Learning Processes with Unlikely Outcomes (Observing BADco.)

* editorial for Responsibility for Things Seen – reader, on the occasion of BADco. presentation as part of the Croatian exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale (more info at: http://badco.hr/)

By admin

Petar Milat (b. 1974), purchase philosopher and director of the independent cultural centre MaMa [Zagreb, health Croatia]. He also coordinates the publishing and musical programme within the Multimedia Institute. Together with Tom Medak he’s editor of several socio-theoretical book series. The main focus of his own research is the nexus of biopolitics and normativity, this applied to the history of socialist Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav cinema.


Petar Milat

Net.kulturni klub MaMa
Preradovićeva 18
1000 Zagreb

phone +385 (0) 1 4856400
fax +385 (0) 1 4855729
mobile +385 (0) 915365162

primary_mail: zoe [at] mi2.hr
secondary_mail: pmilat [at] yahoo.com / pmilat [at] gmail.com
skype: petar_milat

* editorial for Responsibility for Things Seen – reader, sale
on the occasion of BADco. presentation as part of the Croatian exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale (more info at: http://badco.hr/)

In what follows I won’t try to respond directly to the provocation that BADco. presents and to their invitation to edit this accompanying booklet for the Venice Biennale. Reacting outrightly to BADco.’s provocation would betray this collective’s efforts and sincere intentions, pilule
as it would try to domesticate their intellectual endeavour within a specific frame – which is something absolutely opposed to BADco.’s working attitude. A working attitude constituted not just by the artists’ proverbial anxiety of influence, but foremost by a highly sensitive (aesthetic) and a double-coded (abstract) treatment of any classificatory procedures. And if you would like to have any designation attached to BADco., you have to pick up two prefixes: meta- and trans-. Both of them indicating a displacement – beyond and across. Still, those displacements of beyond and would suffice to fuel imagination and to put BADco. in a role and the easily dealt comfort-zone of today’s artists’ artists, if the displacements of meta- and trans- were not an intellectual disturbance and annoyance of incessant and simultaneous making things fuzzy and intelligible.

Speaking thus of BADco. has to proceed obliquely, always bearing in mind that a gesture of localizing BADco. into a certain context will be fooled by the artists’ mimicry and ability of adaptation: BADco. are just so very fast in taking new appearances and any interpretative stance dealing with them comes necessarily late, at the moment comprehensive understanding of what they are doing is rendered useless by their future metamorphosis.

In a way, speaking about BADco. has to take the risk of a chance-encounter, a future event not warranted by any theory or practice, nor by any calculation whatsoever. And if at some point you believe to be standing on stable ground from where you can pass an objective judgment on them: they have already been there and have contaminated the position you occupy. There is no in flagrante with BADco.

So let’s forget them, this company of anonymous authors. Take a chance of misrecognizing them.

what does it mean to learn in the age of immaterial labour?

Advocating non-representational practices sooner or later faces the question of how to learn, how to learn together. If you, like Rancière, label learning within the representational frame as stultification and dismiss it, you will have a hard time putting forth alternative ways of making and acquiring knowledges which will not remain on a declaratory level, thus being just more of the same. Learning, if it is to become a socialization without initiation, has to break away from a paternalism of the well-intended; it has to become bad and malicious in opening up things and peoples onto a plane of their mutual knowability.

Almost a decade ago it was Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude that immensely influenced discourse in the arts by linking notions of virtuosity and (bio)political production. As much as Virno’s arguments were important, they were so well-received exactly because they fit nicely into a paradigm of Hungerkünstler. As if the virtuosistic know-how created by multitudes that Virno speaks about and its immaterial character amount only to an updated status of what was once called brotlose Kunst. Dwelling on the insight how the unproductive has been put to work by new regimes of production was overshadowed by the underlining presumption that Virno’s talk of immaterial virtuosistic know-how before anything else will signify a matter-of-fact that as soon as new knowledges and practices emerge they are already appropriated (or, stolen) by the capitalist machinery. As if the only lesson learnt was a new gesture of self-victimizing pathos when confronted with the dark side’s ability to appropriate (or, to dispossess) goods created in common.

Going beyond the immediate, the auto-flagellant lesson of know-how stolen meant to look after procedures of learning that would allow for innovative action to emerge. Curiously enough, this move of going beyond and across, this gesture of meta- and trans-, has been supplemented by Virno in his subsequent writings by another couple of prefixes, seemingly at odds with the former pair: sub- and semi-.

Or, to quote Virno: Far from being situated above or outside of norms, human creativity is even sub-normative: it manifests itself uniquely in the lateral and improper paths that we happen to inaugurate when trying to keep to a determined norm. Paradoxical as it may seem, the state of exception originally resides in the only apparently obvious activity that Wittgenstein names ‘rule-following’. This entails that every humble application of a rule always contains in itself a fragment of a ‘state of exception’. Wit brings this fragment to light.

Human creative action exemplified in jokes is sub-normative in Virno’s argument because jokes show best the fallacious nature of every particular application of a rule. In the sense that jokes are exactly those proper language-tools representing the incommensurable gap which divides the rule or the norm from its application or case, i.e. an unbridgeable void which separates the grammar from its usage. The prefix sub- tells so much that the actual instantiation of a norm, if it has to follow the norm, has to betray the very norm – not in the name of some extra-normal domain – but in the name of an application devoid of any normative prescription. Such a defect or fallacious normativity is fundamental for Virno’s understanding of human praxis, but one aspect is crucial. Namely, that such a paradoxical sub-normative applying of a norm for Virno is absolute. Which means that there is no remainder left (e.g. some unfulfilled content) after the norm has been actually applied. It is just through this sub- or fallacious form that a norm can be applied, in the sense of a paradoxical and absolute division of the norm and its non- or unlikely related instantiations.

The witticism of the intellect that Virno sketches in such a way boldly opposes the view many will regard the philosopher of having made prominent in his grammar of the multitude. It is not about updating the figure of Hungerkünstler and making it a general metaphor for ways how nowadays societies work; it is about failing procedures without leftovers.

Going meta- and trans- will mean to go sub- and semi-; it will mean to adhere to something Alfred Sohn-Rethel once called the ideal of things broken down. Like in Naples where machinery will start to function exactly at the moment when it has become properly non-functional or broken down, Sohn-Rethel will claim virtuosistic action is at its most intense when failing, thus disrupting its becoming immediately functional within the processes of its working out. But there is more attached to this paradoxical ideal, I will claim: to learn within the horizon of things broken down means as much as to make the existing anthropologies explode. It will mean to take a lesson from non-human agents (machines, gadgets, technologies, whatever); to take a lesson from their strange state of failure.

There have been theories around that will say (authoritarian) societal regimes function by way of making people submissive and ignorant. Granted. There are also theories circulating claiming how much technological progress (and its success) has been beneficiary and instrumental to repression. Granted. But there are just a few attempts to think emancipation (this is another word for socialization without initiation) out of ways people, things, procedures, or whatever fails.

This should not add up to a concentrating on catastrophic technological failures and their impact on human societies: it is not a question of lessons drawn from such disaster management; it is not an issue to stage a tragedy of an anarcho-primitivist sort. Emancipatory education in the age of immaterial labour and its sympathetic intellectual witticism as the force of the new are rather some sort of refurbished non-human oriented comedy of errors.

what does it mean to communicate a problem?

Bojana Cvejić has elsewhere convincingly pointed out the importance of the concept “problem” for BADco. Taking up Bojana’s intervention I will try to give another turn in responding to the question of what learning means today.

First of all, a “problem” folds onto itself. Problems are problematic. They are problematic insofar they are problems in communicating, transferring themselves. A problem therefore is always already disguised, given just in a problematic (failing-failed) format. Never pure or simple. Never totally coherent or present. Ironic.

What does it mean to communicate a problem? Within a performance? As performance? Inside the performance as problem-mediating communication?

Wittgenstein will say, think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screw. — The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.) Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly.

What can a performance communicate? – It is, at first, an immediate communication of mediatic uniformity to which different, discrete elements have to conform because a situation (live-performance) requires so. A supposed simultaneity of units is both the medium (i.e. codifying different and divergent units) and the message itself (i.e. its minimal and primary content). In a paradoxical fashion, a performance (through its performative being-there, its being live) communicates nothing else than just its being there, its format or genre. Performance, alas, communicates no singular gesture, tone or an image, but the sheer fact that it is “a performance”, a happenstance that through its machinations will create a uniform medium of communication, notwithstanding the different pragmatics to which the elements included (gestures, tones, images, etc.) subscribe.

Or else, if it is not the liveness of the performance that is being communicated, – a projection of coherence upon a heterogeneous multitude of usages and tools – is it not the effect that is being communicated in a performance? Gesamtkunstwerk-like, immersive effect negating a barrier among the author/s and the recipient/s, where a nominalist uniformity in the former case (“performance is a performance is a performance …”) has been substituted for the material-affective uniformity of an effect in the latter case, where it has become a question of intensities and of being either overwhelmed by them or indifferent to them.

A third set of performances, neither a tautology nor an immersion, might be performance as an aesthetic problem-related event. A problem is set up that seeks its explicit execution and solution during the performance – author/s and recipient/s attuned and directed to a specific aesthetic problematization rather than to the performance’s liveness (as its homogenous medium) or its impact (as its effect).

Cards are laid out, criteria set. Re/shuffling the tools – gestures, tones, images – follows a sober agenda: to come to terms with an inherent (aesthetic) provocation. Associating and dis-associating the performance’s elements is neither synaesthetic nor cathartic, but problematic-problematizing. Insofar as the performance is staged, its problematizing logic is scenic, or rather, the performative scenic logic is more likely rhetorics. As rhetorics being both concerned with the multiple, divergent elements’ connectibility and artist’s hide-and-seek during the performance.

Performance zooms into a specific basic unit (a gesture, for example) just to find that it is divisible; that this unit is a nod for another, heterogenous kind of series and elements: a series of graphemes or tones or elements of stories. An operative hypothesis, an aesthetic problem is being processed in a fable-like manner, setting up a scene of relays of monads of perception with a definite starting and ending point but without certain moral.

To communicate a problem in the performance (as the performance) will be using a hammer as a saw or a sound-box. It will mean to use a dancer as a line of digital code, or a video-camera as a decorative plant. Communicating the problem will be mediatizing the medium. To perform in the theater of means without ends.

learning by observing

To come to an end with this editorial, and just to tackle in passing the theme BADco. have chosen to present at the Biennale – Responsibility for Things Seen.

Fascinated by the notion of swarm intelligence BADco. have been almost since their beginnings eager to learn from birds, ants or insects. And let’s not forget computer operating systems and languages, or space-ships.

They have taken seriously and responsibly provocations they have been exposed to. BADco. have taken those provocations for real, which for the artists primarily meant to question what the scope of reality is altogether.

Lorraine Daston in her epistemological project has, among other things, taken up a centuries-long practice of bird-watching. Restating the importance that was attributed to experiments and observations within the modernist scientific methodology (i.e. experiments granted a far more essential role), Daston will go on to cite examples of how bird-watching, an amateur-like practice of observation, has both cut across the disciplines and has gone beyond the existing dispositifs of knowledge, by virtue of its sedimented attentions. Observing birds has thus become a virtuosity in a blink of an eye; a virtuosity of the jiff provoked by flocks of birds.

Adapting to birds observed watchers have themselves become bird-like. And if there is a thought-experiment allowed, for real: What have the birds learned observing those human virtuosi looking at them? In what ways have the humans provoked animals? Have birds become men-like?

Reversing and multiplying perspectives BADco. open up a space of reciprocal provocation, on uncertain grounds where no single instance has the privileged access to procedures of metamorphosis.

Within this mediatized theatre of change and its multinaturalist procedures, you be sure that BADco. have done everything – out of immense responsibility – to become this booklet you hold, the room you now enter, the people you see and the birds you hear twittering.

It is now up to you to take your share, and to become-BADco. To share the company, for an instant, of images immemorial.

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