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

pretentious context.


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