Eric Kluitenberg on Wed, 23 Jan 2002 09:46:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Transfiguration of the Avant-Garde / The Negative Dialectics of the Net

dear <nettimers>,

This text is the result of a series of lectures in Prague, Warsaw, Moscow
and Gothenburg. The text arose out of a necessity I felt to rephrase,
underscore and expand a set of ideas previously circulated in a text
called "Smash the Surface / ...". Some of the material presented there
reappears here, but quite dramatically transformed and reframed. I was
asked by the editors of the Swedish cultural journal Glaenta to rework the
lecture material in an essay, which you find here. It will be published in
Swedish translation there. I hope some of you will like this material.



Transfiguration of the Avant-Garde
The Negative Dialectics of the Net

By Eric Kluitenberg

In his essay "Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime", the French
philosopher Jean-François Lyotard observes that Capitalism, the
Techno-Sciences and the Pictorial Avant-Garde of the twentieth century
share an 'affinity to infinity'. All three point towards a sensibility
that is constitutive for the experience of the modern world.

Lyotard is well known for having coined the term 'postmodern' for a
certain diagnosis of the social conditions of the advanced capitalist
societies. His work fascinates because of the intersection it creates
between contemporary aesthetics, the avant-garde (especially in the visual
arts), and their relationship to the seemingly separate areas of the
technosciences and advanced capitalism.

Paradoxically, however, the position he takes vis-à-vis the new
technologies, and especially the process of digitalisation, is stifling
for a debate about a critical engagement with these technologies. His
position denies the possibility of critical artistic and cultural activity
in the realm of digital mediation, exactly at a point where his reading of
the avantgarde could play a tremendously productive role: in a further
exploration of this affinity to infinity that not only informs the
avant-garde, the techno sciences and advanced capitalism, but that can
also be recognised in the rise of what sociologist Manuel Castells has
called the network society

Lyotard's exploration starts with the assertion of the 'impossibility' of
painting. So this is where I will start to consider his argument.


For Lyotard painting's impossibility results from the arrival of
photography, which makes painting economically unsustainable, whilst
photography itself, and the act of image making falls prone to the
infinity of the capitalist production / consumption cycle.

He writes: "Something 'too beautiful' is inherent in the perfectly
programmed beauty of the photograph: an infinity; not the indeterminacy of
feeling, but the infinite ability of science, of technology, of capital to
realise. The ability of machines to function is, by principle, subject to
obsolescence, because the accomplishments of the most esteemed capitalists
demand the perpetual reformulation of merchandise and the creation of new
markets. The hardness of industrial beauty contains the infinity of
techno-scientific and economic reasons.

The destruction of experience that this implies is not simply due to the
introduction of that which is "well-conceived" into the field of
aesthetics. Science, technology, and capital, in spite of their
matter-of-fact approach, are also modes of making concrete the infinity of
ideas. Knowing all, being capable of all, having all, are their horizons -
and horizons extend to infinity. The ready-made in the techno-sciences
presents itself as a potential for infinite production, and so does the

The pictorial avant-garde responded to painting's "impossibility" by
engaging in research centred around the question, "What is painting?" One
after another previous assumptions about the painter's practice were put
on trial and debated. Tonality, linear perspective, the rendering of
values, the frame, the format, the supports, surface, medium, instrument,
place of exhibition, and many other presuppositions were questioned
plastically by the various avant-gardes." [1]

The great transformation in the act of image making that the avant-gardes
introduce according to Lyotard is not so much their insistence on constant
transformation of the visual field. These transformations perform a highly
specific function, they all point towards the fact that any convention of
image making not only presents a specific possibility of giving order to
the visual field, but that it simultaneously conceals the infinity of
possible alternative modes of ordering that visual field. This infinity of
alternate visual modes is necessarily absent from the image as it remains
unrepresentable. It is, however, referred to indirectly by the denial of a
definite visual order of things.

And Lyotard asserts: "The avant-garde painter feels an overriding
responsibility to the fulfilment of the imperative implied by the
question, 'What is painting?'. Essentially what is at stake is the
demonstration of the invisible in the visual." [2]

Entering the realm of the negative sign...

The avant-garde painters engaged in a negative dialectic of the image - a
continuous invention of visual modes that challenge and negate previous
propositions of what an appropriate image looks like. This process of the
negation of dominant artistic conventions can be illustrated with some
classic examples of avant-garde interventions:

- Cubism; breaking up the unified perspective.

In the cubist painting the object represented is shown from different
viewing angles simultaneously, thus alluding consciously to the artificial
constraints of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, and
acknowledging the fact that the eye only perceives when it is in constant
motion. The cubists understood that therefore visual perception always
rests on the combination of a multitude of images received from different
viewing angles, even when the eye is firmly fixed on a certain object.
With their multidimensional perspective the cubists denied the validity of
linear perspective (as it is programmed in the photographic machine), as
the 'correct' representation of the world in visual terms.

- Simultaneity; breaking the unity of time.

The beautiful image of Giacomo Balla "Dynamism of a dog on the line" of
1912 perfectly illustrates the point. Rather than showing only one moment
frozen in time, the image represents a series of moments in one image -
the paws of the dog moving swiftly as he tries to keep track with the
elegant lady walking the dog. Frantisek Kupka had started introducing this
principle of simultaneity to painting, inspired by the chronophotography
of Etienne Jules Marey. And of course Duchamp's famous "Nude descending a
staircase" further imprinted this visual principle upon the public
consciousness. Here the arbitrary nature of the frozen image, as opposed
to the constant flux of life processes, is acknowledged and revealed. We
know from historical sources that the experiments with photographing
animal motion revealed that their traditional representation in 'realist'
painting and sculpture was but a convention.

- Abstraction; breaking away from figuration

This case is all too obvious, looking back from a contemporary point of
view. With the acceptance of abstraction, painting shed its last ties to
an illusionist mode of representation. Rather than representing a specific
outside reality beyond the painting itself, it could now become an
inverted symbol for the infinity of the visual and the infinity of ideas.

In the end the process of negation of dominant visual languages even
abolished the image itself. Emblematically, in the case of the black
square of Malevich. Here the image has become a non-image: Devoid of
shape, colour, texture or representation the painting had become a
negative sign; an inverted sign for the absence of the image. But this
absence did not point towards the impossibility of image production as
such. Rather it had become a negative sign for the unrepresentable
infinity of possible modes of visual invention, or what Lyotard describes
as "the infinity of plastic invention".

Thus Lyotard concludes that the avant-garde painters introduced painting
into the field opened by the aesthetic of the sublime. In the Kantian
formula an "Un-Form", something that cannot be synthesised into a unique
form in space and time, as (by no coincidence), the concept of infinity.

The immaterials / Les Immatériaux

In 1985 Lyotard was responsible, together with Thierry Chaput director of
the Centre de Creation Industrielle for the concept and realisation of a
ground breaking exhibit called Les Immatériaux - roughly translated as
"The Immaterials". What Les Immatériaux tried to do was to highlight and
intensify a sensibility about the things in our immediate surroundings
that are changing because of the fact of the new materials and new
conceptions of reality that derive from technoscientific enquiry.

In the press-release for "Les Immaterieux" of January 8, 1985 he states:

 "Why 'Immaterials' ? Research and development in the techno-sciences, art
and technology, yes even in politics, give the impression that reality,
whatever it may be, becomes increasingly intangible, that it can never be
controlled directly - they give the impression of a complexity of things.
(...) The devices themselves are also becoming more complex. One step was
set as their artificial brains started to work with digital data; with
data that have no analogy to their origin. It is as if a filter has been
placed between us and the things, a screen of numbers. (...) A colour, a
sound, a substance, a pain, or a star return to us as digits in schemes of
utmost precision. With the encoding and decoding-systems we learn that
there are realities that are in a new way intangible. The good old matter
itself comes to us in the end as something which has been dissolved and
reconstructed into complex formulas. Reality consists of elements,
organised by structural rules (matrixes) in no longer human measures of
space and time."

Technoscientifc enquiry thus testifies to the infinite malleability of the
concept of reality. Reality according to Lyotard first of all consists of
the messages that we receive about it. But these messages increasingly are
mediated by ever more complex machines. Digitalisation introduces a final
level of abstraction into this process, by imposing a finite scheme of
encoding that translates all messages into one abstract universal code,
the digital code; a code without an analogy to its origin.

"The model of Language replaces the model of matter", Lyotard asserts, and
with it the concept of reality becomes as malleable as language itself.

Critical Arts in the Age of Total Media Incorporation

The capitalist commodification of everything includes the domain of
beauty, and even that of those monstrous negative non-entities that used
to be the exclusive terrain of the avant-garde. Long since have these
negative modes of representation been identified as marketing tools to
provide access to fringe and niche markets. They have become a capacity of
distinction and a possibility for identification for those market segments
that the aesthetics of beauty tends to exclude. Aesthetics, both in its
positive forms as well as its negative manifestations, thus has become
part of the infinite quest for new markets that is ingrained in the very
heart of the capitalist logic.

For Lyotard digitalisation marks the final incorporation of experience in
a finite scheme of coding - the digital matrix. With it experience is
trapped in the system of technoscientific logic and its infinite quest to
transform the concept of reality. Within technoscientific logic, the world
is translated into a problem as coding, as Donna Haraway puts it, and made
entirely subject to the functional demands of scientific enquiry and the
advanced forms of informational capitalism. Within the system of digital
mediation escape from this defining logic is no longer possible,
incorporation is complete.

Against this view I would like to propose a completely opposite analysis
of digital mediation. The system of digital mediation, and in particular
the sphere of networked digital communication, presents itself as a highly
productive domain for critical strategies and artistic intervention.
Interestingly, it is the legacy of the avant-gardes of the last century
that provides an enormously useful set of conceptual tools and references
to develop a critical engagement with the conditions of digital mediation.
The context these avantgarde strategies are played out in is, however,
radically transformed. It takes these strategies far beyond the sanctified
realm of the arts.

The Negative Screen

The screen of global media presents itself as a seamless surface; be
connected wherever you go, see whatever happens anywhere, and all this in
real-time. It is the dreamed image of global mediation. The industrial
model of broadcast media, television and radio, in the age of digital
media is diversified to fine-tune the media offerings to ever more precise
market segmentations. The clean and seamless surface is the mythological
image of the networked media age. In the ideology of its protagonists it
should remain unchallenged, inviolable. The mechanisms directing this
permanent electronic enactment of the world remain well out of sight,
deliberately hidden beneath the illusionary surface of the screen.

The absolute horror of the media professional is the interrupted
broadcast. In the TV format it is sometimes witnessed in an ultimately
brief interval as a traumatic black screen - the moment when the signal
drops away, when the spectacle suddenly turns into a black square,
ironically reminiscent of Malevich's sign of the infinite.  In radio the
despair of silence is even greater than the absence of the image on TV.  
Horror Vacui is replaced here by an electronic form of Horror Silentiae.
The silence of the faded radio signal and the blackness of the imploded TV
screen do not merely mark the absence of a signal. The horror implied is
the immanent destruction of the illusion of the seamless media surface,
which requires the continuous suggestion of immediacy and connection that
gives the viewer the reassuring impression of the transparency of the
media screen.

It is the moment when this flow is interrupted, when the code is broken,
or when the sound has collapsed and the screen has extinguished, that the
possibility for an alternative message, a new code is created. This is the
space of negation: The void created by the rupture is the open field in
which a new synthesis of unique forms in space and time becomes possible.
The emergence of the new code out of the void of the Horror Silentiae
reconfirms the connection of the media subject to the world. It is in this
moment of delight over the conquered threat of the end of existence /
connection that the avantgardes can come into play and transform the
meaning of the media codes.

The strategies, the conceptual tools, the tactics of intervention in the
new digital hypersphere are highly familiar. They draw on the legacy and
experience of the avant-garde movements. Indeed many of the interventions
that have been most successful in engaging the new conditions of digital
mediation have been artistic interventions. But something has dramatically
changed; the object these interventions engage is no longer the aesthetic
framework of contemporary art, not the holy concept of the author, nor the
artist genius, or the canonised conventions of artistic creation. What is
challenged is the seamless surface of the networked media spectacle
itself, and its illusion of stability. The negative dialectics of the
digital avant-garde no longer challenge the notions of art, but those of
the by nature symbolical digital realm it operates in, and its inherent

The Aesthetics of Impropriety

The pure and simple disruption of media signals is an obvious strategy of
challenging the dominant media codes, but it is not a very interesting
one. The disruption of the appropriate flow of media signals is only the
entry-point for an alternative discourse, nothing more.

The transference of the classical avant-garde's negative dialectics of the
image to the networked media screen has been executed most
paradigmatically by the artists duo jodi.org3. In their now famous web
site they have been creating incomprehensible, yet highly poetic and
evocative visual and sometimes auditory processes that seem to reverse the
hierarchy of the professional media screen.

All sense of connection is lost, intelligibility is gone. Instead of
conventional presentation of printed page type lay-outs with a mediocre
amalgamation of pseudo-moving imagery, supported by lengthy invisible sets
of code, at the screen is in constant flux and sometimes sudden
stasis. There is no clear relationship between action of the viewer and
response by the system. Sometimes the page halts, but we don't understand
why, then again the screen suddenly changes but we are left clueless why
this happened, and why at this particular moment. Continuously the screen
is strewn with codes that can sometimes be recognised as fragments of
disjunct html coding, sometimes as meaningless ascii garbage and sometimes
just sheer incomprehensible and meaningless codes.

The artists often received the question, "what is this all about??", to
which there is no answer. The imagery and processes the viewer witnesses
upon entering the site are deliberately 'inappropriate'. Their ambiguous
and incomprehensible nature refers to the virtually inexhaustible array of
possible modes of representation in the digital hypersphere.
often seeks out the mistakes in the software. A careful analysis of new
mainstream software products reveals where the bugs are, and these
mistakes, that may cause delay, flimmering screens, erratic movement or
infinite repeat-loops, are immediately transformed into aesthetic
material. These 'mistakes' then become not the disruption of a code, but
the essence of the new code that replaces the conventional ones
for. In short what creates is a set of negative signs that point
towards the infinity of alternative codes of writing and reading networked

The impressive Wrong-Browser project [4] makes this point even clearer.
Here we are presented with a set of browsers that read html code and
process them as abstract datastructures, represented in a highly colourful
aesthetic language which is programmed in the browser-software. The
browser becomes a subjective machine for aesthetic processing, the
outcomes of which are defined by the contestational logic of its program

A Case of Mistaken Indentity...

The US-based art collective (r)TMark employed quite a different strategy,
but one that reveals the vulnerability of the web based representational
systems more dramatically. In 1999 during the anti-WTO / G8 protests in
Seattle rTMark produced a web site which has since become well known in and net-culture circles. The site was named after the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, one of the early global trade
liberalisation treaties that many of the protestors on the street were

At first glance the site looked very much like the official web
site of the World Trade Organisation ( ). No surprise
since rTMark had simply copied the entire lay-out, graphics and pictures
from the original WTO site for its own, including the welcoming word of
the WTO director Mike Moore and his picture. The text is however entirely
reversed. Where the original WTO site sings the benefits of trade
liberalisation and global free trade, the site laments the
destruction of democratic politics and the lack of social and
environmental responsibility that informs the trade liberalisation
negotiations. The section with policy documents of the WTO site is
meanwhile replaced with counter documents of many of the social and
ecological movements and groups protesting at the time in the streets of

This would have probably gone more or less unnoticed, had the WTO not
attempted to intervene in the publication of the web site.
Infuriated by this case of, in the WTO's view, illegitimate appropriation
of their corporate image, they issued a warning on their site warning the
public about a fake and misleading web site "purporting to be the official
web site of the World Trade Organisation". The site "compromised
transparency" of the WTO and its efforts to make policy documents publicly
available via their web site.

Of course the warning was quickly adopted in the site, now
claiming the WTO site to be illegitimate. This continued in a cat and
mouse game that resulted in the WTO issuing an official press release
denouncing the attack on the "organisation's transparency" by a fringe art
group. With this press release the site hack became world news and
attracted millions of visitors to the web site.

Strangely, the story did not end there. After the attention for the
struggle about the appropriated site died down, and the WTO decided to
change the entire lay-out of its web site, the seemed to lead a
quite life as an archived document of a curious artistic intervention in
networked global politics. However, after some time the rTMark collective
started receiving e-mails from visitors to the site that
indicated that these visitors were still under the impression of visiting
the WTO site, despite the notably different content of the messages on the
site. These e-mails included invitations to high-level international trade
conferences as official representatives of the World Trade Organisation.

rTMark adopted an alternate guise ("The Yesmen") to respond to these
friendly invitations, and accepted a limited number of invitations by
actually going to these conferences to lecture, posing as an official
representative of the World Trade Organisation. One of the most hilarious
of these site-specific performances is the lecture given at an
international textile producers conference in Tampere, Finland. The action
is extensively documented on the "" site. [5] In this lecture
one of the artists first gives a totally implausible account of
free-trade, and then reveals a golden suit that supposedly provides the
manager of the future with bodily feedback about productivity in the
sweatshops they are controlling. Immediate contact with the work-floor is
provided by a gigantic inflatable phallus fitted with a videoscreen that
has a wireless connection to the sweatshop in real-time - be connected
wherever you go!

Seamlessly this performance crosses over from the imaginary (the
web site) to the real (the textile trade conference in Tampere), and back
to the imaginary (rTMark's sarcastic staged lecture / performance).
Amazingly the lecture remained totally unchallenged by conference
participants, testifying to the strong belief they put in the fact that
they were presented with an actual representative of the WTO. This
expectation was built on the initial belief of the organisers in the
representational system of the web site they visited, its WTO iconography,
its tone of voice and familiar narratives for trade liberalisation, even
if, as in the site, the message carried by these narratives was
entirely reversed. Beyond this mistaken identity and its hilarious
results, the action reveals the seamless transition between the real and
the imaginary within the networked media spectacles.

To act;  the geste...

The sphere of international economics and politics has become inseparably
linked with the new constellations of broadcast and networked media. The
principal challenge of the network society is the complete fusion of
media, digital technology, economics and politics. The logic of the
digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society. This fact on
the one hand marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has become
completely intertwined with the *real* world. At the same time, however,
every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by virtue
of how it is mapped in the digital domain.

Beyond representation, the space of digital networks has become the
backbone of economic interaction, enabling the immediacy of financial and
economic flows across the geographical and territorial divides. The
connections between the networked structures and the physical domains they
hook up with each other, have become so diversified and interdependent
that it is no longer useful to distinguish the physical geography as
'real', from the networked constellations as 'virtual'. In fact the very
opposition of the real and the virtual has become misleading. Geography
and technological, social and economic networks together create one system
that becomes increasingly integrated and sophisticated. But this system is
highly problematic because it excludes more than it allows.

The new sphere of networked media and communications is intrinsically
vulnerable to the type of interventions described above. This double sided
nature of the net is puzzling in many respects. On the one hand digital
networks appear as the ultimate control apparatus, but simultaneously they
remain a refuge for alternative views, a space without final closure,
always only partially under control, and in permanent transformation. The
authority of the system is challenged when the seamless surface of the
media-interface and its illusion of transparency are broken and
reconstructed in a multitude of alternative agenda's, indeed an infinity
of alternative micro- and macro-political agenda's.

Saskia Sassen once pointed out, and quite rightfully so, that the Internet
is constituted by the practices employed in it. But the nature of
interventions in this space of networks transcends the limits of
conventional representational systems. There is a specific form of
performativity here, where the symbolic interventions on the level of
social discourse become paradoxically real. Rather than 'representing'
reality, the intervention is an act, a geste, that 'creates' an
alternative reality in the immediacy of its digital mediation.


The conditions that create this specific form of performativity are what
sociologist Manuel Castells has described as the "Culture of Real
Virtuality", in his famous book "The Rise of the Network Society"6.
Castells asks the question what is "(..) a communication system that, in
contrast to earlier historical experience, generates real virtuality?"

"It is a system in which reality itself (that is people's
material/symbolic existence) is entirely captured, fully immersed in a
virtual image setting, in the world of make believe, in which appearances
are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated, but
they become the experience. All messages of all kinds become enclosed in
the medium, because the medium has become so comprehensive, so
diversified, so malleable, that it absorbs in the same multimedia text the
whole of human experience, past, present, and future, as in the unique
point of the Universe that Jorge Luis Borges called Aleph." [7]

Castells goes on to show that the culture of real virtuality is not a
condition that is entirely specific to the system of networked media and
communications . The specific superimposition of the real and the
imaginary onto each other and within one and the same multimedia text, is
something that already began to form within the television age, but it is
heightened and intensified with the emergence of new and ever more
diversified networked and wireless communication media.

Castells himself takes his prime example from American television; a
strange blending of fiction and reality that happened during the election
campaign for the US presidency in 1992. At the time George Bush snr. and
vice-president Dan Quayle were competing with the Clinton/Gore team.

In a televised election speech Dan Quayle started to attack the fictional
persona Murphy Brown, the main character of a popular TV series by the
same name. The main character was played by the actress Candice Bergen.
Murphy Brown was a typical independent woman, living in one of the major
cities of the US, unmarried and well in control of her life. She (MB)
decides at some point that she wants to have a child, but without a
father, and she decides to arrange the necessary steps to have that child.
And it is exactly at this point that Quayle intervenes and attacks her for
a lack of, in his view, moral standards, and for exhibiting a behaviour
that is not conducive to proper family values.

What is really strange about his intervention is that it was not aimed at
the script writers and director of the series, nor at the actress Candice
Bergen. Instead he chose to point his criticism directly at the fictional
character Murphy Brown, acknowledging the importance of this character as
a role model for real-life social arrangements. The creators of the series
responded intelligently by letting the fictional character Murphy Brown,
in the fictional setting of the TV series, watch and comment the
'real-life' speech of vice president Dan Quayle.

Out of this curious dialogue between a real and imaginary person, a heady
political discussion evolved about "a woman's right to choose" that had a
significant impact on the course of the election campaign. Ultimately the
Quayle / Bush snr. team lost, for a host of reasons, but the important
point is of course the blending of the real and the imaginary in a crucial
social and political process. The criticism of the real vice president
Quayle became part of the fictional narrative of the series and the
narrative of the series became part of the real presidential campaign.
This was only possible because both operated in the same 'multimedia

Castells explains that this condition is truly inescapable, because these
messages can only achieve communicability by being mapped in this new
sphere of interconnected media and communication networks. But once part
of this system of electronic and digital mediation they become vulnerable
to the inherent inconsistencies of this system.

Castells writes:

"What characterizes the new system of communication, based in the
digitized, networked integration of multiple communication modes, is its
inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of all cultural expressions. Because
of its existence, all kinds of messages in the new type of society work in
a binary mode: presence/absence in the multimedia communication system.
Only presence in this integrated system permits communicability and
socialization of the message. All other messages are reduced to individual
imagination or to increasingly marginalized face-to-face subcultures." [8]

To act in the culture of real-virtuality means to act both symbolically
and real at the same time, because both levels of social reality coincide
within the same 'multimedia text'. In this paradoxical environment
dominant discourses of social, political and economic power can be
challenged at the level of the representational systems they employ. The
classical avant-gardes provide a repository of ideas, tactics and
strategies that are now played out in a radically enlarged context; no
longer the context of art itself, but that of the network society.

The negation of a dominant mode of speech, implies the infinity of
possible modes of speaking.

Eric Kluitenberg
Amsterdam, December 21, 2001


1 -  Jean François Lyotard, Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime, in:
Art Forum, New York, March 1982, pp. 64-69.
2  - ibid.
3 -
4 -
5 -
6 - Manuel Castells, The Culture of Real Virtuality, in: The Rise of the
Network Society, Blackwell, Malden/Oxford, 1996, pp. 355-406
7 - Castells, '96, p. 373
8 - Castells, '96, p. 374

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