07 September 2010

Towards an Aesthetics of Entropy, Part I

The dust jacket blurb for this vintage 1969 Pelican paperback states:

"Land in Britain is scarce and socially precious. Yet large areas of the North and West are now useless, scarred by a century of industrial plundering -- vast lunar landscapes pockmarked with craters and slag-heaps, soilless, enervated and hostile to humanity. Why was this allowed to happen? And how can we free ourselves for this detritus of twisted girders and blighted lives?

In this angry, important book John Barr takes a close look at out industrial wastelands and examine what can and should be done to redeem them. ... His book is a vigorous indictment of ruthless, profit-seeking industry, of central and local government indifference, and of public apathy."

Its innards provides illustrations of this variety:

Judging from this article on "The Wastelands of Britain" from a 1982 edition of New Scientist, it appears that it took some time before any concerted efforts at redemption of the affected regions would get underway....

What strikes me about the photos above is how much they remind me -- once again -- of Robert Smithson's famous essay "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey."1 Smithson's text was a more-than-slightly-sarcastic response to utopian High Modernist ideas concerning architecture, civic planning and progress that had dominated in the past two decades. More specifically, the artist was also addressing suburban expansion and sprawl and the then-novel and popular notion of the "nonplace urban realm."2 And the illustrations that Smithson provided to accompany the "Passaic" text uncannily prefigure those of Barr's tome:

Wandering the ramshackle, scarred and half-developed landscape, Smithson ironically presented the debris that he encountered as glorious archeological achievements of modern society. As he would note in another essay of the same year, "The slurbs, urban sprawl, and the infinite number of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy."3

Smithson's parodical travelogue sported a double edge. Yes, was primed to cut against certain triumphalisms of post-war/-industrial America; but it also cuts against a recurring trope in the history of Modernism in the 20th century; especially in the way it perversely echoes -- in its own deadened (dead-end?) way -- the Italian Futurists' brut glorifications of modern technology and industry from early in the 20th century. Describing he and his Futurist companions' motoring through city streets and along urban perimeters in his "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism" of 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti bombasted:

"And on we raced... Death, tamed, went in front of me at each corner offering me his hand nicely, and sometimes lay on the ground with a noise of creaking jaws giving me velvet glances from the bottom of puddles. ...

I turned sharply back on my tracks with the mad intoxication of puppies biting their tails, and suddenly there were two cyclists disapproving of me and tottering in front of me like two persuasive but contradictory reasons. Their stupid swaying got in my way. What a bore! Pouah! I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch.

Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck...

As I raised my body, mud-spattered and smelly, I felt the red hot poker of joy deliciously pierce my heart. ... Then with my face covered in good factory mud, covered with metal scratches, useless sweat and celestial grime, amidst the complaint of staid fishermen and angry naturalists, we dictated our first will and testament to all the living men on earth."

And then among the tenets that follow in the manifesto proper...

"We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds."4

All hail King Sludge!!

As anyone who remembers the cyber-gaga days of the 1990s will tell you: Times of rapid technological change are often long on overheated rhetoric and inflated expectations -- often to the point where science is presented in a form that more resembles science fiction. As with the days of industrial expansion, so to with the modern cultural landscape of postwar "Atomic Age" America. And it is ironically worth noting that Robert Smithson, as an erudite and voluminous reader, was quite fond of the science fiction genre. Many of his writings about the "atopia" of modern post-industrial society mirror ideas that turn up in the dystopic novels of J. G. Ballard; and it's of no small significance that the descriptive name he gave his works of the years that followed his Passaic travelogue -- "earthworks" -- was lifted from the title of a book by British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss.5

Smithson's own art-making practices would change radically in 1967 and the years that followed, with the "Passiac" text (and others that he authored at the time) revealing a pivotal shift in the artist's mode of exploring and articulating his own artistic theories. Many of these texts chart oblique trajectories and prove difficult for many readers to follow -- often esoteric to the point of quasi-mysticism, filled with hopscotch theorizing, uncanny connections and dialectical juxtapositions of elements from the past and the present. But with these texts, Smithson was striving to formulate his own speculative critique of the art and society of the modern(ist) era. That critique was as much inspired by profound doubt and ambivalence as it was by artistic rigor or restless dissatisfaction. It is to this latter point that I will return in the second post on this topic.

{ End of Part I. }

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1. Originally published in Artforum magazine, 1967. Reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 1996, University of California Press.
2. The idea of the "non-place urban realm" was first introduced by urban theorist/planner Melvin M. Webber in his 1962 publication "Urban Space and the Non-place Urban Realm." The concept -- as well as its accompanying theory of "communities without propinquity" -- were effectively glorifications or increased suburbanization and urban decentralization of the post-WWII years. Some have argued that Webber's ideas were not only adopted by civic planners as a carte blanche advocacy for suburban sprawl, but also helped indirectly incite some of the most harmful and destructive "urban renewal" projects of the era.
3. "Entropy and the New Monuments," originally published in Artforum, c. 1966. Reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, p. 13.
4. Reprinted in Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 1992, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 146-147.
5. Coincidentally enough, Smithson mentions purchasing a copy of the Aldiss paperback in the first paragraph of the "Passaic" essay.

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