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The (ir)reversibility of the things existing all around us: Teresa Cos’s “Measure of Disorder” at Argos, Brussels

by Huib Haye van der Werf

 

The Measure of Disorder, presented at Argos Centre for Art and Media in Brussels, is a two-channel film and sound installation by artist Teresa Cos, which follows the trail of Austrian scientist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844–1906) on his last journey through the Alps before his tragic suicide. In doing so, it offers a reflection on the human condition, our perception of time and both their coming apart.

 

In lay terms, entropy is regarded as the state of things as we know them—everything— always being closer to coming apart than to staying together. Famously made firm as a theory by Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann (1844–1906), entropy, according to the Google Dictionary, is “the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work,” or, more interestingly, “often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.” From order comes immediate disorder. How this coming undone ensues, or under what conditions, is secondary and a structural circumstance. But not always. As Boltzmann’s own mind held a remarkable capacity for scientific order and postulation, so did his being have a punishing sensitivity to the disorder of his own deeper thoughts and emotions—so much so that this is what led to the tragedy of his taking of his own life. He put together the theory revealing that all things come undone, and he himself came undone as well.

Perhaps this ironic duality is what led Teresa Cos to choose Boltzmann as the ghost to guide the viewer in her film installation The Measure of Disorder, at Argos Centre for Art and Media, Brussels. To be the guide along the last journey that Boltzmann ever made, via train from Vienna to Duino, near where the artist is from. An expedition from intellectual legacy to the final coming apart of one’s existence and all that may be in between. And it is the in-between that is significant here. That is where disorder is not yet noticed and starts to thread itself between two states of being. That is generally the moment that tells the tale. Cos understands this perfectly in the way she has put this film and its presentation together. The work is a large double-projection film installation. The darkened space hosts two screens across from each other. While on one screen the film runs forward, on the other it runs backward. Behind these, to one side, run the credits of the film which reveal also the significance of its locations; forwards and then backwards again, endlessly. The soundtrack is the only constant moving in one direction is not synchronized explicitly to the edit. The totality of the work, even before one sees it all the way through, already intimates an intriguing yet unbalancing experience. It denies time its linearity, sound an assigned significance, and the moving image any singularity. The film is a journey through a myriad of different landscapes, natural or otherwise. Trite, touristic mountaintops alternate with the uncanny romanticism of rocky ocean cliffs. Scale model-train landscapes or Google Earth footage are as relevant to this expedition as the industrial nostalgia of the movement of steam-engine parts. The scenes do not seem to have a narrative, yet together they form a course. They are all places that Boltzmann could have visited along his final journey with his wife and child. The Hochstrahlbrunnen fountain in Vienna both empty and fully ornate, the Südbahnhotel in Semmering nestled cutely yet eerily in the trees in the foothills of the Alps, and the sacred source of the Timavo River bared raw and close-up. The line between two transitionally different states of (dis)order is an omnipotent presence throughout, in the way each of these scenes reveals itself, as if in a dream, without time. As suddenly as a place appears and is activated, it repeats itself slightly—as if by a glitch—or runs in reverse. And before the viewer can get used to its state of instability, the film cuts to the next place and time.

While experiencing this work may read as intense and perhaps only unsettling, Cos’s installation has an uncanny calmness to it, and it is the soundtrack of the work that makes this possible. It’s actually delightful to be absorbed in each passing scene and not have a text or a voiceover guiding you. Rather, the changing state of the image and the altering soundtrack running parallel with it are what lead the affect of this work. Interestingly, the artist produced the soundtrack after the edit was finished. It comprises dreamy fragments and longer tones all taken from The Archive of Loops, a collection of recordings the artist has been producing and collecting since 2017. They incorporate guitars, drums, synths, and the artist’s own voice in instrumental improvisations lasting anywhere between ten and forty minutes. These fragments sync in and out alongside what is projected on the screens. They also sometimes slip in and out of time and direction but always seem to make it back to carry and sculpt the images, making them emotional and intimate. Image and sound are equally important and indisputable in this work. They stand on their own, which makes it all the more remarkable that they synchronize so brilliantly at times, perhaps never so cleverly as in what feels like the middle of the film loop—the in-between two directions. Here we see the golden escalators of Trump Tower in New York City, recorded from above, making the direction of their movement indistinct. At first the sound of a train steam engine carries this image, but then Tony Bennett suddenly begins to sing “This Funny World.” It is the exception to Boltzmann’s journey, it is the exception to an otherwise wordless soundtrack, but it shows the theory of (dis)order to be no less real.

 

at Argos Centre for Art and Media, Brussels
until 23 December 2018

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