Over the last months the meme of cargo cults became bigger and bigger, not only because of the announced theme for burning man 2013, but because of a collective interest. A few days back, I decided to collect my thoughts on the controversial field of cargo cults, as i considered myself a cargo artist since i first read about it on a trivial persuit card in 2005. This trivial coincidence seemed to be symtomatic for the whole discussion, and what a banal factoid can become in the future.
For the last years, there has hardly passed a week without me thinking about cargo cults, trying to make up my mind wether the whole phenomenon was based on a mere misunderstanding and a lack of rational insight, beliving in false gods we in the west consider a product of rational thinking and smart engeneering. Or if it was a clever and subversive act by embracing colonial symbolism, reinterpreting culture in a unique way. I asked myself a thousand times: What if we do just the same thing as John Frumers but in a light and banal version of it? Are they mocking us as we laugh about their ignorance, knowingly giving us exactly what we wanted of them: the feeling of a hollow superiority. Even seeing the topic as “cultural arrogance” is itself the most arrogant thing one could do.
Over the years i started manufacturing quantum computers, cloud busters, particle accelerators (cern) and single channel video installations in a cargo cult style, exhibiting them as artworks. My personal fascination with cargo cults has not stopped but even increased. But performing these tribal techniques as “art” seemed a bit strange and problematic to me. Who gave me the right to imitate cargo cults for my personal wellbeing, who am i to appropriate these methods without even fully understanding them (always keeping the safeguard of shitty hipsteresque irony on my side). So even more questions arose in the process of working with cargo, but help was already on its way.
Do you get it
One day at an exhibition in vienna, i saw a lady with a t-shirt. it said: “Not getting it is new getting it!” Many of my artistic ideas arose from so called misunderstandings. Sometimes i heard a phrase, i considered genius. Only to find out later that he/she didnt say that at all. Very often the thing i misheard was better than the original one.
Paraphrasing french phychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, every gerat story takes its beginning from a moment of missunderstanding. Be it Philosophers misreading their teachers, generating new information on the way, be it watching David Lynchs “Mulholland Drive” over and over again (because of not getting it- still wanting to understand). Strangely as soon as i had “understood” the film, it wasnt of interrest anymore. I have to say that i only have fascination for things i dont understand. Many people are afraid of things they dont understand. Isn´t everything you have fully understood a bit boring and of less energy than something that keeps nagging your mind, keeps you up at night, because it can never be finished – and therefore put out of your mind?
Considering the power and creative potential of “new getting it” for a while, i decided not to worry about not understanding the cargo cults. On the contrary: I found it light and amusing just to engage in the practice of the cargo. With no need to worry about doing something wrong.Do you know what you are doing? No, who does anyway. Realizing i could never fully understand the motivation and value systems behind cargo cults (due to language barriers, travel costs, the famous western perspective on indegenous people (see Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind) or even my western baggage of wanting to analyze, rationalize and “understand” things, in a way i was brought up to justify knowledge.
Why not engage in a fascination my own way, the same way as the people of Vanuatu found their unique way to express a fascination with western technology? On some level i found it more true to approach the cargo cults in a different way: In a way that admits that there is no “real” practice and understanding of culture. be it your own, or a far away tradition. You could say i found it more appropriate in terms of “inauthenticity” to form a cargo cult of cargo cults. Knowing less for a fact seemed a powerful engine. Without any doubt the cargo cults arose (willingly or unwillingly) from a form of constructive misunderstanding, so having a profound interest in that topic, i find it more than letigimate to understand these practices from my own point of view. embracing the idea that cargo cults are all about dissolving symbolic boundaries of real, understanding and even culturally manufactured utopias.
In this process it is still obvious, you cant just switch off your brain and keep on mufacturing Playstations from wood. That would be beside the point. Nevertheless i find it surprising that so little information about cargo cults is available. Both on the internet and the academia world. The same old memes about the cargo cults are reproduced, and reproduced, copied and pasted, again and again: US-Soldiers, Airplanes made from Wood, John Frum alongside with cargo cult science and horror stories about the beginning of religions by richard dawkins. And isnt it exactly bacause of that, the cargo cults as an urban myth keeps on lurking and reproducing?
Isnt it just that genaral lack of insight (spiritual AND rational), that enables the story to grow even further, even evolve to something different? We could be remembered of the idea that, every great story begins with a misunderstanding. Too much information strangles the imagination, and this is why everybody uses the cargo cults for its own purpuse- sees exactly what he/she wants to see. Be it colonialistic arrogance just to tell the story of these people, or the resemblence -embraced by artists- that there is no “original”, never was authorship or genius in cultural production. In a way cargo art is similar to the “exploitation genre”: low of budget and adressing things that just work.
It doesn´t work, so its ritual
One thing in these few positions must be corrected tough: It is not my intention to reveal the western arrogance of some viewpoints, be it the negative light brought by the term “cargo cult science” or the illustration of a religious stupidity. I have no time for that. But the main thesis of Richard Feynman´s analysis of the cults is that, in comparison to science, they dont work. This is simply not true. In the last dacade hundereds of planes landed, bringing tourists keen on seeing these exotic performances. Wether money, iphones or exotic (western) food brought by tourists was the desired cargo, the planes have indeed landed. The ritual imitation of planes brought more planes to the islands.
Let me be provocative: It worked in some way, but cargo can be considered a “metatechnology” that is undeniably quite young. and it even took science some hundered years to get out of the dark corners of alchemy and bring the first man to the moon. could it be the cargo cults work better than we want to admit? there is only one way to find out, to prove a thesis right or wrong: let´s try!. there is no other way of knowing, and to repeat a point made before: if you consider yourself a true explorer, be it scientist or dopehead, you are not ignorant of things you do not understand. you shoud be curious to find out. cargo might come from different directions, maybe not what you wished for. But on the other hand: doesnt that remind you of your own life?
The thesis could be: What Effects can be empirically observed, when objects that worked in the past/of symbolic, collectively value are imitated and reproduced in appearance? Is it a metaphysical force, that forms and splits nations as certain kinds of “cargo” can be attracted?
Our own Cargo?
Let me waste some words on the way knowledge can be archived in societies. It is clear that some people will say, we ourselves engage in everyday cargo cults, and we indeed do. We imitate the behaviour of sucessful people, assuming it was a certain appearence and mindset that made them what they are. In most cases it is undeniably pure chance. We dont have any in dept knowedge in our mobile phones, planes, social networks and economic processes except for a few factoids, that could easyly go through as tiny myths. Even the set of our cultural values, be it in art (conception of beauty), family (ways to live), and what brings a good life can be considered repeated forms, with no more logical content then ANY other way to do it.
Take the example of employment as a western cult. Money has no value at all without the belief of humans, it can be considered virtual of value. On the other side we go to work to get this stuff. And what do most people do at work? Act as if they were working, performing formal tasks in hope for “cargo” (that is again an imaginary construct). So yes: The cargo cult is an even more accurate ritual of the western world than we think. It can be of insight to see the same same but different. It can even be a way on reflecting critically on our own behaviour, including meaningless repitition as work, blogging, making what is appreciated by the nameless collective of the net. That leads me to the following:
Real Simulations (Physical Folklore)
What is most interesting about it is the so called “archaic revival” in our own cultre, due to a massive acceleration of goods and information in the past decades. In a similar way a fly sees a film like a dia show, acceleration can be of perceiving the world from a different perspective. It was Terrence Mckenna who coined the term “archaic revival”, meaning a rebirth of tribal thinking in a highly technological world.
The true father of this idea is Marshall McLuhan, describing a return of an oral and therefore archaic tradition in the course of the (antiwriting/reading) information age. As our world seems on the fringe point of total simulation, a point were erverything sensory can be simulated, the two things that have to feel good are technical devices and people. The enviroments we are moving trough everyday could soon be simulated via glasses and earphones. So why do we need these physical faculties, they are bulky and expensive. We ask ourselves: Cant data do that for me? What happens is that the physical world, as it can be reproduced freely, shrinks as does anything not beeing used over a long time. what i am trying to say is, that through the total calculation of the world, the physical world becomes a cult itself. in the course of this doubeling of the world, the “real world” suddenly appears as an original. but it never was
missing the old forms, we start to engage in cargo ourselves. enjoying replicas more and more, because the physical becomes its own value. as information is automated, we will engage in appearances that still have to be physical in some way. symbolic objects that help structuring our everyday lives, like a Dollar Bill will never be the same as a digital credit. Maybe you will get a better picture of this, reading the “postmedia aphorismo” i worte earlier. In short: We are becoming the exotics in our own culture. progress exceeds us, but we need objects, material forms. the physical world itself is turning into some kind of folklore. the world has changed but we still need the structuring power of things. the peace of used forms, tangible objects. a simple and noteably archaic way to keep things, the fabric of reality running. we will produce cargo soon enough- symbolic objects to summon a good life that never was, or has been.
To a Production of Cargo Art
In the artcontext the cargo cults enjoy a very different position. In art beautiful nonsense can survive longer than in everyday situations, so i considered artistic practice as a good vehicle for the beauty of cargo. As an artwork a cargo artpiece emphasises the aspect of the fake, as well as the artistic practice of appropriation. the author is as irrelevant as the question about who appropriated from whom. the people of vanuatu appropriated western forms, the artist takes back the method (of using branches for his ritual simulations). imitating another, second, third western artist. the question of authorship is as marginal as it is in the world wide web. fake is the new real, and by quoting lacan: everything is a commentary to a previous commentay. there never was something like an original, an original gesture. never
“This fascination has much todo with the very own meaning of Cargo cults as parables of desire”