Josephine Berry on 10 Feb 2001 16:30:46 -0000

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<nettime> #1_Re-dematerialisation/Object/Artist/Biopower [of 3]

For anyone who's been following this painful process, here's another cha-
pter 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 historical repetitiousness by betraying her
own interest in preserving an equally revivalist definition of art. 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 assim-
ilation 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 '' 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 could 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 extent of its capacity to convert
the valueless into the valuable based on the minimal intercession of the
artist. This exceptional power of 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 manifesto-style text by
Alexei Shulgin called "Art, Power and Communication" , posted on the nettime
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 processes of its own historicisation. Dismissing
what he terms 'media art' - the computer based but offline precursor to net art -
for converting its communicative potential into a form of manipulation ameliorated
by 'nice words' such as 'interaction', Shulgin posits '' 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'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 capitalist (re)production as one might crudely 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
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 own 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.

->- -<- coming back soon

* ->- -<- * to follow

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