Published in Cosmos, Kunstverein Freiburg-Palais de Tokyo, 2002, and in Unité, 2005
Many empty video cases are placed side by side on a shelf forty metres long. Each of these two hundred cases has a different cover inside. Each film is entitled Cosmos and adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s eponymous novel by Boris Achour. The collection as a whole is also called Cosmos. In order to distinguish the different parts, it is agreed that distinctive signs will be added to this generic title. The ensemble is called “the Cosmos Video Club” and the individual parts “the Cosmos covers”; each one of these designated by a descriptive subtitle or excerpt from the cover itself, as for example: “Cosmos cover – Message from Space.” And, finally, there is “Cosmos, the novel” for the book by Gombrowicz.
“MANY COLORED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLORED OBJECTS”1 The terms of this work by Lawrence Weiner are sufficiently indeterminate to be applicable to any series of objects. This formulation describes a relationship of succession  between the objects and at the same time a nesting of the objects in the ensemble. Once again, in Weiner’s words, a series of objects is ultimately “about that in relation to others of the same kind in relation to a dominant structure.”2 Applied to Cosmos, this sentence describes, for example, “Cosmos – Special for Fetishists of the American cloud in relation to the cover Cosmos – A Funny Political Film with Vomit, in relation to the Cosmos Video Club.” Reduced to a more concise formula: “that + others of the same kind + a dominant structure,” Weiner’s sentence will serve as a tool of observation for this text. This text is thus written after Weiner’s statement, and about a mixed suite of Cosmos covers.
The functions of the “dominant structure” are performed by the combination of two sources: Cosmos, the novel by Gombrowicz, and any existing video club. The relationships between the elements, that is to say, between the “many coloured objects”, are induced by the functions of these two structures. Also, reciprocally, the functions of the two dominant structures are constructed by the relationships between their elements. But how can Cosmos, the novel and any ordinary video club, influence the contents and organisation of the Cosmos covers?
In the same way as a film can be “adapted” from a novel, each Cosmos cover is an adaptation of the novel in the form of an image. The Cosmos Video Club is a particular kind of club that is completely devoted to various possible variations all derived from the same source. The novel Cosmos is what is commonly called a source of inspiration for the Cosmos covers. Moreover, it is manifestly a source of quotations for Boris Achour. And so we may suppose that the novel is a constructive principle for the covers.
The novel Cosmos is built around the interior monologue of a young man named Witold. The story is recounted in the manner of a whodunit. Witold investigates and weaves unlikely patterns around himself. He finds clues that support the paranoid hypothesis of a plot. His surroundings and entourage, plus events, all construct a web of signs and point him in a certain direction: the maid’s disfigured mouth, the sparrow hanging from the branch, the crack in the ceiling, the spit, the mouth, the mouth… Together, they form an obsessive dance. In an entry in his Diary from 19633, Gombrowicz described his plans for Cosmos, which he would write in 1966: “I establish two points of departure, two anomalies that are very remote from each other: a) a hanged sparrow; b) the association of Katasia’s mouth with Lena’s mouth. These two problems start to call for a meaning. One penetrates the other, tending towards a totality. Thus begins a process of suppositions, associations, and investigations. Something will be created, but it is a rather monstrous embryo, a runt… to look for an Idea that explains… that establishes order…” Cosmos is the attempt to superimpose the inner logic of a young man over external logic and thus play games with reality. The investigation requires that every random association and unlikely coincidence be infused with a particular logic, in order to connect dualities.
In the Cosmos covers, as in the novel, the stories are built on anomalies. Strange associations appear between objects from different and sometimes unknown universes. Actors, scenarios, images, colours and logos are stuck on the same surface in an apparently arbitrary fashion. What, after all, are Marcel Duchamp and Patrick Dewaere doing together in a film called Cosmos presented by GRRR Productions and Paradoxe Entertainment? And why did Alain Poiré, the producer of Carambolages, a film made in 1953 by director Marcel Bluwal and based on the novel by Fred Cassak, starring Jean-Claude Brialy and Louis de Funès, also, in 2001, produce Cosmos, a Boris Achour film, based on the novel by Gombrowicz, with the same leading actors? And what is the reason for the words “when there’s no more room in the museums, the dead will walk the earth” and, elsewhere, “A film that grows through the middle”? A model + a refugee – what does such an assortment mean? Look for an idea that explains… that imparts order… Look for the glue, the glue… Suppose the orientations and invisible lines between certain elements on certain covers… Follow unlikely directions… Motorbikes + breasts… doubles?.. An accidental death + Rrose Sélavy… Who is subject to the regime of coincidence? The satellite… The explosion… be calm!… The tiling… The clouds…?? The total enigma, the glue that binds this to that, is to be found not so much in the author – the sole and self-proclaimed maker of films that do not exist – or even in the inquisitive spirit of the young man obsessed by “the link between Lena and Katasia on the one hand and the sparrow and the bit of wood on the other,” but rather in the young man’s objects, in his surroundings, his entourage, in his tools, in that indeterminate content, that network of confluences and influences that served his choices. In the sparrow, in the sparrow…
The Cosmos covers are variations based on a number of constants: a format (the video case), a title (Cosmos), an assembler (Photoshop), an indeterminate stock of images and information (for example, the posters for Nosferatu, Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire [Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe], the images found on,, etc.), organised in genres that may be familiar or unfamiliar, based on special video collections (for example, Les films de ma vie, special newsstand editions, amateur editions and American university educational programmes etc.), with anonymous actors, real stars or has-beens, relatives (Robert de Niro, Nadia Hazanavicius, the young girl with modern calves, Michel Audiard, Kyle McLachlan), and with excerpts from the novel Cosmos, texts from different sources or specially written for it as synopses. A cover combines both elements that have been directly imported from an existing collection and others that have been patiently produced for that purpose, as well as others that are a bit of both. It is a place where disparate elements come together.
The covers start out as white surfaces on the screen. But behind this lies the endless collection comprising all the posters of films that have already been seen. In the “Professional Edition” of the Photoshop 5 Bible, Deke McClelland describes the possibilities of this image-processing software as follows: “The goal of Photoshop is to change reality. Its development follows the traces of a long process of photographic retouching. […] Photoshop doesn’t just content itself with shortening the distance between the two pyramids at Giza on the cover of National Geographic, or sticking a photo of Tom Cruise in Hawaii on a Newsweek advertisement, leaning on the supportive shoulder of Dustin Hoffman, who was himself photographed in New York (two applications of a photography retouching software that are more banal than the fiction). Photoshop brings you limitless creativity. Imagine a diver leaping out of the top of Kilimanjaro, a shiny mauve zebra galloping towards an almond green sunset, or wallpaper exactly like the surface of the moon. Photoshops allows you to paint the images in your dreams. The sky’s the limit.”4 Using this technology, the covers could in theory be produced ad infinitum. In practice they are produced until the artist runs out of energy.
The Photoshop imagination creates new relations between actually existing forms and figures. It also turns them into new forms and figures. Finally, it creates relationships between forms and figures that are new or already existed, but that had never been brought together before. New arrangements resulting from the “already seen” form bits of stories. All you have to do is get the images from the different boxes, choose them with the “lasso” or “magic wand” tool and integrate them into the different superimposed layers of “tracings,” then mix and merge them using the “cloning stamp” tool. Then, reorder and drop-out. Use the endless sources of images, logos, forms and words. Appropriate conflicts of influence and genres. Organise images into new networks of meaning. And, ultimately, build up the collection of the Cosmos Video Club. Photoshop assembles disparate, alien and even contradictory images within the same format. Photoshop is like an iron that flattens images. Coincidences cohabit. Superpositions are inseparable. A cover imposes a certain order on its elements. Finally, in the formulation “that + others + a dominant structure” an internal necessity of a formal kind, specific to “that”, is just about established.
In this kind of video club with a single shelf, the covers are images/objects. As is the practice in video clubs, the cases on display are empty. Here, though, they are alone; neither before, nor after a film. Their only mode of existence is as the announcement of themselves. Their pictures have neither a cause nor a consequence. Their scripts are incomplete and indefinite. They are simply possible inflections of the novel Cosmos. And so they in themselves display myriad short-cut narratives. The absence of an actual film heightens the suggestive power of the cover and its links. In this sense, a Cosmos cover is a space of actualised possibilities, within a closed terrain, and the Cosmos Video Club is a protected world (parcels + paths across them). Thus, the Cosmos Video Club allows us to make free use of images, information and forms from an already existing repertoire. It makes it possible to create extra objects, which may not have any particular reason to exist, nor any particularly meaningful order. The cover is only really empty if the Cosmos Video Club is compared to another video club. But once the image is put back in relation to other similar ones, it becomes autonomous. The Cosmos video club may come from a world where packaging has its own autonomous existence. Where packaging is all that exists. Where the packaging of flour is made of flour, that of butter of butter. Or then again, perhaps not. More likely, it is a world where cereal packets are consumed solely for the games, the points, the stories and the characters. No. A world more like the one in the story of the tinned pineapple. One day in 1983 Amos Gitaï read everything that was written on a can of pineapple: the information as to origin, production, packing, dates, etc. He then thought through the process whereby this tin came into existence, all the way from the young pineapple plant to his kitchen shelf. But since he is a filmmaker and probably loves to travel, rather than simply follow the progress of the pineapple in his imagination, he went out to film it. He filmed the plantations in the Philippines and the conflicts over farming land in Vanuatu, the packing of the fruit in Hawaii, the distribution system from San Francisco and Sydney. This tin of pineapple is an object that allowed him to make new associations, to travel and to produce a documentary, Pineapple, which looks at the conditions of global trade.
The covers are like boxes that are both closed and open, constituted by several different sources and directed towards others. What are their orientations, their possible directions, outside this formal order and its superpositions? Does a cover have a relation with other covers that is stronger than the simple fact of being placed next to them? Is the logical sequence linking “that + others of the same kind” induced by the dominant structure? By comparing the workings of two kinds of video clubs, the common or garden variety and the Cosmos one, the hope is that Cosmos can be linked to other worlds.
In an ordinary video club, the cases are organised into broad genres: Science Fiction, Action, Whodunits, X, Classics, Children, New Releases, Comedy, Drama, Adventure, Fantasy, etc. Each genre has its corresponding aesthetic and generation of films. On the Science Fiction shelf, the covers all look pretty similar: three or four characters standing at the centre on a night-blue floor, the letters of the title illuminated by rays of light and swathed in smoke.
In the same way, Cosmos is a novel with a “whodunit” atmosphere, and the Cosmos covers are constructed in the manner of genre films. For ultimately, what could be more coherent than a film, Cosmos, in a collection with the title “Amateurs Volume 4,” produced by “HP Home Porn”? A blue floor with a naked girl on a white bed. Her body is transparent, as if solarised. Above her, the words “The Modern Calf presents…” are written in a form that discreetly evokes a long penis, drawn in white lines. On the back, this is what is written in careful joined-up writing, like a schoolboy’s (cf. “French Script Regular” on your computer): “For this fourth volume of Cosmos, Boris Achour has gone even further into the world of amateurs and has dug up some authentic and never before seen sequences that are 100 % amateur, all shot in totally white interiors.” At last! Here is one whose internal organisation is linked to an external logic, to a network of meanings and an aesthetic from the big bad world of amateur video! Other Cosmos covers are authentic replicas of already existing posters. Only the title has been changed.
Cosmos covers all belong to these major genres, but there also some that fit into the less common categories of “Romance,” “Chivalry,” “Education,” etc., or even more unusual genres such as “Crossbow,” “Vomit,” “Baldness” or “Sparrow.” If, looking at the notion of genre, we allow the idea that a single example can be enough to constitute a genre, and that “Lawn” is just as likely a genre as “Gore,” then certain necessities become apparent. The genres, all the different genres, construct series across the Cosmos covers.
And then there are the constraints due to the producers. They too will impose their rules on whole series of covers. For example, Arcade Productions produced low-grade B movies in the 1970’s, while Popo Movies turns out educational documentaries and Les Films de la République Géniale works lasting up to 6 hours 45 minutes. Les Films du Moineau are always very strange and AB – Arner Bross, seem to specialise in TV series, while 3D Productions makes only 12-second films with 3D images. This is why the Cosmos video club seem so lacking in coherence, authors and unity. It is in fact the point of convergence of several big, contradictory productions, and of several different, even antithetical genres and sub-genres.
Thus, all the Cosmos covers bear a relation to others of the same kind, whether the ones on the shelves of the Cosmos video club, or outside it. Here is that linked to others of the same kind. The more we examine them, the more we become aware of invisible links. Sometimes they lead towards other videos, sometimes nowhere. Of course, genres and production companies are a constraint, but they inscribe Cosmos covers within precise visual codes as well as within a network of internal meanings and in relations external to the Cosmos video club. Thanks to these few links, updated here, we can imagine that the covers have an effect elsewhere. In this generic light, the Cosmos video club is a cosmic rearrangement of the surrounding chaos. It is founded on the relation between references, based on the diverse logics specific to each film, but absorbing them all: the faces of stars, names, texts, company logos, synopses, moving images.
And finally, yes, the video covers do have their own specific validity! They are oval and can contradict each other without ever being affected by this. For what we in fact have here are possible worlds contained in one bigger one. The Cosmos Video Club becomes a collection of coherent entities built according to the same principle of necessity as the one linking the box to the egg. The hens that lay these oval entities are films, books, images, actors, amateur and professional sites, photographs of… everything that happens. Cosmos is a witness to strange cases in which elements from different sources are arranged in a certain order so as to form new fictions. These phenomena of association can be explained by the tremendous capacity for co-adapting and melding worlds provided by Photoshop. The Cosmos video club is itself both an egg box and a hen which contains the Cosmos covers. They themselves are both egg, boxes and hens, fervent consumers of novels of chivalry, prison and antiques films, nourished partly by their own consumers and their own productions. Or again, the Cosmos Video Club is a starry sky with myriad worlds constructed according to the imagination of their creator, for whom the sky is the limit. In any case, the Cosmos Video Club is an organised ensemble of narratives; each cover is a version of Cosmos, the novel. A kind of adaptation that exceeds interpretation and starts to create worlds parallel to the one that it emerged from. I end with the words of the young Witold concerning his own process of association: “There was an incredible profusion of stars in the moonless sky, and the constellations stood out. I picked out and identified some of them, the Great Bear and the Scales, for instance, but others unknown to me were also closely watching and waiting to be identified, as if they were inscribed on the map of the night sky by the positioning of the most important stars, and I tried to work out the lines that made the various shapes. But trying to decipher the map suddenly exhausted me, so I turned my attention to the garden, though here too I was quickly exhausted by the profusion of things, such as the chimney, a pipe, the bends in the gutter, or a young tree, and the moulding on the wall.”5
1.This formulation from 1979 is number 462 in the series of stated works. Weiner makes systematic use of capital letters for these titles.
2.Lawrence Weiner, from a letter dated 8 June 1969, in Jean-Marc Poinsot, Quand l’œuvre a lieu, Genève : Ed. MAMCO, 1999, p. 121.
3.Translated from: Witold Gombrowicz, Journal III, 1961-1969, Paris: Ed. Maurice Nadeau et Christian Bourgois, 1981.
4.Deke McClelland, Photoshop 5 Bible, Professional Edition, 1998.
5.Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos, New York: Grove Press, 1994 (reprint), p. 11.
(translated from french by Charles Penwarden)