Art Is Useless

By Josephine Berry, 28 September 2006

Vuk Cosic: member of the elite clan of net art’s ‘heroic period’; ascii impresario; lover of lo-technicity; habitué of the European electronic arts conference circuit; staff member at the Soros-funded Ljubljana Digital Media Lab; senior lecturer at the Institute for Paradoxology, Internet, and the Human Emancipation/Enslavement Conundrum; antiquarian dealer in the New; world traveller; multi-linguist and chronic verbalist. Josephine Berry met with him in London this February


Vuk Cosic believes in essences: the originality of the avant garde, the possibility of narrative, the lessons of history, what comprises art’s jurisdiction, the right way to make a coffee or prepare a California roll. In one of his best known net art works, The History of Art for Airports, Cosic compresses thousands of years of art history, from the caves of Lascaux to the net art of Jodi, into a few images of recombinant toilet people interacting with cocktail glasses and other airport fare (eat your heart out Ernst Gombrich!). But if representing thousands of years of art history using airport signs seems like a consummately postmodern gesture you only have to consider, and notwithstanding their irony, how much substance these minimal icons endow their referents with. Stripped of its aura, art history is clad in the uniform of utility, its canonical works whittled down to one-line gags.


Unlike postmodernism’s typically dehistoricising language of pastiche, this account of aesthetics roots each developmental moment within a life world. The life world is primarily constructed through an elaboration of art’s functionality: art in the service of religion, art in the service of the state, art attempting to elude power. These spare images provide dense ideological and temporal diagrams in the manner of a user’s manual of art history. However, this is the kind of manual that shows you how to take something apart and put it back together again without telling you what the thing is intended for in the first place. Cosic paradoxically combines a positivist modernism of means with a postmodern ambivalence of ends – a strategy which finds its natural home in the economically and ideologically contested space of the Internet.

Given the conventional framing of net art in terms of political resistance – an account which almost naturalises its radicalism by associating its virtuality with the resistance to commodification, and its existence within the global specular and financial network with a default media activism – it is interesting to piece together Cosic’s art histories and his attitude to the politics of art: “I like to believe that art is useless. It liberates me from all these worries”. The conjunction of The History of Art for Airports and this comment beg the question: can art be understood as both utilitarian and useless?

But let’s start at the beginning, and in Cosic’s own words:

“I was born in ’66 so that makes me 32 now...I studied archaeology, graduated, used to teach methodology a bit in Belgrade and then I left the country in ’91. At that time I was already writing and editing magazines, and doing political satire and also regular literature...I was doing various art stuff too: texts, collages, land art, some shows. I started working creatively with HTML in ’95 and making in ’96 because that’s when we invented the term.” Cosic draws a direct line between his archaeological training and his acute historical consciousness: “For me it was always important to be fully conscious of the era you live in, it was very important – like in archaeology – to be able to date things, be aware of when and in what kind of context objects were made, or used.” And despite what is said about the loss of historical consciousness being the hallmark of postmodernity, the coincidence of the Internet’s advent and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia must have provided two quite awesome historical developments for someone of Cosic’s archaeological persuasion.

The Yugoslavian experience of passing from dictatorship to civil war may not be an explicit concern in Cosic’s art, but should certainly be borne in mind when considering his stance on the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Talking about a radio play he wrote at the age of nineteen which was pulled on air by a ‘telephone intervention’ from the party headquarters, it is possible to see how an early belief in political art has turned into a purer form of aesthetics.

“And as a young person, of course you went for the toughest points, but I like to compare it to today’s situation because everyone who was active in the political process claimed, even today, that it was a necessary step because it was impossible to live before. But if you look at the reality today, ten years after, there’s not a single place, except for Slovenia maybe, where life is in any way comparable. So that’s weird, and I like to insist on that. It’s terrible, it’s just a redistribution of money and power. Look at Serbia and Croatia – that’s the best example – and Bosnia no comment, Macedonia doesn’t exist really, and so on. But hey, come on, this is politics.”

Growing up in Yugoslavia and feeling that he was at the periphery of cultural production also cultivated Cosic’s strong sense of authentic and derivative artistic styles: “I was always pissed off when they were selling new books and translating literature which was actually written thirty years earlier. Somehow, in our country, there was always this massive delay, and it was reflected in the actual local cultural production...I was never interested in the best Albanian pop art, I was interested in the best pop art...Isn’t it better, I thought as a kid, to actually be at the source and possibly influence the birth or the way that work in this new area is going on.” In discussing this point I could’t help but contrast Cosic’s unequivocal belief in the continued originality of art with Fredric Jameson’s sentencing of art production to the imitation of dead styles lifted from the ‘imaginary museum’ of global culture. Turning the mike back on Cosic: “Maybe aesthetic appropriation does give some kind of a valid output, and I’m not arguing that this should be banned. I’m simply noticing that, according to my temperament, the juiciest work happens the first time around”.

Enter the Internet – a medium within which art had no history, the meta-medium, the vehicle of accelerated cultural and informational cross-pollination, the embodiment of contemporaneity par excellence. Art practice on the Net is ipso facto ‘juicy’, and it is happening within what has well nigh become a signifier of not only the new but the future too. Given the historicity of ‘the new’ however, it is small wonder that Cosic’s work is concerned with looking back at cultural history and carving out its own position within it. Having no desire to go vitrine shopping in the ‘imaginary museum’ of culture, Cosic processes history through computer specific languages and codes such as ASCII, HTML and Java, thereby creating history and style as a referent within the contemporary symbolics of the computer medium. History and future collapse into each other within the computer’s symbolic matrix. Having said that, it is important to note the degree to which ASCII has already accrued a retro appeal and science fiction has become a language of nostalgia. Postmodernism’s refusal of ‘the new’ is what riles Cosic most about this account of cultural logic:

“It’s too complicated to in any way criticise or analyse postmodernism because it’s totally unclear what it is. Are we talking about a practice or a group of people or what? But here we are, I’m looking at the positive effects of the introduction of this ideology. What it did was it levelled the unsustainable pluralism of before, unsustainable for the lazy...I think that absolute freedom of expression or appropriation got institutionalised and canonised and all possible meanderings, all possible developments in a linear history of development, somehow got sanctioned and a priori incorporated into the postmodern point of view. But because of course this point of view says ‘anything goes’ – and I’m not trying to make a caricature out of it – and by saying that anything that will ever be invented falls into the category of ‘everything’, then of course you’ve appropriated all future creativity. Just at the level of rhetoric, I think, you have sort of made a bad friend of posterity. I think the term ‘net art’ is one of those problems where postmodernism already includes it a priori. Before me or Alexei [Shulgin] moved a single tag in HTML we were already part of that movement, or group or era. Just because it’s so loosely defined, and it says ‘everything’.”


Here we stumble upon the enigma of Cosic’s relationship to the Internet. The Internet is at once a perfect reification of the velocity, specularity and virtuality of postmodernity and at the same time the place where something ‘happens for the first time’. It offers an opportunity for originality within the site of optimum reproducibility, and the site of resurgent history in the flattened space of historical amnesia. But if Cosic is undeterred by what has come to be seen as the historical constructedness of the concept of originality, his historical sense of how to market originality is acute:

“I think it is very logical that the old guys who were doing early video art insisted that they were video artists, and not just artists who were interested in a new toy. They insisted really seriously, and because of that there was a whole eco-system around them and their work. And maybe in a similar way, we are slowly developing an eco-system around net art. People are writing their PhDs about net art, and we have net art critics – an eco-system.”

And, in almost complete contradiction to the early utopian accounts of net art in which it was claimed – perhaps more by the critics than the artists themselves – to transcend the commodifying and etiolating processes of the market, Cosic states:

“I think simply that it’s not the massive desire of museums to maintain prestige that’s going to draw net art into the collections successfully. It’s more the conformism on the side of the artists, who are going to create technically commodifiable pieces or a model for the accommodation of net art within the museum situation. So it is interesting to observe net artists’ ambitions as the driving force behind this process of commodification. Simply, some of us have no problem with this. What can we do? I myself look at this as the only thing that I do, and interestingly enough my mother’s capital knows limits.”

“There is some type of illusion of virginity that used to exist earlier on in what I call the ‘heroic period’ – a term that Olia [Lialina] is using also – that was a time when what we did was known almost only to us, and that was a time when whoever you encountered that had anything to do with net art usually was also a practitioner because nobody else was interested. So those were the good old days, two years ago, who remembers when? But in the process, all these very nice offers you can’t refuse started popping up and it’s not easy, but it’s not a world premier either – it’s biblical. There’s a school of thought – and the nettime mailing list is one of the places in this world where you can often encounter people who believe in it – that money shouldn’t exist, that all human labour should be done for free and exchanged for services; err I do your website and you give me a bucket of beer. But somehow it’s a problem that it’s impossible to imagine a human being or a net artist who doesn’t interface with any of the networks and infrastructures that surround you, like economy, streets, public space, private space. Every instance of interaction with those systems is a loss of this same virginity that is being defended with the claims like ‘net art should not be sold’, which of course makes it very ugly. But how do you think you got your first Sex Pistols record? Because they didn’t want to sell it to you? Still it worked, most of the aesthetics and qualities remained – I repeat most, because of course something does happen. Unfortunately it’s a necessity, but what can I do?”

Does Cosic regard the potential of the Internet for artists to take distribution and sales into their own hands as an attractive option?

“What I like to think is that it’s simply helping artists by giving them a much better negotiation position than, say, video artists. This again is a pragmatic, strategic viewpoint that should perhaps never be uttered. A video artist could blackmail his gallerist maybe by saying that he has full control over the production, but the gallerist could also tell him to fuck off because the gallerist still owned the means of distribution. Nowadays, if you are an online artist, you control all of it and in a way put the guy in a tight corner, because really he’s not empowering you or in any way giving your work exposure that it doesn’t already have...And yes, I would like to have a show at Stedelijk because when Stedelijk moves their machine of promotion it will do miracles to distribution, and that shows on the log of my server.”

At last we arrive at the crunch question: “So what is politically radical about net art?”

“Some artists use up the medium very well.” says Cosic, “I consider my copy of the Documenta website a very political act, but of course within the art system. This is a relatively clear example of a political gesture, but nevertheless I still haven’t seen a really political-political net artwork.”

Cosic’s definition of a political art effectively turns it into an oxymoron: “Political art is art about politics, it’s not politics”, and further states that net art is in no way “changing reality”. Cosic is also unromantic about the power structure of the Internet: “It is easy to identify US involvement with the Internet simply as an imperialistic gesture and as a prelude to Internet 2.0 which will all be about commerce and somehow the US already is the hub of all communication. What’s it called? The Theory of Information, you know Roman Jakobson and all those old guys. It’s folk lore basically; whoever owns the channel owns the content, period. It was applied to some earlier communication systems because the anecdote is from the 30s, and it is applicable now because the Internet is working on broadcast principles, especially with this shift which everyone is predicting to cable systems which are broadcast systems. And the many-to-many model even now isn’t really working because you are connected or your server is connected to only one upstream server, not to many many points. This upstream system makes you very vulnerable because that nuclear bomb from the old story about how the Internet was made kills you very well.”

As with the condensation of art history into terse airport signs, Cosic is also able to reduce the elaborate relations between the Internet, power and net artist into a comically potent image: “To put it simply, I think that Bill Gates has a button under his pillow on which it says ‘Internet on/ Internet off’. That’s where my work has anything to do with that power.”

For Cosic then, the Internet would seem to provide the opportunity for art to extend its internal discourse on the basis of its formal and technical qualities. In this space of media, economic, political and artistic convergence, art remains as it ever was – a developmental process whose moments of originality are intimately linked to and yet independent from the wheel of social change. Politics and society are the block upon which the form of art is hammered out, but the two remain unalloyed.

I ask whether he believes that art’s autonomy is essential to the maintenance of its ‘artness’.

“It’s a beautiful thing to try. For instance, that would be nice. I prefer to do that than to change society. You can see me doing that in my use of, say, lo-tech which I can misuse properly, and that for me is a sign of ‘artness’ because something is being used in a way that the engineer didn’t intend it to be used. Whereas you have all these artists following hi-tech and trying to be posh but actually it’s only selling equipment. As an artist you’re only falling within the boundaries of the imagination of an engineer if you’re working with an off-the-shelf product. So this is where I’m looking at ‘artness’ as freedom.”


Josephine Berry: xjosie AT metamute.comx

Vuk Cosic: []

Proud to be Flesh