Psychroforms; or, On Cooling Down

For the past few years I have been interested in the nature and adaptability of microscopic organisms known as psychrophiles, known for their ability to thrive in extremely cold environments. Their peculiarity had interested me for demonstrating the possibility of growth and production in cooled or frozen zones. Increasingly, the conditions for growth and production that these frozen areas exhibit, and that allow for the life of these psychrophiles, have come to resemble another area within my academic interests: image production and the conditions they face in their own growth. In a very real sense, the conditions and zones in which images and their meanings are produced today are not those of heat, speed, and intensity of information, but the opposite — a much cooler, slower zone. This conception of images existing in a colder state emerged from a confluence of interests and topics that had alighted my initial interest, none of which take real precedence over another, as they all led — from the most to least relevant — to the same conclusion: coldness enables compassion.

In this brief essay, I will form a story through a few short vignettes about how the word psychro — from Ancient Greek, meaning “cold” or “frozen” — has repeated, mutated, and formed itself into increasingly complex new meanings and relations. For me, the word not only suggests new perspectives, but coalesces into beliefs for living.

Researching forms of the Greek character ψ (psi) — from which the English prefix “psy” derives, denoting the mind and its associated capacities — I was led to the Psychro Cave system on the Greek island of Crete. Historically, this cave was known as the nurturing place of the young Zeus, who was hidden there to escape being devoured by his father, Saturn. This story was familiar to me, but the name of the cave system was not. With this new realization, I could not shake the association that the head of the Greek gods, who came to symbolize Western rule and its empirical hold on knowledge and wisdom, was nurtured not in the fires of speed and intensity, but within a colder system of change and slow transformation.

              But how do coldness and a frozen environment influence art and image-making?

                  The image that is best understood
                  is the one that does not give of itself
                  immediately.                                        or at all.

My interest in art, specifically image-making, has gradually moved to focus towards art that never gives itself fully, or at all, to the visitor at any moment in time.

These works and images take into account the opportunities of delay, misdirection, or plays on misinformation — in addition to the inaccessibility of the person viewing them — by either (1) demanding the viewer make multiple visits to consider the work and see it in its entirety over time, or (2) to never allow the viewer any consideration beyond the parameters prescribed in the work.

The artist Irena Haiduk has made this a particular focus of her work: prescribing, through either contracts or time limitations, how the work must be accessed or used.  In the artist’s performances, installations, and sculptures, the aspect of delay and a retooling of the artwork-visitor transaction and interaction are employed to meet specific demands. In her work at documenta 14, she installed a “Transactional Area” as part of the larger work where visitors could purchase — on contract — specific items of clothing from her Yugoexport company. In this area, Haiduk had instructed the salespeople and assistants working in the installation to “prolong and present a different kind of transaction.”1Conversation with Irena Haiduk on September 28, 2017.

The transactions and interactions which Haiduk presents are carried out primarily under the condition of a typical visitor not knowing how to purchase the work or even simply view the work. In more than one sense, the visitors are delayed or frozen, as the physical and aesthetic conditions in which the works are experienced is that of a “limited visibility,” where an overwhelming darkness restricts one to either move slowly or at the direction of the artist.

When one experiences this and sifts through Haiduk’s complex history — as the artist has often noted her stance “Against Biography” — the form of the psychro begins to move past any mental or frozen properties and into the realm of the spiritual, where blind trust and surrender to the thickness of information present a deeper, nuanced understanding of the complexities of the work on display.

Efficiency, at least the efficiency we have been conditioned to desire, is a concern she sets out to manipulate and restage for the purpose of bringing visitors closer, not only to each other but to the hidden histories which bind us so intimately.

Complicating efficiency further, Anthony Huberman, in his essay for the exhibition Mechanisms, details how artists included in the show were looking to disturb or otherwise manipulate the efficiency of systems. Everything new — content, images, ideas — was streamlined and made efficient within systems. Huberman argues that artists now no longer made art to be new, as opined by Ezra Pound, but instead to “make it thick.”2Huberman, Anthony. “Make It Thick,” in Mechanisms (San Francisco, CA: CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 2017), 3.

Heat liquefies, powers and delegates efficiency.
            Thickness is a hearth full of darkness, a permanent winter landscape.

This already feels known, common.

I had understood that images — searched for, scrolled for, or serendipitously found — all blurred immediately together in their endless field, and were part of a much larger, thicker landscape that latently held them all together, whether it was by a language of code or another ancestral, spiritual binding.

An Instagram username I once used was Winter Landscape. The name was half-borrowed from the paintings of the German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich, who envisioned what grand worlds may lie in and beyond the snow-filled picture, but also alluded to the images one processes and takes in today. Like snow piling up and never melting, a similarly romantic landscape unfolds in the endless scrolling, amounting to a more complex universe through each individual.

Psychroforming — that is, the creation of images that are colder, thick in nature — is inherently romantic. And, due to its inherent coolness enables a deeper understanding. I would argue that despite the current platforms and tensions of various global occurrences, we are, to quote Dave Chappelle, getting a “real good look at each other.”3Dave Chappelle, “Sticks & Stones,” August 26, 2019, Atlanta, GA: The Tabernacle, 65 minutes, 45:02.​ This looking, however, is not done through forcing oneself to go slow. Instead, the opposite is true: the speed at which we produce and consume forces the realization that complexity has increased to such an extent that we will simply never catch up nor allow any particular dominance to be established. In this cooled zone, speeds are equivalent if not frozen. And peering into the frozen image, an individual’s nuance and complexity are crystallized.

                    On Cooling Down

I was tasked with writing this essay at the beginning of quarantine, while living in New York. For months prior I had already had the luxury of doing next to nothing…

The few months before everyone was ordered to stay inside, I had left my job in the art world and returned home to Mississippi with very little to do or occupy myself with. The South, in many ways, was the antithesis of the New York and Cologne art circles I had been learning and growing in. I told people I was returning home to help family, work on Ph.D. applications, and travel a little bit, as an exhibition I had organized was moving around the United States. These were all true, but really they were plausible excuses to get out of an art world that, like every other industry, had been hurtling forward with increased production, growth, and demand for more work. Waking up every day, I found myself still mentally preparing to head into work. Nervous without this daily routine, I started to center myself by repeating a new mantra:

“Cool it.”

While I had done very little in quarantine in New York, even putting off this very essay for weeks, which turned into months, I did even less in Mississippi. Each day was a confrontation with what I wanted to do. Older, retired family members, figuring out how to fill their days, made cracks that “retirement was the hardest job” they had to do. To them, their largest challenge was figuring out what new thing to take on each day.

It reminded me that a few years ago, I had learned about a creation myth called the Swerve, or more specifically the Swerve of Lucretius.4See the link.​ The hypothesis is that if the natural inclination of particles was to fall straight down, immediately meeting entropy, then only a random swerve away from this trajectory could have sparked Life. In time, further swerves would increase the complexity and vastness of life. I learned of this from a close friend at the beginning of one September, and spent the next weeks of the month learning as much about the theory and Lucretius as possible, eager to meet up with her at the beginning of October. However, I would never have the chance to speak to her; she was murdered by her roommate later that same month.

I think often about her and this urgent piece of information that she had left with me. Why was it that in this moment of surplus information — when there were new curveballs being hurled at you every day — this myth could be left with me in such an equally bizarre fashion? Imagining this first atom on its decision to swerve, bouncing away from its fellows who dropped straight through the void, I thought that only a spark or spirit could will it so — Lucretius believing it even as an example of free will in life. But, thinking of this atom as it traveled further away on its own, continuing further away from its fellow atoms and into a space of unknown, previously unsurvivable coldness, it must have become increasingly secure in the complexity which would be its future.

Instead, it feels more proper to not leave the myth as merely a transient explanation of what was happening, but to imagine that,

            Okay, if there were so many swerves happening at once these days, then why could it not be possible to predict or otherwise estimate where the next swerve may come from.

                  Or, better that they could be delayed and slowed in their...... immediacy so we could better receive and consider them in all their...... complexity.

Alan Longino is an art historian and curator investigating postwar Japanese conceptual art and global contemporary art. Currently, he is a student in the Art History Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. In 2019, he co-curated the exhibition Yutaka Matsuzawa at Yale Union, Portland, OR, the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States. His writing has appeared in Artforum and the Haunt Journal of Art from UC Irvine. 

An image of ice taken from Google Images.

Image found from the Instagrammer @NKhowe, possibly a still from Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965).

Irena Haiduk, Proof of Sirens, 2016. Produced by Yugoexport. Courtesy of the artist.

Pictures taken by the author from the book Mechanisms published by CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA, in collaboration with ROMA Publications, Amsterdam, 2017. Artwork: Jean-Luc Moulène, Blown Knot 632 Borromean, Varia 03 (CIRVA, Marseille, 2012), 2012, glass, 30 × 30 × 19 cm.

Published: 2020.07.23