Michael Stevenson: Signs & Wonders
"there are two hard, solid, familiar things that will halt my fatal fall, toward which I now calmly descend: the earth and me." — Chuchú Martínez, Teoria del Vuelo [Theory of Flight]
The pilot trainers are small enclosed booths, crudely built to resemble the interior cockpits of small planes. They are scattered through the gallery like sheltering tents, or confessional boxes. Each one contains a seat for the pilot, and a “control panel” improvised from sheet metal. Each one is directed to a screen showing a silent flight simulation. The colors look oversaturated and pedagogical, as if they were chosen by a designer for training purposes rather than aesthetic realism. This makes the simulations look both dated, and earnest.
The simulated flights are between isolated runways in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia; places that remain some of the most isolated on earth. The highland runways of Papua New Guinea are notoriously some of the most hazardous and dramatic on earth: short earthen strips that drop directly from the high jungle into the clouds below, so that a pilot taking off has to conduct a controlled nose dive off the side of a mountain simply to gather enough speed to fly.
Scattered around the floor of the cockpits are paperback books, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s. Many are representatives of a particular genre: post-apocalyptic Christian sci-fi. Some have been on New York Times best-seller lists. Their yellowed pages and cheap paper covers are the same as those carried by airport novels, but they use the conventions of futurology and science fiction to describe a messianic eschatology; a world in which Christ and Anti-Christ are locked in a war for souls using contemporary technology.
It would be easy to read this as a “new media” installation, a familiar kind of contemporary art that revisits some of the tropes of conceptual art but also offers the easy gratification of interactive environments. This would be a misreading. We are not invited to enter into the booths, or to ‘interact’ with the software. This is a work that is less user friendly, and more rigorous, than we are used to see spilling from data projectors. The work builds on themes that Michael Stevenson has cultivated throughout his career: Evangelicism, exchange, and postmodernist myths. Like all his projects, it is meticulous and research-driven, a kind of near prehistory of the contemporary world, taught through objects.
These pilot trainers installed in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg refer to a real phenomenon. The evangelical missionary aviation organizations that offer air services between isolated religious missions. Such agencies, according to Stevenson, offer a full range of operational support and training to pilots, engineers, and ground crews, and the trainers provide a not entirely unrealistic impression of the realities of training within the Church Militant. The simulated flights are not dangerous, but are meant to steel the neophyte pilot for encounters with real danger. They are, therefore, intentionally slightly boring. Just as the most traumatic experiences can be dulled with repetition, the planes hop back and forth between two wildly isolated locations without notable incident: landing in Kokoda or the Emo Mission, turning around, flying, and landing, “from A to B and back again.” The goal of training is to make the extraordinary ordinary; to turn unique experiences into predictable performances.
As if to emphasize the role of repetition within the artwork, the simulators are paired, so that each plane on its route passes its double in an imaginary airspace. Aerial activity, even on behalf of a Risen Christ, can and must be made routine, and it’s this strange amalgam of the divine and the mundane, theology and traffic, visions and optics, that seems to fascinate Stevenson. He developed the work in conjunction with the anthropologist Joel Robbins, who in a paper dryly notes “During my fieldwork among the Urapmin [a group of 375 people living in the Sandaun Province of Papua New Guinea], daily life was characterized by the regular arrival in the community of reports that Jesus was about to return.”
ἄγγελος; angel; messenger. The word “angel” comes from the Greek ángelos, “messenger.” The first angels are couriers, delivering the mail of kings. So the image of the postal airplane pilot as divine messenger is already encoded in the language. It would be tempting to read the work in terms of cargo cults, but this is more than a story of misunderstood technology in traditional societies. This is the reversal of that story, in which it is the pilots who mistake themselves for gods, or at least the embodied fire of the holy spirit. The title of the exhibition, Signs & Wonders, is drawn from the name of an experimental course, MC510, taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, a landscape more often associated with the New Age movement. The course attempted to enlist contemporary science in the service of radical Christian fundamentalism. The classic text of the movement, George Eldon Ladd’s The Presence of the Future, argued that the Kingdom of God has already been fulfilled in the life of Christ, it merely needs to be consummated. This consummation was one that could draw upon all available technologies, from sociology to aeronautics. The pilots are God’s messengers incarnate, bringing the divine word in the manner of the prophets and the church fathers. Word become cargo. Every voyage is a reverse apotheosis, a deus ex machina in which the will of God is expressed in the sacred union of the printing press and Bernoulli. The angels land heavily on their runways.
At the edges of history, normalizing narratives begin to unravel. It is only where the effect wears off that the anaesthetizing influence of history becomes palpable. In such places, far from the cosmopolitan centers in which global narratives are generated, at the fissure lines between ideologies, history does not conform to a model of challenge and response, but rather denatures into a slurry of surreal juxtaposition, metaphor, allegory, conspiracy, and accident. It is for this reason that Michael Stevenson sets his stories in the provinces, at the periphery, in dying empires and societies that have lost control over their own destinies. That is, places where effects are not proportional to their causes, causes are not proximate to their effects, and crises can occur entirely unchronicled. These are stories from the flick-end of the chain. Each installation contains enough ambiguity that it is possible, indeed necessary, to contemplate each piece in turn, to determine what it tells, what it hints at, and what it refrains from telling. To read it as an allegory; a universal tale told with specific characters.
Signs & Wonders is not the first exhibition of Stevenson’s to investigate the apocalyptic iconography of flight. In his 2012 exhibition at the Portikus in Frankfurt, A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, Stevenson installed a small propeller plane, slightly reduced in scale in order to fit within the building. It sat askew, angled as if in flight. Constructed from paper and wood, it appeared perfectly lifelike only from one side, like a prop on a film set. The letters ALEPH-1 were stenciled on its fuselage. The room was flooded with light from an enormous skylight, like those found in 19th century photographic studios. The plane was constructed like a ship in a bottle, permanently trapped within its vitrine. The image of the plane was transmitted via a three-story-tall periscope, fixed to the exterior of the building like an architectural parasite. A handmade lens captured the image and reflected it via mirrors into the exhibition space below. The image of the small plane was projected onto the back of a screen made of Plexiglas coated with buttermilk. The large periscope effectively turned the entire building into a camera obscura. The camera obscura has two characteristics that have become increasingly compelling in an era of compressed digital video: infinite resolution and infinite frame rate. Light transmitted through the pipes of a periscope is an extreme kind of analog technology, the reflected light of the thing itself. Even in the case of a static object, subtle fluctuations in the level of daylight make the image appear alive. Imperfections in the hand-ground lens cause colors to bleed, and outlines to become diffuse, as if the plane were moving very quickly, or vaporizing from a solid to a gas—a physical process that in thermodynamics is called 'sublimating.' The plane was a simulacrum, a paper plane with only a mooted relationship to the original (and in this it is not unlike many museum exhibits, replicas, and reconstructions). The unblinking eye of the periscope's lens saw only fabricated evidence.
Stevenson’s ALEPH-1 was a copy of the ALEPH-0, flown by the Panamanian revolutionary, philosopher, and adventurer Dr. José de Jesús Martínez (also named Jesús Martínez, Chuchú Martínez, or simply Chuchú). Chuchú Martínez was not only a professor of mathematics at the University of Panama. He was a revolutionary soldier, a playwright, an ardent Marxist, a bodyguard and a gun runner, and the closest aide to General Torrijos, dictator of Panama (1968-1981). In the field of transfinite numbers, 'Aleph 0' refers to the smallest kind of infinity that describes the endless sequence of counting numbers; Aleph 1 is a bigger infinity again, and it describes the endless subdivisions within the rational numbers. Chuchú had two guiding passions: the coming revolution and mathematics. The only demon in which Chuchú believed was Maxwell’s, the demon that could reverse entropy, and thereby time. Chuchú’s philosophy was also eschatological, but his ideology was Marxist: the end of history was coming, but in the form of a communist revolution, an event in which he was to play the role of an angel Gabriel. The threat to such a world view is not to be found in the antichrist, but in regressive forces, in traditionalists, reformers, and conciliators, who try to make history fly in reverse.
As he approached the age of fifty, Martínez wrote a slim volume called Teoria del Vuelo (Theory of Flight), a text that could be better described as a spiritual primer for pilots than a textbook on aerodynamics. The title of the 2012 Portikus exhibition—a life of crudity, vulgarity, and blindness—is taken from a line within the book, a blunt summation of terrestrial existence. Within Teoria, Chuchú Martínez's description of take-off can itself be read as a short apotheosis, in which the plane and its pilot merge into a single, indivisible, conscious substance, or what Leibniz would call a soul:
“Amid this furious racket, the plane quickly loses its heft. But it never dematerializes, as if the spirituality that has still not fully possessed the aircraft were also an attribute of matter. The pilot shares in this new dimension of matter. If he has ever speculated honestly on the subject, he knows creationist theories to be superfluous. He knows this through direct experience, through his hands. And then there comes a point where he weighs nothing and all he has to do is direct the plane through the faintest pressure to its elevator almost as if he were doing so by thought alone, lifting it off the ground so that it might enter its own, familiar element.” [excerpted] Teoria del Vuelo, José de Jesús Martínez 30
The plane in take-off goes from being brute matter to divinity, sustained by the perfection of Bernoulli's equations, which spell out the physics by which fixed wing aircraft can behave as if they are lighter than air. At the end of this process of communion, the nervous system of pilot and plane map to each other, forming a single proprioceptive image, or rather the imago of a shared body, like the final form a dragonfly achieves in its process of metamorphosis.
Some two years after the publication of Teoria del Vuelo, Chuchú’s hero, General Torrijos was killed when his de Havilland inexplicably fell to pieces over a remote mountain range in Central America. The accident might or might not have been perpetrated by the CIA, but it was a death that, according to Chuchú Martínez, could not be investigated without revealing the full extent to which Panamanian sovereignty was a fiction, complicit with and dependent upon US interests.
In the darkened gallery, the image of Chuchú's plane floated in gravid silence. Like the punchline of a joke about the evidence of the senses, a flood of ambient light briefly caused the image to disappear every time someone opened the door. Chuchú, who had once been nicknamed by the exiled Shah of Iran “le philosophe,” had ample time to observe and reflect upon the strange folds in history. The bodyguard is akin to the messenger, the angel, the artist, and the historian; a figure who observes and transmits, but who pretends not to participate in the events of the world. For Chuchú, as statistician and Marxist, conventional historical narratives were no more or less than a kind of narcotic—or perhaps better an anesthetic—that soothingly blends out the light of revelation. The narrative arcs of history, its repetitive stories of decisions and consequences, freedom and responsibility, praise and blame, hide the inevitability that it must have an end.
That one infinity can be larger than another is a concept that beggars the human capacity for understanding, just as the idea that an infinite series of finite numbers can itself be finite can be mathematically proven, but not imagined. Both are concepts of the kind that Kant would have described as instances of the mathematical sublime, the experience of the superiority of reason over the imagination. Cantor was allegedly driven mad by his discoveries, but after his death, the German mathematician David Hilbert would famously declare "No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created."
Michael Stevenson: Signs & Wonders
November 21, 2015 to February 21, 2016 at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg
Kongens Nytorv 1, 1050 Copenhagen K, Denmark
Michael Stevenson: Signs & Wonders, installation view
Photo: Kunsthal Charlottenborg
A new aircraft being dedicated for service by the collective membership of a missionary aviation organization
Photo: Michael Stevenson
Michael Stevenson, A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, Portikus Frankfurt 2012
Adam Jasper is a contributing editor to Cabinet Magazine, an editor of the Architectural Theory Review, and a researcher at Eikones NCCR Iconic Criticism in Basel.