José Luis Barrios
Professor and researcher, Department of Philosophy
Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City
Editor’s note: Originally published in Spanish under the title: SEFT-1 Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada. (Mexico City, Dirección General de Publicaciones (DGP) del Conaculta, 2011), the text published in Media-N by José Luis Barrios, is the first English translation by Fausto Alzati.
The dusty fata morgana of the winter garden, the dreary perspective of the train station, with the small altar of happiness at the intersection of the tracks—it all molders under spurious constructions, glass before its time, premature iron. For in the first third of the previous century, no one as yet understood how to build with glass and iron. That problem, however, has long since been solved by hangars and silos. Now, it is the same with the human material on the inside of the arcades as with the materials of their construction. Pimps are the iron bearings of this street, and its glass breakables are the whores.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. 
In principle we are to agree with Walter Benjamin by regarding allegory as that which defines the condition of the possibility of images, of the sign in modernity, as we are to concede that the meaning of things is defined by the loss and closure of the statutes of the sign. Moreover, we are to accept that objects are material signs, produced in a history where the political determinations of their loss can be read. In accordance with this, given history’s material conditions (things), this state of loss is inscribed and written, defining modernity’s allegorical character. The allegorical void means, above all, the fracture and closure of the sign; a sign trying to explain itself through the instrumental condition of language in its technical realization, just as the loss of the entirety of that sacred, due to the abstractive-pragmatic function of said language. Like so, the void is occupied by the dual operation of nature’s closure or, if preferred, that of life and its transformation into use value, stemming from the abstractions of instrumental reason. This tension between closure and instrumentality defines the condition of ‘possibility’ and the horizon of modernity’s historical, political, aesthetic and artistic signification. Within this context, we also encounter the importance of Dadaism and Surrealism as vanguards whereby artistic-aesthetic estrangement is brought about through this dialogue between time and space. If modernity produces the tension between the horizon and no-place, in opposition, these two vanguards inverted these terms: space as the present of a now-ruined once-desired place –utopia – inscribes ruins always already in the future, the ruins of a place once promised for progress.
Dadaism enacts this operation by defining the conditions of distancing and estrangement, of mechanical forms. From painting to ready-made, these artistic practices are critical devices capable of showing the political and social implications of industrial aesthetics, in terms of their potential for desire and fascination, thereby showing the frontier between subversion and alienation in the relationship connecting drive and machine. But it is especially in Surrealism where an aesthetic operation is carried out in the presence of representation; both desire and the past collapse into the ruins of the future. In this collapse, nature (physis) appears as a subversive force, announcing the potency of the sacred as a revolution endorsed on the bodies.
This ‘Benjaminian’ consideration takes its meaning, as is implied in the very concept of dialectic image, when placed in tension with this image: “Pimps are the iron bearings of this street, and its glass breakables are the whores.” The analogy established linking the utopia of steel and its distopic assembly in the figures of the prostitute and the pimp is an anachronistic game between steel as an industrial invention in the 1800s and its social manifestation in the figures of marginality. It deals with Walter Benjamin’s figure of thought, where a figure of lightning is activated as a political critique of history. Without a doubt the historic horizon this observation is inscribed in, expands when considering the almost hundred years separating Benjamin’s dialectic image of modernity’s historic fate – at least this is what Sonda de exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada (SEFT-1) [Crewed Railway Exploration Probe] sets forth to explore.
This project intervenes the landscape. By means of a futurist device (a spaceship) the railnauts travel across the constructed, and later abandoned, railroad network; abandoned due to economic interests and the Mexican State’s policies privileging the investment of private capital for highways, above the development of affordable communication routes such as railways. The SEFT-1 intervention is a complex action, including the journey, the online binnacle, the social documentation of the communities, and the archeology of waste, all converging as material moments to render an account of the ruins. Metonymy of hetero-topic modernity, the anachronistic game this piece draws on – where the journey to space is an inverted one towards the past in a time tunnel – is a disassembly of the modernizing utopia par excellence: the train.
It brings about a dislocation in the present of the promise of progress made in a past, whereby life and oblivion inhabit the ruins of a railway utopia gone awry. The expanded horizon of global modernity is disrupted when its “ruins” cannot be accounted for, especially without the turns these took in the alteration of their places, in their development in other places, nor in the geopolitical siting and the historical execution of utopias. It might be necessary to underline the concept of siting as the mark of this global modernity.  If time defines progress as an expectation, postponing as such the condition of its realization in the present of that space (as a political and social reality), an eternal delay of the future occurs, producing, as well, the condition of space as alteration. Like so, utopia, as a concept born from the category of time and construction of non-place, should be opposed the historical-spatial fulfillment of heterotopias, as established by Michel Foucault.
Seen under this light, SEFT-1 sets in motion a group of dialectic images amid utopian time and heterotopian space. SEFT-1 produces a fracture in the ruined, abandoned landscapes of the present, based on the imagery of the future, thereby activating a political critique of the present. The intervention of modernity’s broken horizon, is a critique and a poetics, condemning the violence of progress, which all in all does nothing more than reaffirm the interests of power and class as a condition for political discourse and economic interests.
The cross between train and automobile in the documentary video accompanying this project’s assembly is the artistic gesture both announcing and denouncing the deceit of modernity: parallel actions linking capital and social flow in inverse directions, heading towards a past that arrives only as its ruin, and a future void of any political consideration. These parallel actions evince a socially abandoned present. Margin over margin, in this piece a political potency is activated, inhabiting a future that is already, since always, the past. If allegory expresses the structure of enunciation of the modernity’s project, this is explained by the tension between closure and fracture, between nature and language. It is explained by the operation that silences nature, producing, thereby, the projection of history in terms of progress and violence.
The dialectics between nature and history – as a discontent arising from the industrial revolution in the context of “established” or central hegemonies – should be understood as the tension between the “sadness of nature” and the promise of progress, all together projecting a horizon of expectation devoid of a place as a category that produces, through subtractions, the geo-aesthetic positioning of capitalist and neocolonial economies. Within this scope, what matters is the meaning such an operation assumes regarding its heterotopian positioning; at least as concerns the consequences of industrial capitalism’s historical development, alongside its financial and cultural outcomes in underdeveloped societies.
In accordance with this, the promise of progress traces out another place, one where there is an active a difference regarding the hegemonic sense with which industrial modernity figured its ruins: as an industrial urban ruin, or as cultural and artistic patrimony; in any case, a new form of deception. The heterotopian side of this derive supposes a reorganization of the ruin itself in terms of life and social exclusion. Perhaps this is the most significant differential characteristic within the dialectics of progress and heterotopias, and one of the fundamental conditions to understand the processes of global modernity in underdeveloped places. A condition that otherwise brings about a marked difference in the artistic and aesthetic systems of underdevelopment; at least in the underdevelopment of countries colonized under the logic of holy war, conquered through catholic systems of representation whose social and economic forms of organization are based on commendation and caste privileges.
Though this is not the space to expand on this, let it suffice to say that any consideration regarding the geopolitical positioning of these traits cannot be subtracted from said considerations, especially because this supposes a social, political and cultural distribution of the bodies and places operative up to our days. This might also explains why artistic practices, both modern and contemporary, to some extent maintain a link with these heterotopian conditions, particularly those related to with realism and naturalism as expressions of modernity where progress and utopia generate systems of exclusion in terms of nuda vida. There, as canonic examples of this condition, stands Luís Buñuel’s The Young and the Damned. This movie shows the fundamental differences between the poetics of surrealism and practices whose emplacements are not explained, nor are they inscribed onto the horizon of the great metropolis’ own fantasies of the great metropolis. The fundamental difference, no doubt, is found in a notion of future that would define the oneiric imagery of surrealist ruin. The critique the surrealists carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century, as the ruin of the future, is itself subverted as a social condition of the present of heterotopian modernities.
Within this context it is not about the future as a problem but about history as impossibility. In this register, the aesthetic operation carried out by SEFT-1 changes the symbolic and semantic terms with which surrealism and science fiction configure the sense of the future and its critique of progress. In a sort of history a “conrapelo,” the deliberately low aesthetics of the SOnda de Exploración, united to the inversion of the function of the train rails that transit towards places abandoned by progress, work as the activation of a pathos that does not pass through the oneiric – by the specular system – but by nature: by the elemental drives of life that appear as an instinct that unpacks the fallacy of modernity. The ‘levantamiento’ documental that is part of this piece can well be thought of in terms of a narrative that tells of the vital tension between progress, community and life in the horizon abandoned and traced by the railways.
Within the framework of globalization’s bankruptcy and crisis, the practices of contemporary art call for a reconsideration, defining the aesthetic conditions of the experience, and the reaches and functions of the symbolic system of representation. Beyond the logics and aesthetics of representation in terms of a global taste, where the formal and symbolic conditions of art were thought of in terms of a binary distribution of the sensible –the center and the periphery, the contemporary and new media art, minimalism and multiculturalism and gender – it would seem that the fracture of the horizon of globalization’s utopian signification was forced to widen its limits beyond the formalist, technical, cultural and sociological considerations. Said broadening consists of the need to rethink the practice of art, in accordance with the horizon of modernity in its stage of generalized capitalism, where savagery persists as the ruin of the present and the political impossibility of social and collective subjectivity.
If postmodern critique believed the vanguard obsolete, and Lipovetski’s formula declaring the death of “isms” (surrealism, Dadaism, futurism, etcetera) expressed global enthusiasm, today the global utopia crisis articulates the fallacy of postmodernism, as the overruling of ideologies and the death of history. If for the urgency of broadening the horizon they thought superseded: towards the political critique and that of progress, towards the forms and genealogies that defined the horizons of the action of progress and its forms of enforcement through technology. An extension that pushes for a rethinking of the functions of representation in contemporary art, but especially, thinking modernity in those very places where it becomes a fissure, thinking it in its parallel traces, there where the rails of the train perhaps do not go anywhere.
1. Conceived in Paris in 1927, The Arcades Project is Benjamin’s effort to represent and to critique the bourgeois experience of nineteenth-century history.
2. Refer to my essay: “Cuadrado Rojo, Imposible Rosa: marco y afecto en: Melanie Smith.” Cuadrado Rojo, Imposible Rosa. Catalogue for the 54th Venice Biennale; INBA/Turner, Madrid, 2011.
José Luis Barrios is a professor and researcher in the Department of Philosophy at Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. He has been visiting professor at University of California Berkeley, Hunter College and at the National University of La Plata. His research scope is the relationship between Aesthetics and Politics. Barrios has published nine books and over fifty papers and essays in journals related to aesthetics, art theory, contemporary art and political philosophy.
His most recent publication is Máquinas, dispositivos, agenciamientos. Arte, afecto y representación, México: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2013. His most recent curatorial projects were Melanie Smith. Cuadrado rojo, imposible rosa for the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011, Los sueños de una nación, un año después (2011). Museo Nacional de Arte (November 2011-January 2012). Currently Barrios is developing two curatorial projects, one for the Laboratorio de Arte Alameda and one for the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC). MUAC). José Luis Barrios is Associate Curator at the MUAC.