Another Organic Mutant*
by Miguel Leal

    *This is a shortened translation based on the portuguese original text.


Organic Mutants, 10 digital photographs, 30x40 cm each, 1999 (detail).

    We reminded each other that movement was the law of strategy and began to move.
    T. E. Lawrence

During the process which led to this exhibition, confronting the inconstancy of those formless jellies that slip through your fingers, and that would lead to the Organic mutants photographs, I began to see them not only as a possible materialisation of that which came to become the Bunker Project, but also as an intense metaphor of the contingent and elastic condition of artistic practice. I then understood that, more or less consciously, there was a genealogy for those images rooted in previous projects. I also perceived that the intricate fiction into which the project had been transformed was exactly between the elastic variability of artistic practice and the apparent corpselike rigidity of its objectualisation. This paradoxical condition, thus unfolded itself as an unconscious response to the Manichaeism and polarities that frequently surround our understanding of reality, and the artistic phenomenon in particular.
I thought, at the time, of this brief reflection as a crossroads between the perspective of the spectator and the implicated position of the artist, which whilst not being exactly the multiplication proposed by the "Je est un autre" of Rimbaud, ends by configuring an unfolding of the subject between the view from outside and the view from within, in a constant exchange of positions.
In this genealogical search, I would particularly like to mention a video I made in 1998. It was an integral part of an installation presented at the Museu Municipal Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, in Amarante, entitled Uma Visão Herética do Mundo (A Heretical Vision of the World) and the result of an interesting succession of chance happenings and decisions. Indeed, as I had already had an opportunity of writing, the processes of “making” art revealed interesting reverberations of tension between reason and chaos. In spite of differences, there are invariables indicating that the whole creative act ends by constantly playing between the poles of chance and necessity, of chaos and control. The very idea of experimentation, so necessary to the particular affirmation of art, is therefore invariably linked to the necessary readjustments between these various polarities. Without the opening of the accident, without the surprise of chance, our understanding of the artistic process would be necessarily different, and undoubtedly much more tedious. The luminous abysm of the accident, able to create new and unpredictable events, is thus fundamental material for the survival of art. The fragility this opening to accident embodies comes close to the unavoidable contingencies of life itself, thus contributing to the possibility of thinking that it is exactly based on this contingent condition that art will find the modalities necessary for this survival.
This video, an infinite loop, is no more than the magnetic register of a paradoxical event. The camera is placed in a totally dark room and linked in circuit to a monitor which it is facing. What is hoped for is a total absence of image in the recording. It is then that the camera’s automatic focusing and exposure mechanisms initiate a tireless search for that which they believe they will find but which, in reality, is not there. Thus, this strange pulse decisively denies the condition of the inherent index of the act of magnetically registering the images, designing a type of degree zero for the video — without referent and, more importantly, able to replicate itself infinitely in perfect autonomy.
On the one hand, after starting the process, I could have moved on to the mere contemplative condition incapable of controlling the unfolding of events. On the other, we might have believed that this video is in a permanent limbo between being and not being which, in contrast to what we might have imagined, represents no dispossession, but rather perfect power — that which only a nothing separates from being fully concrete (Agamben). In other words, that which the succession of images proposes is not the abysm of nothing but the aperture for the possible, in an equivalence between the two apparently irreconcilable principles: being and not being. As we shall see below, a being that can be at the same time as it is not, or rather, that keeps open the possibility of choice, fits within the category of the contingent.

In fact, the idea of art is indelibly linked to a contingent condition which gives it a certain fragility and impermanence, but which is also capable of conferring an enormous capacity for resistance on it. Thinking about the limits of this resistance forces us to reconsider the ways of safeguarding this contingent character which is the absolute condition of art. In other words, the mechanisms and tools of controlling discourse that are part of the system of the arts in their entirety, work essentially towards a cataloguing of the artistic practice, constructing a complex web of demands which frequently lead to the annulling of this very condition.
In my opinion, this effort to maintain the internal mechanisms that safeguard art from itself, or rather, that bind it fast to the condition of absolute contingency, must go through the re-engagement of the avant-garde project. The first thing to do would be to map out the historical role of the avant-garde and its possible place after all the failures, which would be completely inappropriate in a text of this nature. Nevertheless, it seems important to point out that it would be from the aporias of the avant-garde (with aporia here understood in the genuine philosophical use of the term — as a difficulty with no solution) that we could find some of the probable paths towards a rethinking of the territories of art. But far from the modernist mythifications that gave them a potential for transgression and rupture.

We might now return to the organic and uncontrollable pulse that comes from the complete absence of light to connect it, to some extent, to a certain bioaesthetic concept forged out of Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Bartleby by Herman Melville.
Bartleby, the scrivener who didn’t enscribe, is the ultimate example of the total experience of potency — which implies a perfect balance between the possibility of doing or simply not doing. The answer repeatedly given by Bartleby ad nauseam throughout the book— I would prefer not to —, is neither absolutely affirmative nor negative. Bartleby neither accepts nor rejects that which is proposed to him, he simply stays in an area of indecision between the two options.
In traditional western philosophy, this area is annulled by the poles of desire and duty, encased between that which we’d like to do and that which we should do. Bartleby presents the maintenance of potency in its pure state — not that which we want to do or should do but that we which can do. In placing himself in an interstitial space between the two hypotheses offered him he manages, as Agamben states, to maintain an experience of absolute contingency.
This is also, in my opinion, the distinct area of the impermanence of art. The tension caused by a work comes exactly from its lack of answers, from its permanent contingency. However, the particular processes of producing art are persistently encased in this triangle between duty, power and will.
In saying this I don’t, however, intend to suggest a view of art based on any opacity of the artistic object, but to try and define a place for art — or rather, a non-place — for the indecision which will enable it to escape from the indexing and cataloguing that is in permanent pursuit.
If all that is left to the avant-garde is a re-engagement of its project for the old logic of rupture and transgression, to art in general (because, for that which we are discussing here, the things end up by really coinciding) there is no other destiny than to escape the dichotomies that are constantly proposed to it. The boutades that resolve all the problems through the alternative between yes and no, are answered by art, at its best, with a formula that transcends both: perhaps no (or, then again, perhaps yes). This principle of internal contradiction is one of the possibilities that art has to defend itself.
And if art is still an interesting territory to inhabit, this is largely due to its capacity for constantly eluding corpselike rigidity, just as a living organism makes mobility and ability to adapt its tools of survival. Just like life, art adds an elastic variability to a determined conceptual rigor and this is one of its virtues: the way it makes its own life increasingly organic (which confirms the fallacy of the avant-garde dichotomies on art vs. life). It’s from this that the proposed concept of bioaesthetics comes. This is also why the video format was used for this organic mutant which, despite its differences, still maintains a strong parental relationship with the Organic Mutants of the exhibition. It can also be understood as an intense metaphor of the relentless mobility that seems to define the new (old) modalities so as to inhabit the diffuse place of art.

To finish, let’s return to the thinking of T. E. Lawrence who, in writing about his guerrilla experiences in the desert, affirmed the volatile character of his group of nomads, suggesting that they “were an influence, an idea, an intangible thing, invulnerable, with neither front nor rearguard, floating like a gas”. In rejecting the orthodox, Lawrence argued that it was always necessary to be were the enemy was not to be found, constantly refusing to offer a target, in total ignorance of the accidents of the terrain, of strategic areas, of directions or fixed points. The maxims would be mobility and ubiquity.
Is not this experience of absolute mobility comparable to the contingency and impermanence so necessary for the survival of art?
The new possibilities and means of inhabiting the place of art are thus inexorably linked to this condition of mobility, under the threat of its own resistance being in question.

This proposal also ends by configuring an irresolvable problem – that is, another aporia —, in that its crossing from theoretical formulation to the domain of artistic practice is sinuous to say the least, especially if we remember how the so-called late capitalism used these very principles of mobility to install a diffuse regime of mercantile domination. Nonetheless, this constant impermanence resulting from the lack of solutions is art’s very matter, which only confirms that the speed of its escape lies exactly in its capacity to keep its contingent condition firm.
This is why, in spite of this whole argument, it’s important to say that I don’t want this outline of a theoretical hypothesis for the (non)determination of the place of art to be an axiomatic exercise, but rather an annunciation that will be maintained indefinitely in that condition and which, in the apparent contradiction of its inability to affirm itself as a solution, will leave us with a smile on our face. Humour, after all, is essential material for art, or rather, the humour that turns towards art itself. Our inability to laugh at ourselves, the fact that we take ourselves too seriously, too easily leads to authoritarianism.
Indeed, those who believe that the crossing from the possibility to the act is always the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of power, need to be reminded that this is precisely the eternal illusion of the moral, as Agamben has also mentioned, and that the moral is, by definition, an alien territory to art.

This text is a shortened version of another proposal, Orgânico Mutante — uma reflexão sobre a condição contingente da arte e o lugar da sua sobrevivência (Organic Mutant — a reflection on the contingent condition of art and the place of its survival), that can be found at


AGAMBEN, Giorgio, Bartleby ou la création, Saulxures, Circé, 1995.
ENGUITA, Nuria, Lugares de divagación. Una entrevista con Cildo Meireles, in Cildo Meireles, Valencia, IVAM, 1995, pp.13-24.
LAWRENCE, T. E., Os Sete Pilares da Sabedoria, Mem Martins, Publicações Europa-América, 1996 (2ª ed.).
LEAL, Miguel, A arte do acidente, in Pedro Tudela — Target, Coimbra, CAPC, 2000.
MELVILLE, Herman, Bartleby, Lisbon, Assírio & Alvim, 1988.
SILVA, Paulo Cunha e, O lugar do Corpo, Lisbon, Instituto Piaget, 1999.