Liberating Ireversible Deletions: Art, Plasticity And Memory
Text by Pia Brezavšček
Translated by Sunčan Stone
Selected excerpts about Expunction – a project by Igor Štromajer, 2011
The philosopher Catherine Malabou inventedthe concept of “plasticity” in her reading of Hegel and described it as the “dented foundation” of his philosophy and the broader “privileged supplement/schema of our epoch, interrupting the tracing of the trace to replace it with the formation of form ….” Malabou wishes to end this deconstruction, as Jacques Derrida – who was her teacher – presents it. It is not plastic enough, for it fails to anticipate the possibility of a total explosion, the metamorphosis of traces into something completely different. Persisting at palimpsest layers, eternal differentiation and setting aside scriptures does not suffice. One has to think also the modality that the negativity contains, one has to think about the change of the difference, not only its eternal overcoming, but its total transformation, a new beginning, for “power can do nothing against the possible.” According to Malabou, plasticity “refers to a dual ability to receive form (clay is plastic) and give form (as in the plastic arts or plastic surgery).” Plasticity is also a plastic explosive, deflagration, as negativity that brings new possibilities and is essentially affirmative. If we wished to capture both meanings of plasticity in its formation as well as deformation, this would probably be best described by the ice installations as forms that are surrounded by a cloud of possible transformation, temporaneity and difference. However, plasticity should not be mistaken for elasticity or flexibility. By the later two terms reversibility, endless adjustability and even bendability (taking certain conditions into account) are assumed. Plasticity carries within it the possibility of transformation, but without a way back; once a block of marble has been worked, it can no longer be returned to its original state. In its modality, plasticity therefore represents an essentially transformational and not a simple reproductive category (such as, for instance, the forced flexibility of the players on the contemporary labour market). However, this is not a simple repetition that differentiates, for it provides the capability “to change the difference – continuously, with no borders, without an event and with no negativity,” disregarding the phantoms that were eliminated through selection, whispering “it could be different”. Plasticity does not look back.
With plasticity, Malabou changes the thought on difference that Derrida (who we, at this point, connect with restoration and palimpsest interpretation work) reduces to its graphic function, always a product of writing (again, in the broadest possible sense). Malabou decisively states: “I call plasticity the resistance of différance to its graphic reduction. Or, if you will, that which, in différance, is not present but which does not write itself either. Something that is not present, that is not absent, that is not written.” In the course of ongoing events, the amendment that resists the (historical) record, the traces of writing, is the remnant that fails to submit to the archival capturing of the whole, a virtual aura that enables future plasticity, the taking over of new forms. Artistic events (happenings, performances, dance, music, theatre) are never static points, but fluids that suck all temporaneity around them, just like a black hole. Thus they remain evasive, intangible, yet saturated with potentiality, with supplements. And it is up to us to give form to this remnant.
Even though Malabou describes the plasticity of sculptures with a more “plastic” description of the term plasticity, this does not mean that art itself cannot be plastic in the broader, conceptual meaning of the word. It seems that this is the case – especially in events that take into account their own temporaneity and with this their own emergence and the possibility of future forms and effects. If restorative preservation of the object in its more than historical view is deconstructive preservation of its traces through constant differentiation and erasure, plasticity wishes to give deconstruction a form and refuses to “repeat or pastiche a gesture that can no longer produce difference.” “Plasticity reaches beyond the dead letters of writing, beyond the border between life and death and has nothing in common with immortality.” The plastic archiving approach does not believe in the non-changeability and eternity of even the most canonically established artworks. Immortality no longer exists, not even in art. None, not even the most established values, are eternal and unchangeable. In the same way as with the plasticity of our brains, in which the synaptic connections are constantly transferred or are at least capable of doing so, a total transformation, an explosion that erases the set connections and completely reorganises the schemes is at least theoretically possible. Catherine Malabou considers biology and history jointly, the historical memory and our brains have an identical structure that is essentially plastic; it forms and is formed.
In its broader meaning, plasticity also includes destructive plasticity. This “starts to operate with the exhaustion of possibilities, when the virtual has gone long ago.” As oblivion, as a way of overcoming a trauma, it also has a regenerative capability. Following a brain stroke, the brain functions can be totally reorganised, they are capable of forgetting the previous connections.
Such an oblivion, explosion or deletion is, by its function of healing, affirmative negativity. “Destructive plasticity prohibits envisaging precisely the other possibility, even if it were an a posteriori possibility. It has nothing to do with the tenacious incurable desire to transform what has taken place, to reengage in the history of the phantasm of another history; it does not match any unconscious tactical strategy of opening, the refusal of what is, in the name of what could have been.” Destructive plasticity does not write alternative history, which still represents a sort of ressentiment, the awakening of phantoms, but opens the modality of the future.
The explosive function of plasticity is a strategy recently used by Internet artist Igor Štromajer in his project Expunction. Every day, for more than a month, he deleted one of his net art projects (created between 1996 and 2007) from his server. The English word used in the title (expunction, to expunge), which Štromajer has chosen for this action, indicates that this action is not an aggressive destructive act of ressentiment (taking into account the connotations of the expression from the legal vocabulary, which defines this as the erasure of irrelevant or no longer valid criminal files) but a confrontation with a past that no longer resonates and could with its traces have unfavourable consequences in the future. Štromajer’s Expunction was precisely such, regenerative, even though it did not deal with deleting criminal but artistic acts. Some net art projects, five or even fifteen years old, were written for certain browsers that no longer exist and thus they no longer function within the new Internet protocols, and in some cases, the key links no longer exist or are no longer functional, and with this, the content of these works has been lost. These are, as Štromajer states, not merely contents that can be burnt onto a CD, for their essential function is interactivity and the fact that they are integrated into the Internet at a certain point in time. Because the Internet is a living, constantly changing organism, the Net today is different from the one that existed fifteen years ago.
The Internet is essentially plastic, with a characteristic network structure. Within this structure, the connections constantly change, new ones emerge and some die out, in the same way as, for instance, during a longterm depression of the brain synapses, when we fail to perform a certain learned activity for a long time. The Internet operates in a similar way as society does, and the computer can (in its plasticity) be compared to the brains of an individual. As the American philosopher Daniel C. Dannett stated, even computers are not merely machines, but are, similarly to our brains, “a virtuoso future-producer, a system that can think ahead, avoid ruts in its own activity, solve problems in advance of encountering them, and recognize entirely novel harbingers of good and ill.” Even a machine can prefer events over laws, for plasticity is the “eventlike dimension of the mechanical”. There is plenty of room for plasticity on the computer’s hard drive, which is not merely a calculating, fixed and hard-wired architecture. The computer is not merely “a multidimensional map, network, but a sequence of symbols.” Our brains, with their neuronal plasticity, are structured in the same way. The possibility of accepting and giving form in a network structure, its constant additions and transformations, are also characteristic of the Internet.
The restoration programming techniques that have been developed in certain museums try to preserve certain Net-art projects by reprogramming them or restoring them for the current Internet environment, but with this they lose a certain specific aesthetic as well as their contents, for they were created for a specific context and they represent a temporal slice of the past. This is why Štromajer decided to let some of his works die – or maybe one could say he executed them, for in the form in which they existed, even if they were continuously updated, they were nothing more than the living dead. In order for them to be preserved in an unchanged form, the entire Internet would have to be reconstructed, and this is practically impossible. Of course, fragments remain. While deleting files from his server, Štromajer collected memory fragments, recorded films of the projects in their original environment, created screenshots. And anyway, nothing can ever be completely deleted from the World Wide Web, remnants will always remain. By documenting the deleted, he in fact created memory triggers, that can eventually reveal more about the project then the actual artificially preserved Netart piece that no longer resonates. When Štromajer notices that the repetition or the pastiche gesture of a work, created for instance in 1996, can no longer produce a difference, i.e. something relevant here and now, he decides to euthanize it. A virtual real part is destroyed only once it has been exhausted; however, this destruction is entirely affirmative.
Such deletion of traces, which leaves behind mere fragments, particular memories, returns the potentiality to the projects themselves. These can now finally be understood in combination with the addition of absence, which does not represent a loss, but only wraps the real object with a virtual object. As Gilles Deleuze stated: virtual objects belong essentially to the past…the past as “contemporaneous with its own present, as pre-existing the passing present and as that which causes the present to pass.”19 The virtual object thus represents the opposite to the continuity of the traces, which would carry with them the entirety of its real past; in this way, the virtuosity merely drains itself and finally loses its potency. The virtual object is a memory, but not a nostalgic one, it is instead directed into the future. As Deleuze would say: “It lacks something in itself, since it is always half of itself, the other half being different as well as absent. This absence /…/ is the opposite of a negative. Eternal half of itself, it is where it is only on condition that we search for it where it is not. It is at once not possessed by those who have it and had by those who do not posses it.”20 The deletion thus represents a new revival with a pure past that finally breaks away from the real past that burdens the real object and disables its potency. The pure past is contemporary to the present and draws the possible future around the real part to which form will be given by plasticity. Through Expunction, Igor Štromajer saved his objects from the total exhaustion of the virtual, he saved them from getting worse through constant restoration, the non-changeability of traces. The deletion is in fact destructive plasticity that regenerates art by giving it a new life, a future. Because they include absence and give form to traces, fragmented documents are a more credible (re)presentation or (re)generation of an artwork. They are entirely plastic, prone to (interpretational) formation and capable of giving form, for, through destructive plasticity, the virtual object is regenerated. In this form, the possibility of its plastic functioning has reappeared once again.
Art deletion is a delicate issue that always opens the question of cultural heritage, which should supposedly be a common good. Arbitrary art deletion might thus seem to be damaging to potential tradition. A scandal emerged alread in 1953, when Rauschenberg erased De Kooning’s painting, even though this act was performed in agreement between the two artists. As Štromajer stated, “one who creates, programs and constructs art can also deprogram, deconstruct, delete it.” Why should this right be reserved merely for institutions that erase works through their selections? Of course, Štromajer cannot delete artworks of his that were purchased by galleries, for, once they were included in collections, they became the property of the institution or a common good to which he does not have physical access. However, he can do as he wishes with those artworks that nobody has bought and are therefore not officially recognised either.
+ Complete online version of the text (English, p. 152-157)
Pia Brezavšček graduated in Philosophy and is currently finishing up her studies in Art History. She writes theoretical texts and reviews on the topic of visual and performing arts.