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Issue 17

Too Much Too Fast

A lament for the work of art in the age of digital circulation

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Features | 14 NOV 14

As a belated member of the 1968 generation I didn’t want to get left behind. With the number of discourses that have arisen over the past two decades – artistic research, the power of curators, the internet and the white cube, the vanishing of the art object in the digital and Post-Internet art – a vortex of verbosity and metaphor has been recharged and recycled again and again. How fortunate we are that the information technologies of circulation and ‘content’ production have evolved so fast. In Marxist terms at least, the compulsion to churn out new stuff has a fitting material basis. Is this bemoaning typical of my generation, one conservatively devoted to the artwork as an object of instructive contemplation and loyal to the rigorous conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s? Having been so­cialized in the pre-digital age, my familiarity with email and the internet acquired by hard work, am I just completely yesterday?

For me, the lamenting began when I visited dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 with its video and artistic research formats dominating the parcours and continued when I took part in a panel discussion on ‘Geopolitical Accelerationism’ as part of the art and digital culture festival transmediale in Berlin in 2014, two opportunities to wrestle with the above-mentioned verbosity (on the part of artists and curators alike). At the latter event, the oh-so-edgy ‘Post-Internet art’ cut a rather foolish figure. The gap between discourse and reality reminded me of the early experiments with computers 20 years ago, presented then to an awed public with much avant-garde rigmarole (grainy avatars of stereotypical identities, pictures of mice with human ears etc.) but offering little in terms of ideas and aesthetics. At the time I blamed this on a disparity between fascination with new technology and artistic ‘penetration’, if we can call it that. As the digital medium became more established the fascination, I hoped, would dwindle and the ability to use it with conceptual intelligence would grow, as had been the case with previous media revolutions. But now the fascination seems to have been rekindled, not by the digital itself but by the way social media has boosted the speed and density of its communications, thwarting any possibility of conceptual distance.

In the first phase of cybernetics, information worked without pictures. In early digital art, the focus was on experiments with creating and cir­culating data, still without many images. Then, in the space of a few years, what media theorist Friedrich Kittler had dreamed of in the early 1990s actually happened: computer software was able to display each individual hair of the finest dog fur. This renewed the fascination, of course, and the image-as-likeness reconquered the art space (where it had taken a back seat for a century) as the telos of digital technology. In the wake of technological advancements in industry, the military, science, gaming and cinema, the digitally produced likeness of worlds both real and imaginary became entangled in a double existence as information and (aesthetic) image. Today, pointing a digital camera at something seems to become a standard procedure for turning context into art. Would the same thing have happened with Super-8? Not as fast and not as easily. There is certainly a link between the digital image’s lightness of being and the popularity of huge flat screens in exhibitions. Although there is no point asking which came first, the question of this lightness remains. As Nina Hagen said in TV Glotzer (her 1978 rewrite of The Tubes’ White Punks On Dope): ‘Everything’s so bright and lovely here’ (on good old colour television) ‘I can’t make up my mind!’ Seems like artists, not to mention viewers, are currently having the same problem. Or is this what curators secretly want? A kind of TV effect in the art space? A weapons upgrade in the battle for the scarce resource of attention? I love watching documentaries, too, but not on multiple screens at the same time.

Digital image technologies and the internet are central to a number of current art world phenomena that contradict each other but which may also correspond: on the one hand, the much-predicted demise of the art object; the disappearance of artist, object and market in the online world. On the other, Post-Internet art, wishing to return to the safety of the white cube, transferring motifs from the web into objects. These then occupy the walls and floors of galleries, like Robert Morris’ felt pieces and L-shapes in the 1960s, just more colour­fully. See for example Artspace’s online shop, where Post-Internet artworks are photographed in reassuring gallery settings.1 The artists keep their names and generate demand. As the selfie becomes art,2 we see the withdrawal from representation as an act of resistance against the ubiquitous presence, control and marketing of identities.3 On the one hand, extensive online discourse within the digitally-oriented art scene, on the other an attempt to turn back the clock to guaranteed analogue values: affect, emotion, experience. Old models of art and the artist situated in a pre-cultural space/delirium put them beyond any dependence on society, intellect, commodification. This is a form of neo-autonomy, then, after all the efforts by the neo-avant-garde since the 1960s to invalidate the dogma of art’s autonomy.4 Things can overlap, however: internet aficionados, too, cultivate a belief in delirium, affect and presence as networked experience. And who knows, maybe even the good old cult of genius can be applied to the artist in the age of the internet.

Something has gone awry in the relationship between art and science. Science (by which I mean only the more ‘precise’ technical disciplines rather than the humanities) has always been jealous of art. The great ideas for future research objectives found in sci-fi novels (lunar landings, journeys to the centre of the earth) for example. Such fantasies have offered and continue to offer readymade blueprints for technical inventions. In addition, speculation about the paths leading to scientific insight regularly contains elements of incalculability and surprise that make it hard to explain how this particular Nobel laureate arrived at this parti­cular trailblazing idea. The solution is to talk about ‘intuition’. And when speaking about findings whose genesis is hard to trace exactly, people use metaphors otherwise used to describe the ‘act of artistic creation’.

So why is art now stealing jealous glances the other way, in the direction of science? Is this really necessary? Research and interdisci­plinarity are buzzwords meant to link art and science, with the schooli­fication of art academies following close behind. But today, unlike in the centuries of art education since the Renaissance, it’s not simply a matter of providing (mainly male) artists with the knowledge required to imitate the three-dimensionality of the world in a two-dimensional picture. Nor to make them familiar with the stories and figures from mythology and religion that shaped the iconography of European visual art. In the early 20th century research was already being carried out at the Bauhaus into colour, photography, space and other perception- or material-specific conditions of art. But in stark contrast to today’s artistic research, the Bauhaus explored the conditions of art – rather than anything and everything else outside the system of art. (On the other hand, I like that today’s penchant for information undermines the cult of the ‘visceral’ painter that is still quite present in German academies.)

Studio Jonathan Post, CGI wolf fur rendering, 2014. Courtesy: Studio Jonathan Post, Sao Paolo

From an already historical viewpoint, I suspect that the digital circulation of information (I hesitate to speak of knowledge here as that would suggest a transformation of information with a specific aim) was a necessary precondition for the emergence of artistic research as a trend, genre, production format or academic and curatorial strategy. Because of its horizontal organizational structure it runs crossways to cultural subsystems accelerating the interchange between art and everything else. The ‘transgression’ sought by the neo-avant-gardes – from happenings to Land art to performance and Conceptual art etc. – focused on frameworks within which art was presented – gallery space, museum, genre borders – thus still operating within the art system. Today, this term has become part of a jargon of legitimization for critics and artists alike, making it completely useless for discussing the specificity or function of art. This is compounded by the fact that the transferability of artistic products into everything else, via the digital information space, has become a reality. Is media transfer replacing artistic transformation? In fact, the main problem seems to be the transfer of everything else from the digital space into art.

The transfer into digital media (and from there into other media) is what enables the circulation which, according to David Joselit, now generates the power of images. Joselit, part of a generation who grew up with television but before the digital age, stirred discussion by proclaiming a paradigm shift in the art system in his book After Art (2012).5 For him, circulation is the currency in which the symbolic (and real) capital of art is now counted. Behind this stands a political utopia that sees digital communications structures as the successors to old models of the ‘commons’. Consequently, he wishes to apply Hannah Arendt’s concept of power-through-collectivity to ‘populations of images’, as he puts it: ‘connectivity produces power.’6

In Joselit’s view, then, the connectivity of image populations generates power, and this power must be used. Although his theory of the new power of art through circulation, creating a new collectivity via connec­tivity, draws its metaphors from the internet, it also displays remnants of the left-wing political idealism familiar to my generation. But his model which links this idealism with digital turbo-capitalism in a way that brings art into play as a positive force, seems to have backfired. He makes no mention of net-based art production – all of his examples are from the established art market (from Sherrie Levine to Matthew Barney, Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei).

In his response to Joselit’s book, the much younger Brad Troemel brings inside knowledge and devastating realism to bear on his dissection of the production, circulation and perception of art in and for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr & co. The title of his short essay Art After Social Media (2013) must be read as a response to Joselit’s _After Art_.8 The terrible thing is that Troemel confirms some of my own prejudices: now even the youngest art students have blogs where they decontextualize and mix work by themselves and others, with art old and new becoming ‘recyclable material’. In the face of the speed and quantity of production and circu­lation, ‘editing oneself’ appears to be a waste of time and resources; today that is looked after by the online public.

This list covers only those aspects that touch most obviously on my old-fashioned reservations concerning the quality and status of art. More important are the paradoxes created for art and artists by social media. As the structures framing previous art practice (authorship, property, context and market) disappear, new strategies emerge to compensate for these losses. However utopianly anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist the resulting changes might be, they are economically unfavourable for the artists themselves. Property is replaced by the capital of the largest possible digital fan community (what Troemel calls the ‘rate/comment/subscribe! culture’9). The art market is reached via detours: online success makes gallerists curious; artists invent the format of online curating and finally, in so-called Post-Internet art, digital works are transferred into object format and thus into the gallery space.

With regards to authorship, the situation is more complicated. It would have been astonishing if artists, however idealistic, had wanted to forego authorship of all things. But what form can it take in an online practice that not only removes art from the context of art institutions, but also lets the works themselves circulate without signatures and without the other kinds of information that lend something the status of art? Troemel has a proposal: ‘Social Media Branding’. And how does that work? Artists become ‘aesthletes’ who produce constantly in order to marshal the attention of the global community, because ‘artistic progression will come more surely from the stress of strenuous making than from contempla­-tive reverie.’ Art production as high-performance sport. The antithesis to contemplating a masterpiece in the exhibition space is the ‘immediacy and speed’ of social media. Troemel concludes that net culture produces not ‘art without artists’, as Anton Vidokle wrote, but ‘artists without art’.10

This strikes me as coherent. And maybe it also explains why Joselit failed to include this kind of phenomenon in his own analysis. He does not call for radical resistance to the existing art system, as some of the younger net artists may be doing wishing instead to distill a kind of re­formation of the art system out of the new possibilities for circulation: the system needs a rethink and the requisite metaphors are provided by internet discourse. But this rethink does not go beyond a metaphorical recoding of what constitutes the market value of art. In my opinion, the main catalyst for this model is art (the art object) itself, which then becomes a stumbling block for circulation – prompting its adoption as a motif in the copy-and-paste products of internet communication. In this light, the video format is something like an intermediate step on the way to a literal flattening of art on tablet screens: gallery-compa­tible, yet still not especially saleable due to a lack of haptic object quality, while still more or less resembling an artwork. In terms of commodifi­cation, this is far outdone by the colourful Post-Internet objects based on online content.

Perhaps the word information is the culprit here: it forces art into an instrumental corset which, in the internet version, doesn’t even have much more to do with the rightly reviled instrumental reason.11 It orients artistic activity outwards towards potential addressees before the object of this activity has been examined. This points to a possible reclaiming of art’s autonomy that is meaningful today: autonomy from the addressee of the information, and thus from the gaze of the Other. Autonomy as the artist’s inner independence from the need to anticipate a reaction measured in ‘likes’.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 http://www.artspace.com/search/?q=post+internet+art (retrieved 2 Aug 2014)

2 See, for example, Joel Mu, If I could do this for real I wouldn’t have to take selfies, in Joel Mu (ed.), tyzatyzatyza (55Syndenham Rd, Sydney, 2013), pp. 1–12; Jerry Saltz, Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie, in New York Magazine, 3 Feb 2014, http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html (retrieved 2 Aug 2014)

3 See Hito Steyerl, The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation, in e-flux journal (eds.: Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle), issue #32, Feb 2012, 5–9, online: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-spam-of-the-earth/ (retrieved 9 August 2014)

4 See Christoph Menke, Die Kraft der Kunst (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2013)

5 David Joselit, After Art (Princeton University Press, 2012)

6 Ibid., p. 95

7 Brad Troemel, Athletic Aesthetics, in The New Inquiry, 10 May 2013: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/athletic-aesthetics/ (retrieved 18 Aug 2014)

8 Brad Troemel, Art After Social Media, in Art Papers, July/August 2013. Online: New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory, http://www.ny-magazine.org/PDF/06.07.EN_Art_After_Social_Media.pdf (retrieved 14 Sept 2014)

9 Troemel, Athletic Aesthetics, ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 See Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason (Verso London, 2013)

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).