This is Koo Jeong A’s ice cube, an augmented reality artwork that she has titled Density (2019). It hovers within a rather secret garden inside Regent’s Park in London. Nobody has seen it, physically, yet it is there. For me this work opens up an entirely new realm for exhibitions and for art.
© Image Daniel Birnbaum
One tends to think of digital artworks as somehow floating in another space, a sphere which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But this is not the case with Koo’s cube. It is located and thus totally site-specific. It just cannot be seen in the way one would expect. The 3-D cube was created in a software called Blender. If you photograph it and post it on Instagram or send it to someone it confirms that it exists. And yet you can only see Density if you have taken a photograph of it at the spot where it has been geo-located. It is equipped with a GPS coordinate and has been set at a very exact height from the ground. Made of ice it also reflects its environment; it would look quite different if it is placed in another context. Today, it lies in a paradisiac garden in the capital city of the UK. In the future, it will be placed somewhere else, in another country—there are plans for Berlin.
What is the vocabulary for describing this artwork? Does it exist, is it real? Or does it linger in a state of potentiality? To offer some clarity, I called on philosopher Sven-Olov Wallenstein for some theoretical guidance. Here is an excerpt from our dialogue, which in the future will be published in its entirety elsewhere.
Daniel Birnbaum: Would you say that Koo’s cube is real?
Sven-Olov Wallenstein: The concept of the real is polysemic, to say the least. I guess that in the most immediate, everyday sense it would be something that has a tangible, material existence. But as soon as we think more carefully about it, this idea evaporates. Many things can arguably be described as real, or at least not “unreal” without being material: language, institutions, theoretical concepts.
DB: Is the cube a potential?
SOW: Yes, to some extent, though not in the Aristotelian sense of dynamis, where the actualization (energeia) is both a development and a transformation: the acorn in becoming an oak does not end up looking like its 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 to this artwork: virtual and not actual yet real. As well as “not merely possible,” as Gilles Deleuze has proposed, drawing
firstly on Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson, and then on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and many others.
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 actually be Leibniz, who, and not by chance, happens to have invented the theory of binary numbers, which forms the basis of the computer. What Deleuze is trying to grasp 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 this copy) nor a teleological version (in which the actualization is the unfolding of something that was already there from the start), rather the virtual would be something that is perfectly real, and whose actualization would be a differentiation; the outcome would neither resemble the starting point nor be constituted by a teleological unfolding.
DB: The artwork is only visible if you have access to an application that makes it appear on your mobile device. You open your camera and the object emerges and looks like any other physical object in the garden. It floats above a classical sculpture and looks no less real than its metallic neighbor.
SOW: I guess this can be taken as a sign for how perception, reality, existence, and a host of other related concepts have always been intertwined with technologies in the widest sense of the term, starting from the Greek physis (that which springs forth) and techne (that which depends on human actions in order to come into being). Reality seems increasingly dependent on techniques that make entities available and which inscribe them into our field of experience;
something that the philosopher and science historian Gaston Bachelard was getting at when he suggested that we should think less in terms of phenomenology, how phenomena are given to us, and more in terms of phenomenotechique, how phenomena are generated.
It’s perhaps important to emphasize that Koo’s augmented reality artwork is unique. It can be multiplied and located at other sites as well, but right now it only exists in an edition of one at Regent’s Park. Thus, it’s not some kind of omnipresent digital entity that can be viewed anywhere.
A thinker who anticipated some of the possibilities that digital instruments create today was Jean-François Lyotard. In 1985, he curated Les Immatériaux at Centre George Pompidou, an exhibition that marked a curatorial turn in critical theory. Through its experimental layout and hybrid presentation of objects, technologies, and ideas, Lyotard’s pioneering exploration of virtuality reflected on the exhibition as a medium of communication as well as anticipated a deeper engagement with immersive and digital space in both art and theory.
His idea of “immaterials” as the very stuff of which the contemporary world is made can undoubtedly be inserted into a genealogy of a “dematerialization of the art object,” as was famously argued in an essay by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in the late sixties; although Lyotard’s proposal was more far-ranging, and it predicted possible areas of convergence between the arts, industrial
technology, and science which we are still exploring today.
In thinking the object itself as an event or a wave rather than as a substance-like entity, as a temporary cut in a constant flux, the exhibition was one way of making our categorical and perceptive mechanisms insecure, and to do so from the point of view of a philosophy that once more wanted to address the dynamics of things themselves at that precise moment when they start to elude us, when the very idea of the thing becomes enigmatic, and in this it calls for a new effort of thought.
Koo’s cube is exactly such a thing that emerges at the moment when the very idea of thingness starts to elude us. Her cube remains enigmatic. I look forward to encountering it in the urban fabric of Berlin. No doubt its reflective surfaces and its refractive body will gain new characteristics. In fact, it might contain all of Berlin and like Leibniz’s monad reflect everything around it. Every portion of matter can be thought of as a garden full of plants or a pond full of fish. And as the baroque philosopher pointed out, every branch of the plant, every part of the animal (every drop of its vital fluids, even) is another such garden or pond. Koo’s cube contains the universe.