Friday, 3 October 2008


FORMULAS FOR NOW formulated by Hans Ulrich Obrist (Thames & Hudson 2008), ISBN 978-0-500-23850-9

Since 2006 the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has asked writers, artists, architects, scientists and mathematicians to contribute a "formula for the 21st century." A selection of responses to this request are gathered in this new book from Thames & Hudson, its purple cardboard covers and playful design straddling a boundary between art book, puzzle collection and - something about those thick covers, large type and color choice - toy bath book. 

The result is a gathering of formulas by turns funny, frustrating, irritating and enlightening - and a little prone to that hinterland between profundity and the self-help book: "The solution is in the problem" reads the opening contribution. Formulas are presented in a range of styles - from the brief handwritten score to dense, expository prose, "genuine" and "mock" mathematics, and photographs. The book as a whole has a high octane visual design which sometimes seems intrinsic to the artists contribution, and sometimes seems the over zealous work of the books designer, seeking to counter some occasionally thin material. 

Formulas by contemporary artists are interspersed with contributions which offer a kind of meta-commentary on the formula itself: such as an interview with Paul Elliman on his work on voice simulation, and the astonishing range of formulas needed to recreate a simple vowel sound. A reproduction of Albert Hoffman's scribbled LSD formula has a similar effect: prompting awareness of the social change stemming from such a casually scrawled formulation. 

All of which offers some useful ballast to the A-list art ego on offer elsewhere. Brian Eno's careful, dry, diagrammatic formulation of Garrett Hardin's "Essay on Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity" prompts all the negatives about stampeding over-eagerly into other disciplines, taking oneself and the form too seriously. Similarly, it's hard not to feel a qualitative distinction between those - such as Yona Friedman - for whom diagrammatic formulation has long been a vital part of their work, and contributers coming up with clever, funny, one-offs about their creative process. Although, having said that, perhaps none of this matters as long as long as the formula maker maintains a dexterous, shifting intelligence, whose gaps and contradictions often evoke the structures of the comic.


Obrist outlines the books lineage in the intricate drawings of Roger Penrose's Roads to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004). A productive - and much earlier - comparison could also be made to the Assembling anthologies supervised by Richard Kostelanetz, or Emmett Williams Anthology of Concrete Poetry, in which one finds a similar range of image-text combinations, often seeking to embody a range of information in a condensed, almost ideographic form. More specifically, the form of a page for some image-text combination evokes the fluxus score. 

But this is also where the differences kick in. It's hard not to see this kind of project as an implied rebuke of fluxus as all game, lacking its own real social and intellectual connections to scientists, architects and mathematicians. But reading Formulas For Now posed some counter-arguments: 

1. Scores left open future possibilities whilst formulas offer some summation by a Great Mind. Scores were a self-consciously marginal cultural activity, whilst Formulas are by those keen to be seen at the centre of cultural production. 

2. The shift from scores to formulas suggest our model of cultural reception has become much less performative and participatory. There's a sub-text to the formulas that risks re-inventing a world of elitist, experts, something that certainly seems implied by Nancy Spero's amusing contribution which begins:

The main thing is that no one (or) no one shall (to be decided) does (or) do anything that would be detrimental to society either physically or mentally. There will be a huge number of scientists and psychiatrists that would monitor the world and Hans Ulrich would be Head Monitorist.(139)

That said, I think there might be another reason for my somewhat disgruntled response to this book: Formulas as contradictory and bad-tempered. If some are annoying for being overly casual, others become boring for being too dense. This perversity is part of their nature, at least when the formulas are aesthetic rather than mathematical. My favorites are those that recognize the formulaic quality of artistic work itself, and don't shift from that into mock-profundity - such as Rosmarie Trockel's handwritten fax that says "Think, pig!" or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's photo of an installation on which she has written TROPICALIZATION in large letters on the white wall. 

Despite all these reservations Formulas for Now is still an exciting read, but to realize this I had to make a mental shift away from its contributer list as a map of Obrist's professional network. Like fluxus scores, formulas at their best demonstrate a particular form of intelligence, of processing and activating information, in a form that, through being both linguistic and visual, also becomes spatial, multi-dimensional, and, seemingly, instantaneous.  It's a kind of thought that offers to remove these contradictions. 

That it remains viable as an artistic strategy is perhaps best illustrated not by this book at all but by a another recent exploration of score and formula: lab's  Instructions For Films . This work, like Formulas for Now is at its best when engaging the exacting force field of the formula: between joke and mathematics; order and disorder; language and image; proposition, hint, realization.