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Privilege of Dominion, 2009, Paul Fryer

Joe La Placa / Age Of The Marvellous

In the last of our pieces on The Age Of The Marvellous we talk to the director of All Visual Arts about the unification of knowledge and the liberty of fiction

Joe La Placa directed artnet for six years and in his time he has edited Art Review, penned novels that deal in ‘neuroplasticity’, worked on films with Julian Schnabel and interviewed the Dalai Lama. He was one of the first people to ever exhibit Basquiat and Haring back in the 80s and these days he is devoting his time and money to the production of artworks that incorporate the disciplines of science, engineering, physics… you name it. Conceptually, it’s an undertaking that could be said to almost constitute a physical manifestation of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, in which all the arts and sciences are constantly melding together to create new aesthetic forms. He represents an impressive cabal of artists who dream up all of the works that become part of All Visual Arts’ ever-growing mobile museum of the mind, and if that means buying them the apparatus to create a star inside a bell jar, so be it. We caught up with with the man behind the incredible Age Of The Marvellous show to ask him why he was building this awe-inspiring collection, and we wound up talking about a whole lot more…

Dazed Digital: Why The Age Of The Marvellous?
Joe La Placa:
 My interest in the concept of the marvellous came from a project I did with the clinical psychiatrist Phillip Romero. Together we wrote a book called Phantom Stress, which deals with a form of stress that is encoded in the brain – for example, an event in the past that lies dormant which can be triggered in the present and cause anxiety. We all have genetic predispositions to certain diseases, and when this stress is triggered those predispositions are more inclined to express themselves. However, if you are not stressed you are more ‘adaptively resilient’ to stress triggers.

DD: Where does the art come in?
 Well, the big discovery of the last few years is that the brain is plastic, and that it can actually change its wiring through focused attention. This fascinates me, so I have interviewed lots of neuroscientists and even the Dalai Lama about clinical applications for focused meditation. I’ve come to realise that art is imperative for human survival. It helps us become more adaptively resilient to the stress triggers and anxieties we face, and objects that inspire awe and wonder function in an almost physiological way.

DD: So you are interested in furthering human evolution? Is that why you framed the current exhibition as a collection of curiosities – is your intention to communicate these works as being evocative of where we are at intellectually?
 The 16th century idea of the Wunderkammer being the embodiment of all the knowledge of mankind in a room is certainly what interests me more than the dime store museum freakshows of the 19th Century – mermen, hairy ladies etcetera. I am not interested in that kind of shock horror. I am interested in consilience – the unification of knowledge, and that’s the reason I brought up the stress book. There is kind of a bell curve at work – at the bottom of this curve is indolance, which causes stress, and up near the top is the exciting part, the part where you are fascinated, where you are in awe… That is the cabinet of curiosity, and that promotes learning.

DD: But some of the very art we are talking about was probably created from anxiety…
 Totally. Nobody escapes it, it’s just about how you manage it. I mean, how much art deals in our anxiety about death? Nobody escapes death. Maybe in 50 years we will be able to escape it, who knows? But if that happens then art will adapt again. Artists are the people who help the rest of society become more resilient to their anxieties.

DD: But wouldn’t it be better to just try and neutralise some of the actual things that cause anxiety, to put our energy into doing something about war, famine and poverty, in a very real sense?
JLP: If you look throughout history you will often see that art is at the prow of the ship, and the real changes happen later. Artists often tackle issues first and that can inspire action. They have the liberty of fiction and sometimes fiction can give you a much more emotionally impactful version of reality than fact; that is one of the things I love about art, it can unify knowledge. If Paul Fryer wanted to speculate on something like plasma as a scientist he would have to go through a very rigorous experimentation sort of path. Here, he can just build a fusion reactor that contains a ten million degree star.

DD: But these objects are still pretty abstract, scientists would perhaps argue that the notion of art being at the forefront of knowledge might not really add up…
 When I talk about the unification of knowledge in art, I am not saying that art is going to prove anything beyond what a quantum physicist does, but what I am saying is that in a poetic sense, artists can unify various aspects of all the sciences. Our brains are built to connect, so if we connect to something meaningful – and that could be Polly Morgan’s Victorian flying machine or Kate Maguire’s sculptural forms – our stress levels go down. Ultimately, what is art’s purpose? It’s to makes us happier and hopefully help us live longer, but nobody ever talks about that.

DD: People are becoming less and less culturally aware, so to invite people into an exhibition designed to trigger awe could certainly be said to be at the forefront of something... It's a pretty noble idea.
 Hopefully it will serve as an inspiration to push things forward. I’m not saying it’s going to save humanity but hopefully it is going to give us the root, will or volition to transform. All art can really do is inspire. These are powerful images to contemplate, and contemplation engenders transformation. If you are an angry person and you contemplate compassion over a period of time, you can become a compassionate person.

DD: Science lacks that moral imperative…
 Exactly. Progess for progress sake…

DD: It could even be said that scientific eradication of certain genetic diseases is the fruition of the eugenics program. It’s still all about immortality.
 Yeah, it’s a good idea to conquer death but at what cost?

DD: Don’t you think that life would have no meaning without death?
 Nah, I’d love to have more life. Give me five more lifetimes! There’s so many interesting things to do!

DD: Five maybe, but would you really want just the one?
 Well, I am a lazy follower of the Dharma, so I believe we will come back in some form.

DD: But if you get rid of death you won’t be able to be reincarnated, you’ll just be stuck on the same level forever.
(Laughs) Well, they say that even if we eradicate all known diseases the probability is that you will die in a car accident after four hundred years, so it will get you one way or the other in the end!

Age Of The Marvellous October 14 – 22, One Marylebone, London NW1 4GD