Dig Three Tunnels an exhibition by Joey Fauerso and Neil Fauerso at Testsite in Austin, 2018, explores the intrinsic tensions and contradictions in the search for escape, freedom, and utopia. Referencing a wide range of history and aesthetics—including: prison escapes, utopian communities of the 19th century, Russian monarchs, and stolen and repatriated museum objects—the works approach a disparate set of collections and stories with the charge of agency and yearning.
Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, has been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that they have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself. —from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The Benjamin quote above questions the three fundamental philosophical underpinnings (three tunnels to freedom) of utopianism and, by extension, hope—that progress is real, that it is of unbounded potential, and that it has a necessary magnetic current and motor. Benjamin believed that such mechanisms of positive change can only exist in their platonic states through “empty time,” a temporal order so thoroughly unencumbered by the barbarism of humans as to be almost wholly abstract. The starkness of Benjamin’s logic illustrated itself in the sad denouement of his life: he could not imagine a world different from the one he believed he fully comprehended, and thus he died by suicide.
Joey Fauerso’s works in Dig Three Tunnels reference and interact with objects and histories that sought or were integral in some yearning for one of the facets of Benjamin’s critique of progressivism and freedom. The works are contained within two archetypal structures of escape—in this case meaning a constructed world to remove oneself into: collections and the dining table.
For the dining table Fauerso designed and painted ceramic plates with the faces of utopian iconoclasts: Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Wright, Amos Alcott, John Humphrey Noyes, and Mother Ann Lee. Additional plates include the 19th-century Christian utopian community the Shakers and the prayer drawings they made, and the Swiss Alps from photos our father took during meditation courses during the 1970s. The dining table references Russian monarch Catherine the Great’s, whose rule was so mired in intrigue and conspiracy that her intricate table had a series of contraptions for her to pass secret messages. Her table was a refuge, a place of authority and control. Similarly, the utopian communities such as the Shakers, Fruitland, and the Oneida community all placed great importance on dining and the ways in which the table could dismantle hierarchies and present a vision, if only for the duration of the meal, of a different world.
The black open shelf hosts “cut-outs” of various objects and people: details from the erotic furniture Catherine the Great collected, priceless items plundered during colonialism, the enslaved couple Ellen and William Craft who escaped from Georgia when Ellen posed as a white planter and William as her personal servant. The black matte shelf serves as a wireframe of sorts for the idea that collections enable the systematized narrativization of time. The shelf is open, and on the reverse side, the back of the cut-outs are painted black, with a star tapestry or ecstatic pastels suggesting that the true order of things— the material facticity of freedom, agency, and progress —is inscrutable and cosmic.
In the same essay, Benjamin writes:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is. The knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.
Those final two sentences are harsh, but not despairing. Essential for transformation is understanding: understanding our nature, our stories, and thus allowing ourselves to see through the museum shelf to the heavens.