The Idea of Art

By Mute Editor, 10 December 2001


Including: cover CD by JODI, Peter Fend 10 page special, Andrew Gellatly on selling art online, Benedict Seymour on the closure of London's Lux Centre, Michael Corris on Conceptual art, Hari Kunzru in Las Vegas, Josephine Berry presents key net art projects, Lina D. Russell interviews De Geuzen art collective. Reviews: Don't blow IT conference, Wizards of OS, Wolfgang Shaehle's 2001 Show. Pin Code by Sadie Plant

What does it mean to publish an art issue now? For Mute, it means revisiting a subject that, together with technology, was its raison d’être when it first launched in late 1994. The call for contributions to our pilot issue -lightheartedly themed ‘Can art survive the 20th century’? – speculated that the new distribution platform of the internet would place unprecedented pressure on traditional exhibition infrastructures by offering artists the direct contact with audiences that had been their recurring dream. Its subtext was that art as we knew it could disappear in the ensuing tide of uncommodifiable and immaterial interactions.

At the time, the much discussed prosthetic and connective technologies coming out of the medical, military and telecommications worlds put similar pressure on human identity. Languishing unbroken in the public imagination, the notion of the individual needed updating: in digital networks, its presence could be falsified and replicated – split into a thousand parts and spread across a galaxy of interconnecting nodes. Extended by the various prosthetics used in everyday life, who could even say where ‘human’ ends and ‘technology’ starts?

In spite of some fancy theoretical footwork, the dominant art of the mid 90s was still built on the notion of the individual creative author. But, the noose that postmodernism had already tied around his – and her – neck was being tightened by the new technologies: the ‘death of the author’ seemed imminent and an explosion of cyborg, post-human and otherwise hybrid entities danced on enlightenment graves.

Did the new liberatory identities represent any kind of challenge to a global capitalism energised by information networks, or was theirs just another lifestyle niche? Looking back, it is interesting to see how totally overshadowed such questions became by the political imperatives of a commercialised internet. In digital culture at least, cybertheory v.1.0 made way for a more explicitly political rationale – focused on tactics, code, collaboration and communities.

So, after a very real sense that the digital threatened some of art’s most sacrosanct operational categories, in 2001 no such illusions exist. Far from undermine them, the net has facilitated art stars’ sales and marketing – as Andrew Gellatly describes in ‘Artburger’ . Yet the fluid, horizontal world that this same net is used to symbolise is making new practices possible. For ‘small’ actors, networks are fostering a sense of global agency unimaginable a few decades back. Apt, then, that Ocean Earth Development Corporation’s artist’s project should propose a complete geopolitical realignment centred on renewable energies.

But it is art’s potent place in the knowledge economy that really catalysed this art issue. On stage, little appears to have changed; behind the scenes, the opposite is true. Triumphalism over art’s enormous popularity is the sideshow in this game as on a systemic level the fundamental changes are occurring courtesy of artists’ provision of services. Entirely conceptually driven, these presently range from design innovation to the improvement of management processes. Since they enjoy a nebulous status in art discourse, Mute hopes to explore and contextualise this tendency, starting with Michael Corris’ historically inflected text, ‘Conceptual Art and the Recoding of Information, Knowledge and Technology’.

We hope our new reader-friendly size and layout lends a helping hand.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>