Theory and Practice of Catastrophe

27/Jan/11 — 29/Jan/11, Teatro Julio Castillo
Director: Eduardo Abaroa

Art struggles with chaos, but it does so in order to render it sensory, even through the most charming character, the most enchanted landscape.
–Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off.
–A line from the character of the director in the play Catastrophe (1982) by Samuel Beckett.

The notion of a catastrophe implies change, crisis or a definitive disaster, after which something will never be the same again: an event of the greatest transcendence for life or the system to which it refers, since it means its inevitable and irreversible transformation. A wide variety of connotations emerges from this simple definitions, allowing us to address conjointly areas that are justifiably separated. We seek a multiplicity of themes and foci, an effect of dispersal.

In this symposium we have invited philosophers, artists, curators and writers to discuss the possibilities of an ancient, elusive term that has involved, at least since Aristotle, an element of the dramatic or the tragic –that to say, of the theatrical. The catastrophic is first and foremost imaginary. […]


1. Theory and Practice of Catastrophe

Theory and Practice of Catastrophe


Thank you all for being here, and welcome to the Ninth International Symposium on Contemporary Art Theory [SITAC]. I’d like to thank the Board of Conemporary Art—Patronato de Arte Contemporaneo A.C. (PAC for its acronym in Spanish), its board of directors and its SITAC committee members: Patricia Sloane, Osvaldo Sánchez, Mariana Munguía, Ery Cámara, Sol Henaro and Aimée Servitje, for their vital work in enriching the dialogue about contemporary art. I’m very thankful for having been given this fantastic opportunity to collaborate with all of on such an important event for the cultural life of Mexico City. I extend my admiration and give a strong thanks to all of the artists, writers, philosophers and curators who through their work and talent gave life to this edition of the Symposium, and its complementary clinics program, which Sol Henaro so brilliantly put together. I also want to mention the great work of María Bostock and of the team at SITAC who worked extensively to coordinate and give shape to this event. The years-long effort of many extraordinary people is going to crystallize in these next three days. I’m compelled to express my recognition and gratitude to all of them. Finally, on behalf of SITAC, I want to give a special thanks to the far-reaching generosity of the people, companies and institutions that sponsored and facilitated this valuable collaborative effort.

The title we have chosen for this symposium is Theory and Practice of Catastrophe. The phrase itself is our starting point. I found it quite ironic to think about delineating a theory of ‘catastrophe’. But, as we’ll soon learn, there is most certainly such a theory, and as a mater of fact it’s very important. But it hardly makes sense for someone to conscientiously propose a practice of catastrophe, and if it does make any sense then it’s only under the guise of irony, the absurd or the profoundly destructive. And yet, with a second moment of reflexion about the world and our current situation, I found this title appropriate.

By the end of 2010—which was so full of every type of disaster—this issue gained relevance, especially in places like Mexico, which now finds itself immersed in an array of serious problems whose solutions seem increasingly further from our reach. It’s from this point, and in an unorthodox, almost affective way, that I want to generate a discussion that, given the magnificent participants at this event, I know will be fruitful. First, it’s necessary to outline the material we’re working with. A catastrophe, broadly speaking, implies change. It implies a crisis or disaster after which nothing will be the same, an event of the utmost significance for the life or system from which it came, precisely because it promises an inevitable and irreversible transformation of this life or system. A great variety of implications spring from that simple definition, which will help us combine areas of study that in another context (outside of the realm of art) should rightly be kept separate. With that in mind, I look for a plurality of approaches and topics, creating a spiralling dialogue that I’m sure will accommodate disparate voices and, even, contrasting moods and states of mind. I don’t think, though, that this will lead to any trouble in treating our topic with the seriousness it demands.

The purpose of this symposium is to invite philosophers, artists, curators and writers to discuss the scope of an ancient and elusive word that, in its history since Aristotle, has denoted a dramatic or tragic element, that is to say, a ‘theatrical element’. Catastrophes are chiefly imaginary. They have long flooded so many cultures’ myths. Even today, the symbolic power of epidemics, floods, plagues and other mass traumas more sweeping than death itself have not dwindled. Our era can dress itself in all the trappings of empiricism, but the evidence that catastrophe narratives hold power over us is easily visible in the continuous rise of new religious sects, in the profits these narratives reap for the entertainment industry and their effectiveness as ideological and political tools to control the masses.

Imaginary catastrophes can be just as terrible as real ones. We know what a big role Saint John’s Apocalypse has had in Western history. While the text paints a horrifying description of the world’s annihilation, its end also makes a promise of salvation that has powerfully shaped our culture. Historians have underscored Christopher Columbus’ millenarianism, which drove him to search for, among other things, a route to reclaim Jerusalem before setting sail to the west. He couldn’t have imagined that his expedition would give way to the ruin of the civilizations of an entire continent. Total destruction as the final step for salvation is a common construct that can even be found within the philosophy of Marx who saw the collapse of the capitalist system as necessary for the rise of communism. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, the fear that sociopolitical systems have created in our recent history is part of a deterrence strategy that has had far reaching consequences on a global scale. Today—at the onset of this millennium—we’ve equipped ourselves with a slew of different versions of Judgment Day whose promise of salvation shields us against the tangible calamities around us, many caused by our own widespread inertia. This is why it’s not only valuable but vital that we try to understand the power that catastrophe holds over our imagination. Maybe art, as a way to transform the collective imagination, can generate dissent and narratives that question hegemonic ideologies. With a little luck, some of the new routes we pave will be less deadly than the old ones.

Catastrophe always makes the front page. And mass media inevitably affects our perception of the world’s most excruciating misfortunes, with that in mind the communications term Marshal Mc Luhan coined—implosion—is apt. Today we find out about the on-goings of our immediate surroundings in a deficient way, but still we pretend to know about the earthquake’s aftermath in Haiti, about Bangladesh and its floods, and Mexico and Colombia with their narcotrafficking problems. As if all of that could peacefully be processed in the morning while reading the paper over breakfast. The characteristic indifference of many post-industrial societies contrasts with the intense violence present in every type of mass media: television, newspapers, video games. The claim that these representations of violence instigate the people that consume them to commit real acts of violence is debatable. But it doesn’t cease to be disturbing that real narcotrafficking organizations take Francis Ford Coppola’s characters as models, giving themselves names like La Familia in the style of classic mafia films. The border between the raw, morbid curiosity of another’s pain and the slow, emotional contemplation of it can be blurry in any context. But the trivialization of suffering and violence definitely reaches its climax with the incessant mass consumption of images. In the last decades, art has done an exceptionally good job of presenting a critical analysis of mass media, and we’ll see evidence of that throughout this symposium. On the other hand, some of SITAC’s participants have served as an effective counterpoint to indifference and have worked in natural-disaster rescue teams. Many have even proposed that rescue work be observed as art. Others have created community action programs that address various social problems.

If earthquakes, plagues and droughts—as necessary, indifferent events in the world’s evolution—are an insuperable part of human existence, then the misfortunes that some human groups have inflicted on others are the hallmark of civilization’s evolution. Today, we speak with horror of the large-scale military mayhem, but also of the quieter, but tremendous, economic upheavals that affect the lives of dozens of millions of people. Today, natural catastrophes and man driven ones seem to have forged a pact and now work together in the massive destruction of our ecosystems. There are an ever-growing number of examples of global industrial production processes frequently, drastically, perniciously and definitively affecting populations and the environment. One example will suffice. The first scientific warning of the dangers of climate change came, approximately, in 1998. But because of politically motivated reasons, the copious array of evidence that the world’s scientific community provided has been left ignored. Forty per cent of the greenhouse gasses that threaten our planet were produced since 1998. At least we can take comfort in noting that we’ve developed a greater consciousness of the damage human activity has reaped on its own environment. We can see the evidence of our destruction in floods, forest fires and heat waves due to climate change, in the uncontrollable oil spills, the over-exploitation of every type of resource and the disappearance of species on a scale that has been little before seen in the world’s entire history. We can’t dispute the role that the technological innovations of just the past few centuries have played in this downfall. But we have yet to see if a technoscientific development could, if not stop, then at least forge a new direction for the transformation of the planet.

In this conference we’ll see some examples of how contemporary artists have gone above and beyond the goal of encouraging awareness of these problems by establishing efficient technologies that promote a more sustainable development. Other artists have generated alternative technologies as a subversive political tool against the systems that dominate and exclude marginalized communities. Yes, over the course of three days, the topic at hand can become depressing, but we are looking for examples in which a new direction in the art world, one that has been gaining momentum, has been able to shed light on more and more concrete solutions. For many artists throughout history—from Leonardo to Vertov— technology has played an important role. Today, we’re witnesses to how artistic practice can turn itself into a critical form and discourse of obsolete and destructive technologies.

We have in our favour modern science’s ever growing understanding of the phenomenon of the extreme. The progress of their studies has been unprecedented, from René Thom’s Catastrophe Theory to the ideas of Ilya Prigogine and even the relatively recent Chaos Theory. Science’s focus on stability and regularity has ceded to the study of turbulence, bifurcations and breaking points, which have revealed a complexity unimaginable before. Science doesn’t hide its excitement of the capacity tsunami-generated water molecules have to organize and rearrange themselves, nor its excitement of common grasshoppers’ ability to transform into plagues of locusts. It’s possible that the growth of human knowledge is catapulting nature and humanity into an entirely different and unknown phase of existence.

Maybe it’s impossible to parcel art from disaster or from ‘the critical moment’. Works of art, as Deleuze and Guatarri once said, are expressions of a chaosmos, a harmonized order, yet one that implies facing the abyss. Artists are doing exactly that, looking for the cracks where explanations collapse and lose their usual meaning, looking to make the terrible plenitude of life visible through destruction and even self-destruction. Art can’t be a passive contemplation of existence, or just a thesis, no matter how important the thesis may be. Art can challenge us to confront the darkest nooks of our psyches, and help us understand our neighbours and ourselves better when confronting dangerous or distressing situations. Our primary goal is to peel away from a sublime awe and fascination toward a greater capacity for critiquing the era we live in. So in this moment I want to reiterate my invitation to plunge ourselves into this undertaking.

2. A Minimal Sampler of Catastrophic Events

A Minimal Sampler of Catastrophic Events

Being that the fragile and uncertain nature of human life has been a recurrent theme in many cultures throughout history, certain current-day artistic trends have sought a more determined involvement in denouncing and transforming critical situations. The broad spectrum of what is now considered art allows a space for related disciplines such as photojournalism, pedagogy, sustainable development, and political activism.

Some artists have managed to configure new models of collective organization, transcending the conventional modes of artistic dissemination, in order to search for tangible changes in their political and social environment. In other cases they have been able to channel the cultural and material resources of the institutions dedicated to contemporary art towards the recovery of disaster zones, in clear defiance to usual distancing between high culture and broader sectors of the population. In this day and age there seems to be an ever increasing will towards action amidst a seemingly unending list of pending problems. In any case, it remains valid, indispensable even, to reflect about the meaning and reach of our strengths as a society and as a species. It is not possible to consider the role of art as privileged form of knowledge, if its practitioners avoid researching those very episodes of crisis that affect a growing number of people around the globe.

3. Technoscience: Disaster and Panacea

Technoscience: Disaster and Panacea

Science in our time continues to peak, increasing its influence on so many philosophical and artistic expressions as it has done over the centuries. Yet, despite the many recent discoveries of great transcendence, today scientific knowledge does not inspire the same optimism it brought about a hundred years ago. In fact, quite on the contrary, nowadays it is somewhat clear that the technological development made possible by science is the main cause of the planets catastrophic transformation. We have, on the hand, a clearer notion of the magnitude of the challenges we face in a much more complex world that past generations had, and, on the other hand, the awareness of a technological power previously unthinkable, that sporadically runs out of control with devastating consequences.

4. Aesthetic Imagination in the Face of Chaos

Aesthetic Imagination in the Face of Chaos

It is impossible to count all examples of the interest artist have with destruction— whether real or imaginary —as a narrative subject or as a hypothesis for a political statement. The fascination on crisis situations in all the domains of culture is rather evident as well, as if even while finding moments of relative stability these were always fleeting and at times unwanted for the ends of the medias unrelenting enjoyment. It would seem that over the last fifty years we have journeyed from the pathos of the expressionistic artist to the ethical character of politically engaged art. The arts can make sense as a form of survival and resistance in the face of extreme violence or generalized crisis, but can also be a place of contemplation and teratological recycling of the mass media. In this session we will inquire into the elusive and problematic position of current art amidst the forceful and unfathomable reality of its context.

5. Clinics SITAC IX

Clinics SITAC IX


The clinics projected for IX SITAC Theory and practice of catastrophe were designed with this desire in mind: implicating other agents of contemporary production, and creating an interest in the study/observation of the complexity of everyday life through which to counteract or re-signify its reverberation in the artistic field. For thisedition, we involved a philosopher, a writer, and a group of designer-environmentalists who would offer different perspectives from their diverse experiences of knowledge and allow us to approximate and/or problematize this notion of the catastrophic. Contemporary thinking can’t limit itself to specific disciplines. The producers that can be sensitive to the world are those who are able to transition between disciplines and erase limitations in order to open up their mind and field of action/intervention. The clinics worked with hybrid formats. A group of collaborators met together in a seminar format to work through some outlines of thinking and some of the questions raised by SITAC’s director. These spaces of contemplation, reflection, and dialog were conceived as parallel opportunities to SITAC in order to continue unravelling the concepts, problems, and other meanings in order to activate arguments and reflective critiques involving the upcoming itineraries-gestures:

a) Corporality and Catastrophe with Fabian Giménez Gatto

b) Apocalyptic Narratives and the Ugly Future with Gonzalo Soltero, and

c) A workshop on adaptation designed by TOA (environmental operations workshop)

After the three days of SITAC’s conference on Saturday, February 5th 2011, about 48 people got together in order to evaluate and share their experiences. Among the group was each of the clinic’s coordinators, as well as participants from the three clinics all gathered at the SOMA’s patio looking to open a dialog and produce this way a conversation within all participants and those in charge of putting together this edition, including also future “clinicians.” Participants were invited to a collective/honest dialogue on the formats of SITAC, as well as the pros and cons of the CLINICS and their frailties. The need to openly face and expose the problems that arose was emphasized so that each and every one of us left with our own reflections, dissatisfactions and new strengths.

Several points to improve upon:

  • The lack of continuity in SITAC discussion tables.
  • The naiveté of the artists when exploring strange worlds through their work.
  • The weakness of some of the moderators on SITAC discussion panels.
  • In order to generate new forms of action and collective participation they had to use the culture of regret as a way to allow the development of new formats and to create participation.
  • Avoid programming the clinics so they overlap, allowing people to attend more than one clinic.
  • The possibility of continuing the exchange/relationship outside the clinic format
  • The direct link between SITAC and the perceived invisibility of the clinics within that format.
  • The lack of time to share and evaluate the work of the participants.
  • The choice to successfully broaden the margins between the various areas of knowledge production rather than limiting it to the realm of contemporary art.
  • The participants had little interest in reaching an agreement but rather gave each other a “pat on the back” instead of bringing up doubts, reflections, or stimulating constructive criticism.
  • The fact of the matter is that the spaces arise as “spaces of power,” and their importance lies in questioning their own hierarchical structures (problematizing the docent-student relationship)
  • The importance of collective reflection and exchange at the end of the clinics and at the end of SITAC was said to be important.

New ideas and suggestions were offered, such as:

  • To set out “organic” clinics and seek to make them starting points for the beginning of new projects.
  • Extending the time frame for the clinics in order to achieve more depth.
  • Not regulating the work and spaces of debate. Make SITAC and the clinics continuous processes throughout the year. (Plan with more time in advance of the events/seminars for SITAC)
  • Generate a blog or another way to gather lectures and other materials that can enrich and encourage further dialogue prior to the clinics.
  • Create space within the clinics so that each participant learns about their projects.
  • Keep in mind the stages of the clinics before, during and after SITAC.
  • To ponder upon the idea of the clinics as starting points, or devices that allows new projects to happen.
  • Consider the differences in form and dynamic between theoretical and practical workshops that can integrate the interests and benefit the clinics.
  • Increase media coverage possibilities and communication of SITAC and the clinics using social networking tools.

We began the session by gathering everyone together in a large circle, which then ended with an invitation to converse in smaller groups, to share and listen the ‘playlist of the catastrophe’ conducted from the clinics coordinated by TOA. The assistants continued to exchange ideas and thoughts for a while still, and some of us are in constant communication. Some complicities took root and then transformed into rhizome…