Introduction | The Aesthetics of Contingency
Ujazdowski Castle – one of the canonical buildings of a city raised from the ruins – is a symbol of Warsaw. What binds it closely to the city is not only the "ghost" reconstruction based on Bernardo Bellotto's 18th-century vedutas but also its unfulfilled potential, what the Castle did not become – for instance, the seat of the People’s Theater of the Polish Army or an evening university of Marxism-Leninism. Having suffered much delay in being rebuilt, the Castle is a singular example of Warsaw’s "anarchitecture" which combines the old Polish, Sarmatian fantasy with a modernist socialist utopia, leaving the building open to constant alteration of its function.
As a Russian witticism has it, only the future is certain – it is the past that is unpredictable. This reflection took me back to an April morning in 2010. I was due to pick up a couple of Ethiopian artists from the hotel they were staying at; they had come to present their cultural program at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń, getting some distraction from their difficult day-to-day life as immigrants in Warsaw. When I came into their hotel room, I was taken aback: they were both in tears in front of the TV. To start with, I found it hard to comprehend what had happened and fathom what image could have been sufficiently powerful to trigger such a reaction. A glimpse of the smoking carcass of a plane on the TV monitor was not a good omen. "The President is dead!" one of the visitors told me, in a trembling voice.
Today, seven years after the plane crash in Smoleńsk – in which all 96 people on board were killed, including the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, and his wife, as well as many prominent politicians; a crash, the blame for which the present Polish government lays at the feet of Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk, the-then prime minister of Poland, and since 2014 President of the European Council – it is certain that this "extremely rare event" has totally transformed social relationships in Poland. While keeping things in perspective, the fallout can be likened to the archaeological and ideological "reconstruction" that followed in the wake of the wartime destruction of Warsaw. This is the optics of a distorting mirror: just as with the plane crash in Smoleńsk, where the viral online coverage distorted perception, so the narrative of the destruction of Warsaw and the horror of World War II have been made larger-than-life through the media involved – mainly the press and cinema. In spite of the technological and ideological differences of the various stages of "reconstruction" or "conservation" that followed, both tragedies enable us to better appreciate the aesthetics of global fear management, and the manipulation of uncertainties, separatist drives and images of terrorist acts distributed by the social media.
In his The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Roland Barthes wrote, "Architecture is always dream and function, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience."3 The experience of Warsaw, one of a number of cities bombed to the ground during the Second World War, has facilitated a new understanding of contemporary architecture and the symbolic manipulation to which it has been put. For what is an architectural reconstruction that keeps representing the same building? Is the Warsaw that has been replicated at a scale of 1:1 in its urban layout still the same city that it had been – or is it a sophisticated illusion? Are the "ghost" edifices that impersonate themselves sufficiently earthquake-proof? What has been the impact of the new and old function of the building on the social and political landscape?
The starting points of this issue of Obieg are the architectural paradoxes of Ujazdowski Castle, the home of the first Centre of Contemporary Art in Poland, seen from the global perspective of the "aesthetics of contingency," which refers to the aspects of visual culture related to the likelihood of risk, danger, and fear – all factors that developed societies are at pains to avoid, often willingly succumbing to ever-greater restrictions in order to achieve this goal. In this context, contingency is represented by the shifting of the center of gravity in visual culture towards an object-oriented legal culture, immersed in matter and a material approach, in codes of practice and formulas comprehensible only to the cognoscenti. The global show is fueled by fake news and kowtows to expert opinion. This approach has made itself felt both in the political arena and also in the cultural sphere in general, including the aesthetics mediated online. To signal the problem, we present threads linked to speculative realism and accelerationism as well as a discussion of possible outcomes, partly venturing beyond formal considerations in attempting to define the "possible."
On the simplest possible level, contingency denotes an attempt to predict all possible outcomes of any event, outcomes which may – but need not – take place. In his After the Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux juxtaposes the etymology of "chance" and "aleatoricism," derived from the Latin word "alea," referring to dice rolling resulting in random outcomes, with the origin of "contingency" – from Latin contingere – to be connected with/ touch upon, implying that events touch one upon another, occurring in a chain, making it possible to a certain degree to make reasonable predictions about the future, as did the philosophers whom Meillassoux confronts as "correlationists." For Meillassoux, it is contingency alone that is necessary – hence his thesis is named the "necessity of contingency" – and the event that occurs is quite unpredictable, invading us from outside with unexpected force: "The contingent [...] is something that finally happens, something other, some thing which, in its irreducibility to all pre-registered possibilities, puts an end to the vanity of a game wherein everything, even the improbable, is predictable."1
Thus, the contingency that eventually comes to pass is something different to that which was predicted, and cannot be reduced to any of the predictions made before its occurrence; it brings to an end the stale game in which everything, even the most unlikely, can be predicted.
Contingency as understood by Meillasoux is a rather dangerous force. It separates the historic fact of our existence from rational necessity, introducing a new uncertainty into our relationship with the present and the future. Contingency reveals, as it were, that we are "determined" internally and externally by anonymous materials – think petroleum or discussions about the Anthropocene. In that sense, one can view taking contingency into consideration as one of the remaining tasks, if our goal is to shed the optimistic illusions of contemporaneity and to comprehend the speculative temporality around us. On a more positive note, to accomplish this task means doing away with the (postmodern) gloom about losing our axioms and tenets and – against all odds – setting out to understand our expectations of the future.
In this context, it is important to take a fresh look at architectural projects – including the newest ones, the "ruins" of neoliberalism – which combine to present a broad spectrum that represents the crisis and the neo-reactionary swing to the right which is playing out currently. This exercise may help us understand that our time no longer takes place in a linear manner, with the present following the past and preceding the future. Now, things are often topsy-turvy: time arrives from the past. If some of us have the impression that time has been derailed, has lost meaning or is not as it used to be, this is probably due to the fact that we are finding it difficult to get used to living in such a non-obvious temporality.
If today we are "post-everything," this is because the historically given semantics are no longer functional, thus the present in a sense enters into a speculative relationship with the past. The Russian adage that the future is certain but the past keeps being rewritten has acquired a new, topical significance. We have found ourselves in a future that has exceeded the conditioning and terms of engagement relevant in the past. All in all, what this means is that the present is not only the realization of a speculative future (pre-) but also the future of the past that we are currently exceeding. Today, we have been deprived of the stability or form that the past had to offer (post-).
These conflicting answers to the neoliberal acceleration and mobilization of a speculative perfect tense – both that offered by the left-wing critique and that postulated by the reactionary right-wing – have proven convenient for the newly hatching form of capitalism. Perhaps this is more noticeable at present as regards the neo-reactionary right-wing tendencies that have become more prominent in Europe due to the migration crisis, economic discrepancies, increasing disenchantment with the European Union, and a sense of loss of national identity. These tendencies do not, in any way, undermine the status quo but rather support the authorities in power by manipulating the past. Left-wing critical responses are also related to a form of repression – to such an extent that most people feel that it is impossible to get going in the present, make any changes, or look to a future worth pursuing. In a sense, throughout the world, contemporary art is both a symptom and surrogate for this lack of the future, which can be seen in the incessant celebration of the aesthetic experience, critical approach, being 24/7, and so on. There are, however, many exceptions to this attitude and the reference of art to speculative temporality can show that only too often fiction is understood as an antonym of reality and not as a chance to take a new look at the future.
A few months ago, the Polish Government, in an unusual move, sought the assistance of Forensic Architecture, a group of artists and researchers who specialize in novel imaging strategies, capable of predicting future events as well as confirming unsolved ones from the past; the agency declined the invitation. The problem of the plane crash in Smoleńsk has become a new "ship of Theseus," impossible to put to rest with a single answer. The ship, in which Theseus and his crew returned from Crete, for a long time was kept preserved by the Athenians and, as the old planks gradually decayed, each was replaced with a new one. Plutarch used the ship of Theseus to raise the question of identity: was a form reproduced from non-original material with identical properties still the same, or not?2 In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes took this philosophical conundrum of identity further, musing about the identity of material from a dismantled ship employed to construct another vessel. It is easy to grasp the material issues of asking such a question in relation to Ujazdowski Castle. The entropic character of the post-Smoleńsk narrative matches the scale of that related to the reconstruction of Warsaw. The continuing and endless political crises including the constitutional showdown and the confrontation related to reform of the courts would provide a wealth of gratifying material for a customized remake of Rashômon or another film by the same director – I Live in Fear. It is in the interests of those responsible for this crisis management to try to find an answer to the question of what kind of "construction" should be erected to replace the Smoleńsk crater. Often in times of crisis, the advantage goes to the player more adept at exploiting the crisis in practice, controlling both situations and shocking images. The aesthetics of contingency inspires us to imagine a different future than that which has been suggested to us. This is more than just good entertainment.
The texts in this first part refer to the changing functions of architecture, a medium that, with its diverse functions, can be viewed, albeit somewhat loosely, as a primary medium of contingency. Elye Ayache maintains that the institution of the market has just such a function. Anna Balázs sketches the outlook for the second post-communist transformation giving the example of a number of cities in Ukraine. Sergei Guskov presents a Ballardesque vision of a neoliberal dream that is "Moscow City." Kalia Dimitrova shows what a post-contemporary neo-reactive transformation might look like in conjunction with a turning away from modernist rationalism, based on the example of Skopje 2014. Ewa Toniak and Anna Cymer sketch a "hauntologist," and to a certain extent postmodern history of the architectural "shocks" of Ujazdowski Castle and the reconstruction of Warsaw. With his analysis of the necrocratic psychological power of armored and SUV vehicles, Lukáš Likavčan introduces the reader to the aesthetics of contingency, further developed by the authors Elie Ayache, Lee Weng Choy, Dy Ngoy talking to Manthia Diawara, Denis Ekpo, Geert Lovink & Ned Rossiter, Maija Rudovska & Patrik Aarnivaara, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė & Vitalij Strigunkov, Mick Wilson, Paula Lopez Zambrano, and others.
I would like here to thank Franco Ariaudo for his hospitality, which enabled me to write this text, and also to Paula Lopez Zambrano and Obieg's team for their valuable comments.
Translated from the Polish by Anda MacBride
Cover photo: Vitalij Strigunkov, no title, 2017. Digital photo.
1 Q. Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, Continuum, New York and London, 2008, p. 108.
2 I would like to thank Lukáš Likavčan for bringing the paradox of the ship of Theseus to my attention.
3 Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, University of California Press 1997.