Friday, January 4, 2008

Conceptualizing Materiality – art from the dematerialization of the object to the condition of immateriality, Jacob Lillemose

Curating new media is just like curating any contemporary art, only different – Steve Dietz

I’ve chosen to frame my talk with this – for some of you perhaps familiar – quote by Steve Dietz from his article ‘Art after New Media’ because it expresses an understanding of new media art that is crucial to the argument and points I want to make – although I am reluctant to use the term ‘new media art’. I believe that the ‘double sided’ perspective – that new media art is both identical or connected to and different from any contemporary art – which Dietz presents is crucial for any involvement with new media art and all the ‘subgenres’ derived from that category. Thus, I would expand the scope of his statement and say that ‘criticizing’, ‘historicizing’ and ‘theorizing’ new media is just like ‘criticizing’, ‘historicizing’ and ‘theorizing’ any contemporary art, only different.

As I read it, the ‘just like’ part of the statement indicates that new media art is inseparable from an art historical continuum of the last fifty years or so, the on-going heterogeneous discourse of art after modernism; and I believe it’s important to recognize this partly in order to stay clear of neo-avantgardistic dead-ends as well as techno-formalistic isolation where ‘the ‘new’ media is the message’; partly in order to enrich the views on new media art, to broaden and diversify them. The ‘only different’ part on the other hand, indicates that new media art through this imbeddedness contributes something ‘other’ to the discourse of contemporary art that generates new aesthetic problematics and perspectives. Understood this way, the identities and connections between new media art and ‘any’ contemporary art do not exclude differences between them and vice versa; rather the identities and connections and the differences inform each other in a process of mutual exchange and not least of mutual benefit. To stimulate this process is, I believe, one of the most urgent challenges and significant possibilities for curators, historians and critics working with new media art.

Thus, what I want to present here is an outline of a line of interpretation – both historical and theoretical – that attempts to do that: To make a connection betweeen ‘any’ contemporary art and new media art in order to discuss a difference. I take my point of departure in the notion of immateriality. Immateriality – along with its derivative notions immaterial art and immaterial aesthetics – is a prevailing notion in current discussions on art in the context of new media art and information technology. The notion refers to the new conditions that the digitization of artistic and cultural practices in general has prompted. Today the computer is a common artistic medium both as a tool and as an artistic medium in itself. Software and digitized data are replacing the traditional physical dimensions of artworks. As such, immateriality is evidently a relevant notion as it quite accurately designates the significant and extensive changes in contemporary art that new media art has introduced.

However, it’s important to realize and emphasize that immateriality taken at face value is just a descriptive notion, a broad formal diagnosis of art in the age of digitization, just like materiality would be for art before this age. It’s not an aesthetic by deafult, in other words. To make meaningful use of this diagnosis in regard to the aforementioned process – to comprehend why immateriality makes new media art different – we need to comprehend its connections to ‘any’ contemporary art.

Thus, in this talk I want to establish one such possible connection between immateriality and the non-media specific aesthetics of conceptual art through a re-reading of the notion of dematerialization.

John Chandler and Lucy Lippard coined the notion of dematerialization in their seminal text “The Dematerialization of Art” from 1968. In the text they identified dematerialization with so-called ultra-conceptual art that “emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively” and “may result in the object becoming wholly obsolete”. Chandler and Lippard did not mention any specific works of art, but as the works, events and texts listed in Lippard's follow-up anthology Six Years published 5 years later show – this act of identification was characterized by quite a lot of uncertainty. According to the comprehensive list, dematerialization refers to a wide and extremely diverse range of artistic practices, from Allan Kaprow, Richard Long and Eva Hesse to Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth. From the very beginning the notion was informed by disparate meanings and this lack of consensus continued as the notion was taken up and discussed by other critics as well as artists.

Instead of trying to construct a general, non-contradictory, and ultimate definition I want to suggest a somewhat free and selective interpretation of dematerialization in relation to a specific strand of conceptual art, which paradoxically is extensively material; a strand that include artists such as Robert Morris and Walter de Maria.

To start this discussion I return to a phrase by Chandler and Lippard quoted above, namely that dematerialization ‘may result in the object becoming wholly obsolete’. I realize that this is just a phrase within a larger argument but nevertheless I take the freedom to take their focus on the object’s obsolescence – and not on the disappearance of materiality – to be emblematic of an essential transformation of art inherent in the notion of dematerialization: a transformation of art from being formally constituted as an object to be working conceptually with materiality. By this I mean that instead of understanding dematerialization as a negation or dismissal of materiality as such, it can be comprehended as an extensive and fundamental rethinking of the multiplicity of materiality beyond its connection to the entity of the object.

Following this line of thought, the ‘de’ in dematerialization refers to a conceptual – although not in the sense of transcendental ideas – approach to materiality. In opposition to the understanding that dematerialization implies an aesthetic according to which the conceptual is superior to, or over-determines, materiality I interpret dematerialization as an aesthetics in which the conceptual is always already material. This aesthetics suggests a new interdependent and open exchange between the conceptual and material dimension of art: In setting materiality free from the object – and the philosophical discourse, power structures and aesthetic paradigms of pure visuality surrounding it – the notion allows us to comprehend materiality as a potential predisposed for continuous conceptual coding, organization, distribution, contextualization and interpretation. Instead of attaching materiality to specific and finite forms, media or institutions conceptual art conceives materiality as virtuality and places it in a broad aesthetic – multi-, inter- and post-media – field of continuous abstract actualizations. ‘The abstract does not explain, it itself has to be explained’, as Gilles Deleuze said inspired by the empiric philosopher Whiteread; a role of explanation that he assigned to philosophy and critical theory. In the context of the aesthetics I refer to here the abstract plays a different role that calls for a rephrasing of Deleuze’s sentence: no, the abstract does not explain, it questions. In other words, conceptual art questions materiality – the material condition – by subjecting it to abstract actualizations in the mental and not the visual sense; questions in the sense of opening it to new expressions and meanings.

I would argue that this interpretation of dematerialization signifies art’s ‘return’ to, or engagement with, reality as a non-reducible multiplicity. At the same time as conceptual art sets materiality free from the object sphere it connects it to the realm of the real – in its broadest sense – with its different sets of problems and possibilities. Rather than attempting to sublate or transcend materiality through non-material principles – such as ideology, beauty and sign value – conceptual art exposes its social, economical and cultural aspects to continuous reconceptualizations; reconceptualizations guided by principles and values of heterogeneity, destabilization, irrationality, openness, and criticism – and opposed to principles of control, power and capitalistic exploitation. These reconceptualizations thus act as an imaginative and speculative mediator between the political codedness and aesthetic potency of materiality.

Let me give you a quick run through a few examples to specify and challenge this interpretation of dematerialization. In 1967 and1968 Richard Serra made an infinite list of transitive verbs for himself. The verbs indicate that Serra was not interested in the form and shaping of an object – the end result – but rather in different handlings of materiality – the process; an approach that is clearly at work in his lead splashings and castings made around the same time. Robert Smithson’s concurrent asphalt and glue pourings express a similar occupation with the interaction between a conceptual framework and the qualities of materiality. By displacing the industrial material from its usual functionalistic context he released new poetic and expressive meanings. As these works show, both Serra and Smithson were interested in processes – often open-ended – as opposed to the static objects that hard-core minimalism had championed. They worked with ‘softer’ materials or rather they ‘soften’ the materials through different kinds of processes – physical gestures, the film medium or both at the same time – that incorporated the dynamics of time. Instead of forming the materials into defined and stable objects – to ‘specific objects’ as Donald Judd would say – they created a close – physical as well as conceptual – connection between the materials and the surrounding environment.

A number of conceptual artists – including Smithson – working with ‘dematerialization beyond the object’ were involved with systems and cybernetics. Inspired by contemporary scientific theories and technological inventions they explored and conceptualized materiality through open systems working with questions of internal organization, real time, feedback and interaction. These systems transformed or rather translated materiality – whether it was ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ – into coded and interpreted data, into relational information: the opposite of the pure and autonomous object. Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll from 1969 – an opinion poll of the museum visitors’ stance on Nixon’s Indochina policy – serves as an illustrative example. Not only did the work introduce a non-artistic format within the museum context, it also made the usually sealed off process of voting transparent. Through the contributions of the visitors the work itself became a system, at the same time as the visitors were encouraged to reflect on what role art and the art system played in the political system. Haacke’s Visitor’s Profile made the same year also included the visitors. A Teletype terminal with a monitor and a connection to a time-sharing computer was programmed to cross-tabulate demographic information about the museum audience with their opinions on a number of controversial subjects. The statistics were exhibited in real time as the individual visitors contributed and the work thus presented the art institution as a social system in constant transformation – not as a series of rooms filled with beautiful objects.

Haacke’s use of technology in Visitor’s Profile shows how technology was not applied as an aesthetic end in itself but as a new apt way of conceptualizing a reality under the impact of a diversity of systems, semiotic, informational and scientific. Through the adoption of technology ‘system art’ was able to deconstruct and reproduce such systems – their structures and motives – and generate a meta-consciousness of how they worked; and in doing that turning systems of control and over-determination into systems of engagement and empowerment.

Now, my argument is that the transformation of art from an autonomous object to a contextual materiality is developed further by a certain strand of contemporary artists working with immateriality in the context of new media art. I am thinking here of artists such as irational, Peter Luining, 01.org, and I/O/D. I suggest that the works of these and related artists represent part of the heir of Serra, Smithson and Haacke in that they through their conceptual takes on immateriality continue the aesthetics of dematerialization with new urgency, agency and creative energy.

Before I elaborate and go on to talk about the works of these artists let me clarify that immateriality is not another – technological – word for dematerialization. Although they might semantically mean more or less the same, I distinguish between dematerialization as an act, and immateriality as a condition. By that I mean that dematerialization designates a conceptual approach to materiality whereas immateriality designates the new material condition – or just the new materiality – that new media artists taking such an approach are dealing with.

To borrow a term from Jean-Francois Lyotard the ‘immaterials’ of new media art – the digitized data – are radically disconnected from notions of the enitiy of an object, in the sense that immaterials only exist through the streams and flows of computational processes and networks. They are relational and multiple by default. Although Lyotard’s term is not specifically or exclusively technological it is quite appropriate and useful here. It allows us to see immateriality as a kind of materiality that can be reconceptualized through abstract actualizations like the other materialities discussed earlier; and at the same time it allow us to comprehend it as a different kind of materiality in that it’s based on communicative relations and handling of information instead of physical properties.

The aesthetics of immateriality I suggest oppose the aesthetics of various kinds of techno cults and techno transcendentalisms where immateriality represents an otherworldly ideal created by the great computer God. A materialistic understanding of immateriality in new media art on the other hand, sees immateriality as an actual material and thus also politically charged reality predisposed to continuous reproduction – socially, culturally and economically.

I would like to mention a few of the works that I have inspired me to suggest this aesthetic. The first and earliest example is the alternative browser The Web Stalker by i/o/d from 1997. It’s an interesting example here in that it balances between the materialistic and mystic. Although the work was intended to demystify the well-known activity of web surfing, I know few people who have not felt just a little bit estranged by its cool and complex conceptualization. Nevertheless, I believe that The Web Stalker is a seminal work in this context as it so consequently and clearly shows an imaginative way for new media art to work conceptually with the information of the World Wide Web in its ‘raw materialistic state’ where it is not pre-formatted by seductive metaphors or neat designs but presented as open for ‘deconstructive’ or mutating actions of exploration.

A related work is the virus biennale.py by 01.org and [epidemiC] from 2001, a virus tht runs only on computers programmed in language Python. The work is of course an intended provocation – and a media stunt – but if we look beyond all the ‘virus connotations’ it’s also a forceful and clever expression of a conceptualization of digitized data that bypasses any notion of functionality, rationality and respect for the operating system. It spills and spoils the data to the point of complete useless but at the same time it liberates the data and places it an aesthetic field for alternative desires, affections, fantasies and ideas.

A third example is Peter Luining's formulas of 2003, a short video of the artist writing and compiling a variety of Photoshop filters and describing the action as he goes along step by step; simply showing and telling. He does not attempt to reach a specific effect or end result; rather the principle is that he just continues multiplying with x in the filters until the image goes either black or white. As such the filters represents figures of conceptualization that plays with and distorts the image, shifting the focus away from the visual result – the digital data object, i.e. the image – to the driving principles and working processes and the qualities of digitized data materiality, to the condition of immateriality.

What connects these three works is a conceptual approach to immateriality – a dematerialization of immateriality I would argue – that challenges the prevailing power structures and ideas surrounding digitized data. They discard this data as a pre-packaged product and present us instead with digitized data in a processible state, where we might discover aesthetic potentials, new strucutres and eventually new ideas.

Also, I see them as representatives of an anti-formalistic tradition within new media that counters a tendency to fetishize technology found in much new media art and theory. They show how the condition of immateriality – initially through the aesthetics of new media art – can and should be informed by human actions and values, not just the rationales of machines. The works of Heath Bunting in their explorations of border crossings of all kinds are exemplary in this context. As an anarchist, freedom fighter or ultra-democrat Bunting does not believe in authority, especially not of technology. He believes that instead of adapting our life to technology we should adapt technology to our life and his art of crossing, sharing and hacking presents us with the most inspiring ways of doing that.

In relation to the curatorial theme of this conference I believe that seeing immateriality in the tradition of dematerialization is one way to break down the technological focus and media exclusivity surrounding new media art; and by doing that realize a multitude of common aesthetic agendas with any contemporary art, regarding both subject matters, tactics, production and concepts of art; and for the benefit of contemporary art at large future exhibitions – whether new media or not – should not hesitate to explore these connections.

Jacob Lillemose, argos festival, October 16, 2005

1 comment:

John said...

Moved by Ryan