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ThemesArt and CinematographyDeserts of the Political
Political Whirlpools and Deserts: Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Smithson and Michael Snow
Tom Holert

«There is no longer a center of significance connected to expanding circles or an expanding spiral, but a point of subjectification constituting the point of departure of the line.» (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)[1]

Desert Years

Around 1970, interest in the desert was booming, though not simply because pictures of the moon s surface, documenting the existence of yet another desert, had had a sobering effect upon humanity. Rather, even as the moon s extra-terrestrial desert was undergoing colonialization, the Earth s deserts were being firmly inscribed on the collective imagination of global popular culture. In the late 1960s, spectacular earth works were constructed in the desert. Artists such as Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, or Robert Smithson had been working since 1968 on these projects, mostly in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Utah. Around 1970, rock musicians Jim Morrison or Gram Parsons, for instance took off for the desert, starting out from Los Angeles, the city that had always been haunted by the surrounding desert,«by its emptiness, its inhospitality to life and the way it provides a refuge for freaks, cultists, and murderers.»[2] However it was once again first and foremost the cinema that was the cultural site where desert images positively exploded. The desert appeared in American biker and road movies, in science fiction films and surrealist cult flicks,[3] following the tracks of later desert dramas by John Ford or Howard Hawks. Once again, it represented a semantically ambiguous heterotopia of emptiness, death, temptation, and revelation, as well as unspoiled nature, purity, and reformation. A long religious and literary tradition, which had been an important, typically modern theme in the writings of nineteenth-century authors such as Nietzsche and Flaubert,[4] was continued in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Traditional concepts of the desert range throughout the semantic spectrum from «desertedness» (deserta) and «solitude» (solitudines) to «arena of sterility» (arena sterilis) and «vast wisdom» (vastitas). Armed with the appropriate metaphorical tools, interpreters approached the cinematic variants of these concepts of the desert. «The search for the archaic is the search for the beach under the pavement,» wrote Thomas Medicus in a 1982 Filmkritik article on Pier Paolo Pasolini s desert. He continued, «In a space of reduced contours, containing no symbols & the real desert becomes the metaphor for fate, since here, as there, only that which is most necessary is real, and encompasses both emptiness and abundance.»[5] It is not very difficult to continue expounding upon the existential, rhetorical, and semiotic characteristics of (more or less) specific images of the desert. Here, however, as an object of iconography and topological research, a «metaphor for fate,» or an «enduring metaphor for people reinventing themselves or getting lost on the edge of alien space,«[6] the desert is only interesting in as far as it takes on a structural, symbolic function at the points where various discourses of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies intersect. Too much has been written about the desert. Indiscriminately and metaphysically it has been located everywhere. Seen from the «landscape perspective» (W.J.T. Mitchell), «the desert» becomes a building block for infinite comparisons.[7] New aspects continually appear, structured and controlled by the conceptof «the landscape.» The desert becomes a cultural and historical theme park. On the other hand, not enough can be written about the specific regime of the desert and the combinations in which it takes its part: from political platforms and aesthetic practices to kitsch, ideology, religion, and a range of other elements, which employ the discourse on landscape to, in turn, create a discourse on subjectification and its crisis. The desert, a culturally produced space as well as a natural «event,» is a place for selfdiscovery and at the same time, a place where one s identity can be shaken. It is threatening, yet it can also be used to threaten. By means of the passage into and through the desert (and by using it as a point of departure) an epistemology develops that dangerously exceeds social and urban thinking. Such a critical epistemology of the desert (which can be traced back to a crisis of the subject, among other things) can result in a special kind of desert snobbism that is, among other things, the result of a regeneration process launched on the part of the precarious subject. Alternatively, it may manifest itself in one of those «special relationships between man, machine, and wilderness,» to which the architectural historian Reyner Banham refers in his book about the «the Great American Desert.»[8] The following will address two of these kinds of dispositifs, which incorporate topography and technology, plans of action and scenes of collapse, politics and film.

Desert People «Zabriski Point» by Michaelangelo Antonioni

A second Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, was as stubborn as Pasolini in his attempt to turn deserts and other barren landscapes into constellations of cinematographic and psychological signs, although he went about this project in a completely different fashion. Films such as «L Avventura» (1960), «Il Deserto Rosso» (1964), and «Professione: Reporter» («The Passenger,» 1975) are widely varying approaches toward the desert as dream image, parallel universe, projection surface, primeval landscape, post apocalyptic world, and depiction of reality. «Zabriskie Point» (1970) marked a peak in Antonioni s exploration of desert aesthetics. At the same time, Antonioni turned the desert into an arena to display the reciprocal processes of subjectivizationand politicization. No other dramatic film had dealt so strongly with the cathartic effects that the desert had upon nineteen-sixties American youth and no other film took so much criticism for it. The desert mobilized the protagonists; Antonioni and his actors took off for Death Valley with cars, airplanes, and cameras. Their motorized roving led (at first) to collective dissipation. The famous/infamous «love scene» in «Zabriskie Point» shows the two main characters (played, or better, embodied by Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette) having sex in the sand dunes at Zabriskie Point, a scenic outlook in Death Valley that gives the film its name. The sex is hallucinatory, alluding to a utopian dimension. And the couple is not alone; the desert is libidinously populated: accompanied by the spacious sounds of Jerry Garcia s improvised guitar, other naked people enjoy a dreamlike romp in the sand. Antonioni had recruited the actors from a free theatre group in San Francisco. The desert, this supposedly most hostile of all places, becomes the setting for free love and unfettered physical pleasure. In Antonioni s film, this moment of liberation becomes an ethereal commercial for the «free love» Weltanschauung, but his manner of presentation might cause us to think that we are witnessing the «the ultimate in the pretentious bluff,» «ideology at its worst,» as Slavoj Zizek believes.[9] Actually, in pretending to have understood the motivation for (and views of) American counterculture, Antonioni does seem to be bluffing. His detailed knowledge of the alienated Italian middle class, which suffers from a «malaise of the Eros» (Antonioni), is used here in a surprise ending.[10] Antonioni s opinions on social revolution, hippie youth and their destructive, polymorphousperverse, anti-reform motives were publicized even during filming. Months before Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released «Zabriskie Point» on February 9, 1970, press articles fanned the flames of expectation, discussing the film and Antonioni s «bizarre vision of our youth»[11] (Look, November 23, 1969).[12] In a 1969 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, the 57-year-old Antonioni compared the hippies to the superstitious farmers of Calabria, to whom he dedicated his 1949 documentary film, «Superstizione.» «I believe these similarities derive from the hippies desire not to reform present society, but to destroy it and, in destroying it, return almost to antiquity, to a purer, more primordial life, lessmechanical…»[13] Hence, fantasies of the «flight from civilization» and the «destruction of civilization» go hand in hand. To the accompaniment of «Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up» by Pink Floyd, a modern desert villa explodes in psychedelic slow-motion at the end of the film, recalling the depiction of collective ecstasy in the «love scene» in Death Valley. Key terms here are tabula rasa, new beginnings, primordial social forms, neoprimitivism.

The Desert as Laboratory

There was another time when the desert was considered to be the proper place for explosions and disappearances. In 1942, during WWII, General Patton flew over the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona, looking for suitable land for weapons testing. Patton «saw the desert as «vacant,» and he filled that vacancy with a Desert Training Centre spanning 16,200 square miles.»[14] Atom bomb tests were also carried out in the 1940s in the deserts of the southwest. Staging events and actions in the «empty» desert implied that such activity would have no consequences. Men and materials were being prepared for war; the desert served as the training ground. Antonioni and other directors adopted the principle of this desert geostrategy, although they did not consider the desert to be a testing ground for military weapons systems, but a testing ground for different concepts of life, which are themselves considered to be more or less explosive. The desert acted as laboratory promising a means by which civilizing notions of order and space could be deterritorialized, where experiments with existential, aesthetic, and social models could be carried out. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari differentiate between a «striated,» circumscribed space and a «smooth» one. The «smooth» space is the desert, the steppes, or the ocean, populated and occupied by nomads. «The nomads are there, on the land, wherever there forms a smooth space that gnaws, and tends to grow in all directions. The nomads inhabit these places; they remain in them, and they themselves make them grow, for it has been established that the nomads make the desert no less than they are made by it. They are vectors of deterritorialization.»[15]

Antonioni s Vision of the Political

A crucial transition occurs in «Zabriskie Point» at the moment when Daria Halprin meets one of the Native Americans. Just before the end of the film, Halprin encounters a Native American, a maid in the houseowned by the head of a real estate firm that specializes in building apartment houses in the desert the territory belonging to the Native American nomads. The glance she exchanges with the smiling woman in a housemaid s uniform marks one of the first significant moments in a process of politicization, which peaks in Halprin s ensuing, quasi-mystical vision of the spectacular explosion of a modern desert house. One could say that the protagonist, blessed with an ability to predict the future (and representing the film s counterculture target group), believed this building to be an outrage. The capitalist reterritorialization of the smooth desert space was an affront, and the fictitious explosion of the house was the radical, poetic, and logical consequence of this belief. Nothing hinders the identification with the desert and its nomadic population more than this kind of monument to a restrictive economy and colonial repression. According to Deleuze and Guattari, there are constant «mixtures» of various forms of existence among the «nomads,» the «migrants,» and the «settlers.» They describe this «mixture» as a process of «becoming settled,» or as «shifts of local nomadization.»[16] «Zabriskie Point» strives to 9nomadize : its main characters. Most noticeable is the metamorphosis of Daria, the daughter of the middle-class, who Antonioni sees as a neo-primitive child of nature in earth-toned leather. As she gradually retreats from her own origins, she is led to compassionately identify with the Native American

The Desert as a Dispositif of Perception

Now, however, there is the danger that cinematic representations of the desert and devastation will reconstruct territory, assure depiction, and restore the orderly view. Viewed as a whole, each of the discourses dealing with the fortified panoramic terrace at Zabriskie Point, the cinemascope view of the desert, and the literary tourist form an excellent example of the cinematic dispositif of perception.[18] The camera lingers for a long time upon a large wooden sign that explains the prehistoric history and geological formation of Death Valley a how-to manual for the miracle of nature revealed as a geological effect. «And even the foreshortening effect of cinema is present in Death Valley,» wrote Jean Baudrillard in his America. « &All the intelligence of the earth and its elements gathered together here, in a matchless spectacle: a geological epic. Cinema is not alone in having given us a cinematic vision of the desert. Nature itself pulled off the finest of its special effects here, long before men came on the scene.»[19] Antonioni attempts to keep his film characters moving, to change locations and viewpoints, to exhaust the aesthetics of the desert,but also to disturb the viewer (at which he succeeds less often). People rise up into the air, drive on dead straight, lonely, desert highways. Despite the many different ways of moving and forms of transportation, sex, policemen, or lack of gasoline continually interrupt their motorized flight. The way in and through the desert is irretrievably paved with counterculture clichés, the figures of real estate speculators, and tourist zones. The desert, the nomad s «natural» situation, becomes the natural «architecture» for city dwellers traveling through the desert. The desert, supposedly a «space of authenticity» (Neal Ascherson),[20] proves to be a space of signs, an ideological space, a mediascape, a «fourth nature.» [21]

Aerial View

Nevertheless, throughout the nineteen-seventies, the desert continued to be reconceptualized as a culture-free, «sign-free space of reduced contours» (Medicus). Modern notions of emptiness, purity, and the wide, white space (among other things) provided the foundation for the post-minimalist interventions of earth artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer, or Walter de Maria.[22] Spectacular interventions by artists such as Heizer and de Maria could be called «cinematographic,» in the Baudrillardian sense, in that they are based in the attempt to converge ancient myths, the liberation promised by minimalism, and modernist ideas of the desert in one constantly perfect, giant sculpture. The view from above the aerial view (which is also the view of the desert artists earth works) is the predominant one, which sees the desert as a kind of grandiose nature. On the ground, the individual is lost, decentralized, disoriented. From the air, it becomes apparent that there are an infinite number of ways to make both strategic and aesthetic inscriptions. At the same time, flying can eliminate this 9visual model, : make it possible to continually vary directions and clues. In attempting to define «nomadic art,» Deleuze and Guattari mention, among other things, aerial acrobatics, which supposedly forces the ground to constantly change direction.[23] And was not Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, one of the greatesttwentieth-century desert poets, a pilot first and foremost? Furthermore, the perspective from an airplane, helicopter, or satellite is a very male one. Zabriskie Point emphasizes this, too: while the woman on the ground drives through the desert in an old car, the man flies above the area in a stolen private plane. The audience flies along with him, so that they have the chance to experience the landscape as a geographic, cartographic relief. On the ground, however, maps must always be consulted in order to compensate for the lack of an overview, in order to orient oneself.

«Spiral Jetty» by Robert Smithson

Like «Zabriskie Point,» which presents an entire catalogue of ways to move and orient oneself in the desert, «Spiral Jetty», a film by Robert Smithson, is also structured like an anthology. Here, the New York artist finds a new way to modulate the relation between de- and reterritorialization. His construction of the «desert» differs essentially from the minimalist scenarios of point zero, emptiness, and the sublime. Nonetheless, Smithson participates in the decentralizing, destabilizing «aerial aerobics» of «nomadic art.» «Spiral Jetty» was made in the spring and summer of 1970. The onehour film was not only meant to document Smithson s earth sculpture of the same name, located in the salt desert of Utah, but above all, to comment upon and recontextualize the work. This gave the film the status of an independent artwork in a larger network of aesthetic actions.[24] In April of 1970, using over six thousand tons of earth and rock, Smithson constructed a spiral-shaped mole, or jetty, on the northeast side of the Great Salt Lake. The film was first shown at the Dwan Gallery in New York in November, 1970. It features bulldozers and dump trucks building the jetty, advancing into the red-colored water. Also seen are various cartographic materials (depicting current geography as well as prehistoric continental shifts), a car journey to a lonely desert peak, images from the movie Hall of Late Dinosaurs from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a pile of books that were important for the conception of the project.[25] A man (Smithson himself) walks across the finished spiral jetty, followed by the camera. At some point, the camera looks up andhelicopter noises begin. The camera spirals upward, as Smithson continues to walk, stumble, and hop to the end of the approximately 470-meter high structure; the evening sun breaks through, the camera winks at it, all possible light conditions are seen. The sunlight at the end of the film echoes the explosions of the sun seen at the beginning of the film; the last shot is of the editing room, where the film was cut. On the wall hangs a photo of the earth sculpture Spiral Jetty; the camera zooms in on it. Off-camera sounds vehicles, helicopters, and Smithson s voice are added to the film. Smithson reads aloud from scientific, cartographic, and literary works. This additional discursive layer fuses with the layer of visual film material, which comes from different sources and has a different status. In this way, various discursive fields are contrasted and connected in a collage-like fashion, becoming that «pile of language,» which, for Smithson, attests to the crude materiality of the discursive.[26]

«Zabriskie Point» and «Spiral Jetty»

«Zabriskie Point» and «Spiral Jetty«? The former represents the attempt of a European post-war modernist to sum up the contradictions of American youth in a parable about the flight from urban politicization to the internal and external deserts of individual anarchy. It was one of the last grand productions of the old Hollywood studio system and ended in economic catastrophe (MGM never recovered from the financial debacle caused by «Zabriskie Point»). The latter is a film essay by a New York artist, who hailed from the Minimalist scene, created under the auspices of the gallery system: a film that relates to the Spiral Jetty sculpture like a para or meta-text, in which the symbolic and semantic potential of an artistic intervention in the open desert is dissected, mounted, and (according to Smithson s precise storyboard) composed. «Zabriskie Point» and «Spiral Jetty»? A different kind of art, a different kind of cinema, certainly. And two completely different concepts of «the desert«: in one, the white sand of Death Valley, in the other, the much less «cinematographic» salt desert of the Great Salt Lake. Yet both films nevertheless form an interesting, complementary relationship (which is not simply owing to historical coincidence).[27] Around 1970, both films helped to revive a discursive interestin the desert as a cinematic and artistic option. Their very different approaches might provide clues as to how the desert, on one hand, increasingly changed from motif to dispositif, and on the other hand, was chosen to be the setting for and a function of a social and aesthetic project. As a place where one deserts, the desert is also a political place, even when it rejects any articulation of the political, such as can be seen at the beginning of «Zabriskie Point» in the discussion between students and Black Panthers. Circa 1970, the pressure to be involved in politics in the USA was high: Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the so-called end of the summer of love, Kent State & The increasingly tense, murky situation also progressively began to affect the art world. Discussions about the social function of art and its legitimacy in view of war, race riots, and social movements even finally reached the bastions of self-referential and apolitical modernism.

Smithson s Political Stance

In September of 1970, Artforum published the results of a poll under the title «The Artist and Politics: A Symposium.» It presented various proposals for political action for artists to undertake in order to deal with the «deepening political crisis in America.»[28] Essays by Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Walter Darby Bannard, Billy Al Bengston, Rosemarie Castoro, Rafael Ferrer, Donald Judd, Irving Petlin, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and Lawrence Weiner appeared in alphabetic order.[29] In his answer, Smithson emphasizes ironic, individual statements; he refers to the religious, ritualistic character of political engagement and revolutionary violence, and plans apocalyptic scenarios of decay, anomie, and entropy the devilish inevitability with which politics, violence, and the destruction of the earth work together. His disillusioned tone bespeaks a supposedly conservative position. Later, Dan Graham spoke of Smithson s strategy of «inversion,» the rhetorical reverse of dominant humanist liberalism: «Bob was a politician, and he had an instinct for the political. So, if he was taking a right-wing position during the optimistic sixties that was a devil s advocate corrective.» [30] Smithson s political agenda was ambivalent: he began an exhaustive examination of the ecology movement,which opposed earth art in a very reserved manner, yet also sought out conflict with the mining industry and its notion of landscape and nature.[31] Smithson s «criticality»[32] does not simply consist of an anticyclical strategy; rather, he is more a very pronounced type of anti-politician, whose relationship to the political activism of the late nineteensixties and early nineteen-seventies was constantly put to the test. Again and again, he tried to shift this relationship to another (subjective, literary/ poetic, philosophical) register of discourse. Political action was sucked into the central Smithson metaphor of the whirlpool. Smithson called his contribution to the Artforum poll «Art and the Political Whirlpool or the Politics of Disgust» (although the publication s editors omitted the title). «Actions swirl around one so fast they appear inactive. From a deeper level within «the deepening political crisis,» the best and the worst actions run together and surround one in the inertia of a whirlpool. The bottom is never reached, but one keeps dropping into a kind of political centrifugal force that throws the blood of atrocities onto those working for peace. The horror becomes so intense, so imprisoning that one is overwhelmed by a sense of disgust.»[33] Here, a kind of Bataille and Sartre-inspired «existentialism» accuses politics of making unreasonable demands, of causing traumatic violence, of exhausting and transforming every well-meant act (which is, to say the least, a problem concerning the concept of good intentions). At the same time, however, Smithson pursues precisely the principle underlying the entropic processes of dissolution and decay. His critique of political engagement opposes the subjugation of aesthetic activity to a foreign discipline. Simultaneously, his position does not simply move beyond sense and rationality to jouissance. Rather, his thoughts lead to dialectics of contingency and consolidation.[34] Subjectivity and the ability to act are put to the test, taken to their limits, but never rejected.

Disintegrated world

Using his theoretical and artistic instruments, Robert Smithson creates desertlike conditions, where the frailty of any goal-oriented political deed is evident. Smithson s politics are the politics of the desert, if we believe that the «desert» exists in a discursive,material space, in something like a «collection of locations or positions which coexist independently of the temporal order &«[35] Gilles Deleuze describes those «any-space-whatevers, deconnected or emptied spaces,» those «undifferentiated urban tissue, its vast unused places, docks, warehouses, heaps of girders and scrap iron,«[36] which appear in modern post-war films, especially in Antonioni's, as the visualization of a new kind of environment, as «arbitrary spaces, superseded or emptied,» where the «modern affects of fear, detachment, but also freshness, extreme speed and interminable waiting were developing.»[37] Smithson refigured this arbitrary space, reduced the extistential aspects, but also used its entropic potential to create. And he did this at a point in history when the prefix «de» began to dominate: «de,» as in English/French desert/désert, as in «decentralization,» «dedi f ferent iat ion,» «depersonal izat ion,» «dehumanizat ion,» «dematerialization,» «deconstruction.» The desert dissolves, separates, alienates. The term «disintegration» especially became more relevant to the relation between desert and perception. In «A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Art,» a 1968 essay, Smithson, who could never do without a selected motto or quotation, introduced a section on the term «desert» with two short quotes.[38] The first one is: «The world disintegrates around me,» a statement that Yvonne Rainer added to the program for her 1968 piece, The Mind is a Muscle. Its context is a short piece of selfreassurance in which Rainer reflects upon the position of her artistic work in relation to a «world in crisis« a place where the television shows a Vietnamese person being shot to death and the militarized organization of feminism is immanent.[39] The second quote is: «By Palm Desert springs often run dry.» Smithson had taken it from the back cover of «Song Cycle,» Van Dyke Parks first solo album. Parks was a former Hollywood child actor and young songwriter genius from Los Angeles who had already worked with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.[40] The line comes from the song «Palm Desert,» which compares old Hollywood to the industrial «banks of toxicity,» and alludes to the fading of the old film era and its replacement with luxury desert oases such as Palm Desert: «Meanwhile in the wild west of Hollywood age is losing hold.» New York artist Rainer s«disintegrated world» is the political desert, which Smithson describes two years later in his answer to the Artforum poll, using the image of the paralyzing, abhorrent whirlpool. Parks references to the age or the epoch loss of definition, and the dry fountains mentioned by Van Dyke Parks are connected to Californian land and resource management policies and environmental pollution, among other things. So there are two sorts of deserts: the political desert and the politicized one. As a discursive territory, it forms a kind of topography that intersects the modern and postmodern, a «projection surface,» not only for psychic and cultural circumstances, but also for various notions of «nature,» «landscape,» «humanism,» and «subjectivity.»

The Moral of the Spiral

In Alexandro Jodorowsky s «El Topo» (Mexico, 1971), the hero of the same name (played by Jodorowsky) must kill four master gunmen who live in the desert, in order to prove his love for a woman. Before he and his companion start, El Topo draws a spiral in the sand with a stick and says, «The desert is circular. To find the four masters, we ll have to travel in a spiral.» Here, the spiral is introduced as a figure for cognitive desert geography. Yet it can also serve as a highly polyvalent model for Deleuze and Guattari s philosophically defined relationship between the «line of flight» and «subjectification.» «Subjectification essentially constitutes finite linear proceedings,«[41] the spirals and their lines depict potential destruction and reconstruction of meaning and territoriality. As passenger, consumer, flaneur, and escapee on the «Spiral Jetty,» Smithson describes his autodecentralization: «I took my chances on a perilous path, along which my steps zigzagged, resembling a spiral lightning bolt.»[42] The red water of the salt lake recalls blood, which, «chemically speaking & is analogous in composition to the primordial seas. Following the spiral steps we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm.»[43] Smithson s discourse of deterritorialization captures with virulent energy all of the concepts and media used and mobilized in his work. Spirals and whirlpools are the negative pathos figures in this aesthetic of decay. Whorls and spirals play a key role in Smithson s work. They are, quite literally, the code mediating between circularity and nomadic vectorality, just like related meandering, labyrinthine, and pyramid structures. Smithson considers almost all types, from spiral-shaped fossils to gaseous astronomical spirals. He makes reference to an old Indian legend, which claims that a whirlpool under the Great Salt Lake is an underground connection to the Pacific an explanation for the odd existence of a giant salt lake so far from the ocean.Watching the film Spiral Jetty, we see a picture of a map of northwestern Utah (an area once covered by what is called Lake Bonneville) and hear a voice-over of Smithson reading a selection from a Utah geological handbook. It reports that the notion of the existence of a dangerous whirlpool was finally given up in the 1870s.[44] The complex of metaphors involving spirals/whirlpools is large, encompassing different fields of knowledge and historical eras. «In using the form of the spiral to imitate the settlers mythic whirlpool, Smithson incorporates the existence of the myth into the space of the work,» writes Rosalind Krauss.[45] Smithson conceives of the spiral as a paradoxical figuration of defiguration. It becomes the symbol for geometric entropy. Depending upon the context, there can be either destructive or deterritorializing potential in it. One almost wants to speak of the moral of the spiral a moral that differentiates between productive and destructive spiraling.


How can the desert now be viewed as either an open spiral or a closed circle? «The desert is less 9nature : than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries. When the artist goes to the desert he enriches his absence and burns off the water (paint) on his brain. The slush of the city evaporates from the artist s mind as he installs his art… A consciousness of the desert operates between craving and satiety.»[46] The desert becomes a conceptual space for regeneration and deterritorialization. Urban territorialism makes room for a type of subjectivity composed of absolute absence. This subjectivity is not without image and costume. In a photo taken by Nancy Holt in 1968, Smithson photographs his colleague and friend, Michael Heizer, in the California desert at Mono Lake. The two were making a Super-8 movie here, and each artist was suitably attired: blue jeans (pants and jacket), boots, and white hats. They were cinematic earth art cowboys, pioneers on the path to a new frontier or to the promised land, California. In the same year, 1968, Smithson offered a relativization: «[c]inematic «appearance» took over completely sometime in the late 50s.» He makes reference to a remark made by Vladimir Nabokov about the «selfdestructive world of the postcard.» What is generally called « Nature falls into an infinite series of movie «stills.» ..»[47] Photography is making nature obsolete.[48] One year prior to that, Smithson had written «A Tour of theMonuments of Passaic, New Jersey,» his report of a trip to a quite unspectacular, «ugly,» desolate, overdeveloped, «post-industrial» area outside New York (a «utopia without ground«). Everything seemed to be a film image to Smithson. The wasted industrial landscape, cluttered with drainage pipes and scrap metal (not unlike Antonioni's «Il Deserto rosso»), surrounded its visitor like a film. «When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.»[49] Instead of becoming a stage, the neglected suburban landscape becomes a movie, without Smithson having to resort to categories such as «dream» or «fantasy.» There is no longer any distance between cinematic visualization and its object. A sandbox in a playground is the last of the cinematic «monuments» Smithson sought out on his tour. He calls it a «model desert.» «Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness… Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity.»[50] The pitiful sandbox (»an open grave«) represents an absent, dystopian desert, robbed of all transcendental or ideal aspects.

Smithson and Deleuze

The last shot in the «Spiral Jetty» film shows the editing room, which contains viewing and editing machines, dangling strips of film, and a large photograph of the jetty in the background. Smithson writes that editors Bob Fiore and Barbara Jarvis (who were also making their own films and were active in the political art discussions of those years in New York) examined the raw, unedited film as if they were «paleontologists» and «Neanderthals» at the same time. «One is transported by this Archeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras.»[51] »The visual image becomes archeological, stratigraphic, and tectonic,» writes Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image.[52] It is very tempting to try to directly connect Smithson and Deleuze. However, when Deleuze says that the «separate» or «empty» spaces of the modern cinema display geological layers, are sedimentaryimages, he would immediately deny that we are being referred back to «prehistory.» He believes it has more to do with «deserted layers of our time.»[53] In opposition, for Smithson, film and photography are discursive, material, transport media, in a literal sense, to be used to reach an age of futuristic cavemen. In the best case, they can be used to reconstruct (or first create) the timelessness, infinite space, and emptiness, all of which appears to be unattainable in the wilderness a place that has long been merely an image anyway. Yet Smithson is enough of a realist to know that a single film cannot attain this. Which is why a film like Spiral Jetty also functions like a translation, a map, a blueprint (strongly recalling, in turn, the cartographic maneuvers that measure surfaces in Deleuze s thinking). Smithson does the groundwork for a fictionalization that takes place elsewhere. As a filmmaker, too, Smithson is always thrown back upon his own proliferate, disintegrating, elliptical, tangled, sometimes confusing, theoretical fiction of the cinema of cavemen, or the desert people. External references are employed in order to insure the self-sufficiency of this fiction; yet at the same time, the film s boundaries indicate the boundaries of decentralization. This is what essentially differentiates his reflection of deterritorialization and disintegration from the deterritorialization discourse carried on by other cinematographers of the desert.

La Région Centrale

In 1971, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow started the paradoxical task of observing the wilderness empty of people, without having anyone present at all. Snow had a special camera-like machine, resembling a satellite or a probe, installed in rough, mountainous Canadian territory. Mounted on a special robot programmed to move, the camera filmed the uniform, utterly nonpicturesque landscape for sixty hours. The material was edited down to three hours; people are only seen for a total of thirty minutes. Otherwise, the camera relies upon itself, in a wild, cinematic roller coaster ride. In 1969, that is, two years before making the film, Snow announced that the film «La Région Centrale» would become «a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness.»[54] He expected that the mechanical movement of the camera would result in somethingcomparable to the first rigorous film documents of the surface of the moon. At the same time, it « &will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was.»[55] After finishing the film in 1971, Snow thought that moments of ecstasy and totality prevailed. There was a zero point, an absolute center, a nirvana-like nothing, a lack of gravity, an orgasmic dimension, « &the ecstatic centre of a complete sphere.»[56] This kind of incorporeal seeing, which is «beyond all subjective finality» (Raymond Bellour),[57] reminds one of automatic recording and viewing machines that engage in viewing without seeing. This is a purely technical kind of viewing, which, in this case however, has no supervisory, controlling, guiding function. It is, as Alain Fleischer correctly wrote, «pointless,» mere performance (and thus also practically natural).[58] The things Smithson and Snow each move (translate) from one «desert» to another «desert,» could not be more different. Whereas Snow s (mostly) dehumanized camera movements completely obey the camera robot, and the «human factor» is limited to constructing the machine, programming it, choosing the location, and deciding how to edit the film from sixty to three hours, there are many more parts to Smithson s mix of esthetic criteria. In a posthumously published essay from 1971, Smithson writes of his experiences with the «wilderness of Cameraland,» the «wilderness created by the camera.» Smithson is not able to get really excited. Cameras had lives of their own; it was difficult to imagine an « &Infinite Camera without an ego.»[59] Smithson fantasized about a horror film with the working title «Invasion of the Camera Robots,» in which cyclopean cameras would terrorize a photography shop. The big issue was: how does one deal with the unavoidable, simultaneously productive and destructive presence of cameras, of abstraction machines? How does art/the artist behave toward the camera? There is no solution. Or is there perhaps one &? Michael Snow's «Wavelength», for instance, earns Smithson s attention: after all, this film successfully dried up the ocean into a photograph. Smithson also appears to be interested in the fact that Snow goes out into the actual landscape with «a delirious camera of his own invention.»[60] Snow produces a camera wilderness, which must have been suspect and at thesame time welcome to Smithson. Toward the end of his essay, Smithson indirectly admits that wild cameras could make a considerable contribution to the work of deterritorializing and decentralizing a society s narrative patterns. These thoughts, elliptically spoken, imagine a kind of film and photographic discourse that is infected by anti-narrativism a point of view that also includes the radical dissection of the subject of perception.

The Desert as Filmic Subject

Over a period of several years, Smithson elaborated upon a particular type of media subject. In his 1971 essay «A Cinematic Atopia,«[61] Smithson presents the preliminary result of this developing work, the «ultimate moviegoer«: a sleepy figure of radical passivity and receptivity who can no longer differentiate and only knows the «endless blur» of film. Smithson s site for this model film figure is a cinema, which would be built in a cave or an abandoned mine. Only one movie would be shown in this theater: a film depicting the construction of the cinema. Smithson placed a great deal of emphasis on the «prehistoric» had been shown on American television since September of 1960, form another possible basis.[63] In a 1966 article, Smithson had already written about artists who had seen an «infinite number of movies.» These artists do not leave the city to study the landscape, but visit the theaters on 42nd street instead. There, they watch movies such as Horror at Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964) or other trashy productions from the genres of horror or science fiction. «Such artists have Xray eyes, and can see through all of that cloddish substance that passes for «the deep and profound» these days.»[64] «X-ray eyes»[65] made it possible for artists to see through superficiality and empty sophistication. These modern primitives, with their technical, scientifically developed sensoria, penetrate the cultural pretensions of highbrow attitude. Science fiction and horror immunize against the temptation of supposed «high culture.» The artist with x-ray vision is a cyborg who craves neither soul nor sense, but is instead dedicated to studying the geomorphology of «low culture.» This (self)image of a post-human primitive with optical prostheses is not immaterial to the understanding of Smithson s cultural theory. It isnot the only persona taken on by the artist, but it represents a position outside of the cultural values system and humanist concepts of the subject, which is part of a program for dedifferentiating historically and socially constructed hierarchies. These x-ray vision artists are conditioned by their preferences: someone who likes horror is rather an emotional type; someone who is attracted to science fiction is called «perceptive.» For his image of the artist in the movie theater, Smithson rejects the assumption of autonomy and freedom, which are also idealistic aspects of the philosophy of the subject. It is possible to mention a process of hollowing out, the systematic creation of a void without a center, a movement toward the degré zero, which is perfected in the center of the postwar modern era in the works of Roland Barthes, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, Andy Warhol, J.G. Ballard, and many others. Smithson is hardly tortured by fears of loss. In two texts from the period around 1967 68, he celebrates the end of character acting in Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman films. In the films of both directors, actors move like dehumanized androids across a stage of timeless artificiality.[66] The blank actor corresponds to the blank audience member: in the boxlike rooms, or «dark chambers» of the new minimalist cinema architecture of the 1960s, Smithson writes, time is compressed and stops; the audience is put into an «entropic condition.» «To spend time in a movie house is to make a «hole» in one s life.»[67] This process of emptying (or perforating) the life of the viewer in the cinematic pressure cabin of time can also be understood as a process of «zombification.» The person at the movies is extracted from time. He loses his human temporality, becomes undead. As such, he resembles the robots and automatons in films by Hitchcock and Corman, but also the passive characters created by Antonioni s esthetics of modern alienation, who are unrealized, hollowed out by their artificial, unemotional surroundings. For the French film and art theorist Jean Louis Schefer, the «normal person in the cinema» is the «person who sits there, the virtual pole of the cinematic apparatus and image.» Sitting in the movie theater, he experiences entirely «the momentary life of an inchoate human being,» meaning, a person at the beginning, who can do nothing else but «begin to wean, to disaccustom himself from theworld.»[68] In other words, we become parentless replicates, controlled by an automaton working within us or standing behind us, confining us in a phantom-like state. The total loss of context in the movies, the separation of biography and biology, entering timelessness: Smithson s «ultimate filmgoer» appears to be the ultimate inchoate human being, «a prisoner of inertia.» «Films would follow films, until the action of each one would drown in a vast reservoir of pure perception. He would not be able to distinguish between good and bad films, all would be swallowed up into an endless blur &«[69] This kind of vegetation in the multimedia cave is the end of reception a trance condition without hope of redemption. It is the opposite, too, of the germinating anarchic activity that differentiates the youths in «Zabriskie Point» from the passive zombiecitizens in the «common space» of earlier Antonioni films. The final consequence is that the position of the inchoate human being is a catastrophic one, a total, phantasmagorical dissolution of internal and external. Smithson calmly and quietly recognizes that all disintegrating powers (which he considers to be unavoidable entropy) gain the upper hand. Even though the rectangular movie screen binds and frames the flow of the images, it is only for a short time. Then, the «cinematic atopia» appears again; it could also be called «chaosmos,» in agreement with Joyce, Deleuze, and Guattari.[70] The moviegoer would finally fall asleep and turn off his consciousness. The gravity of perception would increase. «Like a tortoise crawling over a desert, his eyes would crawl across the screen.»[71] Now a kind of politicization can begin, which can do without territory, even without the desert-as-landscape. The screen desert is the smooth, haptic space of another cinema.

© Media Art Net 2004