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Trevor Paglen: Semiotics of the
Hidden Empire

by Jill Dawsey


spurse's expanded field:
research, systems, collective activism
and participation


text / Jennie Klein


The problem that emerges from an artistic engagement with geopolitics is no longer just that of "naming the enemy," or locating the hierarchies of global power. It is also that of revealing the political potential of world society, the potential to change the reigning hierarchies.

—Brian Holmes1


There is a distributed geography of participation, for example, you who reads this, you have within and across you vast entanglements: by cell count you are 90% Bacteria, Fungi, and Protocistae which is shaped by a deep history of stellar gases, the earth cooling, the development of clothing, animal-human kinships, class and gender politics, air travel, transversal gene swapping and mutation of all kinds, etc. And still this acknowledgment of a geography barely begins the project of tracing our entangled becomings (participation).

—spurse member2



The nature of tactical activism and the goals of activist collectives have both shifted. Today, activist collectives operate in an expanded realm, and are just as likely to propose utopian solutions based on consensus building, information gathering, and paradigm shifts as they are to get arrested. The collective spurse functions in just such a space. The name spurse is a word fragment, suggesting the manner in which its members are a part of larger and smaller interrelated systems. Organized approximately ten years ago as a reading group, spurse now includes urbanists, architects, artists, philosophers, biologists, skateboarders, and software and environmental engineers, thus spanning a range of disciplines and practices. Its projects are a result of interactions between collective members and collaborators who bring new areas of expertise to the group. spurse facilitates belonging and involvement by asking people from various disciplines and backgrounds to work together to develop new ways of seeing and understanding our relationship to our environment. Refuting the Cartesian notion of individualism, spurse has facilitated projects, exhibitions, performances, lectures, seminars and workshops that ask participants to rethink current concepts of knowledge and being.


spurse, Cosmological Proposition Generator, a project for the exhibition From the Fat of the Land: Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions at Grand Arts, Kansas City, April 7-July 27, 2007, bars, filters, wheels, portable shelving unit with digital camera, computer, all-in-one fax machine, chair, and questionnaires (courtesy of spurse)

Unlike most collectives working today, spurse is interested in producing apparatuses that involve both material and conceptual transformations. What separates spurse from run-of-the-mill activist collectives is its commitment to aesthetics, which it defines as the production and distribution of affect, and the beauty inherent in complex systems. These concepts are at work in its elegant diagrams, cartographies, and installations, which function as provisional laboratories to produce new ways of being in the world. These maps are ways of searching for new possibilities—pollution from mining, New England fishing legislation, types of wheat grown on the Kansas prairie—that produce a space of excess and transformation. Their process often involves the drawing of "maps" that utilize the language of systems theory, beginning with a deceptively simple premise—a stock or resource, and solid lines that represent the inflow and outflow adding to or depleting the stock. Positive and negative feedback is represented by dotted lines. The "cartographers"—often participants in a spurse-run workshop—are asked to consider all the possible relationships that might connect their initial stock with everything else in its environment. The result is a complex, multivalent diagram that charts all of the resource's possible interactions. Superficially, these radical cartographies appear to have much in common with the maps drawn by the Situationist International. However, if the Situationists believed that all individuals were alienated under the system of capitalism, spurse does not begin with notions of lack. Rather, it seeks to experiment with the potentialities of the given.3 For spurse, it is crucial that humans become citizens of a world to which they are inextricably bound. "Life is thus an ethics of collectivity, institutional production, and spaces of situated sustainability—belonging… belonging in relation to that great Spinozian question: what can a body do?"4




spurse, Cosmological Proposition Generator, a project for the exhibition From the Fat of the Land: Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions at Grand Arts, Kansas City, April 7-July 27, 2007, bars, filters, wheels, portable shelving unit with digital camera, computer, all-in-one fax machine, chair, and questionnaires (courtesy of spurse)

Many of spurse's projects attempt to articulate and experiment with the emergent potentialities of systems, be they urban spaces, garbage, human and non-human assemblages, or the ability to listen. For The Public Table, 2006, spurse made use of urban excess in Boston by finding an empty space, transforming it into a restaurant through donations of tables, chairs, microwave ovens, and the like, and then feeding the patrons—for free—with food that they gleaned from the urban landscape. For Cosmological Proposition Generator, their contribution to the 2007 group exhibition From the Fat of the Land: Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions at Grand Arts in Kansas City, spurse called on the French Surrealist George Bataille's definition of excess, which entails the idea of a general economy based on the infinite plentitude of reality.5 The interactive installation Cosmological Proposition Generator relied on people to insert disks into deep slits. The disks, each inscribed with a text addressing a topic such as cosmology or ecosystems, rotated at different speeds, thus creating new relationships as different texts became visible. For Eleven Listening Posts for an Entangled Agent: Denver, a part of Dialog:City, which took place in Denver just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, spurse made interactive maps that called for a new politics of listening—that is, to pay attention to human and non-human systems. For example, the exercise entitled Cougar Deer Tracking instructed participants to follow the path of urban cougars, which survived Denver's urban sprawl. Lithospheric Bacteria instructed participants to find two stones, observe one for two years, and carry the other one at all times, thereby becoming aware of their agency within human and non-human assemblages. Maps, which included the manifesto "11 Points of Listening: A Proposal for Enactions with Entanglements," were distributed at various sites around Denver to encourage interested parties to listen differently to the city.




spurse, details of Deep Time Rapid Time, 2007-2009, a laboratory/training site for sensing and rethinking temporality, presented by Grand Arts, Kansas City, February 6-April 4, 2009 (courtesy of spurse)


Eleven Listening Posts was part of a larger research project showcased at Grand Arts, which resulted in Deep Time Rapid Time in 2009. That exhibition comprised a series of interactive stations that addressed both its location and the different kinds of time in which it is enmeshed. Deep time is measured in thousands and millions of years, whereas rapid time, which refers to rapidly changing ecosystems, is measured in years.




spurse, details of Deep Time Rapid Time, 2007-2009, a laboratory/training site for sensing and rethinking temporality, presented by Grand Arts, Kansas City, February 6-April 4, 2009 (courtesy of spurse)

For Deep Time Rapid Time, spurse constructed what amounted to a laboratory that challenged the viewer to engage with different notions of time—quantifiable, which is measurable and consecutive, and qualitative, which is non-linear, emergent time, that is, the time of change. Deep Time Rapid Time was three years in the making—the result of research projects ranging from a paleontological investigation into the Western Interior Seaway that covered much of North America—including Kansas—from 145 to 66 million years ago to conducting ongoing research and investigations for the duration of the exhibition. Members of spurse consulted with the Land Institute in Salina, KS, a groundbreaking institution that considers the potential futures of the Midwestern prairie, developing agricultural practices in relationship to future environmental conditions and economies. They explored rapid climate change in the Inuit territory of Nunavut. They held workshops with the students at the Kansas City Art Institute to develop prototypes for clothing as mobile architecture. They conducted archival research at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City on the histories of systems for articulating temporality. And they included research that they had produced for other projects, such as Crooked River in the First and Third Persons, a piece done for the 2008 Cleveland Ingenuity festival about the Cuyahoga River. These various research apparatuses invoked different qualities of temporality: the Arctic meeting rapid climate change, prairie ecologies meeting global future ecologies, geological strata inflecting sensations.






spurse, detail of Crooked River in the First and Third Persons, a 48-hour way-finding via sound experiment for the Cleveland Ingenuity Festival, July 25-27, 2008. Cleveland, OH (courtesy of spurse)

Deep Time Rapid Time was designed to lead visitors through different conditions of temporality as they related to the space in which they then stood. The installation was made to engender a sense of wonder.






spurse, details of Deep Time Rapid Time, 2007-2009, a laboratory/training site for sensing and rethinking temporality, presented by Grand Arts, Kansas City, February 6—April 4, 2009 (courtesy of spurse)

One of spurse's most recent projects, Micromobilia: Machines for the Intensive Research of Interior Bio-Geographies, is a mobile laboratory consisting of three shipping crates designed for use in institutional settings to research the entanglement of biology, society, and geography. Are you ready to be involved?


spurse with Chris Archer, Cole Caswell and Jeffrey Jenkins, detail of Micromobilia: Machines for the Intensive Research of Interior Bio-Geographies, a spurse project for Experimental Geography, a traveling Independent Curators International exhibition organized by Nato Thompson. Micromobilia is a mobile laboratory that unfolds out of three shipping crates. This laboratory is designed to be utilized within institutional settings to further research the intra-weavings of the biological, the social, and the geographical (courtesy of spurse)

NOTES

1. Brian Holmes, "Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics: Cartographies of Art in the World," in Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945, Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, eds., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 284.
2. Iain Kerr, catalogue text for Experimental Geography, http://www.spurse.org/spurse/micromobilia.html, accessed July 21, 2009.
3. Beth Hinderliter, "An Interview with spurse," Drain Issue 11: Psychogeography 5:2 (October 2008): http://www.drainmag.com/index_psy.htm, accessed July 21, 2009.
4. spurse, "Three Diagrammatic Researches and Eleven Themes on Hyper-Natural Entanglements," Useful Pictures, Adelheid Mers, ed., Chicago: Whitewalls and University of Chicago Press, 2008, 117.
5. spurse, "Potential," brochure from the exhibition From the Fat of the Land: Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions, Kansas City, Grand Arts, 2007.

Jennie Klein is a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS.

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