Sunday, November 16, 2008

Media Connection: The future is under construction, Gianni Romano

The exhibition “Media Connection" begins with a screening, in the dark. In the film a man approaches a screen, space is annulled by the surrounding darkness, we see only the silhouette of the man who slowly moves toward a screen placed at a slight angle. Suddenly the man climbs through the screen as if it were a window, lingering on the sill before leaping into the void. Francis Alÿs made the short "The Thief" for use as a screensaver, available for downloading from the website of the Dia Center for the Arts of New York. In the site the image is joined by thirteen screens on which the visitor can click to read thirteen comments and quotes on perspective: from Leon Battista Alberti to Bill Gates. The idea itself of a screensaver is an antiquated one, utilized only for decorative purposes; but the screensaver reminds us of the computers of the first generation, whose monitors required the movement of images to avoid fixed pixels from burning the surface. The idea of perspective also seemed antiquated for a long time, at least in aesthetic terms. The project by Francis Alÿs puts the spotlight back on a very old question: are we really certain that the old perspective system developed by Leon Battista Alberti has become useless in the multimedia era? Yet most of our computers function thanks to a program called Windows, and have the task of making us familiar with the world of bits: an interface that makes virtual space intelligible, just as perspective helps in the intelligible representation of reality.

In spite of the digital revolution and the Internet, today we still use computers by relying on a symbolic system that favors a widespread use of metaphors. Terms like icon, desktop, net, surfer, keyboard, bookmark, domain, navigate are words we have borrowed from our past, from our culture.

While it is true that when we speak of technology today we are referring to a field in which technological evolution is more rapid than linguistic evolution, we ought to be pragmatic about the noteworthy growth of metaphors in a new environment. Man has always come to grips with new developments by making use of familiar imagery. For the artist, on the other hand, the future is always, necessarily under construction.

Between "global groove" and "technologie galopante"

In the first sentence of "Neuromancer" – “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" – William Gibson conveys the image of a hypertechnological future that doesn't, however, correspond to an idea of perfection. The masters of the cyberpunk genre have repeatedly described characters whose bodies are enhanced by high-tech parts, although these technological prostheses almost never seem to truly improve their functioning. In fact, these writers – like artists – have used dysfunctions, gaps, errors, accidents to write their wondrous tales. One of the tasks of science fiction is to project the ambitions, but also the fears and doubts, of the present into an imaginary future. It is in this gap between the possible and the impossible, this crack between seduction and dissatisfaction, that many artists insert their experiments. If the problem of "Johnny Mnemonic" is to remove a synthetic memory slot from his brain, Gary Hill ("Crux", 1983) attaches five video cameras to his body to record his absence, but above all they record his gaze. Art somehow filters, a priori, the information overload; even an imperfect future simply increases its critical vision.

At the Fluxus Festival, held at the Städtische Museum of Wiesbaden in 1962, an absence opened the way for unexpected cooperation, confirming the fact that Fluxus is more a mental state than an artistic discipline. Before the series of concerts of John Cage five violinists were missing. Artists present at the event who, naturally, had never touched a violin immediately replaced them. The artists were George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Benjamin Patterson, Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik.

In 1965 the Rockefeller Foundation gave Nam June Paik a Sony Portapak (the first portable half-inch video camera), enabling the artist to experiment with a new machine. "Moon is the oldest TV" is an installation by Nam June Paik dated 1976, reproducing the lunar phases on multiple monitors. With "La città piange" (The City Cries) Nam June Paik made a series of works on Italian cities; the technological image creates a contrast with the picture postcard image of the Bel Paese, bathing it in (electronic) acid rain. The title of the video "Global Groove" (1973) makes open reference to the "global village" of Marshall McLuhan, as the Korean artist rejects the media guru's optimism regarding the cultural contribution of television, fearing the standardization caused by the dominance of commercial TV. "Groove" means "channel", "path", but also "routine". One of the opening phrases warns: "This is a glimpse of a new world when you will be able to switch on every TV channel in the world and TV guides will be as thick as the Manhattan telephone book”. Thus "Global Groove" anticipated remote control zapping, music as a non-verbal language and soundtrack of his performances with Charlotte Moorman, the overload of frenetic images composed thanks to the visual and musical editing abilities of the author. Music and sound correspond to the dematerialization of the work pursued by the minimalists and conceptual artists of that period. Many artists, in the years to follow, have openly expressed their interest in music, from the rock bands of Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon and Tony Oursler to that of Pipilotti Rist, the videoclips of Doug Aitken, the minimal sound installations of Ceal Floyer, the concerts of Carsten Nicolai... probably because music reflects a need, bearing a great resemblance to an environment that has never materialized but which, in the 1990s, makes its presence felt.

At the end of the Fifties another accident prompted Wolf Vostell to reflect on the concept of "décoll/age". Reading Le Figaro, Vostell noticed a story about an airplane that crashed during take-off (décollage). Hence the idea of the collages, newspaper clippings combined with painting, photos, pastels and found objects that formed the basis for a profusion of different styles and media. Unlike Mimmo Rotella and Raymond Hains, the German artist applied the concept of décoll/age to the spaces where performances took place. With Wolf Vostell, the poetics of Marcel Duchamp of the objet trouvé is expanded to the point where "art equals life – life equals art”, a concept which, in 1958, lay behind the happening "Das Theater ist auf der Strasse" (Theatre happens on the street), which took place in Paris (Passage de la Tour) and was composed of pieces of automobiles and televisions used as sculptures.

In the attempt to return to a concrete vision of the world the Nouveaux Réalistes – united by Pierre Restany with the manifesto of 27 October 1960 – also utilized mass-market objects and products. To "reveal the marvelous through the ordinary" Jean Tinguely dismantled them and renamed them "meta-machines", Daniel Spoerri and Arman accumulated them, Mimmo Rotella stole advertising images from the walls of cities. "L'art fonctionnel": this is how Tinguely wryly defined his useless machines, vehicles for his satire of the irrationality of a civilization enslaved by technology. An attitude reflected by Jacques Tati in his construction of the character of Monsieur Hulot in "Playtime" (1968).

While in the United States artists made use of machines that in the wake of the economic boom began to be everyday presences, the Nouveau Réalisme was possible thanks to the economic and social transformations that changed the European scene in the Sixties. The passage from the rural realities of the first half of the 20th century to the postwar reconstruction led to a new landscape in which industry and technology were a part of everyday reality, and our image-bank was extended, for the first time, beyond the confines of the planet... "c'était l'époque de la technologie galopante, le défi de l'aventure de l'espace et puis un grand optimisme au niveau des ressources énergétiques de la planète". (Pierre Restany)

From Prime Time to Real Time

If prime time isn't seen as real time it is because artists are distrustful by nature, but also because they began to wonder about the relationship between reality and the instruments of representation. Bertrand Lavier, for example, utilizes traditional artistic methods in a craftsmanlike way, painting everyday useful objects and covering them with acrylic brushstrokes. The titles of the works of Bertrand Lavier often correspond to the trademarks of the objects, so that to some extent reality coincides with its representation.

Similarly, the twenty-seven Exposures in Real Time Franco Vaccari has realized in thirty years of work happen thanks to the interaction of the audience, which has the opportunity to take part in the mechanism of the exposure itself. After having provided the development criteria, the artist steps back and everything happens independently, through the intervention of the spectator-participants who become an integral part of the work. But it was not until the first experiments with web art that the spectator could become, to a certain extent, the raw material for the construction of an artwork. The author of "Photography and the technological unconscious" presented the "Exposure in Real Time n. 4" at the Venice Biennial in 1972. The subtitle of the work is "Leave a photographic trace of your passage on these walls". By this point photography was a popular language, and in cities it was easy to find automatic photo machines for quick ID pictures: Vaccari installed one such machine in an empty space, inviting the spectator to fill the space with his own image. On the morning of June 6th, in real time, Vaccari displayed the strip of photos with his face, the first of thousands.

Piero Gilardi, on the other hand, adds a spatial dimension to interaction in specially created environments. "I believe that our life is deeply characterized and revolutionized by technology, though we still do not have the cultural tools to understand how much the world has changed because of it" (Piero Gilardi). The first exhibition of Piero Gilardi was entitled "Machines for the future". It was in 1963 and the artist from Turin worked on the concept of utopian architecture, bringing models of habitation cells to the gallery, along with hyper-rational urban structures, machines for discussion, for artificial reproduction... pseudo-scientific models that attempted to preview the reality of a society completely rationalized thanks to cybernetics. Architecture as a social and not merely aesthetic commitment, a choice that was to lead Gilardi to do street theater in front of the gates of FIAT (with Michelangelo Pistoletto) and later to abandon artistic production to follow other life paths. But in the Eighties interest in the influence of technology on everyday life brought Gilardi back to the scene, and he made many interactive installations where the focus is on the consequences at an individual level, rather than on the machines in themselves.

During this same period the approach of artists to new technologies led to a definitive widening of formal practices. Twenty years earlier Fluxus had identified the mass media as the most detrimental ideological vehicle, encouraging its artists to express themselves with the widest range of forms of mass culture: TV, film, photography, newspapers, commercial products... To go forward with the process of the dematerialization of the work, the conceptual artists often made use of photography and video. At the end of the Seventies other artists were developing these dynamics, constructing a modus operandi which was to mold postmodern practice. A practice characterized by the use of citations and borrowings of forms already filtered by the mass communications media, with the aim of revealing the mechanisms of seduction of the image. The famous phrase of McLuhan, "the medium is the message", was seen as a threat in those years.

Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger utilize language – truisms, aphorisms – in a frontal manner, often displaying the words in the street using posters or electronic signs. Among the European artists, Antoni Muntadas is one of the most active in the critical investigation of the concealed ideologies spread by the media. The non-functioning televisions used as sculptures by Nam June Paik return in an installation by Muntadas in 1981, "La Television": a darkened screen is hung on the wall, and eighty images taken from advertising and newspaper headlines are projected onto it, while a song by Enzo Jannacci (very popular in Italy because it has been utilized as the theme song for a the television show of Fabio Fazio "Quelli che il calcio") warns us against the soporific powers of television.

While up to this point artistic production has been critical of technology and its machines, an inversion of the trend began to take place, becoming even more pronounced in the Nineties, when the focus shifted from a public pane to a more intimate, personal level. After an initial infatuation with technology Gary Hill, for example, utilizes video and video installations to investigate presence and absence, communication and aphasia. In "Incidence of Catastrophe" (1987-88) the artist is nude in front of the gigantic pages of an open book, threatened from behind by a strange cane (the prosthesis of a video camera). "Incidence of Catastrophe was the first work in which I used Blanchot's texts. It had very much to do with pushing to the forefront the physicality of consciousness. The clash between sight and words is very important, I really think it sort of analyzes the crisis of everything” (Gary Hill).

This crisis leads the artist to analyze the fracture between word and vision, to continuously quote in his works (through voiceovers, transcriptions of texts, pages of books or the books themselves inserted as symbolic objects in high-tech sculptures) authors like Bateson, Blanchot, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Guattari...

With the end of the era of movements in art, the art scene proceeds toward a slow decentralization of its economic and cultural interests. With the flagging of the impulse of de-construction, the need is felt to verify subjective or identity issues, and we see dynamics that do without any direct confrontation with the media.

Certain works by Tony Oursler reflect attention to the effects of the media and the impact of technology on the individual. Oursler, thanks to a particular use of video, seems to shift the accent from a critique of the public context to a theater of phantasmagoric microstories that aim at pushing our psychological buttons. He dissects the body (often his dummies are presented only as heads animated by projections) as well as the psyche. The contrast between inanimate puppets and the movement of the images thrusts us into a symbolic theatrical context in which streams of consciousness are staged, altered states to which it is hard not to react. Having decided to ignore prime time and to decipher real time, artists seem to fine new energy in the creation of an “other” space.

Check it out now the funk soul brother

Like other artists of this generation, Tony Oursler often mentions the influence of television and theme channels like MTV in his texts and interviews. The artist finds himself absorbing the cultural hybridization set in motion by the entertainment society; he is fascinated by it and would like to compete with the finest products of the popular culture that surrounds him. At the same time, he tends to resist the impositions of the mass media, the speed of an information that seems to measure everything only in terms of quantity. Halfway through the Nineties all the forums on art of the first Internet groupings (but also events like DEAF, Dutch Electronic Art Festival, or films like "Johnny Mnemonic") focused on the need to combat the first signals of digital conformism, to propose an art that would still be a public occasion for social reflection.

"The art world" says Doug Aitken "is constantly in competition with other media such as music, television or film, which are far more popular, but which are mostly lacking in one crucial thing: content”. Doug Aitken still lives in Los Angeles, his native city. The generation of images will always be grateful to him for having directed memorable videos like "The Rockafeller Skank" (Fat Boy Slim, 1998), while art lovers admire him for having enriched video art with a decisive expansion of the visual space. The artist installs multiple screens, as if the different parts of a work were the result of a sculptural, spatial editing, designed together with the images to be projected. The urban peripheries in which Aitken sets his "non-stories", the strong colors that characterize all his screenable production (composed, in turn, of overlappings, dissolves, speed shifts), are already significant contexts in themselves, backgrounds for chronicles of desolation and isolation, places that have lost their social function and in which any communication seems difficult or impossible.

So we mustn't assume that a generation of artists weaned on videogames and MTV won't feel the need to investigate and analyze dynamics that can only be suffered elsewhere. While with Aitken we witness the difficulties of our "funk soul brother", with Jordan Crandall body and machine reach the point of fusion. His characters seem like humans in flight from an inevitable cyborg fate: "Drive" (1998-2000) and "Heatseeking" (2000) are episodic films in which the aesthetics of the videoclip mingles with those of the serial and of wartime news coverage. The landscape Crandall presents us with (thanks to a noteworthy talent for editing and a capacity to stylistically mix digital and analog materials) remains fragmentary, but it is extraordinarily effective in communicating both the discomfort and the will to resist of persons submerged in the technological horizon. A repertoire of fragments of our past and present, a potent metaphor for the heterogeneity of our cultural panorama.

The image generation is convinced that media should be used without worrying about their specific properties. It is an art that invites us to look beyond the aesthetic, formal expression; no artist, for example, falls into the trap of outlining a “media” aesthetic. Further confirmation of the fact that the medium is not the message, but also that the artwork, with its increased percentage of reproducibility, is definitively divorced from its "aura", as Walter Benjamin predicted. In 1994 the first works begin to appear on the Internet; in this new environment formal issues no longer make sense and the entire discourse is shifted toward interaction with the audience, which contributes to the distribution and completion of the work. The Internet is a concentrate of the characteristics of other media... telephony, photography, television. So is it a coincidence that in recent years the scene is full of artists who use different media? Francis Alÿs is one of the most evident examples, but we should also mention Carsten Nicolai, Gabriel Orozco, Maurizio Cattelan, Elke Krystufek, Ceal Floyer, Eva Marisaldi...

Installation, video, photography, drawing, performance are the artistic practices Eva Marisaldi adapts, case by case, to her investigation, aimed at the analysis of norms and conventions of communication and an annotation of the conflicts involved. According to the Bolognese artist "many questions have no answer", but this doesn't stop her from continuing to ask, nor does it make her abandon an attitude of hope regarding the act of communication. Many of her works, especially the installations and performances, seem to be unexpressed attempts in pursuit of new spaces in which the media image is completely filtered, and where attention is already a result in itself, already an experience.

The works of Ceal Floyer are at times so discreet they run the risk of not catching your attention. The work reminds us of minimalist and conceptual hypotheses but – as has happened with other artists in recent years, like Charles Ray, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Tom Friedman – all that remains is a vague formal memory, while the discourse has shifted elsewhere. The work of Ceal Floyer, therefore, is not apparent: a pail in the middle of a space, fingers crossed in the darkness, a lightbulb shining in an empty room, sheets of paper with colored marks... a drop that continues, invisibly, to hammer. Repetition, as a minimalist paradigm, now becomes a metaphor for the passing of time.

The videos by Bianco & Valente "Untitled" (1998) and "Welcome X" (1998) can also be interpreted as non-referential spaces. The process of extreme manipulation to which the couple subjects the images (always shot directly, never borrowed from other sources) obtains an effect of complete estrangement. As if the real and the virtual coincided. As if the manipulation, though done with a computer, were aimed at de-digitalizing and slowing down a reality we no longer recognize as our own. The image generation, therefore, knows that the television emits light that doesn't illuminate.

In the video "Nata nel '63" (Born in '63, 1996) Grazia Toderi puts a doll in front of a television set where we see the images of the conquest of the Moon. The doll turns, "it has its own independent, slow and constant orbit" (Toderi). The media image is restored to the audience as an icon of the past, countered by a continuous, repetitive movement. The doll clutches a red ball in its hands... the doll is a universe in itself. The more recognizable the visual references, the more we lose touch with the coordinates of the place where all this happens: bubbles suggest the idea of a glass ball, a place of fantasy, i.e. virtual. Recollection and memory fix and slow real time (presented to us, in "Nata nel '63", in the guise of “prime time”), as opposed to its acceleration by the digital. We are offered glimpses of spaces of escape.

In the era of special effects, perhaps another device for slowing everything down is darkness. The "Counter Gadgets" of Tatsuo Miyajima shows us numbers in scattered order, turning on and off at random, at times creating shadow zones. Everything changes, everything returns... "All things are in flux and nothing is permanent". Among these numbers zero never appears, but it is precisely its absence that provokes the turning off of all the other numbers: its absence, that is, doesn't mean that the zero doesn't exist, just as it doesn't mean that death doesn't exist. Life and death, 0 and 1, as the two poles between which the space of experience unfolds. "When I began my work, personal computers were in their infancy and interpersonal connectivity was a gleam in the eyes of a small number of wizards, nerds, and technophilosophers." (Tatsuo Miyajima) In the eternal continuity staged by Miyajima matter disappears, only numbers are granted the possibility of representation. Markos Novak had warned us of this, when he wrote “There are no objects in cyberspace...”

Things that think

Yet at times objects return to make their presence felt. Last year Bianco & Valente disassembled a computer, depriving it of its look (Breathless, 2000), just as Tinguely had done with the radio a few decades earlier. The nude machine still functions perfectly, but all its processing power is utilized to recite nursery rhymes.

In "Soft City" (1998) Botto & Bruno haven't dismantled their teddy bear, but they prevent it from being able to see. With his face to the ground, he can do nothing but listen to music, only a sound remains as a coordinate of a world he no longer recognizes. In a video from the same period, "Good Times for a Change" (1998), another teddy bear is observed by the camera while listening to music in one of the usual monochromatic periphery zones of Botto & Bruno. This time the attitude is positive; maybe it is time for a change. The technique utilized is a digital reworking of the glorious single gauge: the individual frames follow in succession thanks to a rapid cross-fade, that leaves only the briefest glimpse of the moment of passage from one image to the next. With "Nothing's Gonna Change My World", another video in 1999, things get complicated once again: this time the teddy bear is enthusiastic, he even jumps on the turntable, participating in the music and the spinning movement. But the fun cannot last; the speed makes the animal fall, and he lies on the ground.

Matthew McCaslin fills space with domestic objects: they are turned on, they function, but we can't understand for what purpose. The electrical wires that make the machines work are visible, often they hamper our progress, giving the impression of being too large for their modest function. In "When Things Start to Think" Neil Gershenfeld narrates the early years of the Media Lab at M.I.T. in Boston, and the need for the researchers to immediately recognize “that content transcends its physical representation”. Taken one by one the everyday objects of Matthew McCaslin mean nothing, but when grouped they create an image parallel to the electronic network we only see in its traces. The low-tech image of the works suggest a reconsidering of the relationship between nature and culture, a dichotomy confirmed by the video images that accompany the machines.

Between quick time and real time

Shortly before artists began to explore the new virtual spaces, in his "Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace" (1991) Marcos Novak wrote about the possibility of inventing new conceptual architectures that would bear witness to the decentralization of artistic expression, leading to new collaborations between the artist and the viewer. Although, as we have seen, forms of relation were already the focus of much research starting in the Sixties, it was not until the advent of web art that the works could become definitively "open". Less than ten years after the appearance of the first works on the Internet, today we can observe a profusion of web art, and also of fashion phenomena.

Not all works on the web should necessarily be seen on the web. At the end of the Eighties Wolfgang Staehle abandoned his work as a sculptor and moved to New York to lay the groundwork for "The Thing", one of the first websites known to the public, a veritable “digital foundry” (to borrow the definition of Benjamin Weil for Adaweb, another website born in the same period), a meeting place for artists, theorists and enthusiasts of the new frontier. This web pioneer never stopped working as an artist, viewing "The Thing" as an experiment in social sculpture, as in the work of Beuys. In 1999 Staehle opened a website in which you see nothing but the Empire State Building and a clock that marks the time. This is "Empire 24/7", watching the building 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Here Staehle performs an operation that is the opposite of the burgeoning voyeurism of the webcams; he controls rather than being controlled, and aims this attention not at a corporate or institutional symbol, but at a tourist fetish. The enlargement of this image in artspaces, rather than inside the computer screen, gives it further connotations. At first glance, in fact, the enlarged image of the famous skyscraper gives the impression of a projected picture: the enlargement gives it fixity of a photographic nature, revealing its true nature only to those who patiently watch and wait.

In "The Plague of Fantasies" (1997) Slavoj Zizek describes cyberspace as a “frictionless flow of images". Axel Stockburger has just shown a work entitled "Most Wanted" at the Secession in Vienna: like the numbers of Tatsuo Miyajima, thousands of logos appear and disappear frenetically on and from the black screen. They are the images our computer conceals in its cache after navigation in the Internet. Whereas a few years ago people feared the progressive digitalization of capitalism, Stockburger seems to find it gratifying; but the images race at such a speed that at soon as we think we've recognized a familiar logo it is already dissolved in the darkness, or in the colors of another logo. If corporate identity is still contained in symbols, might our capacity to recognize them in the infinite flow of images not be a way of taking control of the reality around us? Once the borderline between process and finished work has been erased, won't the method take on greater importance in the new digital architectures? The words of Markos Novak might come in handy at this point: "There are no objects in cyberspace, only collections of attributes given names by travelers, and thus assembled for temporary use, only to be automatically dismantled again when their usefulness is over, unless they are used again within a short time-span".

"Polar" (2000) is a project resulting from the collaboration of Carsten Nicolai and Marko Peljhan. Nicolai processes images and sounds in his installations, gives live performances and paints refined minimal canvases. Marko Peljhan, on the other hand, is interested in the area of telecommunications, the intercepting of sound waves and their mapping. "Polar" is based on the duality of two opposite poles (+ and -), within whose confines the spectators are invited to enter an unfamiliar, amorphous environment which is the space of information, to attempt to relate this space to visible, tactile or audible elements. With "Polar" the entire space becomes the content of the art; each of us is called upon to collect images and sounds, but also temperatures, examples of gravity. The resulting collection is then inserted in an online database and accompanied by seven key words that allow the data collection to relate to other databases on the Internet. The idea for the project came to the artists from their recollection of "Solaris" (196l), a novel by Stanislaw Lem which Andrej Tarkovskij made into a film ten years later. In this story the ocean of the planet Solaris reflects human emotions, fears and desires. It is formless material that establishes a relation with man's capacity to gather and form ideas. Thus we realize that every form and method of knowledge is merely transitory, ready to be replaced by new software.

What is evident today, for example, is that science (like art) has changed its attitude regarding indeterminacy, accepting its complexity but also countering it with the omnipresence of the transitory nature of things and methods. Nevertheless the indeterminacy principle is not a nihilist principle, just as the frontal approach to technology of a part of the artists of the 20th century was not the chic side of a Luddite trend. Indeterminacy permits complexity to develop, and art thrives on complexity: both proclaim that there is no “a priori” order of things, that often man finds it more convenient to propose old solutions for new problems, just as technology proposes new tools for old problems. Art has accustomed us to shuffling the cards of the situation, and the Internet has permitted pre-existing media to communicate with one another. Today we know that the future is always under construction.

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