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The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats*


Life forms are vanishing, landmasses are eroding, holes are widening in the ozone, and nations subsist in a state of increasing mineral depletion. If, in the last ten years, considerable debate has focused on continental subjectivity (negotiating Eurocentric theories of the subject across nations in the wake of postcolonial theory), it may now be time to consider the broader implications of how to think continents. Thinking continentally, that is to say, seeing the world as a series of landmasses interlinked by industrial damage and wastage, can be a risky matter, since it colludes all too easily with the denationalizing logic of corporate sovereignty and the obfuscation of class injustice. As Gayatri Spivak puts it, with her usual knack for articulating crucial political blind spots: A classless vision of ecological justice made in the USA is hopelessly inadequate to come to grips with the spectralization of the rural.1 Certainly, many activists, critics, and artists seem vulnerable to Spivaks charge of a green globalism that consigns the politics of class to the shadows. But despite these legitimate concerns, and despite complex past afliations with the genres of land art, earthwork, pictorial neo-Romanticism, art made with natural materials,2 and so on, a number of contemporary artists are giving substance to what might be called an aesthetics of critical habitat that must be framed by the politics of antiglobalization.3
* Warm thanks to Mary Kelly, Hal Foster, Anne Higonnet, Aamir Mufti, and Tony Vidler for their comments and suggestions. 1. Gayatri Spivak, Megacity, in Grey Room 01 (fall 2000), p. 21. 2. A recent installation by Liga Pang provides a good example of the return of art that emphasizes natural materials as a medium of choice. Her massively scaled wave fabricated of bamboo twigs and knotted ber aligns its pro-nature position with an implicit critique of late-industrial societies that despoil the earth while professing veneration of natural beauty. Liga Pang, exhibition of New Work, Santa Monica Museum of Art, July 28 to September 2, 2001. 3. For a useful overview of the intersecting genres of land art and ecologically informed aesthetic practice, see Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1998). According to Kastner, land art was the apotheosis of formalism and the evolution of Minimalism. For Wallis, the tenets of this Greenbergian formalism are challenged by the literalism and ecological functionalism of earthworks made by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Hans Haacke, and others in the late 1960s. Miwon Kwons classic piece One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specicity also claries the genre issue in its discussion of how site-specic work relates to land art, minimalist installation, and topographical realism, in October 80 (spring 1997), pp. 85110. OCTOBER 99, Winter 2002, pp. 2144. 2002 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Broadly speaking, critical habitat, as I am dening it, applies to art informed by geopoetics; by an ecologically engaged conceptualism (what the poet John Kinsella has called radical pastoral) that critiques the relationship between media and environment and explores forms of global identication along the lines proposed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their coauthored book Empire. Here, the globalist economic paradigm of superstates, or surpranational jurisdictions inhabited by an unbordered citizenry, is appropriated for revolutionary ends: the condition of displacement and disenfranchisement endemic to workers worldwide is seen to produce a new class of nomadic revolutionaries whose interests are panglobal and whose community of feeling (Einfhlung) spans the parameters of the earth itself, superseding national geopolitical boundaries. Now even if Negri and Hardts romantic invocation of the nomadic revolutionary invites problematic associations with transnational terrorism in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, it is conceived to apply most aptly to groups like the eco-activist Earth Liberation Front, mounting actions against the genetic modication of food and trees; or the Genoa demonstrators protesting the July 2001 G-8 summit.4 This transnational Multitude, committed to worldwide social and environmental justice rather than to the nation-state (and as such, the left counterpoint to the venture capitalist who sees the globe as a stockpile of resources ripe for exploitation), contests the environmental fallout of globalization while seeking to move beyond the parochialism of identity or single-issue politics predominant throughout the 1980s and 90s. And yet, to simply make a pitch for critical habitat as an ecologically correct version of global-think is not enough; such a move calls out for further qualication. If habitat is invoked here, it must not be in the naive belief that it necessarily achieves a more successful calibration of the local and the global, nor in the hope that it offers an aesthetic ideology fully resistant to globalization theory, but primarily because it focuses attention explicitly on how global nancial and information economies are being embedded within geopoetic signifying practices across media. Fredric Jamesons idea of the communicational signier, discernible in visions of nancial transfers and investments all over the world, is useful here because it takes account of the extent to which media and environment are increasingly difficult to disentangle as a semiotic system. Similarly, Spivaks rethinking of the rural in terms of informat ion technolog y point s to the imbrication of habitat in the economy of capital ow: The rural, she writes, is not trees and elds anymore. It is on the way to data.5 If, following Jameson and Spivak, media and environment are conceived as codes capable of mutual translation, then the idea of critical habitat could be

4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). 5. Fredric Jameson, Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue, in The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyosi (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 56, and Spivak, Megacity, p. 20.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


located, so to speak, as a margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs. As such, the term owes a clear debt to the intellectual zone of criticality developed in continental theory by the Frankfurt School, and must also fully acknowledge Kenneth Framptons precursory paradigm of critical regionalism, which stakes its stand against the Megalopolis on architectural forms of resistance; specically, on an unsentimental tectonics of localism capable of sustaining a dialectal relation with nature.6 In addition to being an expression grafted from the lexicon of environmentalists, who use it to refer to the minimal conditions necessary to sustain the life of endangered species, I am dening critical habitat as a concept that explores the links between territorial habitat and intellectual habitus; between physical place and ideological forceeld, between economy and ecology. * The problematic of critical habitat as outlined above is dened in distinct yet representative ways by four contemporary artists working in different media: there is the postcolonial cartography of William Kentridges ravaged South African landscapes; the problem of radical pastoral in the context of endangered aboriginal cultures in the work of the Australian poet John Kinsella (which comes out of a reading of work by the Aboriginal language poet Lionel Fogarty); the use of nature as a counterfoil to virtual environments in the neoromantic blow-ups of Andreas Gursky; the issue of remote responsibility in an era of digit al represent at ion, the mult iple meanings of a techno - sublime whose premise is the multiuser environment, and the visualization of the global economy as an ecosystem, exemplied in the digital installations of media artist John Klima. These artists are uneasily grouped together since they share no unied, compatible political agenda, common medium, or aesthetic ideology. But each evokes the planetary violence of eco-information systems in order to denaturalize globality, a word serving to hide the financialization of the globe in Spivaks ascription.7 The white South African artist William Kentridge has, since the mid-1980s, been working to transform the traditional genre of landscape painting into a medium of geopolitical critique. In a series of charcoal drawings from 1988 entitled Landscape in a State of Siege, he describes how landscapethe background music of painting or the ller between plot and character in a noveltakes over the

6. Kenneth Frampton, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 21, 26, and 27, respectively. 7. Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 164.



privileged space of the interior, much like an act of territorial reclamation by the dispossessed: For about a year I have been drawing landscapes. They started off as incidental details in other drawings. A window behind a couple dancing, an open space behind a portrait. Gradually the landscape took over and ooded the interiors. Few of the people in the pictures managed to retain their place in them. . . . A few of the drawings are of specic places but most are constructed from elements of the countryside around Johannesburg.8 Kentridge pastiches South African landscape painting, typied, in the 1920s and 30s, by the work of Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk and J. H. Pierneef: The Volschenks and the Pierneefs are empty of tribal images but are not unrelated. The landscape is arranged into a vision of pure nature, majestic primal forces of rock and sky. A kloof and escarpment, a tree is celebrated. A particular fact is isolated and all idea of process or history is abandoned. These paintings, of landscape in a state of grace, are documents of disremembering. (WK 109)
8. William Kentridge, in William Kentridge (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), p. 108. All further references to this work and essays in it will appear in the text abbreviated as WK.

Left: J. H. Pierneef. Rustenburgkloof. 1931. Transnet. Right: Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk. Mountains at Robertson. 1921. Courtesy Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


Kentridge combats the plague of the picturesque through acts of close reading, coaxing the suppressed history of South Africas violent past out of geological formations. Celebrated landscape singularitiesthe kloof, the escarpment, the treeare supplanted by randomly chosen pieces of turf on which industrial incidents are plotted. What interests Kentridge are pieces of civil engineering, the lines of pipes, culverts, fences (WK 110). It has become clear that the variety of ephemera of human intervention on the landscape is far greater than anything the land itself has to offer. The varieties of high mast lighting, crash barriers, culverts, the transitions from cutting, to fence, to road, to verge, to elds are as great as any geological shifts. . . . There are other traces there too. A never-ending chronicle of disasters or almost disasters in the sets of skid marks that punctuate the road. (WK 110) The slashed turf and zigzags of tire-tracks establish the warp and woof of environmental violence, even as they point Kentridge, in Rosalind Krausss virtuoso interpretation, toward a reinvestment of drawing, graphic trace, and medium in an era of postmedia.9 For Krauss, this aesthetic commitment to medium is in and of itself a strategy of anti-globalization; a refusal of complicity with a globalization of the image in the service of capital.10 In my own reading, Krausss marshaling of medium against the global market is only further strengthened by the manifest dimension of eco-critique within Kentridges approach to nature. Colonial Landscapesa series of charcoal and pastels on paper of 199596is an exercise in the art of doing South African pastoral otherwise. Despoliation and the ransacking of land make for what Kentridge calls a desperate sort of naturalism, a dark side version of the geography textbooks approach to habitat, which presents the trope of land and peoples as natural extensions of each other. Kentridge blasts the bucolic myth of harmony between man and nature; the interdependency of ecosystems gives way to visual narratives of forced labor and enslavement. Kentridges bid for empirical banality in his naturalistic drawings of the South African veld prove that land holds within it things other than pure nature (WK 111).

9. Rosalind Krauss, The Rock: William Kentridges Drawings for Projection, in October 92 (spring 2000), pp. 335. 10. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on Art in the Age of the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 56. Krauss writes: One description of art within this regime of postmodern sensation is that it mimics just this leeching of the aesthetic out into the social eld in general. Within this situation, however, there are a few contemporary artists who have decided not to follow this practice, who have decided, that is, not to engage in the international fashion of installation and intermedia work, in which art essentially nds itself complicit with a globalization of the image in the service of capital. These same artists have also resisted, as impossible, the retreat into etiolated forms of the traditional mediumssuch as painting and sculpture. Instead, artists such as James Coleman or William Kentridge have embraced the idea of differential specicity, which is to say the medium as such, which they understand they will now have to reinvent or rearticulate.

William Kentridge. Colonial Landscapes. 199596. All Kentridge images courtesy of the artist.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has observed that in Kentridges lms it is nature, for a change, that is vulnerable to man. The landscape of his lms in particular is the devastated area south of Johannesburg: mine-dumps and slime dams; pylons and power cables; roads and tracks that lead from nowhere to nowhere (WK 84). What is so fascinating in this work is the gure in the carpet leitmotif; the way in which landscape, on closer scrutiny, reveals the signs of ecological travesty. Red pointers and circles appear on these bleak scapes, as if to identify sites of pollution and illegal dumping. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in dialogue with Kentridge, remarks: The red pastel surveyors marks on your black charcoal drawings indicate how the colonial images were like projections onto the land. By observing the landscape itself you discover things you wouldnt normally notice: for example that a hill is really an articial mound left over from a mining dump (WK 22). The scenery, in other words, is composed of optical illusions that seen close-up bear witness to environmental damage. According to Dan Cameron, Not only is Kentridge signaling that this ruined vista is as much his cultural inheritance as the idyllic Eden was to his forebears, but in his refusal to ascribe any ideological position to nature he is also pointing out the inherent connections between ecology and civil rights (WK 49, my emphasis).

Kentridge. Felix in Exile. 1994.



This conjugation of ecology and civil rights is precisely what I am associating with critical habitat; it is a literal grounding of human-rights violations. Mary Kellys recent installation Mea Culpa is relevant here, with its furrows of compressed lint photographed to resemble an abstract war zone, juxtaposed with testimony drawn from war-crimes tribunals. The works are identied as Phnom Penh 1975, Beirut 1982, Sarajevo 1992, and Johannesburg 1997, and taken together they suggest an internationalized identication with sites of trauma. Mea Culpa comes across as an antiwar protest that visually documents the devastating impact of global military technologies on the human. The dry prose of datafacts on the poundage of explosives dropped, the number of fragments of shrapnel depositedis threaded through gray zones, assigning narrative signicance to the dark crater-like patches erupting beneath lines of text. Where Kelly materializes the vanishing of human presence through serial panels of blank gray, wreathed in swags of funereal dust, Kentridge uses the dusty medium of chalk to depict the world beneath the earths surface as a burial chamber for strip miners. In a nod to Bertolt Brechts Threepenny Opera, Kentridge employs stock charactersthe plutocrat, the capitalistto dramatize the conversion of human ashes into gold. His 1991 lm Mine features the capitalist Soho Eckstein: Seated at his desk in the customary pose of the patriarch, Soho punches adding machines and cash registers, while the fruits of his efforts spill forth in the form of gold bars, exhausted miners, blasted landscapes and blocks of uniform housing(WK 60). Coetzee claims that the lm nds pictorial means to link the notions of underground and repressed memory (WK 84). The landscape as archive of human history and memory is an old idea, of course, compatible with the Freudian analogy between the unconscious and the dark continent. But in Kentridges drawings and lms there is generally an avoidance of subjectivism. The pastoral furnishes no inscape of the soul; but, rather, is deployed to build a brainscape, a CAT-scanned landll, or mental environment: Building off the geological metaphor deployed in Mine, Cameron writes of the lm Weighing . . . and Wanting (199798), the scanned brain transforms into a kind of porous rock.

Mary Kelly. Beirut 1982. 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


Kentridge. Mine. 1991.

. . . Embedded within the rock . . . are memory layers, fossilized like primordial records of long extinguished species (WK 71). The allusion to extinguished rather than extinct species points me to a poem called Dispossession by the contemporary Australian language poet John Kinsella, whose work parallels Kentridges in its depiction of landscape pockmarked by industrial waste and the traces of assault on native peoples. Kinsella employs the word extinguishment (accentuated by an exclamation point) in a riff on the history of Australias indigenous population, driven off ancestral lands by mining companies and white hunters: Dispossession protection aggravated destruction Almighty construction proclamation probability autonomy



links quality vis--vis the centralised London dealer in native art landing like something out of songlines the press commission/s traditional punishments appropriate authentic threads heresy controls white hunters alcohol abuse custody motivating sit-down leaders nominated by mining companies pastoral leases progressive impacts and sustain extinguishment! As assistance modies acts presence traces the local and maintains representatives authentic claims to constitutional strategy faith

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


and ownership ries revisionist histories: lights rain the sky shackles11 The idea of sustaining extinguishment alludes to how government policies that have furthered mining interests mask the displacement of Aboriginal communities in a rhetoric of preservationism. It is an oxymoron that undercuts ecological idealism (the equation of endangered tribal peoples to endangered animals and plants), while capturing in psychic terms the trauma experienced by Australias stolen generation, removed from their families by welfare agencies and surrendered, all too often, to adult lives of poverty and substance abuse. Extinguishment, suggesting a landscape burned out by fires that form a narrative of dispossession (complementary to Kentridges map of environmental incidents), exemplies Kinsellas theory of radical pastoral, which in hybridising the so-called pastoral tradition with the linguistically innovative. . . . ironises the pastoral construct but allows for genuine movement through rural spaces.12 Kinsellas high-modernist tendencies make him susceptible to classication as a global wr iter who exploit s Australian regionalism in the name of a contemporary rewriting of T. S. Eliots The Waste Land. But this reading ignores the language politics of hybridising that informs his aesthetic agenda. As a reader of the Murri Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty, he commends Fogartys communalizing of the lyrical I (the poets land-based antisubjectivism) through a hybrid English that reterritorializes lost ground.13 In Fogartys verse, hybrid English is identiable as a pidgin that archives slaverys past while thematizing its
11. John Kinsella, Dispossession, in Visitants (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: Bloodaxe Books, 1999), pp. 3637. Further references to this work will appear in the text abbreviated as V. 12. John Kinsella in Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (North Fremantle, Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999), p. 193. 13. In an essay largely devoted to Lionel Fogarty, Kinsella writes: For me, the most signicant voice to emerge in the latter years of this century is that of the Murri poet Lionel Fogarty. Fogarty has managed to use English as a weapon against its own colonizing potential. He has created a positive hybrid that undoes the claim of linguistic centrality, and registers the primacy of the oral tradition. . . . While reacting to the colonising of his Murri tongue by English he in effect colonizes English, rendering it subservient to his inheritance, to his spatiality. . . . His is the most revolutionary of languages being used in Australian poetry. Freedom doesnt come solely by marking territory and occupying a conceptual space, a space linguistic in nature. One must reterritorialize lost ground. . . . Ive referred to the kinds of poetry Fogarty and I write, from entirely different perspectives, as examples of hybridising. By hybridising, I dont mean a mixing or a production of a third-party alternative from a set of specic material. A hybrid is not a possible next stage in a developmental sense, nor a dilution of the component parts! Nor is it a fusing of traditions. It is, in fact, a conscious undoing of the codes that constitute all possible readings of a text. It is a debasement of the lyrical I. . . . (John Kinsella, The Hybridising of a Poetry: Notes on Modernism & ModernityThe Colonising Prospect of Modernism, and Hybridity as a Means to Closure,



own dialectal activism (as in the line Yea my some communication, still many tribespeople / dialect you and old, not sold).14 In the poem No Grudge, rural radio talks back in a hybrid tongue. Indigenous words plant themselves inside English, and a great ingenuity is applied to the estrangement of English through sound slippages (as in the play between the words human, new one, and up man) or the phrase mass translate (which trumps the absent yet no less anticipated mass transit): Our educationalist is the yubba on the koori radio. Nudge nudge human new one up-man-ship run by himself. But the community be at each others throats but we should consider advocating a hurray wireless playing Blackfella media, not political foot-balling loud-mouth perturbed. A happy-go-lucky broadcaster is one tribalism sparkling radio disc-jockey we seem to criticise 100 psychological conditioning Let the yubba mass translate a mouth communicating Suppression, hot reply15 While Kinsellas own language games are clearly indebted to Fogartys local formalism, he also crosses theory with pastoral genres in ways that tie him to the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, a loosely linked group including Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Jed Rasula that by the mid-1980s was translating continental theory into writing praxis. Many of the texts in Kinsellas Visitants collection experiment with ecological phenomenology and transformational grammar. The poem Skeleton weed/generative grammar (for Noam Chomsky), for example, suggests a genetics of language or agrilinguistics in its play on language trees. Several poems bear epigraphs drawn from Jacques Lacan, Jacques-Alain Miller, and the Australian Lacanian feminist Elizabeth Grosz, and these frame texts function as more than intellectual captions. Kinsella uses psychoanalytic concepts developed by these theoristspanic, fear, anxiety, the uncannyto stage what Spivak has referred to as the spectralization of the rural. In the poem keeping your mouth shutagainst conspiracy, the rural is erased by the alien presence of
14. Lionel Fogarty, Jukambe SpiritFor the Lost, in Landbridge, p. 130. 15. Lionel Fogarty, No Grudge, in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, ed. John Tranter and Philip Mead (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 452.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


chemical plants. Nungalloo becomes the generic site designated as Area-51 and corporate namesAssociated Labs, Allied, and Jenningssignify the nullication of territory, the advent of industrial apocalypse in Australias wheatlands: Area-51 was a place called Nungalloo just north of Geraldton. The huge mineral sands processing plants of Jennings and Allied mutated out of borderline farmland. As if a neutral zone, Associated Labs sat nearby, upwind. Testing monozite and rutile late at night a storm hit the narrative and the x-ray equipment went wild, the gun shooting rays outside its alignment, the telex scripting the electric air, my esh spread like an internal horizon a chemiluminescent shadow puppet experimenting with form, my organs glowed and I watched the machinery of my fear, the production of silence. (V 15) Radioact ive waste creates a toxic luminosit y captured by the neologism chemiluminescent. A ghostly body, irradiated and iridescent like electronic text on a dark screen, emerges from a cosmic battle between light rays and X-rays in the night sky. Kinsella excels in inventing an ecological uncanny that uses extraterrestrial visitation as the trope of late industrial catastrophism. In The Three Laws of Robotics, Skylab and the Theory of Forms, the landscape is possessed by visitants in the form of Soviet space trash, which, as you may recall, does in fact routinely drop from the sky between New Zealand and Australia. In the poem Phenomenology (leading off with an interesting epigraph from Donna Haraway, But with the advance of civilization, this biology has become a problem), a childs jerry-rigged telephone system becomes the conduit of glowing gures with strange limbs like Roswell aliens (V 11). Chaos theory, paranormal forces, and robopsychology wire the outback, transforming it into a force-eld of clashing communication systems and inflecting it with manifest spookiness. In The Savagery of Birds live nature is haunted by the specter of articial life: As smog drifts up from the city you realise that the sky is really



a painted backdrop, and Nature has no part in it, that all around you is constructthe silos, the sheds, the tractors, the trucks, cybernetic animals wearing fashionable genes, mechanical birds that y with the gravity and grace of a computer simulation while wearing expressions that belong to mythology, making Frans Snyderss Oiseaux sur des branches relevant to the end of the twentieth century, to a place deep down in the South, where grain-eating birds are turning to esh that tastes like muesli. (V 40) This poem recalls Lacans famous example of Zeuxiss painting of grapes so life-like that they fool the birds, and Parrhasioss painting of a veil so convincing that Zeuxis demands to know what is painted behind it. Lacan reads this as a parable about Vorstellungsreprsentanzthat something that stands for representationwhich lures the gaze and allows it to triumph over the eye.16 For Kinsella, the Flemish still-life master of the sixteenth-century, Frans Snyder is deputized as a latter-day Zeuxis. But in Kinsellas poetic trompe loeil it is the birds themselves that have become objects of visual fascination. As cybernetic animals wearing fashionable genes, their esh shown mutating into muesli, they resemble allegories of a bioengineered nature that converts the mechanical into the living, or the animal into agricultural byproduct, according to a common genetic code.
16. Jacques Lacan, The Line and the Light and What is a Picture? in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1973), pp. 110 and 103, respectively.

Kinsellas literary experiments with the interface between articial nature and virtual environment invite comparison with the work of Andreas Gursky, an artist for whom photographic virtuality is a signature theme. Gursky is most famous for his wall-sized photographs of work environments and commercial hubsthe Tokyo Stock Exchange, with its hive-like depiction of traders coming and going, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, with its serially arrayed and replicated work stations, the Siemens factory oor with its wired spectacle of organized chaos, the Salerno car lot, a chromatic blanket of commodities, or the formal grammar of Untitled V (1997), with its sneakers lined up on display shelves like a conveyer belt of fetishes. Not only do these images deliver great spectacle-value, they also offer the intrigue of visual puzzle, since Gursky is known to have manipulated their Neue Sachlichkeit verisimilitude, emptying out digital information or using overlays of other digital images. In Untitled V, for example, Alex Alberro writes, The artist built a short double shelf, which he then photographed six times, painstakingly figuring out the proper angles from which to shoot and restocking the shelves with different shoes for each session. The negatives were then pieced together digitally to make a single, monumental image, reected on the floor. 17 Using techniques of digit al mont age and illusionism, Gur sky straightens and attens the curved panoramic image into a rectilinear geometry so
17. Alex Alberro, Blind Ambition, in Artforum ( January 2001), p. 109.

Left: Andreas Gursky. Untitled V. 1997. Above: Gursky. Siemens, Karlsruhe. 1991. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.



that every aspect of the image is frontally engaged. These techniques draw attention to the digital image as a screen of colored pixels that, at high resolution, produce a kind of pointillism, which the eye corrects into form. Gursky explores the relationship between pixilation and printing; square pixels, once printed, are visually softened and rendered smoothly transitional, a process referred to as dithering. What the eye accomplishes for pointillism, digital printing accomplishes by dithering, allowing Gurskys inserts and collages of groups of people to assume their place as if they were always there. The effects of this image manipulation are particularly unsettling when directed at the German tradition of romantic nature painting. There is the send-up of postcard nature in Yogyakarta, a photograph that depicts what looks like a European park, but which in fact is a cheap photomural in a greasy spoon in Indonesia, according to Peter Galassi.18 There are images, such as Ruhr Valley (1993), that seam together multiple camera angles, creating a real but not quite effect. As Alberro has noted, the images are stuck somewhere between simulacrum (a picture of a picture) and simulation (in which the image has no origins in the real), and thus do not entirely cross the threshold into pure virtuality since the nal results are composites of photographic documents.19 In Autobahn Mettmann, the view of cows and elds from the window of a highway rest-stop presents a visual field striated by horizontal bars, apparently painted on glass to keep motorists from being distracted by scenery. The aluminum strips direct as well as deect the gaze, cutting into the Gestalt of pastureland and bovine forms, as if to reveal how farmland in the European Union (recently beset by the hellish spectacle of piles of smoldering animal carcasses, the landscape of BSE) is subject to a managed ecology of seeing and not seeing. Gursky blurs the distinction between ecological habitat and ontological habitus in a curious work that seems, initially at least, to be an anomalous subject in his repertory. A framed page apparently lifted from a German phenomenological treatise is presented in blow-up format, like a landscape or scroll that draws the viewer into its totalizing worldview or Lebensphilosophie.20 The text
18. Peter Galassi, Andreas Gursky (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001), p. 34. 19. Alberro, p. 109. 20. The full text reads (in rough translation): Just as water lilies on water consist not only of leaves and blossoms and white and green, but also of gently lying there. Normally they lie there so peacefully that one doesnt notice them in their entirety anymore; the feeling must be peaceful, so that the world is in order, and only sensible relationships prevail in it. It is a sinking or climbing of all humanity to another level, a sinking up high, and all things change in accordance with that. One could say they stay the same, but then they nd themselves in another space, or it is all colored by another sense. In such moments one realizes that beside the world that everybody knows, the one you can investigate and grasp with your mind, there exists yet a second, moveable, singular, visionary, irrational one that only appears to be the same. But we dont just carry it in our heart or head, as people believe, but rather it stands outside us, just as real and valid as that other one. It is an uncanny mystery and like all things mysterious, when one attempts to speak about it, it gets easily confused with the most mundane things. He understood its story. Hundreds of human rules have come and gone; from the Gods to the needle in the jeweled ornament, and from psychology to the gramophone, each a dark unity, each a dark belief, the last to be the one just rising, and every several hundred or thousand years collapsing

Opposite top: Gursky. Yogyakarta. 1994. Bottom: Autobahn, Mettman. 1993. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Gursky. Untitled XII (Musil 1). Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

contains intriguing phrases and expressions: a self-renovation longing, selfdestitution, the state of being, shell-shocked by a group soul, as in the following sentence: And the way this addiction to renewal in ones existence makes one perpetually mobile, is motivated by nothing other than destitution, between ones own nebulousness and the already foreign shell that has hardened over ones predecessor, which once again is a kind of appearance-self, an approximate group-soul which is shoved onto one. Who could write this sentence? one is compelled to ask. It seems to have something of Walter Benjamin in it, some Martin Heidegger perhaps, but it is not quite either of them, but, rather, a piece of generic German modernism. As it turns out, this is a collaged and seamed version of Robert Musils turn-of-the-century Austrian novel The Man Without Qualities. Performing a kind of digital sampling on the text, Gursky deauthorizes it; inducing lexical seasickness.
mysteriously and deteriorating to rubble and construction, what is this other than a climbing out of nothingness, tempted every time to search for the other side. (And no trace of it so that we could contain it in cycles!) Just as a sand dune is blown by the wind and takes on a certain shape for a while, and then again, is gone with the wind? What is everything we do other than a nervous fear of being nothing: starting with pleasures that arent any, but rather instead are just noise, a stimulating chatter to kill time, because a dark certainty warns us that it will ultimately kill us. All the way through to those transcendent inventions, and meaningless heaps of money that kill the spirit, whether one is sustained or smothered by it, the fearful, impatient modes of the spirit, of clothing, which changes continually. And the way this addiction to renewal in ones existence makes one perpetually mobile, is motivated by nothing other than destitution, between ones own nebulousness and the already foreign shell that has hardened over ones predecessor, which once again is a kind of fake self, an approximate group-soul that is shoved onto one. And if one pays just a bit of attention, one can always see in the newly arrived past the future of coming ancient times (translation by Zaia Alexander).

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


Gursky is a master of overlay, transforming environments and habitats into digitally enhanced versions of themselves. Digital modification thus becomes essential to what is critical in Gurskys treatment of habitats, however weak that kind of critique-through-representation may seem. Gurskys virtual renditions of Caspar David Friedrichs celebrated set-ups of a lone gure confronting alpine majesty deate the Romantic sublime by revealing the way in which the sublime has become compat ible with a globalist vision suffused with commercial production values. Factory oors, ski slopes, supermarket shelves, work stations, football stadia, library stacks, these sites become interchangeable insofar as they represent environments that have been profoundly mediated by media; visually altered by the effect of what Roland Barthes calls the environs of the image, that leech factor of exteriority that allows the outside to stick to the idea, and which makes the body-image or place-image stick (or stick out as the case may be).21 The use of scale, serial repetition, and chromatic alterationthe latter bringing on a kind of new painterliness according to the photographer James Welling all ser ve to intensify the image of nature, and this extreme technological intensication gives nature back an image of itself as visual ideology. By contrast, the media artist John Klima takes raw digital processes and transforms them into naturalist imagery. But where Gursky treats nature as a visual commodity, circulating in the marketplace of technological images, Klima targets the computer environment itself, focusing on interface as a site of transformation whereby unrepresentable processes are converted into false pictorial narratives. Klima makes us aware that a program like Windows is a fictive interface operating through opaque layering, a mask for the processing of digital information. Klimas installation Ecosystm, exhibited at the Whitney Museums Bitstreams show, provides a fractal of the interface between globalization and media environments. The work is conceptually predicated on the translation of currency uctuations into ocks of birds. Friedrich Kittlers view of the invisible layering of software and hardware codes seems appropriate here: the birds are revealed to be allegorical structures pasted over digital structures that are themselves electronic responses to market processes.22 Klima thus creates an information loop or feed that ends up in a transparent visual ideology. The ight patterns are true or deictic signs (in that they stand in for real time responses to shifts in monetary value),
21. Roland Barthes, The Image, in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986), p. 352. 22. Programming languages have eroded the monopoly of ordinary language and grown into a new hierarchy of their own. This postmodern Tower of Babel reaches from simple operation codes whose linguistic extension is still a hardware conguration, passing through an assembler whose extension is that very assembler. In consequence, far-reaching chains of self-similarities in the sense dened by fractal theory organize the software as well as the hardware of every writing. What remains a problem is only recognizing these layers which, like modern media technologies in general, have been explicitly contrived to evade perception. See Friedrich Kittler, There Is No Software, in Friedrich A. Kittler: Literature, Media, Information Systems, ed. John Johnston (Amsterdam: G + B Arts International, 1997), p. 158.



but the ecological habitat in which they are represented emerges as an arbitrary, ctive interface. In theory, any other screensaver would do. Or would it? The birds do in fact seem to have been chosen for a reason: their feeding frenzies and bellicose attacks, patterned after corporate raiding, problematize the impact of long-distance nancial transactions on remote ecologies. The originality of Klimas work lies in the way in which it shows how media environments camouage what globalization does to local habitats, dissolving political responsibility in information ows. Trained as a programmer with consultant experience for various nancial rms, Klima has consistently framed the theme of remote responsibility. As the publicity blurb of his Postmasters gallery show informs us, In a piece called Go Fish, the viewer must try to navigate through treacherous waters connected to an actual sh tank. Go Fish examines the mini-world of a shbowl. Visitors play a video game in which the outcome affects the fate of a real goldsh. . . . In the game . . . the player is a sh swimming through dangerous waters. Lose, and a goldsh is

John Klima. Go Fish. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art Bitstreams exhibition. 2001.

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


shot from a bowl into a tank with menacing oscar sh, that will eat it later that night. Win, and the goldsh head towards less carnivorous company. Players might pity the victim, but the goldsh must lose out sometimes, or the oscars will die of starvation. Its the moral dilemma any pet owner faces when they feed animals to their pets, says Klima. More than that, it may be the reigning moral dilemma in a zero-sum system, where saving one creature means killing another and where one persons calm blue water is anothers path to power. Klima reveals the extent to which media environments, governed by the law of your loss is my gain, and long-distance ethics, coordinate the cooperative relat ionship bet ween globalizat ion and ecological exploit at ion. Interface emerges as a habitat in which ecological responsibility is shown to be dissolved
John Klima. Go Fish. 2001. Courtesy Zurich Capital Markets.



and rearticulated. The ocks of birds function as the picture or visual ideology that masks the invisible digital process of data transfer and transformation. But they also symbolize the digital capture of market exchanges and their translation into ecosystems. In this sense, Klima offers a literal rendering of Spivaks idea of nature in the global economy as already on the way to data. Klima uses the media environment not only as a site for tracking data on its way to environmental damage, but also as a medium of information transfer that is causally implicated in the damage. In this regard, a work such as Go Fish contrasts sharply with, say, Peter Fends satellite images of algae bloom fatal to millions of sh (Ocean Earth: Processed Imagery from AVHRR of the North Sea 1516 May, 1988), or Allan Sekulas Fish Story (a series of riveting photo documents of the fishing industry), or Kentridges The Deluge (a charcoal-and-pastel drawing featuring a toxic swimming pool with giant amphibians thrashing overhead, dodging ying debr is in an ominous storm). Each of these fish-themed works enlist s an environmental conceptualism in its treatment of medium, and each depicts a growing social panic about the death of oceans, the ingestion and circulation of PCBs in the food chain, the precariousness of fishing economies, and the apparition of that supranational sea monster currently crashing the Kyoto Protocols that Negri and Hardt associate with Empire. But in Klimas installations, the computer medium itself is both the tool of environmental damage and the representational vehicle of critique. The visible conversion of data transfer into nature (and the reverse) allows the viewer to pinpoint where the survival of natural habitat becomes critically endangered. Unlike many artists working with digital technology, Klima avoids the temptation to show what digital art can do as the next ne artits success at mimicking, in a new medium, the naturalist topoi of the sublime or the conventions of pastoral genres. Nor does he simply afrm the naturalization of technologically saturated representation (as some critics have accused him of doing, dismissing him as a supercial technophile interested in computer games and high-jinks interactivity).23 If anything, his work denaturalizes digital imaging, making the viewer hyper-conscious of the technological mediation of the world and its images; extending the reach of environmental activism and providing ecosystems access to self-representation in a visual form other than landscape or nature pictures. In this regard, Klima is complemented by the artist Wolfgang Staehle, whose 2001 live WebCam projection of the New York skyline became an overnight sensation due to its inadvertent capture of the World Trade Center attack. Like Klima's project based on the Japanese game Go (in which satellite23. Barbara Pollacks review of Bitstreams designates Klimas ecosystm as the weakest link in the show. Despite the initial thrill of seeing a computer animation projected on a wall, the ultimate widescreen video presentation, only those completely unfamiliar with Nintendo 64 or Sony PlayStation could be dazzled by Klimas graphics. The thrill, if any, comes from finding a video game gee whiz!!!in an art museum" (Barbara Pollack, Back to the Future with Bitstreams, in Art in America 9 [September 2001], p. 61).

The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats


directed robot bugs, beneath a spinning globe, react to electronically charged countries by tracing out their economic vital statistics on a drawing pad), Staehle's work provided, however horrifically, the technological support for allowing the world to make itself happen as art. Klima's most recent work on the war in Afghanistan joins geopoetics to geopolitics, once again using the technical medium of digital data transfer to redene art as the visual interface between resource expenditure and political feed-back. Titling the work The Great Game after the British term for imperial skirmishes with Russia over hegemonic inuence and the control of strategic ports in Central Asia during the nineteenth century, Klima's real-time website grabbed a headline in the New York Times on November 26, 2001: A War Game (Sort of), but You Can't Control the Action. In Klima's work, digital relief maps of Afghanistan, subjected to manipulation and rotation by mouse, are made available to the viewer who taps onto the site in the hopes of interactive engagement, only to discover that control of the variablesweapons, material, war-planes, weatheris an illusion. The game, quite simply, is not in your hands. As in Ecosystm, the behavior of the icons is based on real-time responses to data transfer, but in this case, the information, culled from Defense department briengs and other authorized sources of war statistics, is partial, strictly curtailed by government screening. So, effectively, this 3-D, cartographically credible theater of war shows not the war, but the way the war looks warped by information holes, camouflaged errors, and image manipulations. If the Great Game were a generic term for British intelligence and espionage operations in the age of Empire, it now refers to simulation in the age of information black-out, where computer-generated flight patterns and military maneuvers, or the teen subculture of computer war games, block off access routes to so-called reality on the ground. Klima's The Great Game website works with digitally processed information as a way of unmasking secret initiatives taking place in political hot spots on the globe, while experimenting with the visual modeling of information deformities and lacunae, but it remains to be seen where his interventions lead politically. If his work denes an aesthetics of critical habitat, it is a hypermediated aesthetics, lacking clear antiwar or antiglobalization political messages. This project raises the interesting issue of how technically driven aesthetic procedures adapt to the conventions of political art (or fail to adapt, as the case may be). As we have seen, Kentridge, Kinsella, Gursky and Klima are all inextricably implicated in the question of habitat, and have contributed potential ways of making that habitat critical by responding to the ecological mandate in their art practice. The tension in the model that I have been developing then, is, in crude terms, one between the grounded and locally critical representation of real habitats, suffering real political devastation and traumahabitats that are, so to speak, sites of political and social struggle; and the more globally produced habitats (virtual habitats, if you like) that are constituted by communication



networks and represented by the front-end software of the web. Such a tension cannot simply be overcome by a generalized idea of globality (which even in its demystied forms has an uncanny ability to gobble up and assimilate environmental resistance as if it were one of John Klima's vulnerable goldsh), but it can perhaps be made productive in the context of aesthetic strategies of global identication that resist both the trap of a myopic, self-enclosed regionalism and a eulogistic acceptance of new technologies of communication for their own sake.