FEW ARTISTS have had Picasso's arrogant confidence: "I do not seek. I find." Far more typical of modernity was the desire to align one's work with research: Constable's cloud studies, Seurat's Chevreul-inspired pointillism, Kandinsky's work on synesthesia. Materialization could sometimes seem incidental--yet materialization was exactly what the artist could bring: a way to make research come alive as experience in the body of the viewer. Robert Irwin's collaborations with scientists from Bell Labs began to mean something when he materialized those laboratory setups of the ganzfeld in public art museums. The theatricality of such maneuvers was rhetorically minimized by reading the work as dematerialized--feeding tensions between theory and materiality, research and production, that are more present than ever in contemporary art.
The case of Olafur Eliasson sharpens such debates. The artist insists on physical materialization, but in the service of experience (perhaps in the French sense of the word, as "experiment"). The built-in tension between research and production is fueled by Eliasson's insistence that his studio is "like a laboratory," while it also functions pretty effectively as a factory for contemporary art. The artist cultivates this dynamic--"the translation from thinking into doing is the radical thing" (1)--but it forces the question: Just what is being researched and produced? In the art of Eliasson (and, I would argue, much of his generation), the objects being produced, and the sociomaterial technologies they imply, are only part of the story. Seen in a broader context, the physical works are nodes in the ongoing activity of knowledge production. It is as if the "antiretinal" impulse of Marcel Duchamp emerged from the other side of a postmodern wormhole to take paradoxically embodied form (not only retinal, but acoustic, tactile, olfactory) in Eliasson's subject-making machines.
"Knowledge production" needs pluralization into kinds of knowledge, and attention to the ethical frame articulated in Gilles Deleuze's reading of Michel Foucault:
Everything is knowledge, and this is the first reason why there is no
"savage experience": there is nothing beneath or prior to knowledge.
But knowledge is irreducibly double, since it involves speaking and
seeing, language and light. (2)
Beyond double, in fact: For to the twinned systems of speech and vision we must add proprioception, ratiocination, memory, and the multiple flows on which the body surfs to constitute a constantly morphing subjectivity. An Eliasson installation can initially overwhelm, with streams of sensory data that activate both rapid "magnocellular" processing systems in the brain, and the slower "parvocellu-lar" ones (the first feels intuitive; the other, reflective). The complex research, technical experimentation, and layers of representation in the work become evident only on a second, slower take. ("There is a degree of spectacle in my work, which I'm not afraid of, but I just need to manage it critically.") In much contemporary knowledge production, what counts is nonuniversalist, localized, and embodied. The subjectivities generated by contemporary art can be performative, relational, networked, or (in Eliasson's case) restlessly phenomenological.
The historical impetus for all this can be traced to the postwar shift from information to informatics, affecting economics, science, and art. (3) These epistemic shifts were portended by factory models of aggregative labor (physicists scaled up from desktop experiments to the industrial assemblages of big science; artists shopped out work or set up basic assembly lines). While they implied de-skilling, such new forms of labor also freed art and science to reach new planes of conceptualization, and demanded radically new receptive frames. They drew on earlier machinic ways of being (machines for living [Le Corbusier] and readymade desiring-production machines [Duchamp via Deleuze and Felix Guattari]) and became in the postwar period the "large business" machines of particle detectors (physicist Luis Alvarez), "mechanical means" for mass image production (Andy Warhol), "executive" artists' serial modes (Frank Stella), and eventually even ideas as machines for making art (Sol LeWitt). …