Adonis Flores. Paranoia as the Cult of Emptiness
This is a process without end…Elvia Rosa Castro
The French theorist Michel Foucault, asked in interview about a term that he had taken from English theory (from Bentham) and actualized – the Panopticon – declared:
In the Panopticon, everyone is watched, according to his position within the system, by one or by certain of the others. Here we have an apparatus of total and mobile distrust, since there is no absolute point. A certain sum of malevolence was required for the perfection of surveillance.[i]
[i]Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961–1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer , tr. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989, 1996), 235.
The method applied by Michel Foucault to surveillance is that which he applies to power: both are, he says, miniaturized, atomised and decentred as the only way of guaranteeing that the exercises of surveillance and control are effective, over and beyond the penitentiary notion implicit in Bentham’s Panopticon.
The principle is simple: on the periphery runs a building in the shape of a ring; in the center of the ring stands a tower pierced by large windows that face the inside wall of the ring; the outer building is divided into cells, each of which crosses the whole thickness of the building. These cells have two windows: one corresponding to the tower’s windows, facing into the cell; the other, facing outside, thereby enabling light to traverse the entire cell. One then needs only to place a guard in the central tower, and to lock into each cell a mad, sick or condemned person, a worker or a pupil. Owing to the back-lighting effect, one can make out the little captive silhouettes in the ring of the cells, in short, the principal of the dungeon is reversed: bright light and the guard’s observing gaze are found to impound better than the shadows which in fact provided a sort of protection.[i]
This, the classic design of the Panopticon, has been recorded in the photographic series of the Israeli Shai Kremer, one of whichis currently shown in the exhibition Exposed. Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera at the Tate Modern, London under the title Urban Warfare Training Camp, Panoramica Tze’elim. A typical whitewashed city in the Middle East, specifically in the Negev Desert, features various surveillance towers set within a circular arrangement of houses and buildings. The image is among the most chilling in the Tate exhibit, especially if we bear in mind the photograph title: this is nothing less than a training camp in which the empty city has become a simulacrum.
Clearly the Panopticon as device had a specific historical meaning but it is adopted by Foucault as a sort of metaphor prefiguring other and more sophisticated types of controls that reach into our very homes (as in Orwell’s 1984) and indeed ‘into the open air’[i] (Paul Virilio). The cynicism of all this paraphernalia is given maximal – indeed paroxysmic – expression in the UK, where surveillance is not only omnipresent but you are constantly notified of the fact. Over and beyond the logo of a camera and a notice whose justification is supposed to be your personal security, however, Foucault is warning us that we are caught up in a war of all against all that is no less real for being symbolic, or rather is only real because it is symbolic.
Of course in some societies control is more evident than in others. Everything depends on the level of freedom one seeks to export or the level of cynicism relative to public opinion and human rights. The use of CCTV, for example, guarantees an objectivity absent in denunciation, another means of control very common in totalitarian regimes in which the individual is vulnerable to pressure and blackmail and loses all citizenship rights. This is the ‘sum of malevolence’ to which Foucault refers. In any case, the classic structures continue to exist alongside new methods. In his wonderful book Fantasía roja, Iván de la Nuez, a Cuban theorist based in Barcelona, describes his experience in Berlin while the Wall was coming down:
This is a process without end, as infinite as the coils of José Lezama Lima’s serpent;[i]paranoia generates controls and these in their turn generate further paranoia with excess value added. Persecution mania becomes one of the indices of past and historical trauma. This fantasy, this so-called paranoia is, I believe, one of the most traumatic symptoms or attributes of contemporary reality. It should not, however, be confused with the trauma itself, which is rooted in one’s fear of the Other. Paranoia in my opinion is born with the ego. Where the Other exists, the possibility (reality) of persecution and harassment also exists. We are afraid of everything, even our own shadows. It is as simple as that.
The chain is as follows: trauma resides in fear of the Other (everyone is my enemy); fear is expressed in paranoia; and paranoia generates controls. It is a vicious spiral.
We are victims of the tension between possible or apparent liberty and persecution-mania/paranoia. We might almost claim that by being paranoid we are expressing or representing the trauma in one of its attributes. We are externalizing it. We are traumatized beings but this condition becomes inevitable from the very moment in which humans begin to live in society. The trauma makes its appearance, I believe, with the tyranny of the ego: with the dysfunctions between essence and appearance and all the binary opposites that follow.
The Cuban artist Adonis Flores has taken due note of this phenomenon but his preoccupations derive not from theory but from the fact that he has personal experience of war. In 1989, as the Cold War was drawing to a close, he had to go to Angola as a member of the Cuban Army to take part in the end of that conflict under the generic term ‘internationalist mission’– a term used then as now by the Cuban government.[ii]And of course war, in addition to the question of motivation, which is almost always reducible to economic interests, also plays out as paranoid exercise.
However, Adonis Flores’ artistic reaction to his Angolan experience only became visible after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. In a previous phase of his work, Flores had highlighted the destructive effect of collective experience on individual identities. This phase culminated in the happening Espíritu al servicio de todos [Mind at the Service of Everyone], exhibited at the Havana Biennale 2003 in a street in downtown Havana. But amid the global paranoia triggered by the terrorist attack on one of the world’s most visible centers of power, Adonis (as the artist himself has said and as I myself deduce) activated his personal memories, rummaged through his mental archives and began to establish an entire artistic vision using camouflage uniform to visually underpin the ideas that he sought to communicate.
Adonis was very young when he experienced the war but the photographs and performances in which he uses camouflage uniform constitute representations less about this or that ‘crusade’ and more about the entire topic of the apparatus of control and manipulation that wars provoke. His works are viscerally autobiographical. They speak to us of the paranoia that dominates in human beings and of our resulting capacity to accept whatever is expedient in a chameleon-like bid for survival, an exercise cloaked in the warlike obsessions and vacuous nationalisms and fundamentalisms that operate as social pressure valves for the mass media and governing classes in particular.
Adonis Flores’ work has been reviewed by various authors in journals such as Parachute (Canada), Esse Magazine (Canada), Réplica 21 (Mexico), Artecubano (Cuba) and in Show Time! (England). My book, El Observatorio de Línea. Repasos al arte cubano, contains a text about him under the title Adonis Flores. El as de la escalera [The Staircase Champion]. These articles approach his work in inclusive fashion; they speak of his photographs and installations and performances and analyse them as spectacles from a strictly aesthetic perspective. This text is intended to broaden the range of meanings and to apply other interpretive disciplines deriving less from aesthetics than from the social sciences. It will focus exclusively on his performances.
The fundamental principle of the performances by Adonis Flores analysed in this text is his use of the resources of surveillance in an unconventional way entirely removed from the warlike and incorporating a strong dose of humour.
Adonis’s preoccupation with instruments of control – discreet or overt – suggests a kinship with other artists who have treated this theme in various media. We might cite Alexandre Arrechea and his Garden of Mistrust (2009), a tree from whose branches hang CCTV cameras, or Raúl Cordero, who uses video to confront the ethical problems implied by the use of such devices. Take, for example, his works The Camara (The Camera, 2001–2002) and Pieza de vigilancia (Surveillance Piece/Play, 2005). In the latter, Cordero uses photography, text and video; with his own camera, he films from his study window a similar apparatus sited in the residence of a senior Cuban civil servant. The overt positioning of a surveillance camera in the Havana residence of a Cuban citizen is genuinely unusual in the Cuban context. To these artists we might add others in whose works the topic of surveillance is very important: Andreas Magdanz, Jonathan Olley, Mark Ruwedel and others.
However Adonis is less trenchant and more subtle. Thus with his performance El arte de la primavera (The Art of Spring, 2004), he began his own escalation. As if attempting to soothe people’s fears, he painted his uniform with daisies, imparting to it a mannered and feminine appearance; he then took to the streets in the spirit of a sixties hippy proselytizing for peace, mocking the authority implied by a military uniform and using new techniques to evade scrutiny. ‘Adonis has no elitist prejudices about flirting with kitsch… though his is no overt channeling of kitsch but a veiled satire based on the naturalness of the artist as he moves through the streets like any other passerby’.[iii]In this way Adonis raises to the status of fiction two historical events in which flowers were successfully used: the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and the actions of the Neue Forum in Leipzig,[iv]where the reforms that brought down the Berlin Wall were gestated. From another and more subtle perspective – a seemingly innocuous one – he also ritualized surveillance.
Elsewhere he went about establishing a new kind of landscape, as he did, for example, in Ornamental (2004). In this performance, which he repeated in Nottingham in 2006,[v] he sows himself in a flower pot surrounded by other potted plants and remains standing to attention for a number of hours, like a spy hidden among the flowers, thus transforming the military rhetoric into something quotidian, decorative and monotonous. This position, this blending in with the other plants sees him vegetating in either sense of that word, in his vegetable life within the landscape and in the sense of his wasting his life in the hieratic stance that he assumes.
But the most emphatic references to the act of surveillance are to be found in Visionario [Visionary], Oidor [Listener/Judge]and La Ronda [The Night Watch]. In Visionario (2004, Canada; 2006, England),[vi]Adonis, wearing his camouflage suit, walks through cities spying on possible enemies with his binoculars. The joke resides in the fact that his surveillance equipment consists of rolls of toilet paper. He thus subverts the way the toilet roll was used in Wim Delvoye, who printed rolls with drawings, placing them so that they functioned as ornaments or simply value-added toilet paper. Adonis here attains a high pitch of irony; this curious apparatus presents itself as an overt parody of the paranoia generated by the media and the feebleness of the arguments that justify the paraphernalia of control. The softness of the paper and its ephemeral nature form a strong contrast with the authoritarianism and aggression integral to the military uniform. Adonis thus transformed himself into a kind of panoptic sentinel scrutinising insignificant urban actions, something that might reasonably be described as the scenario par excellence of modern wars.
This use of the absurd as parody is also present in Oidor (2006, Nottingham). In this performance the artist walks around the city, again dressed in camouflage uniform, with loudspeakers directed toward his own ears in order to hear what was being said all around him. Thus the eccentric performer substitutes one sense for another: vision is replaced by hearing. The use of megaphones implicates technology as a metaphor of sophistication in the act of surveillance. Discipline in the overt sense is no longer used; control is more effective.
We have moved from a disciplinary society to a regime of control, along the line that Foucault set out for various epochs. But war intervenes to perfect these systems of control. It perfects them in the first place by using the normal forms of control employed by capital. (Toni Negri: photocopied material).
However the full measure of nonsense, paradox and the ridiculous in Oidor is revealed when we consider that even when resorting to megaphones, Adonis cannot understand what is happening, still less what is being said, since he doesn’t understand the language on which he is supposedly eavesdropping. This short-circuit or mission-failure establishes itself as a metaphor of cultural misunderstanding and, of course, of the aggressor’s frequently profound ignorance concerning the region under attack; that ignorance is, in its turn, liable to make the aggressor’s action a fiasco, a complete and utter failure.
Whereas up till now the artist has wandered around cities in a carefree manner – the exception beingOrnamental(2004), where his physical training played a part – inLa ronda(Montreal, 2009) Adonis tested his physique to the limit, as if warning us that shadowing people is no joke. After undergoing several months of training carrying buckets of water up and down staircases in order to improve his stamina, Adonis began walking on all fours like a dog, wearing on his hands boots that he had designed especially for this purpose. This kind of patrolling was in one sense the continuation of an idea present in Cazador(Hunter,2006), a photograph in which he painted his nose as if it were a dog’s snout. InLa ronda, he sniffs out any danger while at the same time investigating another sense, that of smell. However, the most notable point of the performance is that Adonis finishes up in a petrol station, thus closing the circle and pointing to the true causes of current wars and tensions.
Concerning this piece, the artist tells us: ‘to patrol on all fours and dressed in camouflage uniform is a ridiculous action, taken to the extreme of using boots for one’s hands when the latter are among the most sensitive parts of our body. This regressive act – adopting a posture like that of an animal – leads us to analyse the irrational posture of the military apparatus as a dominant entity’ (Adonis Flores: statement in digital dossier).Here we encounter a notion more vital, consistent and conceptually rich. Not only did he attract a larger audience; he also freed himself from the jocular, from those allusions to Francis Alÿs and Wim Delvoye. He warns us that paranoia is a kind of craziness that is constantly tempting death to intervene – that paranoia is a cult of emptiness. And this emptiness, alas, is no tribute to Lao Tzu nor has it anything to do with the notion of emptiness in Zen Buddhism. It merely implies a zero degree of consciousness.
[i]José Lezama Lima (1910–1976) is considered one of the most important writers of Cuba and of Hispano-America. His founding of the journal Orígenes wasone of the most important Latin American cultural events of the twentieth century. Here the image of the coil is to be taken as a metaphor in the sense of the infinite that returns, not unlike the notion of eternal return in Nietzsche and Jorge Luís Borges.
[ii]Internationalist missions are not exclusively military. As projections of solidarity, they also includeaid in the areas of health, education and sport.
[iii]Héctor Antón Castillo, ‘Una farsa bélica en medio de la cosa pública’, exh. cat. Adonis Flores. Carne de canon (Havana: Galería Habana, 2007).
[iv]The reformists placed flowers in the barrels of the GDR army as a gesture of peace.
[v]During the Sideshow art event in Nottingham, England.
[vi]An image of Visionariowas used to advertise the SCOPE London Art Fair.
[i]Literally ‘free air’ [Translator’s note].
The ghosts of the old Berlin now bear witness to the fact that the panoptic public spaces found in East German buildings – spaces that once brought joy to the heart of the Stasi informer[i]– have reinvented themselves in libertarian form as meeting places, cycle garages, improvised spaces for festivities, or occasional galleries for alternative exhibitions. But it turns out that the surveillance formerly carried out by the Stasi has given place in present-day Berlin to all kinds of cameras – at traffic lights and in banks, in car parks and houses, in both public and private life[ii].
[i]In 2006, I visited the Faculty of Romanistics at Potsdam University to present the exhibition of Cuban video art Moving Fast, one month after it had been shown at the European Media Art Festival of Osnabrück. In the days of the GDR, this was a law faculty where the future agents and officials of the Stasi studied and trained. Even the students there joked about surveillance: ‘Prof, watch what you say, there are cameras even in the bathrooms’.
[ii]Ivan de la Nuez, Fantasía Roja: los intelectuales de izquierda y la revolución cubana (Barcelona: Debate, 2006), 110
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