Birch Bark Canvas
Turtle Wander Line, Ink on Birch
Turtle Painting. Ink on Birch.
Living Network Ecologies Part 2:
A life raft and a turtle painting: There must be a primordial communism.
Drew S. Burk
Translation Fieldwork and Birch re-appropriation from the museum soil: Or, how our translator came to perform his own translation.
While adapting the included Deligny excerpt from French to English, artist-theorist-translator Drew Burk found himself enacting not only the textual translation but indeed also the art/act featured within the text. He recreated an original Aboriginal relic – one seemingly similar to the one mentioned by Deligny – thus emplacing himself within the dynamic network of the text. What emerges then from this network(ed) reading is Burk’s own modern archaeological artifact. We attach its representation here, along with an anecdote of its creation, as an introduction to our second installment of this first official English translation of Deligny’s Arachnean.
– Amanda Starling Gould
You head out on a wander line… you have your daily, customary trajectories…. and then a task shows itself: you must do some translational fieldwork. You must get lost and wander. And you must get a sentiment for translating the aboriginal reiterated ritual of the turtle painting. You must find the proper bark and pigments to inscribe the turtle’s morphology.
And you find yourself in a nature reserve… A preserved block of nature amidst the concrete and metal speed vehicles.
You wander some more and realize that your reflections must be etched and inscribed on various surfaces. You mark and trace on ipad and iphone and birch bark and moleskine.
And somewhere in this acting, you encounter the dream space/time of the aboriginal who repeats the ritual of the turtle painting for the process itself… You wander some more and translate.
If Deligny rightfully claims there is no desire on the part of the Aboriginal to preserve or have need of the turtle painting, once completed, and that only “enlightened amateurs from another world” will find use of it, claim it and place it in a confined space of staring called a museum, then perhaps it is necessary to reverse this process… taking into consideration that I find myself within a place where nature, like art, is preserved and controlled by so many bureaucracies and legislators….
I encounter my materials: birch bark canvas on the grounds of the museum.
And so the birch bark, rising up in the form of a tree on the territory of such an institution of this legislative species is perhaps in need of being plucked from its place, lying on closely cropped grass at a local center of art.
The bark, like the museum space itself, is grown on the soil of ritualistic practice.
Working translation excerpts
(From section 45)
What happened took place and nothing more. What remains is this specific network that I see with the same eye that I use to look at the turtle painted on bark, with a different eye than those who look at it.
It was called an attempt and then a life raft; and now it is a network, quite simply because the life raft is not used that often outside of adventures like that of Kon-Tiki, whereas networks, if one believes the radio, newspapers, and books, are raining down, at least when the time is ripe, which is a way of saying: it is when “the times” no longer lend themselves to anything else that people want – and quite often it is a person that emerges and personifictivizes [personnagise] this wanting which is supposed to be that of all the others – that the networks weave themselves. And if it is true that what happened – in history – took place and nothing else, what could have happened persists but in forms that escape us, and quite often the network, as a kind of escape plan or way-out, inherits from these forms which have not taken place or which we could say took place “in time” which, truth be told, is quite a strange place.
To say that networks are like turtles – and more specifically those of Arnhem Land, which are aquatic and find themselves painted on pieces of bark that have lost their curved form – is true in more ways than one.
In regards to the bark paintings, André Breton speaks of the immediate pleasure, of the untrained eye that is left to wander, of rhythmic unity, of the organic respondent between the bark painting and the shells which exist on that coast, of a contact, of a current that flows, being seduced and subjugated, of elementary affects, of the emotional threshold that predominates on the pathways of knowledge, of the act of creation itself which is the only act that matters for the Aboriginals…
He thus privileges emotion, a word that, at its origin, is movement. And this introductory text, Breton wrote it on the basis of “first hand knowledge.”
This turtle is thus hand traces, the acting being first and then the making occurring as though on top of the traced line as though second hand. The witness of the Aboriginal grappling with the bark, the sympathetic person who watched him make it, is surprised by the casualness in which the Aboriginal treats what he has made.
The Aboriginal turns away from what he or she makes; the project does not reside there; it resides within the movements of the hand that reiterates the trajectories, that come and go according to where the hand must pass; and this hand is not his own. It is any hand whatsoever which is at his or her disposal in the same manner as the small chewed stick which he or she uses as a pencil; the human is at work and the traced turtle is as common as the spider’s web which we can quite easily see is not the web of a specific spider that would sign with its name, the work of the Arachnean.
And the excitement that can surprise us when we let the eye wander over the turtle is not due to the fact that we are contemplating a singular, exceptional, work, but precisely the contrary. It comes from the fact that the turtle is felt as being common; it is human; and not because a human being is represented by it – which could happen on top of it all – and this by way of some language interference which, when put into use, mixes with everything, adding its symbolic grain of salt, but simply because, for the human, the hand is primary and its traces are common, and common to the species.
Here a communism that can be called primitive appears, but primitive evokes a certain stage, a certain moment, a certain state in history; one would be better off saying a primordial communism, “that is the most ancient and serves as the origin”.
This is why I wrote that the Arachnean was a fossil.
But one must understand that this ancient origin, as much a fossil as it may be, persists at the origin of each of our current gestures, fossilized in the sense that this origin is buried under layers of sediment of what the human was capable of wanting and wanting to become, considering themselves to be their own project, eager to have what they might want and to want what they might have or what they could have if certain people were not outrageously privileged.
To abolish privilege, it is necessary to abandon the one who has decided to be a being apart and of such a superior level that he ended up believing himself detached.
With the return of someone who left to wander the coast of Arnhem Land, a turtle-relic appears, a turtle that could also be a crocodile, or ray or copulation or a female kangaroo and many other things as well. If I can make this small inventory it is because there is, on the bark, something represented and thus a certain wanting to make a female kangaroo rather than a manta ray.
Who could disagree? One would still have to distinguish the part of the reiterated in what is being represented.
Otherwise where would the surprise, the excitement, and all things considered, the art come from?
Art; another word that is a good excuse [avoir bon dos], an enormous turtle emerges from the depths of antiquity from which we can see quite well that – if only from reading André Breton who in regard to the paintings speaks of the close proximity to seashells – nothing proves that art waited for humans to arrive before showing itself in the light of day.
It is perhaps even the complete opposite; art is found everywhere in nature and what is surprising is that man still respects something that is no more useful than a spider’s web in the nook of a room.
Which still leaves a little hope as far as the persistence of primordial communism is concerned. One must believe it is just as coriaceous as the turtle faced with floods, or to put it another way, just as coriaceous as the lines on the palms of our hands.
If this specific network, very small, very precarious, had a vocation, it would be to weave at least some aspects of a primordial communism. We understand that this is the case, as concerns this work, only when it is about painting: the painting is in the canvas, in the web. Where else would you expect it to be? Inside heads, ideas, inside people’s hearts or who knows where?
Each living area is a canvas, a web, understanding that we are speaking of the canvas prior to the painting. There is nothing more than a stretched space. However a certain part of the artwork is already completed; some amongst us do not have access to the use of language; to act [agir] is customary to them whereas to make [faire] escapes them. We had to enter into a certain practice of not-wanting [non-vouloir]; if only out of respect for what seemed obvious: that all wanting was violent in the sense that wanting to take the other’s place, in the mode of interpretation, is a rape, in the same way that wanting to take the other’s thought is also a rape — to put oneself in the place, in taking the place, in occupying the place — a spider or a turtle or whatever for which our language is nothing more than a noise amongst others.
It is clear that primordial communism is not inscribed within the charter of human rights where the only relevant question is what the human can want; this charter must draft ‘the is’ [le soit] and thus this linguistic ‘is’ must moreover be written in a language that can be translated into all other languages.
It is obvious that, in the approach we are taking, if a paragraph of the said charter concerned us it would speak about the right of every human to language. But why is it that in every law there appears the necessity of separating the human from other species, understanding that this word species is common to everything that lives, that it evokes a kind of common good.
And this is true to such an extent that even that which can appear as being an appropriation by a specific species or by individuals of a species, when looking at it a bit more closely is, as with everything that is innate, always moving according to the circumstances; so it is that the famous idea of territoriality (the defense of the meticulously defined territory) is established, exasperated, or extinguished based on the overall locatable food sources within this territory which can at once take the form of a closed off field where dangerous competitions take place or the site of a peaceful gathering.
In the last lines of his book, Karel Kupka writes: “All art inevitably changes in its manifestations with the evolution of its creators, but it does this less than we think; it always maintains its simple and noble function that is indispensable to humans, which is to communicate […]. Man has always consciously and voluntarily used art, but via the thrust of his instinct to communicate.”
André Breton warns us: “The end that the Australian artist pursues has nothing to do with the completed work in as much as we can discern it in its spatial limits […] but, all in all, with the approach that results from it.”
But then how is this famous communication established if the completed artwork is of no interest to anyone, especially not to the author – the creator – him or herself? The only person interested will be the foreign collector who will attempt to communicate and find modalities of exchange to take the artwork to the destination of some museum or other.
Thus it appears that for the Aboriginal, it is not about making any kind of artwork whatsoever. Rather it would be more about acting upon the mode of acting or making itself where the reiterated prevails.
The drawn or traced and painted turtle is always the same one; Karel Kupka speaks of instinct regarding the necessity of art; the innate is the act, and to act without end, so that coincidences are produced between the “traces” of the act and some sort of utility that would be indispensable for survival.
Then, is to communicate, this master-word that inscribes itself endlessly on the temple wall of fashionable ideas?
As far as the turtle goes, the Aboriginal can speak about it; and moreover there are legends regarding this theme and others; the turtle is not taboo.
But where does the ‘instinctive necessity’ to trace-paint come from?
Amongst all the forms of the act – the innate- tracing continually returns.
Moreover, and Karel Kupka tells us this, sometimes the most remarkable modifications intervene in what emerges on the bark; all it takes, within the surroundings of the territory, is that a new material be introduced, even if it is merely some detritus from our industries; I don't know which battery residue provides a black that proves to be easy to manipulate though the Aboriginal will dip their pencil into it and copiously use this ‘color’, the turtle taking on a completely different appearance.
What becomes of the “mythic system of representations” in this case? Is it possible that a venerable swarm of mythic tales steps aside to open the way for a new and completely fresh tale that justifies the presence of this fated black? If I read this event – and not with another interpretation but without using the key, the symbolic catch-all – it is because I’ve often seen the tracing-painting of a child – an autistic child, who hitherto had been dominated by an apparently immutable reiterating, become significantly modified by the simple fact that the instrument for this “making” had been changed. If it is about communicating, then here we have an example of the message being reworked simply because the hand has found another material or other instruments in its grasp. If it is about communicating and if communication is subjected to this degree to the chance of what lingers in the corner, communication is truly aleatory. And moreover, no one really gives a damn about the turtle inscribed on the bark, apart from enlightened amateurs coming from another world where art has great signifying importance.
By this I understand, or rather this word as I understand it, doubles.
There is the mythic tale where the turtle’s name is evoked.
And there is this tracing-painting on bark.
One has to believe that the named turtle evoked in the repeated tale is not enough.
There is what can be said about the turtle.
And there is the tacit.
In order to make the tacit speak, one must want to do so, one must make violence and violate and this would not at all be a violation of a secret or whatever would refuse the saying.
The turtle is not tracing-painting in place of the said.
There is the place of the saying, and there is the other place that is not the saying, and has not much at all to do with (the) saying, putting aside precisely what the saying has just added on top of it all, profiting from coincidence, which here appears as being represented.
A coincidence becomes a confusion, the tracing-painting literally subjugated, domesticated, and made subservient to this approach to which the humans-that-we-are not only have the secret but the undying habit.
In the place of saying of saying, the Aboriginal paints.
In the place of painting, the Aboriginal says.
What they don’t say, we make them say, and not in torturing them, but in torturing the turtle or the manta ray or whatever because we want to see nothing but communication and representation.
Such relentlessness must have a precise aim, which is moreover easy to glimpse. It is quite simply the hegemony of the humans-that-we-are.
But in order to break with this propensity towards hegemony, thanks to which our privileged mode of living was founded, we must not honor everything and everyone, nor the aboriginal of Arnhem Land, treating them and considering them to be similar – and similar to what if not to us. One must perceive that in the place of saying, it is only about saying.
There is still the other place that remains where communicating – where the lineage of the commons can be seen. It evokes this primordial communism that exists and persists but which comes from such a distance that the human has difficulty rediscovering it, whereas it seems indeed that we do find it. This is what a letter from Cuernavaca I received today indicates to me, somewhere close to Mexico. In a pharmacy a 12 year-old child prepares the accounts of the customers with a Japanese made calculator while eventually the turtle painted on a piece of flattened bark will end up finding its place in one of the museums of his or her city or that of a neighboring capital. And we can see quite easily that fate has something inescapable about it.
Artist’s Note: The birch bark turtle painting imaged above is an original work by Drew Burk, completed Summer 2013. Its materials are black ink, walnut ink, and a salvaged piece of birch bark that Burk found on the soil of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN.
Forthcoming, Part 3. You can gaze at 10,000-100,000 hands writing: Fernand Deligny in the age of social networks
 It should be noted that metal speed vehicles, for thinkers like Paul Virilio, not only include the automobile, but with real-time technologies, cell phones, computers, and tablets. They are all vehicles of acceleration.
 My translation, See Karl Kupka’s and André Breton’s collaboration, Un Art à l’Etat Brut: Peintures et Sculptures Des Aborigènes d’Australie. Guilde de Livre, 1962
 The word for canvas in French, toile, is also the word for web. Deligny plays off this throughout the text.
 P. 193, Un Art à l’Etat Brut: Peintures et Sculptures Des Aborigènes d’Australie. Guilde de Livre, 1962