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Systems Upgrade (Conceptual Art and the Recoding of Information, Knowledge and Technology)

By Michael Corris, 10 December 2001
Image: Dan Graham, LA Glass Office Building, 1978; Courtesy of The Lisson Gallery, London

As work begins on a new theory of value within an economic landscape shaped by ‘immaterial production’ and ‘immaterial goods’, new theories of art’s role are also emerging. This shift can be tracked from the more narrowly systems-based transformation of industrial production – via information technologies, cybernetics, communication and information theory – in the 1960s, to the integration of less quantifiable ‘assets’ such as knowledge, creativity and imagination. Likewise, culture plays an ever more functional role within postmodern production. Within this newly acculturated and informatic economy, it is necessary to ask whether an autonomous art practice is still possible. Mediated by business practice and principles, the membrane between the state, culture and other sectors of the economy has also started to look rather porous. As the first in a new series of articles addressing the historical background and contemporary role of art in the knowledge economy, Mute is proud to publish the introduction to the third part of Michael Corris’ forthcoming book Invisible College: the social dimensions of Anglo-American conceptual art. Here, Corris gives an account of artists’ engagement with systems theory, information theory, cybernetics, and electronic technology. During the heyday of government sponsored research into these areas, artists began to adopt and adapt them with very different intentions in mind. But, true to the cybernetic principle of ‘feedback’, these adaptations can also be said to have helped popularise the new technoscientific thinking – for better and for worse.

This article examines how some Conceptual art recoded the scientistic theories that helped drive the technological revolution of the 1960s as an aesthetic ideology. At the outset, we should note the intense interaction during the 1950s and 1960s between technology and all forms of culture and visual art. The emergence during the 1960s of Conceptual art coincided with a tremendous surge in economic activity in north America and western Europe that ‘seemed powered by technological revolution.’<1> John F. Kennedy’s ‘new frontier’ and Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ were both images meant to denote and exploit the appeal of technological innovation in the mind of the electorate.<2>

Writing on the period of post-war prosperity that originated in 1945 and reached its peak around 1970, historian Eric Hobsbawm offers three observations on the distinctive social and economic effects of this technological leap: firstly, the utter transformation of everyday life in the industrialised nations and, to a lesser extent, in the developing world; secondly, the new centrality of ‘Research and Development’ (R&D) to the economic growth of the industrialised nations; and thirdly, the structural effect on the labour market of the new, capital-intensive technologies. It is this latter feature that prompted the period’s technocrats to dream of ‘production, or even service, without humans’ and to speculate on the prospect of human beings as ‘essential to such an economy only in one respect: as buyers of goods and services.’<3> Even though the ‘restructuring of capitalism and the advance in economic internationalisation’ are probably more central to our understanding of this broad period of economic expansion, the image and promise of technology undoubtedly captured the intellectual, popular, and artistic imagination of the West, as well as guaranteeing its continued economic superiority. In the United States, the development of technology and the dissemination of the technocratic dream was fuelled, on the one hand, by the growing power and influence of corporations and, on the other, by the ‘military-industrial complex.’ The marriage of Cold War policy and private sector enterprise sustained America’s military advantage and guaranteed a steady flow of resources to support appropriate technological developments. Alongside the many programs initiated to develop weaponry and communications systems, there arose a parallel stream of research funding that was made available to disciplines such as linguistic theory and pure mathematics. These fields of theoretical research were the targets of strategic State funding, which aimed to steer the production of knowledge into avenues that might yield results applicable to the future development and production of high-speed electronic computing machines, electronic communications systems, exotic new weapons, powerful information processing programs, and encryption devices. Many of the innovators in the field of game theory, information retrieval, modal logic, and transformational grammar pursued initial research under the aegis of this rich stream of State and NATO-sponsored funding.

During the 1960s such theories dominated the intellectual landscape and quickly became the object of social and political controversy. Systems theory in particular maintained a strong hold on the 1960s imagination. Typically associated with the aims and objectives of the military or corporate management, systems theory was first promoted in a generalised form ‘capable of addressing patterns of human life’ by the mathematician and inventor of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics – conceived by Wiener during the 1940s in the context of military research on improved radar systems – is essentially a theory of control based on the concept of the feedback loop, whereby a system is in a state of dynamic monitoring and adjustment of its performance with respect to a specified goal. The biological analogue to cybernetics is homeostasis, the processes through which an organism is able to maintain itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium with its environment. According to Wiener, ‘the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback.’<4>

The concept of a ‘system’, which became part of the lingua franca of the 1960s, was not destined to remain the exclusive property of a technologically-minded elite of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. In the hands of intellectuals, artists, and political activists it would become a key ideological component of the ‘cultural revolution’. It is generally agreed, for example, that Robert Smithson’s obsession with inorganic molecular structures (crystals), geological processes, time, and entropy – the latter being a concept derived from classical thermodynamics but also performing a central role in communication theory – represented a strong cultural challenge to technology’s progressive self-image. The British art critic Lawrence Alloway likened the production, distribution, and consumption of art to a non-hierachical network, ‘a shifting multiple goal coalition’, and supported his claim by citing the work of industrial psychologists and sociologists.<5> Systems theory also figured prominently in the student revolt of the 1960s, prompting historian Howard Brick to declare that ‘by the late 1960s students in American universities and colleges easily grasped the concept of a ‘system.’<6> In the volatile atmosphere of confrontation with the Establishment, the term itself – which simply denotes the ‘orderly processes at work in any complex array of multiple, interacting variables, be it a living organism, an environmental milieu, or a computing machine’ – was to be demonised. The meaning of the term ‘system’ was highly politically inflected and its application to the flux of human affairs or the natural environment was strongly contested. Despite its origins in the field of weapons research, social activists, environmentalists, student radicals, and artists appropriated the term and used it effectively to polarise social discourse. Oppositional or counter-cultural uses of system theory typically emphasised a consciousness of ‘connections’ among diverse social problems’ indicating that ‘the flaws in society were fundamental, endemic – not incidental.’<7>

What was art’s response to a set of technocratic theories, ideologies, and new structures of intellectual production (such as the ‘think tank’) that seemed to be committed collectively to the transformation of people into objects of ‘technical and administrative measures’? <8> Not all artists believed that such knowledge and technology was indelibly tainted. In the visual arts, some practitioners were more inclined to celebrate technology and to read the growing influence of the social sciences as a sign of society’s rapid modernisation, a future imagined as ‘a technologically utopian structure of feeling, positivistic and ‘scientistic.’<9> These artists sought to emphasise how the enlightened application of these new social and scientific theories – particularly semiotic theory, whose dream ‘had been the quest for inter-disciplinary forms, which would cross different types of human forms of expressions’<10> – could achieve socially progressive ends. Roy Ascott established his innovative ‘Ground Course’ at Ealing College in 1961 in the hope that a reorientation of art education informed by cybernetics, semiotics, and other theories of communication could form the basis for a new visual sensibility. The enthusiasm displayed by Ascott for graphic notations as diagrams of a ‘new space’ had its counterpart in the American field of Conceptual art, which Robert C. Hobbs characterises as the aestheticisation of knowledge and the fetishisation of ‘quasi-scientific’ (objective) modes of display. <11> In 1967, the British artist Stephen Willats argued that intellectual resources drawn from ‘modern information areas’ such as psychology and communication theory would enable the artist to ‘look at such important issues as audience composition’, and the relation between the concerns of art and those of its audience. Willats envisaged a practice of art that ‘structured function as an integral part of the environment.’ <12> In 1971, he wrote that ‘the development of homeostatic, self-regulating, self-assessing systems has been one of the most important conceptual developments in respect of behavioural structures, for it is in the nature of these systems that they are capable of determining their own structural relationship between input and output.’ <13> A more radical example of the adoption by artists of strategies and intellectual resources usually found in the cultural space of corporations and government policy institutes is the reconfiguration of the ‘think tank’ and the modern corporate figure of the management consultant by British artists John Latham and Barbara Stevini, co-founders in 1966 of the Artists Placement Group. <14>

>> Vito Acconi, Following Piece, Activity, 23 days, varying durations. New York City ("Street Works IV," Architectural League of New York), John Gibson Commissions, Inc. 1969.Choosing a person at random, in the street, any location, each day. Following him, wherever he goes, however long or far he travels. (The activity ends when he enters a private place - his home, office, etc.)

Others took a more benign approach to the concept of a system, using it to denote a set of parameters or rules that can impart the image of structure and motive to artistic practices that are invariably performative and contingent. Such work was constituted through moments of social encounter and interaction, rather than through the disposition of materials. The concept of a template or schema – already familiar to Conceptual art, as the work of Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Douglas Huebler, and On Kawara attests – provided an armature on which to organise a variety of social scenarios, as in Lee Lozano’s Dialogue Piece initiated in 1969, or some of the early projects of Vito Acconci. Acconci, not ordinarily associated with systems theory as such, was interested in the late-1960s in organising performances that would place himself into a pre-existing situation or social circuit, ‘something that already existed.’ <15> Acconci’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition ‘Information’ was a structured performance, which the artist described as a ‘mail system-museum-exhibition-system.’ Other works by Acconci, such as his solitary physical self-improvement performances, display an absurdist caste which links him with those artists who were far more interested in undermining the social authority of systems theory through parody, by pushing the application of a system to the point of absurdity. Systems theory, cybernetics, and game theory were misrepresented and diminished by a strategy of over-generalisation whereby the most banal situations of everyday life would be subjected to isolation, rationalisation, and analysis in a travesty of corporate efficiency or military control. One example is the early work of David Askevold – Three Spot Game (1968), Shoot Don’t Shoot (A Sum Zero Game Matrix) (1970), and Taming Expansion (1971) – which is consciously modelled after a simple game theory decision matrix.

The holistic insight that all systems regardless of size or complexity are interconnected lurks at the heart of systems theory and was mercilessly exaggerated to the point of paranoia in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, such as The Crying of Lot 49 and V. Earlier, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File – the 1962 literary debut of an ex-Royal College of Art student turned novelist – anticipated ‘the synthesised environment of technological fantasy only so far as the severely bureaucratic, hierarchical and class aspects of British culture would permit.’<16> Even the influential work in America of George Brecht and John Cage – which Robert Morris characterised in the late-1960s as the ‘final secularisation’ of art and systems of chance <17> – may be read as an indictment of technocratic and bureaucratic modalities of control. It was a defiant statement of the poverty of such a world-view, a warning about the hubris of all attempts to overcome indeterminacy, and an encouraging sign that led to the innovation by some Conceptual artists of more explicitly ‘democratically’ structured artworks and situations.

>> Hans Haake. Visitors’ Profile. 10 demographic, 10 opinion questions on current socio-political issues posed to museum visitors. Answers tabulated, correlated, and posted regularly throughout exhibition. Milwaukee Art Center version. 1969-70.

The engagement of Conceptual artists with systems theory, information theory, cybernetics, and electronic technology had a real basis in ideological and social conflict, though at times it seemed to be the result of contingency. Jack Burnham argues that Hans Haacke ‘wanted to reveal the way the world functions on its most essential levels.’<18> Haacke took as his subject matter the totality of all systems, regardless of their nature as physical, biological, or social, although his work before around 1968 concentrated on the first two categories. Haacke’s central artistic strategy has been defined as the ‘production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems.’<19> He is concerned with the ‘operational structure of organisations, in which transfer of information, energy, and/or material occurs.’<20> Fredric Jameson has likened Haacke’s methodology to that of homeopathy. Jameson writes that ‘Haacke poses the political dilemma of a new cultural politics: how to struggle within the world of the simulacrum by using the arms and weapons specific to that world which are themselves very precisely simulacra.’ <21> Provoked by the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and referring to the utility of so-called ‘political art’, Haacke expressed the belief that ‘the production and the talk about sculpture has nothing to do with the urgent problems of our society . . . we must face the fact that art is unsuited as a political tool.’ <22> The artist stressed that ‘any work done with and in a given social situation cannot remain detached from its cultural and ideological context.’ <23>

The challenge launched by Haacke against the ethical constraints imposed on art by a particularly narrow sense of professionalism is enabled, in large measure, by the artist’s embrace of systems theory and systems ‘thinking’. In particular, it is the notion of an ecosystem that is most relevant to Haacke’s projects of the early 1970s, imparting a sense of structure and coherence on works such as 10 Turtles Set Free (1970) and Goat Feeding in Woods, Thus Changing It (1970). Beach Pollution (1970) – a pile of driftwood and other rubbish that had been collected on a Spanish seafront – not only signals Haacke’s concern with environmental issues, but also initiates a dialogue with the anti-formalism of the late-1960s. Visually, Beach Pollution is a work that seems to invite an experience of ‘unmediated physical encounter with matter, an encounter unfettered by language and a priori assumptions’<24> similar to that intended by Robert Morris in his work Threadwaste (1968). Yet, what distinguishes Haacke’s work is not its physical composition as a pile of scavenged rubbish; rather, its conceptual relationship to the exogenous cultural space of the emerging environmental movement. That such a difference is not available to visual inspection, but is constituted through language, marks a significant shift away from the phenomenological claims of Minimalism.

One of the lessons to be drawn from a study of the art of the 1960s and 1970s is that systems analysis, information theory and the like cannot be applied unproblematically to the practice of art. In fact, the contemporary application of systems theory to art, in one instance at least, yields a dramatically different conclusion. I am referring to the work of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who describes the domain of art as an operationally closed and self-referential communicative system.* According to Luhmann, art’s purpose, like that of other social-symbolic systems, is communication. But where Luhmann and the 1960s enthusiasts for systems theory in art part company is their respective understanding of the nature of communication in and through art. The artists and critics of the 1960s and 1970s used systems theory pragmatically to facilitate the integration of art and the world; in doing so they risked the disintegration of art. Luhmann uses systems theory analytically to stress the difference between art and the world; a move that risks being mistaken for an attempt to rehabilitate the modernist practice of resistance through negation.

* Thanks to Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden for bringing Luhmann’s ‘Art as a Social System’ to my attention.

FOOTNOTES:<1> Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1994), p. 264.<2> Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 248.<3> Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, pp. 265-66, 267.<4> Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings (New York: Avon Books, 1954), p. 38.<5> Lawrence Alloway, “Network: The Art World Described as a System,” Artforum XI, 1 (September 1972): 29.<6> Howard Brick, Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 124.<7> Ibid., pp. 124-125.<8> Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso Press, 1985), p. 56.<9> David Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, exh cat. Barbican Art Gallery, 11 March - 13 June 1993 (London: Phaidon Press, 1993), p.107.<10> Ibid., p. 112.<11> Robert C. Hobbs, “Affluence, Taste, and the Brokering of Knowledge: Notes on the Social Context of Early Conceptual art,” in Michael Corris, ed., Invisible College: The Social Dimensions of Anglo-American Conceptual Art (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).<12> Stephen Willats, “Statement,” 1967, reprinted in Clive Phillpot and Andrea Tarsia, Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75 (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2000), p. 161.<13> Stephen Willats,“Behavioural Nets and Life Structures,” The Paper, no. 1, (1971).<14> Michael Corris, “From Black Holes to Boardrooms: John Latham, Barbara Steveni and the Order of Undivided Wholeness,” Art+Text 49 (September 1994)<15> Martin Kunz, “Interview with Vito Acconci About the Development of his Work Since 1966,” in Marianne Eigenheer, ed., Vito Acconci (Luzern: Kunstmuseum Luzern, 7 May - 11 June 1978), unpaginated.<16> Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, p. 110.<17> Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making,” Artforum VIII, 8 (April, 1970).<18> Jack Burnham, “Hans Haacke’s Cancelled Show at the Guggenheim,” Artforum IX, 10 (June 1971).<19> Ibid.<20> Ibid.<21> Fredric Jameson, “Hans Haacke and the Cultural Logic of Postmodernism,” in Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986), pp. 42-43. Jameson notes that “such a strategy — even conceived provisionally — has little of the vigorous self-confidence and affirmation of older political and even proto-political aesthetics, which aimed at opening and developing some radically new and distinct revolutionary cultural space within the fallen space of capitalism. Yet as modest and as frustrating as it may sometimes seem, a homeopathic cultural politics seems to be all we can currently think or imagine” (p. 43).<22> Hans Haacke to Jack Burnham, correspondence 10 April 1968.<23> Ibid.<24> James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 267.

Michael Corris <InvCollege AT aol.com> is a senior research fellow in the History of Art and Design at Kingston University.