The only thing more arbitrary than an ending is a beginning. It is already well-argued that artworks open fields of conceptual possibility, becoming closed only through conventions of authorial intent and social context.1 While their trajectories of meaning are dependent upon the codes and regularities of a given site, meaning is not limited to these conjunctions, as the artwork is equally open to interpretive frameworks beyond those within which it was conceived.
Any convention or framing structure plays the dual role of enabling openness—availing new potential meanings and uses against the noise of infinite possibility—while also closing otherwise contiguous relationships, such as the indeterminate web of context, reference, necessity, and intuition that precede the work of art. It is precisely this duality of openness and closure in art that gives it both affirmative and critical political capacity. Accordingly, the operative question of this writing is as follows: When is art’s openness—its rejection of familiar or articulable meanings, its non-didactic tendencies, its abstract alienness—a radical openness? I ask against its other: when is the blurriness2 of art regressive, when does it behave as a holding space subsumed by our unspoken forces, all non-explicative aspects inscribed by reigning ideologies and codes of value?3 If it is not highlighted or brought to the fore, what keeps it from being neglected, or otherwise assumed to run with the grain of ongoing politics? Is there an antagonistic incoherence that does not immediately surrender to the operations of interpellative logic? Every commodity and media is inscribed with the forces of its production—and yet the persistence of these forces denies any self-evidency.
The only way forward is to begin with an axiom. If art is open, if it is available to a multiplicity of meanings and purposes that extend beyond usefulness or value, then our question becomes: how do we properly grasp its openness given that we live within a highly-regulated society?
We begin with the binaries of our historical moment: life and death possess a specific arrangement under capitalism. Death is deferred by work. Only the wage grants life. This deceptively simple state of affairs necessitates the deployment of some technical terms in order to substantiate the significance of art to politics. The primary flows undergirding these orientations are entropy and negentropy. I will elaborate below, but for now let us simply note that life as a metabolic process necessitates the pursuit of order and predictability (negative entropy, or negentropy) whereas death gives itself to disorder in the form of decomposition and unbecoming (entropy). Subsequently, we will come to rely upon the terms virtual and actual in order to grasp the coding (degree of openness or closedness) present within all social relations. It seems generative to think of art-work as the production of virtualities, or situations where potential outcomes are closer to “anything” rather than “one thing,” “nothing,” or even “everything.” As such, artworks necessitate a particular play of closed and open forms in order to tactically expand the field of virtual possibilities. In advance of the following, let me allude that capitalism is deeply closed, orienting all meaning toward the singular outcome of profit. Art, as a valorization of the virtual, is therefore potentially oriented against the negentropic flow of capital.
What is a virtual capacity? It must be defined in relation to actual properties. Manuel DeLanda, from whom I borrow these terms, uses a knife as an example. “Its properties include its length, weight, and sharpness. These properties characterise the more or less enduring states of the knife and are therefore always actual—at any one point in time a knife is either sharp or blunt.”4 That which is actual can be said to be extant: it really exists at an identifiable moment in time. Virtual capacities arise from the interaction of objects’ properties. A sharp knife, he writes, has the capacity to cut. This kind of cut may depend on the properties of the blade, a serrated edge can be used to cut thin-skinned vegetables or to saw through wood. But its sharpness or serration alone do not guarantee this capacity, it must interact with an object that possesses the capacity to be cut. The virtual capacities possessed by a given object emerge and recede based on its proximity to other objects. They have the potential to be actualized, but their actuality is not a given. Nonetheless, virtual capacities are as real as actual properties. “And when a capacity does become actual it is never as an enduring state but as an event. Moreover, this event is always double, to cut–to be cut, because a capacity to affect must always be coupled with a capacity to be affected.”5 The production of virtualities is, therefore, a pursuit in line with the entropic flow—the more possible arrangements given to an object, the less prophetic its actualizations.
In information theory, entropy measures the distance from predictability or redundancy. In order for communication to be informative, or for expression to be expressive, it must possess a certain amount of regularity in order to convey meaning. In language, this regularity is a grammar, a structuring principle that gives us some idea of what to expect at the level of form even while seeking novelty at the level of content. The axioms of sentence structure provide universal expectations, thereby answering questions without our having to ask: who is the subject, what is happening, and to whom is it happening? Any deviation from these expectations results in disarray and confusion. Meaning is lost, the expression expressionless. We do not necessitate the physical presence of a concept so that we can point to it, nor do we assign every individual concept a unique symbol; instead we use redundant symbols in varying combinations to produce enough of a difference for meaning to be conveyed. Outside of that which is strictly linguistic, these codes are buttressed by regularities of rendering, font, and the connotative affect of various design choices. We learn to expect to see certain materials in arrangement with others—piles of plywood and Tyvek signify real estate development, the flickering of pixels undergirds forms of narrative—producing the utile objects and commodities that structure our day-to-day. Ultimately the thing an object is made for is its most probable, but not its only, actualization.
Let’s consider grammar as negative entropy in relation to virtual capacities. Mathematician Warren Weaver writes that language unfolds linearly through time. In this way, it can be defined as a “system which produces a sequence of symbols (which may, of course, be letters or musical notes, say, rather than words) according to certain probabilities,” also called “a stochastic process.”6 The order of each symbol in sequence is governed by probabilities: extant words affect the probability of subsequent words. We can say that any symbol possesses a range of virtual capacities, and these capacities emerge or recede based on the subsequent deployment of each symbol. When the chance is high that a given symbol will be followed by a predictable other, the system possesses low entropy—having only a handful of probable virtual capacities to actualize. Zero entropy would mean that the initial symbol is guaranteed to be followed by a single actuality. Likewise, a symbol that does not dictate or even suggest its successor produces a system with high entropy.
The production of artworks can be exemplified in a related manner. By actualizing a variety of objects and methods, the artist produces something very unlike that which has hitherto been extant. Colours and textures are placed in unlikely conjunctions, a painting may refuse to illustrate or decorate, photographic images fail to advertise or surveil, and signs reroute to take inefficient paths toward a fractal signification. These deviations are ultimately permitted by the regularities of the gallery space or other conventionalities. Simply put, we interact with artwork not by its uses but through its meanings. We should calculate the virtual capacities accordingly. The properties of an artwork are its dimensions, its title, its media, and so on. All of the properties in proximity to one another result in a range of virtual capacities or potential meanings—a knife may lose the capacity to cut when it becomes part of a bricolage sculpture, but it may gain the capacity to, for example, signify the War of Knives. A weaving may be de-instrumentalized: no longer operating as garment or blanket, it is imbued with the capacity to (or increased probability of) referring back to its own process of production. It may even exceed the signifying capabilities of the word “weaving.” As noted above, these capacities become actual based upon the proximity of other entities: whether that is other material or figurative arrangements in the work, other works in an exhibition, relevant didactic panels, or the viewer beholding the work. The latter is especially relevant, as they may manifest as a curator or gallery director who can put the work into physical proximity with the former entities, or they could be a historian who temporally situates the work, or any variety of persons who enter into proximity with the work alongside their own networks of thought, influence, and codings. The potential meaning of an artwork is not inscribed within the work by the artist to the same extent that the meaning of employment is coded by the employer. Indeed, an artwork may be accused of being “opaque” because it possesses too many virtual capacities, or equally-probable modes of inferring meanings, and not enough redundancies to steer the viewer to any particularly likely actuality.
We are aware that, in linguistics, symbols congeal as morphemes, producing grammatical sequences of words or signifiers. These signifiers do not change at the empirical level, even if that which is signified is fluid when apprehended by a disparity of readers. But art already elides or otherwise subverts these congealed signs. The readers of a text may not agree upon a singular meaning, but they take as a given the presence of signs. Viewers of a work of art, however, are presented with greater difficulties in ascertaining what is or isn’t available to be viewed as symbolic. Do copper nails merely perform an adherent function, or is there something significant about their invocation? Can anything be inferred from the work’s location in the room, or the kind of light that illuminates it? These questions cannot be answered simply as yes or no: they are latent virtual possibilities of various installations. As meanings of the work of art, they become actualized as soon as they are thought.
So how do we differentiate what is meaningful from what is meaningless? Claire Colebrook celebrates this opacity, noting that “concepts are orientations but tend to be territorialized as orientations of this thinking being, emerging through this persona. A radical or properly philosophical concept would thereby be liberated from the lived, giving a sense that there is thinking, without a fulfillment of what is to be thought.”7 The production of virtualities entails the opening up of meaning, but is not necessarily synonymous with creating understanding. To understand is to subsume a concept as component of other trajectories of thought, becoming an axiom that grows stagnant without allowing latent virtualities to actualize anew.
As Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson write in “Semiotics and Art History”:
Once launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play. The idea of convergence, of causal chains moving toward the work of art, should, in the perspective of semiotics, be supplemented by another shape: that of lines of signification opening out from the work of art, in the permanent diffraction of reception.8
That the work of art can mean many things is already well-established, even beyond the bounds of this writing. It is more exciting to suggest, as do Bal and Bryson, that art’s determinations escape the regularity of time, or predictable sequences of cause and effect. Unlike Weaver’s example of a linearly-unfolding communicative sequence, art’s meaning can arise from encounters occurring both prior to and after the event of actualization. Furthermore, unlike most of the genetic models found in life, where information (as traits, codes, and morphogenetic diagrams) can only be passed on vertically (from ancestor to offspring), art allows for horizontal transmissions to occur, from peer to peer, beyond strictly filial bounds. It is often taken for granted “that history stands prior to artifact; that context generates, produces, gives rise to text, in the same way that a cause gives rise to an effect. But it is sometimes the case that the sequence (from context to text) is actually inferred from its end-point, leading to the kind of metalepsis that Nietzsche called ‘chronological reversal’.”9 Because the artist is not exempt from the category of viewer or interpreter, even of their own work, we might also posit that the viewer plays an artistic role in the production of meaning as regards the work.
Having made these distinctions (and having secured a certain amount of regularity in terms), I hope it will not be too surprising at this juncture to state that art introduces entropy into communication. Through the production of alien forms that push at the regularities of convention, art distinguishes itself from the negentropic flow of life and capitalism—by which I mean that art indulges entropy where everywhere else we are compelled to order and the predictable telos of profit and sustenance.
Negentropic procedures occur in local systems by importing energy from external or greater systems—the order they produce (the amount of energy available to be put to work) comes at the cost of increasing disorder elsewhere. The entropy of a communicative system may not appear to obey the same laws of thermodynamics, and yet, when we consider the material of discourse—the effort of producing meaning through signs, vocalizations, electronic pulses, and the noise that inevitably leaks into channels of communication—we see once again that all tends toward entropy. Only the local system escapes it by exporting entropy into what Bataille calls the general economy.
It is therefore the task of art to break the local system through the production of alien forms, imbued with innumerable virtual capacities, against the negentropic flow of signs and coded value. “Whereas the language of life is productive, vital, and extensive—so that our lexicon allows us to stabilize the world and relations around us into an ongoing, predictable, and lived time—the language of [art and literature] is material and dead.”10 In what follows, I will iterate that art’s entropic capabilities are not merely expressive—that is, they do not merely concern openness at the level of content—they are also material and therefore are part of contiguous flows at the level of form. The dream of society is growth, the production of more than is consumed, ideally creating energy from out of thin air. The matter of art is excess: a commemoration of that which is sacrificed in its actualization.
Art as a discipline rooted in the contemporary moment encapsulates instances of both coercion and creativity. It is not much of a revelation to discuss the coercions endemic to the art world: material or discursive, they are more or less the same within art as they are beyond art. Everywhere life seeks subsistence, and everywhere this necessity is exploited. It is more interesting to spend time upholding art as a possibility for increasing virtualities beyond the coercive capitalist relationships that funnel all capacities toward the actualization of a single profitable outcome. Whereas above I posited that art introduces entropy into communicative systems, now I argue that art necessitates alignment with the entropic flow as a material procedure. In other words, art is a virtualization of death.
This argument can only be substantiated with constant refrain to the codes of capital so that I may explicate and thereby remove them from that which remains open or unspoken in this argument. It is far more exciting (because it is far less possible) to indulge the innumerable virtual capacities opened up by the work of art—but unfortunately this is an endeavour for more specific (inductive) writings.
I am therefore obliged to address the persistent questions: what about the accusations of elitism, the protests of art’s entanglement with capital? Art is a luxury, yes, because it is excessive to sustenance. It is produced at a loss. But this luxuriousness is not automatically manifest as a commercially-viable endeavour, it is only through the (overrepresented) actualization of its improbable but nonetheless inherent virtual capacities that it can become conflated with economic value—and even in that instance it does not prescribe strictly capitalist behaviours, such as the optimization of relative surplus value in commodity production.11 For now, we must note that only when something is considered valuable is its production counted as wageable labour.12 In the first instance, art is never waged—compensation is taken out of revenue, if the latter occurs at all. Only later does art accrue the necessary comportments that allow it to become financialized. It is not that art by itself generates massive fortunes for some and massive deficits for others; this wealth already exists and occasionally funnels through the art world to purchase for itself philanthropic morality, oligarchic directorship, or access to unregulated speculative investment. That art indulges the entropic flow and widens the field of virtual capacities means that, in some instances, actualization proceeds along normative lines. This cannot be denied; it can only be upheld as an example of the expansive potential actualities afforded by art. Art’s synonymous relationship to creativity and the production of virtualities means that it is not valuable in the first instance—in fact it is excessive, entropic—and therefore cannot be developed as a mode of production or consumption.
The problem with upholding art’s economic exceptionalism in the first instance means that it remains an ontological virtuality that may appear unrelated, if not contradictory, to our actual historical experience of art and capital. This illegibility is inherently entropic, and is therefore in line with our aspirations, but falls short of being truly political without some further elaboration. The art world—however undefined or decentralized—overwhelmingly valourizes the investments of capital that comprise fairs, biennials, and normative entrepreneurial endeavours. Under these conditions, meaning is not open-ended so much as it is subsumed by spectacle or humanistic apolitics. It is indeed necessary to argue that art merely possesses tenuous rather than intrinsic commonalities with capitalist modes of production, but this argument only gets us partway. The art world’s governing logics and value (the ordering grammars) remain coded by these social relations; as Adrian Piper articulates, our historical experience is defined by conventional metrics of individualized competition and heroic success.13 So, even if the aforementioned outcomes are overrepresented in the field of art, they are coded in such a way that all artistic pursuits can be assumed to possess these same drives. Deviancy is perceived as failure to achieve these outcomes, rather than as an entropic opening. What is required, then, is an actuality that closes down the possibility of status quo virtualities defining all others.
All operations described above can be summarized briefly: artists, in making art rather than waged commodities, abandon or deprobabilize codes of production that ensure sustenance and the territorialization of life. At the discursive level, putting into conjunction incipient signs with extant materials forges virtual contiguities at the expense of status quo regularities.
The artistic assemblage produces alien or irregular forms as a capacity of its openness. In being open, new determinations and flows enter the assemblage, guiding it to previously unthought possibilities. I call these flows “contiguities”—referring to metonymic chains of meaning which leave their mark on one another, but are found empty when considered in solitude. These contiguous flows possess the capacity to determine (to make happen) and to make significant (to provide legibility or meaning).
As Piper alludes, the production of virtualities also means destroying oneself: relinquishing the authority of the author in order to become open to immanent chains of connection, influence, and debt. This is not so difficult to do: any closure is only an arbitrary delineation assigned to the web of matter, discourse, influence, debt, and contiguities that we have come to refer to as an artistic assemblage. The difficulty lies not in the material process of destruction, but in the subjective will to do so. By this I mean that the deterrence to death or destruction is a matter of coding rather than one of ontological certainty, producing territorial boundaries around that which is valued or significant, and expelling that which is not. Art’s meanings cannot be conceived of if we limit our conception of the virtual field to the frame of the individual—which is coded by historically-specific social relations. The production of virtualities always occurs within the sphere of the general economy beyond the local system. As virtual capacities are inherently a product of entities in proximity—rather than a product of entities themselves—they cannot adequately be apprehended except through a collective frame.
So, the question that concerns us, once again, is how do we remain open to new possibilities without succumbing to the probabilistic outcomes and values encoded by governing systems?
“Among the forces that patrol these borders are those deriving from the economic matrix, since ‘authorship’ in the modern sense has historically developed pari passu with the institution of property.”14 Openness is also a question of property: how to produce openness or accessibility without co-optation or enclosure? What’s to prevent the code from territorializing it, inscribing it, making it available to be put to work? After all, these are the default operations (the inert forces) inherent within our status quo. Life exploits every available niche. It becomes incumbent upon the artist—who has already sought their own death in the production of virtualities, becoming part of a chain of contiguities that includes the resultant artwork—to apply overt force to their concepts so that they may escape this closure and continue to hold space. What do I mean by this? I point to the necessity of forms of semi-order that may supplement or even complement the virtualities opened up by the work of art. Manifestoes, didactics, and critical analyses are examples of such overt force, but they are not exhaustive. Surely this is paradoxical: how is it that forms of closure could possibly “safeguard” the virtual capacities immanent between a given work and a given receiver? Is it not frequently the case that the technicalities of critique end up foreclosing an uninformed viewer—that their actualization is mutually-exclusive of others?
We ought to note that, just as it requires time and resources to produce a work of art, it requires time and resources to encounter it, and to actualize meaning from it. To interact with a work of art inevitably means engaging with its contiguities: researching, reading, and troubling its context/s. Until open-ended or entropic pursuits lose their forbidding code, gestures that increase virtualities must be accompanied with actual forms that lead one through the thresher.
In the accompanying diagram, I use the figure of a prism to show how an actuality may be oriented in order to redirect virtual flows or contiguities, opening them up, and offering decoded zones in which virtual capacities might flourish. And, because art’s “diffraction of reception”15 reaches beyond linear temporalities or genealogies, art possesses the capacity of producing its audience even across a disparity of virtual contiguities. Consider how the prism focuses a flow of contiguities (such as a beam of white light), changing only their speed and direction, so that they exit the prism in divergent formations (such as an immanent spectrum of colour). Results can vary wildly without changing the prism’s actual properties—it is therefore sufficient to illustrate a form of closure that produces new virtualities. Furthermore, just as the degree of bending of the light’s path depends on the angle that the incident beam of light makes with the surface, a flow of contiguities may enter the prism at an oblique angle in order to produce results that deviate from the inscribed code. In the diagram, I position the codes of life and profit perpendicular to the prism of the actual, ensuring that any flow that enters while obeying the conditions of life will emerge already captured by the teleological codes of capital—the output reproduces the input. For our purposes, this is the angle of minimum deviation. Flows that originate without regard to the specific conditions of sustenance will pass through the prism at divergent angles, becoming refracted and therefore multiple as virtual capacities. All capacities further avail themselves to actualization, becoming fixed in history as the conditions within which new virtualities emanate. This relationship of work and discourse can be called recursive, in that the work’s concept does not require “dematerializing” the matter of the work, nor does the work’s matter decouple from concept as mere “artisanal-expressivity.” Instead they produce compossible virtualities which may be actualized, further opening up new virtual capacities and subsequent actualities.
Because our state (our social status quo) offers only limited possibilities for openness, a didactic prism must therefore orient itself at the place of closure, addressing its fervour to a bottleneck of sorts, and holding it open in order to guarantee the existence of any kind of exteriority. In this way, it behaves as an inverted code—an apparatus designed to explicate hidden codes of social behaviour and, in so doing, lessen the probability of their reactualization. The accompaniment of art with writing is a way of identifying inhibitory undercurrents, especially when they operate in formal or logical structures instead of at the outermost level of the explicate order. It seems increasingly necessary for art (as open forms that elide expectations better suited to journalism, activism, and even philosophy) to be recursively accompanied by forms that use didacticism in order to open up a space of greater possibility, unrestrained by the limiting state of the moment. This means, perhaps, having to point out (and argue for) why certain choices in the work are intentionally political gestures, especially in the paradoxical situation where an artwork seeks to resist interpretation through normative modes. Otherwise they are lost as conventions; neglected through assumption.
And so the artist must orient their endeavours against the regulating codes of art itself. In a system where “impenetrability helps breed infallibility,”16 where obfuscation is used to produce commodifiable fungibility, entropic gestures must be tactically applied to redundant codes while actualizing prisms are deployed to refract extant contiguities. It is counterintuitive, I admit, that didactics could produce any kind of openness. But these minute forms of closure ultimately destabilize latent political codes so that contiguous flows are permitted access to a wider field of virtualities. The work of art assumes a twofold task: to make incoherent the codes of value that order all behaviour within the capitalist social relation, and to articulate new capacities for meaning.
–Steven Cottingham, September 2018