, nor discoverers, but rather spokesmen, intermediaries. The journalist is an example of that. The Gulf War is an exceptional moment of picture warfare: for the first time, the pictures, the weapons of communication, not only provide an opportunity to create a way of seeing, a public view, but also to officially and purposefully blind, to deceive the public with the help of the military.

What is bad is that the spectators are not passionate people or accomplices anymore—they’re intermediaries, in the sense of people who exert a function to which they are not committed, a function which is mechanical. Unlike Duchamp’s spectator, the cameraman who films the war in the desert sand directly on the spot does not transmit something that he was told to look at, something that he was ordered to do by the information pool controlled
by the army, or the boss of the editing committee.

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HUODue to the disappearance of the accomplice, the question about the function of artistic practice possesses itself anew.
PVIn the new public view—that is, that of electronic mass media—lies a moment of making blind which will continue to develop. Since the Renaissance, artists have had a kind of provocatory function: with a lot of skill and cunning, they pointed out new things. Take the Impressionists, the Cubists, Muybridge, or Marey: the artist has a function of revelation, a function which in my mind presents a contrast to information and enlightenment. Now, with the public view of electronic machinery and direct live transmission, there is no work anymore—there is nothing but a camera-bearer. In this respect, the Gulf War was particularly tragic, since it has permanently destroyed our confidence in the credibility of means of communication. One knew well that there was biased interpretation, but that is not really bad, as we understand that every view is an interpretation. Here, however, there was conscious manipulation, thus rendering the audience blind. The public view has turned into public obscuration. This is what makes the event so unique.
HUOGebser’s dream seems to have failed.

PVThat means that the automatic view has become a view which is supposed to make the television spectator blind. That is what is new. Since one was allowed to believe in transparency, the tele-surveillance by Michael Klier seemed like a view of quasi-godly transparency. One has realized, however,that this quasi-godly transparency is a blindness, a weakness. But for this, the Gulf War was necessary. If one looks at surveillance cameras, this certainly has a police dimension. But during the Gulf War, so much was said and shown in order to fixate the view, and this was for the first time organized by the army, by the Pentagon, and in secret agreement with the press. Let us take an example from today, 8 June 1991. The Nouvel Observateur publishes on page one an article with the headline “How We Have Been Lied To.” That is scandal. The journalist should have written “How You Have Been Lied To,” for it was his own work. He hides.
HUOWhat public does the artist want? Especially with respect to the public claim of a work, a question poses itself: one of what you might call “disobedience.” The model of drawing back seems to be rather rare in today’s situation. The break presents itself more often in a free interplay with various contexts, with the artist consciously entering into relationships with his political, economic, and social environments and defines himself through these relation- ships. Even as the artist concretely lets himself into a certain environment, however, he reserves for himself the liberty of leaping back out and the possibility for distance. It seems important to me not to raise this game of context, of the political, economic, and social connections of art, into a principle. The question about the public view must also do justice to the fact that good paintings continue to come into existence. The painting just comes through the back door.
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PVIt is certain that science, technology, physics, and metaphysics cannot be separated from art. Art is a place where science encounters metaphysics. It is the concern of art to be the bond between these areas. For Italian painting of the Renaissance period, there is no dierence between the science and physics of that epoch and the paintings of a Paolo Uccello, a Piero de la Francesca, the writings of an Alberti or the architecture of a Brunelleschi. There is a unity between science and technology, faith, the metaphysical dimension of art. By and large, this unity between art and technology was destroyed in the 18th century, when the first big school
of military engineering— the Royal School of Engineering of Mézières —was founded during the French Revolution. The break between the art of building and the technology of construction is an invention of artillery in the 18th century. From then on, there have been two worlds: the world of art and architecture, and the world of construction technique and military engineering. This is closely connected with ideas I explore in my book Bunker Archeology (1967). In a certain respect, bunkers—confined spaces, survival spaces— link to the great unity between the scientific, the technical, the metaphysical, and the “art of seeing,” as Huxley would say. Seeing is an art—not painting, not forming, not sculpting, not carving, not constructing. The first art is seeing. And as we’ve said, seeing is collective.
HUOThe fear of surveillance techniques and the expansion of the public view is paradoxically accompanied by an ever deeper, but at the same time futile, withdrawal into the private sphere, which is only confirmed by an embittered despair about anonymous surveillance. Over time, this withdrawal results in the loss of our ability to think in public dimensions.
PVAbsolutely. The new optics are not bad as such. “Bad,” or even “shocking,” is still the function of control. In The Vision Machine (1989), I mentioned that even industrialization was an element of breaking with art. Reproduction, the similar object—as Andy Warhol has shown very clearly—was an element of breaking with unicum, the unique worth of an author, with the original. I claim that today we are experiencing the industrialization of seeing. It is no longer the objects which are reproduced in series and become serial, it is the common view.
HUOWithin the practice of the artist is the possibility of choice, the possibility of distance, of deceleration and interpretation. Therein lies his enormous importance.
PVYes. An artist is primarily an interpreter. But when there is no time for interpretation because technology is faster, what happens then? This is an aesthetic question, and a political question, and an ethical question—and one which has not yet been answered.

Paul Virilio (1932 2018) was a French cultural theorist, urbanist, aesthetic philosopher, and the author of the seminal 1975 book Bunker Archaeology.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a writer, curator, and artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London.

Lennart Wolff is a Berlin-based writer and curator.









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