Staying with the Trouble—Reading the Present through the Past and the Future
“We [...] live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. [...] Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present [...].”
In Staying with the Trouble, theoretician Donna J. Haraway imagines a world in which we live together with various planetary organisms in a sustainable way. She does not put humans at the core of her thinking but coexistence with other species and creatures. The eponymous group exhibition deals with the Chthulucene, an age established by Haraway, in which the human and the inhuman are inextricably linked: “Chthonic ones are beings of the earth, both ancient and up-to-the-minute.” A theoretical structure that allows for reflection on our present oscillating between utopia and dystopia, reality and fantasy, this is an attempt to read the present through the past and future and to have them enter into a dialogue with each other.
“Our task is to make trouble”
2019 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the world wide web. A technological revolution that has become indispensable in our daily lives—and yet we are already envisioning a reboot. Social networks dictate our life. “Fake news” and populist systems are gaining the upper hand. Yet, none of this is new. Let’s remember how drastically the first industrial revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century changed our economic and social system, as did the transition from monarchies to democracies. A look into the past teaches us that change seems to be the only constant in our society. All the more important, then, is a critical examination of artistic positions that enable us to change our course, develop new ways of thinking, and look inconvenient realities straight in the eye.
The works created specifically for this exhibition by three Austrian-born or Austrian-based artists, Monika Grabuschnigg, James Lewis, and Laurence Sturla, share the use of “traditional”-looking materials like clay and concrete, while their unusual, almost uncanny styles harbor a common interest in science fiction. This is also reflected in the technoid soundscape pervading the Carbon 12 exhibition space. James Lewis culled twelve hours’ worth of crackles, beeps, and buzzes from an open-source archive. This sonic environment turns out to be an arrangement of various water noises: human-made on the one hand, as in the case of a sewage system or a flushing toilet, and natural on the other, as in the case of a burbling stream. The sound can be traced back to three manhole covers cast from aluminum that are tagged with almost unpronounceable numbers of seconds, which correspond to the average duration of various everyday activities, and which are surrounded by an architectural structure. Lewis’s installation addresses not only the ambivalent relationship of two clashing realities—culture vs. nature—but also the confrontation of individual and communal interests. The sound emanating from the depths of the space symbolizes a kind of invisible danger that raises the question of whether such noises will soon be a thing of the past, or whether surmounting individual needs might still lead to change for the sake of the common good.
Whereas Lewis’s structure calls an existing system into question, Sturla toys with the idea of a contaminated history and the relics of a no-longer-extant industrialized world. In their mode of production, the ceramic sculptures tie in with historical boatbuilding techniques and heating constructions. They evoke ruinous fragments visualizing a bygone time in their overfired, scorched surfaces covered in cracks and residual salt lines: origin and function uncertain. Sturla dares to attempt to recall a forgotten age with all its tried-and-true techniques and formal repertoires while at the same time directing our attention to an elusive future. Not least, he demonstrates this in the deliberately chosen contrast between handmade ceramics on the one hand and an appearance reminiscent of industrial engineering on the other.
Utopia and dystopia are also close neighbors in Monika Grabuschnigg’s work. The historically fraught symbol of the Atropa belladonna —better known as deadly nightshade—runs like a thread through her new work group. Originally, the plant, which bears black cherry- like fruit, was associated with a feminine beauty ideal, as the sap had a pupil-dilating effect—an aesthetic kinship that is reflected in the plump, oversize form of the bouquets modeled from clay. In her works, Grabuschnigg plays with the ambivalent appearance of nature, which may generate both pleasure and unease in us humans. This is also evident in the deliberately ambiguous choice of subject matter: While belladonna was initially known as a medicinal and magical plant with aphrodisiac effects, it turned out to be deadly in higher doses. Nature presents itself not only as a “victim” of human endeavors but also as an autonomous trigger of uncertainty and danger. The bouquets in their fiery-red, lasciviously rose-gold form are equally attractive and uncanny, harmonious and melancholy.
In this world split by contradictions, Haraway’s wish “to be truly present” requires not only breaking with common patterns of thought but especially not viewing dichotomies like fantasy and reality, utopia and dystopia, nature and culture as separate from each other and instead—as Lewis, Sturla, and Grabuschnigg demonstrate—allowing them to blend with each other.
This exhibition is commissioned by WKO for EXPO 2020.