In this experimental text, philosopher-poet Johnny Golding offers a series of provocations and ruminations on art, play, power, and what might be a state of total acceptance – or a home.
We invited Professor Johnny Golding to take Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Alienarium 5, which was on view at Serpentine from 14 April to 4 September, as a point of departure for a written commission. Sharing Gonzelez-Foerster’s desire for a world which welcomes rather than punishes difference and for art that articulates more liberated possibilities, Golding offers a series of musings and micro-manifestos which speak – with caring, horror, hope, and urgency – to our moment.
In its form and concerns, ‘Minima Aesthetica’ is in part a homage to Minima Moralia (1951) by the German-born philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. In this book, which he began writing while living in exile in the USA during the Second World War, Adorno uses a series of reflections to unpick increasingly banal and subtle forms of violence which he witnessed in society, and to call for renewed friendship and honest humanity.
Consistently political, while holding space for ambiguity, Golding’s text in turn examines the “bizarre/cruel experiments” of our moment, games that train young bodies in processes of elimination and a production-driven culture which tries to “salt away” difference. With subtle strands threading between them, Golding’s own seemingly discrete fragments become a single, complex play – or an elegantly connected gesture towards a different way of knowing and accepting one another.
playing the game (en passant). Like bombs before the drop, memory, movement, indeed politics itself nowadays condense into a proliferation of singular, zap-instants: rootless or rhizomatic event-horizons, nodal points, gestures, signatures, ‘looks’ that make their sting or stake their claim ‘in passing’. Rather like the en passant rule – the 16th-century addition to the game of chess, introduced to spice up bored European gamers from a levelling up perspective. Nowadays, one finds the en passant rule infiltrating the arts – from ars erotica to the ars scientifica, from the art of generative algorithmic coding to the art of war: artist-soothsayer-footsoldier-pawn; pawn takes queen, and, if uber strategic, king. Check. Possibly even checkmate. The en passant rule’s 21st-century cousin has little or nothing to do with strategy or, for that matter, spicing up the game; it has even less to do with morals or ethics, politics or religion (except in as much as spectacle, morals, politics, religion can condense into singular zapinstants and be recycled as code). Note to my-selves: when the game is played badly or not at all (or when no one realises there is even a game to be played), en passant camouflages itself as ‘the game’, and with it, as art.
praying mantis and the question of prey. Camouflaged as they may be, have you ever witnessed a praying mantis eat its lunch? A kind of encounter of pawny-ness – where punters meet productions values, icons, sonic-light electro-magnetic waves bit by bit, flow by flow, chomp by chomp. An odd sort of play, replete with all the real-time expression an en-passant move can promise. Sometimes check (game is a draw); sometimes checkmate (head is bit off), sometimes promise unfulfilled (watery soup). But sometimes, some tweeny weensy itty bitty times, the encounter is just an ‘is’ – neither here nor there, but powerful nevertheless: sticky, emergent, and (sadly) very rare, an almost magical immersive sensoria of the unicorn variety.
old fashioned networks. To whom or to what does this ability/restriction to move one way or another or emerge as something unicorn owe allegiance? I want to be all postmodern and say: to the destruction of Grand Narratives! Or to long-range Strategy! Or even to the immediacy of Tactics! (In defeatist, self-deprecating mode I might say: to the primacy of Tradition! Opinion! Money!) But whatever analytic boat or mood swing comes to mind, in the final analysis, or even (and especially) in the middle of it, there seems to be an equally determined move to repeat ad nauseam the age-old Machiavellian instruction to the Prince—binaric to its core, sophomoric in its zero-sum logic, and crucial to the building of any modern industrialised state (and quite a few feudalistic ones); the phrase every young student, soldier, statesman, and street militant alike learns by rote and takes to heart; to wit: there will always be leaders and led, friends and enemies, axes of evil and good in order to sustain or create new power regimes, and, indeed, in order to create the very stuffing of art movements themselves. I want to say: No! That’s not right! (Though it’s not exactly wrong, either).
running around in circles. Picture this: a child’s game, well known in its immediate sense of dysfunctionality writ large—the game of musical chairs. For purposes of establishing a common memory databank, I shall recap the game as follows: a series of chairs are set in a line with one too many participants for the number of given chairs. A gun goes off, the music begins, and the children run around the chairs frantically attempting to be near this or that chair so that when the music stops—suddenly, and on the wrong beat—they must grab and sit on said chair (Grab chair: rule #1). The game is already skewed; we all know this from the start: one player will always-already be caught without a chair. The one caught out when silence descends, well, that one must exit, stay at the sidelines, or go somewhere else (Get lost: Rule #2). The game is repeated until there are only two participants and one isolated chair left. I never liked this game, whether or not I managed to be victorious with the one remaining trophy chair. Who cares about the chairs anyway? I was always more curious about the play of the game. (This curiosity meant that I always played to the bitter end of this silly little game).
quick thinking. That the status quo’s status manages to reproduce itself in a seemingly infinite series of discrete (or otherwise) power plays, discussions, media blitzes, clever advertisements, “smart” bombs, and other bizarre/cruel experiments (like growing human ears onto mouse heads) – while remaining intimately knotted to a political nostalgia – is not a big mystery.
fluid dynamics. It’s been a long, hard day at (a) work; (b) play; (c) fill in the blank. Tiredness starts at the back of the neck, life being rather a grind, repetitive, monotonous, and a little bit grey. As I enter my house, I realise I’m entering the home of my youth, a kind of neosuburban-military split-level affair, snug, uniformed, sometimes green, and tucked away in a ticky-tacky county as part of a ticky-tacky city, surrounded by a series of ticky-tacky Confederate states, just a few miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is here where I learn what it means to be a Yankee and how not to fit in. It is here where I learn how to skateboard, my finest achievement being able to go downhill at top speed, on my head. It is here where I learn how to play ‘doctor’ and where I start my very first period. It is here where I open the door to this house, all red walled and blue carpeted, with my mother sitting at a table or on the couch. I am always shocked to see her—as she is dead— nevertheless, we have the same conversation, time after time, door after door: “My God! You’re alive!” I shout in (a) joy; (b) grief; (c) horror. I run to her, hugging her, alternatively as a grown adult, alternatively as a child, hugging her, hugging her! “It’s okay, dear,” she gently responds, running her fingers through my hair. “When realized I was alive, I simply opened the casket and came home.”
i want to go home (there is no home). Shall we say for the sake of brevity, romanticism, and truth that ‘home’ is a place wherein one can be bored (without having to give account); that it is a place to relax; a place to laugh; a place steeped in promise-fulfilled comfort zones or rough-riding nights (with willing players at hand); a place to be perfectly and completely ill; a place to read a book (or write one); a place to wander; a place to fuck; a place to hide, regroup, bathe, play drums, remember the I of me or the you of they without penalty of death, unwanted humiliation, or shame. A place to be completely incomplete and unconditionally unconditional. A secret place right smack dab in the open – where one can simultaneously move without having to give account and ‘just be’ without going anywhere at all.
putting bread on the table: How will you be able to read/interpret the rules of the game, if and when you arrive (wherever that arrival point may be)? Regardless of whether the language spoken appears to be (or even is) the same language, say, international/exchange English or even art. What codes of identity or identities must you somehow embody or occupy, or be seen to occupy, in order to communicate? What will be lost in translation? Or found—by way of Rosetta stone hieroglyphics? How will the differences already encumbering your life surface as explanatory nodal points or clusters of meanings (say, around race, sex, class, age, nationality, eating habits, drug use, or varying dislocations within and between these islands of identity and difference)? Which battlegrounds will you choose to stand upon, or be forced to stand upon? How will you ‘fit in’? By bowing and scraping, cap in hand, hoping the flaws won’t be noticed or by boldly going where angels dare not tread? Will you fall prey to the assumption that ‘people are the same everywhere’ whereby your difference will be salted away, blended, made to keep quiet? Or will you fall prey to the loop of musical chairs, trophies notwithstanding? Where will you buy your milk? Pleasure your body? Rest your eye? Get dental and medical? Share your joke?
artificial and distributed intelligence. Mutant knowledge, shape-shifting to fit the needs of its inhabitants. Well, let us dream it! Let us dream it as a kind of sumptuous, generous portable fire! this home! this moveable feast! this banquet! this art! Let it leap from our brains, and skins, and pleasures, and wants into some kind of unconditionally unconditional ‘is’, some kind of encounter, ready and able to hide, contain, reframe that fire, that ice, wind, drought, that crazy kind of nourishment. Perhaps this is what is meant by the famous remark: “Who knows not how to hide, knows not how to love.”
Johnny Golding is a philosopher-poet who was born in New York, has studied at the Universities of Toronto and Cambridge, and now lives and works in London. Professor Golding holds the chair as Professor of Philosophy and Fine Art at the Royal College of Art, where they are also Research Lead on the PHD cluster: Entanglement and Head of the Proto-Centre for Radical Matter: Art. Philosophy. Wild Science. Professor Golding’s research pays homage to entanglement, encounter, distributed intelligence and emergence as queer forms of matter. New work includes Octopussy: King of The Feminists (pirate version), in Viegener et al, Get Rid of Meaning (forthcoming: 2022), The Courage to Matter, in her co-authored Data Loam: Sometimes Hard, Usually Soft (the Future of Knowledge Systems) with Reinhart and Paganelli (De Gruyter, 2021).
 En passant names a particular move in chess, brought into the game in 1561, and formally adopted in 1880. It refers to a strange diagonal move the pawn may make ‘in passing’ so that the game does not slope into pockets of boredom and/or an abundance of pawns. I have used this ‘en passant’ rule in an earlier and much longer meditation on war. See S. Golding, “Raw(Hide): WWIV, Part 3, the Sequel,” in Positions, (Duke: 2005).
 As is well-known in the UK, ‘levelling-up’ has been the poster child for Tory policies wherein the poor sectors of the society will be given a ‘leg-up’ or greater access to opportunities so that the society, in theory, would empower even the poor to take part in power structures, thus making the social game ‘more interesting’. Interestingly, en passant could be said to do something similar; here the pawn can move in ways not heretofore assigned, thus making the game of chess ‘more interesting’.
 This a plea to remember the fire in all works of art -… or to put it slightly differently, to remember the passions, confusions, dreams, journeys as prima facie for art ’to work’ – to replace the over-intellectualising and allow for the logics of sense just ‘to be’. Otherwise one just gets sucked into the problem of the praying mantis as both predator and prey (artist and viewer) in an unending chomp, bite, suck.