Nomadism: Elements of Nomadic Life and Art

Lee Jin Kyung

1. Life and Art

Once Nietzsche expressed his attitude toward knowledge like this: "I see knowledge from the viewpoint of art, and art from the viewpoint of life." What does it mean to see knowledge from the viewpoint of art? Creativity is the essence of art. People and events remembered in the history of art are those that created something new, going beyond manners and styles that preceded them. In most cases, in the area of scholarship and knowledge, we learn from existing achievements of other people, and end up merely reproducing without adding much to their achievements. Nietzsche called this philosophical labor, or knowledge labor, in the sense of repeating something given, and in the sense that we do it reluctantly and painfully, a contrast to play which we willing to do.
But even in the history of study or knowledge those who create something different from what was before are remembered. Seeing knowledge from the viewpoint of art is thinking and studying with the will to invent something new. Deleuze would name it 'flight,' in a sense that it is like drawing a line of flight from existing achievement, and in another sense that the history of art is composed of lines of flight and that knowledge, science, or study should be also defined by them. It may be replaced with the expression 'clinamen', an element swerving from inertial movement.
Nietzsche thought it is not enough to see knowledge from the viewpoint of art. So he added that we should see art from the viewpoint of life. What does it mean? Isn't art an activity pursuing beauty? On the contrary, we don't say life pursues beauty.
In Untimely Meditations (Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen), Nietzsche criticized modern knowledge as that which became separated from people's lives, turning into liberal arts. Though I am not sure about the pre-modern status of knowledge in the West, if we assume that philosophy means 'love for wisdom (philos+sophia)', following the Greek origin of the word, it must have had to do with the wisdom for living. In the pre-modern period, the role of history was also to teach how to solve the confronted problems based on past events. It was in the modern period that philosophy became a paranoid knowledge seeking for a firm ground of certainty, and history became a universal law that has its own logic of progress, achieving its purpose everywhere. Seeking for 'truth' became a sublime aim separated from life, taking knowledge beyond the realm of life.
If 'beauty' becomes a sublime aim existing on its own, it will carry our lives away from this world -- into an escapist world by rendering our real lives insignificant and contemptible, then to nihilism that denies real life by yearning for another world. In this context, Nietzsche must have meant that we should not regard art as an activity merely seeking for beauty. Beauty itself, art itself should not be the aim of art. In fact, isn't beauty itself a cohesive sense of the beautiful felt within the realm of life? Thus, isn't the content and standard of beauty subject to change according to the shifting ways of life? Didn't art occur when an activity of making something necessary in the course of life, such as ritual and practical things, acquire expressive originality? Isn't art an activity that becomes a part of life in which it participates with aesthetic peculiarity?
After all, seeing art from the viewpoint of life means to see art as an activity that betters our lives. It means that art should lead us to a better life. In other words, it would mean that a better life, more happy and exciting life should lead art. Or, it would almost mean that we demand for an art that leads us to such a life. We require art to acknowledge life, to stir happiness and excitement, to make us see something we have not seen before, to let us live with different sensibility, etc.
Every outstanding artwork is soaked with a life that an artist experienced, observed, thought of and imagined, though not always in the form of realism. Not only in Dostoevsky's and Goethe's, but also in Kafka's novel of absurdism and Borges' work of compression, there exists an insight into life, an understanding of the world. Not only Gogh's and Picasso's, but also the pictures of Klee and those of Magritte are filled with stimuli that make us see the world before us from a different perspective. Not only in Beethoven and Mahler, but also in the Beatles, Nirvana, Radio Head, or in the noises of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, new sensations are overflowing, letting us encounter every moment of life in such a different way. All of these make our life abundant. As time goes by, the new becomes the old, but even this process itself requires something new again. For every newness that emerges, our life is enriched that much more.
In this respect, an art as a creation may belong to artists, but an art as a way of life, endless self-overcoming, is not monopolized by artists. Artists make artworks with material, but we make artworks with our own lives. We should make our life art. It doesn't mean that we should decorate our life and make it look good, but it rather means that as we confront the things coming to us, we are to constantly change our senses, bodies and thoughts through them. And with these changes we create a different life.
Art participates in life through stimulating change in our senses and bodies that are otherwise resistant to it. While literature provides us a different sense of speaking and thinking, the plastic arts provide us with a different sense of seeing and feeling. Through different kinds of sound and rhythms of music, we obtain a different rhythm of living. It is perhaps for this reason that we should rely on artists' works in order to make our life art. Art participates in life and becomes a part of it in this way. I understand this is what Nietzsche meant when he said "we should see art from the viewpoint of life".

2. Settler and Nomad

Freud showed that a fixation of mind is a kind of disease. Trauma, a Greek word, literally means wound. It is a painful memory that remains indelible. It is a wound that is disappeared from consciousness because it's painful to recall, but remaining in the corner of mind, a place Freud calls unconsciousness, because it cannot be erased. It is a wound that is forgotten in the conscious memory but keeps reappearing in various forms because it has not actually disappeared. It is a wound that appears in transformed and distorted forms but cannot be extinguished because it is not in the area of consciousness. This is trauma.
Freud called 'fixation' a state in which there is a wound and our mind or desire is obsessed with it. A fixed desire keeps returning to our life as a hysterical reaction, obsessive neurosis or anxiety neurosis, i.e., the 'Return of the Oppressed.' Freud called these symptoms. If these symptoms keep occurring, it signifies a disease. In this sense, a mind fixed somewhere signifies a sickness. 'Adherence' is a state in which our mind is obsessed and fixed but is not a disease. Fixation is reactive, because it is related with a wound, but adherence is active, a kind of attachment. It is a reactive desire hiding itself in an active form. It is close to fixation (Besetzung) in the way it projects desire. It is a loose form of fixation, or a Be-setzung that is not strongly oppressed, easily appearing on the surface of consciousness. Fixation or adherence ties our desire to wounds and drives stakes into our lives. Therefore our life becomes a symptom of disease circling around the stake instead of an endless journey searching for the new.
Settlement is different from fixation in that we can change the place we settle and move to another place. In the state of settlement, we choose to stay even though we are able to leave, whereas in the state of fixation, we are deprived of the ability to leave. The state of settlement is neither obsessively reactive fixation nor active adherence, but it is a way of a passive projection of desire in that it tries to avoid the fatigue of a wandering life. It is a way of living in which we stop wherever we find 'success' -- whether in acquiring food or in enjoying something -- and attempt to maintain that success. The settler invents 'possession' for such maintenance. It is pronouncement that the profitable place belongs to them, that nobody is permitted to invade into it or share it. It gives form to a new reactivity. The passivity of avoiding invasion becomes a new reactivity preventing and pushing out any access from the other.
This reactivity creates a negative activity when it is transformed into an 'imperialistic' desire to secure and expand possession -- a negative activity which desires extinction of the approaching other. Money and capital provide the threshold of these changes. Within this inertia of desire, settlement becomes adherence, and soon fixation. Life seeking for comfort turns into one that destroys any comfort and peace. In this respect, it is not difficult to understand that though settlement is not a disease like fixation and adherence, when provided a slightly favorable condition, it could be an insane, sick desire that stakes one's entire life to increase possession and money.
Nomadism is defined by a vector contrary to settlement as well as fixation and adherence. It is opposed to staying and the fixing of projected desire. It is inevitable, of course, to stop and to stay from time to time, but the stop exists within the elements of movement, that is, a stop is just an element of movement, and staying is connected to another departure. Settler wants to possess and maintain any success, but nomad takes the ripeness of success as a sign that tells them it is time to leave, so they distribute their success to others, and leave to start new life.

One must notice that the nomad is different from the migrant. Migrants are the people who abandon and leave the place they have been settled when they have consumed everything or failed to get anything profitable. They abandon and leave the barren land in search of another profit. On the other hand, nomads are people who invent creative ways to live in a wasteland, whether it is prairie or desert, from which it seems nothing to get, in a land of failure. In this respect, nomad is not defined by wandering, migration or movement. For this reason Deleuze and Guattari suggested the paradoxical definition, "nomad doesn't move", or the 'unmoving nomad.'
Suppose we can define it in a slightly different way: that is, the migrant is one who abandons failure, but the nomad abandons success. Migrant is content with success and exploit it until it becomes barren, but nomad embraces failure and invent new ways to succeed, then leaving for another land when success is ripe. The nomad fights not only failure but also success. They confront failure rather than avoid and turn away from it, and fight success rather than remain content with it. In this sense, nomads are those who fight themselves, always leave the familiar self. Always open to strange lives, strange worlds and strangers, they change themselves through strange beings. They bring forth new differences within themselves through strangers.
Art is essentially nomadic in that it leaves and changes something familiar. It is nomadic in that it cannot succeed without leaving. However this is not the only type of art or artist. There is an artist who rose to fame from painting water drops, eventually spending a lifetime of repeatedly painting water drops. In this case, is success a blessing or a disaster? In fact, such a case is not uncommon. Marcel Duchamp once said that most artists repeatedly plagiarize their own successful artwork, and even master artists created just a few valuable works. Of course when artists give birth to difference in repetition and along repetition, and when such difference makes repetition another name for difference, we can acknowledge such repetition as another name of difference. However, the artists themselves are the ones to ask the question whether the difference within repetition is the difference that makes them leave their territory.
Let alone the artists who stay in their success, how many artists are there who are parasitic on the success of others? When the success of Impressionism was secured, many became impressionists in order to exploit such familiarity for the sake of profit. When cubic buildings became the international style, architects made a living out of profiting from churning out cubic buildings. They are all settlers. They have never even been migrants. Though prompted by a sizable scandal -- the distortion and attack on the part of the Church towards the statement, "Now the Beatles is more famous than Jesus." -- the Beatles makes a decision to stop endless performance which made new attempt impossible, embarking on a new musical experiment within the studio. The great albums of the later period, represented by 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', were made possible by leaving former success. John Lennon had begun to consider leaving the Beatles after the group achieved great success, establishing itself as a superstar; however, when he abandoned success and chose a new path, enduring blame, he found another world. In this period John Lennon was neither the Beatles nor a member of the Beatles.
Nomadism is leaving familiarity, success, and proficiency. In this respect, nomadism is another name of the way of endless renewal of life. It is another name of the way in which one makes life into art. If we can call the better way to live 'ethica', borrowing Spinoza's terminology, nomadism can be redefined as an ethica of making life into art. It is a passage through which art (renewing and stimulating life with a sense of flight) intervenes in life and a way in which art is rolled into (in-volve) life.

3. Nomadism and Art

There would be no other period where nomadism is more easily misunderstood than the so called 'globalized' period, in which the speed of production, distribution, consumption and culture all over the world is next to that of light. Capital is the fastest. The chain of increase is produced while the flow of financial capital is moving across national borders. And so does production. The laptop I am writing with has a Toshiba mark (Japanese brand), but its CPU is made in the USA, the RAM in Korea, the CD-ROM in Malaysia, and other parts have their own nationalities. Finally all of these are assembled in China. Not only high-tech products but also traditional products like clothes are produced and distributed across borders. Globalized production, globalized consumption etc. Company employees, sales people, consumers as well as capital and capitalists are drawing a globalized trajectory. The education system, such as college and graduate school, cannot be more globalized, and studying abroad is now a necessary qualification for getting a job. Trips abroad are now popular, even routinized. Social movements as well as the activities of intellectuals and artists are globalized. Globally scaled movements are proceeding everywhere in a generalized form. Moreover, mobile technology, such as the Internet, computers, smart phones and so on, is drawing a vector of movement in the daily lives of most people.
It is a commonly accepted idea that traveling life in the globalized world is nomadic. 'Digital Nomad' was once the copy of a commercial of a leading Korean company, and a TV show introducing new trends invited me for the reason that I wrote a book titled 'Nomadism.' These cases show the commonly accepted idea. But if the mind of an enterpriser, who says "The world is wide, and there a lot of things to do" and makes a business trip abroad less than every three days, is centered only on making money or is anxious about his family's comfort, we do not think of him as a nomad, regardless of the frequency of his travels. Or, though people cannot take their eyes off their smart phones, continuously fiddling about with them, we would not say they are nomadic, unless their thoughts and acts depart from the standard criteria of life. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari's paradoxical proposition -- "nomad doesn't move" -- that separates the concept nomad from moving, and distinguishes nomad from migrant, seems to foresee this period.
It is not surprising that this is a period where books like Homo Nomad, in which moving life is universalized as another human nature, is written and ideas like the 'Job Nomad' -- one who constantly changes jobs -- is generalized as a new trend. The emergence of the intellectual, who mistakes nomadism for the moving mode of life, is persuasive within the boundary of commonsense, as far as it is close to the generally accepted idea. Although art is supposed to break generally accepted ideas and challenge commonsense, the phenomena of artists creating artworks on the subject of nomadism, is not difficult to understand.
Nothing is more commonsensical than to think of nomadism as a proper arrangement of items that symbolize moving or leaving, such as nomadic tents or bundles (bottari). However, what differentiates nomadism from settlement is not that it moves but that even when it stays, it stays in the vector of moving, and that the vector of de-territorialization has primary power even when it proceed with re-territorialization -- a deterritorializing while dismantling a given order, given commonsense or sense. It is not moving along the striae that control and organize flows, but it is operating vector, like a swirl, that is open to every direction, overflowing the striae. It is not tracing a visual form created by contours but it is to read the tactile surface, to capture and comprehend the singularity (singularité), or this-ness (theccéité) of each place, in a nearness within which contours disappear and the shape is indiscernible. Deleuze and Gahttari summarize this with the concept 'smooth space'. Nomadism is to create smooth space anywhere, to occupy it, and to gather the masses, or the public within it.
For this reason, it seems to me that to deterritorialize the entire arrangement around a western table by covering it with unfamiliar and different cloths, is closer to nomadism than the bundle (bottari) which symbolizes leaving or moving or to install a high-tech screen within an old temple, to make something that is not irrelevant but sufficiently distant, invade it, to deterritorialize the entire space to install a wide screen beside the elegant baroque palace and projecting images of an unfamiliar world on it, to displace the palace into a different order such is more nomadic than to mark the trace of movement with items that symbolize the nomad, or the nomadic shape supported by commonsense.
I should say likewise about the nomadism frequently discovered in works of Paik Nam June. Rather than to install a video work on a nomadic carriage or horse, to create new entities from mixing elements of humans and machines, while calling the commonsensical concept of boundary between human and machine into question, is closer to nomadism. And rather than artworks or performances using ethnic elements of the nomad, to bring the act of breaking commonsense about music, instruments and performance into one flat surface where non-music is connected in the name of music and non-dance is called dance, is closer to nomadism.
After all, we should say, then, it is necessary to create a nomadic art opposed to the concept of nomadism, or to create anew the form of nomad by deterritorializing the very existing form of nomad. Perhaps this could be a way to get art closer to nomadism in the age of large scale movements where movement and the appearance of it replace nomadism and erase the essence of nomadism. To invent a way of nomadic life beyond the way of moving life (which is already dominant), to operate the nomadic war machine in anew kind of space we now live in, to recreate a new relationship between art and life in the nomadic smooth space, to create an attractive singularity gathering the public into the space and to make it operate thus is the call of the will of the positive life that pleads with the artist.

- Exhibition Catalogue published by Daegu Art Museum, Korea, 2011