Essay | Boris Groys
Under Modernism's Heaven
Utopia has no place in the world by definition. On the contrary, Utopia is a place where the world resides as a whole. For our «real» world is just one of an infinite number of possible, virtual worlds. The real world is, as Wittgenstein rightly stated, only the sum of everything that is empirically the case—and all empirical states can be changed, or at least be thought of as changed. So our world has its place in a merely logical space for all possible worlds—a space that has no «real» place in its turn, i.e. that is U-topian. And this also means we can definitely imagine our whole «real» world transformed into another possible world, retaining the same logical structure—because otherwise we would not be able to conceive such a change—but that nevertheless is such that everything that is the case in our present world is completely different. And it is precisely in this context that Utopia is usually mentioned. But as a rule this does not simply mean that this new, transformed world is merely a logical possibility, but that it is a better possibility. Leibniz is well known to have sought to prove that our world is the best of all possible worlds—but no one believes that any more.
A better world—but in what sense? Usually the word Utopia is used politically. A better world is then a better political organization of society. But how would it be if the continents were swapped with the oceans, for example, i.e. if the continents were flooded and the oceans dried out—perhaps this would improve the geography of the Earth? Or if people had wings? Or a third eye? But the word «Utopia» is seldom applied to suggestions like these—usually one is speaking with a disparaging undertone of mere fantasy and dreaming. But the difference is not a logical one: technically speaking it seems more plausible to have a single person grow wings and to install a third eye than suddenly to order the whole of society better politically. But still: our civilization draws an invisible but tangible border between «rational» Utopian projects and poetic dreams and fantasies. This boundary corresponds with the distinction between a claim that can be justified rationally and a poetic, artistic whim. This distinction is constitutive for our culture, but one forgets all to often that it applies only to our real world. In other possible, virtual, Utopian worlds a poetic whim can become a natural law and our natural laws can be suspended. Then our culture, including political culture, will be structured quite differently. In the early years after the October Revolution of 1917 Russia had a Cosmist-Immortalist Party who rightly asserted that Communism cannot be established if men remain mortal, because being mortal means nothing other than exercising private rights of ownership over a certain time-span—which flagrantly contradicts the Communist insistence on abolishing any form of private property. So the Cosmist-Immortalists demanded of the Soviet state that it should first deal with the immortality of Soviet citizens, and only then move over to establishing Communism. And as well as this, the new Communist humanity should conquer the whole of cosmic space, to escape from being trapped within the Earth and its orbit.
This example shows how easily rational political projects and «fantastic» visions of recreating the entire cosmos can merge into each other. Christian Waldvogel's «Globus Cassus» project is placed precisely at this transitional point. It involves totally rebuilding the Earth—transforming it into a sphere with an empty inner core. Today mankind lives on the outside of the Earth, but the new humanity will live inside the sphere that will replace the Earth. Today's human beings are eccentric, because they are exposed to the free, immeasurable, infinite space that begins immediately above their heads, but the centre of the Earth is concealed from them. However, the men and women of the future will have the centre of their world above their heads—and be able to reach it at any time. This change of place can easily be interpreted as expressing a longing for the original security of our mother's womb, and for a return of the centre, which was lost in Modernism, as is well known. But things are not as simple as that. The artist does not want to redesign the Earth because he wants to lock its inhabitants up in a Platonic cave once and for all, with no progress and no fresh starts. Quite the contrary, Waldvogel is disturbed by the fact that the sky above the Earth always remains the same—and especially at night, the image of the starry sky is always the same. The artist is particularly frustrated by the same stars returning in this way—which forces him to entertain the possibility of redesigning the relationship between sky and earth so that the Earth becomes its own sky. This could be seen as the definitive fulfilment of the Modernist programme: everything that people see in the heavens will be mankind's work—or it will be other people. That will definitely keep out the gods.
Be that as it may, the most striking thing about Waldvogel's project is not its symbolic function, but its long-term character. The project is precisely worked out in a way that is only possible in the early stages. And for exactly this reason its author has to state that it will take some millennia for the project to be realized. Mankind will have to devote itself unconditionally to the project throughout this period—and never deviate from realizing it. It is only then that this project can be discussed as a rational Utopia and not merely as a poetic dream. This addresses a central problem of human culture: whether and how a certain cultural tradition can be secured, whether and how cultural project can be handed down from one generation to the next. A cultural transfer of this kind from one generation to the next increasingly proved impossible, particularly under Modernism. Religions disappeared and empires fell in the past, but then the transfer always lasted a few centuries. In our day, social projects are becoming more and more short term. Projects set up as thousand year empires last only a few. The last good historical example is the fate of Communism: it was not conquered from the outside, but simply abandoned as a project at some point. Under the market economy and democratic politics, cultural projects have to be extremely short term, as their validity has to be constantly tested against yields or questionnaires. And at the same time a conviction that each new generation has a duty to formulate its own social project and implement it socially has become the dogma of our day. Thus everything inherited is automatically deemed obsolete. Trans-generational cultural transfer no longer works. For precisely this reason it is above all the radical demand for long-term generational commitment to a project that gives Waldvogel's Globus Cassus its actual edge. It is easier for use to understand the whole Earth being rebuilt than that the next generation will find the will to continue the previous generation's work, in that generation's spirit.
So it is through this demand from trans-generational commitment to the project that reveals the profound inner ambivalence of Modernism: it lives on in the project—and at the same time makes it impossible to pass it on, always making a start and never finishing anything. And it is true: formulating different projects is the modern man's main concern. Whatever people want to undertake in the commercial, political or cultural sphere today, they first have to come up with an appropriate project, and then put in an application for approval or finance for the project from one or several responsible authorities. If this project is rejected in its original form, then an attempt is made to modify so that it can be accepted after all. If the project is condemned out of hand, then there is no alternative to coming up with a completely new one instead. So everyone in our society is constantly involved in drafting, discussing and rejecting project after project. Reports are written, budgets are worked out to the last penny, commissions are formed, committees summoned and resolutions made. Not a few of our contemporaries read nothing but such projects, reports and budgets. But most of these projects are never realized. It is enough that one expert or another is finds them unpromising, difficult to finance or simply undesirable—and all the work that has been put into formulating the projects turns out to have been in vain. But it is by no means a small amount of work—and the amount of work that has to be put in constantly increases with time. The project documents submitted to the various committees, commissions and authorities are designed to make an ever greater impact, and formulated in great detail to make the right impression on the experts involved. But most of the projects that our civilization constantly produces get lost or are simply thrown away after being rejected. So devising projects develops into an art form in its own right, and far too little thought is given it its significance. Whether a project is realized or not, each one provides a particular vision of the future that is fascinating and instructive as such. Each project describes a way of realizing a possible, virtual world. Our real world, as it actually is, is the sum of the failed and abandoned projects—it is a collage of the fragments of possible worlds that someone started to realize at some time, but then broke off. Our Earth is a gigantic built ruin, an accumulation of leftover constructions on which building work was stopped at some point.
Now most of the projects that are accepted within the framework of today's cultural activities are devised for a maximum of five or ten years anyway. So one is expected, after this limited period of self-isolation and discommunication that is inevitably linked with working on a project, to present a complete product, i.e. a complete ruin of one's project, thus re-entering the sphere of social communication—before possibly applying to have another project approved. So the period of the project has to be synchonized with the general course of things, in which all projects are abandoned at some point. It is no coincidence that social development is seen today as a constant extension of communication, removing all loneliness and self-isolation, as the emergence of an open society of total inclusion that makes any exclusivity impossible. Or put in another way: today's society expects its members to abandon their individual projects ever more quickly, to synchronize ever more rapidly with the general course of things. It seems most advisable to abandon a project before it has been devised at all. But very few people manage that.
And yet people do still embark upon projects in our society that can take up the whole of a person's lifetime, in science or art, for example. A person who is pursuing a cognitive or creative artistic role is not permitted any time for the world around him for an indeterminate period—though he will still be expected at least at the moment of his death to have a product—a work—to show that retrospectively justifies his life in isolation. But there are also projects that are devised to last for an infinite time, like saving souls in the religious sense or building up a better society. Such projects finally remove human beings from general contemporary communication. But it is precisely these projects that can be seen as condemned to fail from the outset. In this sense, such projects, devised for infinity, paradoxically fulfil the modern demand that a project should be abandoned before it is conceived, as these are projects that clearly are not open to realization from the outset. So Modernism is profoundly ambivalent in this respect as well. On the one hand it produces compulsive total communication, total contemporaneity, but on the other hand it constantly produces new projects that always lead to the re-establishment of radical heterogeneity. And the various projects by the historical artistic avant-garde are also to be seen in this light, devising their own languages, their own aesthetic. These avant-garde languages were intended to be universal—as a promise of a jointly possible world for all. But in their own present they led to communicative self-isolation for their supporters—and marked them for all to see.
And so a project is not just a vision of a possible world that has to be realized. On the contrary, each project records real time that has already been invested in devising, formulating and creating this project, and has to continue to be invested so that the project can be realized. A project is not merely an announcement of a different, new world that is to emerge after this project has been realized. To bring this new world about it is necessary to have entirely real time—including the lifetimes of the people who have devised the project. The project places both its author and its potential supporters in a parallel, heterogenous time—compared with the normal course of things. And this different time is uncoupled from social time—it is de-synchronized. Social life continues—the normal course of things remains untouched. But somewhere away from this general passage of time someone is starting, unnoticed, to work on a project: he is writing a book, preparing an exhibition or planning a spectacular assassination attempt. And he does this hoping that after presenting the result of the work, publishing the book, opening the exhibition or carrying out the assassination attempt, the general course of things will change and the whole of mankind will be shifted into another world—the world that the project is anticipating and striving for. So every project thrives—at least at a first glance—simply on the hope that it will be re-synchronized with the general course of things. The project is considered to have succeeded if this re-synchronization guides the course of things in the desired direction. And the project is considered to have failed if the course of things remains untouched by its realization. But a project's success or failure have something in common: both bring life in the project to an end, both re-synchronize the parallel time of the project with the general course of things. And in both cases this re-synchronization causes disquiet, indeed mourning. It does not very much matter here whether a project ends in success or failure. In both cases it is the loss of existence in parallel time, of life apart from the general course of things that is found to be painful.
If one has a project, or put more precisely, is living in a project, then one is actually always in a different, possible, virtual world. One is working on something that the other cannot see (yet), which remains hidden and not open to communication within the real world. So the project means that the individual involved emigrates from the general course of things, from synchronized actuality, from a sphere of unlimited social communication into a different, heterogeneous time—thus creating a temporal fracture between himself and the others. And it is precisely this time-gulf, this possibility of casting an eye over the present from the future the project is striving towards, that makes living in the project so enticing for its author. For this reason, a project author will always prefer those projects that are conceived from the outset so that they can never be realized: such projects are most likely to make it possible to secure for an undetermined period the gulf between the author's own, heterogeneous time and the present that is shared with others. Such projects do not lead to realization, to the manufacture of a concluding result, to the emergence of a finished product. Their actual aim is to create heterochronicity, i.e. to de-synchronize, to uncouple the individual's lifetime from shared, social, real-historical time. But this certainly doesn't mean that such unconcluded and unconcludable projects cannot achieve any form of social representation—even if they cannot lead to re-synchronization with the general course of things through a definite result, whether it be success or lack of success. For these projects can always be documented.
It is in any case noticeable in recent decades that within the art system interest has increasingly shifted from the work of art to documenting art. The work of art is traditionally seen as something that embodies art within itself, makes it directly present, with us, vivid. When we go to an art exhibition we usually assume that what we see there—it might be paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, ready-mades or installations—is art. Of course the works of art can refer to something that they are not in one way or another, to objects within reality or to certain political matters, but they are not referring to art, because they are art. But now this traditional requirement for an exhibition visit is turning out to be increasingly misleading. What has happened is that we are more and more often confronted with art documentation rather than works of art in art exhibitions now. This is still in the form of pictures, drawings, photographs, videos, texts and installations, in other words the same forms and media in which art is usually presented, but in the case of art documentation art is not presented through these media, but merely documented. Art documentation by definition is not art, it simply refers to art, making clear precisely by doing so that art is no longer with us and vividly present here, but absent and concealed.
But the ways in which art documentation records art and refers to it are many and various. There can be performances, changing installations or happenings that are recorded in the same way as theatrical performances, for example. In this case one can say that these are art events that were present and vivid at a certain time, and that a subsequent documentation is simply intended as a reminder. Whether a reminder of this kind is at all possible admittedly remains to be seen. Since the emergence of the deconstruction discourse at the latest we are aware that the claim on such memory of past events is at least problematical. But in the mean time art documentation that cannot claim to be recalling a past artistic event is increasingly produced and exhibited. What we have here are complicated, multiple artistic interventions into everyday life, protracted and complex processes of discussion and analysis, the creating of unusual life situations, artistic exploration of art reception in various cultures and milieus, politically motivated artistic actions etcetera. All these artistic activities cannot be presented other than by art documentation, as these activities are not intended from the outset to produce a work of art in which art as such could be manifested. So art does not appear here in object form, not as a product or result of a «creative» activity. On the contrary, are is this activity itself, art practice as such. Accordingly, art documentation is also neither the recall of a past artistic event nor the promise of a work of art to come, but the only possible reference to an art activity that cannot be presented in any other way than through this documentation. Misunderstanding and trivializing art documentation as a «mere» work of art would thus mean denying its originality and its particular claim, which lies precisely in being a result without a result—documenting art without presenting it. For those people who devote themselves to producing art documentation rather than producing works of art, art is identical with life, because life is essentially pure activity that does not lead to any final result. Presenting such a final result, in the form of a work of art, for example, would mean understanding life as a mere functional process, whose own duration will be negated and extinguished by the emergence of the end product—which is the same as death. It is no coincidence that museums and art galleries are traditionally compared with cemeteries: by presenting art as the final result of a life, they definitively extinguish this life as such. Art documentation on the other hand marks an attempt to use artistic media and work within art spaces to refer to life itself, that is to a pure activity, a pure practice, if one so wishes to an art-life, without wanting to present it directly. Art no longer manifests itself as a different, new object to be contemplated, that the artist has produced, but as a different, heterogeneous time for the art project, which is being documented as such.
So the art project can be documented because life within the art project is originally artificial—and this life can be just as well reproduced in time as art-works can be reproduced in space. This reproduction of the project in time is actually the cultural tradition, the trans-generational transfer, that was referred to above. And here an incomplete, unrealized and indeed originally unrealizable project demonstrates the inner property of modern life as life in a project even better than any officially sanctioned and successfully concluded projects, as it shifts attention from the project result to the heterogeneous time of project fulfilment all the more unambiguously—and thus ultimately to the subjectivity of the project author. An art project that addresses its own inability to be concluded redefines the figure of the author, and defines it differently. The author is in this case no longer the producer of an art object, but someone who documents—and thus authorizes—the heterogeneous time of a life in the project, including his own life. Here the author is not acting for an authority or institution that has the power to authorize in the sense of giving permission. On the contrary, this is an authorization at his own risk, which not only makes the possibility of failure a requirement, it positively affirms it. So the project that Waldvogel has formulated for redesigning the Earth as heaven opens up a perspective seen from which most political, social and urban development projects of our day reveal their basic flaw—their short-term quality. Only an infinite project is a modern project through and through, in that it is able to replace the divine plan definitively—as in Waldvogel's project the inside of the new Earth, created and occupied by mankind, is intended to replace heaven.
Written in 2004 as a contribution to Globus Cassus