Lopud Seminar – The Alchemical Paradigm
October 2014 | Lopud Island, Croatia

The Alchemical Paradigm is an intimate symposium set on the Croatian island of Lopud aiming at developing the multi-centred explorations of TBA21 by bridging the elementary vocabularies and periodizations of the Rare Earth exhibition project with the Magia naturalis, as well as the flamboyant visions of Baroque sensibilities. These explorations, as always, will be an outlook into the future: where are we and where do we go from here? 

This symposium makes reference to the alchemical imaginary. While commonly understood to be focused on transmuting ‘base’ materials into gold, or discovering the ‘elixir of life’, the intellectual and/or spiritual goals the alchemical enterprise were broader – relating to the methods by which knowledge of nature is revealed and the processes by which materials undergo transformation. This set of associations is our departure point for a series of conversations exploring the stakes of the philosophical and artistic enterprise as it relates to technologies of vision and mining—through special reference to the Baroque, and interplay between the digital and the mineral. 

Through commissioning constellations and institutional laboratories, philanthropists meet to imagine new models of commissioning, presentation, and art ownership, as well as new collaborations with institutional and educational partners for the production of art. These are constellations where stars need to be aligned and the conditions to be right for creation to take place. Similarly, collaborations that imply transdisciplinary production are a matter of alignment. Like Orion’s dagger, the birthplace of stars (a nebula is a combination of dark matter and too much energy) that has its appearance in Mayan culture as the beginning of all creation. Can the commissioning process enter a more collaborative phase? What is the possibility of co-owning great works of art that can be shared in, or out of, the collector’s exhibition spaces and public art venues? What and where is that space?

Participants: Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, Marine Hugonnier, and Cesar Garcia in conversation with Mark Wigley.

A contemporary reading and investigation into some trajectories of the baroque period serving as a mental map or itinerary in preparation of the project Olafur Eliasson and the Baroque at the Winterpalais of the Prince Eugen and at TBA21 in Vienna next year, and later at the Convento de Tepotzotlan and at the Museo Jumex in Mexico. In his engaged artistic practice of nearly two decades, Eliasson has experimented with installations based on mechanisms of motion, projection, shadow, and reflection, creating complex optical phenomena often using simple, makeshift technical devices. The materials used within his works are elemental and ephemeral: light, heat, moisture, steam and ice are manipulated by the artist towards aesthetic ends and in response to a specific site. His work navigates a space between nature and technology, the organic and the industrial, but most fundamentally always engages with the viewer / visitor the activating protagonist of art. The two sessions explore Eliasson’s methodology from the point of departure by the artist, citing the words of Édouard Glissant as a proposed exercitium, an exercise of thought and practice:

The baroque has undergone a naturalization, not just as art and style but as a way of living the unity-diversity of the word. This process of naturalization prolongs the baroque and recreates it, beyond the flamboyant realms of a unique Counter-Reformation, to extend it into the unstable mode of Relation; and, once again in this full-sense, the “historical“ baroque prefigured, in an astonishingly prophetic manner, present-day upheavals of the world.

The first exercitium is dedicated to various perspectives on the baroque encapsulated in the paradigms of vision (vs. visionary)/construction (the scientific image) and energy (vs ghosts):

– The vision/visionary paradigm: the historic shift in the understanding of ‘vision’. This paradigm is based on scientific and philosophical discoveries, such as the discoveries in optics, the radiation of light, the telescope and microscope, mirrors, and the solutions of perspectival representation on two-dimensional surfaces. Yet at the same time, there exists a strong prevalence of the visionary and phantasmagoric, the ‘spiritus vitalis’. referring to the inner sight or the externalization of what is ‘unseen‘ inside or beyond the surface. 

– The retinal paradigm: the baroque’s investment with images and the construction of artifice. The baroque style is the result of the Council of Trent and decreed by papal orders to emotionalize the laymen and to communicate religious themes through emphatic visions and representations. The ‘constructivism’ of baroque art is thus a calculated and mediated technology of affect and artifice. In its iconophilic nature, it is intended to be subliminal and retinal and arouse the eye and the senses of the believer while exploiting the full range of rhetorical, allegorical figures and ornaments. 

– The energy paradigm: a new reading of the material constellation constituted of energy, electricity, lights, enlightenment, and ghost-encounters, the immaterial and occult. The philosophical enlightenment struggles to find the right perceptive faculty under which to sort the multitude of witnessed ghost-encounters, and where to register them according to their seriousness for the debate: as doom-mongering, ‘atrabilious exudation, old-wive’s-tales and friary flim-flam’, as per Mirjam Schaub.

Participants: Beatriz Colomina, Sandra Noeth, Mirjam Schaub, and György Szönyi in conversation Daniela Zyman. 
Lopud, Croatia
The second exercitium is dedicated to the study of baroque sensibilities as an examination of its territorial expansionism with its invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, its legacy for today and its conflicting territories. This would be discussed under the second exercitium

– The prophetic paradigm: this paradigm relates to a much wider philosophical dilemma of the 16 and 17th (and partially 18th) centuries namely the schism between what can be called the moderns and conservatives and the unclear dividing lines between the “enlightened”, humanist thinkers and the ‘natural unreason‘and the uncertainty and unruliness of the world. This period knows more unorthodoxies than perhaps any other historic time and the construction of the most unlikely alliances of thoughts and acts. In many ways, it is a period of anticipation and augury.  

– The expansionary paradigm: The Society of Jesus, as well as the Franciscan and Dominican orders, become the main conduits for the propagation of the baroque in New Spain. Through the creation of elaborate trade routes – trading slaves as well as ecclesiastic paraphernalia and scientific instruments – the Catholic orders are at the nexus of the transfer between the European centers and the new peripheries of the world. 

– The baroque’s inclinations for opulence, extravaganza, the abject, and a culture of the ecstatic has had its followers throughout the ages and its radically contemporary embodiments today. What has been the legacy?

Participants: Erick Beltrán, Paul Feigelfeld, Cesar Garcia, Peaches, Mirjam Schaub, and Mark Wigley in conversation with Daniela Zyman.

It would seem that there is no place for considerations of myth, metaphor and religion within contemporary materials science. However, the prehistoric origins of this discipline – and its eventual development and consolidation in the modern period – brought about numerous esoteric systems and speculations. The results of such pre/proto-scientific enterprise took the form of, amongst other things, alchemical and yogic lore. Throughout these examples, ancient characterizations of the earth as womb (matrix) abound, with the ores interred therein characterized as being in a state of gestation and development towards finality (as gold, both material and symbolic). According to this anthropomorphic logic, the work of the miner, metalworker, or alchemist is a kind of intervention that speeds up time. This pseudo-midwifery was seen to require due care and respect in practice. Consider this in relation to philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon’s arguments for the experimental method proper: “For you have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. Neither ought a man make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object.” What is newly born of the earth, technically and intellectually, today? How might we characterize humanity’s role in this process?

Michael Maier’s 1617 treatise Atalanta Fugiens is the early Baroque magnum opus on alchemy, bringing together 50 allegorical etchings and 50 fugues elucidating the process of making the ‘philosophers’ stone’. Rather than explicitly describing the technicalities of production, Maier constructs complicated figural narratives. This register (of metaphor, personification, embodiment...) aims not to reveal but to hide – to deliver meaning only for those initiated in a specific symbolic vocabulary and its grammatical systems. This is the esoteric (belonging to inner circle) language of the occult (hidden) ‘science’. The philosophers’ stone is meant to both express organicity and anorganicity, materiality and immateriality. 
How does attention to the alchemical register illuminate the workings of ‘knowledge societies’, that is, those based on language and signs, whose paradigms of materiality and immateriality (including immaterial labour and information science) are currently undergoing profound re-evaluations? Does new media have its own (contemporary) hermetic, occult, esoteric, visionary and alchemical register? Can the metaphors and allegories of proto-science/alchemy illuminate contemporary materiality and immateriality?

Participants:Vanessa Alvarez Portugal, Erick Beltrán, György Szönyi, and Eva Wilson in conversation Boris Ondreička & Nadim Samman.

Topographic images play a key role in contemporary philosophical discourse – witness Iain Hamilton Grant’s meditations on stratification, Benjamin Bratton’s geopolitical model of layering/stacking and Reza Negarestani’s observations on the function of exhumation. How does contemporary artistic practice relate to the topological? What is the relation between artists’ concerns for the earthiness of the geophysical, the archaeological and the paleological, and the immaterial rhetoric of ‘digital culture’? 

What is the function of excavation? 

Participants: Benjamin Bratton, Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, Constant Dullaart, and Margueritte Humeau in conversation Boris Ondreička & Nadim Samman.