Bill Kouwenhoven has been writing independent photography criticism for more than 20 years for a number of internationally acclaimed magazines including Aperture, Afterimage, Photo Metro, British Journal of Photography, Hotshoe, Photonews, FOAM, and European Photography. Additionally, he has written the introductions for some 20 books including a major survey of Spanish conceptual photography, Nuevas Historias (Hatje Cantz, 2008), and more recently on the work of Christopher Chadbourne, State Fairs, (Kehrer Verlag, 2014)
“¡Yo tampoco entiendo nada del mundo!” Max de Esteban
When Max and I last talked about the feeling of being overwhelmed by the rush- no, the tidal wave—of information that we, all of us, are getting bombarded with, a deluge of bits and bytes and images that are all but beyond our comprehension, he replied, “I Don’t Understand Anything of the World Either!”
That is, to put it mildly, a powerful statement from an artist with a multitude of degrees in economics, political science and philosophy from prestigious universities in Spain and the United States.
As an artist practicing in Barcelona a space between languages and cultures, Max has moved through series of more or less conceptually based photography—the Elegies in Manumission and the Propositions series—to something different which started several years ago with Heads Will Roll and has reached its present analytic form with Binary Codes.
Both Heads Will Roll and Binary Code can be seen as attempts to make sense of and depart from what Doug Aitken and Dean Kuipers depicted in their book, “I Am a Bullet: Scenes from an Accelerating Culture” (New York, Crown Books, 2000). Here, the two authors, a photographer and a cultural critic, took stock, as it were, of how the rise of the internet, of digital photography, and the rise of a homogenizing global culture began to manifest itself back before the apocalyptic yet anticlimactic Y2K.
They spoke and showed myriad images of the 1960 parachute jump by USAF Captain Joseph Kittinger from the edge of space, Tokyo in flux in the 1990s, of demolition derbies [deliberately destructive car races] in America, gambling in Las Vegas in the clock-free environment of casinos, and several other subcultures that seem to define what Paul Virilio academically described in his 1977 book Speed and Politics or some sort of Futurama-like world straight out of the dystopic novels of Philipp K. Dick, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, or Thomas Pynchon.
Yet this “Accelerating Culture” is nothing compared to where we are now. Theirs was essentially an analog age. Where things, objects, people, whatever was tangible and could be bought or sold with cold cash, or easy credit, was, essentially a physical object. A Prada bag could be traded for an hour of “compensated companionship” in Tokyo in an exchange between a girl in a Sailor Moon outfit and a much older Salaryman. Cars physically were piloted into each other half-crazed drivers’ cars till the driver of the last one running received some modest prize. And so on…
Today, the world has accelerated exponentially through the omnipresence and ubiquity of digital technologies.
We are essentially at a stage of late capitalism in the globalist age as described by such philosophers as Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Slavoj Žižek whose analytical works deconstruct our evolving digital lives. It is all mediated, they argue, through the screens of our computers, tablets and phones. Personal relationships are transacted by the avatars we use to (mis-)represent ourselves on Facebook, Tinder, and other forms of “Social Media”. It is a world of Facebook friends and Bitcoins, of, ultimately, the bits and bytes that our digital prostheses use—the Ones and Zeros of computer speak made up of binary code’s algorithms.
We—this is my human, all too human, intervention here—have no real chance to understand this bombardment because it takes place mostly in a retinal way. The rods and cones of our human wetware are no match for the seductive power of our new digital world. “Controlled by whom?” you may ask, by Mark Zuckerberg, by Sergey Brin, by Xi Jinping, by Vladimir Putin? By the NSA-FSB-GCHQ, etc.?
We are living like some of Phillip K. Dick’s characters in his epochal novel, A Scanner Darkly (New York: Doubleday, 1977)—itself a title that picks its game from the Biblical verse from 1st Corinthians 13:12 King James Version, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
The real question bottoms out, like in some other Midsummer Night’s Dream, into a confusion of self and fantasy, of who we are now, of where we are now, and where we are going? It sounds very Heisenbergian, referring to the philosopher who posited, of particles, at least, that it is impossible to determine where a specific particle is and how fast it is travelling. This “Uncertainty Principle”, published in 1927 was awarded with a Nobel Prize in 1932. Yet, for Max de Esteban—and I would aver, the Berardis and Žižeks of the world, it another physicist who sets the tone of what we see in Binary Code: Erwin Schroedinger, whose, shall we say, year of the cat, completely upset binary thinking.
With his “Cat in the Box” paradox of 1935, Schroedinger upset the applecart of rational thought in away only equaled by Albert Einstein’s theories of “A Special Relativity” that was proposed earlier and refined around the same time. The premise of “Schroedinger’s Cat” is that it is impossible to tell if a cat in a box is alive or dead and that by opening the box, the experiment is irrefutably changed. In end effect, the cat may be considered alive and dead at the same time. Further, the Ones and Zeros are seen as destabilized. In the further developed Quantum Theory, some value may be both One and Zero at the same time.
Taken to the Max, shall we say, our contemporary world seems to be reduced to the superficially commuted algorithms of Ones and Zeros. It is the accretion, the layering on of visual traces of that which has gone on before. Whether they are the particles of things we remember—an image from Paris 1968, or of a misremembered movie or a multi layered torn billboard—of the sort so beloved by “straight photographers” Walker Evans or Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters—there are the things that stay with us.
These are primal images in the Freudian sense. They trace their power into our retinas and thus into our memories. However where we may look, however we may see, these things, these agglomerations of Zeros and Ones pile up, accrete and flatten out just as a moment looking at a graffito on a wall or in the street also becomes part of our ever-processing memory organs, the whole bombardment is brutal and more incessant than ever before.
Think of some of the tropes in Max’s images—the female body, the silo—they all devolve into basic numbers, filled or empty, pregnant or not. There are no in betweens. Zero or One.
Looked at differently, and given our day and age, as Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the Going Goes Weird, the Weird Turn Pro.”
Max de Esteban is not arrogant as the revolutionary Marxists were such as that prophet of the late lamented 20th century, Franz Fanon, who declared in 1952 that, ”What matters not is to understand the world but to change it.” Fanon, of course, was riffing off of Karl, himself who said back in 1845—another moment of radical change—that, “”Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
What really matters is what Max is doing with his latest work, Binary Code. It is to draw our attention to the fact that in these times of “accelerated culture”, where it appears that we are all reduced to the deep raging digital terror, fake news, bitcoins and our algorithmically mediated world, that we as people, as artists, as people hoping against hope to try to make sense of things—and that against all of what the philosophers and physicists have told us—we must try to make sense of things in a senseless world, even if we cannot understand everything that is going on—Heisenberg and Schroedinger rule as Zuckerberg and Brin do also rule!
Here, let a point of discussion that “Bifo” makes to one of Max’s works lay clear the role of the artist in this seemingly overwhelming age:
“The infinite palette of colours of the world wide web is only the Erscheinung (the external appearance) of the foundational binary code. Black and white.
If you put red in a black and white landscape the image looks threatening, and uncertainty takes the upper hand. Red is breaking the balance, is not a colour, but a menace.”
Ultimately, this is the Urschrei of the artist against the fundamental ways of the perceived world, the inundations of Zeros and Ones, the layered symbols, the black and white gods of our everyday existence that are “Collected for Output,” flattened into a synthesis of a single representative image, pars pro toto—in this stands the whole!
It is the application of paint on the flattened surface of the digital print, Max’s red swath is the cri du coeur of human intervention to a reeling world!
I may not understand it, but I am still here!