The Thing in All of Its Instances as It Happens
On Esther Gaton’s MACHINE WHITE SUN (2020)
The Appearances of Capital. This is not how we think of water — not being sprayed onto dry furniture in a vaguely institutional space, sliding off the half-heartedly designed decor of a bureaucratically maintained order, or drowning some outdoor fitness equipment and stealing leisure time from the unemployed. We are more likely to envision a seascape, a waterfall, a shower, maybe a fountain, but we won’t be suddenly conjuring up images of, say, a pressure-jet at the car wash. And yes, a glass of water on the table is a familiar image of water, but the comprehensive reality of it has more to do with pipe systems running through multi-story buildings. And not only systems, but equally mud, stains, leaks and floods. All the discoloured and ambiguous instances that feel peripheral to our idea of water as blue, transparent and fresh have more to do with it than we care to think. Like, right now, how many people are staring out of floor-to-ceiling windows onto infinite ocean vistas, and how many are washing cars at the car-wash? But what’s that got to do with water anyways?
Deus Ex Machina.1Take one scene: there is great elegance in the worker’s skill as he manipulates the pressure-jet, ensuring the car’s exterior is hosed fresh whilst the insides remain completely dry. An uncomfortable tension accompanies the objective of cleaning the car for which the presence of water is now both facilitator and threat. He manoeuvres with smooth precision, tracing his route around the edges of the frame and guiding all pressure outward. The water bounces off the metal and disperses violently in the wind, leaving the car as its negative space just before disappearing entirely into air. The worker aligns his interventions at such acute angles that water behaves not like a lazily distributed mass but a condensed narrow force. It becomes very useful. Something greatly satisfying in his competence is directly proportional to the threat of a wet car seat.
Threat and Management. Once wet, a well-behaved car interior with its soft cushions is suddenly disconcerting. The image of a soaked car seat is no longer pretty or banal, but simply wrong and out of character. The manufactured forms, all the plastic and leather that compose a semi-domesticity so steadily lacking in character, are now robbed of the only things that make them cohere — their comfort and legibility. The difficulty of holding this repellent image in mind is the slow anxiety that filters through the car wash scene. Driven by the worry that a slightest angle of misfire will get water in all the wrong places, we get a strange satisfaction from watching a smooth surface being systematically rubbed clean. It is only when the scene lasts long enough that we begin to trust and enjoy the procedures in their mastery.
“One can only know how to navigate a river by observing the ripples and dimples that are changing on its surface. You can only know how to land a plane in high wind, or hustle or kiss, or tell a joke.”2 Wetness is a state, which means water alone can not be wet. It’s a condition of complicity that only happens between one thing and another; an affair, an incident, a matter of concern or a case in point. In scientific terms, wetness occurs when the cohesive forces of the water molecules are weaker than the attractive forces between water and the wet thing. As such, water feels wet to us, and is best defined as a sensation; sometimes unpleasant, sometimes welcome, and at others just lukewarm. This is not repeatable, but it can spread. Water exhibits behaviour or tendency, but it can also be engineered, designed and administered. It can flow, clean, circulate, spill or surge. At times, it can also entertain. That is to say, it is most easily discerned through function.
“There is visibility that does not amount to an image.”3 And how does one visualise something that exists in many places at once, in each instance on its own terms? For example, condensation of a transparent surface is one manifestation of water, but is that the same as the condensation on the windows of a crowded night bus? There is only the entirety of the thing in all of its instances as it happens, which is still not the thing itself. So it becomes a necessity to stay comfortable in not knowing, keeping in mind the brown flood waters being swept out with a cheap plastic broom from inside a river-side cafe in a mid-sized European town. Keeping this in mind because there is no pure image of water (an attempt at which could be: water in a photography studio paced on a support inside a transparent container with a white backdrop and optimal lighting conditions — which is exactly that, and not a pure image of water). And there is no way to give an account for the graffiti under the bridge either. It is in such places, with condensation, amongst ripples, between tides on dry summer nights or humid mornings that truth simple passes as life. It passes through pipes or as decoration. Just as there are only instances of water, sometimes there isn’t much more than circumstance.
Friends are Important. Yet there is a certain ugliness to that which is just there, that which just happens. All those things that weren’t specifically intended by anyone but somehow still managed to end up overdetermined. Or all those things that were once attempted but didn’t even fail. Is labour ugly? Or the dull, the redundant, the misplaced thing that never even had a place to begin with. The faded trace of a thought that was once thought possible. The elaborate detail of an assertive design or the inarticulate random encounter. The formlessness that is always there in the most exaggerated forms. The useless ornamentation of the theme park or the dysfunctionality of a complex system. The exploitation and the cleanliness. Is the wet car seat so ugly only because it shows us how ugly a car seat really is? And just as something is the ugliest when it isn’t so blatantly, things are the most discomforting when they aren’t promptly catastrophic. Anxiety is a wanna-be flood that leaks slowly onto a perpetually wet floor; waiting where there is nothing to wait for, shaping its current around immobile objects. Here one finds minimal levels of respect that are just enough for cohabitation. If the end of the world has already begun it is uglier than the blockbuster one we think is awaiting us.
“An intensely inhabited territory ends up becoming an affirmation itself, an articulation, an expression of the life that’s lived there.”4 If that which is just there is too ugly to look at, then the way to deal with pain is perhaps to work backwards from care; ensuring that nothing is simply just there — muddy, residual, endured or capitalist. This would be a suggestion that beauty is the visible face of a world organised according to the desires of those who constitute it. And this order is not about precision. The pressure-jet does not exhibit the same kind of attention required for the careful ordering of a world — it can be seductive, but not beautiful. The right kind of attention can be found not in the movements of the car wash worker but in those of the filmmaker. As the camera slowly pans over a flooded artificial beach with fake hibiscus flowers, the filming becomes a second layer of artifice which cancels out the previous one and makes the world somehow more accessible. We see a new kind of still-life, like contemporary life brought to a stand-still: red car lights slowly rotate as they reflect off the concrete of an underpass that lifts a semi public square topped with trimmed grass over a car park. The precision here is a kind of care that is extended to the relevance of things, and it becomes contagious a we learn to stay with it, for as long as it takes.
Ethics of Water. The filmmaker can not escape the question of ‘where?’. In trying to stay with what she is filming, she ends up staying there with the world. She ends up complicit. The other question, ‘when?’, has a tint of restless agitation. As in, ‘When will we finally sort this out?’. ‘Where?’ on the other hand, is more patient, and it forces you to think. So where shall we save the world? In your kitchen, on the morning commute, at the park by the river in Valladolid? Once the landscape is flooded, you can only start from what is there and work backwards — or sideways. Moving like monkeys, hanging onto things vertically, keeping our legs dry and learning to work our arms, using the holds that are there but holding them differently. Perhaps this is what we need to do: hang out with the idlers in the mid-day hours of the park, even when it is flooded, and dangle ourselves from structures, complete in our hybridity, reconsidering the logistics and pleasures of our small conservative town.
1 The Latin phrase loosely translates as ‘god from the machine’ and originates from the word ‘mechane’, a large crane used in Ancient Greek theatre to lower actors onto stage as if they were gods.
2 Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft, (Lecture, Harvard GSD, 2015)
3 Jaques Ranciere, The Future Of The Image, 2003, p.7
4 The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 2014, p.202