Text in Catalog to the exhibition "The Search for the Aleph", MAM-Rio de Janeiro, 2011

By Nicolas Bourriaud and Roberto Cabot

Dear Roberto Cabot,

We met in France in 1986, if my memory serves me well. Your tiny Paris studio at that time was one of the most unique places I had ever visited: some paintings, most of them in small formats, lying on the floor, while others floated here and there on the wall, but none that you showed me was like the one before. There was also a cage with a strange plaster egg inside it. One might have seen some allegory there. Then you went to live in the Madrid of post-Movida days, then you moved to Cologne in the 90s before closing the first cycle by “returning” to Rio. I use those inverted commas because the term return implies the notion of origin, which seems to me not very appropriate for your trajectory, more like a Möbius strip than a genealogical tree. Each time you moved, you really became French, Spanish, German, Brazilian, to such an extent that I was unable to establish for sure the slightest stable link between you the person and any specific cultural identity whatsoever. “Every time we aim at an identity, we miss something essential: the process of becoming” (1), wrote Félix Guattari. I remember going together to his funeral, because you had known him very well, and this intimacy struck me as hetero-chronic, as if it added a temporal exoticism (Guattari, a personality of the 1968 generation) to your own geographical exoticism.

Like Macunaima, the hero of Mario de Andrade’s novel that you introduced me to and that we talked about so much at the time, you seem to have been born black of an Indian mother and then turned white due to some magical rain before you transformed into a Parisian, a German artist, and then a Brazilian. These successive metamorphoses are obviously reflected in your work. In particular, I have seen your hyper-pop period, with paintings that showed nothing except prices, your plunging into the mysteries of realism (but a realism whose reference seemed to be something other than the “real”) and “nature” painting, followed by your linear experimentations, and finally these synthetic, baroque and complex constructions with which for the very first time you seem to take a break in order to digest your matter after having practiced for so long an original form of aesthetic bulimia. The impression I have is that your current carioca period allows you to paradoxically break with a certain anthropophagy... have the poles been inverted? In a recent e-mail you wrote: “The question of radicality is also fundamental to my paintings of the 80s and 90s, as we discussed at the time. Radicality is directly connected to gravity, to the idea of a unique and very powerful force, a navigation where the wind always blows from the same cardinal point ...” It is the force of this radicality, linked to 20th-century modernism, that I try to use by turning it against all the damage caused by the stagnation of post-modernity: an alter-modernity seems to be born under our eyes, the first planetary modernity in history, which you are right in saying has nothing to do with any so-called “unique gravity”. From the geographical point of view, this alter- modernity makes us go from continent to archipelago, from radical (one-root) to radicant (multiple and evolutive roots). Here I cannot resist the temptation to note that island-to-island navigation, coastal shipping, is called cabotage. But to get back to your idea of gravity, how does one operate a device using multiple and sometimes contradictory sources of energy? Does this have to with the "migratory" side of your formal universe?

Dear Nicolas Bourriaud,

To remain in the realm of maritime vocabulary, which serves us far better than the martial vocabulary of our modern ancestors, your approach establishes a direct relation between life and art, a reading which I think represents one of most powerful legacies of modernism. This implies the notion of engagement, another victim of the "damage caused by post-modernism". And there I believe that we come across radicality again, in the sense of going "to the very end of things", traveling a path to the very end without considering losses. Engagement without any concessions to one’s own history implies a rigor that really nourishes the device with necessarily contradictory energies, since this device lives by its flexibility but only exists because of a certain sort of rigor in its movement. A radicality that negotiates with several simultaneous and changing gravitational forces.

As you said, we are experiencing the advent of a new paradigm, the relations between things and people are transformed right before us. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is no longer any linearity of choices. What appears to be contradiction is actually permanent negotiation in movement. “Formal migration” is the reflection of innumerable negotiations. Coastal navigation - cabotage – implies negotiating case by case all the icebergs, sand banks, deltas, capes and bays that appear throughout the journey...

Your quoting Félix on identity and the process of becoming reminds me that for babies, learning the mother tongue implies losing the capacity to speak other languages. Babies potentially possess all human languages inside them, so forgetting all languages but one will make them a Francophone, an Anglophone or a Lusophone. In fact, in our cultures, up to now identity seems to be formed by amputating what is common to all human beings and restricting itself to what only belongs to one isolated group.

Dear Roberto,

And so straightaway we address what seems to make up the key figure of contemporary imagination: the multiple. The Babelian baby that you call up and your “case-by-case negotiating” of different landscapes both recall our ambivalence and our confusion when faced with the multiple. In Empire, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt make the latter a political entity: “the multitude”, whereas in Le Siècle, Alain Badiou opposes it to modernist “subtraction”: in short, the 21st century will be Spinozist ... Today the position of an artist vis-à- vis the multiple (and consequently vis-à-vis chaos, which is never far away) seems to be the key to all aesthetics: what to do with the multitude, multiculturalism, the profusion of images and information? In contemporary art and criticism, any “center” is immediately seen as negative, yet can we just like that dismiss centrality in composition, in thought? The imagination of the system developed by Deleuze and Guattari has invaded consciences to such an extent that hardly anything any longer exists “centered” in painting, or even anything linear. Reticular forms are imposed on us as the only ones fit to account for our daily experience. The primordial question is our capacity to produce sense from the multiple; for an artist like you, this question would be: how does one articulate chaotic multiplicities to make a form out of them? I tend to think that today we must go beyond the categories of traditional aesthetics and address form dynamically. Instead of contenting myself with the latter, I try to approach a work of art as formation: elements sometimes spread apart from one another in time or space coagulate or bond together to create an entity in movement.

Dear Bourriaud,

The ambivalence that we experience vis-à-vis the multiple is resolved by movement. I see a relation with pre-Renaissance Europe prior to Giotto, with several perspectives overlapping in the same image. And with the Baroque too, everything is in mystical spirals and ascensions. Since the birth of the cinema, all the efforts to produce images are driven toward including this fourth dimension, be it cubism, found objects and their hyper-speed, or else the overlapping of layers as in Oiticica’s or Warhol’s work.

What I feel about our time is that it isn’t just the objects that are in movement, there is also the movement of the subject itself. We have gone from the standing tripod camera to travelling on rail, to steadycam and the virtual camera. The work and the devices that construct it belong to a becoming process rather than the illustration of an identity or the affirmation of an opinion. Suspension dots are part of any becoming composition. Comic strips and their “to be continued”, or South-American soap-operas whose chapters are turned out and the script changed according to the whims of the audience and media technology, aren’t these narrations in becoming, with various simultaneous centers?

It is the combination of the different centers and the mesh formed by the various perspective lines that describe multiple becoming in perpetual movement. Borges’ The Aleph would allow the multitude of multiples to be viewed simultaneously, “without overlapping” (in fact he says that he sees the “multitudes of America”, as well as “each grain of sand in convex deserts”, when he looks upon the Aleph). That is yet another element integrated to my perceptive apparatus: simultaneity.

Dear Roberto,

The simultaneity that you mention in respect to Borges’ The Aleph recalls both Cubist painting and the surveillance cameras in parking lots. From this hetero- chronic perspective, there is not the least doubt that this could very well be a core question today, because it enables us to address an obsession that we both share, namely, modernity. This entails inventing a new way of dealing with the multiple, leaving behind both linear succession and simultaneity, either by excluding both or by including them within a broader equation. I remember that since the late 80s we were neither of us at all intimidated by the post-modern law that had precluded the possibility of “returning” to the spirit that had inspired the avant-gardes. But wasn’t speaking about “returns” already subscribing to the post-modern program?

Together and then each on his own, we started our search for a theoretical object of no interest to most people: the form and nature of a modernity to come. The attitude of vigilantes: being modern is always to seize the opportunity, the kairos, against the prescriptions of tradition.

But what was to be kept of modernism? Certainly the notion of relativity, because the modern state of mind consists in practicing critical comparitivism without pity for certitudes, showing that the institutional or ideological structures that frame us are nothing other than historical circumstances, precarious constructions. In the beginning of last century modernity designated its enemy, traditionalism, and the modern art of that time made strategic use of the industrial object as its epistemological norm. But what would be the enemy of our modernity? I would say right away the uniformization brought about by economic globalization and merchandization. Today, differences and singularities are what represent the arms against this vast standardization driven by globalization. The need for universal engagement in favor of the diverse replaces modernist universalism (which we must not forget was occidental-centrism) by generalized exoticism, global nomadism. And artists also strategically resort, among other things, to the vocabulary of the media or economics, the two dominant languages of our days.

The new epistemological norm of the work of art is therefore no longer the industrial object but rather the relational and reticular object, the network. There is a morphological evolution in the work of art (which brings us back to Borges’ The Aleph that you mentioned) the common point of which is to propose an aesthetic of formationsinstead of autonomous forms. This term offers the advantage of accounting for the multiple, both in time and space. What I have called alter- modernity is likewise a formation in progress, designating a set of cultural and artistic practices that connect the modern spirit in respect to the world we live in, rather than duplicate its forms.

Dear Nicolas,

Following up on your idea of hetero-chronic, let me quote some extracts from a 1994 text that contains some of our conversations and conveys well the concerns of those days. These are still what we question today, in an obsessive continuity that fears no detours... at that time I was working on the nocturnal still-lifes. “Applying Duchamp’s displacement to the historical moment in which he is participating: putting the modernist process into perspective”.

The question of movement and perspective displacement that is omnipresent in my work, whether it be painting, photography or surveillance-camera installations. Relativity where all objects and subjects are in movement, the visible is merely one frame of a sequence of which we see only a tiny part. The meaning is a function of the point of view.

And as far as the enemy is concerned:

“The very modernism (as a specific phenomenon different from the notion of modernity, which by definition changes in the course of time) that was formed around a declared and implacable struggle against the forms of the 19th century becomes establishment and sees itself overtaken by events. The tics and reflexes inherited from this struggle become a mental straitjacket and must be questioned, because the enemy has been defeated and the combat has lost its meaning.”

For me personally, here is added the question of what you call occidental- centrism, which, when seen from the Brazilian point of view at this moment of economic and political emancipation, takes on a special relative meaning. Or else, again we come across a reference to our dislike of the ideas of our post- modern elders:

“Exploiting the phenomena of the history of art specifically for illustrative purposes, or else purely for effect (as was the case of the American post- modernists of the 80s) only shows the decadent deformation peculiar to frivolous academicism.”

In my signs system I sometimes set up dialogues, as was the case with Oiticica, the Dutch painters of the 18th century, Joseph Beuys or Marcel Broodthaers. This notion of dialogue is quite different from that of reference or quotation, it is perspective rather than predatory recuperation, a game of mirrors opening up innumerable vedute.

Dear Roberto,

You write that “the meaning depends on the point of view”. Agreed, but only as long as you put the points of view in the multiple category instead of adding them, because adding points of view does not in itself produce meaning, it’s just an addition. How to hold different points of view on the same image? The effects of simultaneity in Cubism, or Duchamp’s representation of the object in movement, still belong to the mechanical era, with all its gears and pistons. It strikes me that the “point of view” that you refer to belongs rather to reticular imagination, to the network: a point of view is first and foremost relational, it produces relations in a field. Like in cinema: field, then reverse angle. Maybe we are still there in 20th century modernity, but the great political struggle of modern art was quite definitely to redistribute activity and passivity within the realm of form, to make the spectator active, to track down the inert and the reified in colors and lines. And in a certain way we are still there, at that moment when interactivity is reduced to a sort of “inter-passivity” (to return to Slavoj Zizek). What you say about the quote is in this sense: the quotation is a game of authority with the history of art, it does not actually deal with signs but with emblems or coats of arms. To approach history as you do, as a field of signs, a box of tools, is also to reclaim what in my mind is a fundamental gesture, namely the gesture of post-production. Were forms created? Let’s help ourselves to them. Let’s keep them “in movement”, as you say.

Such an attitude is all the more important in these days of economic globalization, which entails a new type of circulation of bodies and identities. Hundreds of thousands of people live outside their place of birth, and yet one wants culture to be always bordered by frontiers and preserved in reservations? That is absurd. Immigration, as well as mass tourism and intermittent nomadism, bring fresh relations to cultural signs, which are increasingly less the expression of a territory and more and more that of a movement, a trajectory of rebounds and ricochets. Cultures become portable, they take roots far from home, produce new crossings and fertilize their new territories. The immigrant, this fundamental conceptual character of our era, incarnates the implicit ideology of our times: generalized precariousness that affects both material and social relations, both our rapport with time and our idea of art. What does culture become outside its relation with history and in the long run, plunged into precariousness? That is what we are so busy learning ...

Dear Bourriaud,

Learning is exactly one of the keys to survival in the 21st century. The days of eternal cultural heritage, know-how that once learned would sustain a career for fifty years: knowledge itself is also mobile, elastic and multiple. We navigate in the awareness that ideas are changing things, that what was a good idea yesterday may no longer be tomorrow. It is precarious to consider that artificially congealing ideas and concepts is normal. History too changes as we advance in our apprenticeship, as new discoveries are made and events take place. The tool box gets re-organized overnight and the tools change their function. To return to the sea image, I would say that the ocean remains unchangeable in its own dynamic, while our trajectory on this ocean and what we fish there change each and every day. My numerical contraptions work images in real time and explore “live” simultaneous transmission (translation?) of images. What is a thing that works with images in real time? Is it video? Television? Precariousness is inherent to technology, ever liable to break down and condemned to be quickly declared obsolete.

Dear Roberto,

What I called “post-production” is the way that artists today conceive the use of forms, a view of history as a box of tools. This is one of the implicit forces of your work, never claimed as such yet unquestionably something that you experience as evidence. “Caboting” from one tool to the other, from one historical perspective to the other, your work is affirmed as a cognitive process, a strange machine where points of view collide with one another. With your “real-time” devices you translate blocs of the ephemeral and translate them into a different language: the present continuous. There are numerous figures of translation in contemporary art, but transcoding is without a doubt the most important. Passing from one format to another, producing forms through the very act of translating ...

The reproducing /remixing practices of new American artists such as Wade Guyton, Pete Coffin, Kelley Walker, Seth Price or Josh Smith, who make passing from the image of one format to another the core of their work, testify the importance of this aesthetic of translation. This is one of the keys to the alter-modern: refusing binarism. Absolute horizontality: you don’t translate the coordinates of an international Esperanto into some “local” language, as most South-American modernists of the 20th century did: you grab some bits of codes and patch them on some paintings or installations that seem to float like offshore platforms in a linguistic chain that belongs to you alone while referring to multiple cultural segments. That’s where the weakness of so-called “post-colonial” thinking is revealed, incapable of freeing itself from rules enacted by precisely those that it claims to combat. Working still on the basis of the colonizer / colonized binarism is already admitting conceptual failure. Post-modern multiculturalism has failed to invent an alternative to modernist universalism because wherever it has been applied it has recreated cultural anchorages or ethnic roots, because, just like classical Western thinking, it works on the basis of belongings. What strikes me about your work is precisely that something escapes the dominant trait of the moment, something disturbing but that is never reduced to the too-simple figure of the “dominated” or the protester. Perhaps because you learned very early on to eradicate any fascination for origins. The notion of origin is the key to the Western metaphysical scenario. And the modernism of the 20th century is not by chance, it is based on the notion of radicality, from the word radical, which means “belonging to the root”. Art and politics had to be purged, to go back to an original principle. To what extent is modernism linked to fundamentalism? What I feel sure about is that they both share a radical logic: eliminate the superfluous and return to the source, to the root, like an obsession. It is precisely against this modernist principle that the modernity of our century is recomposed, and based on the figures most opposite to the universe of roots: the nomad, the errant, the exile. That is why I think that the modernity to come will be radicant: instead of returning to the principle, it will make its roots sprout as it advances, producing an art that is non-identity, an art that generates singularities.

(1) Félix Guattari: La Philosophie est essentielle à l’existence humaine. Entretiens avec Antoine Spire, éditions de l’Aube, 2002.