Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Poetics of Interactivity, An excerpt from introduction to "The Poetics of Interactivity", Margaret Morse

Mar 9 2003 SWITCH issue 18

Excerpt from "The Poetics of Interactivity" by Margaret Morse from the anthology –Women, Art and Technology, edited by Judy Malloy, forthcoming from MIT Press June 13th, 2003. This excerpt discusses interactivity and the interface as concepts and omits discussion of meta-interactive art as a feminist strategy as well as various examples of specific pieces by women artists that foreground interactivity.

A Hopeless Task?

Interactivity once was a useful term for distinguishing art that has been influenced and shaped by a media-saturated and computerized contemporary world from painting and sculpture. However, as Marjorie Franklin said in interview, now interactivity means too many things. It does not comprise a genre or even many genres of art. Rather, it identifies a mode of engagement between ourselves and machines--usually but not necessarily involving communicating with a computer--that finds expression over a wide range of forms and techniques. It is expressed not only in art, but ubiquitously in every sphere of contemporary life where chips reside, from automatic tellers and garage door openers to computers that access discs, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web. Even traditional art forms are now displayed and presented "interactively" in ways that address the gallery visitor via audio or computer, offering information at the visitor's own pace at the click of a button. Adding further to the confusion, the critical discourse on "interactivity" is ideologically loaded, even schizophrenic in its tension between pejorative connotations and utopian values and expectations. Received notions extend polarized, normative criteria for evaluating interactive art to the critic even before we as a culture are quite sure what possibilities, functions and aesthetics could be or have been realized in such work--or, for that matter, not realized.

We have to go back in time to a fundamental break in culture that occurred in the late 1960's and the 1970's to see interactivity as a cultural novum. An egalitarian impetus opposed one-way and hierarchical relations in society at large. In the arts, the proscenium between performers and the public was lowered, sculptures descended to floor level and images exited the frame and entered into everyday life. In conceptual, pop, performance, body and video art, artists explored the ephemeral and shifting experience of the here-and-now. With the goal of vacating their privileged relation as authors and creators, artists invited spectators to become participants in art events, from happenings to closed-circuit and recorded video installations. The liberatory associations of interactivity with mutuality and reciprocity owe much to the presentational and participatory arts of this era. This was also a period of struggle by women and minorities for entry into and validation by the art world. …[section deleted]

Defining Interactivity Nevertheless

Reception theory tells us that the reader of a novel and the theater or film goer have always cognitively "interacted" with the text by filling in the gaps. Audience studies tell us how fans of mass culture print, sound recordings, television and radio have actively received, revised and extended texts, without, however, changing the text itself in real time. However, the interactive user/viewer corporeally influences the body of a digital text itself--that is, a database of information and its manifestation as display of symbols --in real time.

Inter - from the Latin for "among," suggests a linking or meshing function that connects separate entities. Unlike intra- , a prefix for connections or links within the same entity, inter- joins what is other or different together. That liaison between mind, body and machine, between the physical world and the other virtual scene requires a translator or interface, most often hardware that includes a keyboard (or, for instance, a motion-sensor or other tracking device), a monitor, and a controller such as a mouse, as well as software programming. One interacts by touching, moving, speaking, gesturing or another corporeal means of producing a sign that can be read and transformed into input by a computer.

The common graphical user-interface (GUI) or screen display of icons or graphical symbols and menus of commands, conventionally organized by the prosaic "desk-top" metaphor, is also, confusing enough, often known as the "interface." The communication links between hardware and software and between the user and the computer compose a layered, complex site of exchange that is virtual as well as physical in multiple dimensions. The symbols to be manipulated may be text and/or graphics, images and audio on a screen (aka "multi-media" on CD-ROM or DVD, i.e. digital video disk, or on the internet or World Wide Web), in an installation or in a fully-immersive virtual reality or, with distributed computing, may even consist of "wired" or computer-controlled objects in physical space. Thus, interaction occurs across an interface or cybernetic frontier between the physical and conceptual, between the human body and the machine, and between bio-technology and communications.

One vision of interactivity considers it largely as a tool for getting "into" the other scene presented on screen or projected elsewhere. Conceived in this way, the interface and interactivity itself may be seen as an obstacle or a barrier to "immersion," a concept that conveys the state of being totally inside a created world both virtually and emotionally, in a way comparable to a novelistic or cinematic fiction--but, by implication, to a far greater degree. The wish to design an interface that is transparent and an interaction that is "intuitive" or that demands little awareness of a user is often expressed in industrial quarters, as well as by makers of fictional texts and scenes, who aim at immersive involvement.

However, there is a problem in achieving such aims of immediacy, since interactivity is a level of expression that is not likely to be wished away from conscious awareness. Rather than presenting a story that seems to tell itself or a world that arises of itself, by definition interactivity involves decision-making or the active participation of a user. (Even the direct computer-brain thought connection of cyberpunk fantasy would need some way of translating choice-making activity.) However, awareness of mediation and its sensory material of expression does not necessarily preclude sinking into fantasy. As in the spheres of poetry and the day dream, there is a middle realm between the capacity for regression into a world of imagination and the waking capacity to select and create such a world out of metaphor.

Participation as an activity is not, however, dependent on technology; it is rather an historical elaboration and transmutation of dialogic modes of encounter, the archetype of which is face-to-face conversation. Now, however, one "interfaces" or communicates by means of a computer-mediated simulation. To inter- act is a kind of doing that entails purposiveness, conclusiveness and agency--qualities that, namely, point to a subject. One might assume that the humans involved in the roles as author/designer/programmer and user are the subjects of interactivity and the machine in its various technological configurations is their medium. Indeed, the capacity to involve the receiver/user in the process of, if not creation, at least second order selection and linking or assembling of elements displayed on-screen is precisely what differentiates interactive fiction and art from the passive readers and viewers of traditional cultural forms that espouse a one-sided notion of authorship. The capacity to accomodate multiple and non-linear links between elements in narration and the potentially more egalitarian or dialogic relation between artists and their audiences is what the utopian claims for interactivity as a liberatory and non- hierarchical praxis are based.

However, the computer cannot be reduced to a medium of communication between human subjects. Its very capacity to give feedback and the immediacy of its response lends what is a computational tool the quality of person. This responsiveness allows it and the virtual entities it displays to pose or function as subjects--however partial, quasi, imaginary and virtual--involved in the interactive exchange. The degree of influence and control of the interactor varies by design from an immediate one-to-one response to greater complexities, delays and permutations. Interactivity may even initiate a process that grows out of the user's control into the relative autonomy of "agents" and "artificial life." From the beeps and clicks that acknowledge our touch to its capacity to mirror the user like a second self, the computer can also function like an exteriorized mind. The "interface" is then a very special mirror that not only reflects but acts on and generates the symbols that we virtually encounter, enter and/or process.

In answer to my interview question, what is interactivity? Lynn Hershman alluded to the anthropomorphic connotations that surround the term as part of a larger sphere of biological metaphors that structure our relations with machines, especially the computer--however hard we may try to evade them. Qualities of "liveness" or instantaneous responsiveness and the appearance of autonomy and purposive motion support a biological interpretation of computer events, just as the language and symbol manipulating and generating capacities of the computer seem to offer the computer itself as a hazy subject and container for mind that is partly us, partly other people, partly alien machine. Thus, the interface is the consummate arena for exploration and play with the enigmas of persona--including gender--and the mysteries of life and death.

In the 1980's, a well-known model of degrees of interactivity (associated with the laser-disk player) identified three levels: minimal interaction comparable to that of a remote control for television; second, the user has a choice among a set of preestablished narrative outcomes; third, the user may alter the final form of the art work. This ability to change the subject or the alter the rules is a feature of intersubjectivity or a dialogic relation. Intuitively, we reserve this capacity for human to human interaction. Perhaps for this reason, a distinction between the "interactivity" of hypertext/hypermedia/multimedia, especially on the hard-disk, storage medium of CD-ROM and DVD, and the "connectivity" of the internet and the World Wide Web has arisen. In the first instance, our interactive partner/machine presents what is ultimately a closed body of information, albeit one that can be accessed in non-linear order; in the second instance, we tend to envision our partners as human parties who exchange e-mail, chat, MUD or MOO with us, design personal web-pages and the like in ways that are open-ended and subject to change. To paraphrase Julia Scher, the space of the web is enormous, beginning in the entrails or interiority of the computer user and extending out into a virtual universe that is expanding geometrically.

However, hard, binary distinctions between human/ non-human and open/closed do not bear close scrutiny. The anonymous relation between the user and machine enabled by an interface allows humans, agents, bots and simulations of humans to interact in computer-supported exchange with each other as virtual subjects, be it on the internet or web, or for that matter, via teleconferencing systems or satellite. Furthermore, blended forms such as the "interrom" (the Muntadas Media-architecture CD-ROM/web link produced by Anne-Marie Duguet ) or hybrid forms composed of interlocking media (e.g. Branda Miller's Witness to the Future: A Call For Environmental Action) are more and more common, suggesting that the boundaries between hard and soft are fluid. More fundamentally, one may question the "openness" of sites on the Web, when "visiting" means triggering an increment on the counter of visitors and possibly entering one's credit card number, but in any case, leaving a data trail of one's choices or "cookies" behind that can used as consumer research (i.e. "data mining"). As I stated elsewhere, "Ongoing surveillance by machines is then a corollary of the feedback of data from interaction with machines." (Virtualities , p.7)

What, indeed, does "openness" mean? Consider that while interactivity allows associative rather than linear and causal links to be made between heterogeneous elements, these associations are themselves part of a symbolic system that is not made up of endless possibilities but of historically and ideologically produced constraints. While I have distinguished intersubjectivity from interactivity, (Virtualities, p.22), in truth they are not so easily identified as a set of fixed oppositions nor are they that easily separated in the psyche. In any case, the relation between the machines/humans in question is virtual, as is the muddle of subjectivities involved.

The theorist Jeanne Randolph has proposed that the primary ideological assumption about technology is that it should work. No wonder the term "interactivity" presupposes a fait accompli--that links in network of connections have been successfully made. However, unintentional failures of interactive hardware and software and of the humans that design and employ them occur at every level of cybersociety from AT&T down to the artists who toil, often collaboratively, as pioneers in labor intensive new media. The term interactivity thus refers to a state that is after or incognizant of painful effort and myriad unsuccessful, broken and invalid connections and attempts to interact that simply don't work.

The result of an interaction is a change of state or condition, in this case, that of connecting--but up to what and to what end? The answer is not yet entirely in sight, since interactivity is a feature of a great societal and cultural transformation in progress, and, as Julia Scher said in interview, "the directory is not complete." …[end of introduction]

Above copied from:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

SOME CALL IT ART: From Imaginary Autonomy to Autonomous Collectivity, Gregory Sholette

Isn't it rather, all things considered, that I remain suspended on this question, whose answer I tirelessly seek in the other's face: what am I worth? - Balzac

Western culture has, at least since the enlightenment, defined the artist as set apart from the rest of society. The best known version of this artistic autonomy is the constitution of the solitary genius. Today, that imaginary realm of independence is increasingly visible as an ideological construction. Yet, like other myths, including those of nationalism and race, the manifest falsity of artistic autonomy remains operative within specific circles as a mechanism of control (As Slavoj Zizek quips, the subject of ideology knows very well, but… [1] ). The target of this control is the potential power to excel management, something all creative work represents. By necessity, this control includes the administration of the working artist herself, a practice that dates back at least as far as Plato's writings about the ideal republic. Curiously, the idea of artistic autonomy has played a dual role in this regulatory logic. This separation presents a symbol of transcendent freedom that has been especially useful to bourgeois ideology.

Art and museum culture is the secular religion of capitalism. It provides a space for inner meaning in an otherwise spiritually empty world. The return of Art for art's sake as exemplified by the neo-conservatism of critic David Hickey proves just how durable this mythology can be. At the same time, the idea of autonomy implies that art, as well as labor, can stand alone and be self-sufficient from the managerial class. This is the version of autonomy that draws my attention here. The question I pose asks if it is possible, perhaps even necessary, to retool the bankrupt idea of artistic autonomy, not as a means of withdrawing once more into a closed-off aesthetic sovereignty, but instead as a model for sedition, intervention and ultimately political transformation that reaches beyond the realm of art itself. If such a redemption is conceivable, it first requires a final emptying-out and decomposition of artistic autonomy as a bourgeois ideology. That task raises another set of questions. How and for whom is this evident fiction useful? Perhaps this is more clearly stated in terms of when is the term art invoked and in whose presence? It is an inquiry that can not be addressed without taking into account the social and economic changes taking place at both the local and international level that are in turn directly affecting the actual practices of artists themselves. This transformation is most evident in the cultural climate of the United States.

Despite the so-called "boom" years of the 1980s or the purported "new" economy of the 1990s, most working people in the United States today are financially worse off than their counterparts of the 1960s who enjoyed far more evenly distributed income levels, lower housing costs, and strong welfare support systems. [2] According to economist Doug Henwood "Overwork is at least as characteristic of the labor market now as is underwork. Nearly twice as many people hold down multiple jobs as are involuntarily limited to part-time work (7.8 million vs. 4.3 million) - and well over half the multiply employed hold at least one full-time job." [3] Facing the dismantling of the so-called safety net and increasing unemployment, workers were forced to compete with each other and with overseas labor while intensifying productivity. Longer work hours and multiple job holdings now extend the work-week beyond the forty hour limit once fought and died over by working class movements in the nineteenth century.

Artists, especially sculptors, painters, and crafts people, are in an even poorer state than most working people in the United States, especially when compared to other specialized professionals. While the overall artist population has grown considerably (doubling between 1970 and 1990 [4]) and while some 164 programs offering graduate and undergraduate art degrees became available in 1980, the actual median income of visual artists today remains concentrated in the 10,000 to 20,000 dollar range, not enough even to afford housing in cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. [5] In addition, the rate of unemployment for artists during the past few decades has averaged about twice that of other professional workers. [6] Since approximately half earned less than $3000 from their art and a quarter earned only $500 from art sales in 1990, not surprisingly, most have little choice but to work several jobs, often in an alltogether different field, in order to maintain a close to living wage. [7] The "drop-out" rate among artists is also high and unlike in other professions carries a financial reward. According to an unpublished study, one third of those who graduated from a major U.S. art school in 1963 had given up making art by 1981 and were actually earning more money than those who continued being artists. [8]

As difficult as it has always been to be a practising artist in the U.S., artists today must also contend with the withering of public support and an increasing dependency on private money. In practical terms this means learning how to market oneself. While museums and other support structures for artists claim cultural autonomy from capital, as Chin-tao Wu points out, the new corporate enterprise culture only appears to be at odds with the institutions of art. "Indeed multinational museums and multinational corporations have become in many ways inseparable bed-fellows. Despite the fact their proclaimed aims and purposes may be worlds apart, they share an insatiable appetite for improving their share of a competitive global market, their ambition involves them in physical expansion and the occupation of space in other countries. It also involves making aggressive deals in an open marketplace and maneuvering capital (money and/or art) across different borders." [9]

Perhaps this new global cultural hegemony is best summarized by one of its own: the director of the Guggenheim Museum chain Thomas Krens who, without a trace of self-doubt, boasts of the museum's corporate alliance stating, "We have put this program of global partners in place, where we have long-term associations with institutions like Deutsche Bank and Hugo Boss and Samsung." If the museums and palaces of high culture have appeared in the past as a shelter for civic life, set apart from the vulgarities of capitalism, less than two decades later the effect of the massive economic restructuring that started in the 1980s is evinced by the increasingly eager and unashamed embrace not only of corporate money but also of corporate values. This open display of affection for the private sector flows not only from artists and museum administrators, but also from institutions of public education, civic welfare, even criminal incarceration. [10] Nor is this condition of privatization likely to remain localized within the United States or Great Britain. As the entrepreneurial model gradually takes hold in museums as well as state and civic institutions of every kind, the aura of artistic autonomy cannot help but be jeopardized. According to cultural critic Masao Miyoshi, under pressure from the totalizing influence of trans-corporate capitalism: "…museums, exhibitions, and theatrical performances will be swiftly appropriated by tourism and other forms of commercialism. No matter how subversive at the beginning, variants will be appropriated aggressively by branches of consumerism". [11]

Even if Myoshi's bleak prophecy is not our collective future, at least in the United States the effect of corporate hegemony has already forced into view a confrontation between the symbolic position and actual practices of art. It is most apparent when one looks at changes in the institution that occupies the symbolic center of American high culture: The National Endowment for the Arts. Recently the National Endowment or NEA has been involved in heavy campaigning to regain the support of the United States Congress and the populace at large. It has approached this by attempting to prove that art is not a purely symbolic or autonomous activity, but is instead a kind of labor that contributes to the overall well-being of society in direct ways, including public education and community service. A recent document entitled the American Canvas Report, sponsored by the NEA supplies the blueprint for a post-Cold War approach to public patronage in which artists and arts agencies are encouraged to venture into: "a broad range of community-based activities. In 1996, fully two-thirds of the 50 largest LAAs [local arts agencies] addressed five or more of the [following] issues: Community Development Issues, Cultural/Racial Awareness, Youth at Risk, Economic Development, Crime Prevention, Illiteracy, AIDS, Environment, Substance Abuse, Housing, Teen Pregnancy and, Homelessness". [12]

One post-script to artistic autonomy therefore is the recognition of the artist as social worker. However, the indirect consequences of this cultural utilitarianism in a capitalist economy are just as predictable. Let me again quote from the NEA American Canvas Report which celebrates this shift in the most unabashed language: "While there are no one-size-fits-all models for the integration of the arts into community life, two areas in particular -- urban revitalization and cultural tourism -- are especially popular right now, and both were the subject of much attention at the American Canvas forums. In many respects, of course, revitalization and tourism are simply two sides of the same coin: as cities become more "livable" and more attractive, they'll prove increasingly alluring to tourists, whose expenditures, in turn, will help revitalize cities. As mutually reinforcing pieces of the same puzzle, moreover, both urban revitalization and cultural tourism invite the participation of arts organizations. The arts can come to these particular "tables", in other words, confident that they won't be turned away." [13]

Here is a new, post-public, post-cold-war artistic pragmatism. It accepts the need to "translate" the value of the arts into more general civic, social and educational terms that will in turn be more readily understood, by the general public and by their elected officials alike. Nevertheless, such phenomena as gentrification and the displacement of low income residents that accompanies the movement of artists into cities is one social problem not even on the NEA radar screen. Meanwhile, cultural tourism and community-based art practice must be thought of as a local consequence of the move towards a privatized and global economy. If the remnants of public, civic culture aim to make art appear useful to the voting population as a form of social service and tourism, then how long can the idea of artistic autonomy and its celebration of individual freedom, even in its current, transparently bankrupt form, remain useful to the de-territorialized needs of global capital? In other words, what position can artists expect to hold, symbolically and economically, in the coming, trans-national corporate hegemony?

In the universal language of finance, the "fine" arts make up a pretty thin slice of the overall leisure and entertainment industry [14]. Still the image of artistic freedom and autonomy has for some time now presented a colorful (if imaginary) life-style choice for the overstressed and over worked professional. (Consider the way lawyers, brokers and psychiatrists rush to buy "lofts" in gentrified art ghettos.) Yet that role may be on its way out as popular culture and advertising have come to bestow an artistic aura on basketball players, movie stars, rock musicians and now corporate entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is not the apparent autonomy of the artist but her actual productive constitution that, in terms of Hardt and Negri's thesis, serves the global economy as the very prototype of the new worker. Far more than most other workers, artists are in fact trained - in fact train themselves - to adapt to changing and unstable economic conditions. Consider the way the artist is at once highly specialized, yet infinitely re-trainable, willing to volunteer enormous time and labor to generate cultural capital (that is typically accumulated by others), while in theory remaining subversive towards institutional power, even though seldom is the artist willing to subvert the power that most affects her: the art industry itself.

Privatization and the "new" economy also have other, more immediate consequences for artists who continue to think of themselves as autonomous producers that make art for galleries and museums. For one thing, expanded work schedules (in those other paid jobs that support one's artistic career) simply allow less time for making art. This might be seen reflected even in the choice of materials contemporary artists' employ. Think of easel painting, modeling in clay or casting in bronze. During the early twentieth century these were overpowered by more direct methods of art making such as collage, photography, steel welding and assemblage. As life (and production) speeds up, time-consuming methods are broken down or eliminated. Today, even these relatively instantaneous techniques for producing art require quantities of time beyond the means of many artists. For them, the computer combined with graphic applications is the art studio of our day. This is especially true in such hot real estate markets as New York City and is a logical extension of what the late artist and art historian Ian Burn describes as a "de-skilling" of artistic craft. Together with critic Lucy R. Lippard, Burn argues that in the 1960s conceptual art did away with artistic proficiency as a means of avoiding the commodification of art. According to Lippard, the process culminated in the total disappearance of the art object. [15] The unanticipated outcome of de-skilling is the merging of high and low art and a contemporary generation that serves as aesthetic service providers rather than object makers. [16] Art historian Brandon Taylor refers to some of this new de-skilled work as "slack art." [17] The use of ephemeral materials, dead-pan performances and aimlessly shot video appears to avoid major investments of labor and materials while it thumbs its nose at the over-produced art of the late 1980s (such as Koons, Holzer, or Longo). Yet with a slight shift of context, "slack art" becomes indistinguishable from many other informal practices among people who do not identify themselves as artists. For example, how, other than by location, is an arrangement of products purchased through a retail catalog or borrowed from someone's attic any different from the work of Jason Rhoades, Laurie Parsons or Sylvie Fleury? The Duchampian argument that context is everything no longer satisfies. While readymades provoked questions about the definition of art by working against a normalized artistic tradition inside the museum, in the current dissipated, post, post-modern world, such work is indistinguishable from advertising and pop-culture that has already adopted the legacy of subversive art itself. When a prestigious museum like the Guggenheim displays motorcycles and Armani suits, is this not an inevitable response to the breakdown between the fine arts and other forms of artistic-like production taking place both inside and outside the museum?

Meanwhile, the publicity-machine that drives consumer culture has always required a great deal of moderately skilled, visual labor, even if this labor is repetitive and uninspired in nature. For every Marcel Breuer or Olivetti there is an army of lesser artisans who perceive graphic design not as a profession but as toil that is nevertheless still preferable to sheet-rocking apartments or waiting on tables. Graduates of fine art programs (artists) are finding employment laying-out innumerable retail catalogs, book covers, movie posters, liquor ads, travel brochures; and most of all producing website designs. Globalism accelerates this trend. As the borders that once separated national economies implode, the demand for design, packaging, and commodity labeling explodes and with it the job market for "creative" labor. This phenomena is already affecting academia, as evident from the growth of visual culture studies. Concurrently, at the level of artistic practice, a very small gap appears to separate the production of so-called fine art and that of commercial, visual culture. Simply from a practical perspective, the increasing throng of artists using digital technology in their art makes it impossible to draw an absolute line between the kind of artistic labor done for money and that performed in the service of fine art. Indeed, a new ethos appears to be emerging among some digital practitioners that sees no contradiction between an avant-garde world-view and entrepreneurial business skills. Like the early avant-garde, the post, post-modernist digital artist claims a new utopianism. The one crucial difference is that now avant-garde practice must also be viable as a business enterprise. By using modern marketing techniques, actually operates in a vanguard, productivist mode, treating the consumer as a producer, even as its artistic agenda mixes aesthetic play with profiteering. All of this puts a new spin on the classical avant-garde call to transform art into life, a point I will return to below. Yet, where does this leave the traditional idea of artistic autonomy? What purpose has artistic autonomy served the state, and is its practical demise truly a reason to celebrate?

According to enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, the special categorization of art as a human activity that transcends the material world depends upon an a priori separation between nature and culture. At the same time the artist can breach this divide through that singular person known as the genius. Perhaps the most influential art critic and theoretician of the post-war period, Clement Greenberg, made use of Kant's aesthetic theories to articulate and ground his version of modernist art. If Kant "used logic to establish the limits of logic" and "withdrew much from its old jurisdiction" what was left was "all the more secure." [18] The resulting art object affirms its own conditionality and celebrates its freedom - its autonomy - from representation by rejecting any association with literature or illusory space. Greenberg's aesthetic axioms proved especially useful to post-war capitalism because, unlike the official culture of Stalinism or Maoism, modernism in Greenberg's Kantian revision offered the intellectual an aura of imagined freedom from all social constraints. I say imagined because recent scholarship has uncovered historic alliances between Greenberg's promotion of a modernist concept of autonomy and the cold war politics of the United States. [19] Today, supporting the autonomy of the artistic genius to ward off the chill of communism is no longer a viable rational for public art spending. Indirectly citing this dilemma, Bill Ivey, the outgoing Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently commented, "Cold War thinking lay just beneath the cultural policy of the last century". [20] Public funding agencies, including the NEA, now must struggle to reestablish a rationale for government support of art even as citizenship is increasingly measured by one's participation in the economy as a producer/consumer, rather than by transcendental beliefs such as nation. In this post-national environment, the very notion of artistic autonomy, together with art's symbolic value, is bound to be both marginalized and absorbed by global marketing as one more brand for specialized leisure products.

There is a different approach to artistic practice that comes from the philosophical tradition of Hegel and Marx. Cultural critic Walter Benjamin, for example, called on artists and intellectuals to put themselves at the service of the working class in their struggle against capitalist exploitation, to make art that actively transformed artistic means of production. He cited as examples of this utilitarian art the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, Soviet newspapers that were authored by their readers, and the photomontages of John Heartfield. [21] Ironically, the avant-garde promise to drag art out of the museums and into life is today remarkably visible in all the wrong places. Museums and foundations now claim to nurture art as social activism, multiculturalism drives the cultural tourism industry and what remains of public funding agencies call on artists to end their isolation and become civil servants. In the post-Cold War and anti-socialist United States, the Left has joined the center-liberal establishment in its call for a utilitarian and serviceable art that integrates "the arts into community life". [22] Meanwhile, if the private sector still upholds an idea of artistic autonomy, that altruism comes with a leash which discourages artists from overtly challenging the economic foundation of their patronage. In sum, the collapse of artistic autonomy would not be so profound or irreversible if not for the changes under way in the post-Cold War political economy. As already noted, one of these changes is the privatization of civic life and the disappearance of the nation-state. The other permutation is the generalization and visibility of art-like, creative production within the collective arena of mass culture.

In the past, such things as home made crafts, amateur photography (and pornography), self-published newsletters, fanzines and underground comics had little impact beyond their immediate community of producers and users. Today, an ever more accessible and sophisticated technology for manufacturing, copying, documenting and distributing "home-made" or informal art has dramatically ended that isolation. Today, one cannot escape the spread of this heterogeneous and informal art-like activity. It radiates from homes and offices, schools and streets, community centers and in cyberspace. Its contents are typically filled with fantasies drawn from popular entertainment as well as personal trivia and sentimental nostalgia. In form it can range from the whimsical to the banal and from the absurd to the obscene. It is a qualitative shift unique to the last ten years, and I will argue in a moment, the increased visibility of amateur and often collectivized cultural production is more than any other factor accelerating the withering of autonomous artistic practice as such.

The computer hacker mentality of today is not so far removed from the organized fence cutting tactics of farmers in Nebraska in the 1880s. Culture "Jamming" the system is not so different from the tactics of the Industrial Workers of the World who, at the turn of the century, battled anti-free speech laws in places like San Diego by overloading the local jails with arrested protestors. However, up to now these activities remain divided from each other, their political relationship fragmented and diffused. Yet even the most conservative analysis would find it difficult to ignore the expansion of unregulated and inventive activities made possible by the growing accessibility of communication and reproductive technologies. Without dismissing the enormous number of people still laboring in traditional manufacturing and agricultural industries, especially in developing countries, global capital's dependency on communications technology virtually assures the spread of digital networks and information technologies. One of the tasks of activists must be to see to it that the market's cellular and digital circulatory system is infected by the demands of non-technical laborers. Once again, it is less that art is being disseminated down into society from on high, than the social matrix is itself predicated upon a submerged collective creative capacity. As Negri and Hardt explain: "Labor is productive excess with respect to the existing order and the rules of its reproduction. This productive excess is at once the result of a collective force of emancipation and the substance of the new social virtuality of labor's productive and liberatory capacities." [23]

*Therefore, alongside the passive consumption of commodities and popular entertainment there emerges a different realm in which unofficial and informal cultural capacity is exercised. The more these informal cultural producers become aware of their own capacity for creative and transformative action, the more the privileged space once reserved for "trained" artists recedes. Already, this generalized artistic activity mixes together consumption, production and exchange as it recycles and redistributes, purchases and appropriates. It is evident when people download commercial music for
free, duplicate copyrighted images for personal use and in so many ways re-direct or simply loot institutional power. Many of these activities also circulate within ungoverned or ungovernable economic zones including flea markets or through the postal system or over the Internet in what I have described elsewhere as "creative dark matter." [24] They vary in form from the criminal to the radical to the insipid. Each garners equal space within the expanded and informal cultural sphere. Thanks to the exploitative needs of global capital, the cost of making visible one's subjective and creative excesses is falling. In theory it is a short distance from group visibility to collective autonomy.

A selective list of current art activist practices suggests that an informal political aesthetic is already in existence, much of it emerging from loosely structured autonomous collectives focused on production, distribution, intervention and disruption. In certain cases these groups are so interdisciplinary that the art world discourse just ignores them. This list would include some or all of the work of RTMark, Critical Art Ensemble, Reclaim the Streets (various locations, in both digital and actual spaces,) REPOhistory (the NYC based group co-founded by the author that makes site-specific public art about alternative histories), ABC No Rio (NYC space dedicated to all forms of counter-cultural practice, from music to graffiti to housing activism), Reverend Billy (also based in NYC, the "reverend" executes anti-corporate performances with his accomplices in Starbucks coffee shops and at the Disney Store on the new Times Square), Ultra-Red (a Los Angeles based group of audio-activists), The Center for Land Use Interpretation (also in LA with projects that produce tours of radioactive and ecologically damaged environments), Ne Pas Plier (French activists using art to focus attention on housing for guest workers), WochenKlausur (Austrian group that stages encounters between elected officials and marginalized peoples), A-Clip (Berlin-based media activists), Collectivo Cambalache (originally from Bogata, CC creates alternative exchange economies in public spaces), Temporary Services (disseminates art and information in Chicago streets using newspaper dispensers), Blackstone BicycleWorks/monk prakeet/Dan Peterman (a recycling, organic garden and art center on Chicago's South Side), The Stockyard Institute (Jim Duignan works with urban school children in Chicago to produce "gang-proof" armored suits), and the group Ha Ha (Laurie Palmer and John Ploof develop projects on AIDS, ecology and housing in Chicago and elsewhere).

These informal, politicized micro-institutions have made art that infiltrates high schools, flea markets, public squares, corporate websites, city streets, housing projects, and local political machines in ways that do not set out to recover a specific meaning or use-value for either art world discourse or private interests. At the same time, the pressures of privatization combined with a generalization of artistic activity that is most clearly visible in digital form, have sapped the words "art" and "artist" of their previously imagined autonomy. While Joseph Beuys prophesized that his social sculpture would transform everyone into an artist, the ordinary routines of the populace have done more to achieve that goal without professional artists to guide them. [25] What remains of artistic autonomy is now a specialized marketing tool of both the high-culture and mass media industries. As such, it now openly manifests itself for what it has been for some time - a label for a specific brand of cultural capital called "art".

However, the closer this idea of autonomy nears extinction or outright exposure, the more interesting becomes the possibility of its rescue. Only when it has hit the floor and gone cold might a version of this archaic idea possibly be infused with new value. If Benjamin argued that only a redeemed mankind could hope to win back its entire historical legacy, our redemption of artistic autonomy could not be a nostalgic return to the past, especially not the disengaged and heroic individualism of modernism. Nor would it be grounded in either the Kantian ideal of disinterested beauty or the Hegelian or even Marxist notion of an evolving totality. Rather this autonomy would have to recognize the end of the once powerful contradictions between artist and society, nature and culture and individual and collective. This new, critical autonomy would not even be centered on artistic practice per se, but would recognize the already present potential for political and economic self-valorization inherent within contemporary social conditions. Instead of asking what is art, it would instead query what is politics? Instead of asking if "they are allowed to do that?" or worrying about the uncertain status of art's social capital, this critical autonomy would proceed to activate cells of artistic producers not afraid to utilize and manipulate the entire range of culture making (and culture-thieving) technologies and strategies that are now multiplying within the circulatory system of the global body. The autonomous status of these informal working groups or cells might indeed leverage discursive power from the lingering aura of the Kantian/Greenbergian aesthetic. They could for example borrow the idea of freedom (exemplified by art) for doing politics. What a radical notion! [26] However, they would do so in a utilitarian (thus anti-Kantian) manner, not to insure art's usefulness to the liberal, corporate state as much new genre public art appears to do, but as a model of political and economic self-valorization that is applicable for social transformation in the broadest sense. The point is to begin to recognize and bring to light what already exists and to re-direct or retool this so that its practitioners become self-conscious of their already present collectivity, a force potentially independent from what Negri and Hardt term the Empire. [27] Here a final displacement is possible. Politics superimposes itself at all levels as a practical art that is at the same time symbolic. But it does so only if we understand politics as the exploration of ideas, the pleasure of communication, the exchange of education, and the construction of fantasy, all within a radically defined social practice of collective, critical autonomy.


[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 33.
[2] Lawrence Michel, Jared Bernstein and John Smitt, in State of Working American: 2000-2001 (Economic Policy Institute: 2000).
[3] Doug Henwood, "How Jobless the Future?," Left Business Observer #75 (Dec. 1996).
[4] Joan Jeffri and Robert Greenblatt in Artists Who Work with Their Hands: Painters, Sculptors, Craft Artists and Artist Printmakers: A Trend Report, 1970-1990, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts Research Division, (Washington: NEA, August 1994), p. 28.
[5] Note too that the US poverty level in 1998 for a family of four was $16,000 (US Dept of Labor) while the median income for painters and craft artists in 1990 was only $18,187. Compare this to the $36.942 average for professional workers in other fields. Jeffri & Greenblatt, p. 36.
[6] Neil O. Alper and Gregory H. Wassall, More Than Once In a Blue Moon: Multiple Jobholdings by American Artists, Research Division Report #40, (Washington: NEA, 2000), p. 97.
[7] According to the same NEA report: The most frequent explanation provided by artists for holding multiple jobs was that they needed the additional earnings generated by the second jobs to meet their household's expenses. This was the same reason most other professionals held a second job. Note that "Visual artists were almost three times as likely, on average, to have worked in the [professional] service industries than other artists (31% versus 11 %)." Ibid, pp. 44 - 46.
[8] A study of 300 graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were tracked between 1963 to 1980 by researchers Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, Jacob W. Getzels and Stephen P. Kahn in Talent and Achievement (Chicago:1984, an unpublished report), p. 44.
[9] Chin-tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s, (London: Verso 2001), p. 213.
[10] Consider the term cultural capital employed by Pierre Bourdieu. It is a phrase that appears to "save face" for some sort of sophisticated artistic practice, and yet implicitly acknowledges the triumph of the marketplace over every aspect of life. Consider also a recent report entitled Unseen Wealth: Report of the Brookings Task Force on Understanding Intangible Sources of Value by Margaret Blair and Steven Wallman in which the authors argue that "organizational and human capital, "goodwill" and other intangibles, as well as other items that are not usually viewed as "assets" are becoming the real sources of value in corporations." The authors call on economists to use such "intangibles" for future analysis "as the dominant drivers of economic activity and wealth shift away from manufacturing toward information-based services".
[11] Masao Miyoshi, "A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation State," Critical Inquiry
[12] American Canvas Report, op. Cite.
[13] Ibid.
[14] The United States Entertainment business is ranked the 18th largest industry in Fortune Magazines's Fortune 500 with Time Warner ranked the 128th largest corporation and Disney the 176th in the global top 500. To get a sense of how small the "high" art world is by comparison, contrast the combined annual revenue of $6,763,989 -- based on total sales, receipts and shipments -- from museums and historic sites in the U.S. to the nearly ten times larger revenue of $60,331,549 just for gambling, amusement and recreation spending.
[15] Ian Burn, "The Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath (Or The Memories of an Ex-Conceptual Artist)," Art & Text (Fall 1981), pp. 49-65, and Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: the Disappearance of the Art Object (Praeger, 1973).
[16] Andrea Fraser, "What's Intangible, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere?" in October #80 (Spring 1997), pp. 11-116.
[17] Brandon Taylor , Avant-Garde and After: Rethinking Art Now (New York: Abrams,1995), p. 153.
[18] Immanuel Kant, "The Critique of Aesthetic Judgement," collected works, (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).
[19] Eva Cockroft "Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War," Artforum (June 1974), pp. 39-41, and Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
[20] Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Bill Ivey speaking at the National Organization of Arts Organizations, Brooklyn, NY, June 2000
[21] Walter Benjamin, "Author as Producer," Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott, (New York: Helen and Kurt Wolff, 1978).
[22] American Canvas Report, op. cite.
[23] Hardt and Negri, op. Cite., p. 357.
[24] See my essay, "Dark Matter, Las Agencias, and the Aesthetics of Tactical Embarrassment" in The Journal of Aesthetics and Politics, on-line at:
[25] It could be argued that it is precisely this Kantian/Greenbergian tradition that provided the theoretical framework for the self-analysis leading to a more politicized art practice, including the work of Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren and later the "institutional critique" of younger artists like Andrea Fraser and Renée Green. Without dismissing the logic of this claim, I have tried to show elsewhere that this approach gives far too little credit to non-art world influences, including politics and popular culture, on the work of these artists. See Gregory Sholette "News from Nowhere: Activist Art & After," Third Text #45, (Winter, 1999), pp. 45-56. For a German version of this essay see the book "Metropolenkultur. Kunst und Kulturpolitik der 90er Jahre in den Zentren der Welt", ed. by Jutta Held (Weimar, 2000)
[26] The School of the Art Institute's student newspaper recently carried an article proclaiming that art was a "major force binding and guiding" a reawakening of political activism in the United States. While there is an old if unwritten history to this affiliation, the fact that young people are making these connections in the "heartland" of America is significant. Meanwhile, similar links between pirate radio broadcasters, puppeteers, culture-jammers, and direct action groups is apparent in all of the recent protests against the World Trade Organization. Joanne Hinkel, "How Art is Helping Activism" F Newsmagazine (October 2000), pp. 14-15.
[27] What we need to grasp is how the multitude is organized and redefined as a positive, political power…Empire can only isolate, divide, and segregate…the action of the multitude becomes political primarily when it begins to confront directly and with an adequate consciousness the central repressive operations of Empire. It is a matter of recognizing and engaging the imperial initiatives and not allowing them continually to reestablish order; it is a matter of crossing and breaking down the limits and segmentations that are imposed on the new collective labor power; it is a matter of gathering together these experiences of resistance and wielding them in concert against the nerve centers of imperial command." Negri and Hardt, op. cite., pp. 400-401. See also Gregory Sholette, "Counting On Your Collective Silence: Notes on Activist Art as Collaborative Practice," Afterimage (November 1999), pp.18-20. #19 (Summer 1993), p.747.

Originally appeared in Eva Sturm / Stella Rollig (ed.), Dürfen die das? Kunst als sozialer Raum , Wien: Turia+Kant 2002, and online on eiPCP (European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies) in January 2002.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art - 02, JEREMY TURNER


(Conducted by e-mail, December, 2003).

JT: I was wondering if you could recollect details of your collaborations with Bill Bartlett in Vienna? If a new project were to come up similar in spirit to Interplay and ARTEX, would you be interested in working with Bill Bartlett again? And if yes, in what capacity?

RA: 25 years ago, when Bill and I started working together, the world looked very different than it does now. For one thing there was no affordable intercontinental communications technology available to normal people: Telephone was too expensive for casual use, Telex was a purely business tool, personal computers were little more than a vague prediction and the nascent Internet was an exclusively academic network mostly linking Pentagon-funded institutions and programs. So in 1979, when Bill Bartlett proposed "Interplay", a real-time computer communication event using the private I.P. Sharp timesharing network, it was an amazing opportunity to gain access to the exclusive telecommunications environment already available to military, commercial and financial institutions. It was also an opportunity to get to play with (then still exotic) computers.

ARTEX (officially ARTBOX until 1982/83) grew out of the experience of both "Interplay" and the second, much larger, "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" project organised by Bill Bartlett and Carl Loeffler the following year (1980). ARTBOX was an attempt to create a permanent low-cost email program on IPSA (Mailbox was very expensive) in order to make project development and coordination quicker and easier and to provide a medium for text-based communications projects. I have described this in more detail at .

So, to answer your 2nd question: Since both ARTEX and "Interplay" were in direct response to the non-availability of global connectivity, the "spirit" of these projects can never be recovered unless one could conceive of a situation in which one had to invent an alternative to a suddenly inaccessible Internet. I very much doubt if Bill or I would be up to the task of doing it all again but it might be fun to go through the motions in some project or other for old-times-sake.

For the record: Bill and I worked together for the last time in the fall of 1983 when Hank Bull and I organised "Wiencouver IV", a slow-scan and telephone music project between Vancouver and Vienna. Bill came over from Victoria to the Western Front to operate the Robot 530 slow-scan transceiver. As far as I know it was Bill's last appearance in a telecommunications project. See:

JT: I was wondering what was the incentive or catalyst to live in Vienna? Was your decision to live in Vienna directly based on artistic inspiration from what was happening in that area?

RA: No. The reasons for moving to Vienna were much more simple and had nothing directly to do with art. My wife is Austrian but we met in London where she was working for the BBC. She was offered a job as culture reporter/editor in the Kulturredaktion at the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corp.) in Vienna and moved back to Austria in 1969. After commuting back and forth for a couple of years, I sold off everything in London and moved permanently to Vienna in 1972.

JT: Living in Vienna, I guess it must be a given that such a city already has a reputation for innovative cultural practices and so the collaborative projects from your end would not seem too strange for the general cultural evolution there to do a telematic project. I was wondering in your opinion, how were Victoria and Vancouver able to also become major centers for telematic art and share an equal bill with Vienna and other World Centers? Other than the fact that you mentioned Victoria was "quite a long way from anywhere" in your interview with Tilman - is there something unique about Victoria and Vancouver that the global art-scene is becoming increasingly aware of?

RA: Far from having a reputation for "innovative cultural practices" Vienna is notorious for its cultural conservatism, comforting itself on the glories of its illustrious past. Vienna is not only a city of museums but is itself a museum. It lives from the tourists who come to see the exhibits -- the State Opera, the Burgtheater, the Art History Museum, the tarted-up "altstadt", the Vienna Woods wine houses, the grandiose imperial architecture of the gone-but-not-forgotten monarchy and the few remaining traditional cafés. But, having said that, it must also be said that it is exactly that conservatism which has provoked some quite astonishing artistic reaction, the activities of the Vienna Aktionists at the end of the '60s being the most conspicuous. So if there were any influences that made it possible for me to grasp the potential of the emerging telecomm revolution, they came not from Vienna but from Graz (a smallish city about 250 km southeast of Vienna) where artists (Richard Kriesche and others) were already deeply involved in the exploration of the new media technologies and their social-cultural-political ramifications. (In fact Richard Kriesche came to Vienna to participate in "Interplay".)

The similarity between Vienna, Victoria, Sydney, Bristol, Tokyo and San Francisco is merely isolation -- either real or perceived. This has nothing to do with size or even geography - it is related entirely to the centralised art world: Boston often feels itself as marginalised as Denver in spite of the fact that you can drive from Boston to NYC and back in a day. In the great art centres of London, New York, Paris or Cologne, there was no serious need for complicated communication technology to meet friends and colleagues with similar interests, you just went around to the local bar for a chat. In Vancouver or Vienna there was no local community worth mentioning so the motivation to engage in the costly and time-consuming effort of developing telecommunication projects and networks was very high. Also, the fact that there were (still are?) few, if any, artistic career opportunities in working with immaterial, transient forms like telecommunications tended to discourage artists who had already migrated to the high-risk/high-cost major art centres and had little time for "play".

In a global communications environment geographical location is not as important as easy access to the network. This means that the hierarchies have changed when we are talking about art in the communication space (or whatever you want to call it) and that the most interesting things happening on line are usually coming from some place outside the major art centres. This is for a number of reasons but the main one is that network access (and living) is generally cheaper and easier there and people working with on-line-art tend to remain in -- or migrate to -- places on the well-connected margins rather than to the market-oriented centres. Why move to expensive, crowded London when you have as good -- or better -- connectivity and living conditions at home in Amsterdam or Zagreb?

The relatively high profile of Vancouver and Victoria in early telecomm projects was really due to the commitment and organising abilities of a few individuals combined with the infrastructural support of well-equipped local artist-run centres. When Bill Bartlett dropped out in 1980-81, Victoria more or less vanished from the art/telecomm radar while in Vancouver, Hank Bull and the Western Front remained major players.

JT: What surprised me was that the origins of Email-Art happened with ARTEX at this time. Can you tell me more about your impressions of E-mail art over the years? How has email based art changed (if at all) since you were first experiencing it?

RA: I do not understand the question, if you can explain exactly what you mean by "Email-Art" or "email based art" I will try to answer.

JT: ... there have been some recent art shows where people have emailed their piece (within the body of the email) directly to exhibitions as print-outs. I was wondering if such a current practice reflects what you were doing with ARTEX in the past or if such an idea is something much different?

RA: If you mean an electronic version of Mail-Art the answer is that it only happened when IPSA provided free accounts for a project -- as they did with "The World in 24 Hours", "La Plissure du Texte" or "Planetary Network". ARTEX was just too expensive to play any ASCII-Art sort of games -- and sending image files was not possible on IPSA anyway.

But there were other electronic mail systems running in the late 70s early 80s like EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) and the nascent private subscriber systems like The Source, Compuserve etc. There was also Arpanet (and its various forms - Bitnet, Earn, Internet, etc.) which could, theoretically, be accessed world-wide if you had a user account and a dial-up connection to a university -- but in reality this was impossible for non-academics until the early 90s. In any case, there was certainly at least some art and literature activity in these other networks, even if it was restricted to continental regions (e.g.: N.America or Europe) and not linked world-wide. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) were also firmly established by the mid-80s --Tom Jennings claims that by the late 80s there were 35,000 servers operating world-wide with his FIDOnet protocol alone and, although the BBS community was not very friendly to artists, I have been told that there were many projects by writers and also artists. I also know of several music projects that operated by sending midi code via BBS (or by modem over the telephone) to be played on synthesizers.

However if you are looking for the roots of the creative use of electronic mail, you will have to start with the telegraph and there are plenty of examples of communication between artists and writers using the telegram as a form. The teletype machine also belongs to this history and in 1956, when working at the CPR in Toronto, I found a huge roll of old punched tape in a cupboard. When we ran it through the tape-reader it produced an 8 to 10 page image of Santa Claus, complete with sleigh and reindeer -- it was obviously one of the things that the old operators had made to send to each other along the line at Christmas. Antique ASCII-art.

JT: What is your opinion on the current state of telematic art? Do you feel that Fax art is still relevant for artistic practice today or is there a reasonable facsimile (pardon the pun) out there that is a contemporary equivalent for Fax based art?

RA: Can we agree that telematic art is art (or artworks) that exist(s), at least partly, in more than one place at the same time and/or within the space of a communications network? If so then I believe that many of the more interesting things happening in art today include some telematic element. This is because it has become increasingly easy to integrate sound, image, robotics and communication devices in assemblages, installations or environments -- and recent developments in wireless networking are accelerating the process. Also, the omnipresence of radio-telephony (more apparent in 110% saturated Europe than in N. America) means that most people are "networked" all the time -- so a "telematic" environment is the normal condition and there is no longer anything special or magical about works of art that include communication technology of one kind or another.

As far as I know, fax is now almost exclusively used by businesses (including many museums and galleries) that have not yet up-graded to integrated computer-based practices. For personal communication it has been largely supplanted by computer-based media -- email and WWW. My fax machine died a couple of years ago and I have never felt the need to replace it. But when the WorldPool group (Norman White, Judith Doyle, Willoughby Sharp, et al) began experimenting with fax exchanges between Toronto and NYC in 1977 it was a truly exotic and magical medium. Even in 1981, when Tom Klinkowstein and I produced the first European fax project using group II machines (2 minutes or more for an A4 page) between Vienna and Amsterdam, people fell about in amazement as the blurry sheets of paper slowly emerged from the machine.

By the mid-80s all that had changed ... fax machines had become faster, cheaper and ubiquitous -- every office had one -- so the excitement of novelty was missing and the medium was not really capable of generating interesting content aside from the aspect of "telepresence": Of sharing a communication space. Fax had come to be viewed as simply another telephone peripheral and had become, like the telephone itself, invisible. Fax projects continued sporadically into the 90s but they were more or less exercises in nostalgia.

JT: What kind of future do you envision for Telematic Art?

RA: That is a big question and to answer it would require the ability to predict the future of communication technology itself. Anybody who could do that these days (with any degree of credibility) would be as rich and famous as Paul McCartney.

JT: Do you have any involvement with the more recent practice of software-emulation and video-game culture as an art form?

RA: No

JT: Have you experimented with virtual environments, bots or avatars?

RA: No

JT: In your opinion, what is the contemporary equivalent of I.P. Sharp Associates that might be available as a liaison between the technology and the artists that might use it for the first time?

RA: There is no "equivalent". Our access to IPSA was entirely due to a chance encounter between an interested mathematician/programmer and an artist in Toronto in the mid-70s. Bob Bernecky, chief programmer for IPSA, had seen and admired Norman White's work with robots and offered him a free IPSA account to see what an artist might do with access to a world-wide timesharing network. Norman was later involved with the "Computer Culture" event in Toronto, and offered his contacts to IPSA for a computer conference as part of the event. "Interplay" was the result and the rest is, as they say, history.

But chance encounters are always possible -- and, by definition, unpredictable -- so any number of situations similar to the Bernecky-White relationship may happen any time ... or not.

JT: Are there any words of wisdom or advice regarding any fundamentals about producing interesting telematic art that you would like to pass to future generations? I ask this because as you have had many years of experience experimenting with communications media in general, you have come up with some golden rules to ensure what is interesting and what isn't.

RA: Three things are very important to remember -- and are usually forgotten --when working with networks:

1) The fact that nothing is permanent in network art. The moment of connection, where the work really happens, is dependent on the machines being turned on. When the machines are off the work is gone -- and even worse: The machines and software upon which the work depends will probably no longer exist within 5 years of the creation of the work.

2) The work exists at the point of connection -- with the receiver. It is always very hard to remember that not only can you not control the way your work is received but it is actually undesirable to want to exert control. This demands a completely different attitude than we know from industrial art practice. Perhaps it can best be described as "flow" rather than "process" -- the creation of the space where things or objects may exist or happen rather than the making of things or objects themselves.

3) Like Mail-Art, the only really interesting thing about Network Art is that everybody is an author or potential author. There is no obligation to reply but the question is open and the means are available. The art industry is trying very hard to establish "artistic criteria" in order to exclude the riff-raff but so far without much success ... luckily.


Robert Adrian is an Canadian artist based in Vienna, Austria, who has worked, off and on, for about 25 years with low-tech communications technology.

For an overview of activities since around 1980 see:

Jeremy Turner is the current Digital Archivist working on contract at Open Space. He is also an interdisciplinary artist, writer , composer and curator. He is a Co-Founder of the 536 Media Collective in Vancouver. In addition, he is a Co-Producer of the very first Machinima Documentary, "AVATARA". To date, he has conducted interviews and written articles about innovations in New Media for: C-Theory, Shift, Intelligent Agent, Extropy, Rhizome, Offbeat and Front Magazine. He is on the Board of Editors for the Digital Salvage Online Journal hosted by Trace Reddel at the University of Denver, Colorado.


above copied from:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Indelible Video, Chris Kraus

The complete ubiquity of video – and other digital forms – within contemporary art has rendered discussion about it, as a medium, obsolete. There is no longer anything singular about video. Images are everywhere. To attempt any one definition of video would be as meaningless as asking ‘what is contemporary art?’ All art now is conceptual, defined by its stance in relation to other art and its place in the market. It would be more fruitful and interesting at this point to ask how can an image transcend other images, how can the market be used to do what art used to do?
Baudrillard speaks of the ‘transaesthetic’: the mechanism through which contemporary art raises everything to aesthetic banality. What, he asks, could art possibly mean in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent, marketable?1 The depressed anti-hero of Eldon Garnet’s satirical novel Reading Brooke Shields gets picked up by Lisa and Bob, two earnest Canadian swingers. Once inside the apartment, he’s shown a seat on the couch. Bob grabs the remote and turns on the couple’s widescreen TV.
On the screen, a blond woman is sucking a penis. Moaning. Lisa is leaning back against the screen, crackling electric static, wrapping her body up against it. Moaning. Is there no escape from the image? 2
Video – moving digital images – now comprises a part of most art installations, although equally and increasingly the artist’s videotape – sold to collectors in limited editions that render modernist questions of authenticity completely banal – have become stand-alone works. The art world is now the venue for works that, two decades ago, would have screened as ‘experimental cinema.’ The flat monotony of Andrea Fraser’s Untitled is viewed on a monitor set into the wall of a gallery, but its polemic-durational quality has much in common with films made by Guy Debord, Chantal Ackerman. Andrea Bowers spends months taping interviews with veteran activists from Greenham Common, but the finished work – a documentary film, really – is shown as an art piece. A slight shifting of emphasis. There is no longer an audience, no system in place, for non-narrative film, but its affects have migrated into the art world. Consequently, the film becomes less an autonomous act – a thing hurled into the culture – and more like an artifact, a branded product, viewed through the career of the artist.
The New York artist’s collective, The Bernadette Corporation found this to be true when they produced Get Rid Of Yourself two years ago. The tape is a feature-length, neo-Godardian interventionist work about the Genoa anti-globalist riots. In it, high fashion images are cut against hand-held street footage of anarchist youths smashing ATMs, looting supermarkets. In the 20th century cinematic tradition, Get Rid Of Yourself provides a startling snapshot of somebody’s present. Still, its makers soon discovered their movie was completely un-showable outside the art world. There is no longer a first-degree context for activist film. A film like Get Rid Of Yourself can only truly be viewed when re-contextualized as a conceptual art work, a part of Bernadette’s overall project performed in the shadow of Situationist art.
This is very complex, but in a good way. With conceptual art, there’s always a bottom; or, if we think hard enough, the concept always loops back to its origins after moving through multiple tropes, like an old-fashioned well-crafted story. Immobilized as we are, it is more pleasurable to think along these lines than to ponder the workings of the World Trade Organization.
Outside on the South Loop Chicago street where I live, students flip open their cellphones and gaze at the tiny rectangular screens as if they were oracles. Cellphones are the most brilliant invention. Youth culture is seized and sold back to itself, you can talk to your friends. Urban youth can no longer expect to have their own rooms, let alone their own apartments, but you can carry your personal space in the palm of your hand. Since Bernadette formed in the late 1990s to investigate forms of blankness, and adopted their name as a fuck-you to contemporary art’s star-system of branding, the film’s inevitably ironic cast wasn’t lost on them.
The video frame is not a rectangle, the godfather of structuralist film Hollis Frampton observed less than one decade after Nam June Paik first picked up a Sony video Porta-Pak. It is a degenerate amoeboid shape passing for a rectangle to accommodate late night TV’s cheap programming.3
Film, Frampton believed, looks at itself: the frame’s radiant rectangle asserts its perimeter. The rectangular edge of the frame marks the boundary between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, what is present and what is completely elsewhere. Looking into the degenerate amoeboid box of the video monitor, Frampton saw “a mandala of feedback.” Feedback feeding back on itself … 525 lines of pixels thrusting and closing. He was the first person to look at video’s electronic surface and see a covert circularity, a fabulous orgy of onanism between image and mind. It was a romance, Frampton feared, doomed to end badly: the mandala turns into a navel, a sucking and spitting vortex into which the whole household is drawn.4
The same year that Frampton published these observations, Nancy Holt and Richard Serra acted them out in their 10 minute videotape, Boomerang. In this tape, Serra records Holt in a tight close-up, wearing a headset. She’s asked to speak, continue to speak, while her own voice feeds back at a fractional second delay through the headset. She struggles against her own voice, loses her place.
In her 1976 essay Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, Rosalind Krauss describes the terror of this:
The prison Holt both describes and enacts, from which there is no escape, could be called the prison of a collapsed present, that is, a present time that is completely severed from a sense of its own past. We get some feeling for what it is like to be stuck in that present when Holt at one point says, “I’m throwing things out in the world and they are boomeranging back … boomeranging …. Eranging …angining.” Through that distracted reverberation of a single world – and even word fragment – there forms an image of what it is like to be totally cut off from history, even, in this case, the immediate history of the sentence one has just spoken. Another word for that history from which Holt feels herself to be disconnected is
Video enacts a collapsed and continuous present, a perpetual motion of things feeding back on themselves. To be smothered by one’s own image. Krauss watches Vito Acconci’s Air Time and sees the artist skewered on his own image. She likens this state to that of Lacan’s analysand, forced to speak into a vacuum of silence until his most heartfelt confessions become no more than air, until all sense of him ‘self’ is thrown into question. For both Frampton and Krauss, the loss of ‘self’ and of ‘history’ was a thing to be feared.
This grim totalitarian prison of self was a far cry from Nam June Paik’s delirious vision of a future (our present) when “TV Guide will be as thick as the Manhattan phone book.” (Global Groove, 1973) Nam June, an early member of Fluxus, saw the “mandala of feedback” as a gateway to ecstacy:
My TV is NOT the expression of my personality, but merely PHYSICAL MUSIC, he wrote in 1963. My TV is more than the art and less than the art. I can compose something which lies higher than … or lower than … my personality.6
Perhaps video is not very different from any other art object. Perceptual historiography. The object alone doesn’t move us, what matters is what we project onto it. Like the Talmud, all the action lies in the analysis and counter-analysis. But this, too, is old news. Sitting out World War I at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Hugo Ball, a founder of Dada, read Kant and looked at a shoe polish can and threw up his hands in horror. “Today I saw a shoe polish with the inscription, ‘The Thing In Itself.’ Why has metaphysics lost so much respect? The citizen nowadays is a commodity, too. For the state.”7


I live on the 28th floor of a building that’s managed by Wackenhut Prisons. The guards down in the lobby – tough, middle-aged black women – wear the tight navy blue trousers and shirts of police officers. Each guard wears a shiny aluminum badge with the company logo - a triangular hut, shaped like the dollar-bill pyramid – over the left breast pocket. Wacken-hut. Whacking off in the hut? There’s a cheap calendar hung up over the guard desk with an American flag superimposed over dreamy American grain fields.
Founded by former FBI operative George Wackenhut, the company pioneered outsourced surveillance and terror. During the 1960s, they gathered files on 4 million suspected American dissidents, and went on to open privatized prisons all over the world and six immigrant detention camps in Australia.8 In the early 1980s, Wackenhut entered into a partnership with the Cabazon Indians to build a munitions factory on sovereign Indian land. This factory supplied covert shipments of weapons to the mideast and Nicaragua.9 In Texas, Wackenhut prisoners build Microsoft circuit-boards for $1.25 an hour.10 Intensely supervised and centrally located, Wackenhut prisons compete well with outsourced assembly in the global south. Since 1999, the company has appeared in US Federal court 62 times on human rights charges lodged by present and former prisoners.11
I’m not in prison, but in the faculty apartment of a Chicago art institution. When I remark on the Wackenhut presence I’m told: “Oh, but these guards have different training.”
In 1965, Nam June Paid pointed a new Sony Porta-Pak outside a New York taxicab window. He was the first person to purchase and use this equipment, which had just been launched in the US for the consumer market. Suddenly everyone could make movies, and within a few years thousands of hours of tape had been shot by new documentarians. The equipment was awkward and heavy but the process was instant. Because of the extremely difficulty of editing 1⁄2 open reel tape, most of these works were composed by stopping and starting the camera. Video collectives like Raindance, TVTV and Videofreex produced alternative news shows, street tapes, tapes about childbirth, alternative soap operas like The Continuing Story of Carol and Fred, about the marriage between a porn star and a bisexual junkie. 12
The aesthetic was process, and for a short time many people truly believed that this new technology would transform media culture into an open, interactive democracy. Alternative media access systems were being proposed via the proliferation of channels on cable. What happened was history – a history to be repeated in similar words during the early days of the internet – but public access TV (finally put out of its misery by Reagan’s deregulation of cable) died a slow death because, given the choice between it and CNN, HBO, MTV, no one wanted to watch it. What happened instead was that the visual style pioneered by these early collectives -jumpcuts, hand-held verite, reality shows –migrated to mainstream TV along with some of its makers.13 The credits of Confrontation, an early HBO reality-show in which crime victims confronted their jailed assailants, read like a Who’s Who of Global Village and Film/Video Workshop, two long defunct early non-profits.14
I recently re-watched Chris Burden’s 1971 videotape, Shoot. What makes the work thrilling four decades later is not the smeary black and white lines of the video, or the act itself, but the willfulness with which it is executed. The friend’s words - Are you ready? – just barely audible, Burden’s tense Yes go ahead – the way his body freezes just before impact. The fractional second before the bullet grazes his arm holds all the drama.
I traveled in January to Puerto Angel, a small Oaxacan beach town that was the scene of my friend, the late David Rattray’s story, The Angel. David and his best friend, Van Buskirk, went there in 1961. They were both 25, Van was dying of a rare strain of leukemia. Their general plan was to live there and write books. Forty-five years ago, Puerto Angel might as well have been on the moon. Power lines weren’t run out to these towns until the late 1970s. Puerto Angel got its first payphone two years ago, and this phone is shared by four coastal pueblos. In his story, David recalls the flickering light of a kerosene lamp at a beach-side café. He imagines himself engraved in a pictorial magazine feature, circa the 1870s. Déjà vu of another century.
“As I pause from writing,” David notes, “I can look straight up into the Milky Way. When I climb into the hammock, my feet will point west, towards the Pacific. Van says poetic license is the freedom to do exactly what you feel like doing from one minute to the next.”15
Time still moves at a different rate in southern Mexico. There are internet cafes and hotels, but the houses behind the main street are still made of palm leaves and wattle. Staying 15 miles north in Mazunte, it took over an hour to reach the payphone in Puerto Angel. First you flag down a taxi truck into the next town, Zippolite; then you wait for for the collectivo taxi, that won’t start its run with less than five passengers.
Two hours inland outside the village of Santa Maria, an American botanist who’s building a field research station in the jungle tells me the workers he hired spend 45 minutes to straighten a single bent nail. Living without running water in wattle huts and working for $10 a day, they have all the time in the world. Nails are a rarity.
“The only wars now are not of space, but of time,” says the philosopher of speed, Paul Virilio. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allocated $35 million – money accrued, in some small way, through the labor of Wackenhut prisoners – to purchase mosquito bed nets for 80% of the people of Zambia. Although bed nets have long been acknowledged to be the single most effective means of preventing malaria, no one, ‘til now, has addressed the spread of this disease so directly. Simply give nets away. With this and a half dozen other programs, the Gates Foundation has become the single largest provider of African aid in the world. It’s a strangely utopian image, this transfer of capital, i.e., of energy, across the matrix. Stranger still that these funds are derived from the sale of computers, the single most powerful agent in the collapse of space/time at the end of the 20th century. Technology changes the world, and for the better. Technology changes the world into the matrix.
Some of us - mostly those born in 1966, or before - who work in the conceptual echelons of the first world maintain a faint vestigial awareness that life was not always this way. We remember that cigarettes once took the place of cell phones, and if you wanted to reach someone quickly you would not instant message or voicemail but actually leave your apartment and knock on their door. We recall an intricate, unwritten protocol surrounding the visit, the duration of face-to-face meetings in domestic settings measured out in consumable signifiers: one or two cigarettes, a fresh pot of coffee versus what was left in the pot, a cold drink or a bottle of wine. We have an awareness that the most envied, desirable consumer items – plasma TVs, houses and cars, all these possessions – are not an end in themselves, or even a trigger to increased consumption. They are the tools of increased mobility, an eternal conduit used to enhance the transaction of business, keeping things moving. Therefore, the most desired plateau is not the stability once implied by the object, but perpetual flux. Far more creativity goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves. Likewise, the fact of the disappeared object is key to conceptual art, a term that is oxymoronic: all art now, is conceptual, deriving its value only through context, at a second remove.
The first structuralist film that I saw was Chicago Loop, James Bennnings’ nine-minute fixed-tripod shot of steam rising out of an industrial chimney. It was a strange and primitive thrill, the idea that you could sit and watch nothing, a film about nothing. The image gave what it could, but what happened was all in your mind.
A decade ago, the structuralist moment returned, slightly revised, to address the new formal properties inherent in digital video. The phenomenological question “what does the world look like through a video camera?” engaged this new generation of artists. Attending graduate programs on the west coast that sought to distance themselves from yesterday’s ‘criticality’ by celebrating essentialist qualities like beauty and the sublime, they embraced the fluidity of digital video. The coolness of ambient art defined the aesthetic, the equipment was cheap, the Los Angeles spaces were massive.
Far better trained than the original structualists, the next generation devised a rhetoric completely devoid of structuralism’s wit and original charm. Whereas the films of Hollis Frampton, James Benning, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage seemed to speak, on some level, to our incredulity, asking the obvious question – Why are we watching this? – with a measure of self-deprecation, the new video structuralists, steeped in critical theory, were very well armed.
“Just as the structuralist film makers used ‘film’ in such a way as to reveal a materiality, a shape and a form that characterize it, so must we be able to make the material ‘video’ speak of a signal, tape, camcorders, monitors and projectors,” the artist Diana Thater wrote ten years ago, reinventing the structuralist wheel.16 Video, enthused Jessica Bronson, offers a whole “different kind of happiness that has to do with shining surfaces or spinning movement.”17 The critic Peter Lunenfeld praised Thater’s use of the “techno-sublime.”18 Her multi-channel installations of dolphins and flowers are notable for their “displacement of narrative onto separate textual systems.”19 For a while, it seemed as if the liquidity of digital media itself was once again news. The critic Christiane Paul describes “a paradigm shift in which the artworks cease to embody ‘artistic truth’ and become ‘conditions of possibility,’ that is, fluid interactions between manifestations of information.”20
Deeply reactionary, these works cob together bits of phenomenology and post-structuralist theory to propose that the dematerialized nature of digital media itself is a worthwhile subject of scrutiny. By observing video’s properties, Thater concludes, “we may better use the latent qualities of the medium which in and of themselves, resonate.”21 But do they? And how, against what? The critic Bruce Hainley watches Bronson’s world picture 1998, a video installation of a Los Angeles police car chase and wonders at its utter exclusion of race, class and humor. He sums the project up in three words: “Vroom fucking vroom.”22
“Van’s mind is like an all-night movie house,” David Rattray writes in The Angel. “I sleep, then wake up, the bus standing still. Van tells me there was a couple fucking in the driver and his Cuban assistant joked about the floor show. We just reached the head of the pass. From here on, until we reach the coast tomorrow morning, it’s downhill.”23
Back in LA after visiting his family in Lima, Peru, the filmmaker George Porcari looks at the framed photographs of coffee plantations that decorate Starbucks and finds them predictably blank. In one, a dark-skinned man stands in a sea of coffee beans and squints at the camera. He’s reminded of Sharon Lockhart’s series of photos shot in Brazil, the ones where a dark-skinned woman holds various kinds of fruits in her left hand. “She is self-conscious,” Porcari observes, “complicit like the man in the Starbucks picture.”24
Both sets of images seem to reference a 20th century humanist genre, The Photography of Concern, while deliberately placing themselves outside of it. Both sets of images co-opt that visual language yet share none of its intentions, none of its content. Comparing Lockhart’s photography with the pictures at Starbucks, Porcari sees the images mirror each other, “but as in any mirror everything is reversed. What,” Porcari asks, “is everything? Why is one picture in a coffee shop and another in an art gallery? Where is the difference, how can we find it?”25
As art becomes a corporate enterprise, it could be that corporations like American Apparel now fill the vacuum left by contemporary art. The favorite leisure pursuit outside the home in the US is shopping. And from its manufacturing philosophy to its ads and its marketing, to the gallery-esque design of its stores and their deliberate location in changing neighborhoods, American Apparel resonates within the culture like a large-scale work of conceptual art, breathtakingly brilliant in scope.
“We called ourselves Chia Jen, or The Family,” the choreographer Simone Forti recalls of the collective she lived in during the late 1960s. “The life we lived in common provided a matrix for the profuse visions we lived out in various twilights.”26
Similarly, American Apparel galvanizes the lives of some 5000 employees across the globe.27 Money, the movement of capital, is just one of its mediums. The company keeps apartments in dozens of cities where employees hang out and take retro-porn pix of each other that will be used in company ads. Business is transacted as flow.
Founder Dov Charney and his colleagues have ingeniously channeled the most loaded social concerns of the decade into the ‘work,’ which is much more than the production of t-shirts. At the dawn of the century, when artists like Bernadette Corporation expressed their generation’s disgust with the proliferation of brand: “there is no where to go or hide or to remain untagged, unlogo’d, undiscovered, unstamped … Names and tags will hover over every cosmic labyrinth,”28 Charney launched the un-branded t-shirt, creating his own anti-brand. When young consumers organized boycotts against outsourced sweatshop production by Nike and Gap, Charney introduced “sweatshop-free” manufacturing in downtown LA. Based on a high-wage system of piecework, this move at once established the company as a hip anti-brand and effectively pre-empted unionization. If (often undocumented) immigrant assemblers could earn $15 an hour, why pay union dues?
The ‘vertically integrated’ American Apparel plant has done more to broadcast the obvious cultural links between LA and Mexico City than any municipal government. Advocating more open borders, the billboard above their Echo Park storefront says “Legalize LA.” Discourse transcends the limits of objects. It took Los Angeles art institutions until last year to mount a major exhibit of art from Mexico City. Meanwhile, American Apparel produces a free cultural ‘zine from its apartment in Mexico City. The art work displayed in its stores (produced by ‘amateurs’) reprises most of the high-points of past and present conceptual art. The Echo Park store has two series of ‘found’ archival images (mug-shots of women arrested during the 1960s by the LAPD; bikini-clad students on Spring Break), evoking Mike Kelley, Christian Moller. In Hollywood, a surveillance camera pointed out on the street feeds back passers-by to themselves on a monitor, just like the early video work of Dan Flavin. And in an homage to MFA work produced in the 90s, there’s a series of blown-up cibachrome photos of interstitial car hoods and trees.
American Apparel, says its founder Dov Charney, “is a fantasy. It’s make-believe. We can do whatever the fuck we want.”29 “We knew one another, trusted one another’s range of possibilities … There was no yardstick to measure individual achievement,”30 Squat Theater collective founder Eva Buchmiller recalls. “We all have our fucking dick in it, it’s not just any one person,”31 Charney says of his corporate philosophy. Recruiting talented young women as both content advisors and sex partners, Charney creates a paradigm for how life can be lived a different way. The purchase of an American Apparel t-shirt is more than a purchase – it’s an endorsement, a means of participating in the brand.
Video art was once seen to ‘enact a collapsed and continuous present.’32 This now universal, collapsed present might now best be seen in the action of commerce. Using conceptual art’s self-reflexivity, anti-brands like American Apparel reach more deeply into the culture than art ever can.
“Objective perception never reflects anything beyond itself. To know what is there is not to know what isn’t. The makers of television-present-tense are fully as intelligent as those who criticize it. They know what we know. Therefore. It is my task – your task – to act beyond the medium, from within ourselves,” Douglas Davis wrote in The End of Video: White Vapor, in the mid-1970s.
While the neo-formalist celebration of video’s liquid and transient properties during the 1990s didn’t yield many new ideas, we still live amongst images, saturated by images. The philosopher Avital Ronnel looks at the video-chip implants used to engender memory in Total Recall and sees that they co-exist with a condition of stated amnesia. Images come to infuse an amnesiac subject. But these images aren’t the same as remembering; rather, they help keep their subjects in a state of eternal amnesia, channel-surfing through blank zones of trauma.33
Video works like Candice Breitz’s Mother and Father (2005) show that it might be possible – with great difficulty, and by reaching within ourselves – to dislodge chunks of these coded images and allow them to act out other stories, sub-textual stories which have always been there. It’s a little like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s idea of the textual cut-up, developed in magnificent leisure at West London’s Beat Hotel the same year Nam June Paik bought his first Porta-Pak. Burroughs and Gysin believed that by folding in pages, manipulating fragments of text, the true hidden message of the once-opaque text will arise. In Breitz’s work, the earnest clichés of parenting spoken by Hollywood actors, once abstracted and recombined, become cries of unspeakable terror.
In his short videotape Flex, Zwelethu Mthethwa abstracts the bodies and faces of weightlifters in a lyrical collage the flows between body and mind. The Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner uses video to produce a series of ongoing domestic dramas that arise from his decision to work at home while taking care of his children. His work – which conflates sexuality and domestic entrapment – is a hilarious flip on feminist work. Flatting his penis with a rolling pin in Untitled (1998), Ben-Ner leaves himself open to the same charges of self-indulgence and narcisism that feminist works have traditionally borne. No matter how many references critics make between it and conceptual body-art classics, the tape is a pungent one-liner, proving that contradictions between family, self and desire are more circumstantial than gender-defined.
“Know all you wish about video,” Douglas Davies admonished in 1975. “Its privacy of perception, its line, color and tone, its symbiotic link to living time – and you still cannot change it until you bury it.”34 But while we may know all we that we need to know about the phenomenological nature of electronic media, we don’t know what video has to tell us. In their brilliantly curated 2004 Time Zones film and video show at the Tate, Jessica Morgan and Gregor Muir assembled ten moving image works by international artists from countries as far-flung as China, Albania, Turkey and Indonesia.35 A discreet manifesto of the persistence of cultural difference across the globe, Time Zones slyly suggests that our perception of ‘hot’ new technology will, for the foreseeable future, be undermined by how different parts of the matrix live and experience time. Walking through the large galleries, Anri Sala’s ghostly durational video of sunlight hitting two Albanian billboards plays on one wall, while NASCAR-style monster trucks in Yael Bartana’s Kings of the Hill futilely claw their way up an Israeli sand dune across the hall.
At once documentary and formal, these modest non-narrative works are not easily described. Facts are presented only as they arise; the camera insinuates itself within its surroundings, forlorn, steady and vibrant. They are indelible videos, in which video finally gets rid of itself and acts as a spy.

1 Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, page 26, Semiotexte: Los Angeles, 2006
2 Eldon Garnet, Reading Brooke Shields: The Garden of Failure, Semiotexte: New York, 1992
3 Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion, Visual Studies Workshop: Rochester, 19??
4 Ibid
5 Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” October, Vol. 1 No. 1, Spring 1976, reprinted in Battcock, Gregory: New Artist’s Video, pp 48-49, E.P. Dutton, New York: 1978
6 Nam June Paik with Charlotte Mormon, Videa, Vidiot, Videology, Fluxus Newspaper, June 1974: New York, reprinted in Gregory Battcock, New Artist’s Video, p. 130, op.cit.
7 Ball, Hugo: Flight Out of Time, edited by John Elderfield, translated by Ann Raimes, p 12, University of California Press, Berkeley: 1996
8 Arun Pradhan: Wackenhut: prisons, profits and golf umbrellas in The Green Left Weekly,
9 Wackenhut, p. 2 of 40 in “Top Secret Military Bases, Area51/ Shadowlands/6583
10 Arun Pradhun, op cit.
11 Greg Palast: Gilded Cage: Wackenhut’s Free Market in Human Misery
12 Deirdre Boyle: A Brief History of American Documentary Video, pp 51-55, in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Aperture in Association with Bay Area Video Coalition: 1990
13 Deirdre Boyle: op cit, page 59
14Chris Kraus: Torpor, p. 249, Semiotexte, Los Angeles: 2006
15 David Rattray: The Angel, in How I Became One of The Invisible, p. 35, Semiotexte: New York, 1992
16 Diana Thater: I wanna be your dog, p. 12 in China, exhibition catalogue published by The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago: 1996
17 Jessica Bronson, Conversation with Jan Tumlir, cited by Intra, Giovanni in Interruption, catalogue essay for Jessica Bronson, New Zealand – Govett Brewster, 1999?
18 Peter Lunenfeld: Constraint Decree, Art/Text No. 62, p. 68, Los Angeles: August-October, 1998
19 Ibid
20 Paul, Christiane: in Anton, Saul: Net Gains, a roundtable on new media, Artforum International, V. 39, N. 7, March 2001 p121
21 Diana Thater, op cit.
22 Bruce Hainley: Jessica Bronson, MOCA exhibition review, Artforum International, Vol. 37, No. 6, page 103 February 1999
23 David Rattray, op cit. page 30
24 George Porcari: Playing Out the Photography of Concern: Starbucks in LA, “Teatro Amazonas” in Brazil and Wener Bischof in Peru, Artnews,??
25 op cit., page?
26 Simone Forti: Handbook in Motion, p. 17, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax and New York University Press, New York: 1974
27 American Apparel website,
28 Jeff Rian, Until They Come Again, in Made In USA, Vol. 1, Fall-Winter 1999-2000, published by The Bernadette Corporation, New York
29 Josh Dean: Dov Charney, Like It or Not, in Inc. Magazine, September 2005, p. 124
30 Eva Buchmiller, and Ana Koos: Squat Theater, exhibition catalogue published by Artist’s Space, New York: 1996
31 Claudine Ko, “Meet Your New Boss,” Jane magazine, July 2004
32 Rosalind Krauss. Op cit
33 Douglas Davis: The End of Video: White Vapor, in New Artist’s Video, op. cit., page 32
33 Avital Ronell: Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium, p. 327, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London: 1994
34 Douglas Davis: op cit, page 35
35 Jessica Morgan: Time Zones, exhibition catalogue, Tate Publishing Ltd., London: 2004

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