Is it realistic to talk about new realism in art?

by Krassimir Terziev

On April 27, 2007, a workshop entitled Speculative Realism was held at London's Goldsmiths University, featuring four young philosophers with a shared vision – Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. This event marked the beginning of the first global philosophical movement in the new millennium, whose influence is comparable only to the reception of the work of Deleuze and Guattari from the late 1990s. Surprisingly (or not), the influence of Speculative Realism from the field of philosophy extended rapidly and widely in art, architecture and design, the humanities and social sciences. The movement is not homogeneous. It covers Graham Harman and Levi Bryant’s Object-Oriented Ontology, Ray Brassier's Nihilism, and Meillassoux's Hyper-Chaos Theory. The authors have retained their differences on many issues, sharing, however, a fundamental principle – the rejection of the world-human correlation, inherited in the continental philosophy from Kant. The correlation according to which the human is the measure of things in the world, since there could be no knowledge of existence without consciousness, hence the anthropocentrism of modernity.

Of course, the author of this text is not a philosopher and would not want to enter an extraneous field. Over the past decade, the body of literature presenting and analysing the ideas of Speculative Realism (SR) has swelled enough, including in Bulgarian language. To be fair, Speculative Realism was a topic of discussion we had with Rene Beekman in April 2016 on the occasion of the exhibition Little Funny Creatures curated by him and Albena Baeva at Credo Bonum Gallery in Sofia. Shortly afterwards, Luchezar Boyadjiev delivered a lecture at Sofia University on the topic of Object-Oriented Ontology. In November of that year, within the project An Introduction to Contemporary Art of the Open Arts Foundation, philosopher Stanimir Panayotov[1] made an incredibly rich structural analysis of the philosophical movements and concepts in Speculative Realism, combining this with a set of examples from the Bulgarian and world art scenes close to the ideas of the SR. The focus of this text is on the influence of the ideas of Speculative Realism in art and my own fascinations from these ideas.

Let us start with brief explanations of the name of this movement, since in Bulgarian the adjective "speculative" and the term "realism" known in a very different light provoke, perhaps, doubts. The adjective "speculative" does not come from the world of finance, but from the world of ideas, where it denotes rhetoric based on theoretical assumptions, of inclusion in the argumentation of possibilities that are not available at empirical level. The etymology of the word "speculation" originated in late Latin - speculatio, which means "observation, contemplation". The realism promoted by this movement, of course, should not be associated with the realism in fine art, whether from the middle of the 19th century or its laborious reincarnation in the Socialist Bloc, known to us from the recent past as Socialist Realism (a movement that no one ultimately managed to define to the full, at least as far as fine art is concerned). Realism, in this case, is related to a particular form of Materialism, as opposed to Kant's Idealism, or the hidden Idealism that strewed much of the continental philosophy after Kant. In order to make the conversation more down-to-earth and the text accessible, I will not go into depth in analysing Speculative Realism's ideas, but will continue with the shortened optics focused on what grabbed my attention, as an artist, in these ideas and why I find them particularly instrumental in the current situation.

Speculative Realism emerged as a breath of fresh air after the continued influence of the post-Structuralism ideas of the 1980s. According to Post-Structuralism, everything in the world is text and refers to the language in whose centre, of course, is the human. Respectively, the booming tech industry turned this principle into "everything is code" and reality (everything beyond human) began to fade under the pressure and seduction of glossy interfaces and virtual pleasures. It is enough to remember Baudrillard's theory of the simulacrum[2] in order to gain an idea of the level of extinction of the world in virtual images. This did not last long, because the hyper-consumerism on steroids speedily led us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe. It turned out that the virtual worlds were endless, but humans, and not only, but life in general, still depended on a thin layer below and above the Earth's surface with fixed geography and vital resources, which the overproduction and consumerism of Capitalocene[3] were about to destroy. This progression of destruction, the fruit of human intervention in the world, scientists began to call the Anthropocene – the era in which the human radically changed the geology of the planet. And here Speculative Realism made a timely appearance as a critique of Anthropocentrism. According to SR, the world is made up of objects whose reality is independent of humans. The majority of philosophers in this movement plead for horizontal ontology, in which humans and their worlds are only a link from the long chain in which subatomic objects are in the same plane with hyperobjects of the magnitude of the climate or planets. As the influential French philosopher of art and curator of the 16th Istanbul Biennial (2019), Nicolas Bourriaud nailed this in his introduction to the biennial catalogue: "A figure  in front of a background: thus have humans represented themselves, at least in the West, for two millennia."[4]. This opposition is at the heart of all binary oppositions (subject/object, culture/nature, gods/monsters, progress/primitive, soul/matter...) which construct the hierarchies of modernity that led to catastrophes such as colonisation, submission and the destruction of the living environment. In the new multiple perspective offered by the SR, the human is not a figure at the centre of the world against some inert and secondary background, there are "no hierarchies between the different realms and states of matter, between human and non-human, subject and object."[5] In his public statement, Bourriaud formulates something like a manifesto of the application of the SR ideas in art. In this perspective, "contemporary art is ‘catastrophic’; distances have collapsed; the world’s standardisation is calling for an altermodernity[6]; overproduction creates iconographic smog; artists practice an extended anthropology; coactivity generates formations rather than forms; the artists are the primitive and the savage of their own tribe; art is the realm of the encounter; critique is inseparable from metaphysics."[7]. These are part of the leitmotifs that reveal the scale of the SR's influence on artistic practices.

Another important aspect of the SR, in the form defined by Graham Harman as "Object-Oriented Ontology", is the formulated inner tendency of the world's objects to retreat into themselves – "withdrawal"[8]. Let us lay this principle against the backdrop of the hysteria of the attention economy that visionary Vilem Flusser poetically characterised in his thesis on techno-images: "Nothing can withstand the centripetal attraction of technical images: no artistic, scientific or political act that does not aim at a technical image, no daily common action that does not wish to be photographed or filmed or videotaped. Everything desires to flow into this eternal memory, and to become eternally reproducible there."[9]. Against the background of this centrifuge of the attention economy, turning the possibility of withdrawal into behaviour that is not only deviant, but quite the opposite – it has a universal character, it is relief, a breath of air, an emancipation from the grip of network relationships. Because, just a decade earlier, Manuel Castells had brought out the principle of the Network[10], according to which everything outside its geography ceases to exist. This withdrawal, combined with giving up the anthropocentric perspective and practising an expanded anthropology, leads to post-humanist art that suggests looking at the world through the eyes of the non-human, be it technological, animal or mineral.

Another particularly fruitful aspect of the SR is the rhetoric of theoretical assumptions, which blows up the principle of cause-effect (another difference with the traditional realisms), of binary oppositions and easy deductions. This approach creates a relation of theory with fiction, with science fiction, but also with premodern mythological narratives. Speculative narration is a peculiar form that has emerged in art under the influence of the ideas of the SR. Again, blowing up binary oppositions, this form tries to combine in rich geometry things, until recently considered incompatible – the direct experience with the wild imagination, the scientific facts with new forms of speculative factuality. This creates an ecology of the (bio/ideo)diversity, in which the human is always only part of complex assemblages – hybrids, techno-monsters, ghosts and invisible tremors. At this point, I should remind again that the author of this text is an artist, and instead of trying to describe the landscape of artists and works that have appeared in Bulgarian art, connected in one way or another with the SR, pretending to be a disinterested bystander, as would a professional critic, curator or art historian, I prefer the much sincerer first-person singular perspective, and below I will expose my encounters with the SR as an author and viewer in recent years. Of course, this perspective is not at all seamless. The subjective vector I will draw is questionable, as well as the usefulness of such a first-person narrative for the general public, but let us take that risk.

Krassimir Terziev

A message from Space in my backyard, 2008.

Video installation

Details


For me personally, the ideas of Speculative Realism, and in particular object-oriented ontology, became a source of relief and inspiration sometime around 2008 after a long period in which, with each project, I asked myself the basic question - what is what we call reality. At one point, I realised that my questioning was confined to the field of the social and cultural, as a result of which each position, each action seemed to be entered into some preset regulatory framework, allowing the language, characters and symbols to occupy almost the entire art field. This became an impossibility the moment I did a project focused on space debris (A Message from Space in My Backyard, 2007-2008) – a phenomenon that goes beyond culture, technology, the boundaries of languages, of language in general. A Message from Space in My Backyard is a two-channel video installation focused on the phenomenon of space debris (a byproduct of the history of the Human's presence in space) gravitating into orbit around the Earth. In the form of a photo-video essay, one video channel tracks the chronology of the generation of space debris and its return to Earth at unpredictable times and in astonishing places. The facts in the chronology are layered with excerpts from sci-fi literature and subjective interpretations. The other video channel visualises an imaginary body, semi-natural, semi-technological, drifting in a zero-gravity space.

Krassimir Terziev, Daniel Kötter

Ghost descending a staircase, 2016.

Film

Details


In 2010, in Worlds Routes Map, driven by the uneasiness that reality is increasingly becoming an abstraction, I made a simple visualisation of the paradox of multiplying the world into different virtual copies of its continents and the references between them, in the presence of a fixed geography on which we can only rely as a biological species. In my solo exhibition Cosmopolis (2013), without looking for this deliberately, I realised that the human presence was somewhere at the background, always in a strange and indifferent landscape, like an engraved portrait on the screen of a dead laptop, or somewhere in the distance of the lunar desert. Gradually, the human character began to disappear from my works. In 2015-2018, I filmed simple experiments in which the protagonists were cameras, one (or more) mounted on a tripod, and another on a drone (Between Flashback and Déjà-vu I, II and III), which, observing each other, each revealed a world of their own where there is no human presence. In 2016, I titled my exhibition at Yuzina gallery The Look Objects Give Us Looking back through Us in an attempt to reverse the usual subject-object relation (always with preference to the former) giving active role to the objects in the exhibition. In the following 2017, my exhibition at Contemporary Space (Varna) bore the title Some Gadgets See People, Some Others - Other Gadgets, again in an effort to displace the central position of the human and weave them into a more complex ecosystem, in which they are only one of the knots in which the relations between formations of different character, materiality and modus of existence are intertwined. In 2016, in Berlin, together with Daniel Kötter, to portrait one of the specimens of Walter Gropius's modernist architecture – a 31-storey tower in the peripheral district of Gropiusstadt, we installed a camera on each of the 348 doors in the block – the only moving elements in the architectural structure. As a result, we made a 27-minute film in which the limited movement of the inhuman point of view of the neck-mounted camera changed perspectives between interior and exterior without the presence of any human figure, in a duration of almost geological dimensions.

Peter Tzanev

Disconnecting of the Object, 2015.

Installation

Details

  • Photographer: Peter Tzanev
  • Material: white wooden tables and chairs, photography, white styrofoam slats and black hydrophore membranes made of EPDM, approved for drinking water
  • Sizes: dimensions variable

  • Property of: Peter Tzanev
  • Description: Goethe-Institut, Sofia
  • Copyright: on author

And in order not to become boring with the monotonous autobiographical listing above, I would like to mention the encounters with those artists and events that have amazed me and made me not feel alone in these searches. In 2015, I was absolutely astonished by Peter Tsanev's exhibition Discontinuation of the Object at the Goethe-Institut Gallery in Sofia. It seemed to me that despite what was stated in the title, the exhibition did the exact opposite - instead of discontinuing the object, Peter Tsanev dissolved it into space in an incredibly magical way. A simple chair, once disassembled as if at random, is present in many different hypostases of its own, each revealing something entirely new and unexpected, taking part in different assemblages with all the other images (again with a focus on the same chair) and objects. Each of these assemblages refers in оне way or another to the others, without any dominating, without setting a beginning and an ending.

Something similar happened during the encounter with Martin Penev's last two exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia (Unforeseen, 2018 and It Happened Here, 2020). In both cases, the artist seemed to have the clear intention of catching the viewer "off their guard" and blocking all easy associations. In Unforeseen, some objects reminded of toys for aliens, others were technological and biological hybrids. In It Happened Here, the gallery space was occupied by what looked like an organic monster crawling out of some tech waste dump. From the large bones thrown around, one could judge what happened before the spectator found the "thing" in the hall. Instead of embarking on discursive justifications, the artist shot us away to the Big Bang: "... The Big Bang happened everywhere and at once, not somewhere in space, but creating space. If you're saying that the Big Bang happened right where you are, and that you're at the centre of everything, no one can say you're wrong. It happened here. When an FM radio is set to a frequency that is between stations, part of the "white noise" comes from residual background radiation from the Big Bang - the cosmic microwave background radiation. When an analogue TV does not have a signal, the "snow" on the screen is interference from background signals. Part of this interference – about 1% or less – is residual radiation from the Big Bang. You can hear it and see it..."[11]

Jelko Terziev

Like a fly in a suitcase, 2021.

Installation

Details

  • Material: glass-case, motion sensors, domestic flies, lights
  • Width: 110.00 cm    Height: 30.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Description: The flies' movement in the closed glass-case activates the sensors thus switching on and off the lights with various frequency and in different spots.

In our joint exhibition Schrödinger's Cat in gallery +359 (2021), Jelko Terziev created a work that startled me, confused me, but subsequently stayed for a long time as food for thought. In Like a Fly in a Suitcase, a hatch of flies were born and spent their lives in the gallery in a glass aquarium equipped with motion sensors. On their flight, each of them activated one of three light bulbs located in the hall, and 4 floors above, at the very top of the former water tower. What surprised me about this case is that the bare life of this multitude controlled the rhythm of light, despite the presence of an audience in a long chain of attendances and absences, in which everyone involved (insects, visitors, artist) was on the verge of not noticing the other units in the ecosystem thus formed.

Pravdoliub Ivanov

A Clockwork Sweat, 2019.

Installation

Details

  • Material: artificial sweat, clockwork robotic system, old t-shirt

Pravdoliub Ivanov did something similar, but with the opposite sign, in his exhibition Robots Don't Sweat at Sariev Gallery (2019). In the installation A Clockwork Sweat (2016-2019), an electronic and mechanical system replaced the purely biological effect of perspiration in the human body, blowing up all causal relationships and understandings of effectiveness, usefulness and functional hierarchies. In her exhibition Biophilia at Credo Bonum gallery (2020), Kalina Dimitrova presented a giant tangle (Tumbleweed, 2020) of lianas entwined into infrastructure pipes and cables, which exacerbated all my environmental concerns, giving an idea of the current state of the planet, in which the biological and technological swirled increasingly uncontrollably without a point of origin and destination. Paradoxical in this case was that the starting point of the work - the tumbleweed plant has quite similar features to Homo Sapiens – it covers huge distances, it is semi-autonomous (it breaks away from its roots, propagates its seeds on its own), and driven by the wind, it drags into its tangle everything that gets in its way.

Kalina Dimitrova

Tumbleweed, 2020.

Installation

Details


I can continue with an even longer, but I fear boring list of encounters with artists and works that have sent me into the existential restlessness caused by the sudden view of reality outside the human bubble in which we reside. Instead, I will conclude with the film programme Shooting Ghosts (2020 - 2021), which we curated with Kalin Serapionov in the frames of a Goethe-Institut Sofia project “Moving Images. Moving Bodies“ – selecting works by Veneta Androva, Neno Belchev, Mitch Brezounek, Marina Genova, Nadezhda Oleg-Lyahova, Kalin Serapionov, Kamen Stoyanov, Samuil Stoyanov and Dimitar Shopov.

Marina Genova

New comfort zone, 2019.

Video

Details

  • Material: video/ 3d animation

In it, we focused on practices that have an affinity for speculative narrative, a narrative that not only conveys what is in front of the camera's eye, but also captures all those ghosts elusive to the apparatus[12], thereby trying not only to describe, but also to transform the world. To illustrate this abstraction, I will give as an example one of the works into the programme. In 10 Minutes National Museum of Natural History (2014), Samuil Stoyanov re-animated the stuffed animals from the collection of the Natural History Museum with the substance that drives the matter – light. In a simple gesture in front of a static camera - turning a light bulb attached to a long cable (as cowboys spin their lasso in that colonial film genre), the artist revived the dead exhibits, immersing us for a moment in the past in which the Human still had natural enemies (that subsequently proved collaborators) on the planet.

Samuil Stoyanov

10 min National Museum of Natural History, 2013.

Video Art

Details

  • Photographer: Rayna Teneva
  • Material: Single canal, Full HD, sound, 10’20”

  • Property of: Samuil Stoyanov
  • Description: Produced by Sofia Contemporary 2013 Festival, curated by Ovul Durmusoglu
  • Copyright: Samuil Stoyanov
  • References: https://vimeo.com/65544957

The parallax[13] in the speculative narrative approach that intrigued us is that, although they stand close to reality, artists are not content only to include the elements that make up this reality, nor to reduce it to a chain of calculable probabilities. On the contrary – their strategy is to complicate the situation with all the unforeseen possibilities, with all the ghosts and monsters that would be part of the image from a certain angle, but are invisible from another. In order to realise all the possibilities that form reality, artists resort to the corners of the unbridled imagination, grotesque exaggeration or ambivalence. I will conclude with a slightly didactic pathos, quoting the slogan of the situationists at the Paris riots of 1968: "Be realistic – demand the impossible!" Nothing less would get us out of the current global crisis, in which Covid-19 is only the first symptom.


[1]A summary of Stanimir Panayotov’s lecture, available at Аcademia.edu https://www.academia.edu/42161754/Спекулативен реализъм, обектно-ориентирана философия и визуални изкуства: библиография
[2] According to Baudrillard’s theory (Baudrillard, Jean (1983). Simulations. Los Angeles, California: Semiotext(e)), the 1980s marked a new moment in the development of the society – that of simulations and simulacra, in which reality is replaced by copies of it without a reference.
[3] A term related to the term Anthropocene. If the Anthropocene is the Age of Human, who has acquired the importance of a factor in geological changes on the planet, the Capitalocene emphasises that this is not just the Age of Human, but rather the age of Capital, the main principle organising the human world and undermining the living environment. See: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, Jason W. Moore (ed.), PM Press/Kairos, 2016
[4] Nicolas Bourriaud. The Seventh Continent: Theses on Art in the Age of Global Warming, in: The Seventh Continent. Field Report, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, 2019, p. 46.
[5] Ibid, p. 47.
[6] A term with which Bourriaud describes the processes of change in contemporary art in the 21th c. – the reloading of modernism, which should translate its principles into the new realities of the 21th c. See: Nicolas Bourriaud. Altermodern, London: Tate Publishing, 2009.
[7] These are some of the titles in Nicolas Bourriaud's text in the catalogue.
[8] Object-oriented ontology claims that the objects are independent of their relations with the human and other objects. The withdrawal is the ability to maintain reality beyond all relations with the environmental.
[9] Flusser, Vilem. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Horizonti, Plovdiv, 2002, p.7
[10] Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Vol. I). The Rise of the Network Society, Sofia: LIK, 2004.
[11] An excerpt from the text to the exhibition. See: <https://ica-sofia.org/bg/ica-gallery/exhibitions/item/436-it-happened-here>, [18/05/2021]
[12] Here, apparatus refers to the concept involving the whole system of relations employed in the production of images. See: Vilem Flusser, 2002
[13] Parallax is a term that characterises the apparent displacement of the position of an observed object due to its observation from two different points. It is used in astronomy, optics, artillery, photogrammetry, and other exact sciences. As a metaphor, it is present in philosophy. Slavoj Žižek, in his book The Parallax View, uses the following double figure: "Surely the picture is in my eye, but I am also in the picture" (my translation). See: Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. The MIT Press, 2006. p. 17.

This article is part of a project included the Legacy programme of Plovdiv 2019 Foundation.