Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 47, November 2002

 

 

Joseph Nechvatal

 

Review of Paul Virilio's 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity'

 

 

'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity'

An Exhibition Conceived by Paul Virilio

November 29th 2002 till March 30th 2003

Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain

261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris, France

http://www.fondation.cartier.fr/eng/expo/home.htm

 

The avowed aim of the Fondation Cartier exhibition 'Ce qui arrive' (What is Coming; although the English title given for the show is inexplicably 'Unknown Quantity') -- which was organized by the now famously reactionary technophobe Paul Virilio -- is that 'the principle of responsibility to future generations requires that we expose accidents now, and the frequency of their industrial and postindustrial repetition'. [1] What is obvious in this highly controlled and academic exhibition 'on the theme of accidents' is that this claim of 'responsibility' is fraudulent. Most of the exhibition is deeply irresponsible. The word dreadful adequately describes it.

 

Precisely, the bulk of this show is dreadfully irresponsible in its appropriation of the 9/11 attack on New York City. As a downtown New Yorker who experienced daily these ruins (thank god the horrid smell could not be reproduced and exploited here), I was offended by how facile the show is. It is really a vapid presentation in that it aims to teach us that 'shit happens'. Do we really have to dress this recognition up in priestly black profundity and pretend it is art?

 

Not only does 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity' irresponsibly lump the 9/11 attack into a 'museum of accidents' (it was no accident), it wallows in the pathetic tropes of Romanticism by inviting us to contemplate the smoky ruins of the World Trade Center attack. Prominently featured was Tony Oursler's footage of the fuming ruins, as it is the first thing we see projected large when we descend into the downstairs 'Museum of Accidents'. Also included was 9/11 footage shot from a Brooklyn roof by Moira Tierney, and a re-packaged 'best of' 24 hour selection of Wolfgang Staehle's live web-cam which captured from afar the attack and aftermath ('2001') -- here now striped of its scale, neutrality, and live immediacy.

 

For me, such apocalyptic-chic imagery is congruent with that of the fervent Romanticism of Turner, Constable, and Friedrich. Indeed the whole show reeks of Romanticism -- that cultural movement (circa 1795-1840) inspired by the writings of Edmund Burke and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as it focuses not on individual passions and inner struggles or joys, but on fearfully transcendent 'big picture' dramatic performances -- what are essentially extenuations of Romanticism's Romantic Sublime.

 

Indeed, 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity' claims in its expensive glossy catalogue that it attempts to explore Paul Virilio's most recent writings of the subject of the increasing development of accidents as an indirect consequence of man's inventions. But in the show one thinks more often to the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm Josef von Schelling, Friedrich von Schlegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Novalis (the nom de plume used by Baron Friedrich Ludwig Von Hardenberg). Or even Soren Kierkegaard, who as early as 1836 noted that Romanticism implies the overflowing of all boundaries. Yes, the big-picture overflows the particular individual and drifts into transcendentalist spectacle here. So as a (in Virilio's words) 'homage to discernment', 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity' fails miserably by its own terms, as here Virilio only repeats once again the nihilism of, in his words, the 'markets of the spectacle'. To repeat, it does so by travelling in romantic images of the ruins of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Just as our televisions did not show us any actual, mangled, dead bodies of the victims of the World Trade Towers and Pentagon attacks, neither does 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity' show anything intimate, personal, or subjective. Nothing individual is examined in terms of 9/11. Only more abstractions -- more mystifications -- which attempt to symbolize. Such a symbolizing view of smouldering ruins is entirely too abstract to, in Virilio's expression 'learn to discern what is impending'.

 

Yes, this doomy show fails too by its own terms, in that Virilio claims it is 'a stand against the fading ethical and aesthetic points of reference, and the loss of meaning in which we are so often now not really actors, but witnesses or victims'. If 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity' really aimed, as Virilio claims, 'to provide a counterpoint to the excesses of all kinds with which the great news media swamp us daily' by presenting a 'museum of horrors, which no one seems to realize always precedes and accompanies the upsurge of even greater disasters', then he has failed by submitting to an abstract aesthetic of the Romantic Sublime.

 

This Romantic Sublime is also true, if less so, of the two sculptural presentations which take up and overwhelm the ground floor in an area which Virilio calls 'The Fall' (how biblical). Here Lebbeus Woods (with the collaboration of Alexis Rochas) has designed a colorless trajectory field-installation for the main exhibition space -- an installation that hypothesizes the collapse of Jean Nouvel's building. This was accompanied by a version of Stephen Vitello's World Trade Tower audio piece -- a version that had all the charm of a funeral drone. Gladly, Nancy Rubins contributed a massive and admirable adaptation of her catastrophic assemblage 'MoMA and Airplane Parts' (1995/2002) in the right side of this area.

 

According to Virilio we need to 'inaugurate a new kind of museology and museography: one which consists in exposing or exhibiting the accident'. After seeing his show, I think that this idea is itself a disaster -- a catastrophic disaster because besides having all the weight of a kitsch disaster film, his exhibition is something which definitely does *not* have the feeling of an accident. Rather it is something which has only the *look* of the accident. What we see and experience is something highly controlled, something highly crafted -- thus something pretending, and thus, one could say, intellectually fraudulent.

 

Jean Baudrillard says in his influential book _Simulations_ that: 'Never again will the real have to be produced: this is the vital function of the model in a system of death . . .'. [2] He is right. After seeing Virilio's 'prefiguration of the future Museum of the Accident' we do not need a real Paul Virilio Museum of Accidents. We can enjoy the beautiful films of Peter Hutton, Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner, Artavazd Pelechian, et al., outside of this dreadful and pretentious context.

 

By the way, the very day before the opening I saw a woman struck by a car on rue Raspail, the same street of the Cartier Foundation. Watching her lay in the street bleeding, surrounded by other rubber-necking pedestrians and soon cops, I thought to myself, now do I need go see the Virilio accident show? Indeed I did not. Nobody even shit their pants.

 

Paris, France

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. All quotes from the exhibition catalogue.

 

2. Baudrillard, Jean, _Simulations_, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p. 4.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Joseph Nechvatal, 'Review of Paul Virilio's 'Ce qui arrive' / 'Unknown Quantity'', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 47, November 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n47nechvatal>.

 

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