Are Friends Electric? - Sven-Olov Wallenstein and Koo Jeong A - Ontologies of the Virtual

Ontologies of the Virtual

Sven-Olov Wallenstein and Koo Jeong A

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

Are Friends Electric?
October 2019

Daniel Birnbaum Koo Jeong A’s augmented reality artwork density (2019) hovers in the air in a hidden garden in Regent’s Park, London. Nobody can see it without the right device, yet it is there. Is this a kind of illusionism? Is this no longer art, but rather a kind of magic?

Sven-Olov Wallenstein Well, art is always to some extent a question of magic, of making people see and feel things that are not there. It belongs to the imaginary, but this is also why it has a kind of critical purchase on reality. It’s not deception in the sense of smoke and mirrors; it doesn’t fool you in the straightforward sense of producing false beliefs or tricking you into false statements. Art is always an augmented reality, drawing on it while also pushing it in some other unforeseen direction. Modern technologies provide artists with new set of tools for achieving this, just as the canvas and once did. The canvas was also only partly a real thing, and partly a dematerialized window. The history of painting has to a great extent consisted in a long and no doubt interminable negotiation about how to relate these two sides.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB How would you define its mode of existence, it’s ontology? Would you say it’s real? Or does it linger in a state of potentiality?

SOW The concept of the real is polysemic, to say the least. I guess that the most immediate, everyday sense of it would be something that has a tangible, material existence. But as soon as we think more carefully, this evaporates: many things can arguably be described as real, or at least not as “unreal,” without being material in that sense: language, institutions, theories, etc. What “real” means rather seems to depend on what is taken to be the opposite term: imaginary, fictive, immaterial, ideal, etc., and each time we set up one particular opposition, the terms take on a specific meaning. Is the cube potential? Yes, to some extent, though not in the Aristotelian sense of dynamis, where the actualization, energeia, is a development and a transformation. The acorn in the process of becoming an oak does not look like the starting point, and yet it is the goal (telos) of the process, its fulfillment (entelechia). I guess the idea of the virtual is what comes closest: virtual and not actual, and yet real and not merely possible, as Gilles Deleuze has proposed, drawing first on Proust and Bergson, but then also on Leibniz and many others.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB What is the history of these philosophical distinctions? Today’s understanding of the virtual clearly has a genealogy.

SOW This history would take us back to ancient Greek philosophy, with Aristotle as the key figure, but if we follow Deleuze, the key thinker would be Leibniz, who also, and not by chance, happens to have invented the binary theory of numbers, which is the basis of the computer. What Deleuze tried to grasp in Leibniz is something that would be neither logically possible, where what is actualized remains a copy of the concept and the only aspect added is the positing of the thing, nor teleologically possible, in which the actualization is the unfolding of something that was already there from the start. Rather, the virtual is something that is perfectly real, and whose actualization would be a differentiation, whose outcome neither resembles the starting point nor constitutes a teleological unfolding. “Perfectly real” means that it is somehow outside of the actual, like an “extra-being,” as Deleuze once suggested with reference to the idea of the “event” in Stoicism. References to various versions of this in the history of philosophy could be multiple, and Deleuze also gives us hints to mathematics and physics, so the concept is highly malleable. But on a general level, virtuality is pitted against the kind of substance ontology that runs from Aristotle through Descartes up to modernity, with things and properties as the main categories. The subsequent senses of the virtual that have come through technical developments further emphasize this. They don’t contradict earlier ideas, one should just remember that the concept has a long history.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB The piece is only visible with an application that makes it appear on your mobile device. You open your camera and the object emerges, looking as real as any physical object in the garden. It floats above a classicist sculpture, which in photographs looks no less real than its metallic neighbor.

SOW I guess this can be taken as a sign of how perception, reality, existence, and a host of other related concepts have always been intertwined with technologies in the widest sense of the term, from the Greek physis (that which springs forth of itself) and techne (that which depends on human actions in order to come into being) onward. Reality seems increasingly to be dependent on techniques that make entities available and inscribe them in our field of experience—something that Gaston Bachelard was getting at when he suggested to think less in terms of phenomenology, or how phenomena are given to us, and more in terms of phenomenotechique, how phenomena are generated. However, I don’t think that this implies, as some techno-futurists would have it, that the subjective dimension would simply cease to be of relevance and be replaced by some self-generating technical assemblage. Rather, what it means to be a subject, a mind, a self, cannot be understood outside of a framework that is technical, but of course also social, institutional, linguistic, etc. The question should not be if there is a subject, but when, how, under which circumstances, and what type of responses, resistances, and reactions this makes possible. This, I think, is also why artistic practices have a particular bearing on these problems, since they often experiment with what it means to see, feel, perceive, and do so through the creation of certain situations, machineries, and assemblages whose meaning remains open.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB It’s perhaps important to emphasize that the piece is unique. It’s not some kind of omnipresent digital entity that can be viewed anywhere. One has to be physically present in the garden where it has been located. It reflects its environment, so it would look rather different if it were re-located.

SOW Yes, and here I would like to say something analogous to what I said about the subject. The virtual does not make place and physical location irrelevant, but rather asks of us to conceive of it differently, not as a given, something already there, but as the result of operations that produce a localization, which does not make it any less real. Thereness and nowness take on new meanings as we come to inhabit this world, and they give rise to all kinds of new tensions and conflicts.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB The fact that the cube reflects its environment makes it into a kind of mirror of the world.

SOW In that respect the piece inserts itself in a long tradition, going back first to Minimal Art and its sequels, like Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, but can be extended as far back in history as one wishes. Moreover, the mirror could be a way to think about virtuality. Maybe this is too simplistic, but I will take my chances: what we see in it is neither the merely logically possible, nor something that develops towards its goal, but a virtual that depends on us in order to become actualized as a difference, situating each viewer in a particular perspectival space. The insistence on mirrors throughout the history of art perhaps not only derives from art’s capacity to represent something pre-existing, out there, things, ideas, bodies, actions, and the like, but also from its capacity to call forth this extra-being that also locates us, changes the way we inhabit space and time.

Koo Jeong A, density, 2019, from the series Prerequisites 7. Courtesy of Acute Art and the artist.

DB The cube’s 3D geometry was created in a software called Blender, is equipped with a GPS coordinate, and very exact offset height from the ground. Do you think that the cube will be seen as something that really belongs to art, or will it remain something obscure and confusing that has no institutional home?

SOW “If someone says its art, it’s art,” Donald Judd once said, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. What is fascinating is rather how the changing (im)materiality of artworks—their “mode of existence as technical objects,” to use the terms of Gilbert Simondon—impose economic and institutional shifts in how they are acquired, preserved, and cataloged. The commodity fetishism that Marx analyzed in the first book in Capital, which surely was a precondition for art’s entry into a new sphere of circulation and for its autonomy with respect to previous symbolic orders (religion, morality), will not disappear, but take on new guises that we have yet to come to terms with. This, I think, is also a feature that gives art a social relevance beyond its themes or contents: art is somehow prescient about future forms of sociality, perception, and experience. It draws maps and charts of territories that do not yet exist.

Are Friends Electric? is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and Moderna Museet within the context of its exhibition Mud Muses: A Rant about Technology.

Interviews & Conversations, Technology
Virtual & Augmented Reality, Optics & Perception, Ontology
Return to Are Friends Electric?

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is Professor of Philosophy at Södertörn Högskola in Stockholm.

Koo Jeong A is an artist who works on the reinvention of spaces with site specifc works. Their works frequently include architectural elements, drawings, fictions, poetries, publications, installations, sculptures, films, audio works and architecture projects.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.