“A door opens or closes a threshold which is held to be such because at this spot a law is overturned. On one side reigns a certain rule, on the other begins a new law, so that the door rests on its hinges on a neutral line where the two rules of law balance and cancel each other. . . The singular site is a part of neither this world nor the other, or else it belongs to both.”
In 1927, Marcel Duchamp had a carpenter build a very specialised doorway into his studio/apartment in Paris. It opened onto his bedroom and his bathroom from the room he used as his studio, joining three spaces using only one set of hinges and one door.
Porte, 11 Rue Larrey is a simple concise undermining of the notion of the threshold as a linear pathway between one zone and the next. Instead of opening a door and moving to another room and closing the door behind you, going from one rule to another, Porte, 11 Rue Larrey causes the door to have a doubled, paradoxical function. Closing the door on one room instigates a merging of the other two rooms, because it removes the door from the threshold between them.
Serres’ quote posits the threshold as a neutral position, where neither one rule nor another applies. A point of equilibrium between two influences which participates in both, or neither, of them. As the two influences balance or cancel one another, the threshold itself becomes a third position between oppositional forces. Porte, 11 Rue Larreyy suggests that there are no discrete rule/spaces, that there are no rule/spaces which are not in fact combinations of other rule/spaces with their own implicit multiple transitional doorways. Where the sparse and elegant formulation of Serres feels comfortable, a simple choice between this and that, Duchamp’s is wrenchingly vertiginous and subversive because it opens onto the infinite, onto the sublime. Porte, 11 Rue Larrey suggests that a single door which mediates between three rooms might equally mediate between 10100 rooms.(2)
In Porte, 11 Rue Larrey, the closure of one space instigates a folding together of the two remaining, cross-mapping them onto one another, mingling the purity of their individual identities to produce a hybrid rule/space. This is a movement away from unities and dualities into complexity, away from revolution into evolution, into adaptation. The work implies that it’s impossible to proceed without the baggage of the past; that we carry with us always a weighty accretion of co-mingled rule/spaces by which we find ourselves defined, and which influence our moment to moment choices to a profound extent. And although our becoming is encumbered, it’s this encumbrance which allows us to see, which generates the ground for further action. Even though each new action, each new rule/space, must be cast in terms of the old, nothing can be predetermined because of the inherent instability and provisionality of all rule/spaces. Nevertheless, this doesn’t lead to chaos; the infinite embodies a certain kind of order.
Duchamp’s infinite arises through constraint. It acknowledges that identity is expressed in relation to an environment which defines the parameters of that expression, if not the noisy details. In the intermodulation between the noisy details, forces arise which transform the environment over time. After all, an environment is simply a cluster of rule/spaces, and an identity within an environment is in itself an environment for a cluster of rule/spaces at another scale or from another perspective. Causes can be effects and effects can be causes, simultaneously.(3)
In Porte, 11 Rue Larrey, 3 Stoppages Étalon and other pieces, Duchamp articulated his ambivalence towards systematisation, which operates against chance and risk (chance is hazard in French). In a fundamental way, systematisation is a kind of slowing down of the fluid interaction of variables, a suppression of noise, a reduction in the possibility of movement. Systematisation underpins habits of all kinds, and by extension, taste, which he sought to undercut through the readymade.(4) Certainty itself is a kind of systematisation. Duchamp wasn’t a revolutionary idealist or a transcendentalist; he welcomed dust, dirt, shadows, breakages, noise, imprecision. He knew that stuff has to crystallise out of the flux to support directed movement, but he believed that stuff is only ever a quivering cluster of approximations, open to mutation at the drop of a hat. In Duchamp’s time the French Academy of Sciences determined the standard metre to be 1/106 of the distance from the equator to the north pole through Paris, represented as the space between two marks inscribed on a platinum-iridium bar buried in an atmosphere controlled Batcave under the city. For 3 Stoppages Étalon Duchamp cut three metre long lengths of string and dropped them onto a canvas from a height of one metre, then fixed them with varnish and used them as templates for the construction of a set of pataphysical drawing tools; three wooden un-straight edges, packed in a box which had previously housed a croquet set. In effect, 3 Stoppages Étalon pushed the concept of the platinum-iridium bar back down into the flux and allowed it to recrystallise as something personal and multiple, replacing the certainty of a singular external referent with a notion of triangulation, of difference. A rule of three thumbs.
In his small studio apartment, Porte, 11 Rue Larrey saved some precious space, but one suspects that efficiency wasn’t the main reason Duchamp had it constructed. In fact as far as doorways go, it was pretty inconvenient. It was a radical reduction, a dismemberment of the conventional physicality of a doorway. In the same way the Bicycle Wheel of 1913 was a dismemberment of both a bicycle and a piece of kitchen furniture. A dismemberment, and simultaneously a rememberment, since half a physical bicycle retains a cognitive residue as a whole bicycle, and a kitchen stool rendered dysfunctional retains a cognitive residue as a functional kitchen stool. In the Bicycle Wheel these residues are like shimmering transparencies overlaying one another, each making up for the other’s truncated physicality, and producing unpredictable new patterns, or casting unpredictable new shadows in the cognitive domain. Generating mutant Phantom Limbs with which to construct, what? Virtuality itself perhaps? A bicycle, indeed any named and recognisable object or class of objects, any category or cluster of categories, is embedded in its own unstable atmosphere of informational attributes; a fuzzy emanation of partialities, interpretive idiosyncrasies, half-forgotten histories and loose attachments from which it can’t be extricated. The spatial is enfolded within the informational. The informational isn’t simply language, it’s the matrix of connections which allows physical spatiality and the data of sensation to be understood, shared, and acted upon by individuals, and clusters of individuals, over extended time scales. For all conscious human beings, everyday experience is a product of a pattern of connections enacted within the informational. Everything that can be experienced is experienced through the structuring effect of the informational moving downwards into the turbulent data streaming up from our physical contact with raw materiality. There is no informational without the material, and there is no experience of the material outside the informational. Each requires the other for its expression. Human flesh is the vestibule from which the mutually inclusive realms of spatiality and the informational extend.
Within the informational, patterns loop, microstates resonate across generational time scales. Would the bicycle have been invented if the horse hadn’t been domesticated? Was Chiron a precursor of the Bicycle Wheel?(5) Chiron, the sober cultured centaur who gave up his immortality to allow for the liberation of Prometheus (chained to a rock by Zeus for the transgression of stealing fire from the gods and presenting it to us mortals).
Duchamp said of the Bicycle Wheel:
“I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoyed looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of flames.”(6)
The Bicycle Wheel has distinguishing features in common with the Centaurs; four legs, a kind of neck thing which swivels, and a bit that goes up and down, round and around, the bit that does the steering, the thinking. Both evoke a shocking sense of truncation and disability combined with increased power and mobility, and the otherworldly order of dream space. Both are irrational, they don’t add up; they have an internal woundedness which can never be stabilised or made whole, yet seems to be a source of transcendent possibility. They retain the individuality of their components whilst generating an emergent, mutant rule/space which can’t be reduced or simplified, and which can in turn be overlayed with other mutant rule/spaces to produce unpredictable new contextualisations.
The Bicycle Wheel is a 20th century instance of an ancient idea, and it reveals the structure of every possible idea. Ideas are bridges between concepts, and concepts are clusters of distinctions; rule/spaces that have evolved from origins deeply embedded in the flesh.(6) Muscle spindles, taste buds, clustered rods and cones, eustacean tubes, stereocilia, synaptic discharges, neuronal cascades, calcium waves, arterial pulsations, floods of oestrogen and adrenaline; each of these factors produces distinctive rule/spaces; linked, looped, feeding back and feeding forward within the sensate, spatial body. The identity and expression of bodies is constrained, made sense of, and instructed by the non-material high-plasticity architecture of the informational; bundles of practices and codes and congealed historical imaginings which channel perception and generate cognitive imperatives, like the pheromone soaked walls of a termite nest direct and instruct the activities of the chitinous beings engaged in its construction.
This is Duchamp’s fourth dimension.(7) The familiar three dimensional world we inhabit, with its tasteability and tangibility, is like a Platonic shadow cast from alignments within the informational. Raw materiality is given manageable form by the informational. There are no objects without conceptual correlates; it’s the conceptual correlates of objects which allow them to be used and understood. The informational is the self-organising conceptual ecology which allows the world to be handled. Perhaps its most visible manifestation is technology, but within the informational, techne, episteme and poesis are indistinguishable. Like consciousness, the informational can’t be measured or objectified, because measurement and objectification are given within the informational. It’s only within the informational that meaningful distinctions can exist. Somewhere in the liminal transitions between object, information and sensation, the feedback loops we experience as subjectivity arise.
Contemplating the Bicycle Wheel, built by Duchamp in 1913 in Paris, my remembered feeling of coasting fast down a hill on a bicycle combines with a memory of sitting passively in a darkened cinema in the mid 70s listening to the music of Django Reinhardt in the exhilarating opening sequence of Louis Malle’s film Lacombe Lucien. The bicycle ride and the cinema; both experiences of frontality – wind in the face, and a glow like the sun with everything dark behind and to the sides. The Bicycle Wheel evokes a rapid careering forward, into something, away from something, in the same way that the bicycle riding sequence at the beginning of Lacombe Lucien signified the hero’s headlong rush away from childhood into adulthood and the embrace of fascism. At the same time, the stool replaces the bicycle seat with a different kind of sitting experience; hands free, but poised, engaged; working at a drawing table perhaps, looking out the window, or watching a movie; balanced, feet on the ground; movement and stasis expressed in terms of one another.
The Bicycle Wheel, like all appliances, is a metaphorical loop; the experience of moist flesh ramified in the informational and extruded into the material to be re-experienced. It exhibits a structure common to all tools, all concepts; all soft and hard appliances. What is involved in the biting of an apple? Incisors, a firm hand grip, muscle power and leverage as the apple is held by the teeth, twisted and pulled away by arm and hand while the jaws close. Sharpness and leverage in the biting of an apple are tissue memories, distinct but co-extensive; the experiential phenomenon of sharpness and the experiential phenomenon of leverage expressed through one another in the context of an anticipated reward. And an axe is the technological embodiment of the same rule/space cross-mapping. It has a unitary identity, a solidity, a dependability, but in the informational it’s a network of metaphoric loops, a multi-valent fibrous constellation of domains mapped across one another. Axe is head plus handle; head is steel, sharp, heavy; handle is wood, long, strong, etc. Each of these attributes has its own string of informational entanglements, a material and conceptual ancestry. The pathways of communicative exchange which gave rise to it are buried in its informational DNA, somehow infinite, undiscoverable. The axe has evolved in the informational, in response to the selective pressure exerted by the interests and actions of communities of observers over time, always in the context of an anticipated reward. Appliances are specialised extrusions of desire, of the longing for sustenance and fulfillment. They are used to reduce agitation, promote equilibrium, increase certainty. The more efficiently they conserve energy, channel desire and increase certainty, the more condensed they become in the informational. Appliances become beliefs, truths;(8) such efficient channellers of desire that people will die to maintain them. Unfortunately, the process of condensation involves the suppression of noise, which compromises the appliance’s openness to change. Certainty has built-in obsolescence, solidity implies finitude.
Within any stream of data, information and noise are mutually present, as a walk through the chaotic untracked Australian bush will confirm. But even in manicured parkland this is evident, especially in spring when plants begin to broadcast millions of seeds into the wind. The reproductive features of single plants produce a very clear, very precisely defined informational package, the seed. The concentrated stream of data encoded in the seed flow of the plant can be differentiated by various interpretive contexts and give rise to diverse outcomes. When a seed hits the ground, it might sink roots and develop into another instance of the plant, or it might be consumed by an animal, or it might simply rot into the ground and contribute to the general fertility. Nothing is wasted. What appears to be waste and chaos is in fact the lubricant that keeps the whole thing pulsating. The processes of encoding and transmission and decoding all produce noise, in the same way that the parameters of Heisenberg’s experimenter can’t be separated from the outcomes of the experiment. Noise is what makes our observations imperfect, and the imperfection of our observational paradigms introduces noise.(9) One man’s noise is another man’s information. Noise is the necessary looseness which allows open systems to flow, which allows for recombination and adaptation. Because of noise, this is never equal to that, and one moment is never the same as the next.
For Duchamp, play was crucial. Serious play. Play in the sense of movement; the play of flames in the fireplace, the play of shadows on the wall. Play in the sense of necessary looseness, flexibility, or the space through which a mechanism can move. The kind of play which simultaneously implies movement and limitation. Games have rules, fire requires fuel and oxygen, shadows need a solid wall for their articulation. In a metaphorical hybrid such as the Bicycle Wheel, the incommensurability of the parts produces a loose field which is governed by the parts but exceeds them. A multivalent rule/space which can be colonised or infected by other rule/spaces, and which can adapt its manifestations, chameleon like, to accord with changing circumstances and contexts. In fact, a multivalent rule/space like the Bicycle Wheel must inevitably open onto a third rule/space, bringing the third into being through the imperfect alignments of its thresholds. This is what Duchamp was describing when he said:
“. . . it was simply letting things go by themselves and having a sort of created atmosphere in a studio. Probably, to help your ideas come out of your head. To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day.”(10)
The axe, an appliance for splitting things apart, cross-maps rule/spaces which reinforce one another to produce direction and solidity. It opens onto a third space in which predictability is increased. Increasing predictability is what appliances are for, they save energy for those areas of experience where predictability is lower, where greater attention is required because the informational is less focussed, less instrumentalised. The Bicycle Wheel however undermines solidity, defers direction. It opens onto a space of maximum possibility, but produces no imperative. It simply opens onto a soft-vestibule where “avenues on other things” may become apparent.
1. Serres, Michel, Statues, 1987, p.90, quoted in
MacLean, Marie, Pretexts and Paratexts: The Art of the Peripheral,
New Literary History, Vol 22:2 (Spring 1991) pp. 273-279.
2. “For me the number three is important. One is unity, two is double, duality, and three is the rest. When you’ve come to the word three, you have three million – it’s the same thing as three.”
In Cabanne, Pierre, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Viking, New York, 1971. p.47.
3. For a detailed explanation of the idea of nested environments see:
Lewontin, Richard. The triple helix: gene, organism, & environment. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2000.
4. Duchamp said his choice of a readymade was “based on visual indifference, and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste”. Cabanne, p.48.
5. “Not only is the benevolent Chiron sharply distinct from the rest of his kind, but the figure of the centaur itself displays many different dichotomies. These include animal/human, wild/tame, savagery/civilisation, sensuality/spirituality, physical power/intellect, passion/reason, freedom/constraint. For the Greeks, centaurs existed at the threshold of difference.”
Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood, The Centaur: its history and meaning in human culture, Journal of Popular Culture, 27:4 (Spring 1994) p.62
6. Johnson, Mark (ed) Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1981. p.3-47
7. “The shadow cast by a four-dimensional figure on our space is a three-dimensional shadow.” Duchamp, White Box, p. 77.
8. “What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses” Nietzsche, Frederick. On truth and falsity in their ultramoral sense (1873). In The complete works of Frederick Nietzsche, edited by Oscar Levy. New York: Gordon Press, 1974.
9. Black, Fischer. Noise. The Journal of Finance, Vol 41 No 3, 1985 (July 1986). p.529-543.
10. Schwarz, Arturo. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. 2 vols. New York: Abrams, 1970, p.588.