Review of Paul Virilio’s
"Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity"
at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris
by Joseph Nechvatal
The avowed aim of the Fondation Cartier exhibition "Ce qui arrive" (What is
Coming) (The English title however is inexplicably "Unknown Quantity") –
which was organized by the now famously reactionary techophobe Paul Virilio
- is that "the principle of responsibility to future generations requires
that we expose accidents now, and the frequency of their industrial and
postindustrial repetition." What is obvious in this highly controlled and
academic exhibition "on the theme of accidents" is that this claim of
"responsibility" is fraudulent. Most of the exhibition is deeply
irresponsible. The word dreadful adequately describes it.
Precisely, the bulk of this show is dreadfully irresponsible in its
appropriation of the 9_11 attack on New York City. As a downtown New Yorker
who experienced daily these ruins (thank god the horrid smell could not be
reproduced and exploited here) I was offended by how facile is the show. It
is really a vapid presentation in that it aims to teach us that ‘shit
happens’. Do we really have to dress this recognition up in priestly black
profundity and pretend it is art?
Not only does "Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity" irresponsibly lump the
9_11 attack into a "museum of accidents" (it was no accident) it wallows in
the pathetic tropes of Romanticism by inviting us to contemplate the smoky
ruins of the 9_11_01 World Trade Center attack. Prominently featured was
Tony Oursler’s footage of the fuming ruins, as it is the first thing we sees
projected large when we descend into the downstairs "Museum of Accidents".
Also included was 9_11 footage shot from a Brooklyn roof by Moira Tierney
and a re-packaged "best of" 24 hour selection of Wolfgang Staehle’s live
web-cam which captured from afar the 9_11 attack and aftermath ("2001") –
here now striped of its scale, neutrality and live immediacy.
For me, such apocalyptic-chic imagery is congruent with that of the fervent
Romanticism of Turner, Constable and Friedrich. Indeed the whole show reeks
of Romanticism - that cultural movement (circa 1795-1840) inspired by the
writings of Edmund Burke and the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau,
as it focuses not on individual passions and inner struggles or joys but on
fearfully transcendent ‘big picture’ dramatic performances – what are
essentially extenuations of Romanticism’s Romantic Sublime.
Indeed, "Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity" claims in its expensive glossy
catalogue that it attempts to explore Paul Virilio's most recent writings of
the subject of the increasing development of accidents as an indirect
consequence of man's inventions. But in the show one thinks more often to
the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm Josef von Schelling, Friedrich von
Schlegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Novalis (the nom de plume used by
Baron Friedrich Ludwig Von Hardenberg). Or even Søren Kierkegaard, as when
he noted already in 1836 that Romanticism implies the overflowing of all
boundaries. Yes, the big-picture overflows the particular individual and
drifts into transcendentalist spectacle here. So as a, in Virilio’s words,
"homage to discernment "Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity" fails miserably
by its own terms, as here Virilio only repeats once again the nihilism of,
in his words, the "markets of the spectacle". To repeat, it does so by
traveling in romantic images of the ruins of the 9_11_01 World Trade Center
attack. Just as our televisions did not show us any actual, mangled, dead
bodies of the victims of the World Trade Towers and Pentagon attacks,
neither does "Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity" show anything intimate,
personal or subjective. Nothing individual is examined in terms of 9_11.
Only more abstractions - more mystifications - which attempt to symbolize.
Such a symbolizing view of smoldering ruins is entirely too abstract to, in
Virilio’s expression "learn to discern what is impending".
Yes, this doomy show fails too by its own terms in that Virilio claims it is
"a stand against the fading ethical and aesthetic points of reference, and
the loss of meaning in which we are so often now not really actors, but
witnesses or victims." If "Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity" really aimed,
as Virilio claims, to "provide a counterpoint to the excesses of all kinds
with which the great news media swamp us daily" by presenting a "museum of
horrors, which no one seems to realize always precedes and accompanies the
upsurge of even greater disasters", then he has failed by submitting to an
abstract aesthetic of the Romantic Sublime.
This Romantic Sublime is true, if less so, also of the two sculptural
presentations which take up and overwhelm the ground floor in an area which
Virilio calls "The Fall" (how biblical). Here Lebbeus Woods (with the
collaboration of Alexis Rochas) has designed a colorless trajectory
field-installation for the main exhibition space - an installation that
hypothesizes the collapse of Jean Nouvel's building. This was accompanied by
a version of Stephen Vitello’s World Trade Tower audio piece - a version
that had all the charm of a funeral drone. Gladly, Nancy Rubins contributed
a massive and admirable adaptation of her catastrophic assemblage "MoMA and
Airplane Parts" (1995/2002) in the right side of this area.
According to Virilio we need to "inaugurate a new kind of museology and
museography: one which consists in exposing or exhibiting the accident".
After seeing his show, I think that that idea is itself a disaster – a
catastrophic disaster because besides having all the weight of a kitsch
disaster film, his exhibition is something which definitely does NOT have
the feeling of an accident. Rather it is something which has only the LOOK
of the accident. What we see and experience is something highly controlled,
something highly crafted - thus something pretending and thus, one could
say, intellectually fraudulent.
Jean Baudrillard says in his influential book "Simulation" that "Never again
will the real have to be produced: this is the vital function of the model
in a system of death…" He is right. After seeing Virilio’s "prefiguration of
the future Museum of the Accident" we do not need a real Paul Virilio Museum
of Accidents. We can enjoy the beautiful films of Peter Hutton, Jonas Mekas,
Bruce Conner, Artavazd Pelechian et al outside of this dreadful and
By the way, the very day before the opening I saw a woman struck by a car on
rue Raspail, the same street of the Cartier Foundation. Watching her lay in
the street bleeding, surrounded by other rubber-necking pedestrians and soon
cops, I thought to myself, now do I need go see the Virilio accident show?
Indeed I did not. Nobody even shit their pants.
"Ce qui arrive" / "Unknown Quantity"
Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain
261, boulevard Raspail 75014 Paris
November 29th 2002 till March 30th 2003