Category Archives: dialogues

Messengers of the Rope

Now come a few brief passages from a lucid December 2016 conversation with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, as transcribed from a radio program affiliated with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entitled Opinions.

The mission of such conversations, as described by host Robert Pogue Harrison: “To practice the persecuted religion of thinking; to think in the midst of the wasteland; to make sure the wasteland does not grow within.” Such is also the mission of DP; onwards to the Zarathustrian rope-walkers.










The above three images are from the studio of Heather Pickwell. She writes:

My subject is growth, the imperceptible growth of cells, of plants; the incremental growth observed in shells and coral and the explosive growth of mutating organisms. I take my inspiration from close observation of the woods, fields and coastline of Lincolnshire. I work with natural materials – rope, wool and charcoal – these materials best reflect the physical world for me as I strive to suggest natural forms without reproducing their likeness.




Power Into Silence

We are grateful to a distant DP reader for steering us to the illuminating, amplifying and enlivening work of artist Lena Herzog, above all the body of writings and audio-visual media related to her project Last Whispers. Below, the opening paragraphs from a talk given at MOMA, linked via the first image.

Clicking on the second image will bring you into the world of the silenced, a world where everything that was once possible to think within a specific language has been irretrievably obliterated; yet another dimension to the mass extinction event that will, in time, deal with our lethal, murderous arrogance.






We close with her final paragraph from the same talk, something to think about during this holiday weekend:



Written in the Night

Now comes the gentle yet fierce voice of John Berger, who died this past Monday, in excerpts from a 2003 essay written for Le Monde Diplomatique. The image is from the Rothko Chapel.




For all his literary gifts, Berger was most at home in conversation, his thoughts closely tied to his limitless capacity for dialogue, and to his vigilant ears. The below conversation with Susan Sontag highly recommended.




Notes On Dialogue

Now comes the honorable Stringfellow Barr, a passionate advocate for the liberal arts as embodied in the so-called “new program” (conceived in 1937) at St. John’s College. Though dating from 1968, Barr’s Notes on Dialogue remain timely and incisive, though he does not mean to cut nor sever.

We have come to know St. John’s College quite well in recent years; if there is any hope at all for our wounded republic, we will need such places, colleges where members of younger generations learn how to exercise their responsibilities as true citizens; colleges that explore and celebrate the arts of freedom.

In a world of violent screams and shouting matches pretending to be politics, we will need to resurrect the polis. For that delicate task, we will also need to remember how to listen, how to reflect, and how to serve each other – and labor together – in dialogue. Unrealistic and utopian, you say? Yes, of course; for the road of the “realists” leads ever more deeply into the abyss.

In the interests of fanning embers and generating a few moments of warmth in front of an oncoming blizzard, we publish a few excerpts together with exquisite images from the hand of Jiri Anderle, borrowed from the collection at the Baruch Foundation.












A Chasm in the Present

As we continue to explore the rich philosophical overtones within the subtle and complex thought of Giorgio Agamben, we came across an interview on the Verso website. We pick up the thread following Agamben’s suggestion that humanity, always a work in process, must measure itself against the past through an archeological scrutiny of religion and law.

The images are from the hand and eye of the tremendously undervalued Eli Levin, an artist once thrown out of art school for his refusal to accept the sovereignty of abstraction. Strangely, he insisted on painting and drawing what he saw.


Standing Prisoner









We Tortured Some Folks

We strongly recommend close consideration of Rebecca Gordon’s recently published book, Mainstreaming Torture, Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. In examining the question of whether torture is ever morally permissible, Gordon critiques narrow utilitarian and deontological justifications, and proposes that a virtue ethics approach (descending from Alasdair MacIntyre) permits a deeper understanding of the ways in which the socially and politically embedded practice of torture twists and distorts our national character. She also suggests an alternative path; collaborative practices oriented towards the rebuilding of our presently dismantled habits of courage and wisdom.
Below, a brief dialogue between Rebecca Gordon and DP, intended to inspire large numbers of readers to purchase this absolutely essential book:
DP     We know that torture is designed to shatter and break the identity of the victim, to make it impossible for the victim to experience the world through a coherent subjectivity, as only the torturer gets to say “I”. Less well understood is the corrupting effect torture has on the torturer, and on a society such as our own that does not merely permit torture, but often seems to celebrate and reward it. Torture deforms us all, at a deep moral level, eradicating any semblance of human virtue. Throughout your writing, I am struck by your profound understanding of the devastating moral and ethical implications that institutionalized, habituated torture carries for us all. Can you describe the genesis of such understanding, certainly within your philosophy, yet also in your political engagement?
RG      My understanding of torture as an ongoing, socially embedded practice really began with the time I spent working in the war zones of Nicaragua in the 1980’s. There I met people who had been tortured, some earlier under the Somoza dictatorship, and some later by the remnants of the Somoza’s National Guard, who formed the nucleus of the U.S.-backed contras. I began to understand how torture works – and it does work  – not by gathering “intelligence,” but as a means of destroying social bodies that threaten a regime. By attacking the minds and bodies of some of the members of a union, a church community, a political party, a beekeeping cooperative, the agents of a state can dismember those organizations.
I first started writing about U.S. torture in the fall of 2001. Less than two months after the terrible attacks of 9/11, people in the mainstream press were beginning to suggest that 9/11 meant someone needed to be tortured. Quite suddenly something most people thought was a settled consensus – that torture is wrong – was once again an open question. Both the mainstream press and academic ethicists began musing about whether things hadn’t changed after 9/11. Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek called “Time to Think About Torture,” in which he suggested that something extra was needed to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history.” Anyone who had qualms about it was “hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.” Ethicists, too, began to question their positions on torture. Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example, wrote in an essay in Torture: A Collection (ed. Sanford Levinson; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) that before “the watershed event of September 11, 2001,” she was one of the many people who listed torture in the “category of ‘never,’” Afterwards, she changed her mind.
As the conversation about torture began to develop, it became clear to me that both mainstream press and academics were making a basic mistake about what institutionalized state torture is. They were treating is as an isolated activity, something that people do in moments of extremity. Both the press and academics were marshaling arguments for or against “torture” largely on deontological or consequentialist grounds. Deontological arguments against torture referred to the Kantian prohibition on treating humanity as a means to some end. Those in favor cited the duty of government officials to protect their population. Consequentialist arguments for torture most often cited the choice to torture one person to save a million from a ticking time bomb. Those against torture focused either on the danger it might present to U.S. reputation in the world, or to U.S. soldiers if they were captured. But all these arguments treated torture as if it were something that happened once, or once in a while.
My experience in various solidarity movements had taught me something different. Institutionalized state torture is a practice. It has its own histories, traditions, and even rituals of initiation. It has its own internal values, and it forms its practitioners in a specific set of moral habits – call them virtues or vices as you will. And I believe that when torture becomes quasi-public especially in a democratic society, as it has in this country in the so-called “war on terror,” it can engender vicious moral habits in all of us. One of these is cowardice – the willingness to accept any necessary evil in the (ultimately false) belief that it can guarantee one’s personal survival. Another is a distortion of practical wisdom that I call culpable ignorance, the voluntary refusal to use one’s capacity for thought and judgment, for example to be able to see torture when it is being called something else, like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Or, indeed, to see that practices we might decry in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo are part of the daily routine in U.S. jails and prisons.
Thinking about torture as a practice led me to look at Alasdair MacIntyre’s contemporary revival of virtue ethics, starting with After Virtue. I found his categories of telos, virtue, practice, and tradition very useful for understanding how institutionalized state torture works.
DP     Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, recently offered an interesting comment regarding the character of one of our most stridently unrepentant torture advocates, Dick Cheney: “”Immorality is something that can be ferreted out, checked and balanced. Amorality is an altogether different affair, especially when you’re exploiting the politics of fear in order to carry out state purposes, which is what Dick Cheney’s forte is.”  Can you expand on your reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, with reference to state torture, once it becomes such a fully articulated and even legally codified practice? Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist? 
RG     You ask, “Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist?” I think that my answer is a sort of “Yes, but…” or perhaps better, “Yes, and…”
In voicing any critique, one immediate question is, “Who’s the audience for the critique?” Is there any sense, for example, in arguing ethics with Dick Cheney himself? Probably not. If Wilkerson’s characterization is accurate, it seems unlikely that Cheney would engage in good faith argument, willingly disclosing his fundamental assumptions. If he were willing to disclose the foundation of his moral approach to governing as something along the lines of, “It is right to use whatever instrument is effective in advancing the power of the state,” I am hard pressed to imagine where I would begin to seek a shared assumption from which to begin an argument. One route might be to inquire about why it is important to maintain or expand the power of the state – what value lies behind this imperative, but I’m not convinced we’d get anywhere.
If the audience is the larger public, then I think it is not only sensible, but vital, to advance a moral critique. The challenge we face here, however, is profound. Public moral discourse in this country is almost always framed in instrumentalist terms. Arguments appealing to values other than cost/benefit calculations are generally dismissed as idealist, unrealistic, or adolescent and soft-headed. This is a very difficult frame to break. It’s easier to try to think up an argument against torture within this frame (“It doesn’t work. You don’t get good information.” “Torturing the enemy puts our own soldiers at risk if they are captured.”) than it is to challenge instrumentalism as a moral approach. It may look as if we can win the argument within the terms set by the opponents, but we can’t.
This is where MacIntyre’s approach comes in. There is another way to understand the moral life than as a series of cost/benefit analyses (even if the costs and benefits we are weighing are not our own, but those of the “greatest number.”) MacIntyre encourages us to not to understand our lives as a series of isolated choices (What in this will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number in this situation? Shall I kill one person to save five? Will my maxim, if universalized, lead to a logical contradiction?) Rather, he would have us think of human life as a particular kind of story, a quest to discover what makes for a good human life. This is a quest he believes (with Aristotle) can only be undertaken in the company of other human beings. In its course we enter into particular practices – complex, collaborative activities that enable us to develop certain intellectual and often physical skills; activities that have their own internal goods, and which allow us to develop certain moral habits — virtues — that sustain us in our quest.
What does any of this have to do with the problem of torture? I’m arguing that torture itself is the kind of complex, collaborative activity that engenders certain moral habits – twisted versions of the four “cardinal” virtues embraced by Greek and Roman philosophers (along with Thomas Aquinas). These four are justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming Torture, I describe this process more fully, and I suggest that especially in a democratic society, it affects not only those directly involved, but the other members of the society.
And here’s where I come to my “Yes, but…” Unlike Enlightenment moral philosophies such as utilitarianism or Kantian deontology, virtue ethics can’t be demonstrated through argument. It is a way of living. The virtue ethics argument against torture isn’t just a verbal argument; it is a life in which people rebuild our habits of courage and wisdom. Perhaps we might begin with the complex, collaborative, long-term activity of dismantling state power built on Cheney’s politics of fear.

Dump Not Lard



Undeterred by the refusal of a handful of stubborn Scots to become part of his golf fantasyland at Menie in Aberdeenshire, nor by the prospect of a large wind farm that would interfere with the view while on the back nine, Donald Trump recently announced plans to expand his Celtic development plans to the west coast of Ireland — and beyond. With nothing better to do shortly past midnight, we decided to take a flier and send an email query to The Donald’s private account, which we received from his good pal Michael Forbes. We appear to have caught him in a talkative mood in the early hours of April Fool’s day, and a reply swiftly followed:

DP     We have followed your project in Scotland with much interest. Now that you have purchased a new property in Ireland, does this mean you may exit from Aberdeenshire? Have you had enough of the hard-headed Scots?

DT     I don’t care how hard their heads are. The problem is, crack them open, and they’re full of fresh cow pies. Wind power is yesterday’s news if you want to make real money. The only wind that interests me blows from a thousand backswings. That kind of wind, you can take to the bank.

DP     Do you think the Irish will be more receptive to your vision?

DT     Their economy right now is deep in the crapper. If they don’t come to grips with my line of titanium clubs, they’ll be eating potato soup for the next three generations.



DP     But much recent research indicates that the economics of golf are deteriorating, and that demographic trends will not make the situation any better.

DT     The problem is one of scale. Eighteen or thirty six holes are not enough anymore. The market demands a longer journey. My vision for Ireland will do that. Over the next decade or so, we intend to give Ireland the first countrywide golf course in the world.

DP     Countrywide?

DT     Eighteen thousand holes, should take an average person three years to play. Like I say, a serious journey, for the serious golfer. Sort of a modern day pilgrimage.

DP     So what, you intend to buy a thousand golf courses, and then link them up somehow?

DT     Not just golf courses. We’ll buy any little plot of green on the map. This course needs to be disruptive. Holes could be anywhere – village greens, cemeteries, parks. The golf course we bought is just a home base. The golf course of the future will be everywhere. That kind of excitement will give golfers their mojo back. Getting back to the roots.

DP    The roots?

DT     In the olden days, shepherds would whack skulls around all over those damn islands. That’s the origin of golf. No fixed course, just strong men with sturdy sticks, knocking heads. That’s what I want to do. Restore that sense of freedom, no boundaries, no restrictions.



DP     So what will it cost, to travel this free-swinging pilgrimage route?

DT     There’s the beauty of the thing. Players will pay a one time fee, we’re thinking 10,000 Euros, and then that gives them an official passport to play the whole course. Travel all around the country, buying meat pies and woolie sweaters and pints of beer and plastic leprechauns, all along the way, not just at country clubs but in every backwards village. We get paid up front and the pilgrims can take as long as they want. The longer they take, the more moolah they spend along the way, bringing joy wherever they putt.

DP     Will there be some sort of prize, when players finish?

DT     Oh yes. Once they’re done, they send in their passport with stamps and documentation, and we send out one of my signature red golfing caps, and a locket of my very own hair, something to pass down to the grandchildren, a true heirloom.



DP     Given what happened in Scotland, are you sure you have popular support for this vision?

DT     What choice do the Irish have? They’ve been royally fleeced by the EU, and left shivering butt naked in the damp night. I’m offering a bright ray of sunshine. I don’t see any losers in the picture, nothing but winners, beginning with me and ending way down the food chain.

DP     So Ireland’s gain is Scotland’s loss, eh?

DT     It could have been Scotland. But they blew it with all that wind power garbage. Plus they’re a bunch of knuckleheads even as water boys for the English – can you imagine how impossible they’ll be, out in the world on their own? Time to cut my losses, and move on to the Emerald Isle, where the little people still know how to roll over and take one for the team.

Severe Harmony


We sing today our praises for the extraordinary work of Karinne Keithley Syers, an artist-philosopher in the very best of senses; one who uses all her senses.

While doing a bit of ruminative slogging through the dense sediments of the web several years ago, during a time when we thought creative brain activity on planet earth had ceased, we chanced upon Keithley Syer’s Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal, and they cheered us up considerably and left us wanting: more.

Perhaps a wired bird reached her ear with our request, for it seems Ms. Keithley Syers has recently renewed her basement excavations, available for a very modest fee:


The announcement of a resurfacing of the Mole Cabal prompted us to ask all those questions we had wanted to ask upon first hearing the gentle excavations of this delightfully curious creature:

DP     First, can you venture a brief description of the basement tapes, in terms of the different categories of material, and the process you follow for assembling such hauntingly beautiful bits of thinking/singing/tunneling?

KKS     I think of them as ten minutes of audio floating, like being let into a walled landscape for a balloon tour. There is always a kind of ground made of a combination of sampled sound and sampled instrumentation (I play instruments but then plunder the recordings and manipulate the sound), and then some ghost voices captured from public archives. You will always move into and then pass out of the vicinity of a song. So the process begins with collecting, and then sifting and separating, and then turning that into a drone that can either be manipulated into a skeletal bass line through simple pitch shifting, or just looping, at which point I catch the nearest word or image I can find, and start improvising a song. I usually build a line, and then build its harmony, before making the next line. When the thing is around ten minutes, I end it.


I should say too that the way the sound functions as a landscape is directly in relation to my own work as a choreographer making my own sound, and as a sound designer for other choreographers. Sometimes I plunder my own dance scores and reassemble them into basement tapes, other times I plunder my basement tapes and reassemble them into dance scores. If I was to choose any model to point to, it would be Bill Holt’s Dreamies, which I stumbled across during a period of my life when I went to Other Music regularly just hoping to find some music to make dances to. The guy making work on his four track in his garage is definitely a hero of the mole cabal.

DP     So, Hamlet hears the ghost, and says. “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!”  The basement tapes have a sense of speedy digging, yet also deep digging. Can you describe your first thoughts for the series; what led you into this particular ghosted basement?

KKS     Most of the tapes were made over the course of one or two evenings, as this week’s episode (not that they ever came out weekly, but they always had a sense of being an installment). So it’s slow because it becomes a practice; the appetites for combination evolve slowly. I think the first thing I wanted to do was just find a venue for making things that wasn’t burdened by the problems of live performance — I was going through a period of disappointment with the professional performance life and looking for ways to keep shuffling along in the space of my own home (also the materialization of the mole totem, this private shuffling and digging).

The subscriber serial (I know it’s called podcasting but… ) has a weird kind of tenderness. You make it on headphones, you imagine it being listened to on headphones; it’s very intimate. Yet at the same time it’s a message in a bottle and you can expect that message both to travel and to survive in a way that live performance can’t. Emotionally I wanted a place to keep working, and at that time it had to be underground. My first episode was called “Music you can dance to,” which one of my first subscribers thought was a joke. It wasn’t actually; it was taken from the music I had made for the end of my show ASTRS (about a rabbit revolution in eternal return), built by plundering a Faust track.

Around the same time, for the work on another dance score, David Neumann gave me a copy of a cd of short wave radio calls, which show up in many of the episodes. I’d say the first ten tapes are pretty accidental, and then the form began to emerge. By this time I’d discovered the Library of Congress American Memory collections, where I found a lot of my early sources. More recent tapes have had specific events that I’ve trawled – the Columbia explosion, the Iran hostage crisis.

The tapes then went through a shift in a second period of digging, after a personal crisis. This was the point at which all the things I already knew about creative practice as a form of life and health was really disentangled from creative practice as a profession, because at that time I took a kind of sabbatical from my professional performance life, even as I started making more and more things at home – the tapes, my stop motions, and cutup series like the Ghost Host Pigeon Post. The tapes and the paper cutups became both a means of digging into the sound of other catastrophes, and a way of setting those sounds into little lotus ponds, even as they remained a kind of cryptic messaging system, at first to the agent of that crisis, and then I guess to anyone.


Years later I am working on this corner of my dissertation on the riddle of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of impersonality, which has to do with this same knot where private digging is the scene of an experience of drastic commonality. This scene is both relieving and obliterating. There is something about the way that singing grows a health out of a crisis, that I think cuts across everything I do. Emerson calls it the severe harmony.

DP     Going back to the “worthy pioneer”, which Hegel later takes up as spirit and Marx puts back on terra firma with revolution: the first pioneers were foot soldiers meant to clear the way for the main army. Among their activities – mining. Yet one of the many layers of poetic reflection in the basement tapes conducts something of a mine sweeping. You have  a rare gift for defusing certain histories by bringing them into your soundscape, though not erasing them. Remembering and recuperating certain “loaded” spaces in a way that also drains their corrosive power, a quality that caught my ear from the very first episode. 

KKS     I think that has to do with the grain of the voice as it survives recording, compression, preservation, and historical distance. When I hear political speech in the present, I can’t separate out its entanglement with forces that I am somehow agitated by, whether for or against. But somehow the phenomenon of the person returns with the distance, and I think that I cannot not empathize with any person. I felt heartbroken at the Nixon Library, for example. And then pairing those returned persons with music takes a kind of atomic mass measurement of their failures.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should drop all of our skepticism about political violence, or that we should forget the way that historical violence structures present violence, but there is something to just measuring the atmospheric pressure in the lungs of our own or anyone else’s failure, that I think if we can’t hear it and ingest it and to at least some extent take it personally (I mean incorporate it, not take it as an offense), then we’re just reenacting a lazy form of venomous blame. Wallace Stevens has this line, “man’s intelligence is his soil.” I seem to be making a rationale for an alternative form of history based on eating our own soil. We get, at least, the song as a reward for our humility.

DP     Then there is the aspect of the “cabal”; your “mystical interpretation” has such poetic lucidity, even when the lights are dim. At times, you seem to be meditating on the rhythms of thought and feelings themselves, and we are permitted to hear your self thinking/sparking the mine. This sense is then underscored by the presence of the songs and by your own voice, which has a special quality all its own. Is there some metaphysical map for all these “mines” or are you moving through the murk by dead reckoning? 

KKS     One way I have described my creative work is as philosophy in various media. I’m particularly drawn to what falls under the rubric of process philosophy (versus philosophy as a set of definitions or proofs). I try to stay as dumb as possible when I’m making things, by which I mean I try to quiet all the forms of projection and the counsel of expertise. I have a cellular level of patience as I wait for things to emerge and take pleasure in their recession — this is grown in a person by among other things the very gentle and exploratory work done on the fringes of dance. So there is no map, but I recognize the emergence of paths and patterns as they’re happening, and that gives me a lot of happiness.

I make almost everything I do improvisationally; it’s the only way I could make as much stuff as I do. But that also has to do with a belief that things belong to their season of making. (The worst thing about writing a dissertation is that it’s not too amenable to improvisation. So I’m cultivating these forms of slow, recursive improvisation to get through it.)

DP     Cabal suggests collaboration or co-conspiracy, though in your case, the collaboration is more across your different materials and using all your varied talents and voices in a way that has the energy of an ensemble yet the delicacy of a private journey. This quality is something I have noted throughout  your work. How do the basement tapes resonate, for example, with your literary and theater poetics?

KKS     Originally the mole cabal was supposed to be a group of people working on performance projects, but schedule is a beast. I suppose I liked the fiction of being part of a posse of moles, so I never dropped the cabal. And I’m suspicious of the proprietary or expressive frame around creative work. In my mind, the mole cabal is not the proletariat or anything, but does expand beyond just me, connecting I’m sure to other cabals. We’re not plotting, just trying to survive (like the Wombles of Wimbledon). Or maybe plotting in the older sense of plot, as a garden plot, a patch of worked earth.

I was trained as a choreographer and I still think of myself as a choreographer, but one working in other media. (If the brain exists so we can move, as Andy Clark says, then this is an unproblematic restatement of the assertion that I’m a philosopher working in other media.) Sound was the first region I strayed into — I could never find the right music, so I had to start making my own. Then text, then images, then video, now forms of installation.

I love to be a beginner and to go through a learning curve, and I also like to trust my instincts and appetites for combination that grew up in dancing, as I take them into other media. It keeps me free of the new rules while still having a kind of structural intuition.  What I mean to say is that I’ve been able to tap into a vein of true amateurism by staying on the move, and so it has a choral effect. In any project, whether I’m writing or making sound or making theater, I do the same thing: start somewhere and then putter along until it feels like it’s singing. In fact the one medium it’s really hard for me to work in is dance, because my training still circumscribes my sense of freedom. My most recent project is to return to dancing and do battle with that restricting mind.

DP     In the meantime, we are delighted that the mole cabal of KKS will be digging and dancing and singing through the soul-soil, and may you be buried in fresh subscriptions!


Marfa Lights

Among the very few artists/writers addressing issues of security architecture, surveillance and the weaponization of communications airspace, we find Charles Stankievech of particular interest. His new installation “cleanses the air” in the vicinity of Marfa, Texas – with its own complex art historical resonance.

Below, a description of the installation taken directly from the press release, followed by a dialogue with the artist; a lengthy post for DP readers, justified by the importance of this brilliant and timely work.

DP:     Can you give a brief exposition of your work north of the US border with Canada, and how that leads in both logical and unexpected ways to Marfa?

CS:     I’m interested in extremes—mainly because exceptions to the rule usually tell us what is paradoxically at the heart of an ideology.  People love to tout the “American Dream”, but exceptions/prohibitions/extremes often tell us more what a culture shares and is defined by.  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking at outpost architecture and military infrastructure.  It might not tell us much directly about the everyday citizen but it sure reveals a lot about the values maintained to protect the culture—or at least those in control of the culture.

The first window into this mechanics I discovered doing site visits, researching archives and producing work about the Cold War’s DISTANT EARLY WARNING (DEW) Line in the Arctic which was created as a bilateral defense infrastructure to protect continental USA from Soviet attacks.  As a result, I looked into the history of the electromagnetic in the arctic from early Marconi experiments with the US military to current experiments at HAARP.

Marfa is on the other NORAD border one could say, and I was invited to do a residency on the border with Mexico because of my research in issues of fluid boundaries.  Judd’s Chinati Foundation is also interesting because it is housed in an old military base that was operational from around 1910-WWII—so even Marfa’s existence is premised on military outpost architecture.

DP:    What sort of field research have you conducted along the southern border?

CS:     A lot of travelling and photographing things throughout the landscape for sure:  from swimming in the Rio Grande to lots of driving and hiking. Just existing in Marfa for a while you get a pretty heavy does of Homeland Security.  You drive a couple miles out of town and you go through a border checkpoint even though you aren’t crossing a border.  While officially the border is the Rio Grande, the entire area is more like a border zone and quite different than the 49º parallel.  The most common vehicle you see here is one of the many from the fleet of Border Patrol. There are also military installations that use Surveillance Aerostats (zeppelins) in the area.

With a little bad luck turned good, in the first week driving around in West Texas I had some car trouble and the Border Patrol stopped to check on what was transpiring.  It took about an hour for civilian help to come and in the meantime they hung around.  I was able to talk about their work the entire time and learned quite a bit such as the gap between official mandates of Homeland Security (prevention of terrorism as their prime directive) and the reality of the daily job (picking up 15 illegal Mexican immigrants the day before).

DP:     Your use of bug zappers resonates very well with the language of dehumanization used by the CIA and other agencies to describe drone strikes as “bug splats”. 

CS:     I actually wasn’t aware of this terminology until you mentioned it to me.  It’s one of those latent meanings that surprised me when I was trying to make a poetic connection between the ideology of security and a citizen’s everyday object—only to find out it is not a poetic piece of satire but sadly the entrenched mentality already made manifest in official cynical language.  The stranger part is that the term “bug splat” connects two projects I did in the last month: HOMELAND SECURITY in Marfa, Texas and my recent performance at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany, which I titled Drone Strike.

DP:     We are also struck by the metrical use of grids in the installation, grids that are also present in the geometry of surveillance and death, in the skies above Waziristan and other target populations. Indeed, the rhythms and metrical order of the grid appear central to the aesthetics of global information dominance. 

CS:     Do you know that eerie short story by J.G. Ballard “The Watch-Towers”– A wonderful panopticon story of a grid of watchers hung above the city 25ft above the roofs and in a grid spaced out 300ft in each direction?

I don’t want to give the Grid a bad name as it’s an ancient and remarkable system that’s allowed a considerable improvement of life , but I did first come to understanding the colonial implications of math and the metrical by studying clocks on exploration ships and their need to keep precise time to map out the grid work of latitude and longitude as delineated from the colonial center: Greenwich.  In this way, traditional indigenous navigation based on landmarks and narrative were replaced by the “objective” mathematical grid only making sense from the perspective of the colonial capital.

There is nothing inherently violent about the grid—it’s simply the universalizing of space, which can be good or bad.  Since it’s the cheapest and most efficient parsing of space based on universal application vs. specific sensitivity, the grid ends up being utilized by systems ranging from the military to minimalism; it’s no surprise then that the scale and layout of HOMELAND SECURITY was partly based on Donald Judd’s aluminum box sculptures installed here in Marfa at the Chinati Foundation.


Today however, I think we are witnessing the decline of the grid in a lot of ways—or at least the outdated style of the grid (as we will never leave it totally behind).  I feel my installation appears dated because of its grid structure, probably because I studied a little bit at the Architectural Association in London which is one of the hotbeds for parametric design—basically curvy architecture made famous by F. Gehry, G. Lynn and Z. Hadid.   The Grid is so Modern according to architectural aesthetics. Today the vogue is organic patterns or complex modeling, using computers.

As far as global information dominance, the grid stands in for static structure, while dynamic theories of topology are gaining more and more prevalence.  I’m thinking here of such people as Deleuze+Guattari, Paul Virilio, Alexander Galloway, Eyal Weizmann and Ben Fry who are aware of the shift from controlling a square plot of land to controlling the protocol of connections in a network. All of this said, I do understand what you mean by the “geometry of surveillance and death.”  The zappers installed this way suggest a sense of “instrumental reason”.

DP:     The acoustics of your installation summon the buzzing sound of the ubiquitous drone zone; a recent Stanford/NYU report identifies sound (particularly the ominous buzzing) as a key aspect of the psy-ops trauma experienced by non-comabatant civilians on the ground. You have long been concerned with vibrational and acoustic space as key aspects of securing boundaries and controlling bodies. 

CS:     “A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”


These are the first lines of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.  He brilliantly compared the difference in Psychological Warfare in the civilian terror bombing of London during WWII as part of the Vengeance strategy of the NAZI Wehrmacht.  The V-1 “buzz bombs” used in the first attacks were insanely loud and caused panic when they were heard—heralding an imminent attack.  The V-2 “vengeance rocket” ,  being supersonic, travelled faster than the victims could hear it—it arrived before the sound of itself did so.  In effect, the psychological terror switched.  Basically, one lived in fear continually knowing an early warning was impossible and if you heard an explosion, it meant it missed you and you were a survivor — sometimes not always better than being a victim.

However, with the ubiquity of drones since 1982 and their implementation of surveillance equipment, not just weapons, again we return to a buzz in the sky as not only a by-product of a Vengeance weapon— but used with full knowledge of its sonic terror.  It’s a well-known strategy that in breaking a prisoner in an interrogation the threat of pain can be as effective as conducting pain — some say more so.  Sound has always been an important part of psy-ops: from the repetitive looping of the Sesame Street’s theme song as an interrogation method to drone buzzing.

We can’t forget of course of Virilio’s analysis of drones used in the Vietnam War (1960s) and the Israeli war “Peace in Galilee” (1982) in his book War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception that was written before smart bomb videos became pop culture in the 1991 Gulf War: “This toy craft, worthy of Ernst Jünger’s Glass Bees”.

DP:    How does your analysis of outpost architecture relate to Virilio’s bunker archeology, and his ideas about orbital space?

CS:     Virilio’s Bunker Archeology is a paragon of research for me in so many ways: his existential fieldwork, aesthetic engagement and vast research in military strategy shine with his cutting insights.  I’ve tried to extend or repurpose his methodology as applied to WW2 Bunkers to my analysis of Cold War Geodesics Radomes.  Essentially my thesis is: ‘the Geodesic Radome is the synecdoche of post-WWII warfare—an architecture that distributes its structural forces through a framework formally related to the communication network connecting the architecture.’

This comes out of Virilio’s analysis in Bunker Archeology“While most buildings are embanked in the terrain by their foundations, the casemate [bunker] is devoid of any, aside from its centre of gravity, which explains its possibility for limited movement when the surrounding ground undergoes the impact of projectiles.  …the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military History.”


I find it interesting that Virilio doesn’t engage with the geodesic radome in his theories of “orbital space” even though he uses in Speed and Politics the phrase “geodesic war”, but maybe that is his extreme point — his movement away from real architecture to the dematerialisation of space.   Any building at all is too slow; he prefers the image of the parabolic missile echoed in the parabolic trajectory of Albert Speer: from director of New German Architecture to Minister of Munitions.  But I have the existential experience with radomes that he had with bunkers, and being more an artist than a philosopher these days, I’m aware of the materiality of the digital, and hence the reality of terrestrial surveillance outposts like CFS ALERT which I worked at this past year while under contract with the Dept. of Defense to make artistic depictions of their signals intelligence station located at the most northern settlement in the world: 82ºN.

DP:     Finally, also with reference to the locus of Marfa: Donald Judd had an uneasy relationship with the establishment art world, an uneasiness or skepticism which you seem to share?

CS:     Probably most artists have an uneasy relationship to the established art world. Judd’s personality included loud opinions and he had the ambition and eventually the funds to attempt some sort of relative autonomy, so we are more aware than normal of his uneasiness.  While we both moved to remote regions to “start” unique institutions (Chinati in Marfa by Judd, Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City by myself and a crew of other people), the motivation for both us is a little more complicated and probably quite different — especially since we did it at different points in our lives.

I do know from anecdotes told by people here in Marfa who knew Judd that when he was alive he didn’t like the border patrol, and that he even wrote a letter to the Mexican authorities after being harassed one time near his ranch.  The irony today is that the JUDD Foundation and Chinati Foundation are firmly part of the art world establishment.  Thus the cycle continues.


The Core Account

We have been keeping a wary eye on affairs in Old Europe, wondering how so many cultures with many hundreds of years of divergent history can possibly be reconciled. Thus you can imagine our excitement when we stumbled across an online white paper written by a distinguished political philosopher of our own invention who presently teaches at the University of Bielefeld: Professor Wolfgang Keinengels.

Keinengels has been scratching his head over various thorny issues of European history for two decades, and now believes he may have found a solution to the problem of profoundly unbalanced accounts throughout the Eurozone. We spoke in German with Professor Keinengels last week, and offer the below edited and abbreviated transcript {reviewed and approved by WK} to our loyal readers, hoping to convey the gist of his radical and far from modest proposal:


DP      You write that Europe has an intractable problem of history, that in your view history and its residues in daily consciousness within the life-world {Lebenswelt} constitutes the critical ontological problem in Europe; the “core account” that must be reconciled before the crisis can be resolved.

WK     Yes, and of course it seems so obvious when you say it just like that in one sentence, but I wanted to see what would happen if we really pursued the idea, dug into it if you like: French dirt, German dirt, Greek dirt and so forth. It began as a kind of thought experiment, but sometimes you begin something like this, dirt digging, and then you finally hit something solid, I mean, not just the bones of some ancient conflict, but solid gold so to say, an idea whose time in the sun might finally have arrived.

DP      And that is what you mean by the “rebalancing of variable dirt”?

WK     Exactly. You see, the core problem of Europe is that our dirt — not our soil but our dirt — is so profoundly different, that is to say, the lived experience among bodies in relation to the demands of nature and landscape have taken quite markedly distinct forms and shapes and rhythms depending on where you performed the entire range of bodily functions; in that sense, there is no Europe, there has never been a Europe; there are instead these different “residues of life-world experience” that derive from dramatically distinct experiences, and these residues yield different qualities of dirt and become, if you will, part of the national treasure or inheritance, that is, not what comes out of the dirt, but the dirt itself {Schmutz-an-sich}, which is the symbol of the shared experience of the collective corporeal identity that always must take grounded earth as its essential existential property.

DP      We were particularly struck by your thoughts on how consciousness relates to these different existential dirt balances {existentielle Schmutzguthabens}, as your call them.

WK      Yes, based on contemporary advances in neurobiology, some of them happening right here at the University of Bielefeld, we propose that the ground upon which we walk does significantly shape and impact our moment to moment consciousness of self, above all self in relation to the social-political group, and thus it is not realistic to expect that consensual decision making will emerge from such radically unreconciled dreck accounts, or Schmutzguthabens.

DP      We suppose that what some may have found controversial in your analysis is your idea of a trans-European market for these Schmutzguthabens.

WK     Yes, at first we simply wanted to see where the thought process would lead, but as we got deeper, we realized that we may have uncovered a fresh approach with massive policy implications. It is true that different dirts have different values, and that in part depends on the depth of the smut, and the deepness of the history, but in theory we can imagine a certain “charge” or “value injection” that is stored in these different dirt balances, charges that will have an impact on day to day consciousness in the Lebenswelt.

DP      How does that work?


WK     For example, we Germans sometimes look at the average Greek citizen and wonder how he can still be so happy, with all the problems in Greece; he is still happy and smiling. That happy consciousness is based in the very particular granularity of the Greek storehouse of Schmutzguthaben, and the residual effect of that charge on everyday life, in private consciousness.

DP      Emotions grounded in historical experience, stored in the core account …

WK     Yes, exactly, I mean the happy Greek is deeply happy, irregardless of the present temporary despair; and it all comes through the feet, through which the Greek person knows, at a subliminal prelinguistic level, that in ancient times this was a well functioning and enlightened society, indeed the birthplace of so much culture, art; the polis and philosophy. Meanwhile at the same time in ancient Germania, we were basically animals, rutting and squatting in the dark wood.

DP      So in essence, you’re talking about cutting a deal, dreck for dreck, so as to secure a piece of the Greek core account, and thus incorporate the happy Greek Lebenswelt?

WK     No, I doubt there would be any takers for a straight trade, given the heaviness of German dreck, not just in ancient times, but also very conspicuously in more recent history – the really nasty Geschichtliche Scheisse that feeds what you might call the great German Kopfschmertz. But what we do have is something missing in the Greek situation, and that is economic prosperity; so the idea is that Germany would agree to assume the economic debts of Greece in exchange for Greece assuming part of the headache stored inside the German Schmutzguthaben.


DP      So you mean to turn historical guilt for the Nazizeit into a sort of toxic waste, dumped on the Greeks?

WK     No, I reject that sort of characterization, though you are not the first to use it. Our belief is that this core account rebalancing would lead to a certain evening out of the respective situations, as Greece would receive a nice welcome injection of German prosperity, and Germany would receive a nice injection of the Greek happy consciousness. We fully understand that while German dirt would go to Greece, there is negative exchange value there – a net liability – and so the deal needs to be sweetened with other benefits, in the form of debt forgiveness and other economic compensations such as home appliances and luxury automobiles.

DP      So in effect, Greece would be voluntarily accepting this dirt as the physical repository of historical guilt, in exchange for Bosch dishwashers?

WK     Yes, but try to see the bright side. We doubt that Europe will find any way forward into the future unless we start sharing everything. Like in a marriage, you take the good with the bad. It is pointless to speak of a banking union, or a fiscal union, unless you have a union in consciousness, and this means also a dispersion of historical implications and consequences, if you will, such that we all walk on the same earth, and smell the same mud. Why should Germany not be able to have some small stake in the origins of western philosophy? This way,  Nietzsche residues can intermingle in a very material way with particulates from Socrates and Plato; does this not have a certain ring of truth to it?

DP       No comment on that one, for now; so how has all this been received?

WK      Well, first there was shock. We anticipated that. First comes shock, and then comes reality. The hard fact is that there is not much else of value in Greece for Germany to receive from them in trade, beyond their valorized consciousness, as expressed and stored and sustained through Greek Schmutzguthabens, and we see this reality slowly but surely sinking in, with more and more people coming around to our way of thinking.

DP       How so?

WK      We have had plenty of offers to broker private placements at a family or community level; offers to receive a few tons of German dirt here and there. At a national level, it will likely take more time, but we’ll get there. The fundamental point is that there really can be no European future until these historical inequalities have been reconciled properly, through the marketplace.

DP      What about the logistics of this plan? Is this not a massive undertaking, moving so much dirt from north to south and from south to north, across such challenging terrain?

WK     Yes, and that is where the secondary benefits come in. As you know, there are very high unemployment levels in places like Spain and Italy. So those populations now receive immediate benefits of good jobs and new mechanical skills. Then maybe down the road we can arrange similar reconciliations with each of those countries, too. We have no illusions about the size and depth of the German Schmutz-Probleme. We are all too conscious of that — indeed we have a surplus of such heavy consciousness, which we now wish to trade for a happier, sunnier state of mind.

DP      In other words, there is plenty of Kopfschmertz and Geschichtliche Scheisse to go around?

WK     You might say that, yes, though putting it more positively you could also say there is plenty of good German prosperity to go around too. Let’s be fair about it and share everything, the good with the bad. Then we can start talking about a true European union.