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CONVERSATIONS Mousse 69

Matter Matters: Tyler Coburn

Tyler Coburn in Conversation with Elvia Wilk

 

Artist Tyler Coburn and writer Elvia Wilk both deal with materiality, embodiment, and speculative futures in their work. In this conversation they discuss how grappling with new materialist philosophies has led them to consider very old materialist viewpoints such as the medieval concepts of resurrection and incarnation. How do centuries-old notions of virtuality and corporeality relate to highly contemporary questions about invisible structures beyond the human scale? How can current art practices resurrect the future imaginary? Looking at deep-past materialisms, they find, might be one way to construct better material futures.

 

TYLER COBURN: I wanted to have this conversation to think through some ideas about materialism that we’ve both been exploring in the past few years. I found myself approaching this subject from two angles in the early 2010s. From one end, I felt frustration with conversations about object-oriented ontology at the time. Arguments for non-anthropocentrism sometimes seemed to disavow or selectively ignore the cultural, technological, and economic networks that structure many of our relationships with the object world. By contrast, writing from the realms of anthropology, literature, and feminist studies—from Arjun Appadurai, Bill Brown, Jane Bennett, and others—offered nuanced ways of studying these networks. From the other end, I was attuned to how projects by artists like Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen were commonly discussed in terms of making the invisible visible. The purchase on representation rang false in light of the increasing complexity of finance, logistics, governance, and data. Karen Barad’s writing was an enormous help to me, as it called for a shift from a “representationalist” to a “performative” framework. Representationalism, she writes, demotes matter to “the surface effect of human bodies, or the end product of linguistic or discursive acts.” Performativity “allows matter its due as an active participant in the world’s becoming, in its ongoing ‘intraactivity.’”1 In terms of art, this seems to suggest the impossibility of representing complex systems as such. Instead, we could make work that explores our implication in, and intraaction with, the systems in question.

ELVIA WILK: I was also struggling with emerging materialist philosophies at that time. I felt like some object-oriented ontologies represented a politically questionable take on materiality—this idea that everything is reducible to thingness, independent of the human subject position. Feminist theory had taught me that subjecthood matters quite a lot—as much as “matter” matters—and that recognizing oneself as a subject does not necessarily deny the independence of nonhumans or objects. I didn’t see why paying attention to subjective experience should disallow granting the nonhuman independent existence or agency. One motive for trying to “thingify” the world is, as you suggest, to try to grasp giant systems as cohesive or coherent entities. You’re right to point out that simultaneous with the object-oriented turn in philosophy, there was a surge in artists framing their production as “rendering visible.” The main problem I see with that move is that it’s the same modernist formal “reveal” mechanism—ta-da!—each time. That creates a simplistic dichotomy: the seen versus the unseen, the known versus the unknown. And it makes the implicit promise that it’s possible to make visible something like the internet or the climate, when any kind of depiction is necessarily a reduction, a reduction made from the particular subject position of the artist.

TC: At the time, my way of pushing back on depiction was to create I’m that angel (2011–ongoing), a prose poem about digital labor in “the cloud” designed to be read aloud for small audiences inside data centers. The performances (and facility tours that follow) don’t pretend to give a transparent view of the physical internet. If they expose anything, as a guest noted, it’s the enormity, opacity, and materiality of our physical networks.

EW: I’m that angel does seem to question the fantasy of dematerialization connected to the subject/object struggle. For a long time, I think we were able to imagine digitization as dematerialization—until, say, we were forced to realize how much electricity server farms suck up. There is always a material substrate to virtual existence. And when the fantasy of dematerialization is ruptured, so is the fantasy of disembodiment. We couldn’t really ever upload human consciousness to a computer to be downloaded into a different body later because (for instance) a good deal of cognition is probably governed by gut bacteria. Consciousness is never disembodied; information is never dematerialized; bodies are made of things and things of bodies.

TC: Who is going to upload the gut bacteria? That’s a good three pounds of myself that I’d prefer to keep around when I enter the mainframe. Shifting, as you propose—from the thing to the body, from the passivity to the agency of matter—has both ontological and epistemological effects. Among other things, I’m reminded of a key question posed by Barad: To what degree does the matter of bodies have its own historicity? I take this to mean that, to better understand our present valuation of matter as embodied, we must also consider the role it was seen to play in past epochs like the Middle Ages, when it was widely assumed that the bodies of believers would be reassembled in full for the Last Judgment. A while ago you introduced me to writings by the medievalist Caroline Bynum that extensively discuss this topic. Can you tell me how you discovered Bynum and how her subject matter is informing what you’re working on?

EW: I found Bynum’s writing when I took a course on mysticism at the New School in New York, led by Simon Critchley and Eugene Thacker. Her work suddenly flipped my curiosity about futurist scenarios to thinking about the past as an equally speculative—science fictional—realm. When I came across these texts from the Western mystical tradition, I was amazed to find this extremely relevant and very weird body of knowledge about bodies and knowledge. It offered new ways to think about how consciousness and subjecthood are dependent on matter but not reducible to matter. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, for instance, Europeans had radically different ideas about living versus dead matter, due to the central Catholic mysteries of resurrection and incarnation. Just as Christ was always dead but always living, always corporeal but always virtual, people expected their own bodies to be re-created and revivified in some form after death. There are amazing accounts of mystical encounters with Christ’s dead-but-living body, many of them written by women, which I find revealing. God appeared to mystics as an incarnate body they could physically interact with, often through forms of penetration—they might enter his body through his side wound, or he might enter their bodies to occupy “the place in which love will want to be,” to quote the thirteenth-century mystic Marguerite Porete.2 Besides shattering any clear gender boundaries based on essentialist ideas of inside/outside, the texts express a slide from virtual to physical presence, from psychological and linguistic to corporeal experience.

TC: My mind immediately goes to symbiotic and parasitic relationships in nature and science fiction. When a male anglerfish mates with a female, he bites and fuses with her belly; his body—nutrients, seed, and all—becomes one with hers. For the alien Tlic of Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild (1984) to reproduce, another species must host their eggs. I’m not suggesting that reproduction is implicit in the visions of medieval mystics, but simply that the visions show a desire to commingle with a different kind of subject and body.

EW: Mystical accounts of divine contact also remind me of “first contact” narratives of alien encounters. Similar to alien abduction stories, the body of the medieval mystic was the record of what happened; the mystical texts could only ever approximate it, because it was beyond language. Bynum points out that many thirteenth-century mysteries about bodily materiality—heavily discussed in Christian debates about resurrection and transubstantiation—are actually very similar to the questions about consciousness and materiality that obsess us today. How much of you is your body? How can you access the unknowable—the internet, the climate—through your limited senses? The notion of resurrection, for instance, is analogous to the notion of uploading and then downloading your consciousness. It’s not such a stretch to relate this back to “the cloud.” One anonymous text from the fourteenth century called The Cloud of Unknowing is about transcending the body by surrendering to the unknowability of the divine.

TC: Indeed, how much of you is your body? From a contemporary perspective (and with Melania Trump’s handmaid-red Christmas trees in mind) the obvious subtext is: How much of your body belongs to you? How is the body, in parts or in whole, legislated, partitioned, even patented?Medieval theologians, you note, were primarily concerned with resurrection and transubstantiation—what happens to your body after you die, and how the immaterial divine becomes flesh. According to Bynum, Peter Lombard was troubled by the Lord’s claim in Luke 21:18 that “not a hair from your head shall perish,” as it seemed to imply that, after a person dies, each strand would reattach to its former follicle. Could the same be said of the nose hairs and toenails and atypical moles removed over the course of a life? Are we destined to be resurrected as the shaggy, the beclawed, and the bespotted? By way of an answer, Lombard invited his readers to picture a metal statue ground down and re-forged. Achieving a perfect copy, he writes, does not require each particle to return to the exact place it previously occupied. The implication is that every last hair, nail, and mole will find its way into our resurrected bodies, but only in such a manner that Lombard promises will be “seemly.” Such was the solution for the average human, but exceptions abounded. Take the case of a cannibal: Would the humans consumed over the course of his life miss out on their own resurrection? After much debate, the consensus was that everyone must rise again, meaning that the gaps in the cannibal’s body—where the humans should go—will be filled by other things he had eaten. But what if the cannibal only ate human embryos then birthed a child fed only human embryos? “If eaten matter rises in the one who possessed it first,” Bynum writes, then “this child will not rise at all.”3 It’s an argument that could be skewed to the favor of pro-lifers: an embryo is enough of a human to be resurrected, but a human made entirely of embryos isn’t.

EW: Medieval theologians take these scenarios so far! Their concern with the details can seem ridiculous. And yet if you accept the logic on its own terms, you really go down a rabbit hole that again feels eerily familiar to contemporary debates about what constitutes the human. The medievals zoomed in to the microscopic elements of existence (before having microscopes), but they also zoomed out to consider how all bodies are connected through interaction with the divine body.

TC: How all bodies connect—and also how bodies are materially continuous from this life to the next. An interesting theory by Lombard and Hugh of Saint Victor pertained to caro radicalis, or “radical flesh.” It was believed that everyone possesses a “core of flesh” that connects us, after resurrection, to the bodies we formerly possessed. This core belongs to us yet also exceeds the bounds of any given individual; scholar Rémi Brague calls it “the inheritance of the entire fabric of humanity.”4 It is a decidedly anthropocentric concept that nonetheless resonates with Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” which denotes the vitality inherent in each and every thing—its tendency to persist.

EW: Radical flesh—the core flesh of humanity! This is such a bizarre idea—that human beings are all one flesh that persists throughout time, before and after our individual deaths—because of how humanist it sounds. It relies on this idea of the common category of humanity as a stable entity. It’s also a clear metaphor for the institution of the church, or the meta-body, as a conglomeration of humanity that persists across generations in the form of communal religious practice. Humanity in this case is made a category through its institutionalization.

TC: Yes, the church is a meta-body, or as Thomas Aquinas writes, a mystical body (corpus mysticum). In the human body “the members are present ‘all at once’ whereas to the mystical body the limbs accrue gradually in permanent succession ‘from the beginning… till the end of the world.’”5 The mystical body, in other words, counts the living, the deceased, the yet-to-be-converted, and the unborn. Its consistency includes both reality and speculation. Whenever I try to picture it, I see the 1651 frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, where the sovereign’s chest and arms are literally made out of his subjects. I imagine this body supine on the ground, its appendages slowly growing to immeasurable lengths as others join the flock. (I wonder: Is this the medieval equivalent of voter fraud? WWKKD—What would Kris Kobach Do?)

EW: The idea of a common fabric of humanity allows there to be an outside to humanity—kinds of human bodies that are othered and therefore socially designated less than human, or animals or plants or rocks. Thinking of the historical trajectory of humanism, do you happen to know whether medieval thinkers included nonhumans in the fleshy mix?

 TC: For one, Aquinas argues that because animals aren’t rational, they’re not made in God’s image and thus not entitled to a place in the afterlife. (Any complex behavior was chalked up to instinct, lest humans lose their monopoly on reason.) This seems to be the predominant thinking among medieval theologians, though there were some other perspectives. Susan Crane, in her 2013 book Animal Encounters, describes a more inclusive worldview among Irish hagiographers, who saw all creatures “intricately enmeshed in dynamic environments stretching outward and upward beyond our ken.”6 This, taken with the famous vision of heaven propounded in Isaiah 11:6–8 (“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb… and children play with previously poisonous snakes”), seems like a helpful approach, regardless of whether we’re envisioning the future of the eternal or of the known world.

EW: The wacky visionary imagery is part of why reading medieval texts has been like reading some of the wildest futurist fiction for me. Imagining or speculating on the future is always an act of imagining the past, and I think looking at deep-past ideas about matter is one way to try to construct possible better material futures. Doing the interpretive, imaginative work of historical research is a kind of emotional labor; it reminds me that history is always written by someone, and that the historical texts that survive are not necessarily the ones close to human (bodily) experience. Bodily experience is hard to transmit across the ages.

TC: “Deep-past materialisms.” Yes. When the horizon of resurrection structures one’s lived existence, materiality is both ever-present and necessarily speculative. This is something I’ve been thinking about in my art practice. A project like Ergonomic Futures (2016–ongoing), for example, asks how humankind will persist: the forms we may take in the future, the tools and supports that aid in our survival. In visionary encounters with Christ, you say, the body of a medieval mystic “was the record of what happened; the mystical texts could only ever approximate it.” Ergonomic Futures also treats the body as a site of inscription and storytelling. This project began as conversations with paleoanthropologists, evolutionary biologists, genetic engineers, and ergonomists. I wanted to collaboratively imagine future scenarios when, due to evolution or engineering, our bodies change to such a degree that the “human” comes into crisis. These scenarios formed the basis of my work with architects Bureau V. We produced seating, ergonomically designed for future bodies, that currently serves as museum furniture. The intended bodies are never described or represented, so museumgoers must harness their knowledge of ergonomics in a tactile form of speculation, adapting themselves to the obscure angles and grooves. Departing from the case of the mystic, you could say that each seat is the record of something yet to happen: the encounter of a supposed body with a supposing form.

EW: I love the literalness of Ergonomic Futures. It reminds me of the extreme literality of medieval literature that we talked about. For mystics, there was no difference between an imagined encounter with Christ and a real one. As a contemporary reader, if you want to approach the texts on their own terms, you have to suspend your desire to distinguish between “real” events and subjective experiences. Science fiction does this too. It takes an idea—what if human time turned into planetary time?—and literalizes it: Now you have generations of humans on a spaceship. That’s how fiction addresses, or embodies, questions beyond the scope of a single human consciousness. In Ergonomic Futures there is a similar collapse between has happened/is happening/will happen. And ergonomics—the idea that spaces can be optimized to make bodies more efficient, and that there is a “right” kind of body for a space—has a deep history, too. I think of Silvia Federici’s history of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe—the erasure of bodies who were not entirely compatible with the productive family unit that eventually provided the foundation for waged labor in designated spaces. Interestingly, in Ergonomic Futures you created the negative (supportive) spaces for potential future bodies, but when I look at some of the resulting sculptural forms I also think of bodies that have been erased, of archaeological evidence of bodies that once existed.

TC: It’s true that the project is both an excavation and a proposition. As with much science fiction, the future is a red herring in Ergonomic Futures. The project is less concerned with what we may become than with the disciplines that, since the emergence of the social sciences in the nineteenth century, have produced and maintained notions of normativity, fitness, and ability. Ergonomics and its tendency to typologize bodies is thrown into the future, resulting in seats that figure every contemporary body as the wrong body, the abnormal body. None of us could be the intended users of the seats, for the norms have not yet arrived. Ergonomic Futures parasites a dominant museum narrative, wherein objects that enter its care can enjoy the magic of “timelessness” that is painstakingly (and often invisibly) maintained through conservation and care. In your writing, for instance the 2018 essay “The Grammar of Work” in Frieze, you describe a similar dynamic at play in animist understandings of art: how the “desire for contagious magic is part of the aspiration of being in the world with artwork.”7

EW: I always hesitate to talk about magic or animism in the context of contemporary art, because general ideas of “occult” or “esoteric” practices seem trendy right now. I’m not so interested in magic as a topic or subject of art making, but more in our actual affective attachments to objects, nonrational belief structures, and the deep desires we harbor for nonhuman things. This seems to belong more in the realm of the weird or the eerie, as Mark Fisher describes it: the strange territory at the boundary of human experience that, when we glimpse it, makes us question our own consciousness and agency. Those beliefs and desires about art objects are clearly evidenced in the way we preserve and display them. Except when it comes to overtly interactive works like Ergonomic Futures, you aren’t supposed to touch most art. Not touching objects is a form of reverence that implies that to touch them would be powerful. In the Middle Ages, touching or kissing a relic was an extreme form of communion by which the object transferred some power onto the user. I think that kind of contagious magic is missing from the way we’re supposed to interact with objects today. Not having those lively encounters with things erases not only thing-power but our own bodies. One of the sculptural forms from Ergonomic Futures is now used as a seat for viewing paintings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which as you point out can make viewers aware of how museums direct people to use their bodies. Historically, why have art institutional spaces worked so hard to control and even eliminate the body?

TC: Many museums regard the viewing body as an inconvenience, but it wasn’t always so. My research for Ergonomic Futures led me to a brilliant essay by Joel Sanders and Diana Fuss that sketches a history of Western institutional seating.8 A memorable nineteenth-century example is the ottoman in the Louvre’s Salon Carré, which contained a coal grate that provided the primary heating for the room. Sitting in the museum was thus indistinguishable from surviving the museum! But by the time MoMA opened its doors in 1939, the disembodied spectator had won out. Its first benches had backs, though they were later replaced with backless variations, reducing the museum seat to little more than a signpost for significant artwork—and doing nothing to alleviate our aesthetic headaches and Stendhal swoons.

EW: Right, this symbolic spatial design makes the human separate from the object. It reifies the category of the human as distinct from the inert thing, and it also solidifies the category of the artwork as something pristine, finished, finite, out of time: dead. That’s why contagious encounters are so exciting when they happen. Maybe we should be encouraging those encounters with art, where the magic rubs off on you—like kissing a relic to absorb some of its power. But when you kiss it, you also wear away at it, keeping it alive through degradation, making your mark.

 

[1] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 3 (2003): 803.
[2] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, trans. Edmund Colledge, J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).
[3] Caroline Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 244.
[4] Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 98.
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1485), quoted in Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (1957; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 308.
[6] Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 39.
[7] Elvia Wilk, “The Grammar of Work,” Frieze, March 23, 2018, https://frieze.com/article/grammar-work.
[8] Joel Sanders and Diana Fuss, “An Aesthetic Headache: Notes from the Museum Bench,” JSA, June 12, 2015, http://joelsandersarchitect.com/an-aesthetic-headache-notes-from-the-museum-bench-with-diana-fuss/.

 

Tyler Coburn is an artist and writer living in New York. Many of the topics in this conversation figure in his latest book, Richard Roe (Sternberg, 2019). 

Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in New York. Her first novel, Oval, is out now from Soft Skull Press. 

 

Originally published on Mousse 69

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