27.06.2012 Atlas of Arcadia, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Room DG 14

May 18, 2012


Work-in-progress presentation: ATLAS OF ARCADIA is the title of a project by Anna Artaker and Meike Schmidt-Gleim. What is the meaning of this title? A cartographical encyclopedia of Utopia? A guide to a golden age beyond social constraints, meaning a kind of original classless society symbolically incorporated by the Arcadian pastoral people of the antiquity?

The title of the project ATLAS OF ARCADIA is composed of two parts, Atlas and Arcadia. Each of these two parts represents certain fundamental aspects of our approach. With the help of Georges Didi-Huberman, Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg we will at first explain what we understand by the production of an Atlas. Subsequently we will present our position of Arcadia in reference to Benjamin.


What is an Atlas?

What is interesting about using an Atlas as the form of presentation for our project? What is an Atlas? As Didi-Huberman points out (Atlas. How to carry the world on one’s back, p. 14) one does not read an Atlas from the beginning to the end, one does not read an Atlas at all. But once an Atlas is opened to retrieve specific information, we are often tempted to continue browsing around. Thereby an associative chain of information is developed which is unhindered by causality and linearity. This horizontal way of presentation – as it can be described as it does not build up hierarchically, but rather brachiates through a forest of information like an ape from tree to tree – serves as a model for the ATLAS OF ARCADIA. However, one cannot  broswe through our ATLAS yet (and maybe it will never be possible to do so). For the beginning we adhere to Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas” by making two black tableaux. The lacking possibility of scrolling and flipping through pages is compensated by a flexible distribution of the elements, which can be glued on and teared off the black tableaux any moment. Instead of turning the pages, the elements change places… Images and texts can build ever new combinations and deploy new perspectives and qualities.

One can simply reject this paradoxical use – as Didi-Huberman calls it, off road and well directed at the same time – as unscientific. But it might be more beneficial to ask, what kind of heuristic potential it holds for the ATLAS OF ARCADIA?

Didi-Huberman analyses the Atlas as a visual instrument of knowledge or a knowledgable form of seeing, aesthetic and epistemic at the same time. It subverts both paradigms: the rational, that deducts everything from ideas, algorithms and formulas, as much as the concentration on the image as it is enclosed in its frame without any references to what lies outside of it (one could name Clement Greenberg as representant of this position).


Didi-Huberman proceeds, that the visual model of knowledge is a model of impurity, located outside the enclosed image as much as outside rational deduction. Besides each image is always marked by a deficiency, because it refers to another, another and yet another image (Atlas – How to carry the world on one’s back, p. 15). It is exactly these moments we are interested in for our ATLAS OF ARCADIA. What kind of knowledge lies beyond causal reasoning structures? What kind of approach can be found beyond the aesthetic contemplation of a picture? And, what kind of relationship networks do images establish with their outside? What kind of access can such a network of images create? And finally, how can given perceptions be unhinged in this manner?

Both Walter Benjamin – who calls his method of work “literary montage” (GS V-2, 1030) – and Aby Warburg have pursued research in such a “visual” montage that is not fully deducible and thus introduced a hybridity and diversity of the form of knowledge.

The legibility of the world

In our case the assemblage basically consists of images. The ATLAS OF ARCADIA will be a picture atlas. Benjamin’s research, however, is not immediately expressed in pictures in its result, but it superposes image and text, by proposing a cross-over strategy of the reception. On the one hand Benjamin strives towards a legibility of the world, that is, he reads what was never written (“was nie geschrieben wurde, lesen” p. 213, Über das mimetische Vermögen). On the other hand, he shows something with his words rather than using them to say something (“Ich habe nichts zu sagen. Nur zu zeigen. Ich werde keine geistvollen Formulierungen mir aneignen, nichts Wertvolles entwenden.“, GS V-2, p. 1030).

This means that he reads, what strictly speaking one can only contemplate, and urges the readers to contemplate what could be read, to look at what he wrote as if his lyrics were pictures.

The technique of reading should not be limited to books, as reading the world can illuminate the intimate and secret relations of the things in this world, their correspondences and analogies. Images present themselves to our view as “crystal balls” of historical legibility … In particular, their details set a potential new knowledge and optic in motion, they reveal ways out and alternatives for a different course of history (V GS-1, p. 479–480). Aby Warburg also directed his attention to the detail. Using the formula “God is in the details” he encourages us to get lost in details and to consider nothing as too unimportant to subject it to a closer look: the inconspicuous, the smallest, the marginal, the peripheral, everything can become a sign of new knowledge. In the figure of the devil the formula has its hidden counterpart. On a first level this means, that the detail can distract from the overview. But on a deeper level it leads to the dialectics of Benjamin. Benjamin has developed a dialectic which is free from teleology, but triggers a flash-like recognition in the “dialectical image at standstill” connecting the past with the present in a kind of short circuit, which reveals the dreams and ideals of the collective and its mirages and phantasmagoria. The montage is its privileged agent.

Reading is the complement to the montage and not to writing. Perhaps the montage can be described as accentuation. It can release details that escape a general contemplation of images and put a different face to the fore. In the case of Benjamin it is about wresting the other face from the facades, interiors and boulevards of Paris in the 19th Century. We try to reconsider urban developments of the late 20th century through Benjamin’s lens and thereby turn shared perspectives upside down.

Montage and Imagination

The montage can also be described as “imagination” of social relations. Here imagination has nothing to do with fantasy, it is not an individual imagination, but a collective shift of the dominant perspective on the world through discovering the secret and intimate relationships, which tie things together. The montage strenghtens analogies and correspondences that are hidden in the details of an image or text and which we commonly fail to recognize. Adorno called Benjamin’s montage a “shock-like assembly” (On Walter Benjamin, p. 22), it brings to light the inner contradictions of things, and thus also reveals the dark side of everything that glitters, such as: The violence of the Hausmannian boulevards and the interiors of the 19th Century. The first because they clear the space for military to march up against insurgents and at the same time make it impossible to build barricades. The 19th Century interiors because they conceal the commodity nature of things and the brutal selection of capitalist production behind it (Atlas – How to carry the world on one’s back, p. 16).

To read the world this way, to read what was never written, has inspired us. We want to start by lgetting things to speak (a lot can be learned on this through Benjamin’s essays on Surrealism and “On Language as Such and the Language of Man”). More precisely, we try to cause an explosion of the “mighty forces of ‘atmosphere’ … that are hidden in these things” (Der Sürrealismus, p. 300).
Letting images speak requires no syntax, words must not be equated with the pictures, but turned into experience to create a viable, livable, current moment like “places where the things between … people, move like a revolving door.”(Der Sürrealismus, p. 301)


According to Benjamin reading the world is not about deciphering letters. Reading is imitation, but an imitation which is not characterized by a formal representation. Benjamin cites the following passage in his “Arcades Project”:

“Scene in the dormitory of a prison in the early thirties. The author quotes, with no mention of the author: “Le soir dans le dortoir en rumeur, les ouvriers républicains, avant de se coucher, jouaient La Révolution 1830, espèce de charade composée par eux; elle reproduisait toutes les scènes de la glorieuse semaine, depuis la délibération de Charles x et des ministres signant les Ordonnances jusqu’au triomphe du peuple; on figurait le combat des barricades par une bataille à coup de traversin derrière les lits et les matelas entassés; enfin les vainqueurs et les vaincus se réconciliaient pour chanter la Marseillaise.“ Charles Benoist: L’homme de 1841 (Revue des deux mondes 1 Juillet 1913 p. 147). The cited passage is probably quoted from Chateaubriand. (GS V-2, p. 971)

The scene may well have had a ridiculous character to outsiders, beds serve as street barricades in a dormitory, but in this “re-enactment” as one would call it today, they relive the revolution, and by this is the revolution becomes alive again. Theological references to resurrection are close, Walter Benjamin was aware of it as well as of its power: „Gewinnen soll immer die Puppe, die man ‘historischen Materialismus’ nennt. Sie kann es ohne weiteres mit jedem aufnehmen, wenn sie die Theologie in ihren Dienst nimmt…” (Über den Begriff der Geschichte, p. 129)
This imitation creates new concepts, which replace the traditional categories of mimicry and mimesis: similarity instead of effigy, performativity instead of aesthetic representation, leeway instead of repetition, second technique rather than second nature (Über das mimetische Vermögen). As the source of his observations, Benjamin refers to the children’s game, because it is both the primary domain and the paradigm of mimesis.

  1. Similarity instead of effigy: The child imitating a train does not care about its shortcomings and failures regarding the formal representation of a train, it is not anxious to create a perfect copy. Mimetic practice as it is suggested in the child’s play engages in “making oneself similar to the other”, not in an act of mere imitation. And in the act of making oneself similar to something else it is difference and not equation that is emerging. It unfolds a distance between the “model” and the “copy”. Homi Bhabha suggests that the difference emerging in the imitative process is due to the very functioning of mimicry: “In order to be effective mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”
  2. Performativity instead of aesthetic representation: The child imitating a train is not interested in its aesthetic representation, but eager to fully identify with the object it imitates. It neither produces a replica of the objective world nor does it anthropomorphise what is imitated. Rather the child re-enacts himself in the objective world. The own body is engaged and invested in the practice of mimesis and exposed to the other. Rather than yielding towards the domination of nature, mimesis as such hence opens up a tactile experience of the world, which renders the Cartesian categories of subject and object expandable, flexible and porous. The act of imitating includes an act of exposing and delivering oneself to the other that leads towards a dissolution of clear boundaries between the one and the other.
  3. Leeway (Spielraum) instead of repetition: Benjamin suggests mimesis as such creates a leeway or more precisely a room for play, ‘Spielraum’. The children’s play is not only the first realm of mimesis, but it is the paradigm of a concept of mimesis that moves beyond imitation. The traditional signification is confronted by the terms ‘play’ and ‘experimental interaction’. In this ‘Spielraum’ people can create variations of the existing and might come up with something completely new. What is described as slippage and faulty repetition in theories such as Homi Bhabha’s or Judith Butler’s finds a positive twist in Benjamin’s concept. The creation of something else is not only due to a slippage, but it is the engagement in active experimentation. The room for play is not situated in the margins and failures of mimesis, but it is the practice of mimesis itself, thus mimesis is not to be reduced to practices of imitation and mimicry. Buck-Morss resumes Benjamin with the following words: “The revolutionary “signal” that proceeds “out of the world, in which the child lives and gives commands is the capacity for inventive reception based on mimetic improvisation. Perception and active transformation are the two poles of childrens cognition (Dialectics of Seeing, p. 137)” In his own words Benjamin expressed this as a kinship between reception and innervation: “Schöpferische Innervation (steht) in exaktem Zusammenhang mit der rezeptiven ist jede kindliche Geste (GS II-2, 766).”[1]
  4. Second technique instead of second nature: The child’s “Spielraum” emerges as potential in a new constellation of nature and technology. New technical achievements in Benjamin’s life time such as film technology bear the potential of a revival of the child’s play era, as long as they are not yet subjected to the power relations of the capitalist market. The second technique reveals that what appears to be natural is in fact an alienated culture and thus open to transformation. As such second technique constitutes a relationship of mimesis, which unfolds a “Spielraum” instead of a relationship of domination and alienation between man, nature and technology (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Second edition, GS VII).

What interests us in these moments of reading as performative imitation, of Spielraum, and of potential transformation within the scope of second technique, are their emancipatory and innovative qualities. We do not claim for ourselves to realise them, but we think it important to clarify points of reference, which point beyond our smaller project of producing a montage, which aims at turning commonly shared perspectives upside down.


What is Arcadia?

To find out more about Arcadia one has to take a detour and ask what stands in its way, what are the obstacles of Arcadia, and what is not Arcadia, although it might appear to be: Shiny shopping malls, reified dreamscapes in theme parks (including Disneyland), reconstructed pseudo-authentic historic city sceneries (such as Thames Town in Shanghai), glittering Sci-fi ambitions (as in Dubai, or in the design of high speed trains). In his “Arcades Project” Benjamin calls these urban manifestations reifications of phantasmagoria.

Phantasmagoria and commodity fetishism:

Phantasmagoria is “mythology” reified and petrified in architecture or to be more precise: petrified commodity fetishism. This latent mythical dimension of buildings conceals the fundamental motor of our current societies: that everything was created and functions in capitalist relations. The smiling Mickey Mouse does not give candy to your daughter because he finds her cute, and even less because he has an affective relation to her, but because he has previously been paid to do so. For Benjamin the mythic power of distorting commodity fetishism does not only manifest itself in goods but characterises our entire materialised environment: buildings, urban structures, gardens, parks, interiors etc. Today this list could be expanded to landscapes and the control of the entire space. From high-speed trains to satellites, the entire space is measured, occupied, crossed and controlled.


The commodity fetishism hides the social relations that produce the commodity and its value, and objectifies this value, meaning that the value appears to be a value dwelling in the specific product, idiosyncratic, and is thus beyond any historical change rather than variably attributed socially. In the same way the phantasmagoria cover their social importance and obscure the actual social relations of the members of society (The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret, p. 86). Everything, every building and every decision of urban planning, appears to be historically grown, what de facto has the same status as something natural, constitutional rather than something that is embedded in political power relations. Moments of phantasmagoria are for example iron structures that are modeled on baroque designs, and thus try to join themselves into the ranks of what has always been there. Similar functions are satisfied by exact replicas, such as the Berlin City Palace, which is to be rebuilt, or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which was demolished under communism to become the site for a monument and then served a long time as an open air pool, before finally being rebuilt, now conveying a fake continuity of History.

Just as the commodity fetishism reflects the social relationship to the overall work of the producer as a mere relation of objects, the urban development takes the fantastic form of a relation between things (The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret, p. 86). This relation of things appears to be unchangeable, as if man could only be a flaneur instead of becoming aware of his role as creator of this relationship.

This phantasmagoric materialisations tell two narratives: On the one hand, they are embodiments of a world in which only the money counts. Whoever didn’t pay Mickey Mouse will not receive a smile, the tramp will not be admitted to the shiny shopping mall. On the other hand, however, Mickey Mouse and the shopping mall are actually dream figures and speakers of a utopian world. Walking through Disneyland with children’s eyes or like a flaneur, forgetting the commercial apparatus for a moment, one can see the dreams of a generation.

Phantasmagoria tells the success story of capitalist market ideology, while at the same time leaving the trace of a better world.
These traces of a dream are not enough to break the constraints of power relations, Arcadia remains trapped inside the dream world. But Benjamin tries to analyse how to wake up from this dream (GS V, 2, p. 1002) and how to transform the referents of utopia into agency and energy.

Phantasmagoria must become body space (“Leibraum”). What is a “Leibraum”?

Benjamin writes, „…der Raum mit einem Wort, in welchem der politische Materialismus und die physische Kreatur den inneren Menschen, die Psyche, das Individuum, oder was sonst wir ihnen vorwerfen wollen nach dialektischer Gerechtigkeit, so dass kein Glied ihm unzerrissen bleibt, miteinander teilen. Dennoch aber – ja gerade nach dialektischer Vernichtung – wird dieser Raum noch Bildraum, und konkreter: Leibraum sein.” (Der Sürrealismus, p. 309)

What can we hold back from this rather hermetic quote? The body space is a space where everything is torn apart, no member remains at its place. This applies to all political and psychological categories, the individual, the psyche, but also its physiological presence. Because the body space is a space shared by political materialism and creature … a physical space of power relations, of power struggle … between the collective struggle and the use and input of the body … exposed to risk its life. The body space is concrete, actuality, presence, event in the moment of political struggle. Benjamin also speaks of image space, but this term is somewhat misleading, because a picture appears to be somewhat rigid, at standstill and as such contradicts the dynamics of the body space.

But Wohlfahrt reminds us that the image space is nothing else than the body space: “C’est un champ de forces, un espace non seulement d’images mais de corps et d’action collective (body space), qui est l’image et propulse, l’engloutit et la devore.” (Pourquoi pas lu le-on n’at Livre des Passages, p. 33)

We cannot conjure up this body space, but carrying out a change of perspective we can understand our practice as part of the body space. Benjamin speaks of a trick with which you can look at the world of things differently:

„Der Trick der diese Dingwelt bewältigt – es ist anständiger hier von einem Trick als von einer Methode zu reden – besteht in der Auswechslung des historischen Blicks aufs Gewesene gegen den politischen.“ (Der Sürrealismus, p. 300)

The political gaze is not diverted by the fact that the past has passed. According to Benjamin you can only change the present by changing the past. What might perplex us at first is actually an invitation to actively participate in our history: to give a voice to those who have been forgotten because they were conquered and ruled. And equally to deprive those of their voice, who rely on historical privileges. Benjamin quotes:

“’Tut euch auf, Gräber, Ihr, Tote der Pinakotheken, Leichname hinter spanischen Wänden, in Palästen, Schlössern und Klöstern, hier steht der fabelhafte Schlüsselbewahrer, der einen Bund mit Schlüsseln aller Zeiten in Händen hält, der weiß, wie man auf die verschlagensten Schlösser zu drücken hat und der euch einlädt, mitten hinein in die Welt von heute zu treten, Euch unter die Lastträger, die Mechaniker zu mischen, die das Geld adelt, Euch häuslich in ihren Automobilen niederzulassen, die schön sind wie Rüstungen aus der Ritterzeit, in den internationalen Schlafwagen Platz zu nehmen und Euch mit all den Leuten zusammenzuschweißen, die heut noch stolz auf ihre Vorrechte sind. Aber die Zivilisation wird kurzen Prozeß mit ihnen machen.’ Diese Rede hat sein Freund Henri Hertz Apollinaire in den Mund gelegt.“ (Der Sürrealismus, p. 300)

And elsewhere he writes:

“Nur dem Geschichtsschreiber wohnt die Gabe bei, im Vergangenen den Funken der Hoffnung anzufachen, der davon durchdrungen ist: Auch die Toten werden vor dem Feind, wenn er siegt, nicht sicher sein. Und dieser Feind hat zu siegen nicht aufgehört.“ (Über den Begriff der Geschichte, p. 131)

How can we take responsibility for our history? Where can we begin?
To give history other faces Benjamin suggests to look for the ruins, the rags, the residues, and one could for sure extend this list: for the backs, for that, what is beneath, for that, what is behind, for the aftermath, for that, what should remain invisible, for what has been concealed. His hero is the rag picker.

The Rag picker:

Benjamin quotes Baudelaire: „Hier haben wir einen Mann – er hat Abfälle des vergangenen Tages in der Hauptstadt aufzusammeln. Alles, was die große Stadt fortwarf, alles, was sie verlor, alles, was sie verachtete, alles, was sie zertrat – er legt davon das Register an und er sammelt es. Er kollationiert die Annalen der Ausschweifung, das Capharnaum des Abhubs; er sondert die Dinge, er trifft eine kluge Wahl; er verfährt wie ein Geizhals mit einem Schatz und hält sich an den Schutt, der zwischen den Kinnladen der Göttin der Industrie die Form nützlicher und erfreulicher Sachen annehmen wird. “ And he adds: „Diese Beschreibung ist eine einzige ausgedehnte Metapher für das Verfahren des Dichters nach dem Herzen von Baudelaire. Lumpensammler oder Poet – der Abhub geht beide an.“ (GS I-2, p. 582 f.)

Unlike the flâneur the rag picker intervenes. It is true that only the remains, the rags, the waste and the ruins are available to him, all of which have been left behind by others. But that’s a good thing, because these things that supposedly have seen better days may be exempt from their phantasmagoric circumstances. Rags and ruins can be intertwined with agency when they are dragged on the body space. What does that mean?

„Er (Breton) zuerst stieß auf die revolutionären Energien, die im ‘Veralteten’ erscheinen, in den ersten Eisenkonstruktionen, den ersten Fabrikgebäuden, den frühesten Photos, den Gegenständen, die anfangen auszusterben, den Salonflügeln, den Kleidern von vor fünf Jahren…, wenn die vogue beginnt sich von ihnen zurückzuziehen … Wie das Elend, nicht nur das soziale sondern genauso das architektonische, das Elend des Interieurs, die versklavten und versklavenden Dinge in revolutionären Nihilismus umschlagen.“ (Sürrealismus, p. 299)

The softer version of the revolutionary nihilism is to look at things with different eyes. The magic of the phantasmagoria disappears as soon as the make-up on Mickey Mouse’s face is melting, his smile turns into a farce losing all of its commodity value. Subsequently value and market value fall apart. If a thing loses its market value, only a value that is based on a different kind of relationship with it can save it. The value becomes a matter of its utility or a matter of emotional attachment.
Now we do not always want to wait until the make-up melts, the shopping mall is shut down and weeds are sprouting from its walls. But while we say this, goutweed starts to grow through the cracks in the asphalt of the mall parking lot, one mall falls apart, a nother will be built new. Old and new, out of fashion and top hits increasingly appear in a concurrence in which decay and progress overlap. And, as Benjamin noted: „Die Entwicklung der Produktivkräfte legte die Wunschsymbole … in Trümmer noch ehe die sie darstellenden Monumente zerfallen.“ (GS V, 1, p. 59) What Benjamin observed for the 19th Century, currently applies in an accelerated form. We will focus on urban developments during the late 20th century, but what is it? Buildings which were built in the outgoing 20th century, or those which are used today, but have existed for a long time? It is the relationship between people and things that interest us and not the thing as a reified thing, phantasmagorical.

The ATLAS OF ARCADIA is thus an attempt to make – in a hybridity between reading and showing, between confronting and allowing to speak for itself – an inventory that doesn’t leave untouched what has been, and makes sure that no detail is missed in which one can discover another kind of history.



Adorno, Theodor W. (1970), Über Walter Benjamin, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp

Bhabha, Homi, Of Mimikry and Man: The Ambivalence of colonial discourse, in: The location of culture, Routledge 1994

Walter Benjamin (1927-1940), Passagenwerk, GS V

Walter Benjamin (1929), Der Sürrealismus, GS II-1

Walter Benjamin (1933), Über das mimetische Vermögen, GS II-1

Walter Benjamin (1940), Über den Begriff der Geschichte, GS I-2

Walter Benjamin (1919), Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen, GS II-1

Walter Benjamin, Asja Lacis, Programm eines proletarischen Kindertheaters, GS II-2

Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades project, Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press 1989

Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas – How to carry the world on one’s back, Reina-Sofia, Madrid 2011

Karl Marx, Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und sein Geheimnis, Kapital Bd. 1, Dietz Verlag Berlin 1947

Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A particular History of the Senses, Routledge 1992

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne, in: Martin Warnke (ed.), Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: II 1.2, Oldenburg Akademieverlag (2008)

Irving Wohlfahrt, Pourquoi n’a-t-on pas lu le Livre des Passages ? Conjecture sur une Conjoncture, in: Bernd Witte (ed.), Topographies du Souvenir “Le livre des Passages” de Walter Benjamin, Presses Nouvelle Sorbonne

[1] Buck-Morss explains how revolution and innervation are connected: “Hence Benjamin’s theory of revolution as ‘innervation’: Wish images ‘innervate’ the technical organ of the collective,’ supplying it with nerve stimulation that prompts revolutionary action – “like the child who learns [the practical task of] grasping by trying [impossibly] to catch the moon in its hands.” (Dialectics of Seeing, p. 63)

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