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NEW-MEDIA-CURATING 2001

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Subject:

from Grant Kester

From:

Grant Kester <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Curating digital art - www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb/

Date:

Sun, 8 Apr 2001 05:12:26 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (143 lines)

Dear CRUMB List,

I thought I’d send along some initial impressions based on recent CRUMB
postings. These are not particularly coherent or well organized; they are
simply meant to provide possible starting points for discussion, vis a vis
net art and activism. My first point of reference is Natalie Bookchin’s
criticism of the “either/or-ism” Critical Art Ensemble’s  (CAE) “Electronic
Civil Disobedience” (discussed in her January 2001 interview with Beryl
Graham). I think the basic contention here is that capital has entered a new
“nomadic” phase in which it no longer relies on physically static structures
(corporate HQs, banks, etc.), but rather, has become “virtual”. As a result
resistance to capital must reject “old fashioned” street-based activism and
instead operate solely through the subversion of information systems. Here
is what Natalie has to say:

“I would agree with Matt Fuller that the CAE position from 1994 can be seen
as a cynical and privileged position. I wish that CAE would write a follow
up to their polemic essay of that same year, "Electronic Civil Disobedience"
where they argued that the streets are dead, and "Electronic Civil
Disobedience" in the form of "electronic disturbance" (blocking the flow of
information in cyberspace) should replace traditional civil disobedience in
the streets.”

This raises the question, of course, of periodization. When exactly did
capital become ‘nomadic’? When the Dutch East India Company began building
“export processing zones” in Hong Kong (to mass produce china for the
European market) or when Hewlitt Packard opened its first factory in the
Philippines? Capital has always been “nomadic” if by that we mean intensely
mobile; but the power behind capital has always functioned through selective
concentration and strategic underdevelopment (whether or not it chooses to
make that power operational through materially intensive or spatially
anchored forms like traditional “central business districts,” etc.). Lurking
beneath this argument is (I think) a related set of assumptions about “post”
industrial society that would also need to be explored (see Alex
Callinicos’s book Against Postmodernism for a discussion of this debate or
my essay “Out of Sight is out of Mind: Virtual Reality and the
Postindustiral Working Class” on the URL below). It seems clear that
capitalist power has not become entirely virtualized, and that it can, and
in fact, must retain a spatial character. One need only drive from the
prison-like farming camps of San Quintin, Mexico to San Diego (where my
colleague Fred Lonider and many others are currently working) to experience
a rather graphic object lesson in this fact.

This question also opens up into a larger debate about the definition of
“community” that CAE, among many others, have also participated in (Jean Luc
Nancy, Miwon Kwon, The Miami Theory Collective, etc.). I would suggest that
this question of “community” might be a useful starting point for one strand
of discussion here. Nancy’s distinction between the “inoperative” community
(which is always “coming into being,” and never wholly formed) is juxtaposed
to the dangers of “fixed” communities or identities. The problem here is the
reassertion of a Manichean opposition between fixed and fluid, and a
tendency to project a quasi-metaphysical ontological model onto the
practical and strategic questions raised by actual activist work. The ideal
of what we might call a “non-fascist” mode of being in the world is always
useful to have as a navigational marker for practice, but can also become
disabling when it is used to simply dismiss whole areas of activist cultural
work as insufficiently self-reflexive.

A second point of reference is provided by Susan Collins (April 1, 2001)
comment on what might be termed “media formalism” (she writes about the
experience of seeing the underlying structure of a video feed start to break
up in transmission during a political conference).

“You ask what I (we?) may be looking for... For myself I think its about a
kind of honesty or integrity, or dare I even say a 'truth to materials'. You
can see the difference between analog and digital video physically when fast
forwarding and rewinding...”

This can certainly provide one framework for net art. I would suggest,
however, that it carries with it certain strategic limitations associated
with modernist formalism. Here, the mission of art is to determine its
media-specific conditions and to then refine and/or reveal these to the
viewer in various ways. In this context, the function of net art would be to
explore the inherent characteristics of certain media (rasters, programming
languages, etc.) and to use this exploration to bring the recipient into a
more critical awareness of the constructed-ness or the mediation that is
produced by this ostensibly transparent information system.

There are obviously many permutations of this view, from the overtly
critical Dziga-Vertov-esque, to the highly aestheticized. This latter
approach reminds me as well of a quote cited by Steve Deitz in “Why Have
There Been No Great Net Artists?”
(http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/webwalker/ww_042300.html) to the effect
that video art become worthwhile when it jettisoned its activist past and
simply explored its own “internal” condition as an art form. Consider the
shift from earlier video practitioners who often worked in the form of
collectives (Raindance, etc.) to the often ponderous, pretentious, and
resource-intensive output of “museumified” video Artists like Bill Viola or
Mary Lucier. Here is the quote that Deitz cites:

“Peter Lunenfeld has said that a medium only achieves its true potential in
its post-utopian moment. Look at video. It is only when it gave up on
changing the world that it has achieved its greatest success, becoming
almost de rigeur in the contemporary art scene. Generally, I agree with this
statement. Tonight, however, I want to believe the opposite…”

Is it possible that a net art or a net activist art could question rather
than reinforce the sorts of distinctions implied by these views; the idea
that the “internal” characteristics of a medium can be simply prised apart
from their cultural organization and used as the value-netural building
blocks of a new formalist art practice? An interesting point of reference
here is Paul Edwards book The Closed World, on the politics of digital and
analog systems in the early development of programming languages as part of
military research.

This model also preserves a fairly conventional idea of the relationship
between the artist and the viewer (various forms of revelation, shock or
correction overseen by the artist who is first able to recognize,
manipulate, and call attention to the slippery signifiers of a new medium).
I think that in some ways net based culture holds out an even more
challenging possibility; to force us to rethink the conventional identity of
the artist as someone who develops projects or works that are then
administered to a receptive viewer.

This leads to a final question, concerning the very relevance of the term
“art” in describing net-based cultural practices. One of the things that
makes e-mail “micromedia” an effective activist tool is the low cost and
ease of circulating information that can be used to mobilize others (I’m
thinking of Jonah Peretti’s e-mails about ordering a “sweatshop” label on
his custom Nike shoes, which reached millions of net users in a matter of a
few weeks). But what makes this same process a form of activist “art”?

My own work on activist art has begun with the argument that existing forms
of art criticism and theory are incapable of grasping the specific value of
certain contemporary activist practices that I would describe as
“dialogical” (works by Wochenklausur, Suzanne Lacy, Jay Koh, APG, Stephen
Willats, Platform, Projects Environment, etc.). This is because conventional
criticism is primarily oriented towards 1) an object-based hermeneutics
(what is my response to the phenomenological conditions of a specific
object) and 2) the critic’s own taste-based response towards that object (“I
like” or “I don’t like”).

I argue that it is necessary to develop a new aesthetic paradigm (actually
by returning to some rather old ideas about the aesthetic that predate its
specific application to physical objects we call “works of art”) based not
on objects but on process of communication. I term these projects
“dialogical” because they are organized not around object creation or
reception, but around the staging of dialogical encounters of various kinds
(see http://digitalarts.ucsd.edu/~gkester/). While most of them are based on
face-to-face performative interactions they are also suggestive relative to
certain kinds of net art. With that bit of shameless self-reference I will
conclude in th

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