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Tom Trevatt | Neither Fish Nor Fowl | 2009

“like with everything you have to be selective,
and so much is repetitive, so much”
(Volunteer archivist interviewed in Housed Memory 2000-2005)

This new selection of work, taken from Uriel Orlow’s material collection, what he calls purposefully obtusely ‘stuff’, focuses on two journeys. One north to the Arctic Circle, following in the footsteps of the French scientist and mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who ventured there in 1736 to measure the shape of the Earth. One south to Benin retracing this time the Punitive Expedition of 1897 against the Benin Kingdom that saw the ransacking and looting of the royal palace. Over 3000 bronzes from this expedition were taken and auctioned by the British to recover the financial costs of the expedition. These two expeditions share the same goal; acquisition. One of knowledge the other of objects. And of both we can ask the question where should they be sited? Orlow’s video installations of the last few years have dealt in varying registers with this same question. Can and should information, knowledge, objects, things and stuff be held, horded or retained? And where is and should this repository be? However, his investigations go far beyond a simple empirical collection of data or a passive request for restitution. In fact, Orlow’s work refuses to make demands, operating instead within an economy of recognition and construction, oscillating between two poles of activity. On the one hand ‘the repeat’ on the other ‘the invention’. Orlow’s new exhibition, Neither Fish Nor Fowl, presents a body of work that is neither new work or old, both document and event. This double figure, both one thing and the other, but not fully either constructs an oscillatory structure that determines much of Orlow’s work. Operating as signposts into a number of his other projects, these works bring into question ideas and themes that have been of importance for some time, provoking a reassessment of his ongoing research based practice.

In Orlow’s video suite from 2008, In These Great Times, a long quote by Karl Kraus, whose lecture lends its name to the work, is exhibited as a vertically fading poster and read by a voiceover actor in a sound studio, the quote ends with the phrase “let those who have something to say come forward and be silent!”. This appeal to come forward and be silent demands a double action. That of standing up, speaking for, articulating in public and, yet, refusing to speak. A movement, seemingly contradictory, but nonetheless powerful. The ‘coming forward’ produces an instant community of listeners, formed around the expected articulation of a politics, but the ‘being silent’ withdraws the expected content, replacing the empty space of the political discourse not with a fullness but a loaded silence.

In Jose Saramago’s recent novel Seeing it is election time. Parliamentary officials wait expectantly in poll booths around the capital city, yet no-one arrives, the torrential downpour keeping them at bay. However, when they do arrive, and arrive they do, en masse at just after 4pm, and the votes are counted it is revealed that over three quarters of the populous have cast a blank ballot slip. Outraged and confused the local government stages the election again, but this time the number of blanks slips counted in the box at the end of the day totals 83% of the vote. This outlandish refusal to vote precipitates a series of increasingly ruthless and aggressive tactics by the government, first to try to account for the anomaly via interrogation and investigation, then to try to punish the city’s residents with a state of siege in a hope they would give in and universally confess their guilt in the matter and in the end, when both those methods prove fruitless, by moving the parliamentary seat of power out of the city and into another. In the face of a denial of the democratic ‘duty’ to elect a leader the government effectively elect a new population. The silence of the populous produces an evental rupture, exposing the true void of the situation. For the government in Saramago’s novel the right to vote has become a duty, the refusal of which reveals the truly un-democratic nature of power. Yet, of course, to post a blank ballot slip is both the refusal of choice, the false choice between one party and the next, and the choice of the refusal of choice. So, as non-choice as choice it is within the bounds of the democratic order. However, democracy demands that a positive choice be made, without which it cannot operate, it is bound by the need for fullness. Coming forward and being silent evacuates the expected full position of the decision, prolonging the art of the dialectician interminably. Slavoj Žižek makes a similar but significantly different point in his recent book Violence. Agreeing with Badiou’s theses on art, Žižek proclaims the lesson of Saramago’s novel is that it is better to do nothing as the nothing rejects the frame of the decision. However, and this is where we diverge from Žižek, the blankers in the novel are not doing nothing; their operation is a double move, standing up and saying nothing. The moment of articulation is performed publicly as an action and as such is a move of solidarity. For Žižek the posting of the blank ballots is an abstention, his project is specifically engaged with a non-active rejection of liberal ideology, private refusal, he makes only the second move, the saying nothing, but does not make the first move, the standing up. Žižek’s Bartlebian politics are a superficial reading of Saramago, overlooking the twofold move that makes public the refusal and thus invents a community sutured around a discursive point that is then necessarily emptied. Denying the active move of suturing, the formation of solidarity, that is standing up with and standing up for, Žižek can’t account for the publicness needed to make silence affective rather than just an a private symptom of apathy. Orlow’s work, in contrast, makes room for this double move.

The Kraus line in In These Great Times points to the twofold action of creative articulation and the emptying of the site of discourse. What, then, is put in the place of this empty place? Nothing but the place. The addition of the place, Orlow’s spatial practice, the silent repetition of the site of historical importance is a form of Nebenschauplatz – an addition to the scene. This marginal spatiality that replicates the scene with nothing but the place brings with it the grace of form. That is, from the margins comes the rupture. This rupture follows the logic of Alain Badiou’s event; that which presents the void of the situation, can never be anticipated or known beforehand, it is the unprecedented and unexpected. In Saramago’s novel the blankers (those who turn in blank ballots) present the void in the democratic situation – the need for any decision, whatever it is, to be made. Interestingly this is the pre-requisite of neo-liberal democratic states; the proliferation of choice demands a decision be made, yet that decision is a madness, a false distinction between one choice and another, to post a blank ballot is to refuse that choice. This blanking is the event of Saramago’s novel. What follows, the investigations, the siege, the escape by the government, even the subsequent bombings are the truths created by the event once it is named. Silence itself does not replicate the Badiouian event, but the situated silence, the collective non-choice, in Saramago’s novel is evental.

Orlow’s work asks very specific questions of the event. As his camera traces endless shelves of books (Housed Memory), the surfaces of café tables and chairs (Ornament and Crime), the inner workings of a document retrieval system in the British National Archives (Satellite Contact), he asks if the event can be remembered, or sited, in place itself. Whether spatiality can account for a production of truth that arises from an event. If pure site is a repository of knowledge, if truth can be inferred from the place itself, Orlow’s practice puts in the place of this truth not truth, but place. An additional or supplementary placing that instead of exposing the ontology replicates the site with the site, re-posits the repository, not with its content, but with the eloquent silence of form. This practice of Nebenschauplatz, placing beside the scene, understands spatially the historical legacy inherent in any event. That acquired knowledge or artifacts are sited within state sanctioned, and therefore hierarchized, museums, galleries, collections, that record only partial accounts of the event. Yet, the other site, the marginal, or beside site, offers an account that although not officially recorded, is equally important. In Orlow’s work this minor historical setting is placed by the major, re-posing questions to the official documentation. In this move he doubles the original event not chronologically but spatially, proposing the re-mapping of history through a spatial practice that both repeats and invents; stands up to speak with the subjects of his work – the holocaust victims in Deposits, the Benin people in The Benin Project, the characters in In These Great Times – yet remains silent. This silence is exactly the invention we speak of, shifting the locus from chronology to spatiality allows Orlow to condense history into site as presentation not document, permitting a formal intervention that repeats differently the archive. The refusal of a narrative structure (that would just replicate existing discourse) is what takes Orlow’s work away from the category of demand for restitution and into the categories of solidarity and invention.

It is also what lends Orlow’s work its political nature. Coming forward and being silent is not an avoidance of or escape from political action, but a truly inventive political act. Not just a form of resistance to state power or normative discourse, but a creative articulation that undermines the formation of power as such by emptying out the place of power by refusing the insertion of specific content. Replacing political content with form (the empty act of standing up yet remaining silent) however, is a dangerous move. One which does not escape the totalizing desires haunting politics. As Badiou suggests the unnameable is the condition of a truth that prevents it from attaining totality. The part that resists incorporation by the truth procedure that has produced it is necessary to allow the truth procedure to continue not as a complete re-foundation of the world, but as an infinitely finite alteration of that world. Badiou asserts that a truth must never be total or complete, to attempt this would be evil. One must always hold back on one’s desire. Form then, must be understood not as a completion of or totalization of the place of politics, but as the initial and processural emptying of that space. Providing a place from which to act. The articulation of silence must not be continued ad infinitum, but be a rupturing point that operates eventally to produce a context or spatial practice that allows for a further investigation. Orlow’s work is exactly this movement, to read it in formal or spatial terms is to account for it in a political manner that produces a space for the future, the possibility of possibilities.

This revolutionary potential is expressed in Giorgio Agamben’s writing on potentiality, where he asserts that: “Of the two modes in which, according to Aristotle, every potentiality is articulated, the decisive one is that the philosopher calls ‘the potentiality not to be’ or also impotence. For if it is true that whatever being always has a potential character, it is equally certain that it is not capable of only this or that specific act, nor is it therefore simply incapable, lacking in power, nor even less is it indifferently capable of everything, all-powerful: it is capable of its own impotence… The perfect act of writing comes not from a power to write, but from an impotence that turns back on itself and in this way comes to itself as pure act (which Aristotle calls agent intellect). This is why the Arab tradition agent intellect has the form of an angel whose name is Qalam, Pen, and its place is an unfathomable potentiality. Bartleby, a scribe who does not simply cease writing but “prefers not to” is the extreme image of this angel that writes nothing but its own potentiality to not-write. ” (Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, pp. 79-83)

The potentiality to not-write, this pure act, coming forward and remaining silent then, is not normative, nor constative, but eruptive. Potentializing the terrain of articulated silence as unfathomably powerful, Agamben echoes the volunteer archivist in Orlow’s Housed Memory: “…one realizes that the lack of drama is the whole drama.” (Volunteer archivist interviewed in Housed Memory 2000-2005) By choosing to focus on information and material gathered whilst pursuing other aims as well as what might be considered the ‘work’ of the journeys, Neither Fish Nor Fowl asks questions of the non-pertinent or marginalised elements of any expedition. Supplementing the place with the place, this activity refuses to decide what may or may not be relevant in a given situation, thus dramatizing the possible lack of drama and taking a sideways glance at not just the subject matter but the process of collecting information and making work.

Tom Trevatt