Issue 142: “Cosmos Cinema”

Issue 142: “Cosmos Cinema”

e-flux journal

Installation view of Space Is the Place at the 14th Shanghai Biennale: “Cosmos Cinema,” 2023–24. Photo courtesy of Power Station of Art.

February 6, 2024
Issue 142: “Cosmos Cinema”

edited by Ben Eastham 

with Anton Vidokle, Christina Kiaer with Ekaterina Kulinicheva, Hallie Ayres, Xin Wang, Elena Vogman, Zhen Zhang, Jonas Staal, Lukas Brasiskis, Zairong Xiang, and Arseny Zhilyaev

It is tempting to associate stargazing with imaginative escapism. With sheer scale and implacable beauty, the cosmos shows manifest disinterest in human affairs. Here is something, we take comfort in thinking, that we cannot possibly fuck up. But this division between our world and the one beyond is dangerous: colonizers said similar things about the “new world.” Like all such divisions, it’s also patently absurd.

In fact, we are not only connected to the cosmos, but hopelessly dependent upon it. All our energy derives from the sun. When it goes, we go. Or, more pressingly, when we pack our atmosphere with particulates that amplify the sun’s energy in defiance of that fact, we go. We remain at the mercy of a meteor screaming across the sky or the sudden expansion of a nearby black hole. It is not merely lyrical to say we are one with the cosmos. Nor is it necessarily reassuring. To look up is not always to look away.

Rather than a window onto another world, the night sky can serve as a mirror through which we identify ourselves. Humanity has derived from the stars its various origin stories, cosmologies, systems of life and death, and, by extension, its diverse social hierarchies. The powerful have invoked the sun and moon’s stable orbits as exemplars of social order for as long as revolutionaries have hailed comets and eclipses as portending their overthrow. The cosmos defines us just as we define the cosmos. The poetics and politics by which we identify ourselves, as thinkers from Georges Bataille to Alexander Chizhevsky have elaborated, flow from it.

Given this reciprocal relationship with the largest possible spectacle, is it too great a stretch to propose that our cosmos might well be a cinema? In figuring the night sky as a screen onto which the history of the cosmos is projected in points of light, Alexander Kluge reimagines the heavens as a cinematic archive of everything that has ever happened. Last night I watched fires burn on another sun a thousand years ago, so, as I type, the image of me writing this editorial is being carried on what Kluge calls “moving tracks of light” past the woman on the far side of the desk, through the window of Rome’s Biblioteca Nazionale, across the clear blue sky and into outer space. Perhaps my image will reach the terminally bored astronomers of some distant planet a hundred years from now.

An historian of science recently told me of a project to reclaim lost radio broadcasts from waves that continue to bounce around in the earth’s atmosphere. By that principle, one day it might be possible for our own telescopes to intercept images on their journey across space, and thereby to see who set the Reichstag alight or to observe the construction of Angkor Wat. The cosmos is, in this imaginary, a perfect cinema.

All of this is to give a brief introduction to a few of the ideas guiding the curation of the 14th Shanghai Biennale—entitled “Cosmos Cinema” and curated by Anton Vidokle with Hallie Ayres, Lukas Brasiskis, Zairong Xiang, and myself—and the essays of its accompanying catalog and this special issue of e-flux journal.

The obvious place to start is with chief curator Anton Vidokle’s “Introduction to Cosmos Cinema.” Film is not only the ideal technology to frame our relationship to the cosmos, writes Vidokle; it also suggests a number of experimental techniques—montage, scenography, the combination of sound and image—through which an exhibition on the subject might be organized. Thus Vidokle’s experience as a filmmaker and his long-term interest in the philosophy of cosmism is brought to bear on the staging of work by more than eighty artists across the sprawling Power Station of Art in Shanghai.

Beyond merely an effective medium through which to represent the cosmos, experimental cinema, states Elena Vogman, might help us put a shattered world back together again. She proposes the formal combination of cosmos (from the Greek word meaning “harmony”) with disorder, as a political practice of healing and repair. Here, disorder refers to the assemblage of perspectives that James Joyce called “chaosmos” and which is expressed on film through the montage of Sergei Eisenstein. Lukas Brasiskis traces a short history of cosmos in cinema, reflecting on how the medium has always developed formal methodologies responding to scientific and cultural revolutions in our understanding of time and space.

Drawing a comparison between the representation on film of two very different symbols of Western cosmology—Leonardo’s disputed Salvator Mundi painting and the construction of the world’s largest scientific observatory on sacred land in Hawai’i—Hallie Ayres describes how early modern and contemporary colonial practices are justified by cosmological systems that do not admit the possibility of any other truths. Ayres thus proposes other, less violent ways of seeing. With humanity likely to become an interplanetary species in the coming decades, Jonas Staal cautions that we risk repeating the horror of colonialism if we do not reckon with our injustices. Rejecting the language of “space colonization,” Staal’s essay acknowledges the many other species who have contributed to—and died to make possible—humanity’s entry into space.

Another lesson from colonialism: it might not be in our best interest to make contact with civilizations that fancy themselves more “advanced” than our own. Taking for a starting point the warning contained in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, Xin Wang considers the impulse behind the monumental inscriptions of Buddhist texts that adorn Chinese mountainsides. In doing so, Wang reflects on what it means to make a work of art that is to be received by nonhuman intelligences.

Turning the question around, Zairong Xiang asks what it means for a nonhuman intelligence to make a work of art to be received by humans. If montage is—as Elena Vogman proposes—a way of piecing the fragments of a broken world back together via “sensuous thinking,” then what can we learn from AI’s mechanical interpretation of the heap of broken images that constitute our present reality?

Exploring the pioneering textile designer Anna Andreeva’s interest in space travel and cybernetics during the Cold War, Christina Kiaer and Ekaterina Kulinicheva’s essay contests conventional histories of the suppression of the avant-garde and abstraction in the Soviet Union. Might the radical patterns produced by Andreeva and her colleagues instead fulfil the constructivist ideal that abstraction should be a collaborative art integrated into the infrastructures of state production and made available to the general populace?

Speaking directly to the exhibition’s context, Zhen Zhang takes up a celebrated cartoon character’s filmic appearances, set across several decades in Shanghai, to consider how Chinese cinema after the revolutionary transition served as a tool for the construction of a new society. Here, as throughout the issue, formal experiment is represented as fundamental to representing the changed realities of a postrevolutionary world, and artistic realism as more than merely indexical. Every new understanding of harmony demands a corresponding aesthetic expression.

It is a basic principle of both this Shanghai Biennale and this collection of essays that the grandiose theme of humanity’s relationship to the cosmos can also be found in the most mundane expressions. There is no greater example of this paradox than Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, which reduces the cosmic ambitions of the artist to the cramped space of a state apartment. Arseny Zhilyaev’s essay on this ironic ascension suggests that to think about the cosmos is not always to speculate about interplanetary travel or deep time, but rather to reflect on our implication in wider systems and the possibility of escaping them. My own feeling remains that, as Paul Éluard is supposed to have said, “There is another world, but it is this one.”

—Ben Eastham


Anton Vidokle—Introduction to Cosmos Cinema
Art has from the very beginning been deeply intertwined with reflections on our position within the cosmos and what this might teach us of mortality. My goal with Cosmos Cinema was to consider how these themes are addressed by artists working both historically and today, and to place these artists into new sets of relations.

Christina Kiaer with Ekaterina Kulinicheva—Anna Andreeva: A “Cosmic-Minded Comrade” in the Red Rose Collective
Andreeva’s cosmos is a place not to be conquered technologically but to be imagined on its own terms. In the tradition of Russian cosmism, with its utopian and technically unspecific dreams of resurrecting all the dead fathers buried on earth and resettling them on distant twinkling planets, we might say, borrowing from Robert Bird, that she is cosmic-minded, rather than space-race minded.

Hallie Ayres—Through Shadows, Darkly 
Critics of SETI have consistently argued that the program is more closely aligned with an unauthorized diplomatic project than it is with the hard sciences. While valid, a more imminent danger is that the transmissions might reveal the location of earth to extraterrestrials harboring violent intentions. Some scientists and philosophers have, therefore, raised the question of whether we should divulge anything—or at least anything truthful—within these transmissions.

Xin Wang—The Cosmos Flickers for You
Deception plays such a foundational role in the cosmic power struggles of the Three Body saga that its central tenet, the Dark Forest Theory, gained traction in wider cultural discourses. This theory likens intelligent life in the universe to hunters dispersed in a dark forest, vying for limited resources and unaware of each other’s locations. Silence and deceitfulness are essential to survival, given that the exposure of one’s coordinates will likely invite direct attack.

Elena Vogman—Chaosmos Cinema
How should Eisenstein’s double-page collage from an unrealized 1927 film adaptation of Marx’s Capital be seen today, almost a hundred years later? I would suggest reading these pages as proto-cinematic cartography, a divination which addresses future cinema as a chaosmos: a montage of the visceral, the sensuous, and the sidereal, cosmic dimensions which exclude homogeneous linear temporality.

Zhen Zhang—Orphan of Shanghai
Wanderings’ status as a foundational classic of the PRC demands a closer look at its “genre” and its spectatorial address in the context of China’s—and the Shanghai film industry’s—momentous midcentury transformation. The 1949 film’s mixture of live action and animation reasserts the primacy of “movement and light” as the foundation of cinematic realism. With this view, we might also rescue realism from the presumption of indexicality and examine the intricate relationship between formally experimental filmmaking—including animation—and historical change.

Jonas Staal—Exo-Ecologies: Notes on Intra-planetary and Inter-planetary Becomings
In the coming decade, humans will likely become an interplanetary species by creating permanent settlements on the moon and Mars. This endeavor clearly reproduces a terrible colonial and imperialist legacy that shamelessly speaks of martian “colonies” and a new generation of space “pioneers.” To challenge these environmentally disastrous space missions and the neocolonial, imperialist models they plan to export into the cosmos, we terrestrial beings need to alter the very foundations of our exo-ecologies in the making.

Lukas Brasiskis—A Brief History of the Cosmos in Cinema
The concept of total cinema gives rise to the endeavor to recreate the world in cinema’s image. Yet even as many previously unattainable technological dreams become reality, none of them are sufficient to substitute for existing reality. In André Bazin’s view, cinema has an asymptotic relationship to reality. The medium might approach perfect realism but can never attain what he calls “the myth of total cinema”—in which the boundaries between the world and its representation dissolve into an authoritarian totality—precisely because reality itself is constantly changing.

Zairong Xiang—River Swimming in a Salmon
An AI image generator was given the prompt “salmon swimming in a river.” It produced several puzzling images of similar composition, each of which shows what is unquestionably salmon in a stream of water. However, none of the results matched the familiar image of a legendary piscine hero swimming full-bodied against the current. Instead, they all depicted a fraction of a salmon, a fillet of salmon, its pink flesh ready to be seared or made into sashimi. In AI’s defense, the algorithm did not interpret the prompt incorrectly. All the right elements are there: this is not a pig in a volcano. Yet it all appears wrong to human eyes.

Arseny Zhilyaev—A Soviet Engineer of Eternal Life
Methodologically speaking, it might be said that all of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installations are in some way or another connected with a special structured experience of space, echoing the transformations of the starry sky. But there is one installation in which the sky also becomes the center of gravity. We are talking about perhaps their most famous installation, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, first shown in the Kabakovs’ Moscow studio in 1985. The viewer is presented with a room in a communal apartment that has been sealed off by investigators. The room’s resident has, with the help of a homemade device, escaped Soviet reality and is hiding in the sky.

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February 6, 2024

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