Review of Worldmaking as Techné: Participatory Art, Music and Architecture
Riverside Architectural Press, Cambridge, 2018
460 pp., illus, 89 b/w. $49.95
In general, reading compilations of papers, either from a conference or from multiple sources, can be hard going. Too dense, so many hundreds, even thousands of references. You can't 'read' them, in several senses. If you don't know who is a hero or villain for whom, nuances may be lost, in-jokes missed. The editors of Worldmaking as Techné: Participatory Art, Music, and Architecture have succeeded in producing a large book containing 17 important papers and essays, some historical and some recent, all over 20 pages long, from (surely everyone's heroes?) Nicolas Schöffer to Heinz von Foerster, with an introduction by Roy Ascott - “This book is a triumph of theory on the move”. You can actually read it, from cover to cover. The texts, and plenty of illustrations, are connected, parts of a whole, but add to, rather than detract from each other. The copious notes are, thank goodness, in parallel to the text, in the margins. Theory becomes practice here. Concepts are enacted. At the moment, 'our' parts of the world seem to be disintegrating, rejecting us as well they might. If it is not too late to imagine constructing or reconstructing our world, this book may well be a primer, a toolkit and a provocation to doing so.
Organised into three sections, Po(i)etic, Machinic and Cybernetic, the book explores "the aesthetics, systems, methods and ontological underpinnings" of a worldmaking-based practice. I think if you had a library consisting of, say, this book, the admittedly hard to find Cybernetics of Cybernetics, edited in 1974 by von Foerster when he was at the University of Illinois' biological computing lab, back copies of the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, and New Scientist, you might well have the equivalent of a Whole Earth Catalog for our times. Had you time and money to go to both original and secondary sources mentioned in this tome you'd have enough for a lifetime. But if you want action, concretisation, real projects, the 'revelation' that comes through techné, the politics, so to speak, when we do that in today's world, the book under review here would be your stimulus.
The three editors come from the fields of art, music and architecture, the concepts, and the ontologies discussed, if not always interchangeable, nonetheless reinforce the holistic approach. Their aim? A more rounded and formalised language around the concept of worldmaking as techné. "We believe that by forming a common language it would be helpful to other theorists and practitioners who work in similar territory...we wanted to learn about the parallels and the differences between various practices that may fall under the moniker of worldmaking, compare the outcomes in these works, and look for future directions."
In the first section, Po(i)etics, Schöffer writes, in 1985, of the motivations and framework for his work. It's rather sad to see his optimistic hopes for 'non-redundant' art, when today work such as his might well be drowned out, sonically and visually, by a terrible redundant splurge of more or less useless social media, the antithesis of his endeavours. Subsequent chapters deal with the psycho-geography of a drum machine by Peter Blasser, Alberto de Campo on inventing causalities, and networks of influence, the détournement of metadata to artistic ends, and more. The Machinic section starts with a good 1993 text by Felix Guattari, 'Machinic Heterogenesis'. The 'how' to Techné's 'why'. He contrasts but connects the diagramme, always in flux, and the materialised machine, a leitmotif, under different guises, for this book. He also broadens the notion of what a machine actually is to include signs, values and the social. Further chapters cover a conceptual framework for computer art, architectural practice as codification (Sang Lee) and Laura Beloff on wearable technology, disrupting and questioning any smooth integration of technology and human but also providing a mental space for users to explore. The section finishes with Graham Wakefield's text on Computational Ontology, against determinism, via Bergson's notion of a non-static, 'becoming' reality. Worldmaking here is considered as an open-ended, creative process. The final section, Cybernetics, starts with a 2005 paper by Andrew Pickering (revised in 2009), and focuses on two of my heroes: Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer. Both were concerned with systems' actions as much as 'thinking'. Beer, even in his idea of an automated factory, wanted not plans and diagrammes but adaptive systems involving nature. Pask was happily prepared to cause minor explosions involving crystals growing in ovens as a computational medium and used the idea of a pond as a biological computer. Both cybernauts were tinkerers, in a very positive sense. Both loved the mystique of the lab, both had a shamanistic side. In human terms, Pask evolved the idea of a learning 'conversation' with a machine, and was active in theatre, architecture and robotic art. Beer was to have introduced a systems approach to Allende's Chile's economy until Pinochet's coup ended all such prospects (I believe that when the Indian government asked Beer to undertake a similar project, he advised them to pretend they had the computers, as this might work just as well). Beer and Pask illustrate the wonder of cybernetics on many levels, including one of magic and performance. Pask invented the microphone drop long before it became a 'thing' and was capable of turning up in his glowing cape at entirely the wrong conference and still asking pertinent questions of someone else's intervention.
Sana Murrani focusses on a bottom-up approach to the re-appropriation of the built environment via second order cybernetic principles, the cybernetics of cybernetics, the human participant as part of the system, and the phenomenology of what is going on when that occurs. The section progresses with Philip Beesley's Sentient Canopy, and Katherine Elizabeth Johansson using an analysis of Beesley's 'Hylozoic Series' as an example of how technological art, in this case an immersive environment, can impact how we understand consciousness and reality. Then come rich, seminal papers by Edward Shanken and Heinz von Foerster. Johansson quotes de Chardin: "Prodigious sympathy might arise in material convergence", and this in a way sums up the whole book.