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[Nettime-bold] #1_Re-dematerialisation/Object/Artist/Biopower
Josephine Berry on 9 Feb 2001 11:08:39 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] #1_Re-dematerialisation/Object/Artist/Biopower

For anyone who's been following this painful process, here's another chapter from my thesis. If you want the word version with footnotes fully integrated, please mail me.


The re-dematerialisation of the Object and the Artist in Biopower


One of the first extensive analyses of net art outside the dedicated techno-cultural press was an article, entitled "Man sieht, was man sieht: Anmerkungen zur Netzkunst" ("What you see is what you see: remarks on net art"), by Isabelle Graw in Texte zur Kunst in December 1998 . Graw, who is also the editor of this art journal, announced her determination to cut through the mutual suspicion of the on- and offline art worlds and expose this emergent art form to the scrutiny of an expert. Despite reporting how the majority of the art establishment doubted the existence of anything 'artistically valuable' on the Net, she confusingly justifies her move to investigate the net art phenomenon through reference to a series of high profile shows and appointments at respected institutions . Graw then combats her begrudging admission of net art's developing avant garde status (widely rejected and hence totally irresistible to agenda setting art institutions) with the observation that net !
artists are reviving key concepts from the 1970s and 1980s. In her account, "the 'Fake', the 'appropriation', but also 'institutional critique' and 'dematerialisation'" . Graw rounds off her introduction by accusing artists of disguising their redeployment of canonical art strategies through their relocation in the radical unfamiliarity of the Net itself. Despite the historical inaccuracy of dating some of these strategies back to the 1970s rather than the 1960s, her remarks uncover something crucial - the fact that, despite the declarations by certain net artists that in entering this new communications medium they were also entering a historically unencumbered, extra-institutional phase of art in which, amongst other things, commodification is defeated by dematerialisation and historicism by communication, many of net art's premises do indeed condemn it to a series of historical repetitions. In her conclusion, however, Graw undermines the persuasiveness of her charge of hist!
orical repetitiousness by betraying her own interest in preserving
 Accusing net art of becoming indistinguishable from its context through the classic avant-garde quest for the elision of art and 'life praxis' (as against what she deems to be the successful preservation of art's particularity in the extra-gallery excursions of the magazine works of Dan Graham), it provides the ultimate object lesson in art's impoverishment under such a strategy. In return for only the most meagre advances, what gets lost is art's most precious quality; its autonomy and the freedoms this affords.

In this chapter, I will attempt to demonstrate how, if anything, the opposite is true. No matter how hard net artists strove to free art from its commodity value and the supporting structures of its legitimisation, mediation, exhibition, interpretation and historicisation, precisely by preserving  the notion of art, net artists condemned themselves to the same fate suffered by all of the 20th century avant-gardes - the ultimate assimilation of its gestures by the art market mechanism. This is the by now all too familiar story of how the very attempt to flee such relations, the bold leap towards an autonomous field of practice. ends up providing the market with its new space of expansion. This is a conclusion borne out irrefutably by the sale of Valéry Grancher's net artwork Longitude 38 to the Cartier Foundation for $5,000 in 1999. Although by no means an impressive amount of money for a work of art, this payment (no doubt exceeded by now) silences any claims that net art may !
have successfully escaped its own commodification through dematerialisation, digital reproducibility and its existence within a many-to-many communications medium. As we will see, many of the early net artists - those most closely associated with the epithet 'net.art' and attributed with the work of the 'heroic period'  - who directly challenged and flaunted the mores of contemporary art practice in the latter half of the 1990s, not to mention the strategies of the burgeoning new economy itself, are also the most celebrated by art institutions the world over . 

However, the familiarity of this outcome does not imply that the net artists under consideration here should be accused of merely relocating existing canonical art moves to a new terrain, only to be run to ground by an ever hungry art market. What interpretations such as Graw's miss is that the exportation of conceptual and postmodern strategies such as dematerialisation, appropriation and fakery into the Net doesn't simply entail a change of medium and production/viewing context. Instead, this new configuration unleashes very different outcomes which expose the contradictions of art's supposed autonomy and inescapable commodity status even further, as well as partaking in a new order of techno-social production and relations which challenge and threaten to upset the very basis of such a contradiction. Here I refer to the Net's impact in all areas of social, cultural, economic and political life which is altering the ground on which 'art' stands. In as much as the Internet cou!
ld be said to perfect the conditions of 'mercantile interconnection', even the most cautious of commentators have noted its profound impact on politics. If the Internet has ignited Western neo-liberal dreams of "forging a new Athenian age of democracy" , it has also contributed to some of the greatest challenges to global capitalism in decades, from consumer revolutions like the one surrounding Napster to the organisation of anti-WTO and IMF protests the world over. This chapter will not only consider the ways in which net art tried and failed to elude the art market, but also whether the associated strategies of plagiarism, multiple identities, piracy and hypertext produce an unrecuperable excess. 

Re-dematerialisation - a simple 'revival'?

In the 'Postface' to her book Six Years: the dematerialisation of the art object from 1966 to 1972, Lucy Lippard concedes, in the face of its greater failures, a small victory for the dematerialisation of art. In words that, when excised from their context seem reminiscent of Isabelle Graw's phlegmatic position, Lippard admits that "the mere survival of something still called Art in a world so intolerant of the useless and uningratiating indicates that there is some hope for the kind of awareness of that world which is uniquely imposed by esthetic criteriaŠ" . Interestingly though, this small freedom salvaged from the all-pervasive efficiency of post-war capitalist expansion, seems almost negligable for Lippard in light of dematerialised art's failures. In the mid-60s 'conceptual or idea or information art' had seemed to promise art's necessary liberation from "the tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation"  because any material expression could be understood as a '!
by-product'  of the idea rather than as a formal aesthetic expression, thereby separating the art-as-idea from its 'perfunctory' and hence valueless materialisation. This release from the dictates of aesthetics also heralded an end to the cloistering of art away from the other disciplines which so clearly informed it. But, in Lippard's early estimation made in her 'Postface' in 1973, this project had failed as collectors and institutions began to find value in the 'ephemera' in which the art idea or event was recorded. In essence, neither the production of a non-aesthetic or as Daniel Buren would have it ' neutralised' art, in which the work's materiality would either provide a mere second-order record of a preceding event or idea or an assault on the very possibility of artistic expression, intention or judgement, could evade or destroy the art market mechanism. It was perhaps with the '60s and '70s experiments into dematerialisation that the (art) market revealed the full ex!
tent of its capacity to convert the valueless into the valuable ba
 the artist to transfigure the prosaic even against their own will (the inexplicable value of, say, the artist's scribbled set of instructions) into that which the market capitalises and the layman reveres came directly under attack during this time. Referring to an older order of artist Buren's 1968 invective can, with hindsight, also be applied perfectly well to conceptual art:

 "When you believe in art, certain things are seen in relation to it - if not, they don't exist, which seems absurd to me. Art is, as they say, a truth that, by symbolisation, development and organisation, shows that the exterior world exists and is beautiful and wouldn't be so if art were not. This is actually what art is and what we must revolt against. Thinking and saying that "there was no London fog before Turner" is very pretty and poetic, but it is outrageous. It's an attack on the mind of the individual. It forces him to have the same dream as you. After seeing Cézanne, that is how I became one of these mental prisoners who believed they saw Sainte-Victoire Mountain as he represented it. I believed "in" art. When I lost the faith, I noticed that the mountain had disappeared. At last I saw Sainte-Victoire Mountain." 

Though perhaps obvious, it is important to emphasise that the intention of conceptual artists was to attack and dismantle art's ownership of these transformative powers and the inequities implied in such ownership, and not to outlaw them as such. At times when witnessing the attacks on artistic expression mounted by conceptual artists it is possible to mistake the artworks' aesthetic refusals as a statement about the bankruptcy of 'creativity' per se. While attacking the regressive ciphers of the privileged artistic subject, the intention is also to stimulate a more active kind of looking on the part of the viewer and hence a devolution of that activity of perception, synthesis, articulation, imagination and so on that traditionally belongs to the artist. As Lippard and John Chandler understood it in 1968, the artwork's 'apparent hostility' is better understood as 'aloofness and self-containment' which demand a greater effort of interpretation by the viewer:

"More time must be spent in experience of a detail-less work, for the viewer is used to focusing on details and absorbing an impression of the piece with the help of these details." 

If we take the concept of dematerialisation to be as much about the decentering of the site of art's production and reception away from the singularities of its subject and object as it is about an (intimately related) attack on art's commodity status, we can find strong echoes of conceptual art practice in early net art. Despite the net.artists' interest in the 'immaterial' medium of the Net and the apparent difficulty it raises for commodifying art as a result of the absence of any unique object, it is hard to be convinced that they considered dematerialisation quite as 'optimistically' as their predecessors given the rhetoric of failure that surrounds this particular aspect of conceptual art. Before looking more closely at how issues of ownership and copyright have been handled by these artists and how this, in turn, redounds on the bigger question of art's function, it is worth making some more observations on the devolution of creative action in net art. In a key manifest!
o-style text by Alexei Shulgin called "Art, Power and Communication" , posted on the nettime mailing list on October 7th 1996, he shifts the site of resistance to the forces of historicism and its attendant power interests to 'communication' as against the conceptualists' Platonic 'idea'. Shulgin claims that both past and future only exist in the form of self-serving representations used to obtain power over the present, which is accordingly eclipsed along with the volatility of its immanent potential. He views this situation as a consequence of a lack of communication which renders people susceptible to an imposed picture of the past and future. Art, which in essence is the "will for communication", is similarly stunted and manipulated by an institutionally imposed picture of its history. The art produced under such circumstances can only be an "art based on the idea of representation", presumably because in order to have a reality it must make itself compatible with the proc!
esses of its own historicisation. Dismissing what he terms 'media 
 - for converting its communicative potential into a form of manipulation ameliorated by 'nice words' such as 'interaction', Shulgin posits 'net.art' as holding the radical potential to dissolve art into communication. Intriguingly, given net art's own subsequent institutional assimilation and the celebration of its individual producers, Shulgin cautions that net.art's greatest problems are "deeply rooted in a social determination of the notions 'art' and 'artist'". In the concept of communication he therefore locates the potential to combat the tyranny of historical representation and, to borrow a term from Ian Burn, its  'pre-alienation' of creativity and the present as well as the power to resist the imposed framework of 'art' - "a suppressive system [sic] [artists were] obliged to refer [their] creative activity to" .

Through his emphasis on communication as against dematerialisation, Shulgin appears to display an understanding not only of the ease with which commodification can continue in the absence of the object, but also of the very different world in which net art is operating. As Howard Slater has pointed out, in the worst instances conceptual art functioned "as the vanguard of a capitalism that was slowly getting to grips with monetizing ideas" . No matter how clearly we can see the origins of today's informatisation of economics in conceptual art, identifying the striking differences between these two historical moments is more useful than the continuities. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have recently and persuasively argued, with the completion of the project of modernity and the subsequent 'postmodernisation' of global economic relations and the social relations that are produced along with them, we are entering the age of 'biopower'. What Negri and Hardt mean by this term is!
 that where once, in the 'disciplinary society' (to which the conceptual artists still belonged), the bulk of economic labour was occupied with the mass production of commodities in discrete and specialised spaces such as factories, and in which the accumulation and realisation of capital required an outside, now the capitalist economy has lost its outside, turned inward and began a 'real subsumption' of the social bios itself. The proletariat - no longer understood as a hegemonic category of workers, but as anyone who is exploited by the labour relations of capitalism - is now occupied with "the production of life itself" . Although there is not space here to outline the enormous scope of Negri and Hardt's discussion of the new postmodern, centreless and globalised constellation of power which they term 'Empire', the concept of biopower will be very useful to our present discussion. For them, biopower or 'biopolitical production' is more than a recognition of the collapse of !
the gap between base and superstructure or the social nature of ca
 describe Foucault's discussion of it, but also the intensification of 'general intellect' (a term they borrow from Marx) or 'mass intellectuality'. By this they mean that the increasingly immaterial, communicative, co-operative and/or affective nature of labour has produced a newly integrated and reactive social body or 'multitude'. So the flipside of capitalism's penetration into the very 'ganglia' of social life under biopolitical production is the huge potential unleashed by a newly communicative multitude:

"The immediately social dimension of the exploitation of living immaterial labour immerses labour in all the relational elements that define the social but also at the same time activates the critical elements that develop the potential of insubordination and revolt through the entire set of labouring practices. After a new theory of value, then, a new theory of subjectivity must be formulated that operates primarily through knowledge, communication, and language."  

It is also important to note that although Negri and Hardt see ICT as central to this process, that they do not understand biopower operating exclusively within the horizon of language and communication. They counter that one of the most serious shortcomings of recent 'Italian Marxist' authors' contributions to this discussion is the tendency "to treat the new labouring practices in biopolitical society only in their intellectual and incorporeal aspects. The productivity of bodies and the value of affect, however, are absolutely central in this context."  

So inflecting the net artists' 'revival' of conceptualist and post-modern art moves in the new context of the Net are both the coming to consciousness of a new biopolitical mode of production in which this 'transferral' occurs (e.g. the crystallisation of theories of the 'network society' occasioned by the advent of the World Wide Web) as well as the associated implications it has for the immaterial sphere of information and ideas. I would like to propose that net art, and particularly its early manifestations, entails the kind of nuanced and bitter-sweet understanding to its immaterial and communicative context that Negri and Hardt also share in their analysis of biopower. In contrast to conceptual artists, and as we shall see from the works discussed below, net artists understood immateriality as part of a broader reorganisation of social and economic relations in which mass communication provides the redemptive possibility of devolving creativity and with it the artist's ow!
n dissolution. Crucial here is the idea that art's existence within the Net and outside the gallery's confines - a site inextricably linked to art's separate and special status - newly embeds 'art' within the social field. As Howard Slater argues in relation to the political conceptual art practice of the 1960s and 1970s, the artist's work in the social field in the best instances can effect a catalysis which 'cathects' the desire already circulating in the social field. He contrasts this albeit occasional achievement to the 'young British artists' attempts to cathect social desire through a "flirtation with popular culture" which foundered on their inability to step outside of the isolated confines of the art world and risk an unpredictable encounter in the wider social field . Here we will consider to what extent the extension of artistic practice to the Net reproduces or breaks with the limitations of such a confinement.

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