quinta-feira, 12 de março de 2009

For Instance: the Example of Lusitania

My reading of Lusitania is neither intuitive nor purely anecdotal, but expository. I will try to explain why it is significant that we can meet here in Portugal to discuss Lusitania, without a sense of melancholy, or feeling the need to eulogize given its demise. Founded as A Journal of Reflection & Oceanography in 1986, Lusitania, for many of us who were involved with it, not only served as a nexus of intellectual inquiry, but as a laboratory for the modeling of sense of agency and subjectivity that that embodied the best qualities of post-Modern.
Neither institutional or instrumental, Lusitania kept to no particular production schedule, as evidenced by the fact that 11 volumes were produced over a 16-year period, reciprocally each volume was more elaborate then the former. Both its erratic schedule and evolving format was in part due to the fact that each volume had been given over to a different editor/ curator, who having selected their subject proceeded to assemble substantially different groups of contributors. What remained consistent throughout was that Lusitania was always timely and that its content perceptively sought to by remodeling the present, forestall what appeared to be its inevitable future. If we had not had time on our side perhaps we would have been too prescient and therefore appeared to be even more alien.
Lusitania was founded by Martim Avillez, who having fought in the Portuguese colonial war in Guinea–Bissau used Lusitania to manifest a profoundly patrician love–hate relationship with the land of his birth and its history. It was this that led him to immigrate to New York City in 1970, to study at Cooper Union, and then at the School of Visual Arts. As others will tell you this afternoon, he went on to be a successful and talented illustrator – producing editorial cartoons for many prestigious publications – though on occasion what he liked best was to remind people his first job was doing the cover illustrations for Screw Magazine – a sex tabloid.

Between 1995 and 2004, I worked on four issues of Lusitania; Taste/ Nostalgia, Being on Line: Net Subjectivities, Site and Stations: Provisional Utopias, Beyond Form: Architecture and Art in the Space of Media which was to be Lusitania’s final issue. Parallel to Beyond Form, Martin was working away furiously on the ‘23’ which was to be a volume fully illustrated by him. Accompanying the launch of each volume editor and publisher Avillez would organize events – such as a conference at the drawing center for Vulva-Morphia, or the exhibition Food Matters which was done in conjunction with the launch of Taste/ Nostalgia. Sites and Stations had its launch at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Until up to and including vol.7 Ed Ball had been Lusitania’s editor, I was asked to be become associate editor, when announced Ball announced he was leaving because he had received a contract and large advance for his book, Slaves in the Family. At the time, I was teaching in the MFA program at New York University while making the transition from being an artist to being a critic and curator. Consequently, I was curating shows for commercial galleries, publishing in various art magazines and was already the art editor for Bomb, and had just begun editing the book series, Critical Voices: in Art, Theory and Culture, for the Gordon and Breech.
I had not been part of the first wave of early contributors, supporters and collaborators who formed Lusitania’s core – These mainly consisted of faculty and graduate students Martim knew from Columbia University, and artists from the NY art-world. – I knew Martim from the NY art world, but our true affiliation was from the mid 1970s. we had both been active in Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, an organization that represented an attempt by the New York Art World to create a community-based, multi-generational, political organization of center/ left artists, students, and intellectuals. Though this organization took part in numerous protests and demonstrations in the 70s, it primary form and function was as a forum focused alternately on cultural politics and political culture.
Like so many other popular front, “non-sectarian” organizations of that time, it came to fracture not only along sectarian lines ranging from liberal to Maoist, but also conflicts arising from the career positions within the art-world of its various constituencies. Though never truly dissolved, AMCC slowly faded away – and ironically, with it seemingly so did Marxism, and Modernism. It was apparent that a new intellectual orientation was emerging by the early 80s, and subsequently in the name of advancing the cause of self-empowerment and self-realization there was among the “advanced” a paradigmatic shift, toward what would come to be identified as post-Modernism. Ironically, what this meant to left intellectual was that they had to set to work to dismantle the newly manufactured reified, utopian vision of modernism.
Central to this intellectual shift was Semiotext(e), sought to bridge radical French theory and the intellectual and art worlds of New York City. It is now widely credited with having introduced post-Structuralist thought to North America. Begun by the French philosopher Sylvère Lotringer in 1974, Semiotext(e) was distributed by the anarchist publishing collective Autonomedia. The original editorial board consisted of ten people, mostly graduate students at Columbia University who chipped in fifty dollars apiece to start the journal. In 1983, Lotringer began the Foreign Agents book series which published seminal texts by Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, etc. During this period, Lotringer shared a loft with Martim Avillez who in 1988, was to found Lusitania.
The reason for this accounting is that it is important to understand the social, political, cultural and intellectual networks that Lusitania was not only a product of, but also contributed to and was critical of. Lusitania while it represented a rejection of the high-modernism, it also represented a rejection of the Post-Modernist interpretation of post-Structuralist theory that was gaining popularity at the time. Lusitania rejected the notion that the new orthodox of post-Structuralism was a cure all.
As such Lusitania was spawned by Martim’s desire to put into practice the principles and theories associated with post-structuralism’s cultural critique, which other journals only sought to explicate and debate. – This commitment to putting into practice multi-culturalism, the critique of history, the exploration of subjectivity and the valorization of minor discourses meant these concepts must in a significant and critical manner be given material form - Consequently, Lusitania rather than contributing to the new Postmodern hegemony, sought to be a heterotopia – a space of otherness, which would take stances that were neither here, nor there, but physical and intellectually simultaneously give voice to those positions, identities, and views that self-contradictorily sought to point elsewhere and nowhere. Given this commitment to indeterminacy, Lusitania emerged as a laboratory, whose subjects, objectives, collaborators - were ever shifting – Consequently, this assemblage embodied an economy of power – a politic based on asymmetrical exchanges in which equivalency was neither possible, nor thought to be desirable.
Because of the implicit self-determination of its politics, Lusitania recruited to its cause the intellectual refugees and survivors of the culture wars of the 80s, who wished to maintain a critical distance from the emerging orthodoxies and their respective sectarianism. This was not because their was a deep seated desire to keep Lusitania democratic (because it was not that) or independent (which it was because it could not be appropriated) but because it was committed to sustaining an environment that would be conducive to keeping thought and debate alive. Consequently, the diverse positions of artists and intellectuals presented in Lusitania represented its commitment to heterogeneity. This ideology, gave rise to a number of its eccentricities; such as the fact that while it was committed to being bilingual, the second language was never a fixed one –as with the Sarajevo issue the 2nd language Bosnian. For an idealist enterprise such a choice was pragmatic, yet at other times there is no real correspondence between the second language and the volumes thematic content. Likewise, its guest editors represented no particular orientation , they ranged from those who were deeply political to those whose primary concerns were aesthetic – all a project needed to be to appeal to Martim was that it be relevant, critical, and unfashionable.
Lusitania was something akin to a nomad’s encampment, where primitives seeking orgasmic and hedonistic fulfillment, met to have intercourse with sophisticates wanting enlightenment and reason. As such, Lusi was not only a site from which to survey the debris field of Modernism but a location one might momentarily occupy and from which to advance this or that vision, concern or obsession. Its commitment to keeping critical thought and values alive was the recursive core of the cultural discourse that Lusitania sought to nurture. As such Lusitania’s very logic and structure made it a line of escape, a trajectory that laid no claim to authority nor sought to be either an instrument of the insurrectionists, or that of the loyalists. In other words it had an orientation, and an ethic but avoided having a fixed identity. The story of the origin of Lusitania’s logo, perhaps best illustrates the logic that ordered this publication .
To be specific, the sinking ship on the logo is the RMS Lusitania, a British luxury ocean liner owned by the Cunard Line. Christened and launched on Thursday, June 7, 1906, the Lusitania met a disastrous end , off Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, where she was sunk by the German submarine U-20 on 7 May 1915 and killing 1,198 of the people aboard. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, and was a factor in the eventual decision of the United States to join the war in 1917. Ironically, munitions were recently discovered in the wreck, indicating that the Lusitania was a blockade-runner, and thus a legitimate target. The sinking of the Lusitania along with the Titanic may also be associated with the end of the utopian dream of modernism and the industrial age.
The journal Lusitania though was not named for the ship, nor was its name meant to reference the history of its sinking, nor was it meant to be a metaphor for the sinking of Modernism – instead, Lusitania was named after the ancient Roman province, which Initially was part of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior, before becoming a province of its own. The geographic location of Lusitania corresponds to modern day Portugal whose own colonial empire was brought to an end in by the Colonial War (1961–1974), which led to the Carnation Revolution of April 1974, which brought down the right-wing dictatorship, which had ruled since 1926.
Martim once told me that he was unaware of the RMS Lusitania when he decided to call his journal Lusitania. It was others who came to assume that this was the referent given that they did not know the connection to Portugal. Consequently, Lusitania as a signifier was an attractor. Lusitania and its logo, in actuality succinctly reference all of these referents, associations, histories and subjectivities and others even more esoteric such as Camoes’ epic poem Os Lusitadas accounts the role navigation, exploration, and the decline of empire plays in the creation of Portugal’s national identity. Remember, Lusitania was identified as Journal of Reflection and Oceanography. Likewise it was this aggregate approach in which no potential referent was to be dismissed, that is typical of the editorial course Lusitania tracks as it moves from article to image to theme, from volume to volume.
One therefore finds inscribed upon Lusitania’s pages a drift, as it combines Foucaultian critiques of taxonomies, knowledge and history with Braudrillardian visions of nihilistic virtuality, and hyper-reality. By means of this process, Lusitania gave representation to the theoretical, incidental, aesthetic, and anecdotal positions that in the later part of the 20th century, accrued to, circulated and circumscribed the discourses of knowledge, culture, control, intra-disciplinarity, and identity.
In the process, with an eye ever to its own state and that of its cultural, political and social environment, Lusitania particular structure came to constituted a detourne – for it had hi-jacked academia’s prized possession the journal, which was the site of professional authentication and the space of intellectual exchange. This appropriation was neither a parody academia, nor was it meant to create the type of pastiche that in the 90s passed for criticism. Instead, this appropriation was a probe – the means of an inquiry whose goal was to re-open what seemed to be an increasingly, sectarian intellectual atmosphere, which in its self-proclaimed radicality represented a drift to the right – in the guise of advancing a post-ideological position . Lusitania took the position that it neither needed to guard or defend the vacated one nor be moan there passing instead it imagined itself to be a site where the collision of ideas, insights, and visions whose intersection might produce new possibilities.

Committed to its own marginality and failure, Lusitania self-reflexively explored the potentiality of its own unstable position by revealing itself as a laboratory that heuristically tested products and constructed assemblages whose multiplicity, culpability, potential and barbarism could never form a holistic critique. It was this determination not to occupy a position, or exist as a singularity which made Lusitania a curatorial project, whose rigor laid, as much in its aesthetics as it did in its intellectual criteria - by aesthetics, I do not mean its look but the principles of its rhetorical position and intellectual design – its commitment to the how and what of engaged intellectual pursuit rather than masturbatory academic ones. It is because of this insistence on never being a singularity but in being in a constant state of becoming, that makes Lusitania a formidable archive of transient as well as enduring positions authored by the celebrities, masters, disciplines, amateurs and nonentities that made up the transitory network that Lusitania subscribed to consisted of.

Though Lusitania never had a stated program or political agenda, its editorial orientation was embedded in and explicated in the comic-strip editorials that began to appear with issue two; Melancholia. These graphic editorials, which are obsessed with war, new technologies, discourse, and instrumental thought are also characterized by an excess of information, and fantasy. The discontinuity of the resulting scripts make explicit that Lusitania was always committed to not only a critique of the irrationalism of capitalism’s logic as it permeated every aspect of cultural and intellectual life but in particular its detrimental effect on social imagination. This point is perhaps made most clearly in Sites and Stations where in a discussion concerning the architecture’s utopian vision a character says “What we need is maximalization of free intercourse among the heterogeneous terms of democratic thinking: give me subjectivities, imaginations, perversions, risks and responsibilities” – this view is further elaborated in Being on Line, where the comic strip editorial whose text, which is an appropriation of Pierre Levy’s writings on virtuality, ends with the principle character Cyberella offering up two opposing visions of the virtual: one in which we replicate the spectacle of consumerism in the name of critique and another in which we are called upon to dedicate ourselves to the “remaking of social bonds through; the exchange of knowledge, the recognition and valorization of singularities, more direct and participative democracies, the empowerment of individual lives, and the creation of new forms of open cooperation. “ This soliloquy ends with Cybrella not only telling us to go out and buy a copy of Lusitania, but to read it from cover to cover.
When reading these editorials one has to pay special attention to the fact that they are not textually driven. As with all the artwork that came to be reproduced in Lusitania, images are not merely illustration of some primary texts, but form parallel heterogeneous texts on violence, abjection and eroticism. These often stand in contradistinction to the written texts. Consequently, the text and image randomly conjoin to render up secondary and tertiary lines of inquiry, characterized by contradictions, disparities, and intuitions. This economy of supplementation and de-sublimation – as exploited by Lusitania hinged on generating a surplus of meanings, both symbolic and other. In other words within Lusitania there is no attempt at synthesis or resolution instead what is demonstrated is the impossibility of equivalence – and therefore the impossibility of exchange without lost. In this manner as with the general content of each volume of Lusitania, multiple stories are represented by the same text.
Though poly-vocal and heterotopic, there is encrypted into each issue of Lusitania the view that radical change lies not only in the new but also in the incorporation of the old into a system in which pleasure rather than the fulfillment of desire is its objective, so that depletion and production are the erotic order of existence. This vision is made explicit in the “23”, in which Martim illustrates a phantasmagoric history of the United States, which begins with the arrival in New Amsterdam of a group of Portuguese Jews who in the 17th century fled the inquisition in Brazil. This panoramic visual text, which centers on the failed love affair of its central characters as they appear to be reincarnated time after time, ends with an orgiastic, apocalyptic vision of a near future inhabited by all manner of pop icons and comic book heroes. In this volume which was published as an accordion that folds up and is stored in a slip-case, the comic strip editorial is the volumes principle text, which is supplemented by such scholarly texts as Voyages by Leslie Camhi, New Christians, Rationalism, and The De-Catholization of The New World by Anita Novinsky, From The Natural State to Democracy by José Gil, Kol Nidre for Spinoza–Fragments by Bérènice Reynaud. It is with this carnivalistic spectacle that Lusitania ends.
Yet, it is actually fitting that Lusitania has two ends, because Beyond Form even though its production was begun before the 23, was the last volume to be printed. Beyond Form, was published in 2004, in English and without a comic-strip editorial, yet in that it addresses the increasing destructive effect of the media sphere on all aspects of cultural production, it sustains Lusitania’s commitment to the visual text, and the polyglot as well as its politics of creative nihilism. For Martim and myself, it was a sequel to Sites and Stations’ critique of the flawed politics of PostModernist practices, as well as a consolidation and update of the discourse of virtuality that was opened by Being on Line. This summing up, was meant to allow Lusitania to move on – given that at the time we were already planning the 23, as well as a possible volume on 1962 – A Question of History, and another still another on scale to be edited by the art historian Norman Bryson.
The blurb on the back of Beyond Form announces it to be a user’s guide for a world of instrumental standardization on one side and indeterminacy and formlessness on the other – it indentifies the world as becoming a place where disciplines and objects are no longer prescribed in any a priori manner – and where each thing seeks its own modes and forms of representation. The media world as envisioned by the young architects who edited Beyond Form, no longer adheres to a notion of change and progress premised on an ambition to make real any disruptive mythology. Instead their media world is guided by the logic of dissolution and negation resulting in unfulfilled potentials. Yet, Beyond Form was not a critique of this condition, for it was filtered through Lusitania lens in which the world is a place of accumulation and differentiation in which the new is always already recursive, bringing along with it that part of the old that is still necessary, while holding all else in reserve.
This is made manifest when we compare Beyond Form and the 23. For example Beyond Form included a DVD, while the 23 took the form of a codex. In this pairing, we find an analogy for Lusitania’s implicit vision of culture as constituting a body without organs, in which functions are distributed and redistributed, forming ecologies rather than a hierarchy of reified specializations. The purpose of such a fluid network system is comparable to that of an external hard drive onto which the information may be encoded, stored forming a resource in that it maybe moved about and as such is readily available to be recalled, revised, over-written or printed out. In terms of this analogy, Lusitania as an external hard drive is an exemplary prosthetic unit in that is recorded the promises and potentials of its times.
Saul Ostrow
NYC, Dec. 2008- Lisbon Jan. 2009

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