HomeSteven Cottingham

Ultimately, we must imagine and seek out a dead world. It would be a mistake to call our current morass a ruin—in fact, we live within a paradigm that valourizes life and liveliness at the cost of all else. Existence is earned based on activity, animation, and productivity. There is no room for the inert, the slow, or the unproductive. This vitalist order enacts a prohibition on all instances of “dead time”. The entirety of one’s day and night must be steered toward the creation of value: personal and professional time are conflated within the single category of life. The paradigm of liveliness is used to justify capitalist competition (“survival of the fittest”) as well as the re-“vitalization” of gentrified neighbourhoods, the re-“animation” of fossilized organic matter as fuel, and the pro-life protests of zealous misogynists. Everywhere life is upheld as an ideal. But we know that life and death are intertwined to the point of becoming indistinct: one’s composition is always predicated on another’s (inevitable) decomposition. Things live because other things have died. It is the same if a cell consumes a cell, if a forest fire burns away old growth while dispersing new seeds, or if a human expends life-force to affect another being. The lens of value must therefore shift from life to that which precedes and succeeds it.

Accordingly, it proves useful to tend to various material processes that are prefigurative of this arrangement. In binary systems, 1 is privileged as active and animate while 0 is repressed as passive ground. The work Reading zero (for a zero sum) uses a materialist analysis of early computing practices to propose that 1 and 0 are not separate states, nor that 1 is transcendent of 0, but rather that 0 is a superset that already contains 1. Formally, this entanglement is made evident by placing the text in relief to produce an immanent legibility, against the convention of mark-making on a passive ground. Similarly, Accursed subtrahend replicates the form of a “lace card”—a computer punch card with all the holes punched, used to hack and jam early computers. All bits read “on” (1) and yet the net effect is a totalizing “off” (0).

Other works proceed from this argument, maintaining the notion that there can be no justice (no ability to simultaneously affect and be affected) unless we can articulate entanglement without recourse to transcendent categories. The installation itself strives toward a kind of entanglement by placing works on top of each other, precluding individuation, while also taking up floor space in such a way that bodies are forced to reckon with an otherwise minimal volume. The infinite imbalance is addressed through neither addition nor subtraction (based on crafts developed by the Bauhaus school) offers a way of actualizing two problematics: a flat plane becomes a three dimensional volume without any additional support; and a rigid sheet is folded to curve in two opposite directions (as a hyperbolic paraboloid). The smooth plane of the parabolic curve is revealed to be a heterogeneous set of folds, each acting upon a common substrate. It is simultaneously multiple and singular, affective and affectable. This method serves as a metonym rather than a metaphor for working against the logic of capitalism—philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva posits the necessity of realizing “difference-without-separability” against capitalist exchange’s separability-with-equivalence. Whereas metaphor reduces assemblages into discrete units capable of circulating freely, metonymy grounds each sign within a network of contiguous relations, thereby precluding the ability to participate in exchange through a transcendent numeraire.

Under capitalism, death is repressed. Capital grants labourers life in the form of a wage, used to procure sustenance. Through the profit motive, commodities (including labour-power) are coded to ensure they always prolong the simultaneous deployment of life and deferral of death. Death is prohibited, and is therefore inherently anti-capitalist. In death we find the possibility of one becoming many: something decomposes and its various constituents are revealed. Death (or 0) is always an entanglement. The work Neo-necropolis (Superstudio x Rossi) plays with this, collaging the dystopic work of two architects: Superstudio’s Continuous Monument (1969–1970) was proposed as grid to cover the earth, and Aldo Rossi planned a cemetery (1971) that was never finished. Neo-necropolis posits a global cemetery: an architecture that appears nihilistic only when viewed from the perspective of capital. From any other frame it is a proposal that tends to the blurred boundaries between one and another, nature and culture, debt and credit, and life and death.

Study for cage vase (Noguchi x Faraday) extends this commemoration into an object that enacts a threefold death. First, a sponge is carved into a vase. The sea sponge exists at the outer limits of both plant and animal categorizations. It is simultaneously organic and inorganic, self-organizing and helpless, both and neither, and therefore represents the aforementioned 0 as superset. Second, Isamu Noguchi’s Cage vase (1952) is remade to become a Faraday cage—a space which denies all electromagnetic signals—with the exception that the cellular grid typical to a Faraday cage is replaced with the porous substrate of the cellulose sponge, now cast in aluminum. This cage continues to function as a space for the inert and unlively. Third, flower vases are inherently funerary—cut flora is displayed as it wilts. This form of death is celebratory, at odds with the productive consumption endemic under capitalism.

Finally, in order to grasp the implicate order—the realm of pure immanence—physicist David Bohm uses the analogy of making cuts into folded paper. Upon unfolding the sheet, there is an elaboration in the form of geometrical patterns; this represents the explicate realm of observable action. By way of proposing a materialist problematic to his theory, bleach is used to stain a folded sheet of cotton, unfolding in an aleatory rather than deterministic manner. The resulting work, Necrotic holomovement (Magritte x Bohm) borrows its initial template from René Magritte’s L’Esprit comique (The Comic Spirit) (1928)—signifying a regime where the explicate order is only a ghost, a deathly after-image of the implicate, an effect of the superset that contains zero as both its nadir and its zenith. At this juncture we finally begin to encounter the necrotic form of death—an entropic unravelling that breaks free of the life→death→life sequence. It does not serve life, not even through the lens of new value. It is a total death, non-reconstitutable; the heat death of the universe at last.