Michel Foucault’s heterotopia has been a fundamental tool for understanding the territory of our past. Heterotopia specifies zones like the prison, the boarding school, the pirate ship, the honeymoon trip or the bottom corner in the attic; real places outside of common life, but required for the normal development of modern societies.
The heterotopia concept is crucial for analysing our history, but I it find difficult to use as it should be used: as a link with the utopia, as a real spot to imagine and dream impossible landscapes; basically: to escape forward. What is the potential of heterotopia today?
The art space was, once upon a time, a heterotopia, a place of otherness. The museum was one of the examples Foucault used to talk about heterotopia, to explain the relationship with time and space of these places that “are not here”. But the art space exploited it. Was it not the intention of artists, such as Hans Haacke, to eliminate the artifice of the autonomous sphere? They revealed the tricks of art-heterotopias and created a tunnel between the “real world” and the utopian potential of art spaces.
Anyway, we all know the story. The structure of art followed, hard and healthy, and the neoliberal system appropriated the adventures from the 60’s and 70’s as a fundamental part of its structure.
Is the heterotopia still able to analyse contemporary museums and galleries?
The curator and philosopher Paul B. Preciado proposed an interesting approach to the actual museum: a big media-trade worm
Impossible to know where it is, impossible to know how you enter, impossible to know how you leave. The art space in the neoliberal age is an exchangeable conduct for light-speed symbols.
The reason is because commercial galleries have substituted museums at the core to this mechanism. A place of transit and exchange, no more a perpetual archive, no longer stable, not a heterotopia, we need connection.
The world as a white cube.
And the white cube?
As a bunker?
As an airport?
As a place of transit? A place hidden? De-territorialised?
As a financial-aesthetic war-machine?
The architecture of the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey is a fascinating example of the neoliberal acceleration process. Opened in 2011, it broke with traditional white cube proportions. Its design is closer to an airport, a zone aimed at controlling, movement and commodities. The architecture and the objects are slowly fusing into one exchangeable symbol. Everything is gas.
‘The Illuminating Gas […] systematically imposes a formless anxiety, diverging yet centrifugal, directed not toward the most withheld secrets but toward the imitation and the transmutation of the most visible forms: each word at the same time energised and drained, filled and emptied by the possibility of there being yet another meaning, this one or that one, or neither one nor the other, but a third, or none…’
This Foucault quote was used to present last Cerith Wyn Evans’s show (Cerith Wyn Evans, White Cube Gallery Bermondsey, London 2015), but it could be used to describe the public of the exhibition, or the space itself. There is a very small difference between what the artwork is and what it is not. Everything is gas, filled and emptied by the possibility of being somewhere else.
In the exhibition, Wyn Evans presented some big pieces, strongly sculptural and full of energy, but I was captivated by a minimal intervention in the building, an alteration in one of the fluorescents on the ceiling. One of them was adapted to twinkle, communicating a message in Morse code. The lost message was easily misunderstood as an error in the light system. This small poetic act strengthened the capacity of value for flying from object to architecture, and, why not? people, in an infinite horizontal reticula.
A horizontal geometry polar to the vertical and gothic city. The spanish art critic Peio Aguirre analyses the white cube with a particular instrument: the Batcave, the shelter of Batman (of Nolan’s films: Batman Begins, 2005; The Dark Knight, 2008; The Dark Knight Rises, 2012). The light and clean vastness is presented as the reverse of the nocturnal and chaotic city. It is a place outside of life and above the law, but it works as a regulator of the exterior; it cannot be seen, but it is always watching.
What attracts me to this place, thinking heterotopy and art, is the notion of bunker.
The Batcave is a bunker, a post-industrial bunker in fact, but, unlike the traditional white cube, it is always connected with the rest of the world, it is a space of hyper surveillance and a model for the rest of the global city.
The bunker of the Batcave, as Aguirre says, is not a space for culture yet, although it is, at the same time, both artwork and high level architecture. The white cube, used as a model for the world, has aestheticised it, creating an absolute bunker. The problem today is not that the art world is a sealed sphere, but that the entire world is a blocked fortification, where value revolves without stopping, increasing the energy like a cyclotron but with no possibility of resolution, of escape. Our world is bunkered.
So, where can we find our contemporary heterotopias?
Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal
Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal (Madrid, 1991) is a curator and artist based in London. He is currently studying the MA Curating the Contemporary (London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery, London) and he is part of the curatorial team of Artifariti 2016, International Art and Human Rights Meeting in Western Sahara. He runs the experimental editorial noPRESENT, focused on synergies among curatorial praxis, feminism and performativity.
Featured Image: White Cube, Bermondsey, Photo: Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal