A Bridge Not for Sale

S. Gruen

        Literary composition in the twentieth century AD is pretty much what it was in
        the twentieth century BC: nearly everything has still to be done by hand.

                  —W. H. Auden

I recently downloaded and installed on my computer a piece of free software called the Literary Machine. I was drawn by the name. It suggested to me that writing might have suddenly become as easy as downloading MP3 files. Perhaps some genius programmer had found an algorithm that factored in the mental anguish of what to say and how to say it. Soon, I hoped, I could layer these existential uncertainties into my writing as easily as sampling the sounds of gears grinding and steam releasing onto a track of electronic music. Sometimes, I am as ingenuous as the hick who wanted to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Literary Machine is in fact a database composed of index cards. These index cards have many sides. They are multidimensional. There is room for sound and pictures on them. A nice feature, I thought. Would I ever use it? I would have to become much more proficient in my electronic note taking. Regardless, I decided to install the software, not for its multimedia features but because it promised something much grander, to “make sense of the chaos.” I have been trying to do that all of my life.

Perhaps I should have studied mathematics. Over the last few decades, mathematicians have made a lot more progress than I have in modeling various attributes of chaos. For instance, nonlinear equations describe how a slight variation of initial conditions in the physical world gives rise to the unpredictable variety of natural phenomena. When meteorologist Edward Lorenz used such an equation to model heat convection, he described the butterfly effect, suggesting that the mild turbulence provoked by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in a field in Oregon could have tremendous repercussions on weather patterns in Minnesota. This paradigm evokes interdependency in the natural world to a degree that only mystics have previously claimed existed.

A more graphic representation of chaos theory can be seen in fractals. There are entire Web sites dedicated to drawing the “fractal of the day.” Broccoli is a naturally occurring fractal, an irregular geometric object whose shape is repeated in a similar pattern at whatever scale it is observed. Its parts resemble the whole.

Snowflakes are naturally occurring fractals. A Koch snowflake, of which the Star of David is the second iteration, is another graphic representation of a kind of fractal. Each time a triangle is added to the figure, its perimeter grows until it diverges to infinity. It becomes a geometric object whose “boundary is infinite” while its “area remains finite.” Despite the fascination such objects provoke, despite the stunning advances that science makes in describing these real-world examples of chaos, something vital is absent. Chaos is at once more fundamental, more dynamic, and more daunting than broccoli or butterflies or snowflakes.

Scientific knowledge has become so specialized, so turned in on itself, that it resembles a coastline whose scale cannot be surveyed. The sheer volume and complexity of scientific publication makes it impossible to remain informed. Ironically, the more precise instruments of measure become, the more the length of the coastline approaches infinity. The voracious need to quantify and objectify threatens our extinction as sentient beings. When the human element is not factored out altogether, it is reduced to something unrecognizably small and mechanical. How does one maintain one’s humanity in the face of such overwhelming data?

Science inherited the idea of chaos from Greek mythology. Chaos is a human invention. It is the place from which all things come into existence. It is what there is when no other explanation exists. It is a gaping void. George Santayana wrote, “Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.” It may be what lies behind experience when there is no intelligence to interpret it. Chaos might also be the place to which everything ultimately returns.

Through the ages, chaos has been the realm of infinite possibility. To poets and artists chaos is the sum of human experience, of thought and of action. In the effort to create something that corresponds to a personal vision of what is true, poets and artists have relentlessly drawn their material from chaos. Chaos is not just the unpredictability of weather or turbulence. It is not simply self-similar patterns that repeat themselves endlessly. It is, for the artist, the unpredictability of what is human. And what is human is unavoidable and sometimes terrifying.

I see chaos as an enormous iceberg that emerges slowly, indistinctly from a dark mist on the distant horizon. This is a landscape that Böcklin or Turner or Goya could have painted. It has the atemporal glow of a solar eclipse. Perhaps this is nothing more than a mirage. But this mirage grows the way a Wagnerian opera builds in intensity. As I approach the iceberg, it dwarfs me the way a giant sequoia, or intergalactic distances, or the sheer numbers of those murdered in genocide dwarf me. Chaos can be beautiful. It can be violent. Or it can be both.

How one relates to chaos depends upon character. Even in the race to avoid it, to tame it, to create a bulwark against it, one is drawn to it like the hubristic crew aboard the Titanic. Chaos has an irresistible gravitational pull. Though there is no hope of ever circling this iceberg, one continues to explore it. Some observers try to leave a mark on it. Science maps the iceberg. Art, on the other hand, takes a hammer and chisel to it.

My grandiose idea for the Literary Machine was that it would help to bridge things between science and art. In my case, it would be the bridge between the art of collecting whatever I wander across and the science of organizing the mess. Or is it the reverse? Is it the science of collecting written thought and the art of organizing it? In any case, the software’s promise to “make sense of the chaos” gave me the kind of hope one seeks in religion. It sounded too good to be true, but I wanted to believe it. I wanted to squeeze all the loose stuff, the mother lode of existential contradictions, into the Literary Machine and have it miraculously transformed into revelation.

The Literary Machine forces the user to build a personal dictionary of one-word entries. Every index card submitted must be cataloged with at least one keyword. These keywords make up the user’s dictionary. When a keyword is dragged from the dictionary onto the software’s desktop, every index card associated with that keyword pops up on the screen. For instance, when I drag the word ephemeral from the dictionary onto the desktop, this is one of the entries that pops up:

        Inherent in ephemeral art is a final silence. It ends in its own disappearance. It cannot be possessed.
        Its disappearance as a commodity means that the artist must find other sources of income. This has
        always been the case for the poorest relation in the family of art, dance. As Donald once lamented
        ironically, We clean their apartments during the day and entertain them at night. Donald used to dance
        professionally in Manhattan. Since then, he has moved to Holland where the state subsidizes artists and
        he doesn’t have to clean apartments anymore. Because dance is so intimately bound in time, it can be
        nothing but ephemeral. Visual artists can work against time. They can make something that lasts or
        doesn’t last. Something that is or is not for sale.

This was a private note. It was something to be developed later or not at all. If I were to add it to one of the notebooks I have kept for twenty years, it would eventually find its way to the dark corner of a high shelf. I was hoping that if I added it to a virtual index card in the Literary Machine, the software might somehow churn it into something greater.

An exchange of posts on a professional forum I consult inspired the reflection on ephemeral art. People were arguing about Christo’s Gates installation in New York City’s Central Park. There were reactions that questioned the morality of a project that cost twenty-two million dollars and would disappear in a few weeks’ time. Couldn’t the money have been better spent in public education? Someone wondered whether it was great art. Another person thought that Christo should have been sponsored by Home Depot because the colors were an easy match. But ephemeral art lies outside the economy. No one can buy any of Christo’s projects. They are not for sale. After they are dismantled, they exist only in the documentation that surrounds them.

Christo’s project reminded me of the work of another artist whose material is ephemeral, Andy Goldsworthy. In the past, on his property in Scotland, he has built exquisitely frail and beautiful sculptures of ice that melted after he photographed them. Having seen the pictures in a book, I went to an exhibition of his “ice drawings.” They were on sale in a gallery in Paris. Long reams of white paper with dirty streaks running across them were hung vertically on the walls. The streaks were the dry residue of the melting icicles he used to make his drawings. The ice sculptures had crystallized and refracted the landscape that surrounded them. Though tiny, they focused the beauty of what lay around them in a way that resonated something broad and timeless. The oversized drawings in the gallery, on the other hand, could have been mistaken for used toilet paper.

Wealthy collectors seem to know no limit to the enormous sums they are willing to pay for certain works of art. What is it exactly that they are buying? Another dictionary, not mine but Webster’s, says that possession not only means ownership, but also the “domination by something,” as in an evil spirit or passion. Ephemeral art questions the idea that everything one creates necessarily belongs to the creator.

Concurrently, technology has given each of us the ability to do the same. Software is easily copied and distributed with no payment going to those who wrote the code. Millions of MP3, DivX, and photo files are exchanged each day. Bits of them find their way into new work. This free exchange upsets the economic balances that have been in place long enough for business models to have become established. Music and motion picture rights holders are worried about their revenue. God forbid that they be forced to clean apartments. They attack in court those who “steal” or “use” or “misuse” their “property.” Today’s technology provides the tools that redefine what is and is not private property. The justice system decides whether or not the way we use those tools is legal.

Ephemeral art, by negating the possibility of purchase, underscores the vanity of possession. In disappearing, the artwork vanishes into the realm from which it emerged. The ice melts. The Gates are torn down. The dance ends. What does it mean today to create something that is not for sale? Is this an act of resistance? A call for spiritual transcendence? Or cynically good marketing?

When I have a look at the other keywords on my index card of ephemeral art, I find that I also included the word transcendence. What could I have been thinking? I drag transcendence onto the desktop, and two other index cards pop up, more planks in the disassembled bridge between science and art, more scraps of existence connected ever so tenuously by a single word. What do these index cards have written on them? Both contain quotes that are quite long. One is from the jazz musician Pat Metheny; another is from Susan Sontag, who writes that the artist, like the mystic, yearns for something beyond knowing. Art ultimately becomes something to be overthrown because it impedes access to a much larger, contemplative silence. Metheny says that jazz is just a vehicle that takes him to the ultimate destination, “a musical one that describes all kinds of stuff about the human condition.”

Chaos may be as close to the eternal as most people will ever come. Like all that is abundant—human life, air, water, dust, sound, movement—chaos is of little monetary value and requires a sense of wonder to apprehend it. In a world that concentrates its wealth and its attention on the rare, it is possible to miss the forest for the trees, the iceberg for the sea. There is more than a sense of beauty and revelation when the veil of disorder is lifted and one discovers a certain method to the madness.

Somehow, the works of Christo, Goldsworthy, Sontag, and Metheny converge in the software I have installed. A single word, transcendence, links me to these four vastly different artists. Their work resonates beyond what they do. Each of them approaches art as a medium through which they gain access to some other place.

Where exactly are they going? To a place of play or a place of contemplation? Is what they do a hoax or for real? Objects disappear. Now you hear it, now you don’t? This is a place where there is nothing to sell and nothing to buy, where economic activity is irrelevant. Only ascetics and nomads could possibly be at home here. What? No Starbucks? No auctions at Christie’s? No idols to adore? In this place, there is no guarantee that what is accumulated assures status. Is this a desert or a desolate sea or the tip of an iceberg? Perhaps it is all three...or none of them. It is whatever the artist imagines it to be. To describe this place means one must deploy the art itself or use a metaphor. To get here, one must create.

Out of the infinite variety of personal experience, out of all the words, all the sounds, all the fabric, and all the icicles these artists could possibly combine, they have momentarily built a bridge between what could be and what is. This bridge is suspended above a chasm whose depth I cannot perceive. It swings in the forlorn winds that rock such fragile constructions. I swing with it. Walk across this bridge and you risk a move above chaos. Have I imagined more than what is really there? Fool, this is no time for questions. Quick, dance! Move across the bridge before the hard drive crashes, before the memory fades, before the ice melts.

S. Gruen has lived in Paris, France, for the last twenty years with his wife and two children. He works as a documentary and feature film cameraman. After a long career as an obscure, upublished, expatriate Left Bank writer, he moved to the Right Bank. Besides refusing work on TV reality shows, he is currently writing a screenplay and searching for the financing of a documentary entitled Private Property.

“A Bridge Not for Sale” appears in our Autumn 2006 issue.