Chapter 2: Introduction - From Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back

By Josephine Berry Slater, 22 August 2012

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Introduction to Chapter 2 of Proud to be Flesh - From Net Art to Conceptual Art and Back

For those introduced to new media art in the 1990s, the discovery of an earlier history of conceptual, computer art was often quite a startling revelation. Although the stand-alone, hard-drive based new media art of the late-’80s and early-’90s was often put into the same lineage as art made in the commercial computer labs of the past, there was a whole streak of more autonomous and socially critical technology-orientated work that was being sidelined by the new media art circuit. It was to these artists that Mute’s coverage increasingly turned, as their historically and politically grounded approach provided tools with which to critique some of the worst excesses of new media art naïveté. As the heady euphoria surrounding the www ‘revolution’ subsided, and its promise of delivering communicative equality and social autonomy revealed itself to be a cyber-fantasy, the desire to bring the force of avant-garde critique to bear on the market-complicit gadgetry of so much new media art became an almost compulsive desire for the Mute editors.

The chronological arrangement of this chapter charts the intensification of such looping-back into the themes of earlier, technologically-orientated conceptual art, which departs from the contemporary altogether. Rather than intending to suggest any dying off of contemporary art coverage in the magazine per se, this trajectory is dictated by the decision to remain faithful to the chapter’s main theme. This could loosely be defined as art’s engagement with the potentials of techno-scientific development in the wake of modernity’s failed narrative of (science- and technology-driven) progress.

In the temporal span of the chapter, it is interesting to see how certain concerns regarding the relationship between art and technology persist. Far from celebrating the ICA’s 1968 show, Cybernetic Serendipity, as the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to ‘the computer and the arts’, Gustav Metzger, dismissed it for obscuring computing’s principal deployment in modern warfare and social control, claiming that, ‘whilst more and more scientists are investigating the threats that science and technology pose for society, artists are being led into a technological kindergarten.’

Writing some 30 years later, about another ICA show – Imaginaria, dedicated to art and digital technology – Ewan Morrison claims, ‘The inherent technological utopianism of Digital Art is irresponsible, naïve and dangerous.’ He goes on to argue that technology always serves the interests of power, and that so-called digital artists fall prey to an agenda not their own. A similar concern is expressed by ’90s net artist, Vuk C´osic´, as he discusses artists who are ‘following high-tech and trying to be posh’, when actually ‘they are only selling equipment’. ‘As an artist’, he concludes, ‘you’re only falling within the boundaries of the imagination of an engineer if you’re working with an off-the-shelf product.’

But, while there is a perennial return of certain themes, there is also a total amnesia regarding others – according to Morrison at least. Crucial to his argument against digital art is the apparent failure of these artists to deal with the postmodern crisis of human progress. Technology hasn’t been used as a tool for social emancipation but for mass annihilation, and the associated modernist projects of communism and humanism have similarly failed. Intimately related to this is a loss of faith in art – therefore, says Morrison, any idea that the computer is giving rise to a new art form fails not only to recognise this epistemological crisis but to adequately respond to it. Art’s only respectable path, he asserts, is to revisit the conditions of its impossibility and those of society.

Although such critiques of techno-utopian art are well grounded, they don’t recognise the attempt by certain artists to find, in the very techniques and logic of the military-industrial complex, a way of mirroring, and thereby exposing/ subverting, this system of power. As Matthew Fuller puts it: ‘We live in an era in which the dominant mode of politics is systems analysis. Power has been handed over to a series of badly animated, white-shirted technicians who deliver fault reports and problem-fixes that can only be answered with an ‘Okay’ […] In this context, it is essential for artists and others to synthesise an un-format-able world.’

Josephine Bosma in her piece, ‘Is It a Commercial? Nooo… Is It Spam?… Nooo – It’s Net Art!’ – one of the earliest published overviews of the emerging genre of net art – takes another tack. In essence she argues, albeit in 1998, that the speed with which artists have taken to the web has succeeded in outstripping the art world’s ability to keep pace. Accordingly, commodification of the artwork was proving difficult, abetted by the rate of browser development, which meant that artworks designed to run on older browser softwares quickly became obsolete. The ephemerality of the medium was actively embraced by artists, many of whom also refused to ‘sign’ their works or to locate them in a permanent place. Rather than promoting a utopian view of the technology, then, these artists could be said to have exploited the faults in a specific technical system to advance a materialist critique of art’s own system.

However, Bosma also discusses the attempt by an early ‘experimental net-based company’ called ada’web to develop new ways of funding art by offering net art as a form of ‘creative research’ to the corporate sector, rather than asking for ‘“charity” money’. Founder, Benjamin Weil, is quoted as explaining that this ‘could make them understand better the medium they were investing in, and draw attention to their corporation as being innovative’. Not only does this strike one as a classic piece of knowledge economy rationale, it also reminds us of how commercially intoxicating the relationship between high-tech and art continues to be. One quickly sees the risks faced by artists working with technology in an avowedly experimental way – making medium-specific work which both critiques and advances those means – rather than deploying familiar technologies to draw attention to existing modes of life.

Michael Corris’ piece, ‘Systems Upgrade’, gives a crucial overview of the ‘white hot’ technological and scientific environment of the 1960s, and artists’ responses to it. In the wake of the accelerated technological development of war-time production – and the advancements in the productive base this had achieved – scientific and technological R&D were seen as central to the economy, and funded as never before. The significance of systems theory, cybernetics and information theory at this time – which artist, Stephen Willats, affirms in the interview Mute undertook with him in 2000 – took hold of the ‘1960s imagination’, expressed in a general enthusiasm for logic, order and systems. Corris discusses how these technocratic theories, hatched from ‘the objectives of military or corporate management’, were integrated into art both optimistically and critically. Impacting on conceptual art’s generalised bureaucratic and informatic aesthetic, the likes of Roy Ascott took matters further, seeking to transform art through the adoption of ‘homeostatic, self-regulating, self-assessing systems’. At the other end of the scale, argues Corris, systems theory provoked artists like Hans Haacke to deconstruct the entire social system in which the artwork participates. In other words, and in contradistinction to Morrison’s argument, the neo-avant-garde was able to rehearse the dystopian aftermath of modernity using its own techno-scientific tools. However, a distinction needs to be made between using a systems-based analysis to demystify the apparently neutral context of art, and using digital technology’s tendency to become obsolete – its glitches and failures – within the postmodern context of art’s endgame.

Any residual positivism in Haacke’s method had well and truly vanished from the net art of the ’90s – as it has from the general culture. And, as the Cold War – which provided the backdrop to artistic engagements with technology in the ’60s and ’70s – threatens to reignite itself (with Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the construction of a US missile shield at the former superpower’s borders), technology’s destructive power once again comes to the fore. With the social acculturation to computer technology virtually complete – thanks, in part, to the user-friendliness of Web 2.0 – the return of its repressed military uses in the form of Cold War II will no doubt challenge the hegemony of touchy-feely, ‘socially engaged’ varieties of media art. Conversely, however, the aura of warfare in the age of embedded reporting and incessant blogging has waned. The extent to which the civil application of computing will come to haunt its military matrix, or to which its military origins will crack the upbeat veneer lent to it by social networking, remains to be seen. Artists’ engagements with bleeding-edge tech will always have the potential to critique its destructive civil and military applications, as well as the potential to be co-opted by them – as propaganda or R&D – as the rise of the so-called knowledge economy has amply demonstrated. This chapter hopefully conveys how delicate the equilibrium between art and technology remains.

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