“Ce qui arrive . . .”

The gnawing question raised by “Ce qui arrive . . .” (What happens . . . , officially translated as “Unknown Quantity”), the exhibition at the Fondation Cartier conceived by technology theorist Paul Virilio and cocurated by Leanne Sacramone, is how this trial run for Virilio’s prospective “Museum of Accidents” could possibly have fixed on the destruction of the World Trade Center as the exemplary case. Yet at the core of this show, labeled “The Accident,” five extemporaneous recordings of the event by Tony Oursler, Moira Tierney, Jonas Mekas, and Wolfgang Staehle established an unequivocal center of gravity that pulled ineluctably on thirteen similarly shrouded black-box film installations selected, one can only imagine, less along the lines of intrinsic interest or quality than of brute homeomorphism: smoke (Peter Hutton), explosion (Bruce Conner, Cai Guo-Qiang), demolition (Dominic Angerame), anomie (Peter Hutton, Jem Cohen). Although the images of September 11 could easily have been snipped from the audiovisual continuum that Virilio has so frequently vilified, they nonetheless plugged into (if not to say exploited) our inchoate ideas and active anxieties about terrorist networks and imminent geopolitical upheaval—not accidents.

Virilio’s decades-long diatribe against technology—technology as such, and a fortiori the Enlightenment project—involves a conception of “the accident” as technology’s essential, defining defect, a flip-side automatism in a kind of techno-entelechy. Any artificial mishap would do to prove the point. To justify the exhibition’s peculiar slant, however, Virilio has offered only the elliptical observation that September 11 inaugurated an “inevitable confusion between a terrorist attack and an accident,” in that the terroristic stratagem consisted of seizing upon “the accident” as a form of “disguise.” “Ce qui arrive . . . ,” in turn, seized upon this singularly loaded “disguise,” and in doing so not only conscientiously perpetuated the “inevitable confusion,” but also participated in a well-known Virilian stratagem, fraught with ever so many quid pro quos, to restore the gothic chill to technology and place the malice irremediably inside.

The films, together with a number of TV monitors flashing disaster reportage culled from the archives of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, for the most part merely isolated the raw gestalt of devastation. On the other hand, the works grouped under the rubric “The Fall”—alluding to 9/11 by way of generic reference to the collapsed edifice and the airplane crash—revealed the resistance of contemporary art to exploring “the accident” within Virilio’s narrow, idiosyncratic definition, one that renders chance null and void. Armed with his own ethos of damage, Lebbeus Woods (in collaboration with Alexis Rochas) contributed the sole work commissioned expressly for the occasion: a monumental sculptural landscape that filled the Fondation’s glass-enclosed main exhibition space. Anchored in disjointed concrete slabs, nine hundred filiform aluminum tubes bent into cumulatively chaotic or “accidental” patterns provide a spectacle suggestive less of some sudden impact than of a more general exertion of physical forces—the succumbing of tensile strength to excessive stress, whether natural or man-made, instantaneous or prolonged. Seemingly weightless, pristine, a model of good composition from any vantage point, the work is unfailingly aesthetic. Similarly, Nancy Rubins’s nearby taut suspension of wreckage, MoMA and Airplane Parts, 1995/2002, for all its torn metal skin and shattered windshields, nonetheless participates in art’s industrious recycling and accepted aesthetic principles of assemblage. Both sculptures present indices or imprints of random, disruptive action—but not in any way that sabotages the integrity of the art object: In the most conventional of senses, they work. Only Stephen Vitiello’s interactive sound environment, designed to accompany Woods’s installation and calibrated to interior movement and exterior noise, allows for the active intrusion of contingency; but it also underscores, quite incongruously for Virilio’s technophobic purposes, the heavy reliance of all three pieces on technological means for their conception—computer projections, engineering, electronic sensors—making each of them into something of an object lesson in techno-reliability.

At illuminating cross-purposes with Virilio’s desultory ruminations on an accident-induced “end of humanity,” Artavazd A. Pelechian’s remarkable Our Century, 1990—in a class by itself—surveys a quite different horizon of expectations. Spun from the kind of mind-boggling archival aviation and aerospace footage that only space agencies or the military would have on file, the film’s intricate, fuguelike braiding of images and themes—spotting feats of endurance, human and material—sets in motion an insistent oscillation between the inane and the astonishing, the frankly bizarre and the awe-inspiring, the outlandish and the strangely glorious. Not that there isn’t enough destruction: Some explosions seem to bleed right off the screen. But Pelechian’s vision is of the unalterable fact of human activity, with all the wayward ambitions, contrivances, and even sacrifices that it necessarily entails; that is to say, the thrust is anthropological—not “eschatological,” to use Virilio’s portentous term, the extinction of homo faber remaining too wild a guess.

Ce qui arrive . . .” was mounted in adherence to the “imperative of responsi- bility.” Yet in the face of an increasingly perilous concatenation of extremist thinking worldwide, Virilio in recent years has had no compunction about characterizing technology as a “fundamentalism.” Coming from someone who has raged ceaselessly against the “progress” that has effaced traditional reference points, the use of such terminology can only have a powerful ricochet effect. Unlike Jean Baudrillard, however, who wrote baldly of the “jubilation” experienced by the terrorist in each of us at the sight of the Twin Towers’ “suicide,” Virilio is loath to formulate what it is that the accident as a “disguise” dissimulates: the premeditated targeting of an advanced infrastructure, the intentional turning of modernization against itself. Without the guise of a “disguise,” the exhibiting of 9/11 leads not to an inevitable confusion but to an inevitable conflation of technophobic and terroristic ends. Rather ironically, Andrei Ujica has installed a video of Virilio (in his cameo appearance) behind and below—way down below—what looks like a two-way mirror for identifying felons: There he is, bombarded by a small cone of particles travel- ing at the culturally fatal 186,000 miles per second, otherwise known as limelight, surrounded by total darkness.

Lauren Sedofsky is a Paris-based writer.