Sensation for Sensation’s Sake Affect and the Temptation of Wow!

[090617] This past summer I experienced a moment’s dizziness sitting in a rowboat, looking over the edge of the Hayward Gallery terrace. Gelitin’s Normally, Proceeding Unrestrained With or Without Title (2008) is a boating lake, where visitors navigate a floating pier of barrels and plywood, step awkwardly into boxy little boats and float around for a while, enjoying the view of the South Bank. Last year in this same building I enjoyed getting lost in Anthony Gormley´s fog chamber Blind Light (2007). The previous winter I twice visited Carsten Höller’s slides in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall (Test Site, 2006–2007), plummeting down five stories, stomach tingling all the way.

Gelitin’s boating lake, Gormley’s fog chamber and Höller’s elegant steel slides are all examples of what one might call experiential art—art which engages the visitor at the level of physical experience. It foregrounds affect: scent, touch and play are often prioritized over the image, sound or form of the artwork.(1)

To say that experiential art emphasizes affect over signs is not to claim that affect and signs are separate phenomena. Affect, according to Deleuze and Guattari, entails a capacity to affect and to be affected; it is always in between, much like a relationship between two lovers or friendship between friends. And, like love or friendship, affective relations are always assemblages. Deleuze and Guattari argue that hermeneutics is too limited and limiting because it reduces the complex functioning of assemblages to the question of meaning. Instead, they prioritize function, whether in art, music or printed words in a book.

We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own converge.(2)

In other words, Deleuze and Guattari consider all representation (including artworks) by asking what connections and energies are formed and set in motion. They ask what the thing does, not merely what it might mean.

Experiential art functions rather than represents. It sets up circumstances, leaving it up to the visitor to put them to use—to enter into the assemblage and temporarily become one of its elements. Psycho Buildings, for example, featured a large inflated plastic sphere on one of its balconies (Thomas Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port City, 2008). Visitors enter through an airlock. Inside one can walk around, sit or lie on the floor, looking up underneath the few whose tickets came out of the lucky dip and who have been invited to remove shoes and all sharp or abrasive objects before rolling around for a while on top of the sphere.

On my visit to the Hayward I won the lucky dip indirectly when my companion’s nerve failed and she let me have her place. The feeling of crawling out onto this four-metre high air mattress, looking down at the people inside, was remarkably comfortable. I felt no vertigo, watched a couple stand up, go to the door, open… Suddenly the sphere started to deflate underneath us, the four lucky dippers on top. The airlock had opened a bit too much and we sank down towards the recumbent bodies beneath us. Through the thick plastic I saw someone raise his arm, point and laugh at how we struggled, flat on our stomachs with our limbs spread to avoid piling on top of one another in the middle of the depression.

Following Deleuze and Guattari, is there any point in asking about the meaning of this artwork, what it represents or expresses? Observatory, Air-Port City is an assemblage in which the unforeseeable interactions of guests are temporarily entwined: The airlock opens, and I suddenly get a bit too intimate with another guest at the exhibition when he rolls on top of me. When he and I leave, the air pressure is different, another gallery attendant minds the door and so on, and the assemblage is renewed.

Carefully climbing off the bouncy sphere, I was reminded of the feeling of being a child in the multicoloured soup of balls one still finds in the play areas of IKEA stores. Saraceno’s piece, like Christian Höller’s slides and Anthony Gormley’s fog chamber, shakes up the conventional expectations that a visitor may have of an art gallery or museum. We assume that galleries are normally quite ascetic spaces—white, clean and neutral. This is no longer the case. The increasing popularity of experiential art demands a certain promiscuity of exhibition spaces in the creation of new assemblages inside and around them. Hence, the Turbine Hall becomes an amusement park full of slides, and the Hayward’s sculpture terrace gets turned into a boating lake.

The “depth” of the Psycho Buildings exhibit is primarily thanks to its superficiality. The artworks mentioned above flirt with the visitors’ nerve endings, inviting touch, movement and unexpected physical postures. This certainly does not apply to all the pieces in the exhibit, but its clearest overall stylistic marker is how affect is made to serve as the raw material of the artworks. To paraphrase “Rhizome” a bit, we can say that experiential art exists through the outside and on the outside.(3)

When experiential art works (let’s leave aside the question of whether or how art in general “works”), it reminds us how many other spaces enable certain experiences, sensations and emotions. An example of this might be the way an IKEA showroom chops domestic space up into different units (kitchen, living room, storage space…) and rearranges them into series, like books on a shelf grouped by subject matter. Here are four examples of living rooms, over there are the bedrooms, and so on. This slicing-up and categorization of the space also seems to affect one’s sense of time. Inside the IKEA store, shut away from daylight and visible clocks, time seems to pass differently from outside. Like in a Las Vegas casino, the passing of time is set aside so that one experiences the familiar Swedish time warp where one enters the store in search of some tea lights and comes out exhausted four hours later, possibly with the tea lights, possibly carrying flat-packed bookshelves. Psycho Buildings enacts something similar in a gallery setting, experimenting with affect in the same way as retail spaces and amusement parks do. This is art that asks for the visitor’s touch, in order to touch him or her in return.

Consequently, looking at Gormley’s fog chamber and Höller’s slides, we might ask whether museums and galleries are not possessed by a certain theme park envy. After all, exhibition spaces for art are a type of themed environment. Retail stores are sometimes set up as such environments, where the objective is not to sell directly, but to weave goods, services and entertainment together into a pleasant experience of the brand itself. For good business-historical reasons, Disney’s theme parks are usually invoked as the prime examples of this strategy. Walt Disney invented “total merchandising”—one of the most influential selling strategies of the twentieth century—in which each Disney product advertises other Disney products, linking them all into a coherent, yet diverse network of commodities, pointing at one another:

In uniting the [Disneyland] TV program and the amusement park under a single name, Disney made one of the most influential commercial decisions in post-war American culture. Expanding upon the lucrative character merchandising market that the studio had joined in the early 1930s, Disney now planned to create an all-encompassing consumer environment that he described as “total merchandising.” Products aimed at baby boom families and stamped with the Disney imprint […] would weave a vast, commercial web, a tangle of advertising and entertainment in which each Disney product—from the movie Snow White to a ride on Disneyland’s Matterhorn—promoted all Disney products.(4)

The influence of “total merchandising” is felt everywhere shopping, entertainment and services are grouped together.(5) This strategy is not confined to theme parks or corporations, either. For example, London’s Shoreditch area is saturated with ambient marketing, where one product promotes another, albeit more subtly than in a shopping mall or theme park.(6) This past August I led a group of international summer-school students on a tour of Shoreditch street art, between Brick Lane and Curtain Road. We ended the walk at Black Rat Press, a gallery that specialises in work by street artists such as Mighty Monkey, Shepard Fairey, Nylon, Sickboy, BC and other pseudonyms familiar from neighbouring walls.

“Where’s Banksy?” asked some of the students, much like a Disneyland visitor would ask after Mickey Mouse. I showed them one of his pieces, protected by Plexiglas on the graffiti wall at the artsy Cargo Bar, where a selection of well-known graffiti artists have been invited to contribute. On Rivington Street I pointed them to a temporary structure erected to protect a Banksy piece on a wall overlooking a car park while the buyer figures out how to peel the stucco off the bricks and remove the work intact.

Remarkably, the protective plywood structure covering the Banksy—labelled “Rat trap” by the graffiti artist BC—has probably become a valuable artwork in itself after BC decorated it with his signature toothy skulls. If the contractor were a bit more savvy about the value of graffiti art, I would have expected to see a second layer of protection covering the BC, inviting more contributions. Shoreditch graffiti, in this light, appears to serve as a form of ambient marketing. The pseudonyms on the walls can be found on more portable, living-room ready works for sale at small galleries like Brick Lane Gallery, NOG Gallery and Black Rat Press. In effect, Shoreditch feels a bit like a large arts exhibit where one risks stepping into dog droppings and has to watch out for the cars.

Perhaps the theme park envy of galleries and museums can be attributed to the ubiquity of affect in marketing and its sparseness in art. Advertising and the totally merchandised products of the culture industry revel in affect, in the staging and direction of visual, acoustic, olfactory and haptic experiences. Contrast this to the cool reserve demanded at arts exhibits where one is usually forbidden to touch the art works, never mind sliding down or bouncing upon them. Slides, fog chambers and translucent bouncy castles might at first seem to “belong” elsewhere, in places where visitors pay the entrance fee to say “wow!” without the requirement to look for anything beyond the experience itself.(7)

Adorno regarded such submission as dangerous and characteristic of subtle oppression disguised as entertainment. He would describe it as the subjection of reason to sensation.(8) In more recent work on theories of affect, this would rather be described as a temptation to escape the burden of thought itself. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, for instance, describes a kind of urge to let go of the intellectual demands of constant reflexivity and distance: “Rather than have to think, always and endlessly, what else there could be, we sometimes seem to connect with a layer in our existence that simply wants the things of the world close to our skin.”(9)

On a slightly more mischievous note, in the polemical Organs Without Bodies, Slavoj Zizek takes issue with the privileging of affect in Deleuze and Guattari by standing their professed radicalism on its head:

There are, effectively, features that justify calling Deleuze the ideologist of late capitalism. Is the much celebrated Spinozan imitatio afecti, the impersonal circulation of affects bypassing persons, not the very logic of publicity, of video clips, and so forth in which what matters is not the message about the product but the intensity of the transmitted affects and perceptions? (10)

Žižek depicts Deleuze and Guattari as inadvertent theorists of business and marketing in the networked era. After all, commerce now privileges distribution over centralization, plurality over identity, and flexibility over standardization. However, Žižek’s point might be made even more succinctly with reference to a certain Deleuzo-Guattarian genre in business literature wherein the wisdom of crowds is assumed, the proliferation of networks is considered healthy, and a hierarchical company like Microsoft appears as the antiquated contrast to Google’s rhizomatic advertising distribution, distributed computing and dislocation of the desktop and associated applications away from individual PCs into the computational cloud.(11)

More subtly, Žižek’s point may be that Deleuze, in his capacity as the ideologist of late capitalism, has become so influential in the past twenty years or so precisely because his work provides a vocabulary for engaging with the affective economy, possibly in a way that appears complicit in comparison with a stance like the critical resignation that Adorno and Horkheimer adopted in the face of the culture industry.(12) This creative and critical complicity seems quite relevant to experiential art and its fuzzy distinction from commodified affect in general.(13) There is no complete, unambiguous distinction between a shop, gallery and theme park, but artworks like Höller’s Test Site or Gelitin’s boating lake make this ambiguity their explicit point of intervention. Therefore they constitute a valuable attempt to engage with the contemporary mediation of affect, an attempt to separate certain sensations from commerce and merchandising, and perhaps to experience them differently.

/Gauti Sigthorsson

Trans.: Vera Júlíusdóttir

1. On contemporary theories of affect, see e.g., Patricia T. Clough, “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies,” Theory Culture and Society 25, no. 1, 2008: 1–22; Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Duke University Press, 2002). “Experiential art” is my own loose formulation. This is not an attempt to define a coherent “ism” or school in contemporary art.
2..Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 4.
3. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 4.
4. Christopher Anderson, “Disneyland,” in Television: The Critical View, 6th edition, edited by Horace Newcomb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 18.
5- On Disney and the convergence of retail, entertainment and public space, see Susan G. Davis, “Shopping,” in Culture Works: The Political Economy of Culture, edited by Richard Maxwell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
6- For a concise, critical overview of ambient marketing practices, see Elizabeth Moor, “Branded Spaces: The scope of ‘new marketing’,” Journal of Consumer Culture 3, no. 1 (2003), p. 39-60.
7. Here I am simply thinking of the general, institutional distinction of art and entertainment. People generally do not visit the Tate Gallery in search of slides or bouncy castles, unless a specific show or installation of these has been advertised. Many artists have made this distinction and its deconstruction their subject matter, but that belongs in another discussion.
8. See for example Adorno’s aphorism from Minima Moralia, titled “Do not knock,” which opens with a blunt statement about the power of affect and the instrumental conditioning of our sensory world: “Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men.” The prime example is the car, through which so much of urban experience is mediated: “And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the streets, children, pedestrians and cyclists?” Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso, 1978), p. 40.
9. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 106. I was led to Gumbrecht’s book via Nigel Thrift’s excellent critical assessment of theories of affect, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (London: Routledge, 2007).
10. Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (London: Routledge 2005), p. 183-184.
11. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowd (London: Little Brown, 2004); on the various scientific approaches to connections and networks, see Philip Ball, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (London: Arrow Books, 2005); on Google, cloud computing and Microsoft, see for example “After Bill,” The Economist, 26 June 2008.
12. Theodor Adorno, “Resignation,” in The Culture Industry, edited by J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991).
13. My inspiration here comes from Paul Bowman’s compelling speculations on the disciplinary insularity and limited “real world” traction of cultural studies critique, “Alterdisciplinarity,” Culture, Theory and Critique 49, no. 1, 2008: 93-110.

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