Saara Hacklin: Five words on zero magic by Goldin+Senneby

Goldin+Senneby with magician Malin Nilsson: On a Long Enough Timeline the Survival Rate for Everyone Drops to Zero, in Helsinki, May 25-27, 2015. This text is based on a presentation given in a seminar organized by Checkpoint Helsinki and Jussi Koitela at Cirko, May 27, 2015.


1: Death

The performance merges magic, art, a lecture, finance, activism and more. The title of the piece is a quote from the movie Fight Club. Looking at it – On a Long Enough Timeline the Survival Rate for Everyone Drops to Zero – we can see that it is just fancy wording for what art history knows as a memento mori. A reminder that we are all going to die.

As such, the connection between art, magic and economics is a logical one. They have all been used as a means to escape death – to deny that our life, our “survival rate”, is limited. Of these, art has a special connection with death and loss. We have heard the story by Pliny the Elder about the origin of painting, in which he writes about Butades of Corinth. Butades’ daughter Kora had a lover who was going away. In order to keep something of her lover, his profile was traced onto the wall as it was cast by the light of a lamp. So that she could have him there. Already here, in the origin of painting, there is something suspicious. Art is an attempt to make the absent present. To resists loss. We are simply looking into the shadows. Some might now be thinking of Plato and his cave allegory.

But art can also help us escape death and loss in other ways. It can serve as a substitute. In fantasies it is art that takes the hits. Think, for instance, of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the portrait – the image – magically ages leaving the real protagonist untouched.

As we saw in the performance, today, a similar hope of fooling death takes the form of “magic pills”. These pills that themselves are nothing, really, are marketed so that consumers can stay young, healthy and alive forever – or at least a little bit longer. It is this drive that is at play in the market, and which brings us the performance. And from this I proceed to the second word:

2: Magic

The magician is there to create illusions, to make us see something that is not there, something that resists the logic of our senses. Magic and the arts go together. In both we want to be tricked by somebody, to lose our sense of the real. Magic equals capability. It is about “producing marvels using hidden natural forces”. The origins of the word are in the Old Persian word magush, which derives from “to be able, to have power”.

Magicians and artists are not that far from each other. Artists can perform illusions, too. Again, we have a story by Pliny the Elder. This one is about two painters. They were both very good painters, but they wanted to find out who was the better. A competition was set up. The first competitor, Zeuxis, showed his painting of grapes that were so realistic that the birds came to peck at the fruit. Sure of winning, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to remove the curtain over his painting. But there was no curtain to remove, because the curtain was the painting. And so the prize went to Parrhasius. While Zeuxis had fooled the birds, Parrhasius had tricked the spectators and his fellow artist.

Thus, we know that the arts are no stranger to magic and illusion. The French filmmaker Georges Méliès embodies this connection, the way that magicians – or was it artists? – adopted new technology early on. Méliès was originally a magician who was interested in the new mechanical innovations for creating illusions. His magic tricks took on a new life on the screen. Thus, in a way, the early days of cinema demonstrate how the arts also belong to the circus… The circus is where we go when we are looking for magic. And from there we come to the third word, namely:

3: Bread

Isn’t it panem et circenses, bread and circuses, that the masses need in order to keep them happy. While enjoying amusements and trying to avoid death, we need to eat.

In the piece, bread was seen as the ultimate place of safe-keeping for premonitions. Why bread? Such a loaded symbol, the bread of life… Yet the loaf of bread used in the trick contained a box. Like the great escape stories in which a file has been baked into a loaf of bread… or the Finnish version in The Kalevala where Kullervo breaks his precious knife cutting a loaf of bread that has a stone in it. This was no Philosopher's stone, but a stone baked into the bread by the mistress of the house where Kullervo worked as a slave. Kullervo swears revenge. If anything, this is a sign that you should not mess about with your bread.

In the show, the bread was handed out to the audience. Breaking bread makes us bread fellows, companions. And in this word you can almost hear a call for the next step: Let’s start a company together! As a gesture, the sharing of bread is a concrete sign of the participatory nature of the performance. In the end, we get to touch, smell, eat and share a real loaf of bread, and not just watch it. With the breaking of bread the audience is turned into accomplices. We eat the bread, we take part in short selling…

A curious detail is that the bread used in the performance was baked at Fleuriste, a local café that follows French baking traditions. Dating back to the revolution, the French still regulate the opening hours of their bakeries, so that Parisians can always buy fresh, reasonably priced bread. Thus, they do not have to attack bakers or start revolutions. The workers are happy as long as they have the dough to buy dough. And so, from the bread we progress towards:

4: Money

Money, of course, equals deception. The performance presents the audience with a story about economics and the stock market: How the desire for wealth and the desire for immortality run the market. Again, it is not just the stock market that can both make money and make it disappear in the twinkling of an eye. Art can do this, too. Haven't artists already turned shit into art?

Naturally, there was a time when art was considered an institution independent of economics. Today, we all know this is not true. Art and economics are deeply connected. The art market, sponsorship, private collectors, auction houses, money laundering… to give the self-evident train of thought. These issues have been dealt with in the institutional critique. An approach in which artists turned towards the art institutions and traced the movements of the money connected with them – think of Hans Haacke or Mark Lombardi, whose works made visible the monetary connections between the institutions, the art world, politicians and the world of economics.

Today, artists seem to be refusing to stay within the sphere of art. This is the extended practice of art – becoming an activist and, instead of representing money and its dubious movements by staying within the framework of art, it is now increasingly frequently crossing over into economics. This is never easy to do. Activism and art are a difficult match. To some, it is activism that has been aestheticized and, to others, it is art that is being aestheticized – or trivialized. They cannot both exist at the same time. Boris Groys has written about how: “the art component of art activism is often seen as the main reason why this activism fails on the pragmatic, practical level—on the level of its immediate social and political impact. In our society, art is traditionally seen as useless.”

However, I suggest that in the Goldin & Senneby piece something else is happening. Perhaps it is the market that is being aestheticized. Because, in the end, it is the manipulation of the market that gives us the show. Art would not exist if there were no market. At the same time, within the context of the performance, the raison d'être of the market becomes that of funding art.

5: Documentation

Lastly, I want to turn to documentation. To the burning question raised by the performance, namely what is real, what to believe? Besides magic, economics and art – all these dubious institutions entangled together, the performance included a lecture. The show adopted a format familiar from documentary theatre by presenting facts within the fictional framework.

Documentary is associated with objectivity, truthfulness… something that proves things. And documentation is about showing, proving, whether it be your identity, the current state of affairs, or whatever there is to prove. Here we have a link to science. Science works with documentation, too. It presents documentation to show us the truth. Science wants to say in capital letters that there is NO MAGIC in it. It has its methods; its documentation, for reaching the solution… Of course, this is not so easy to do. We know that the humanities are different. But even art philosophers have come up with a solution for distinguishing one Brillo box from another, for saying this is art and that is a just a box.

However, in this day and age, when the concept of truth has long escaped us, to say that you are going to tell the truth is immediately dubious. Because we all know there is no truth. And yet the performance insisted on being truthful, documentary. The deconstruction of the magic was indicated to the audience by the zero: the magician Malin Nilsson repeatedly said that the performance contains zero magic.

But we know better. Though there is zero magic, there is always magic: the magician is signalling to us that we are there to encounter trompe-l'oeil tricks, illusions, and if there were no magic, no magicians would be needed. Like in the story recounted in the show, about Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin visiting Algeria, there seems to be no way for magic to outdo magic. The magic always remains. In this case, it is the magic of economics that brings us the art. And in the end we cannot tell where one ends and other begins.

Saara Hacklin,

Collections curator at Kiasma