Art does not seek to describe but to enact. —Charles Olson


Poto was founded in 2004 by Erik Ulman and Marcia Scott as an organization to promote the renewal of the contemporary arts. Poto is a forum for our work and for work spiritually akin to it, bringing together creative and critical projects in different media—music, literature, film, dance, painting, theater. Our aim is to open and foster dialogues among artists, to encourage our creative growth, to explore our relations with tradition, with cultural context, with other forms of thought and experience. Throughout we hope to maintain a healthy independence from theoretical fashion in favor of more idiosyncratic and personally relevant points of departure.

Our name pays tribute to Jean-Pierre Gorin, whose work as filmmaker and teacher exemplifies the eccentric courage and commitment we value. “Poto” alludes to his film Poto and Cabengo, in which he articulates themes of communication and exile with continual invention and a refreshing modesty of scale. In its formal, intellectual, and emotional complexity, such work stands against too much contemporary art, which so often gets caught between an impoverished conceptualism and an equally impoverished conventionalism, whether “popular” or academic. Form is neither a neutral vehicle nor an inadmissible lure; it may be an intricate artifice (Verdi’s Falstaff) or something more nearly inherent in a given material (as in the “antiform” sculpture of Eva Hesse or Robert Morris) or both: the fusion of extreme organization and chaotic proliferation which Adorno discerned in Berg’s orchestral pieces also animates Finnegans Wake and Atlas Eclipticalis.

As artists our stance is at once conservative and radical. Eliot wrote in the 1930’s that the artist’s task is “not only to explore the frontiers of the spirit, but as much to regain, under very different conditions, what was known to men writing at remote times and in alien languages.” We draw gratefully, enthusiastically, and critically on our personal and collective tradition; in so doing, we gain momentum to leap into an unknown within and beyond us, which we may access or invent through discipline, vision, compassion, risk. We are eclectic in our sources: against narrow conceptions of private interest, we assert, with Hugh Kenner, that “a civilization may be defined as a milieu that offers the possibility of multiple points of view on a single event, that does not urgently press us to deal with everything from the same angle.”

Our culture is shot through with numerous mutually incompatible “same angles”: for all their variety, they are alike in imposing myopia and fragmentation rather than facilitating meaningful creation and resonance. Too often the academies are clotted with sterile orthodoxies, both “conservative” and “radical”; the “art world” is shallow and mercenary; and while entertainment fills the prevailing affective void, art deteriorates into cynical manipulation or frivolous assertions of balkanized identity or hapless undernourishment. But art should be a field of forces, gathering into itself something like the totality of our experience, its harmonies and discords. Anything may enter it—psychology, history, society, nature, science, abstraction, the personal—and be transformed into new tensions and new alloys. Art is measure, calibrating our capacities for sense, thought, and feeling, for perception and participation. But if art measures, it also shapes, actively educating our sensibilities. It invents essence, and makes of mysticism and materialism a unity.

Art helps us come into the abundance of the real, into the fulfillment and communication of all our notionally separate faculties; but its place is exceedingly tenuous within a society dominated by calculative forces run rampant. Shelley described our situation in 1821 in his Defence of Poetry: “The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.” In this context art comes to seem a bauble of the privileged or a private joke; a deep and understandable insecurity of purpose cripples much art now, whether “institutional” or “independent.” But Shelley counsels not despair but deeper commitment, a renewal of essential creative power: “The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceeds the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.”

Charles Olson asserted that “value is man’s peculiar responsibility,” but that it is “perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surfaces so attractive to all.” It is our task to take up this peculiar responsibility, transforming the accidents of our difficult present circumstances into the ideal, which, Olson adds, is the possible. Here to speak is to listen: to say, in Heidegger’s words, world and earth, and “the arena of their strife, and thus of the place of all nearness and remoteness of the gods.” And may all our work be such a speaking, toward not an end but a continuing, in whose course we find ourselves and community.

Erik Ulman