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Virtual Tower, ‘Virtual’ Pit: On Potentiality and the Status of Unrealised Art

Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1967, performance at MAM, Rio de Janeiro, 1990. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape
Amber Husain examines the relationship between virtual art and the politics of possibility, with reference to the works of Valdis Celms, Vladimir Tatlin, Lyubov Popova, Netochka Nezvanova, Lygia Pape and Hito Steyerl.
Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1967, performance at MAM, Rio de Janeiro, 1990. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape
Valdis Celms, Pozitron, 1976, kinetic maquette of steel, paper and wood, 46 x 37 x 40cm. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photograph: Peter Jacobs

In 1976, the Latvian artist Valdis Celms set to work on models for the Pozitron, a crystal-disco-ball-like structure imagined as the origin of a sprawling mass of light. Rotating around a central ball, the Pozitron’s metallic prisms would refract and reflect both internal and external light sources, bathing the Ukrainian factory for which the structure was designed in various shades of soothing glow. Celms developed four distinct regimes of illumination for the Pozitron, each in turn shifting with contingencies of natural light, in a bid to draw sensory lines between weekdays, Sundays, international festivals and state festivals. Detailed plans and drafts were drawn at the factory’s request, but years rolled by and the thing was never built. In 2019, it was announced that the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA2), due to take place from May 2020, would see Celms’s neglected project realised at last. By April 2020, with the art world on lockdown in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear that this could not proceed as planned.

What would it mean for a ’70s invention, conceived in relation to a Soviet industrial order of which there remain only traces, to be ‘realised’ as part of a twenty-first-century art show? Which part of Celms’s vision, against the shell-like backdrop of contemporary (neo)liberalised Riga, was considered by the artist and organisers compatible with being fulfilled? In modern day Andrejsala, the idea of hypothetically enhancing the sensory experience of factory workers by playing on the rhythms of the social calendar might jar, for instance, with the general liberal consensus that holidays aren’t for work. Presented as a ‘model’, Pozitron gestures towards an ideal, but in 2020 would do so by means of a mechanism only tangentially compatible with what that ideal entails. What’s more, even in 1976, the work’s ‘model’ status was itself less an earnest statement of intent than a canny means of exhibiting art on otherwise hostile ground. Working in a Cold War dictatorship that rejected the values of artistic abstraction, Celms’s designation of the ‘design’ category to this piece, rather than signalling an expectation of meticulous fulfilment, represented a means of pushing what is now described as an artwork into the space of then-acceptable use- and industry-based endeavour.

According to its own internal logic, the Pozitron’s meaning and value is arguably produced without recourse to its purported intention. The aesthetic operations of this kind of kinetic art were, according to Celms himself, to do with the possibilities inherent in a spatial structure.01 In fact, they might be read as concerned above all with ideas of possibility itself. The kinetic process begins with a static form, the motion of which begins to reveal the potential in that form. Such potential, says Celms, is inherent in the structure itself, the role of motion being one of interpretation. According to this principle, the effect of motion on the structure’s shifting manifestation unfurls (in the Pozitron’s case through the play of light) a sense of possibility that floods both body and brain. It is such an aesthetic experience, both meditative and emotive, that constitutes the substance of this work – perfected, it would seem, in the function of the ‘model’ alone. Insofar as the experience of potential is evinced here through witnessing the relationship of motion to structure, a three-dimensional model, or even (in terms of concept) a two-dimensional plan, does much of the aesthetic and conceptual work – work that transcends, in the end, the actualised lighting of a factory floor.

According to the principles of Celms’s kinetic process, potential might be best understood as a matter of delicate tension. Stasis, Celms explains, ‘is not alien to the kinetic object; on the contrary, stasis plays the role of non-motion within the kinetic object’. 02 There in that careful phrasing lies the key to an idea that grounds the project in philosophies of power. This ‘stasis-as-non-motion’ – non-motion as an affirmative state – seems to elevate the Pozitron’s powers of exposition towards a proposal that Giorgio Agamben credits with explaining and revealing potential in its truest and most realised form. For Agamben, the power and potential to be or to do involves, indeed requires, the power and potential not to be or do. 03 Thus the Pozitron’s potentiality for movement consists in its potentiality not-to-move – its potential, that is, for stasis. Were this potentiality for stasis absent – were the model unable to be still – the Pozitron’s potentiality for movement would not be a potentiality at all and merely a matter of the ‘actual’. Inasmuch as the model, first in its stasis and then in its moving form, animates these principles of potential, it draws some attention to its own conditions of existence. In 1970s Riga under Soviet dictatorship, the conditions in which an artist grappling with abstract ideas of ‘the possible’ was able to articulate this project were severely limited. And while the Pozitron model appears at a surface level to suggest a horizon – a set of provisional ideals that could then go on to be fulfilled – in fact what it speaks to most of all are the limits of possibility in generalised states of duress. On these terms, if the Pozitron’s potential is ‘unrealised’, that is not because a giant rotating orb never made it through factory doors, but rather because the artist, in actualising his models, had no choice but to position them in terms of ‘construction’, ‘experiment’ and ‘design’. Agamben would require that artistic mastery retain a trace of resistance in its perfect form. The potentiality attached to the Pozitron’s being is lacking in any resistance to the potential (which it lacked) to have taken a different shape.

In attempting to think in terms of pure potentiality, Agamben draws on Aristotle’s distinction in his Metaphysics between what on the one hand might be called a ‘capacity’ (dunamis), a theoretical kind of possibility, and what on the other is actually able to be realised (energeia). Aristotle makes this distinction to affirm that capacities or potentialities exist and persist, even when they cannot or will not be enacted. Perhaps the Pozitron’s greatest utopian force resides in its affirmation of just these kinds of potentialities. In its elegant display of movement-as-resistance-to-stagnation, the Pozitron subtly points to that which was missing from Soviet-sanctioned art at the time of its own creation: the degree of relative freedom required to enact an ideal. Aristotle’s realm of the dunamis, the field beyond the actual to which the Pozitron points, approximates to the kind of realm that Gilles Deleuze called the ‘virtual’. Just as Agamben sees in potentiality an active presence of absences, Deleuze saw in the ‘virtual’ a set of absences that, rather than awaiting realisation, were themselves completely real.04 For Deleuze there was more in the vast idea of the ‘virtual’ than there ever could be in the simple domain of the ‘actual’. More, perhaps, in ‘virtual’ states of art than their realisation in biennials.

But what if the virtual biennial were to become the norm? Does the virtual in its garden sense, which points, in effect, ‘online’, have any important relationship to the ‘virtual’ meant by Deleuze? 05Such a relationship could not be one of equivalence, given that the Deleuzian ‘virtuality’ is concerned with process rather than any fixed state. But might the process of art’s virtualisation, contrary to much common sense, open up a space for encounter with something materially greater than that which can be physically made? From a constructivist point of view (Russian Constructivism forming, indeed, an important part of Celms’s conceptual heritage, along with that of others included in RIBOCA2) a work’s materiality could certainly exist more meaningfully in relation to potential – Deleuzian ‘virtuality’ – than to its physical actualisation. For despite their preoccupation with both matter and abstraction, the Russian Constructivists could be understood as having advocated for an emphasis neither on the ‘matter’ nor on the underlying ‘idea’ of an artwork as concerns in and of themselves, but rather on capacities for praxis that might reorient relationships to matter in the world – a matter, in itself, of utmost material worth. The First Working Group of Constructivists, whose grand ambition was in ‘realising vital acts’, 06 were conscious these were not to be mastered in the fields of design, engineering and construction alone, and those such as Boris Arvatov, who insisted on the primacy of material as a precedent for socially purposeful forms, held that command of material presupposed experimentation, ‘laboratories’ of abstract thought – sites of engagement, above all else, in questions of potentiality.


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