Essay: without you

Nobutaka Aozaki, Value Added 240950 (Del Monte whole kernel corn no salt added), 2012
Canned corn and receipts

What if you can’t see an event? First of all, it doesn’t matter: anthropocentrism is out and it’s time we accepted that there are events that have nothing to do with humans being around to witness them. Benjamin H. Bratton talks about Google’s Nest, buying a can of corn in the supermarket, and the big question of scale.

What makes an event eventful? If it is the investment of meaning we place in it, perhaps some events can be indifferent to that meaning if they are immune to our investments. Put another way, for how long does an event need to take place in order to qualify as an event? By whom (or by what) must an event be experienced in order to be, strictly speaking, an event, and not just some process unfolding or an arbitrary slice of time? Art has arranged itself in relation to the question of the event in different ways, some of which are persistent if not useful and others useful if not persistent. Sometimes the event is an Event, capitalized to signify an important happening or a philosophical promise. However, if the event (or just actual things happening in interesting ways) is to be a central concern, then art should continue to explore tempos/temporalities other than that of normal human (short) attention spans, self-conscious play, or metaphysical politics. The worlds that art might disclose, interpret, and articulate are full of aliens (animal, vegetable, or mineral) with which we may be empathetic. We may communicate with their events and aesthetics but we are not essential components for them – yet there they are. In whose time do these events take place?

Theory of the event in art and philosophy cuts a spotty figure. Art in the phenomenological tradition was/is predicated on specific answers to specific questions, most of which boil things down to the intentionality of a participant observer.

Events are for those who experience them as such, those who might be taken up by them, and those who might lose themselves in that experience.

Deconstruction’s turn toward political theology sacralized this experience of experience in the figure of the “witness.” He or she who bears witness to atrocity, horror, or the transubstantiation of matter into message not only bears the trace of the event, he or she does so as an avatar of all who might ever experience it as a somber local representative of humanity as such. Relational aesthetics turned the event into self-referential pedagogy, sometimes ponderously so via obscure morality plays starring those with expertise in going meta. Alain Badiou elevated the irruptive historical Event to an ethics of perpetual obligation. Here the Event is depersonalized into politics and defined by its discontinuity with the fabrics of life as it is governed. For this philosophy, its authentic future is cut from what is unplanned and irreducible, and thereby deserves allegiance. Seen together in this way, each of these thematic traditions of the event are preoccupied with: (1) the event as personal/shared experience, and (2) event as extra-meaningful ritual/ break. This has sustained a conversation, in a way.

Another sort of theory of the event is needed because there are so many other kinds of interesting events. As indicated, events that are not events for people in a normal sense are among the most critical for us to learn about as something other than simply “non-human” or as part of some OOO anthropomorphic wordgame. For example, for a non-conscious complex system any state change between one order and another, a tipping point so to speak, is an event. These thresholds represent a different sort of non-phenomenological event. Whereas “phenomenological” aesthetic events are defined by their radical discontinuity with the fabric of experience, spliced from some unforeseeable outside (or future to come), thresholds are built-in events that will always happen no matter what, if certain conditions are met. In this regard, threshold events express a more generic universality than that of subjective experience.

In other words, within any system (human or inhuman, tangible or intangible, etc.) such tipping points are defined not by their discordance but by their immanence within a matrix of interactions. Again, such a threshold event will occur whether or not there is an intentional phenomenal subject to bear witness to it or not; it will occur whether or not it is tweeted about; it will occur whether or not someone has ethical fidelity to it, in a gallery context or in the streets. Once more, it is an event not because it is Other but because it is intrinsic. Truly, immanent events that are indifferent to subjective intentionality also deserve our attention and allegiance precisely because they need neither. Let’s look for some of these thresholds, not in our canons of timebased sculpture or durational performance art, but in lower and more boring places. Let’s look at dumb things that are based on thresholds and with which we participate, but do not need to witness per se. For example, Nest, the “smart thermostat” now owned by Google, is based on an interesting sort of interface design of thresholds. It is designed to turn on/off heating, cooling, and other connected infrastructures when they are needed/not needed. It learns when they are not needed by learning when residents are not home. That is, you don’t really program Nest as you would a normal thermostat, rather you “interact” with it by just being there or by just not being there. If the learned pattern suggests you are there or will be there then it does one thing. If the learned pattern suggests you are not or will not be home then it does another. The key means of interacting with Nest is by not interacting with Nest, by not being present, by not being or doing anything. It will initiate or govern a thermodynamic threshold event in your air conditioner because you are not there to intend it or to witness it. It will do this every single time. To paraphrase the philosopher Gregory Bateson, a house, a thermostat and the absence of a person is information; here relational pedagogy between human, process, and system is cybernetic not experiential. More generally, such a threshold event does not cut into our world from a magic universe of alterity, identity, and encounter;

it is the world expressing a form of material intelligence that is as permanently beautiful and wondrous as watching a pot of water boil.

The same cannot be said of waiting in line to sit there and stare at Marina Abramović, for example.

But sometimes similar inhuman events require human creativity and ingenuity to happen. The work Value_Added #240950 (Del Monte whole kernel corn no salt added), 2012–, by the Japanese artist Nobutaka Aozaki sees the artist purchasing the exact same small can of corn over and over again in 105 supermarkets. With each iteration, he brings the can in to the store and buys it once more, introducing it to the event of a (false) ownership transference threshold at the checkout counter, over and over. The UPC barcode on the can reveals nothing about the provenance of the can, and so each inventory lookup returns a valid transactional price. Where is the event? It arguably is already there in the link between supply chains, inventory management systems, checkout laser beams, and bar codes. From this perspective, Aozaki’s work is a kind of performative normcore. It makes a system do its thing to such a weird extreme that a new pattern emerges. On the other hand, this event is clearly a glitch of some sort. It does cut some kind of seam in the normal operation of people standing in line to buy things. It would perhaps not even “happen” were it not for the aesthetic registration of an autonomic operation unexpectedly folding back on itself for us (the inventory databases themselves don’t care). Either way, the work confuses distinctions between object and process, and between whether the object is withdrawn or the relations are themselves withdrawn (into the work, into the macroeconomics of corn production, etc.). Its prosaic staging of prosaic reality also makes plain how even events that require intentional subjects to give them shape (as this one does, arguably) are always situated inside larger and smaller events, ones which may not only not require that intentionality but also be indifferent to it.

Here the question of scale makes all the difference. There are many ways that art can affect intelligent links between otherwise unlike scales because there are many ways the world itself does the same. Threshold events at microscopic scale conjoin with events at climatic scale without always passing through the middling filter of anthropometric gloss. (As a species we evolved ignorant of geochemistry and had to invent microscopes, telescopes and climate satellites to have any idea of it.) That is, some threshold events that are indifferent to human observation may be unavailable to us other than by technical prosthesis and the indirect abstraction of models. Even so, considered at the scale of the physical world, such indifferent events obviously constitute most of what goes on. We may not be able to experience these events as events in the same way as we would variously cloying or revelatory art, let alone experience how they may/may not experience themselves, but we can at least draw traces between ourselves and such events with projects based in speculative empathy (and also, in turn, our own indifference to those indifferent events’ indifference). Such projects are not mystical “hyperevents” (an even worse corollary to Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”: a literary apprehension trying to supervise what it cannot possibly think). They are, I would hope, a way of learning to be comfortable in the air pocket emptied out for a “user who isn’t there” but who is still a relevant threshold around which events silently cohere (as for Nest). We are not ourselves the guaranteeing witness to the event; rather we are nested inside events which are nested inside other events, although we may (sometimes) be one of the threshold conditions that draws them together.

Benjamin Bratton is a sociologist and a media design theorist. He is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. His research addresses the effects of new technological infrastructures. Later this year his book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignity is coming out from MIT Press.