Getting Dark. Martí Peran

Text for the catalogue of the solo exhibition “Domènec. Not Here, Not Anywhere” at MACBA, Barcelona 2018.


There can be no doubt that negative dialectics involve diving into the depths of the (contra) epistemology which lurks after the adventures of Thomas the Obscure:1 knowing is not so much the conquest of the faculty of saying things as the very experience of recognising the magnitude of what remains unsayable in them. With this perspective, the Adorno operation can be summed up thus: in the face of the omnipotence of the erudite concept, minted as a strategy with which to dominate the world under the tutelage of dominant interests, it is essential to turn round categories in the modern programme to the point of opening up its dark side – its negative – so that reason can abandon the logic of dominion and return to the sphere of emancipatory praxis. An example: instead of applying ourselves to reaching a consensus on the definition of ideal justice, one which can be applied to everyone and anywhere, a negative approach would suggest that the real battleground is to be found in the reparatory actions of real injustices. A positive definition of what is just cannot be arrived at because it would be anchored to a certain instrumental reason; in its stead, the way to unleash the power of the idea lies in its reverse, in the pressing reality of all the injustices that need to be remedied.

Adorno the Obscure had faith in art as the ultimate depository of negativity. To his mind, if art is able to refuse to give in to the logic of goods, and decides to maintain itself as art, it will then be condemned to development outside itself, so as to not be reduced to a mere categorisation as ‘something artistic’. This is the strange perimeter of art’s autonomy by which everything is allowed; even the shifting of instrumental reason, and operation as a tool with which to send some of the most emblematic aspects of modern ideology back into darkness. The progress of history, utopian fantasies, the dream of living and communal ideals have to be negativised in order to recognise that its power does not lie in the promises that are contained in each and every one of these pompous claims, but rather in the very opening up which is brought about by their intrinsic impossibility.

Two of Domènec’s works (L’Ascension et la chute de la colonne Vendôme [The Rise and Fall of the Vendôme Column], 2013, and Monument enderrocat [Demolished Monument], 2014) reference iconoclasm. The bri- nging down of the monument to Napoleon Bonaparte, and the similar act in 1936, when the monument in Barcelona to General Prim was destroyed, evoke episodes of political antagonism focussed on the imaginaries of power; the act of iconoclasm carries with it, however, a more revealing depth: the production of an empty space which suspends the course of history. A monument aspires to be a guarantor of history’s linearity; it converts the celebration of given pasts into the substrate that sanctions the present as inevitable, and commemorates what has previously happened in order to legitimise current determinations of power. The monument’s destruction thus supposes the interruption of this linearity; but, above all, the disruption represents the demonstration of a dismissive power,2 one whose aim is to erase the direction imposed on history and replace it with the display of a mere empty space. In the act of iconoclasm, the most fundamental issue is how long the empty pedestals have until the new constitutive power on duty replaces the demolished figures. In the meantime, the pedestals are unoccupied, history loses its mind, abdicates its supposed linearity, and opens itself up to the darkness that allows it to reformulate with new conjugations.

Conjugating history outside its linearity does not mean the simple twist of telling the story of the vanquished who were unable to get themselves onto the pedestal. Taking history to the point of darkness means re-establishing the past, embedding it in the present day’s horizons so that it is shaken up and transformed. For history to cease legitimising current forms of power, the past has to return in order to reopen conflict to new opportunities. As Benjamin expounded in his Thesis, the past has to be redeemed inside a single Jetztzeit (now-time) which cancels history as a linear course of events.3 Through this counter-history, the slavish force of work that Spanish fascism exploited reappears (Arquitectura Española, 1939–1975 [Spanish Architecture, 1939-75], 2014/2018), and it becomes as contingent as the very buildings it put up; by means of the same equation, different riots spread across the years re-emerge in their original locations (Souvenir Barcelona, 2017) or the distances between split occurrences are resized in order to weave new tales (Interrupcions. 10 anys, 1.340 metres [Interrupcions. 10 years, 1.340 metres], 2010). The past still happens, and projects its dark shadow on the present and shakes it up.

When Mies van der Rohe found himself obliged to work tricks with the making of the star which went on the top of the Rosa Luxemburg monument, he had to split it into various parts to make it portable and this meant it became a legacy that allowed for its transportation towards a perpetual now (Den toten Helden der Revolution [To the Dead Heroes of the Revolution], 2018).

Modernity reached a consensus on the understanding of beauty as concinnitas: the absolute harmony between parts. Through this prism, what is beautiful can be identified as a composition which cannot undergo modification as any addition or subtraction would result in the deterioration of its perfection. This ideal beauty of complete congruity can be translated in a moral key (decorum), but also feeds speculation about a possible political beauty: utopia. Utopia can be conceived of as the description of a political concinnitas through which a complex social form settles a happy correspondence between all of its parts that cannot be broken. Fourier’s phalanstery, with its mathematical organisation, is a perfect example of this logic; but the same radicalism affects any other attempt at utopia. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation can only work as an effective machine à habiter if the instructions as to how to live in it are followed. In Corviale (Sostenere il palazzo dell’utopia [Holding the Building of Utopia], 2004), however, the residents of this housing complex, far from obeying the rules, have completely parasitised the building so as to adapt it to their most prosaic needs. The damage might make one think its utopian potential was squandered, but what happened was the opposite: the breaking up of the initial concinnitas is what allows for the preservation of the utopian arsenal beyond the limits of its initial formalisation. In fact, through this indiscipline, Corviale’s residents have made themselves into true rulers of their living space.

When Nozick suggests that all utopia is meta-utopia,4 what he is implying is that the very function of utopian form lies in its being impossible to put into practice, but that this impossibility is itself what allows a utopian spirit – a commitment to non-reconciliation with any given form of what is real – to encourage multiple realities. There is no utopia other than the management of a perfect form like a kind of seed which must sprout in unforeseeable ways, ways that appear counter-utopian inasmuch as they suppose the abandonment of the concinnitas principle. The structural impossibility of utopian shape is thus its dark side, which does not prevent but harbours the same possibilities. Utopia always conveys a promise, but what it maintains in its failure to consummate is the very power of what is promising: everything always could be different. The flames of the journey to Icaria (Voyage en Icarie [Journey to Icaria], 2012) signal the fleeting nature of Cabet’s fantasies as much as they reignite the same dreams.

The dimension of utopian paradox can only be formulated out of negative dialectics: its very unrealisable perfection is what can make it effective in a non-utopian here and now. From this, utopia’s true geography lies in the tension between the nowhereness of its idealised formulation and the naked now which has to be permanently changed (Here/Nowhere, 2005). From this perspective, the moving operations of certain utopian forms towards the value of use (Existenzminimum, 2002; Taquería de los vientos, 2003; Playground (Tatlin in Mexico), 2011), far from contradicting the legitimacy of the fictions they put into play, renew it at the level of domestic life: living, eating and

Adorno laid down that ‘What is accurately called living somewhere is no longer possible […] The home has been and gone.’5 It was Mies van der Rohe who earlier expressed himself in the same way: ‘The home of our time does not exist.’6 The lack to which they refer is not a problem of architectonic typology but the impossibility of erecting what Heidegger called a ‘dwelling’7 where the linking of individual to the world is completed. The dream of living which modernity articulated in effect interprets the hearth of a home as the opportunity to pin down one’s own place. In Adorno’s case, the cancellation of the home responds to the barbarous excesses that modernity demonstrated with the Holocaust. After the spectacular failure of the modern project as a horizon of emancipation, none of its instrumental orders merit any confidence whatsoever: the dream of living is nothing more than a paraphrasing of the vocation of domination. For Mies, the home of our time does not exist because the conditions of modern life demand the abandonment of old categories and extoll, in opposition to the inhabitant, the counter-figure of the non-inhabitant,8 one who does not reside but travels, someone who doesn’t live somewhere but prowls around. Instead of the home as the crucial centre of a life, it is now necessary to Vivir sin dejar rastro (Live without leaving tracks, 2009) and Sans domicile fixe (With no fixed abode, 2002).

The dream of living thus starts to fade due to historical imperatives: but they only mean the beginning of its darkening. At the moment we are witnessing the need to correct the coordinates which espoused the idea of a home with a still prospective character; it is only necessary to change its location and recognise that the shelter it should guarantee can also bring with it a certain uprooting: the same mobility can be conceived of as a place, although it might be vulnerable and unstable (Unité Mobile [Roads are also places], 2005), and, in turn, living units perhaps should be thought of as precarious and portable, so as to guar- antee the minimum coefficient of comfort (Existenzminimum, 2002; Superquadra casa-armário, 2009; Sakai Shelter, 2016). Fundamentally, though, this demand for a home, once it has been ‘bartered into the mere adaptation of a refuge’,9 accelerates its decline: 24 hores de llum artificial (24 Hours of Artificial Light, 1998) reproduces a room in the hospital in Paimio, but the original of a bright and hospitable room has been supplanted by a blind and unwelcoming ward.

A moveable house still offers accommoda- tion: a blind house is nobody’s. But who is this ‘nobody’? The dream of living’s true negative is not the fragility with which the same dream could make a refuge habitable, but the single direction that points to this transformed home: the figure of the refugee. The dark background to the pursuit of dwelling is materialised in its deep-rooted impossibility, as embodied by the refugee. A refugee is someone who has been turned out of their home and dragged off to a zone of anomie (48_Nakba, 2007), an exposure that reduces the person to a homo sacer abandoned at the limit of mere living being.10 The refugee is thus transformed into someone who has no place and cannot have roots, nor be defined by their movements but who, plainly, does not inhabit. The refugee is the person who occupies a house, not so much its rooms as its voids, the gaps that wear it away. If the non-inhabitant was someone who doesn’t inhabit, the refugee is the person who ceases to inhabit. But this extreme precariousness, at a level which makes it obligatory to think up mechanisms to make up for the damage it causes as Agamben proposes, can also be conceived of as the seed of a new political category to the extent that in this way it breaches the principles of modern sovereignty (the re- lationships of identity between person/ citizen and birthplace/nationality), and this also subjects it to an irreversible crisis. The territorial oppression with which Israel subjugates the Palestinian people (Real Estate, 2007; Erased Land, 2014; Baladia Future City, 2011–15) illustrates the magnitude of a despotic power with multiple consequences; but the non-inhabiting effect it promotes also declares the collapse of the nation state as home of power.

Models of different types of multi-unit housing are supported by household chairs (Conversation Piece: Narkomfin, 2013; Conversation Piece: Casa Bloc, 2016) or themselves act as chairs arranged for the viewer to sit on (Conversation Piece: Les Minguettes, 2017). In the wake of ‘conversation portraits’, the proposal seems transparent: architectural models for a communal life are set out as objects which provoke discussion in order to evaluate the historical misadventures that each of the examples cited suffered. Thus Narkomfin (1928–32, planned as a paradigm of the Soviet commune, was soon aborted by Stalinism; a similar fate was experienced by Casa Bloc (1933–39), the workers’ housing model thought up by the GATCPAC and which ended up as accommodation for Franco’s soldiers. As for Les Minguettes, a housing complex on the outskirts of Lyon, it embodies the historical failure of the application of architectural solutions derived from modern ideology to urban suburbs. If the object of the conversation which is to grow around these models consists of taking stock of their fate, then it is most likely that these little chats’ trajectory will be fairly brief. What these conversations bring into play is not a string of unfortunate occurrences: the object of the conversation to emerge around these architectural objects is the very idea of community and the question of whether models which are capable of fulfilling the communal ideal actually exist.

The first conversations around ideal models of community are to be found in Plato’s dialogues. Traditional interpretation of Plato supposes that the perfect Republic is one governed by philosophers; but this overlooks the fact that in Book II, Socrates does not hesitate to extol as the ideal a city of pigs, a small self-sufficient city based on mutual collaboration between its inhabitants and with no more purpose than the provision of basic needs. Socrates’ contribution is filled with intent: ‘It seems to me that the true city is that described, as it is also a healthy city. But, if you please, let us take a look at a city swollen with tumours.’11 Indeed, just an obligation to describe a voluptuous, complex city, thirsty for material goods and criss-crossed by all sorts of conflict is what will make the participants in the conversation describe another ideal city in accordance with these new demands. In a way, what is being put forward is thus an opposition between the true ‘healthy city’, so pure and harmonious it doesn’t need any political structure, and an entangled city that requires politics. In the light of this consideration, Platonism’s truly ideal city would thus be a prepolitical commune, a kind of non-city prior to the actual constitution of a city.

Communal living conceived as a city without a city is nothing more than a way of recognising the negative depth of the very idea of community. This is demonstrated by Esposito in his deconstruction of the idea of communitas: a necessary congregation of differences which, however, rests upon its intrinsic impossibility.12 Community projects the individual beyond itself, takes its identity away and confines it in an otherness which dynamites the absolute char- acter that is presupposed in any individual. Only a singular somebody can share themself, but the community cannot exist without each and every one of its individ- uals dissolving themselves. The conclusion is categoric: there is no community other than in an awareness that such a communal congregation is not possible. Every community, in its darkest depths, is thus a flawed community.13 Any attempt to correct this defective nature – we are the community of those who have no community – brings with it a disastrous decline, anchored to a desire to maintain the integrity of its individuals who, because of this, degrade the communitas to a protected city that is always on the point of being formalised in a totalitarian political structure.

The impracticality which characterises community is what pushed Barthes to defend the model of ‘idiorrhythmy’ – the placing in common of distances – as the only alternative that is able to bear the paradox.14 If communality however brings with it the possibility to free oneself of the imperative to crystallise in a city, in a political entity that guarantees it will function effectively for everyone, then it seems feasible to abandon the strategic proposal which made it obligatory to define judicial apparatus and particular urbanistic solutions. Outside this framework, community can grow in the space of mere cooperation as an end in itself, without the need for a meeting of different individuals that must achieve an ideal result. What Sennett calls ‘dialogic cooperation’15 is nothing other than the opening which appears in the dark chasm of the idea of community, a space where all of us become more skilful than we were inside an established framework, however well-defined it was. The volunteers who joined forces in the construction of Helsinki’s Kulttuuritalo (Rakentajan käsi [The Worker’s Hand], 2012) don’t remember the programme which led to the project so much as the very act of their coming together, the pure experience of their meetings and the confluence of skills that took place at the time. The collection of stories that witnesses tell grows in the political defeat of planning, but composes a proud choral score on the diffuse power of pure collaboration.16

Martí Peran is an art critic, curator and professor of Art Theory at the Universitat de Barcelona.

1. To contradict ourselves, see also William S. Allen, Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno and Autonomy. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966), tr. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973, and also Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure (1950), tr. Robert Lamperton, Barrytown NY: Station Hill Press (2000).

2. This notion is used according to the perspective proposed by Giorgio Agamben in Medios sin fin. Notas sobre política, tr. Antonio Gimeno Cuspinera. Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2001.

3. Walter Benjamin, ‘Tesis de filosofía de la historia’, tr. Jesús Aguirre. Discursos interrumpidos I. Madrid: Taurus, 1982, p. 188.

4. Robert Nozick, Anarquía, Estado y utopía, tr. Rolando Tamayo. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.

5. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima moralia. Reflexiones desde la vida dañada, tr. Joaquín Chamorro Mielke. Madrid: Taurus, 1998, pp. 35–36.

6. Cited by Josep Quetglas in ‘Habitar’, Restes d’arquitectura i de crítica de la cultura. Barcelona: Arcàdia and Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2017, p. 21.

7. Martin Heidegger, Construir Habitar Pensar (Baun Wohnen Denken), tr. Jesús Adrián. Madrid: La Oficina de Arte y Ediciones, 2015.

8. This notion was proposed by Josep Quetglas, op. cit., p. 26.

9. This was expounded in Martí Peran, Domènec. 24 hores de llum artificial. Barcelona: Fundació ”la Caixa”, 1998.

10. Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer. El poder soberano y la nuda vida, tr. Antonio Gimeno Cuspinera. Valencia: Pre-Textos, 1998, p. 161.

11. 372e., Plato, Obras completas, tr. María Araujo et al. Madrid: Aguilar, 1981, p. 693.

12. Roberto Esposito, Comunidad, inmunidad y biopolítica, tr. Alicia García Ruiz. Barcelona: Herder, 2009. See also, by the same author, how the idea of community is put forward exactly as an ‘unpolitical’ category: Categorías de lo impolítico, tr. Roberto Raschella. Buenos Aires: Katz, 2006.

13. Also recognised as ‘unmade’ or ‘shameful’. See Jean-Luc Nancy, La comunidad desobrada, tr. Pablo Perera. Madrid: Arena Libros, 2007; and Maurice Blanchot, La comunidad inconfesable, tr. Isidro Herrera. Madrid: Arena Libros, 1999.

14. Roland Barthes, Cómo vivir juntos. Simulaciones novelescas de algunos espacios cotidianos, tr. Patricia Willson. Buenos Aires: Siglo xxi, 2003.

15. Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

16. See Martí Peran, ‘Potencia de melancolía. A propósito de Rekentajan kasi (la mano del trabajador)’, Relaciones ortográficas (en tiempos de revuelta). Terrassa: Ajuntament de Terrassa, 2017.