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Monuments of Fire

By Jeff Wood.

Between 2008 and 2010 Jeff Wood traveled with Eve Sussman and other members of Rufus Corporation through the former Soviet Caspian Region to research, develop and shoot whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, a dystopian, noir thriller. From over 100 hours of footage, the film is live edited by an algorithm. Jeff developed and played the protagonist of the film, Mr. Holz, a geophysicist and mathematician hired by expatriate wildcatters to develop algorithmic code for an unspecified resource extraction project. Monuments of Fire is about the becoming (and unbecoming) of Mr. Holz, his reckoning with the algorithm, and the landscape from which they both arose. Mr. Holz and whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir are now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

Is it among men? Or is it remote? In the lines and shapes, in the dust and colors. In the things blowing. In the blunt, illegible forms erected like crude arithmetic against the shimmering playa. A sentient pattern arising from the very arrangement of things. Does it require a witness? Or is it content to unravel itself mutely across the black? Or to lie dormant, sequestered within the geology of millennia from those who would long it into transcription. The jurisdiction of faith, and of the deserted, and of men with tools forged to trace speculations of its form, in the arrangement of things.

When I returned, I spent days inside, wrapped in blankets, with very little in my brain; chemicals that don’t know what they are yet, just sounds and some words that are not in any proper order. Alone – with all the time and real coffee that I could want, and no idea what to do with myself. The place that I am from is gone. That world is over. This is both true and not true. But out there, it was true.

Arise, comrades, and free yourselves from the tyranny of objects!

In 1915, two years before the Revolution, the renowned Russian painter Kazimir Malevich abruptly stopped painting things. Armed with the aphoristic certainty of his Suprematist Manifesto, Malevich demanded that Western art be finished with representation literally, cease to render real things, reality or any way in which we imagine reality to be. Painting, he deduced, had already done everything that was possible for it to do. Furthermore, photography and the emerging cinema could do reality better. Artists of all media must now with great emergency render form as transcendental iconography: form as a direct signifier of spiritual truth without distance or diversion and without the physical bounds of reality as a mediator. This expressed itself as a black square painted on a white canvas. And reality depended on it.

By hanging his Black Square in the upper corner of the salon at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in St. Petersburg — the “beautiful corner” where icons are displayed in traditional Orthodox households — Malevich was initiating a semiotic coup, a revolution in the organization of perception and identity. Malevich knew well that collective identity is curated through a circuit of mediation by propaganda or a fabricated system of resonating symbols. By unchaining himself from historic symbol-systems, he was also warning against the false icons of the future. The path of representation would, in the end, lead only to the simulacrum, the doppelganger… and, combined with an explosion in material production, the fetishization and the soap-operafication of everything: Reality TV. His manifesto was brilliant and insane and impossible, but somehow correct — that the end form of aesthetics would be the virtual reality. He found this prospect as abhorrent as the vacuum of Space itself, and so he chose Space. But the duality of attempting to represent non-representation is a double bind: all icons are false, or fictional, and yet without them the codification of consensual perception is impossible and cannot be culturally maintained. In failing to maintain the impossible vacuum of non-representation on Earth, Malevich could not have been more prophetic. But before he failed, he painted the Black Square and hung it between the Earth and the Moon as a chameleonic reflecting device, an opaque mirror perpetually shifting according to our projections of what we think anything is. Inspired in part by the abstract feeling of aerial photography, he declared, “I am the Ambassador of Space.” Then he promptly went back to painting radical figurative portraiture like any good cosmonaut who makes it out alive.

In 1968, in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark reinvented the Black Square in four dimensions and planted it on the Moon. The Monolith (or Tycho Magnetic Anomaly) was Kubrick and Clark’s solution to the problem of imagining the unimaginable. Sparking each macro-stage of human development from the dawn of tool usage to our arrival at the outer reaches of the galaxy, the Monolith catalyzes astronaut Dave’s evolutionary leap from man to super-man. Again, as an opaque reflecting device, the Monolith summons from Dave’s consciousness projections of both collective memory and his most transcendent (psychedelic) aspirations. Mind as imagination. Absorbed in the unlimited possibility of his own mind, reflected by the nothingness of the Monolith, Dave becomes Cosmonaut transfigured: Star Child, cosmic zygote, idea-as-life-seed, Earth-as-cell, consciousness, omniscience, time-space itself and the enfolding proto-hologram projected within his own cinematic interior as everything. The monolithic black square is the imagined blackboard upon which we project our imagining of the existence of everything: the infinitely full screen — a metaphor for metaphor.

The Monolith is impressive and forbidding, if not perfect. But I prefer Sputnik 1. Human history turns on Sputnik: the first artificial satellite to be launched into orbit, a deco orbital signal beacon that spent three lonely months circling the Earth and then burned up like a comet as it descended toward California. The R-7 launch vehicle that carried it had previously been intended to deliver nuclear warheads, while Sputnik alternately means “travelling companion” or “satellite”. A loneliness terrifying and pristine, its form was sublime. A silver ball about the size of a basketball with four spidery punk-rock spindles extending backward at wind-blown angles. A design vision so elegant it must have seemed alive, almost sentient, hurtling through orbit, communicating something just by being there. Peel back the exoskeletons of Sputnik’s hulking contemporaries and you will find piles of car batteries, gyroscopic apparatuses and glass vacuum tubes. But Sputnik, in its skin, was a glistening jewel. Like something a crow might intercept and drag back to its nest.

It is possible, reflecting on the torture that one must endure in the effortlessness of space, to imagine an inverse of Malevich’s all-reflecting and annihilating Black Square. That is, by annihilating ourselves, and our attachments to the most fundamental elements of life: gravity, atmospheric pressure, endemic supply of oxygen and nitrogen… we may attain the most iconic, aerial and representational vision possible: the Earth, real and abstract slaying all our warring demigods, our horrendous biblical history, mute and infantile. Earthbound, for a brief time, Malevich sought the view, the supreme vista, by annihilating perception. In flight now, the view itself is life, illuminating everything we have destroyed. The metaphor evaporates, leaving us with the world.

The Absheron Peninsula of Azerbaijan juts into the Caspian Sea like a wolf’s claw. The people in full afternoon dissipating as we push on through the northern outskirts of Baku and the hordes of traffic in brown clouds cleaving off and paring down to single lines in the dust, the road opening to a long, pluming ribbon. The city changing perceptibly but not quite dissolving. Block housing spreading out on either side of the road. The houses go on forever in waves over the barren hills of incendiary dust, as if they might spontaneously combust and vaporize. Neither desert nor steppe, but one vast construction site on the land — once some other landscape now razed and embanked with house after house, block upon block. And it must be one big mudfuck when it rains. Wet dogs roaming wildly down streets, map-less and without name. Rounding over the carcinogenic hills. Mountains of oceanography fossilized. Seashells piled in crustacean epochs, entire molluscan kingdoms crumbling and disintegrating into the airs.

We are inhaling a prehistoric ocean in the dust of the taxi and sweeping over the top of a rise, a gaping maw in the earth. A great crater yawning out in front of us. Ethereal light as though forced through a gauze. I squint to see into it, for miles. The land is like a mummy. Thick diesel strata in choking pigments. The road following down into the bottoms. A noxious lake. Oil derricks pocking the hillsides for as far as the eye can see. Autonomic pumps cycling their mechanical arms. Steel urns and domes, latticeworks of wires and cables, lines leading everywhere in some great conspiracy of Promethean conductivity. The landscape is so scraped and seared, so churned with smog and vapour that it is difficult to imagine exactly what is happening here. Winding and crisscrossed roads, paved and earthen, railroad stubs rusted. Buckled containers and tankers. Activity in the distance, a miasma of trucks rumbling, thundering rigs melding into a total sonic din, constant and droning like a tinnitus of the ears. The earth is howling. Yet the scale across the terran expanse appears as a child’s train set, or a diorama.

There is no sky. Oddly positioned buildings, wherever they need be, in confusing states. Are they being built or demolished? Are they inhabited or abandoned, for living or industry; family, company, state or some other anarchic institution? The effect is disorienting and sinister. Children, barefoot and shirtless, riding bicycles along the gas lines, and the gas fires with goats and sheep. So overwhelming is the panorama that it wholly defies my comprehension, like opening up oneself for vivisection and seeing what was not meant to be seen. It is rapturous. Herzog’s Faust. Swarms of blackbirds in vast operatic whorls. Blackbirds, starlings and magpies, two-toned Eurasian crows, rooks and ravens black as pitch, hounding the ground, splattering the open like ink. Innumerable black, feathered wings, like stained cotton swabs inscribing a thicket of lines and trajectories of indecipherable visual code, as if attempting to reformat the mind in a demonic confusion of illegible scrawling. Thousands upon thousands of them like locusts blighting, alighting on the ferric branchless acne, tormented and stirred to feverish agitation as if the earth itself were pained and maddened.

And the strangest, most specific littering of trash I have ever seen, as far as the eye can see: plastic bags. Millions of plastic bags blanketing the land at random and even intervals, as if placed there by all symphonic forces. Every color, but mostly translucent white plastic bags. Having blown from every last kiosk and corner store on earth, from every corner of the planet, drifted, sunk and eddied, and found their basin here. All like things gravitating. As far as I can see, I see plastic bags. It is spectacular. I am mortified, and deeply saddened, and ecstatic with bewilderment. And taking brief refuge in abstraction, I remember Sputnik, the Monolith and the Black Square, and I reconsider: perhaps when all is said and done the plastic bag will stand as the most sweeping and poignant icon of human achievement. But the landscape is heavier than metaphor and the air is leaden, draped in a scrim of inscrutability, something other than sadness, sharper than melancholy, and shallower. As if to see through it reveals only more of itself, and what it already is: the exchange of base things, a potlatch of kipple and murmur on the great chain of unending spasm and digestion. Gazing into that vivisection, in the narrow abyss between the human and the inhuman, it occurs to me that much of what we now recognize as apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic is merely the pulling back of the veil that hides from us our own infrastructure and the resources it requires, on a scale commensurate with our global endeavor.

Walking among the bags and the blackbirds, covered still in my layers of winter canvas and wool, goggles and gloves, my boots sink into the sphagnum of gunk. Acidic, acrylic pools resinous with oily iridescent orbits, like varnished wood grain. Miscellaneous sheets of plastic spiralling through the muck. Masses of indiscernible collage, fibreboard, gelatins of degrading organic matter, foodstuffs perhaps, body masses of things. A searing lemony drip in the back of my throat. Mucus also oozing from some collapsing brick wall. Bright, moving clay-earth substances like Play-Doh. More pools painted with temperature and minerals like sulphurous heat vents rich with sideshow organisms and mutations. And a mammal. Behind the soaked, wilting cardboard boxes, a dog pulling itself on its forearms and lying still, with no ears. I pull some crackers from my pocket and he wails, a penetrating moan, stay away from me. I circle around and stack the crackers on a stone, and I choke, drawing tears at the corners of my eyes. Spreading out from my fingers a sensation draws nerves across the boiling land like some great reef, sentient, throbbing and diseased. Cancerous acrid mist in my sinuses and a dull whine in my molars. I am faltering. A thing moving slowly. The coins in my pocket are oxidizing. Spine twisting. Curling. Curdling. It smells sweetly of burnt opium.

If all familiar signs are stripped from the land, can a new identity be forged from the sheer geometry of that alien landscape? Pipes running along the road, always pipes along the road, against the bitter waste and the block buildings and the lumbering incidents of livestock. And down the road, along the pipes, tombstones. A cemetery beneath the smoking towers. Behind it, beyond the haze, the city: Omega. Having passed through the end of the world now, the world has not ended. It outlives itself. In the geometry of empathy and interdependence at the end of the world, we are still from here. I have dreamed that I saw the new city. I dreamed everything was beautiful. And I continue along the road toward City-A.

Jeff Woods bio photo

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer living in Brooklyn and Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental film / art group Rufus Corporation which produced the works 89 Seconds at Alcazar, The Rape of the Sabine Women, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, and Car Wash Incident. His cinematic novel The Glacier is out now from Two Dollar Radio and he recently starred in The Removals directed by Nicholas Rombes. Jeff is currently editing the upcoming fall issue of the Berlin Quarterly.

‘Yuri’s office’ photograph credit: Monia Lippi.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 4th, 2016.