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Freedom, Systems, and Being-for-Others in Contemporary Arts and Performance

Steve Dixon

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Freedom, Systems, and Being-for-Others in Contemporary Arts and Performance

Steve Dixon

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About This Book

Cybernetic-Existentialism: Freedom, Systems, and Being-for-Others in Contemporary Arts and Performance offers a unique discourse and an original aesthetic theory. It argues that fusing perspectives from the philosophy of Existentialism with insights from the 'universal science' of cybernetics provides a new analytical lens and deconstructive methodology to critique art.

In this study, Steve Dixon examines how a range of artists' works reveal the ideas of Existentialist philosophers including Kierkegaard, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre on freedom, being and nothingness, eternal recurrence, the absurd, and being-for-others. Simultaneously, these artworks are shown to engage in complex explorations of concepts proposed by cyberneticians including Wiener, Shannon, and Bateson on information theory and 'noise', feedback loops, circularity, adaptive ecosystems, autopoiesis, and emergence.

Dixon's groundbreaking book demonstrates how fusing insights and knowledge from these two fields can throw new light on pressing issues within contemporary arts and culture, including authenticity, angst and alienation, homeostasis, radical politics, and the human as system.

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1 Introduction

Cybernetics had a decisive impact on art. … Given the emphasis of post-WWII art on the concepts of process, system, environment, and audience participation, cybernetics was able to gain artistic currency as a theoretical model for articulating the systematic relationships and processes among feedback loops including the artist, artwork, audience, and environment.
Edward Shanken, Cybernetics and Art: Cultural Convergence in the 1960s (2002, p. 172)

After ALife Ahead

For what one critic calls ‘the single most ambitious work of contemporary art created in 2017’ (Artsy editors, 2017), French artist Pierre Huyghe excavated the floor of a disused ice-rink in Münster, Germany, creating a gouged out, uneven terrain of clay paths and mounds, gravel, mud puddles, and imposing, geometric concrete slabs. He then inhabited it with live peacocks, bees, algae, and human cancer cells. After ALife Ahead (2017) presents a truly strange and uncanny mise-en-scène—described by Andrew Russeth as ‘one of the most formidable and mysterious artworks that I have ever seen, an alien environment that seems secretly to teem with life’ (Russeth, 2017).
Figure 1.1 Pierre Huyghe’s mysterious installation After ALife Ahead (2017) brings together complex cybernetic systems and core themes from the philosophy of Existentialism. (Photo: Bruce E. Phillips.)
Above, geometric panels have been inserted in the roof, that open and close (letting in sun, wind, or rain) in response to a musical score, composed and computer-programmed in relation to the patterns on the shell of a venomous sea snail, which is situated in a large aquarium on a concrete ‘island’ in the center of the ice-rink. At the far side is an incubator containing the human cancer cells. These grow and multiply according to a number of factors, including the amount of CO2 they are fed by the breathing of the visitors to the installation (the busier the space, the faster they breed), who can view representations of the cellular mutations through an augmented reality app. Floating pyramids appear and proliferate, their number corresponding to the real-time splitting of the cancer cells, and they also merge together and mate, bearing offspring.
In discussing the work, Huyghe sounds more cybernetician than artist: ‘I’m interested in letting, in a certain way, self-organizing systems try either to find or to not find a symbiosis … They grow, they evolve, they shift’ (quoted in Russeth, 2017). The After ALife Ahead system is conceived explicitly as a cybernetic mechanism that will adapt and change according to inputs, feedback loops, and human and environmental factors. The program is not fixed and is full of complexity: once set off, it is outside the artist’s control, and is described by Huyghe as an evolutionary algorithm employed
as an archaic attempt to mimic life … Agents react and vary according to external factors. … It’s a way to shift the centrality of the human position—whether as a maker or receptor. Indiscernibility and unpredictability are among other operations that could shift that position.
(quoted in McDermott, 2017)
Huyghe’s references to unpredictability, and to shifting the centrality of the human position underline the Existentialist aspects of the work, emphasizing our vulnerable and contingent relationship to an inexplicable world and an uncertain future, and what Existentialists call being-for-others and being-towards-death. The installation is mysterious and uncanny, controlled by sophisticated cybernetic systems that are continually ‘changing, shifting, living, evolving’ (Huyghe quoted in McDermott, 2017) as they respond to, among other things, the life-breath of visitors and the being-towards-death journey of mutating human cancer cells.
In a 2017 documentary following Huyghe’s award of the Nasher Prize Laureate for sculpture, critics variously dub him ‘a self-contained demonist’ who is ‘a master of the unexpected’ exploring ‘constantly shifting relationships’ with ‘a different conception of time’. Sheena Wagstaff, Chair of the Metropolitan Museum suggests that his preparedness to take real risks belies a mind so engaged with the intense realities of being ‘alive today that he sometimes undertakes projects that are a little shaky, are a little wobbly, and don’t necessarily turn out in the way he’d expected them to. That to my mind is the mark of a really great artist’ (Nasher, 2017).
After ALife Ahead is a characteristic example of what I term Cybernetic-Existentialism in contemporary art and culture. It is a classic example of an artist conceiving a responsive and evolving cybernetic system in order to express deep existential concerns—in this case, around the fragility of both human life and our planet’s environment.
Figure 1.2 A chimera peacock is one of the elements of Pierre Huyghe’s After ALife Ahead (2017), which officially comprises: ice rink concrete floor; sand, clay, phreatic water; bacteria, algae, bee, chimera peacock; aquarium, black switchable glass, conus textile; incubator, human cancer cells; genetic algorithm; augmented reality; automated ceiling structure; rain; ammoniac; logic game. (Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth, London; Esther Schipper, Berlin; and Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo: Ola Rindal.)

A theoretical proposition

I propose a theory, and a new analytical method, of Cybernetic-Existentialism. The ideas and philosophies of two fields are melded together to produce a new looking glass through which to peer, and a novel lens with which to critically analyze and deconstruct artworks. Two old paradigms are conjoined to provide a fresh perspective, and reanimated to shed new light on prevalent themes within art and socio-cultural practices. While some may consider cybernetics and Existentialist philosophy to be outdated or defunct, I contend that across contemporary visual and conceptual art, media and robotic arts, experimental theater and performance, artists are currently and continually encapsulating primary themes from these two distinct but interrelated disciplines. Ideas from both fields converge decisively and potently in classic works from the 1960s to the present day by some of the world’s leading artists.
This book offers a close examination of a number of artworks to reveal how they encapsulate the ideas of Existentialist philosophers including Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on freedom, nothingness, becoming, authenticity, self-determination, subject-object and master-slave relations, temporality, the absurd, being-for-others and being-towards-death. Simultaneously, these artworks are shown to engage in explorations of concepts proposed by cyberneticians including Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Grey Walter, Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela on information theory and noise, communication and control, feedback loops, homeostasis, circularity, negative entropy, adaptive ecosystems, autopoiesis, and emergence.
I argue that while the names cybernetics and Existentialism are seldom spoken, and while the application of their ideas by artists may be largely unconscious, their philosophies, concerns, and themes have actually re-emerged more prominently and explicitly than when popular interest in them was at its height in the 1950s and 1960s. I contend that far from being outmoded, cybernetics and Existentialism are not only alive and well, but of increasing relevance to arts practice, and to our appreciation and interpretation of contemporary work.
Since these fields are generally considered outdated and forgotten, the task to argue their revival is challenging, particularly for a philosophy as extreme and uncompromising as Existentialism. As Michael Foley puts it: ‘Existentialism rejects team-player malleability, emphasizes finitude rather than potential … and embraces the difficult because it confers intensity. No wonder this philosophy has gone out of fashion’ (2001, p. 36). Nonetheless, a serious reappraisal is long overdue since its main protagonists are some of the last century’s most significant philosophers: ‘Heidegger is the most discussed thinker of the twentieth century’ (Polt, 2005, p. 1), Sartre ‘is arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century’ (Flynn, 2013), and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex ‘is the most important feminist book ever written’ (Goldberg, 2010).
The latter two are formidable and larger-than-life characters, whose promiscuous open relationship yet life-long devotion to one another is the most famous love story in philosophy. Since they lived their lives strictly according to its doctrines and, if ‘done correctly, all existentialism is applied existentialism’ (Bakewell, 2016, p. 217, emphasis in original), I will tell something of their extraordinarily bohemian stories and colorful adventures along the way. I will also narrate something of Heidegger, whom by comparison is distinctly monochrome, and menacing. Described as cold and having almost no character at all by Albert Camus (1991 [1942], p. 23), Heidegger is exceptionally difficult, both to read with his convoluted style, and to palate given his odious association with Nazism (discussed further in Chapter 3). It is now customary for academics to apologize even speaking his name, which I hereby do, yet as one of the philosophy’s most influential thinkers it is amiss to erase him from its history. Thankfully, it is rare to discern overtly political or fascist messages in his writing, despite some critics’ overzealous reading between the lines; and Heidegger represents more the exception than the rule, with most Existentialists as well as cyberneticians generally aligned with the politics of the far left or anarchism (Chapter 3). Indeed, during the famous May 1968 Paris student ‘uprisings’ demanding ‘Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!’ Sartre and Beauvoir were both there in person agitating on the streets, with Sartre literally on a soapbox preaching to workers outside a Renault factory. They were, and still remain iconic figures that embodied the rebellious and utopian spirit of ‘68, and had already been practicing free love, and demanding equality, freedom, and revolution for three decades.
Figure 1.3 Life-long partners and France’s most feted Existentialists, Simone de Beauvoir (aged 52) and Jean-Paul Sartre (aged 55) at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 21 September 1960. STF/AFP/Getty Images.

Cybernetics as anti-disciplinarity

Cybernetics emerged as a distinct field in the USA in the 1940s, building its momentum through a series of ten Macy conferences from 1946 to 1953. It is a philosophy and science of responsive systems—as opposed to purely mechanical ones—and is thus applicable to a wide range of areas, from engineering sciences and computing to psychology, anthropology, management studies, and interactive art. A system is cybernetic when it responds to information or inputs (in any form) and reacts to it using signal loops, feedback mechanisms and/or circular causal relationships. This may control and re...

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Citation styles for Cybernetic-Existentialism
APA 6 Citation
Dixon, S. (2019). Cybernetic-Existentialism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Dixon, Steve. (2019) 2019. Cybernetic-Existentialism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Dixon, S. (2019) Cybernetic-Existentialism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dixon, Steve. Cybernetic-Existentialism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.