This is the text of my Riga lecture. It has a philosophical introduction, then touches on the notion of Post-Art and finally analyses the Fields exhibition. Drawing on my own curatorial work, conducted in cooperation with RIXC, in the exhibitions Waves and Fields, I hope to arrive at criteria of what makes good art today.
Foreground – Background
NOTE: This is the text that was the basis of my speech in Riga on 8th of October 2015. It does not have the usual academic annotations and would benefit from editing. That would probably mean that it would not get published any time soon. I hope this gets accepted nevertheless as a contribution to a discussion on postmedia and contemporary art.
Let me begin with an Image. Imagine you are at the seaside and you have these goggles with which you can see under water. When you are above water you can see the sky, the sun, some clouds, maybe some people at the beach, sunbathing, children playing. Everything looks quite solid and clear, the things behave accordingly, they obey Newtonian physics. Now you dive and you enter the under water world. There, everything is quite different. There are strange fish in strange colours, and other animals, there are corals and underwater grasses. Everything is in constant motion, following the waves and the water currents. It is difficult to identify things clearly as the water and the sun play optical tricks, and there might be hidden dangers, such as poisonous fish or sea-snakes hiding between rocks; or, the other way round, you might be a danger to this beautiful but strange underwater world, as your feet could touch and break corals.
Now, which of those two worlds is the truer one, the one above or the one under water? With your goggles you can swim in such a way that your eyes are exactly at the surface level of the water, you can see both the world above and the world below the surface. What separates the worlds is the surface, a thin layer of water molecules on the top. The surface of the water is different from the rest of it, acting like a membrane. It breaks and diverts the light beams, acting like a mirror and a prism. It also regulates the exchange of molecules between air and water, its capacity to absorb CO2, its osmotic qualities, the evaporation of water under the influence of heat.
The worlds above and below the surface of the water are not as categorically separated as it initially may have seemed. The exchanges between water and air, land and sea are discernible for those who have the gift of observation. You have to see beyond the surface appearance to understand the inner principles that govern the behaviour on the outside.
I have chosen this image as an entry point into a reflection on art and technopolitics. For technopolitics, for the moment, think historical background. Art is the foreground, technopolitics the historical background. My thesis is that thinking about art always implies thinking about a foreground and a background. Art actually establishes that separation. If you have a blank sheet of paper and you draw a line, you demarcate something against something else, a foreground, the line, against the background, the white surface of the sheet. Art rises from a historical background, it does not exist in a vacuum. Art is grounded in its time, but this ground is unclear, it is like the under water world, it is shaped by tendencies that we do not necessarily understand. In order for something to become visible, the artist needs to create an artwork. Taking the creative act seriously, then it means that art does not just depict something that already exists, it essentially creates its object. By creating its object it lifts it from the ground, makes it stand out. The background recedes, it becomes background through the creative act. Most of art history has focused on the object only. The history of art becomes a history of objects, of things that have become separated from their background. This may suit artists who also try to cover their tracks. The process of creation is messy and fraught with difficulties. For artists, it may seem preferable that only the artwork as thing remains, which then can get collected by museums and thereby enter a canon of important works who inscribe themselves into a timeline – the history of art as it is conventionally understood.
But this history of art is a history of repressed historical backgrounds, it is a history that tells only half the story. It folds the social conditions of the making and thereby creates a repressed – I would like to be this understood as a holding remark to be explained later – something that becomes repressed, an un- or subconscious, which, because it gets repressed, does not go away but only gets more potent.
Art as seen from the artist's side
The process of the making of art can and should also be seen from the other side, not from the object, but from the subject, from the side of the artist. The artist is someone who exists in concrete social, historical conditions. This actual social, historical being in the world is characterised by suffering caused by lack of something. The German language knows one word for the lack of something “der Mangel.” In English you have a whole arsenal of terms, from lack of via absence to shortage, deficit, defect, want and many more. The artist, driven by those deficits, suffers and develops, out of this suffering, a desire to overcome those deficiencies. This desire drives the artist to create. It is a desire driven by need to address the blemishes of life in this world, but it is also a desire to be recognized. The artwork created by the artist contains a proposition for a state of being in which the suffering is temporarily overcome; art solves the contradictions of the time by lifting them to another terrain where it can be resolved symbolically. The desire of the artist has created an object which desires to be recognized as a work of art by others. The reflection of the artists about her or his existential condition of being has led to a specific proposition or solution which now stands out in this world as an object.
This object, as it becomes perceived by other human beings, gets reflected in their minds. They may just perceive it, look at it, try it out, if it offers ways of interaction and participation, or they contemplate it, reflect and analyse it also with their intellectual capacities. The reception of the artwork – not just by one individual, but by a whole apparatus and system of other artists, curators, critics, institutions – establishes the truth of the artwork. By truth I mean the intersubjective quality of its being (not its objective truth which does not exist). It had some truth for the artist, some relevancy, meaning, and now, through its process of social reception, it also has acquired this meaning on a wider social level. The artist has realized something that was inside her or himself, a lack, a need, a desire, and this has become objectified, a thing that stands out from a background. This thing, through the process of reception, becomes objective now in a fuller sense of the meaning of this term, an object that has a truth value for a larger number of people. The objectified desire of the artist becomes a discursive entity. The artwork contains the highly subjective and particular position of the artist but also stands in relation to something that is much more general – in the past I would have written universal. The artwork links the particular condition of its existence with a shared and thereby objectified condition of being of a larger social group.
Art is always about this relation between subject and object, between the particular and the universal. Those relationships are not fixed and static but always fluid, always dialectical, always in a state of becoming. It is a sign of contemporary regressions when the duality in motion is reduced to one side only. Those relationships become frozen, static, bipolar opposites that do not communicate. This is the art history that knows only things and the history that knows no art (or no theory, no philosophy). The dual opposites are broken up, and only one side remains, either the world above water, or the world underneath the surface, the base or the superstructure. From this one-sided viewpoint the question regarding the socio-historical background of an artwork raises a huge problem. How can this artwork be understood in its historical background. Conventional art history denies that it can be. It has decided to accept only one side of the coin, the superstructural side. Artworks are objects which have inscribed themselves into a timeline of other objects with whom alone it can be compared. The social context is just that, a context which can be severed from the artwork without any damage being done to its meaning.
Base and Superstructure
The problem between subject and object replicates itself on the level of the society. Societies create mirror images of themselves and their worlds in the products of their culture, of which fine arts are a special case. The metaphor of base and superstructure is interpreted here in the footsteps of Raymond Williams as a dialectic wellspring of conflict and thus creation. The movement of base and superstructure through time, that's history. Technopolitics is a concept of history which tries to consider the historic totality, the dialectical dance of base and superstructure. According to this approach, the economy does not occupy a privileged place because we believe in the economy as an elevated sphere of importance but because the economy has become so all-encompassing and pervasive. The same counts true for technology. Technopolitics does not mean that we are ruled by the technology. We think that technology and the economy are abstractions and realities at the same time. The economy does not happen elsewhere but right in our lives. There are relationships between technologies, value systems, ways of doing things and the economy which together form a social whole. It is art's task to present such a wholeness and not just abstractions. With abstractions I do not mean abstract art but abstract thought, thought that stands isolated from life. Art's task is to show the connections, the relationships between the universal and the particular, the theoretic and the concrete.
Any base, means a specific socioeconomic life form, creates itself a superstructure adequate to itself. It is an articulation of the conflicts and contradictions of that society. It is the world reflected in the reflective interiority of the collective artist who created an artistic product. Society creates an image of itself in which it presents itself as it wants to be seen. But this image also creates its own double negation. Societies are in a mode of denial about that which is least tolerable about them. This repressed social content creates the political unconscious of the mirror image.
The world of reflection, the interiority of a person and of the collective, is the world of freedom, of self-discovery, of image making. There is another dialectic here, between determination and freedom, between necessity and possibility. Self-conscious being is always a projection of an open horizon, of the potential of limitless becoming. This is the idea of freedom which we have since the French Revolution. Freedom is the self-realization of man by applying work to forces of nature. But this is self-realisation under the unfree conditions of current society. The artwork contains human potential realized but realized under conditions of falseness. It is human potential realized under the given conditions, existing technologies, the level of consciousness, the state of the art in sciences. It is not absolute potential realised.
Base and superstructure are not like fixed entities that form somehow containers, they are much more like background – foreground, the one conditions the other, in a process of permanent becoming. There is no doubt that the superstructure also “determines” the development of the base as it creates desirable future images. But what is much more important is that those dialectical pairs are less to be seen as entities and more like a force, a potential for becoming. The dialectical philosophy I have laid out here which contains more than a few traces of Hegel is a philosophy of process. The surfaces do not tell us what happens, we need to look behind the surface to engage with processes which together form a historical tendency.
Consciously acting in the world as artist or curator means to try to understand the historical tendency and think and do accordingly. The world is a socioeconomic technological and political system, which includes also an art world. Art gets studied as a social phenomenon and practice. We thus need to turn very briefly to art's history.
Historical Forces since 1800
The most important fact to start with is the autonomy of art as it developed from the late 18th century on. Autonomy of art meant that it remained outside the utilitarian capitalist system that was developing. In the sheltered sphere of autonomous art, the ideas of the French Revolution were kept alive. The category of autonomy contains the seed forms of what characterizes modern art, and also its internal opposition, like reactionary modernists such as Nietzsche and Baudelaire.
A Critique of Alienation and of the commodity.
The 19th century was characterized by the rise of the machine system in production. First the political, then the revolution in production. Marx's critique of the machine ”as the intellectual power of another realized in machine form that confronts the worker as a power outside of him that rules over him.”
The basic elliptic thought by Marx, that the worker the more he works the more he helps capital to become more powerful. That the process of technological innovation is systematically directed against the workforce, that there are historic tendencies which are driven by the contradictions of industrial modernity. The machine, as the objectified intellectual potential of another continues in Weberian rationalisation and in processes designed - as described by Braverman and Noble - to divest knowledge of the working process from workers and implement it in machine form. The information society is when this is applied to information.
Capital is creative, it revolutionizes the forces of production in struggles over competition, political hegemony, and retaining the class structure. By revolutionizing the forces of production capital creates the conditions for its own overcoming but constantly has to deny and stop that dynamic.
Commodity Fetishism: The industrial system also implements the commodity as central component. The commodity form allows everything to be exchanged against everything. The labour that has gone into the commodity has become invisible because of the exchange value. In a world governed by commodity relationships, the thinking becomes obscured, fetishized, because what are social relations become perceived as relations between things.
Those tendencies were addressed in one single gesture by Marcel Duchamp in 1917, with Fountain. The signing of an artwork has wiped out the relationship with craft. Art becomes the decision making power to say what is art. Duchamp defined art in the beginning Fordist age, at about the same time as Henry Ford switched on the first production line. Art becomes a signature on an industrial object. The magic of commodity fetishism and of art comes together. The power of the signature has now been adopted widely.
Art as Metalanguage critique of art
In the tradition of the autonomy of art and of Duchamp's signature object a critical branch in modern art and contemporary art has grown since the early 20th century. After the historic avant-gardes and after the Second World War, neo-avant-gardes formed in the industrialized countries. Here we have the legacy of Surrealism and Dada on one hand, and of Constructivist and Concrete Art on the other hand. This has been shaken up by the explosion of art movements in the 1960s. In the 1960s conceptual art formed as a meta-language critique of art. Art making became identical with creating a theory of art. We can conclude with Peter Osborne that all contemporary art is post-conceptual art.
After conceptual art in the narrow sense, the 1970s saw a revolution of post-conceptual art practices, which maintained the main thrust of conceptual art, the question “what is art?” but became more directly involved in politics, or rather those forms of politics where the private becomes political. In movements such as land art, arte povera, body art, performance, feminist photography and video art and community art practices. We, as postmedia art community, owe a lot to these practices, because without them, our practice would not be recognized as art. Those practices, however, were holding on to the autonomy of art, and positioned themselves outside production relations. A common characteristic of those practices was that they formulated a critique of industrial society and its managerial, bureaucratic apparatus, and the forms of identity that it offered people. The avant-gardes of the 1970s formulated many micro-political critiques of Fordism, thereby preparing the ground for a new paradigm, information society.
Critical contemporary art is a child of those post-conceptual art practices. This type of art, under the banner of institutional critique, has left no stone unturned investigating the support structures of art.
This institutional critique, with its focus on the artworld, produced important insights which point beyond the artworld and can be extrapolated into a critique of the present. I can find a lot of interesting things in this domain, especially with regard to recognizing that we live in a new world order of capitalist globalisation, a world which has become culturally less Eurocentric and more diverse in every aspect, while on the other hand new monopolies are created with regard to money and information. At the same time, this type of art is linked to the art market which seems to be going from strength to strength.
Since the 1980s, but more widely since the 1990s, contemporary art and finance have become friends. Speculative capital has found speculative conceptual art to its liking. Art adds that special touch, even when it keeps being critical, because that asserts its autonomy. The value arises because of the fact, that it cannot have any objective value. This is the mystery of art, the mystery of the success of contemporary art. Art has arrived in the center of society, one “goes art.” The question arises if this type of art can still form a meaningful oppositional force. The weapons of this art are skilled construction of images.
If we follow the artist, art historian and theorist Terry Smith, the artist's task is to make an image of the world. “Worlding” as he calls it. The image does not have to be a painting or photograph, but also a mental image, an idea, in visual form. It should give us a meaningful image of the current world. This image created by the artist is a reflection of the world he lives in, by necessity. The collection of artworks at a time would be a reflection of the contemporary world. Because each of those artworks would necessarily also contain an aspect of critique of the world, of the suffering of the artist it also contains the world's context as implicitly known. As I have argued in my keynote speech last year, the mirror of art is broken. Art is now in competition with a stream of commercial image worlds, trying to stem the flood. But the problem is that meaning, images, information are inflationary. The image has become something that is socially constructed and distributed.
The resistance against and subversion of commercial image-worlds and ideologemes and memes shows us that the Emperor is still naked. But resistance and subversion have become something like a Sysiphos task. Because critique needs an addressee, and in the current situation there is no addressee, the social contract has been revoked, from above. There is no higher entity to which a critique could appeal. This is even more so the case in what Boltanski and Chiappello have called the projective city. In networks truth does not function as a regulator, there are only the mechanisms of network power. This ultra-hip viewpoint once more reduced people to an object of history. The critical contemporary wing of the art system is found more often on biennales than in the gallery system. It carries on with a critical function by negation, but also by negation of negation. The capacity to carry out such a negation is based on the institutional system, which is now in peril, or rather under a slow and long squeeze of eternal budget cuts.
Resistance and subversion, or disruption have also been a common battle-cry in digital art. Groups such as RTMark, Yes Men, Ubermorgen, and individuals such as Paolo Cirio have used a range of media hacking and attention engineering techniques which form a particular corner in the digital art world. On one hand securing legitimacy through ancestors such as Duchamp and Picabia, Grosz and Heartfield, on the other hand bordering on new mass techniques of image making online, where a certain type of culture jamming has become commons knowledge. Those works have used wit and humour to try get a reaction from a major corporation, as, for instance, in Google Will Eat Itself. Cirio's projects such as Loophole4All successfully establish a critique of the current financial system and the corruption it invites, but this critique offers no way of going beyond the criticized. These works have all their individual merits but they have a problem, they negate but then stop. There is no futurity in the present, no tomorrow today. It is a dialectic at standstill.
The Fields Exhibition
Fields Exhibition, exhibition view, Photograph RIXC
In this situation where contemporary art is loosing its bite between market forces, and where political digital art produces ever more stale signifiers, RIXC and me have organised the exhibition Fields last year. The curators, Rasa Smite, Raitis Smits and me asked “which transdisciplinary combinations of different fields hat the greatest transformative potential.” Our starting point was the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing general structural crisis of western societies. Building on work done with the exhibition Waves, the exhibition Fields was designed to give answers to the question what makes good, transformative, political art. We did not ask for political art in the traditional sense but for work that had transformative potential, that asked to do things differently, that invited for action. This proposition was profoundly postmedia, we were postmedia in every known sense, from Rosalind Krauss, to Lev Manovich to Domenico Quaranta. Our approach, however, was not only postmedia but also post-art.
We recognized that change now pressures and pours from many sectors in society, as each discipline is looking for a solution to the crises and dilemmas. Besides art and postmedia art there are large ranges of other practices who try to find hands-on solutions for present challenges. Only some of them are considered contemporary art, others not. This was the subject of a lively curatorial discussion. There are people who just experiment with technology: they go by many names, hackers, makers, designers, critical makers and transformakers. From urban gardening to economics of solidarity, many different initiatives today try to drive change beyond the confines of informational capitalism. Many of those initiatives use tactics and forms that have a semblance with art.
This is because we live in a Post Art Society. This is no cheap thesis about the end of art but the idea that societies have passed through modern art. Central concerns in modern art have become absorbed and internalized. Art is only a special case of a much larger set of different forms of visual meaning production, or image cultures. Today, people take selfies and look after their images on social media. But it is not just the fact that people invest time and energy into their self-images. From modern art what we take is maybe not so much a specific style but the idea that art is connected to central values of western liberalism. Modern art is about freedom and the creative genius, and people are living that now, they integrate artistic strategies into their everyday life.
Modern art came also with a specific time-structure, of dreamtime, of dreaming in the present a future to be collectively attained. The break with modernism occured through speech acts by subjects who had been previously excluded from speaking, such as women, ethnic and other minorities. The structures of modern art were exposed as another way how white males formulate their particulars as universals. The break with modern art has resulted in contemporary art. And contemporary art has also been partially absorbed by Post-Art. In network society creative labour has taken on a new meaning. It has become an imperative, dictated from above to partake in creative labour. Sharing is not just caring but a demand Now, every one acts like Andy Warhol when they take selfies, the attitude of being an artist has become generalized, but not as a freedom but as a duty in an economy which has become “artified”. As Suhail Malik recently said, we don't have the aestheticisation of politics, as Walter Benjamin complained but the aestheticisation of business and consumption. It is not enough any more to carry on with a critique of industrial society because we have left this society already behind. At present, the notion of critique as such is questionable.
Hayley Newman, Histoire Economique, exhibition view, 2014
In her work shown in the Fields exhibition, Hayley Newman has made herself a Self-Appointed Artist in Residence at the City of London. The City of London is the seat of the financial industry. Newman asked employees of bank branches if she could do Bank Rubbings, frottages of decorative architectural elements at the bank's entrance. Those frottages are indeed like a natural history, Newman has pinned down some objective historical content, creating over time, a Histoire Economique, a natural history of the financial center. The work is not only programmatic with regard to the aesthetic means but also because of the artistic strategy behind it. Newman's artist-in-residence is a lie, but no more blatant a lie than the self-legitimization of city institutions. The self-appointed artist in residence makes the city, the markets, who consider themselves supreme subjects of history, into objects of a «natural history».
Today, speculative capital is driving an immense flexible innovation regime. It is still legitimate to refer to art's critical function and look at the “social glitch” as the title of a recent exhibition in Vienna has been. Art comes as an intervention into the smooth running of those innovation machines, as a queering of them, but for the price of not being central to them. Because the regime of flexible accumulation can take on board any critique as a new source of profit. For artists the question arises how they can position themselves in relation to the military-entertainment-education-information complex?
Maja Smrekar, Hu.M.C.C. m.k.2 (Human Molecular Colonization Capacity) Exhibition view, Fields 2014
One particular answer has been given by Maja Smrekar. Philosophically similar to the Accelerationists, a new Marxist philosophical school, her proposition is to accelerate current developments in order to use that energy to divert change and drive it in new directions. In Hu.M.C.C. m.k.2 (Human Molecular Colonization Capacity) an artist's gene has been inserted into yeast to make a special yoghurt, the Maja Yoghurt. Maja Smrekar contextualizes this work with a reference to Marx's critique of the appropriation of surplus value, arguing that the enzymes, living substance from our bodies, have now also to work overtime. The setting of the work, as a kind of deep frozen advertorial, continues a line of thought that can be summarized by subversion through affirmation. The type of stem cell research necessary for Smrekar's work operates still in the taboo zones of post-christianity. Smrekar undermines any humanist critique of her work by placing the stem cell research in the context of food and high-tech advertisement. What is interesting about this work is how many-layered it is. A cool high-tech aesthetic to sell cheap yogurt, advertorials and high-end Marxist aesthetics find together in the work.
When publishing our calls for proposals we expected a huge swell of techno-ecological projects. Techno-ecologies and renewables have been consistent streams in RIXC's work. I think also that the Three Ecologies by Felix Guattari are recommended reading. However, those are very short texts and leave a lot to the imagination. Among the many propositions received, a lot of work appeared simply too literally concerned with Fields. Plenty of propositions somehow had to do with agriculture and nature, participation and documenting things, but the art was missing. The artists were incapable of distilling the conflicts and pressures in those areas into a coherent world-image. The works which we did select had an ecological component without being fully absorbed by that.
Erich Berger and Manu Luksch, in installation of Erich Berger, Polsprung
Manu Luksch's Kayak Libre. The “free Kayak” project translates the free software metaphor into an imagined public transport system using Kayaks. Luksch has recorded the conversation and edited them into pieces which can be listened to in the Kayak. The work corresponds with that of HeHe's imaginative uses for rail systems.
Manu Luksch, Kayak Libre, installation view with exhibition visitor
The meme of open/free/libre has jumped into the open, where new digital habits affect old physical processes, in particular the digital habit of cooperation and sharing. Shu Lea Cheang's Underground Seeds Exchange series of works from 2013 bring Open Source thinking to agricultural seeds. Cheang has pioneered the crossing of the fields from the digital to the analog, with her Stream the Greens as early as 2002, and has carried out many works in that vain. In Get Garlic Bio-organically farmed garlic becomes the reserve currency in the exchange economies «after the crash». Cheang invents future scenarios of which the “performance” or action carried out by artists constitutes the sole tangible bit, everything else is in the wider storyboard created by “suggestions” by the artist.
Luksch's Kayak Libre, heHe's railway systems and Cheang's participatory net art and ecology projects are also « suggestive » pieces, the artist suggests a specific practie which can be adopted by the viewer/participant. Those projects have an actualy agency and change the life-world of participants. It is a huge missing chapter in Bishop's Artificial Hells. These artists are bringing together Open Source, ecology and idras about the commons.
Annemarie Maes, Foraging Fields (2014) Detail
Annemarie Maes showed Foraging Fields (2014) a live-monitoring data-sculpture of beehives living around a green corridor in Brussels. Foraging Fields is just a snapshot of an ongoing project of Maes on bees, urban gardening, urban development and Open Source. While not implied in the work, it reminds of the fable of the bees, and also of the ruse of reason, that history does something behind our backs. The fable of the bees, later adopted by Adam Smith, explains how from the private interest of people can arise the public good. It is basically a metaphor for the market as utopia. Annemarie Maes engages in a very close relation with her bees, tracing the flight-paths of urban beehives through analyzing the pollen they bring home. Maes' practice makes her adopt many different techniques, from gardening and bee keeping to pollen anlysis. My argument is that she unites that into an artistic practice, although strongly based on scientific methods, yet still brought together within an art project. Maes' work has urbanistic, ecological and anthropological orientations. She increases the sensorial domain by working with bees, thereby also entering into inter-species communication. Maes practice suggests to use communication networks differently, to tell stories 'from the “mouth” of the bee-hive.' Her work also presents interesting perspectives on a postindustrial, edible city (a slogan used by another artists, Debra Salomon, who did not participate in the Fields exhibition).
As I have said above, creative capital creates the conditions for its own overcoming. One such technology is the Net. The Net could become the decentralized storage of all human knowledges, permanently available to all, for free. The net has a potential as an enabler of end-to-end innovation between people. A lot of that potential is currently blocked, for instance through intellectual property laws. Other blockages stem from social structures, questions of access, who participates in those knowledge economies, and of course, Big Data and raw power, who has access to all that information. The network utopia has given way to a dystopia, yet the positive potential still remains.
We Should Take Nothing for Granted – On the Building of an Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry, exhibition view 2014
Marko Peljhan and Aljosa Abrahamsberg (SI), Matthew Biederman (CA), and Brian Springer presented We Should Take Nothing for Granted – On the Building of an Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry. The group juxtaposed the speech by President Eisenhower under that title with real, ongoing surveillance activity. It was Eisenhower who coined the phrase of the military industrial complex. Although a conservative himself, he feared that the apparatus of power could become autonomous, no longer reigned in by political power. What helps against that are alert and knowledgeable citizen and how to get those would be a free and open Internet. Peljhan and his cooperators have consistently formulated a neo- and retro-constructivist position. They are leaving the conventional field of art and are constructing technologies which empower their users. Some of those, such as the spy plane they built a few years ago, are autonomous technologies. Here, by definition, only the technology is free. Makrolab and other projects have provided a kind of anti-surveillance kit, equipping ordinary citizens to do something against surveillance, at least in principle. This time again a real supercomputer is sitting in the centre of the installation, like a buddha statue in a shrine, carrying out real acts of counter-surveillance, scanning the networks and airwaves. An aspect of that work is also conversion, converting military to civilian tools.
Darko Fritz, explaining his work OK 200
A number of works presented such post-Internet art, for instance, Darko Fritz showing internet error messages grown by plants in real fields.
YoHa, Endless War, installation view 2014
YoHa's Endless War takes the viewer inside the database with its minimalistic aesthetics. Using datasets which have become public through one of the famous leaks of WikiLeaks, YoHa used search algorithms in the same way as intelligence agencies do, scanning through thousands of documents according to specific techniques based on word frequency. An area that is normally beyond comprehension, the way how search algorithms are used in massive surveillance operations, becomes in immersive life-data-base art piece.
However, unfortunately the emancipatory potential of the Net comes atop of social structures that are unsustainable. The network economy is based on highly unequal structures also in the rich nations. Apart from the money class as such, there are hierarchies of new types of workers: there are well paid knowledge workers, precarious ones, and there are precarious jobs on which both the well-paid and the badly-paid knowledge workers depend, as part of their infrastructure. These social structures are particularly intense in so called Global Cities where network power manifests itself in new gentrified quarters. People are living their lives locally, in a bubble, without being aware how that affects others or how this is all related.
Ines Doujak and John Barker, Loomshuttle Warpaths (2011-14) Detail, photo taken outside Arsenals exhibition hall
Ines Doujak and John Barker's piece Loomshuttle Warpaths (2011-14) exposed networks linking lines of trade and just-in-time production with narratives informed by indigenous people's perception of clothes as alive, as was and is common in Andean cultures. The project brings together mythical and logistics chains, labour relations and the whims of fashions, exposing how one affects the other. A change in taste in a hipster ghetto in London may transmit into a weekend of work for a factory in Bangladesh. While the western “we” can engage in immaterial production, the existence of JIT and logistics makes sure that those “feelings” are communicated as “ commands” down the line of the global production chain. Through its reference to Southern American approaches to clothes, the piece avoids moralising, showing how resistance can come from an internal psychological mode of being or attitude.
Martin Howse Earth Computer 2014
No material is off-limits any more, everything can go into a unity with everything else through software and through semantics. Martin Howse started a series of experiments with Earth Computers. This was like an experiment in computer shamanism, pretending that the earth was computing, or behaving digitally. Working with rocks and fungi, for example, an assemblage is created that gives some credits to the idea that earth also computes. Gints Gabrans served a new enzyme which would allow people to eat paper and small pieces of wood. Food problem temporarily solved.
Gints Gabrans, Foood, installation view
Erich Berger's work observes if the world's magnetic poles are swapping sides, a process that would take decades, if it ever did occur. Berger's work is like a study room that allows people to engage with this “science”.
RIXC, Biotricity, Fields opening night
In many of those works – I should mention als RIXC's biotricity – a new relationship with nature is the central topic. A common denominator is that those works ask nature to do something. We have reached a historical turning point in our nature relation. Science has constructed nature as its lifeless other, a thing. Because nature was turned into a thing, it could also get exploited by capital. But now we discover that this thing has new characteristics. Through our technical prosthesis we can communicate with nature in new ways and thus develop a new nature relation. This nature relation is not characterized by its surface characteristics but by engaging with it as a lively force. In this new nature we discover a lot of ourselves, it is a nature 2.0 which has already been formed by us. Personally, I started reading philosophy of art from the Jena Romantics.
Their philosophy of art is interesting because it still had a premodern configuration, according to which philosophy stood above all other sciences. The extreme idealism, while providing absurd results when judged through the reductionist, positivist lense, contains a lot of inspiration for thinking about art and nature differently. In this Nature 2.0 information has become the key, it is the glue that brings everything together, the “force” behind the visible things. The next big task will be to deal with information in a way that goes beyond the limited concepts of mathematical information theory. We need to develop a new aesthetics and politics of information. We also need to consider data as a realistic sphere of our existence. Many such artworks together develop new ontologies, new materialisms. Nature, reconstructed in the digital image, emerged as a larger topic from Fields.
The exhibition Fields has raised the question which transdisciplinary practices offer the greatest potential for social change. We got some answers but these are just dots on the landscape. The exhibition has indeed confirmed that there are political art practices based on a particular crossing of skill-sets. What remains to be done is to look deeper into this question of transdisciplinarity. In the institutional system, they talk about interdisciplinarity since 40 years without ever coming closer to it. The system is built in such a way that over each field a chief watches so that nobody crosses it. Art thus remains one of the few areas where critical interlopers are possible. At the same time it would be wrong to assume that it is easy to cross the fields. Therefore, my proposal remains to start a discussion on categorisation. We need a critical vocabulary in order to formulate our topics, not just the old hat rhetoric of art and science. Such a critical vocabulary needs to become shared common knowledge, otherwise there can be no progress in this area. This is the other great danger, that everything becomes absorbed by innovation. That our creativity, skills and desires become part of he next big thing, some form of green capitalism, which is already on the horizon.
My own thinking goes away from technology. I think we have made a mistake by allowing people to belief that it is about technology, but it is not. It is about making an image of this world of which technology is a part. The technology is maybe better understood as a metaphor or allegory. The technopolitical tendency of history plays itself out. It also has a psycho-analytical side. The dialectical movement can liberate us from old thinking, from myth and superstition. The subject, as it becomes self-conscious, also uncovers the technological unconscious. Hegel and Lacan belong together, the moment of becoming is also passing through the collective psyche. We become conscious of what was lingering in the subconscious. But we can also fall back, as societies, that's what we experience with the populist neo-rightist parties which are so successful everywhere.
One tendency that I see is that a certain type of practices often hides the artist, the artist vanishes behind the work. Contemporary art has conducted a politics of form. What media art is doing is a politics of content, but this content is often purely machinic.
There exists an artistic subgenre, the experimental Kit, from Superweed Kit by Heath Bunting and Kate Rich, to the Dullart Media Player and projects such as Superglue, artists build technical Kits which they offer to the public. The art project takes on the outside demeanour of a commodity. It can be a piece of hard- and software, or use the commodity form in the way of a multiple. In the European context, the multiple has become popular in art through Edition MAT by Daniel Spoerri, and has been close to Pierre Restany's Noveaux Realisme.
While Superweed Kit clearly presents its subversive aims, the Kit art type assumes that the Kit allows you to carry out an activity which is basically an affirmation of liberal freedoms. Often this is some kind of communication tool that allows you to transmit freely some content. But this only replicates on the latest layer what has already been possible in this society. The Kits assume the liberal utopia of free choice and free media. Through buying the Kit, you assert those freedoms. Freedom of Speech but only for property owners. Only those Kits which are built in a Dadaistic manner have this irony already in their DNA.
The artistic repertoire of the Kit type of art remains limited, especially when considered more from a hacker point of view. The artists appear to promote something that open source developers have been doing for years, such as the Dyne software and player and the OpenWrt firmware. Dullart's media player presents itself as a piece of proprietary hardware, by the artist. The free and open soure software developers of Dyne and OpenWrt produce something that has moved beyond the commodity form, a peer based community software.
We need to identify the forms of mediation in the early 21st century which allow us to find a new synthesis of contemporary art and postmedia art. This means that hopefully we can continue with Fields, realising the second part, a critical vocabulary of notions of postmedia art.