In the beginning of the last century the Swedish artist John Bauer created a large series of illustrations to accompany stories for slightly bigger children. These books that were published on a yearly basis for quite some time were called “Amongst Gnomes and Trolls” and Bauer illustrated them in a Nordic jugend style full of mystery with stones that come alive, trees that run around, princess, mousse and moosse and lakes amazingly clear. They are fantastic.
It has been told that Edvard Munch from time to time left paintings that didn’t come out right in the nature. Who know in the forest behind his summer house, deep into the Norwegian wilderness, beyond people and civilisation or something. I’ve hear both that he was convinced that the paintings would ripen and find themselves before he could start working on them again and, alternatively that he punished the paintings to sit around in the bush for a bunch of weeks, scared shitless leaning against some ancient tree with moss and weird creatures.
One can basically consider two meanings to the word speculation. Either as in the stock market where one speculates on ups and down, movements within given frameworks. Speculation on the stock market is based on probability. Something moves up, something else goes down, we win if we can predict probability. Difficult but not impossible. Another understanding is, perhaps one could say philosophical. Speculate here is the opposite of projections which is all about estimating the future based on what is already possible. Speculation implies, the somewhat impossible project, to elaborate e.g. the future without grounding it in what is or can be known. This is a form of speculation that bypasses probability in favour of contingency. Evidently one can not predict a result but have to suffice with whatever it is concerning speculation.
Speculation on the stock markets is not exactly rational but a matter of having overview, information and people that creates watertight algorithms. Sharp tools make mucho dollares. Philosophical speculation on the other hand can not be set out through reason or any tools that – which all tools have in common – knows its job. The first obstacle indeed is to bypass or unhinge reason, history, probability, desire, hierarchies, patriarchy, fish, gravity so on and forth. There is only one tool that has the capacity to do this – and it comes with restrictions. This tool, that Deleuze and Guattari made so popular already in the 1970s (just kidding), is know as a concept.
This difference is important; speculation in regard of probability or speculation vis-à-vis contingency. The point has been made before, it is obvious that speculation on the stock market remains in the realm of the possible. You make more or less much money, but never more than that, it all stays with in the reasonable and makes total sense. The second kind of speculation which has nothing to do with money (or rarely) moves beyond the logical, causal and reasonable and into contingency which we can also name immanence or potentiality. It is not so tricky to figure out that speculation version one is both epistemological and performative, whereas the second, if not actually so at least close enough, is ontological and non-performative. Add to that one equals relational and two is non-relational or in other words singular.
One should however keep in mind that just because something crosses paths with potentiality it doesn’t mean that what comes out is absolutely crazy, fucked up, amazing, weird or the solution to everything and a bit more. Pas de tout it just means that that is also possible and that that it is is already enough of a promise, at least for some. Perhaps for, at least according to Deleuze and Guattari, scientists, philosophers and artists.
In parentheses potentiality is also a word that can have two more or less connotations. On the one hand it has turned into to more or less mean possibility. A football coach or gallerist can say “that kid has great potentiality” which means, worth investing in which already is fully inscribed in probability. On the other, the philosophical meaning of potentiality. Here, depending to an extent what philosopher one speaks to, potentiality instead can be described as the realm beyond, not just what is possible but also beyond what is not possible, i.e. to a realm beyond knowledge, signification, language and etc. Or if possibility is imagination, and unimaginable is the impossible, then potentiality is that that that we can’t even imagine imagining. Yet, only potentiality can change something, the world, universe or the subject in ways that is not already predictable, possible, manageable, measurable or probable. Full pêle-mêle so to say, but that that it is is already enough of a promise, at least for some. The first version points only to difference in degree whereas the second promises difference in kind.
A concept can be said to be a tool, but perhaps better a machine. There are two kinds of machines. Machines, such as a toaster that knows its job and does it well. A toaster is good when it produces toast with strong determination. No matter what you put in it should come back up again with a different colour. Most machines, or all of them operate in relation to determination, they are reliable and that is most of the time good. But, and obviously a concept is the second kind of machine. It is a machine that produces indetermination, i.e. to which the outcome is contingent. There is a catch though, which is that there must be no determination to the indetermination neither, therefore it’s not just the result that is indeterminable but also the machine itself. Toasters are easy to build whereas concepts are motherfuckers to construct and you have no idea if they’ll work or not until it’s too late, and then what the hell they worked for or against. Concepts are machines you can’t know what they are good for.
Unfortunately concept is often used as a way of defining. The concept of this or that is this or that. The concept of e.g. determination is and a compressed explanation or even worse, formulations such as “in this paper I intend to unpack the concept of”, help me. But equally often – and that’s where concepts, thinking or working with concept is interesting and vital for e.g. art – concept refers to a specific kind of machine.
More confusion. Conceptual has a lot to do with the first, unfortunate, version of understanding concept and very little or nothing at all to do with concept as in a machine that generates the possibility of indetermination. Conceptual in art, especially first generation, has rather to do with displaying concepts (first unfortunate version), or one could say translating concepts from text to some kind of visual representation. Joseph Kosuth’s work is a prime example but also more recent artists but we perhaps recognise them more as smart-ass than conceptual. Never mind in today’s art world it appears that conceptual is an art that appels to cognition rather than emotions or energy. In fact conceptual is just something one adds in the end to seem a bit more deep.
What about an art that forgets the conceptual and instead is a concept? No to conceptual art and yes to concept art. An art to which there is no good or bad interpretation, no answers or smart-assness, no cynicism or institutional critique but where the engagement with the work is the engagement with a machine that so to say incorporates the viewer in favour of an indeterminate production, of contingency and the possibility of potentiality.
Now the question is, who do you want to be John Bauer or Edvard Munch. Obviously non of them but it seems obvious that Bauer just used his imagination and fantasised a bit whereas Munch in some or other way placed a kind of agency in the paintings themselves. In the most elementary and naïve way but didn’t Munch pass the paintings on to themselves, he introduced them to the indetemination of nature. ‘
It’s kind of cute to think about how when Bauer made paintings with gnomes and trolls in them, that Munch instead placed his paintings in the forest to spend some time with those gnomes and trolls. Sometimes gnomes and trolls is all you need for a brill concept.