Reviewed by Anthony Leslie
“A yellow canary in a dark anthracite / grey coal mine / A transparent cat in a black box with / poison gas”
In Elena Bajo’s artist’s book The Factory of Forms, the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat meets the idiom of the canary in the coal mine. The hypothetical cat and the sentinel bird make for a strangely symmetrical pair–the unseen cat killed by the knowledge of its death; the bird who in dying speaks, relaying knowledge of the invisible. Bajo’s project investigates relations between knowing and death, which, under the shadow of capitalist production, pose parallel questions about work and ethics. We turn the page and find a public domain image of striking workers holding signs that read “BLACK LUNG KILLS.” The cat pursues the canary.
After Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism raised the question, Marxists in the twentieth century debated the interpretation of the new physics. Was quantum theory another bourgeois science? Did it refute dialectical materialism with quasi-Kantian doubts about the independence of matter from mind? Or did it rather refute positivism with a thorough, bottom-up dismantling of the mechanistic worldview? What does it mean to revive these questions in an art context?
In Althusser’s chapter on Marx and epistemology in Reading ‘Capital’, the “discovery” of surplus-value is understood as a theoretical event—as a moment when a new discourse transforms the very structure of its object. Like the ‘Crisis in Physics’ confronting the palpable overlap between knowledge and its object, (observer and observed), Bajo’s project of radicalized relational aesthetics recognizes the effect of the reading on the book, and moreover, recognizes in this an emancipatory potential. In the same thought experiment that conjures Schrödinger’s cat, we are presented with a decontextualized image of a burning car and asked to tell if we are looking at an accident or a riot. Bajo takes an old question relating to the signification of the image and poses it anew in terms of the interpretation of acts of resistance.
I know Schrödinger’s cat is supposed to freeze my blood or at the very least upset my sense of what is, but I can’t help it if the conundrum fails to strike me as even weird. Anybody who has to go to work for a wage knows all about being dead and alive at the same time. The Factory proposes a practice of art-making against alienation. And we think we’ve heard this somewhere before. Something to do with Milton and the silkworm, yes? But here it returns as a practice rooted in its own contradictions–through the funny cache of printer garbage from the office space of art production that serves as the book’s prologue (searching for an unlikely heterotopia in the abandoned space of rejected printed matter), in the manifesto that transforms itself into the script of a performance, the materiality of the word that returns discourse to the brink of music, and the musical score’s regimentation of time returning us again to the time of capitalist production (“DON’T FORGET YOU HAVE JUST 15 MINUTES”.)
There is a playful optimism in The Factory also. At one point we are offered the Wikipedia definition of the commons. Elsewhere three brief paragraphs of basic facts about global warming are followed by the beautifully simple claim, “This is all the information needed to know about industrial pollution and how to stop it.” And John and Yoko’s Vietnam War-era slogan returns in a form that pushes its logic one step further: “CAPITALISM IS OVER (if you want it).”
Elena Bajo, The Factory of Forms, (Onomatopee, 2012)
Images: interior from The Factory of Forms.