The Stars Down to Earth

Anselm Franke on the Theme of this Year’s Forum Expanded

Anselm Franke is a curator, author and head of the Department of Visual Arts and Film at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. He is also the co-founder of Forum Expanded and part of their curatorial team. Every year, Forum Expanded follows a theme which in this year is “The Stars Down to Earth”.


The Stars Down to Earth: this is no reference to rising and falling stars. It could refer to the spectral disappointments of recent years. The Stars Down to Earth: an allegory of stolen revolutions and failed aspirations. But the formula that forms the title of this year’s Forum Expanded was once used by Theodor Adorno for a selection of essays on authoritarian irrationalism, and a penetrating analysis of an astrology column in particular. Revisiting it underlines the uncanny timeliness of this analysis. But it also serves us to question just what “down to earth” might (still) mean, and what can be an appropriate language for these shifting grounds of rationality and the dialectics of geo-politics and mediated subjectivity. Because "Earth", today, offers no stable ground, and little by way of an anchoring rationality. As invested in the (geo-)political as almost every previous edition, the 2017 edition of Forum Expanded is also an expression of uncertainty.

The topicality of The Stars Down to Earth and other closely related work on the psychology of authoritarian irrationalism is striking at a time when the “blatant insincerity”, the “phoniness” and “clowning” of a fascist agitator like Martin Luther Thomas in the 1930s have returned in the form of a new “post-truth” culture of “alternative facts”, and when the self-aggrandizement of a self-appointed plebeian tribune are reminiscent of Germany’s “great little man”, compulsively enacting the great leader and the local barber, and the rebellious child and strict punitive disciplinarian at the same time. Today’s populist rhetoric still uses the very same devices of paranoic projection identified by Adorno in a few concise formulas, whose compensatory irrationality pays tribute to the “logic” of the unconscious through inversion and conversion: of truth into lie, weakness and impotence into imagined strength and omnipotence, conformity into rebellion, persecution into alleged victimhood. This inversion serves to build up a phantasm of identity and essence as much as it acts as systemic diversion, “a nuance away” from reflection and the analysis and critique of a spiraling capitalism. Even the long discarded analogies between fascism and the culture of mass media are worth revisiting, if only to raise uncomfortable questions as to the difference between decentralized, “democratic” media such as the internet and the monolithic mass media of an earlier period, such as radio and television, with regards to their respective “hypnotizing” powers and pathologies. The stakes in creating and defending a culture of democracy through differential semantics are even higher today than they were in the mid-twentieth century, as archaic mechanisms of mimetic desire and contagion have become algorithmically entrenched in global technological "social" networks. Thus the stars – as powerful, allegedly determining and ultimately alien forces and as screens of projection for the figments of fantasy and imagination – have descended to earth. Post-truth also means that what constitutes “facts” has become ungrounded: when no truth can be named and raised anymore outside of “social facts”: the viral phantasms created by contagious memes on the one hand feeding off outlived narratives, and the false positivist promise of de-subjectified data-patterns on the other. Paranoia constitutes an entirely “rational” response to a world modeled by the paranoid ideas of market ideologues.

The present is not distinguishing itself as a time of formal innovation, not even in the experimental arts, and where this does occur, it is not necessarily linked to social experimentation with the modes of subjectivation and collectivity. A certain conservatism and mannerism prevails, not only in corporate culture. The far-reaching transformations that culture is undergoing are occurring under the surface, through technology and financialization, in the deep strata and deep time of meaning-making processes. They concern our very nature as social, relational beings. But little is visible, in the old sense, of this transformation. The new CGI-hyperrealism conjures up the memes of a stagnated, undead capitalist “nature”. An increasingly human-made, and yet abstracted environment confronts us everywhere in the form of a pervasive communication matrix, presenting us with mirror-images of past understandings (including our own “preferences”). And what we see might look familiar, but it is no longer part of the same chain of meanings, and they no longer serve as cognitive maps of the same terrain.

The form of critical, self-reflexive, transdisciplinary art production working in the legacy of experimental cinema, conceptual arts and writerly methods of ficto-criticism, has the capacity to defend a sense of reality – a reality that is to be found in the oscillating tensions that characterize the relationship between terrain and map, between the stars and the earth. It seeks to produce situated, non-essentialist knowledge. Art, where it does not deliver itself to populist affect and lives up to the demands of the present, insists and exposes the ambiguity and complexity of all visibility and meaning-making, turning into a way of seeing and perhaps a way of life, of survival, of maintaining sanity, of keeping grounded on uncertain ground. Its mode of reflection begins not by fixing meaning, but by ungrounding it, by rendering it uncanny, as it were.

Forum Expanded also does not claim to emphasize formal innovation this year, neither with regards to the nature of the moving image nor the cinema dispositif. The works it presents rather seek to offer alternatives to the erosion of semantics. It emphasizes a consciousness of deep time and the long dureé: history is the very space of resonance through which meaning becomes possible and experience defendable, even if this history is as impossible as has been the case in most of the revolutions and movements of recent years. The works gathered here act in defense of language and experience even where they are speechless. They speak of and out of ruins – literally, from the ruins of Beirut and Palestine among other places, and the wrecked ships of colonialism and the migration to the north – as conceptual acts that stand up against the destruction of sense. The 2017 edition of Forum Expanded is as diverse as previous editions, but in the exhibition in particular, a theme nevertheless prevails: the struggle for descriptive languages for the forces that destroy and bring human collectives into being, the struggle to define the shifting lines of emancipatory and pathological social bonds. It speaks of the experience of a collectivity that needs to be defended while it is being invented, that is simultaneously no longer and not yet articulated, to whom language seems to come either too early or too late.