Alain Kessi on Mon, 5 Jun 2000 17:51:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Communication Front - Technologies and elites

Hi there,

I thought I'd send my first contribution (Art, elites and technologies)
to this year's Communication Front around, in case some are interested
in a discussion in this direction.




Art, elites and technologies

by Alain Kessi

Communication Front is about art and technologies, about how artists can
make use of new technologies to open up new possibilities in their work,
about how communication technologies can help us break out of
geographical isolation - imposed by visa regimes like Schengen and by
financial dependency on funding from abroad - by spanning across
continents networks of people with common interests. Communication front
is also about how those technologies influence the relations between
people in and from East and West, and how these relations take shape
within the communication structures based on said technologies.

When reflecting on art and new technologies, a key notion seems to be
that of elites. There have been many traditions in the history of art
that referred in one way or another to their being part of an elite, an
avant-guarde, more perceptive of developments and chances, more apt to
show a way forward than others. Extreme examples may be the futurists,
or the expressionists. At the same time, perhaps because of the
perception of the state socialist regime until 1989 as levelling down
and hindering any effort, any search outside of a prescribed ordinary,
there is a tendency in Bulgaria, even outside the field of art, for
people to count themselves as part of an elite, to see themselves as
different from the herd, as standing out from a majority of common
people who are seen and described as simple-minded, uneducated, relicts
without a future.

This elitism, whether in art or in Bulgaria or both, often comes hand in
hand with contempt towards people who live in less industrialized
conditions, who are less included in the modern world, less familiar
with modern technologies. A frequently used derogatory word in Bulgarian
is "selianin", which means peasant or villager. The relation between the
city, Sofia, connected to the world, and the countryside, with an
altogether different time regime, is ambiguous. Few people in Sofia,
including net artists, are completely cut off from some sort of roots
outside the city, and many could hardly survive without the sacks of
potatoes and carots and the occasional piece of meat they receive from
their relatives who work a patch of land in the countryside, who look
after a sheep or two, a pig and a dozen chicken. And often, you will
hear someone living in Sofia tell you that if you know only Sofia, if
you haven't been to the countryside, if you haven't seen how people live
there, you don't know anything about Bulgaria. And nevertheless, often,
this notion that city life, modern life, is better than village life.
Not only in the sense that city life might be easier or in certain ways
more attractive, but also in the sense that people who have chosen
village life, or who have had no chance to escape from it, are
"seliani", mere villagers, simple-minded peasants.

Art, as a reflection on social developments, should always reflect on
its own tools, and on its own effect within the dynamic of social
relations. When we discuss art and technologies, we need to look at who
benefits from new technologies, and who is endangered by them. The
fifty-five year old woman who has been doing the bookkeeping of a small
company for the past fifteen years by hand - what happens to her when
her boss puts a computer in front of her, expecting her to switch to
electronic bookkeeping? Maybe she'll learn, read the f*** manuals,
acquire the knowledge needed and continue working to her boss's
satisfaction. And maybe she will not learn, will not understand why she
should switch to using a computer, since doing the bookkeeping by hand
has worked fine for so many years. Maybe she'll find computers so
foreign to her thinking that she will not manage. Maybe she'll find
herself, ten years before retirement, with solid skills in bookkeeping
but no chance to find a job.

New technologies, besides offering new possibilities to those who
acquire the new skills required, always also have the effect of
devaluating the knowledge of people familiar with older technologies, of
making such knowledge obsolete. By selecting between those who are
willing and able to adapt to the new requirements and those who refuse
or are unable to follow suit, new technologies are an elite-building
tool. By creating a pressure to adapt, they leave certain people behind
as "useless" on the garbage dump of history while giving others a chance
to secure themselves a relative position of power within an innovative

When artists use new technologies, they not only constitute themselves
as part of an innovative elite. If they do not actively subvert their
medium, they legitimize the mechanisms of elite-making, the innovations
which render other people obsolete in their knowledge and skills. In
their enthusiasm for the new medium - and there's no doubt that new
media are prone to arouse curiosity and enthusiasm - artists are likely
to make the power relations behind the medium invisible. I see it as a
central task of artists to attempt to resist participating in
stabilizing and perpetuating power structures and to find ways of
visualizing and representing the power relations inherent in the medium
they use.

In terms of East-West relations, it seems to me that Bulgarian or other
Eastern European artists have a certain advantage over their Western
colleagues in detecting and identifying the power relations hidden
behind the great new technologies, since they are likely to be more
sensitive to power biases between Western countries and Eastern Europe,
which are to a large extent based on differences in access to and
control over new technologies. The brain drain that sucks off Bulgarian
innovative elites into positions at Western universities, research and
development laboratories or - more temporarily - exhibition halls, is a
direct consequence of the way technologies structure the chances for
success (as well as the notions of what success means) according to the
access to those technologies, and of the way the geographical
distribution of this access reflects power relations of international

Communication Front seems like the ideal environment for discussing
in-depth the ways that technologies shape social relations, including
those between East and West, and to work on developing ways of
representing these processes and making hidden power structures evident.
Communication Front can become a place where "seliani" and net
afficionados can discuss how they want to live and how new technologies
might be approached in order to enable each to choose how they want to
live, without delegitimizing the other's choices or realities.

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