PRINT May 1983


THE UNIDENTIFIED PHANTASM FLOATING in the orbit of this issue is the future. That’s all the future is anyway—a phantasm. However, the way we project our anticipation of it suggests the boundaries of imagination, and these limits in turn describe the framework of history. An example: mythology views light as power; empirical practice discovers the laser; fictional practice puts it in star wars; then politicians propose to “turn the balance of terror on its head” by means of concentrated light and giant mirrors in the sky, thus fully reifying myth.

The future phantasm remains the principal catalyst in determining the shape, indeed the scale of consciousness. In Western civilization each time knowledge forces change, culture fibrillates; between pulses it is suspended in uncertainty. The sense of possibility and the sense of doubt in this, the “electronic age,” were born long ago with the earliest prospect of mechanization. With the industrial age, an emphatic opposition between technology and the “natural world” was fully articulated in the alternately utopian and apocalyptic projections of 19th-century art and literature and by their early-20th-century synthetic twist—the technological utopia. Much contemporary visual thinking on the subject of the future appears to be stalled by a (necessary) retrospection and by the concomitant task of late-century inventory taking that has seemed unready to once again look into the void for the phantasm. This is one reason why there are so many redesigns and copies of those earlier models that polarized the development of self in opposition to that of technology; another more sweeping explanation for the closed circuit is that the copy is no longer the prerogative of technological processes alone. The effect on culture of the mechanical age has been so complete as to radically question long held assumptions regarding creativity, in particular the vestigially religious celebration of “the original,” of seminal perfection.

What has up until now been called progress in the West has been the pursuit of a perfect future (to commemorate the perfect Creation)—in other words the pursuit of a perfect phantasm, of a phantasm of perfection. The cult of perfectibility has motivated our inventions for improved selves—the robot, the computer, renewable parts for human beings, the ultra human—but more significantly it has dug the foundations of our responses to inventions that produce the angst of endless, meaningless comparisons. The mechanical eye has been pitted against the human eye, the electronic brain against the human brain. Relative value is assigned on a discretionary basis depending on individually elected affinities. Sometimes the not perfect—the mistake—is considered monstrous, sometimes more perfect because “human” or “handmade.” The illusion of perfection is how we live with our need to control, how we project our will into the void. We comfort ourselves with visions of Utopia, and more dramatically, in countless apocalypses, we write our own versions of the end.

This perpetual hunt for perfection is so deeply ingrained that it has become reflex, and its systems and circuits have for the moment taken over. Inevitably streamlining switched the emphasis from production to the perfection of production. With the computer, the perfection of memory has replaced the memory of perfection. We now need to remember where and according to what retrieval system memories are stored. Ours is a hi-fi culture, displaying a collective compulsion for fine tuning. This hyper-designing was destined: the natural province of perfectibility is design, and there poetry, like bonsai horticulture, can express the technology of technique. The pressure has eased up on invention to fix on framework, semiotics and the ubiquitous appropriations in art of course included.

Perfection is a phantasm because it implies you don’t have to look any more—arrival. We know that systems accommodate this illusion because they streamline answers to questions. What we tend to forget is that these systems that we’ve built are capable as they amplify of giving us answers to questions we’ve not yet absorbed and formulated. The implications of this are so big that our imaginations cling to the already known boundaries, eyes glued to them in a theater of looking. We watch them levitate. In a sense our moment is archetypally late medieval; we have designs, we have systems, we have studies, we have findings—but perspective remains imminent.

Our ultra optic systems are feeding us a kind of ultra vision of space suggesting that the very concept of boundaries is infinitely flexible, endlessly expandable, endlessly small, endlessly there but also endlessly implosive. A “w particle” has been reported whose entire life cycle lasts a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Satellite imagery of the galaxy shrinks the distance between planets; electronic bits give the combined encyclopedias of the world the scale of bacteria. All this offers the most abstract concept of environment yet.

Before the Renaissance space was sensed as discontinuous and immeasurable. Only with the innovations of Brunelleschi was space measured and subjected to coordinates; rational looking was formalized as “perspective.” Leonardo denied the blankness of space by investigating the properties of atmosphere. The history of the evolution of perspective—from that of Uccello, to the scenographic typologies of Palladio, to the high illusionism of Fra Andrea Pozzo’s tiers of sky, to the camera obscura, to the period of visual dislocation from Cézanne to Duchamp, to the terrestrial typologies of Earth Art, to NASA’s reports that our planet is just a detail; all this has been the endeavor to perceive the world and to visualize that experience. Now space and time, once human measures, are felt as discontinuous once again.

Our theater of looking today is informed by possibilities of perspective brought to us by our perfectionist systems that scan implausible distance and that torture detail to the point of suggesting a pornographics of perfectibility. The eye—the “third eye”—of the control panel directs data upward, downward, through space and scale. Our loss of identity, our current flotation, is keyed by the information that this third eye brings us. Until 19th-century Romanticism expressed its neurotic if justified antagonism to technology, periods of renaissance were both possible and identifiable as moments during which knowledge and creativity converged. Because of our tradition of progress we cannot help but perceive the phantasm—the future—with trepidation. The evolution of perspective posits a universe open to all views, yet we have on the whole remained impervious to alternative views of progress, to philosophies that never opposed the detached retina (the third eye) to creation. Shiva, it is said, was meditating once, his two mortal eyes closed, seeing only through his third (transcendent) eye. His wife snuck up from behind and playfully covered it with her hand. The world ceased to exist.

For this issue we have let go our usual anchorage system in order to loosen our control on the point of arrival. We have tried to reflect the pervading stress and directional shifts, taking into consideration assumptions about frameworks of reading. Our model is an idea expressed in Taoist painting manuals: the student painter is told that in showing space the subject is absence, and that presence—the mountains, the rivers—is to be put in to define that absence.

Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant