The Experience of the Expectant Sublime in the works of Kelly Richardson.
Consequently, it is also worth noting that these first two ideas about sublimity refer to the enlightenment notion of reason and the works of the romantics, respectively. As such, they represent pre-modern paradigms for thinking about the implications of aesthetic experience. By contrast, we find that the works of Kelly Richardson confront us with the image of a third sublime, a kind of sublimity which the artist herself calls the "apocalyptic sublime", but which corresponds fairly well to what the art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe refers to as the technological sublime. This third definition of sublimity, which is on display everywhere a futuristic catastrophe takes place on celluloid, is the cinematic equivalent of Kantian reason releasing the unknowable forces of nature on mankind, be it through a systems error, or simply, the politics of the worst.
In this way, we can say that the technological sublime creates the same awestruck feeling as that of nature's greatest powers, only instead, this new form of aesthetic experience is an expression of humanity's own designs. This unique synthesis, of reason becoming as devastating a force as any natural phenomenon, and in many cases, something much worse, is unique to modern and postmodern existence. In fact, this rather paradoxical contradiction, that humanity's greatest achievements are also implicated in its greatest failures, is everywhere on display in Richardson's oeuvre, making her something like the Casper David Friedrich of the early 21st century.
In fact, Richardson's work might even be said to exceed these historical precedents by landing us nearer to the ideas of another Fredric, the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, and his notion of the hysterical sublime. Jameson's reformulation of the concept of sublimity is what Richardson’s work seems to be hinting at by creating an aesthetic of apocalyptic apotheosis, or the pictorial equivalent of a historical impasse set against the horizon of technological consequences that we cannot fully cognize, or even grasp for that matter. Thus, this fourth formulation of the sublime is a bit more complex than the previous three. This is because Jameson insists that the sublime of technological terror induces a much stronger feeling of cognitive dissonance than one might first suspect. As a result, we can say that where Gilbert-Rolfe has updated Burke, Jameson is closer to being a neo-Kantian inasmuch as he insists that the experience of psychological displacement associated with technological development isn't necessarily overwhelming, but that it can also be quite underwhelming because we can't form a clear and distinct idea of computational power by simply looking at a computer, a motherboard or a microchip. Not only that, but the historical condition of being outwitted by the power of our own inventions is only further exacerbated whenever all of these forms of sublime experience become complementary concerns, as they often are in our age.
After all, post-postmodern existence is a time that is equally beset with issues that concern the limits of human cognition, a fact that is readily on display wherever we lack solutions to the great planetary crisis of the twenty-first century, be they ecological, social, political, or economic. In other words, we now face the Kantian problematic in its negative form, i.e., as an inability to deal with the infinity of problems that now threaten finitude.
This situation is further complicated by our last ditch efforts to calculate a post-human solution to the limited duration of our life span through medical innovation, nano-technologies, and perhaps a possible 'final solution' that will do away with corporeal decay altogether, ultimately transforming us into downloadable digital selves. Of course, the catch twenty-two here is that life in any clone world, or a cyborg reality, is bound to be circumscribed by the endless search for wetware and hardware updates, making the fountain of youth into an infinitely degradable experience unless one can afford the proper systems maintenance. These immanent contradictions are somewhat akin to thinking about Burke's problematic in the negative as well, especially if we cast the light of post-humanism as the anti-romantic impulse of adopting surrogate selves, hybrid entities or becoming perversely polymorphous subjects of technological expropriation.
And finally, the type of hysterical reactions that are related to our inability to master technology demonstrate a growing need for us to dig ourselves out of the kinds of problems we find coming up all around us in the age of connectivity and surveillance. This is also how we have come to understand the inversion of contemporary perspectives on the sublime as well as why our current definitions of the term flip back and forth between Gilbert-Rolfe's technological sublime of absolute destruction and Jameson's techno-hysteria of unlimited computational potential. These two competing definitions of sublimity provide us with a kind of slippage that hopes to find the destructive powers of the sublime quelled by the beauty of balanced innovation with regard to technological development. Of course, Richardson's work constitutes a similar gesture inasmuch as it is full of sliding signifiers about sublimity and precariousness, even giving us something like an aesthetics of radical displacement for a culture on the brink of blinking itself out of existence. With the spread of western values, which are increasingly synonymous with the aims of global capitalism, we have all become unwitting accomplices in what is known as the sixth great planetary extinction. As such, the great value of Richardson's Mariner 9 is perhaps to have already given us a picture of our greatest achievements sitting stillborn on an otherwise dead planet, the half-functioning representations of a dialectic tension created by the promise of ever greater computational efficiency as well as our technological shortcomings.
Of course, these intersections in the discourse of sublimity provide a decent summary of what it means to live in a 'hysterical condition' as a generalized cultural problematic. Or, to put it somewhat more succinctly, we are living in the wake of an aesthetic discourse that has become a living reality, of art invading life rather than life becoming art. The coordinates of utopia and dystopia are losing their meaning, or have already lost their meaning altogether, in our post-historical world of diminishing returns. We find that we no longer have any visible means of reorienting ourselves, much like lost space explorers spinning off into a distant horizon without even a hint of which way is up or down.
Thus, it is easy to see how we have become stuck in a sense, looking back on so many conflicting teleological accounts of history, and finding ourselves living in what can only be termed a meta-stable endpoint for the moment, a still-point of sorts that feels something like being at the center of a swirling whirlpool moments before being sucked under into dimensions unknown. And being caught in the interpretive currents that circumscribe aesthetic experience, which mirror the obsession our culture has with current events, only serves to further obscure the dialectic contradictions of the present.
We experience cultural tension now as a kind of free-floating anxiety, especially in the age of political correctness, where all discourses are under the constant threat of becoming inoperable at any given moment depending on ratings and changes in the cultural atmosphere. But at least one thing is assured in such a harsh climate, and that is that finding ourselves unmoored from such comforting pleasantries as "knowing where history is going" keeps us ever vigilant, asking more questions, and perhaps, finding more interesting answers than idealism or rationalism could ever hope to provide. Much like the conflagration of downed crafts presented in Mariner 9, we are caught in the maelstrom of a sublime disquietude, and Richardson has taken us back to that original scene of technological terror occupied in the cultural imaginary by the Hal 9000, only we find ourselves planet-side wondering where it all went wrong and why Hal stopped talking to us… victims of a discourse gone silent about progress or anything else for that matter.
But isn't this definition of our cultural zeitgeist --- one that relies on surveying the present from the point of our past accomplishments --- defined by an underlying tension of mixed trajectories and so many foregone conclusions? And isn’t this ethos everywhere on display in Richardson's massive video installation Mariner 9? As a kind of retro-futurist rendition of the historical follies of human space exploration on Mars we can say that the final destination of the enlightenment project has not touched down anywhere near were we thought it might land. Consequently, it appears that our scientific future has not arrived intact, and that in many cases, scientism has not even yielded the hoped for results in terms of data and analysis.
But all of this plays into the pleasures of the panoramic imagery that issues from Mariner 9, where the sheer expanse of Richardson's installation, which is supported by a three-channel projection, accomplishes what any sublime image is known for best. It confronts the viewer with the limits of their own vision as an allegory for the limits of knowledge. In other words, Mariner 9 can't be taken in with just a single glance because it is the consummation of the magic lantern at a scale heretofore unheard of. Somewhat ironically, all of these efforts to achieve technological virtuosity have become the subject matter for Richardson's own imaginative mastery of the technology of representation given over to us through the auratic effects of video's real-time presence.
Of course, one should add here that it is not the mere expanse of the projection alone that highlights our inability to grasp the gestalt chiaroscuro of the Martian landscape, but that there is quite a lot to take in on the ground level too. Gyrating technology still putting off a flickering transmission signal; rusted and failing operational mechanisms on various scrubbed Martian landers; the shiny debris of rover modules mixed with the fallout of so many unknown impacts and the wavering exhaustion of long depleted fuel cells... all of this populates the otherwise barren landscape of the red planet. In Richardson's composite imagery we find ourselves amidst a fractured atlas of missions gone awry, as if we ourselves are standing on the terrestrial surface of a globe represented as the god of war, only recast in our contemporary times as the destroyer of so many space probes laid out under the otherworldly glow of an ethereal grey sun.
But where we find a true resonance with the definition of the techno-hysterical sublime is not just in taking in the whole image as an allegory about the limits of human knowledge, but as a picture of nature that is far more imposing that anything we have ever known on our home world. We could even say that the journey to Mars reveals that the ‘romantic’ aspect of the romantic sublime consisted of thinking about the dangers of nature as a terrestrial ‘vision’ rather than a confrontation with the destructive forces of the greater universe. Of course, Kant's quaint musings on finitude seem equally passé in the light of trying to cross the vastness of space, which is the closest thing we have to a material correlate for the idea of infinity. Richardson's imagery, in this sense, provides us with a kind of 'update' about the world of ideas that surround the notion of sublimity vis-à-vis a picture imperfect of the denuded hubris of technology run afoul of providing any long-term service over and against the forces of nature. In fact, we might say that Mariner 9 is itself, a perfect allegory for the function of art in terms of Kant's Critique of Judgment inasmuch as it gives us an image we can appreciate as the very height of disinterested pleasure, a pleasure that depicts a series of objects that no longer give us any viewing pleasure at all. In other words, Mariner 9 is a near perfect synthesis of both form and content.
And it is this that allows us to say that a kind of encyclopedic representation of how the conditions of finitude can be conveyed in art is indeed Mariner 9’s great purchase. Thus, the limited capacity to absorb an image of such a size, not to mention the richness of halftone colors pictured in the hazy atmosphere of humanity's greatest efforts to surmount the prospects of celestial inquiry, are here, given to us at a scale that is beyond the aspect ratio of the modern cinema. And it is this ‘beyond’ that reveals the all encompassing dimension of aesthetic experience as a truly unknowable and hysterical relationship to knowledge, unknowable because we can't comprehend how little our efforts add up to and hysterical because we are viewing something like a historical reconstruction that is equal parts human comedy and human tragedy.
Thus, we can say that the hysterical sublime in Richardson's Mariner 9 operates like a forlorn fairy tale of Icarus's ankles shore of their wings, only here, the trajectory is one that has fallen back on the wrong planet of origin, adding a touch of insult to injury. We can't even pretend to know the fate of the objects that Richardson has rendered so carefully in much the same the way we can't pretend to know the teleological fate of our species in the galaxy. All we have is an idea of our efforts, and more and more, they remain somewhat out of focus, unrealized or incomplete. That, is perhaps, the unique contribution that Richardson's Mainer 9 makes to our contemporary moment. It gives us a clear picture of our collective adventures in space, or rather, of so many exploratory missions that never quite delivered the episodes of high drama we were hoping for. Mariner 9 is, after all, a kind of memento mori about the misadventures of space modules.
And is this not the fate of the modern age as well, to have condemned us to living in the afterglow of modular adventures of the most modest scale, namely the cubical, the car, and our ever expanding culture of modular disposability. And aren't the achievements of our civilization revisited here in miniature, like so many kids toys and erector sets strewn across the surface of an imaginary landscape of conflict and defeat, where we know not what happened but only that things stopped functioning. Is not the image given to us in Mariner 9, which purports a kind of absolute fidelity to the objects depicted, also a purely hallucinatory projection of sorts, or at least, doesn't it trade on the idea of the sublime in the most fantastical way one could ever hope to imagine, i.e., as a purely speculative image? And furthermore, isn't Richardson really involved in the genre of history painting as a form of magical realism, only her particular take on it reverses the terms by privileging the former, but never at the cost of denying the later.
But what is it that makes the image of Mariner 9 appear to be as magical as it is historical? While it is not merely the scale, design or allegorical elements presented in Mariner 9 that achieve such an effect, they certainly act as the perfect subject matter for the richness of digital color itself, which goes far beyond the projected capacities of the human eye, especially in terms of gradation and differentiation. In other words, it is impossible not to notice that we are immersed in an image of chromatic opulence that challenges our very ability to process the uncanny effects of an artificial image that appears to be more-real-than-real, or for lack of a better word, ‘magical’. This is Richardson's art at its finest, relying on a modus operandi that pushes the boundaries of the technology with which it was created. Richardson is even something of a bug finder, and a program tester by default, calling the software's manufacturer more often than not in a quest for a realism as yet undreamt of in the world of video art, but which she pursues nonetheless, working at the limits of her own vision as an artist-technician.
As a magical-historical realist with a penchant for science-fiction themes, her oeuvre represents a rather timely inquiry into the apparatus of representation itself, in both the technical and non-technical sense. Which is to say that Richardson's art merits the qualification of providing us with a philosophical image of the highest order, one that knows that form often demands innovation in order to become inexorably wed to a concept, ultimately allowing for the transubstantiation of the medium of video into something truly singular, i.e., something much more than just a superior 'technical achievement'. Anyone who takes the time to go see Mariner 9 in person will certainly feel a sense of forgetting the apparatus of display when confronted with the pleasure of full immersion in the image, an image that language is at pains to communicate with any sense of poetic efficacy.
And so what we are finally confronted with in Richardson's Mariner 9 is the totality of the image itself as both an effective and affective meditation on the limits of human knowledge, where we can see how some of the most advanced instances of human know-how have added up to little more than so many misshapen adventures in piloting unmanned explorers. The greatest scientific achievements of our culture are made to look like little more than toy cars strewn across a foreboding alien landscape. In fact, the objects in Richardson's Mariner 9 look like the remote control gadgetry of interplanetary games, the victims of so many mission statements and grand overtures to capture the imagination simply gone caput. Mariner 9 is, for lack of a better phrase, a defacto desert game of robot wars that gives us the zero degree and the height of human creativity in one and the same picture. This is, quite possibly the very definition of a kind sublime hysteria from the perspective of an 'observational mission', the kind that reaches a pitched fever in its demonstration before an audience, and to which Richardson is fully expectant when it comes to the idea that her viewers will get just as worked up about it.
But if that is a summary of the piece and its aims, what then in the significance of such a gesture? Of course, it points to the fact that infinity is not necessarily the limit of human knowledge as experience, but that the seemingly infinite amount of computational knowledge that humankind has so far acquired is not yet well enough organized to secure us a constant observational outpost on our nearest sister planet. Thus, if the enlightenment project isn't stood on its head by showing us the limits of knowledge, then it is perhaps even more greatly upset, not by the implications of infinity, but by our incapacity to master a much shorter distance, both conceptually and technologically. Second, the natural sublime and the threat of nature, which still interrupts the best laid plans of civilization, makes an image like Mariner 9 harder to confront than Caspar David Friedrich's Die gescheitnerte Hoffnung, which means, the "failed hope." Only here that hope was of technology making the journey between two natures, or two 'natural worlds', rather than becoming a future excavation site, or a space junkyard of sorts.
In other words, Richardson has not put us in a position where humanity stands triumphant, overlooking the vistas of conquered thought and exploration by rationalism and objective planning. Rather, she provides an image for us of a species whose best-laid plans most often come to an end due to oversights in design and transmission. Worse yet however, is that such junkyard images are spreading across our planet too, where the rationalism of 'man' seems to have birthed the greatest threat to ourselves and life on our own planet vis-à-vis, the captains of industry, the politics of war, and innumerable other efforts to seize and control the vital resources of a world suffering from rampant exploitation. And all of this is presented here in the fact that we have made a technological crap heap on Mars at the very moment we are making Earth and its surrounding atmosphere into something of a planetary garbage dump.
Thus, what Richardson's images point to are the many ways in which the sublime experience of nature has been overrun by technological imposition, technocratic ambition, and the ideological suspicion of all master narratives about progress. In such a situation, it is we who need an escape pod of sorts from the catastrophic effects that have been stirred up on our home planet. Thus, Richardson's Mariner 9 serves as a unified image of all of our endeavors to reach past the limits that separate two 'heavenly bodies' from one another, ultimately providing us with a mythico-poetic record of labors love lost.
If this kind of unromantic look at the aftermath of breaching the heavens above wasn't enough, than the break down of operational systems serves as a stand-in for the limits of human knowledge and understanding too. Moreover, these notions are offered up here as an allegory about the aesthetic discourses that condition the whole of contemporary culture, giving us a picture perfect display of the ascendency of the discursive apparatuses promoted by Gilbert-Rolfe and Jameson cast against the failing intellectual technologies of Kant and Burke. It is the dialectic play of gaining access to the inaccessible that allows Richardson’s Mariner 9 to engage with Gilbert-Rolfe’s and Jameson’s contrasting notions of the techno-hysterical sublime, where we are left with the feeling that their two definitions are forever intertwined in a Mobius strip that upsets the cognitive imagination, moving us beyond anything Kant or Burke could have ever imagined! And yet, it is this looping effect of concerns that we enter into when we view the endless loop that Richardson's works are played on.
What we can say is that Orion Tide certainly serves as an entrancing image of the turning tide of humanity exiting an imaginary space that is not unlike the visual landscape of the southwest. Of course, such imagery plays with the notion of a fractured futurism inasmuch as it intimates the idea of a terminal desire to escape our terrestrial origins, presented in an unending loop of launch sequences that seem to be one-way departures. I would underscore the word appear, because the launching forms, which really exhibit the golden glow of propulsion engines set against a deep purple horizon, exist in more of a dream space than what is portrayed in Mariner 9. Aesthetically speaking, Orion Tide looks more like an animated form of magical realism than say, a strictly ‘realistic’ type of modeling.
And it is this animate exodus that again, touches on the notion of the hysterical sublime inasmuch as the image appears to take place in the aftermath of a technological or natural catastrophe of some sort. Of course, thinking about the image in such terms still has a great deal to do with the imaginative function being held in absentia from the possibility of cognitive semblance. Such a conflict is represented here in the form of an end of the world event that is held in abeyance, providing us with a more challenging image than either the mathematical-incalculable sublime or that of nature's overwhelming power. This is due to the fact that a moving-image, like Orion Tide, proposes innumerable ways in which those ideas are held at a distance or simply left behind in the dust of an earthly philosophy that may no longer be of any real import.
Or, perhaps we can say that the contemporary cache of this particular video installation is that it provides us with a broader definition of sublimity from the point of thinking about the consequences of human actions on a global scale. This was, after all, that unmentioned theorist of the sublime par excellence, Jean Francois Lyotard’s, last observation about western civilization. Namely, that our final destiny as a species is defined by the drive toward planetary exodus, something he called a kind of sublimity beyond rule, or an inhuman goal to save whatever is left of the human record before our sun reaches the period where it enters its death-throws. It is here perhaps, in this last definition, where Richardson’s own notions of an apocalyptic sublime finally sync up with Lyotard’s idea that sublimity is a special kind of game about un-writing the rules of existence, pushing beyond the boundaries of mathematics, and abandoning the natural world and its consequences, all in favor of embracing the radically unknown which we might dare to call, the sublime of absolute desolation… a kind of force without recompense, or even life growing in its wake.
To conclude this review of a small survey of Richardson’s past few bodies of work, we can say the following: that Richardson’s images make the hysteria of the present a little more bearable, and the threat of the sublime a little more comprehensible, or at least accessible to contemporary experience in a way that is on par with the very best artists from the enlightenment, romanticism, modernism and post-modernism. In other words, when Richardson's depictions of sublimity touch on the destructive power of unexpected results, she doesn't insist on throwing us into the event horizon of a scenario where all coordinates of reality become indecipherable, but instead, plays with probabilities and potentialities in order to create a compelling catalog of images. And this rather engaging program, of courting complexity while creating alternative event scenes, is certainly not absent the need to think about the implications that such images hold for how we understand the present moment, both in terms of cultural production as well as concerns that are far more global in scale. And for this, we owe Richardson a debt of gratitude for thinking the unthinkable at the edge of a blue planet in the backwaters of the milky way at a time when so many contemporary artists shy away from such ambitious themes, themes that we might call, so many Tales on the Horizon.