Josephine Berry on Tue, 26 Oct 1999 00:00:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Information as Muse [part 1]

This is intended for inclusion in a forthcoming issue of _Science as
Culture_, edited by Korinna Patelis and Les Levidov, which will be
dedicated to all of our favourite subject: THE INTERNET!!!! This essay was
written in June and so does not take into consideration the collosal
Net_Condition show at ZKM, amongst other venues. The footnotes have got a
bit scrambled up too, but references for source material have survived and
can be found at the end.

Information as Muse: Net Art and the Market

(June 1999)

In 1999, net artist Valery Grancher sold his piece <italic>Longitude 38
</italic>to the Cartier Foundation for $5,000 . This sale, widely held to
be the highest sum yet raised for a net artwork, is proof positive that
net art's putative evasion of the maws of commercialisation is at an end.
The conversion of art into information, a process which finds its roots in
1960s and '70s conceptual art, has traditionally provided a foil to the
principles of art's market and institutions which rely on the uniqueness
and objecthood of art to support structures of ownership and evaluation.
But in an era when information increasingly provides the basis for
economies, the means of production and the paradigm for investment, art's
status as information can no longer be held to provide any inherent
resistance to its own commercialisation. Here it will be argued that net
art's relationship to information, whose earliest instantiations after
1994 cleaved to an understanding of its deterritorialising and
decommodifying potentialities, has become increasingly ambivalent. Net
art's status as information entails a similar set of contradictions that
attach to readings of the Internet in which it is held to imbue both
mechanisms of specular power, control and free market capitalism as well
as freedom of speech, direct democracy and identity redefinition. As art
seeks to outwit and evade commercialisation it has, ironically, come
increasingly to rely upon strategies of advertising and marketing. Art's
conversion into information has led it both towards and away from
commercialisation as its infinite replicability breaks with traditional
conditions of ownership as well as simultaneously playing into the hands
of the information economy. In this article net art's relationship to the
market will be examined through the implications of one of information's
chief attributes - mutability.=20

In her essay <italic>Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers</italic>, N.
Katherine Hayles formulates a fundamental characteristic of the
information age: the shift from both a representational and material
economy of presence and absence to one of pattern and randomness.  Drawing
on the linguistics of Lacan and techno-cultural theory of Kittler, she
links the phenomenon of the signifier's uncoupling from its signified to
the informational revolution in the means of production. Lacan used the
term 'floating signifier' to indicate the double lack at the heart of
language, the absence of signifieds as things-in-themselves and the
absence of any stable relationship between signifieds and signifiers.
Further, signifieds are understood as existing only in so far as they are
produced by the signifier and as an ungraspable flow beneath a network of
signifiers whose operations entail difference, slippage and displacement.
The behaviour or information, argue Kittler and Hayles, has undergone a
parallel development. Before the advent of IT, information storage
depended on a stable 'material substrate' (books, the typewriter, the mark
on the page) which is not only a form of information transmission and
storage in one, but which also "incorporates [it's] encodings in durable
material substrate" . In the case of IT, magnetic or electronic encodings
can be easily erased and rewritten as information becomes increasingly
separate and non-proportional to its carrier. Information theory, it
should be added, holds information to be conceptually distinct from the
markers that embody it. The change in relationship between signal and
materiality that occurs in IT has fundamentally altered the relationship
of the signified to the signifier by creating what Hayles terms
'flickering signifiers' which are "characterised by their tendency toward
unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations and dispersions" . It is then
reasonable to state that IT has concentrated the behavioural
characteristics of information and that this behaviour has a cultural

Early net art sought to identify itself with this slippery quality of
information which both facilitates the destabilisation of the signifier
itself and the related uncoupling of identity from its material substrate
(the human body, physical space, being in time etc.). Hayles and Kittler's
proposal that the pattern/randomness paradigm has gradually gained
dominance is borne out by the phenomenon of net art in general, and
perhaps most idealistically interpreted in its early instantiations.
Taking advantage of the hyperlinked structure of the Internet, the
artworks which ensued shortly after the introduction of the graphical
browser interface to the World Wide Web in 1994, were characterised by a
nomadism which is both redolent of and dependent upon the movement of
information packets within a network. Alexei Shulgin's <italic>Desktop
Is</italic>, 1997, Heath Bunting's <italic>Own, Be Owned or Remain
Invisible</italic> ,1997 , and Rachel Baker's <italic>TM
Clubcard</italic>, 1997 , all employ hyperlinks between data stored on
separate servers. This harnessing of information's flux and mobility was
used strategically to flit the viewer in and out of corporate webspace, to
put them in an indeterminate relationship to the author (one jumps between
artist and corporate designed space) and to a point of origin; we are left
asking where the work begins and ends and whether, when we move out into
the web at large, we are still within the bounds of the artwork . 
Information's replicability, its availability to redeployment and
especially to being purloined, were used by these artists to dissolve the
naturalness of ownership (a one-to-one relationship between owner and
owned) as well as the status of the (data)object as such. These artworks
create feed-back loops between corporate and private space which is
entirely dependent on the dissolution of information's oneness with its
material substrate and the predominance of pattern and randomness. 

Early net art identified the informational instability which businesses
were so sucessfully deploying (the ease with which behaviour is converted
into data commodities inside the network) as a corporate Achilles heal.
Heath Bunting's work <italic>Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible</italic>
took a review written about him in <italic>Wired UK</italic> magazine by
the journalist James Flint, and linked nearly every word to the corporate
generic Top Level Domain '.com'. Thus a sentence such as, "His CV (bored
teen and home computer hacker in 80s Stevenage, fly poster, graffiti
artist and radio pirate in Bristol...).." would convert into URLs such as
'', '' and ''. Although the
corresponding URL may or may not exist or have become obsolete subsequent
to the date of the work's making, <italic>Own, Be Owned</italic> tangibly
manifests the collapse of individual into commercial identities. Here, one
might say, the signifier flickers between its designation of a private
individual and a what Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein have called
the 'encrypted flesh' of the data body. But as the title reveals,
ownership can be turned around in the hyperlinked context of the Internet;
in this scenario the viewer can enter the corporate site ''
through Bunting's interface thus simulating the artist's ownership of the
corporate data object. In this early net artwork, the artist makes use of
the dissolution of identity within informatics to rupture the
representational power of commercial interest. In this new system of
relations, the commercial representation has been subordinated to an
(albeit commercial representation of) the individual; when its powers of
communication are directed at a simulated individual (the journalistic
construct) instead of a real one, a hall of mirrors effect is triggered
which forbids the fulfilment of commercial interests. In this classic
deployment of Situationist <italic>d=E9tournement</italic>, the artist is
able to recuperate his own identity from the simulacral remains of its
commercialisation through a sequencing of information not the proffering
of an authentic self. Representation's status as information has created a
high level of mobility in which the referent is neither present nor
absent, but patterned and unstable. 

In the 1960s and '70s conceptual art also made use of information and
communication systems for ends which are different but related to those of
net art. Their interest in the dematerialisation of the art object was
predicated on a mistrust of materiality which was identified as the
primary realm of capitalist operations. Working against the backdrop of
the Vietnam war - one of the most viscous expressions of Western
democracy's desire to protect the interest of capital at any and every
cost - this largely U.S. based movement selected the slippery realm of the
idea as a site of resistance to the voraciousness of post-war
commodification. In 1967, Sol LeWitt declared: "When an artist uses a
conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions
are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea
becomes a machine that makes the art."  . Note that even at this
high-point of ideational romanticism, the idea was marked by its role
within the cycle of production. Importantly, however, through a certain
'mechanisation', production was uncoupled from the notion of the artist's
touch. For similar reasons information in the form of lists, diagrams,
measurements, and numerical systems started to be introduced into
artworks; such 'banal' signifiers of consensual rationality were deployed
to upset the boundaries separating art (understood as an expression of the
individual, idiosyncratic self) and life. Previously, and here one need
only think about the paintings of Jackson Pollock, touch - the opposite of
a standardised unit of information - had operated as a cipher of
individuality and creative genius; accordingly the point of reification
was the point of sale. As a strategy of resistance, works such as Yoko
Ono's early Fluxus pieces posit scenarios - in the form of instructions -
in which the pursuit of reification is poetically cast as impossible or
destructive: "'Take the sound of the stone ageing' (<italic>Tape
Piece</italic> 1, autumn, 1963); 'Take the sound of the room breathing: at
dawn, in the morning, in the evening, before dawn...Bottle the smell of
the room at that particular hour as well' (<italic>Tape Piece II</italic>,
autumn, 1963); 'Use your blood to paint, keep painting until you faint
(a).  Keep painting until you die (b)' (spring, 1960)" =20

///Josephine Berry\\\

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