Reza Negarestani, Torture Concrete – Jean-Luc Moulène and the Protocol of Abstraction,
September 2014, NY: Sequence Press (Paperback 152x203mm, 30pp)
Reza Negarestani authored this 30 page essay on Jean-Luc Moulène in conjunction with Moulène’s Torture Conrete show at Miguel Abreu gallery in New York.
As the Sequence Press statement says, ‘the text emerged out of a number of conversations between the writer and artist around the theme of abstraction both as a multi-faceted project in the general domain of thought and as a specific process of artistic experimentation.’
Negarestani is a powerful writer who can suck the reader in, presupposed she or he is willed to follow the tightly interconnected trains of thought. There is a philosophical-logical build-up that has a strong internal structure which makes it more difficult to isolate elements from the whole argument. Maybe the single most remarkable achievement of the essay is that is seems to come from an outside of the art world, or at least from an independent position that has a genuine interest in Moulène’s art. Negarestani has expressed deep ambivalence towards the art system: ‘But this is a world in which the financial closure of capitalism is cloned and grafted onto a cognitively maimed economy for accumulating false alternatives in the name of liberation of imagination and action. A suture of different overambitious vocations and driven by the wealth of waste it generates, the resulting beast is a prophetic vision of a tightly connected and controlled society with a single closed alimentary circuit, the human centipede.’http://blog.urbanomic.com/cyclon under ‘The Human Centipede’). One wishes to see more art writing crossovers like the Negarestani/Moulène collaboration. Torture Concrete is a lucid and fresh approach to Jean-Luc Moulène’s art, and art writing in general. Negarestani manages to get glimpses of Moulène’s art inner working, its tensions, tortures.
The spine of the text is a reflection on abstraction. The essay is divided into two parts, 1. Protocols of Cruelty (p. 5-12) and 2. A Point in the Flesh (p. 13-28). With ‘Torture’ or ‘Cruelty’ Negarestani refers to the charged act of abstraction, which according to his choice of words seem to involve forms of violence: ‘Abstraction is the order of the formal cruelty of thought. In its most trivial and unsophisticated form it involves pure mutilation: amputating form from the sensible matter. In its most complex – that is, most veritable – instances, it is the concurrent organization of matter by the force of thought, and the reorientation of thought by material forces. It is the mutual penetration and destabilization of thought and matter according to their respective regulative and controlling mechanisms. Anyone who does not recognise and embrace the formal cruelty of thought is not fit for the labor of abstraction. (p. 5)’
Moulène’s work follow and focuses on processes of abstraction. Despite their diversity, Moulène’s works are unified by an undergirding principle: the formal cruelty inherent to the procedure of abstraction, or what in Moulène’s own lexicon are called protocols (p.5). There is an underlying force, an understanding of ‘instances of protocole’ that brings all of Moulène’s work into a unified aesthetic realm. The protocols trigger new fields of thought, the processes of abstraction sets free energies that call forth new forms of abstractions. As thought devises new protocols of self-disturbance, it further canalizes and diversifies its internal dynamic tendencies as new local fields of thought (p. 7). Negarestani is drawn to Moulène’s art, because its aspirations and thought processes seem to be active equally in and outside of art. Moulène seeks to outline new objectives for art and to revise its task (p. 8). An ongoing process, Moulène’s protocols are constantly evolving, ‘refusing to settle down as finished subject matter’ (p. 9).
But what are these ‘protocols’? How do they exist or happen within abstraction processes? What Moulène calls ‘protocol’ when describing his modus operandi in making art is a performative system or germ of procedurality. (…) It is called protocol insofar as it governs the artist’s conduct according to the entanglements between (normative) laws of thought, (representational) laws of imagination and (dynamic-natural) material laws. (…) In other words, the protocol offers new choices of disequilibrium for the entanglements between thought, imagination and the material (p. 9). Regrettable is the omission of Moulène’s artworks from the book. The essay would gain with the inclusion of five or eight images from Moulène. The works in the Miguel Abreu Torture Conrete exhibition include sculptural heads of different shapes lying on blue towels, a series of photos and small to medium sized knot-like bronze and glass sculptures. What unifies the work according to Negarestani is a common spirit that can be located in Moulène’s interest in the distinct procedural emergence of new forms via abstraction. Negarestani writes, since the protocol represents the ramifying transits between thought and matter, following the protocol signifies a search for integrity in variation and for opportunities to partake in variations on the basis of their underlying invariances. In this context, Moulène’s approach to artmaking as ‘following protocols’ – acting according to the entanglements between laws of thought, laws of imagination and laws of matter – turns into an exercise in ‘integration through extreme variations’ (p. 9).
I am particularly drawn to these ‘variations on the basis of their underlying invariances’ and this ‘integrity in variation’, especially in connection to appropriative strategies I use for my paintings. However different the resulting works look combined, there is some kind of decision history that does feature underlying principles. The individual appropriative choices that finally lead to the making of a painting may have a distinct anatomies, the choices might share common decision DNA which can be investigated and described. This type of work takes time to develop and reveal itself, time for its decision structures and architectures to crystallise. Time is needed for the integrative strategies, image diversity and structural complexity to grow and expand, while the inner associative structures connect and build themselves.
The protocol, accordingly, displays both the variable and invariable aspects of this generative cruelty through which thought and matter develop new opportunities for disturbing one another. Each instance of this cruelty contains a manipulation of matter by thought and a twisting of thought by matter.(…) Proceeding becomes a matter of following a new choice of disequilibrium that opens up a new path or transit, and with that new constraints which bring into view new affordances of action (p. 10). Negarestani tries to describe nothing less than the creative process itself, the finding of new disequilibriums with their exclusive sets of constraints and the ensuing dealings and decisions based on these constraints. These changing and alternating disequilibrium ripped open by instances of abstraction need an equally flexible approach that nevertheless keeps in mind underlying patterns: In a sense, what Moulène calls protocols are generic names for embodied procedures that demand changes of approach, perspective and even techniques of manipulation depending on how the interactions between thought and matter evolve and ramify (p. 10).
Moulène selects above described procedural, disequilibrium-states within abstract processes, translates them and integrates them into his art. Negarestani: Abstraction strives to overturn this equlibrium by alternating between the forces of thought and the forces of matter, the intelligible and the sensible, and then capturing the new formation or variation in a higher state of stability before resuming the process by inventing new strategies of destabilization. This is how abstraction takes shape, as a program of transcendental torture par excellence through which thought expands its frontiers. For Moulène, each art object (be it a geometrical figure or a human body, a noose or a nude) captures a variation or a phase of this transcendental torture, hypostatizing the unnerving tipping point between the disincarnating faculties of thought and the incarnating powers of matter (p. 16)
This description of inner workings and decision sounds like the creation of an organic, virus-type entity that is in constant search for ‘new modes of disturbance’: The fundamentally and persistently disquiting dimension of Moulène’s work is the rediscovery of abstraction as a force of thought which, by cutting into sensible matter, awakens a whole family of perturbing and unapprehended material forces and behaviours which are mirrored back to us as vaguely familiar objects or abstract geometrical constructs (p. 21). It is precisely the tension of abstraction that Moulène seeks to highlight and reactivate within any framework or narrative, be it political, libidibal or mathematical (p. 28).
Sometimes Torture Concrete feels as if Negarestani applied ideas from his essay Labor of the Inhuman onto Moulène’s work. Torture Concrete is very structural in its approach to Moulène’s work, Negarestani analyses the ‘abstraction machine’ behind the work, its structural, nested anatomy and shape, its procedural functioning and the mirroring of its parts as well as its structure as a whole. This is probably a good thing. Negarestani set up his own rational and self-improving vectors in the Inhuman essay and Torture Concrete shows how much he stands by his own concepts. After all, as Negarestani Moulène is interested in transformations and transitions of meaning and images, in disequilibrium and re-stabilization processes within images or abstract entities, abstraction torture procedures or protocols; they share structural common denominators that accept constant navigational self-adaption and a distinct, vectorial spirit. As said before, the inclusion of Moulène’s work in black and white would have added to the conversational nature of the book (Negarestani’s determined way of writing and concept building can easily take over and push aside the visual aesthetic experience one encounters when visiting the exhibition). But there is also this fluid, organic development in Negarestani’s style and I hope he will continue to write about art he appreciates, as rarely before have creative inner workings been described as accurately and precisely as in Torture Concrete.
Some additional thoughts on the book. The essay is a remarkable experiment in elastic thinking and, as said before, a unique approach to writing about artistic creation. Yet somehow, despite all the goodwill and precision, the book does not really help to understand what Moulène is doing. It might elucidate some works in the exhibition, especially the knot sculptures which Negarestani writes about in the knotty second part of the essay. With reason and logic, Negarestani tries to unwind the knot that is Moulène himself. Moulène is messy though. A productive, compelling messiness. Like his complex and diverse artworks, Moulène remains a shapeshifter and is hard to pin down. Depite his apparent theoretical and conceptual seriousiousness, Moulène is also a trickster who can adapt and change his stance, not only towards subject matter, but also towards interview partners (seen at an interview at London’s ICA). We know that Negarestani likes Moulene’s work, why not breath a little and admit Moulène’s contradictions connected to his abstraction protocols? The deep link between abstraction and contradiction? Ok maybe that is torture itself, the ground of torture…
Negarestani makes valuable points and gives deep insights into the matter of abstraction – the essay is a marriage of elusiveness and strange precision and manages to glimpse into Moulène’s labyrinthine, torture garden-like mind. Torture Concrete might in fact be a hidden and perhaps ironic description not only of Moulène’s art, but of Moulène himself, a master torturer of sorts, in the sense of a master escape artist, who refuses to be pinned down easily, therefore torturing those who want to know him better. In this sense Negarestani is in a challenging position. Trying to catch a beloved escape professional, the writer increasingly realizes that he must rely on his own writing and thinking in order to put the words down that finally become the essay. Torture Concrete is dynamic because of this underlying thriller-like catch me if you can movement.
The torture and point in the flesh terminology has therefore a meta quality about cultural production itself and thematises the gap and potentially rich area between the creator (the selector of strata of abstraction) and the receiver. In other words, instances of concrete torture and the ensuing dialogs, essays and discussions make what appears to be culture.
Jean-Luc Moulène, Torture Concrete, Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York 2014: