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Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Final Commentaries

Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Final Commentaries

Steve Kurtz: We are here to talk about art and activism, what its future could be, and what we can do. What I am hoping to put across is that it is not as bleak as it seems. And that while certainly the condition of pancapitalism is horrific and barbaric and I would do anything to see it go, this doesn’t mean that the space of resistance isn’t large and that it’s not complex and that it’s not growing. So I am here to show a somewhat conflicted point of view, one in which I have a great deal of pessimism and there is as there is so much bad occurring that we can’t even enumerate it all, but at the same time there is a strong and healthy resistance, something that one can be optimistic about. There are movements and there are initiatives that people can really get on board with, and I think they actually have some kind of effect. I do believe that Guattari’s idea of the molecular revolution is a real possibility and that we can make new social arrangements, new political arrangements and new semiotic arrangements that will tend toward liberation. So that’s going to be my positioning today.

I am not a believer in dropout culture. I think that’s a proven failed strategy, that isn’t going to help anything. All that will do is that if you do drop out, you will close the potential areas for resistance. And it also depends on what you mean by art: If you mean it in the traditional sense of mastery of materials, painting a representation of something you find objectionable in the world or expressing the alienation — that’s not very helpful. But I think art is much more complex than that and a lot of new strategies have come out that work quite well in terms of helping in the engagement against the semiotic structure of capitalism; that really can serve to undermine it or develop alternatives that can parasite off of it that again have liberatory value. The second thing that really has to be said regarding art works is: you have to watch the question. Because you can load it so that you’re doomed. When you say, “What is an art work going to do to change the world?”, it is completely the wrong way to say it because there is no good answer. There is no art work that has ever done anything. But what you have to consider is the proper way of phrasing that question, which is, “What does the aggregate activism do over time?” Then you have a whole different answer. Look at the Vietnam War: There was a peace demonstration in 1964, a very large one. It didn’t stop it, but over time and through lots of cultural activity, it stopped. The AIDS crisis of the 80s and into the early 90s is another example I cited in my presentation. That is the way you have to look at it: as the total aggregate, and how well does it do over time, and how fast does it work over time. But if you say, “What does my little propaganda poster here do?” — Well, nothing. But in terms of contributing to this gathering flow, then it contributes, and it’s important.

Aesthetics and design for us are a means to an end. It has a couple of functions for us. One is that it can act as an attractant. To certain people it is interesting because it signs to them, “Something is going on here and it might be interesting to look at.” So if we can get them to that phase, we can maybe get them to the next phase of going beyond viewing to actually participating. It is very much a bees-andhoney situation. The second thing is that aesthetics and design allow to blend in. When you’re in the minor position but are in the majoritarian territory, and you’re trying to do something that is going to subvert it or disrupt it, you have to have some kind of camouflage on or the police are going to come directly and arrest you. Critical Art Ensemble has been attacked by any kind of disciplinarian agency you can think of — the police, journalists, welfare workers, church people: anything that disciplines people back, they have come after us. One of the ways we can delay that from authority realizing that something is going on it doesn’t like, is to camouflage in. That is what aesthetics allows you to do, to take on aesthetics of that institution and pretend to fit in until people come and participate and hear the message.

Claire Pentecost: I’m interested in how people change, how society changes. Of course it is changing all the time, but how do people change where they are bringing in some kind of agency into the process of their own transformation. And I think that it requires some level of optimism in order to do that. What are the conditions that create opti-mism? One of the things that I  borrowed from Lauren Berlant is that it has to do with attachment. To have an attachment, something that brings you out of yourself, is fundamentally optimistic. Now, I am reversing that and saying, “Is then attachment to a set of ideas or values, people, or a place one of the conditions of optimism?”

The “Public Amateur” is a model where the artist consents to take on knowledge production and move into disciplines where they are not authorized. This is in some ways against  specialization because specializations are designed to leave out questions of value. Art, however, is a place where we contest questions of value. And so by producing knowledge in public the artist is bringing whatever the content or process of that is what constitutes knowledge into the sphere where values are contested. It is also about authority. Any citizen can be a public amateur, but it’s different from the public intellectual: it’s not a position of mastery; it’s a position of “I don’t know and I’m going to see if I could find out some things that we don’t know.”

Amanda McDonald Crowley: One of the points I wanted to address is this idea of shared knowledge. A key strategy is thinking about making spaces for cross-disciplinary practice, for removing “silos of knowledge” and ensuring spaces for collaboration and exchange. The days of the artist in the garage are gone. It is truly important that we manage to find spaces where artists can talk to scientistsor philosophers, and work develops out of that. Then there are always surprises, people come up with projects  and ideas they would never have expected or invented if it had not been for this cross-disciplinary exchange and collaboration. One of the key problems that we’ve got, particularly in urban environments, is this idea of a “silo knowledge base” — that people go to work on a specific topic, and particularly urban work environments make sure that people are excluded from other areas of knowledge and other forms of practice. Ensuring that we can make social spaces and environments, that we can build labs where people can come together and share knowledge is of crucial importance.

One of the things that came out for me today was also this idea of a social space to have this shared knowledge and information. Working in New York in an urban environment, I realized that the food production system here is so completely messed up. The “Window Farming” project I spoke about uses technologies that you can buy off the shelf really expensively, but how they are deploying it is by sharing their knowledge with their community, by crowd sourcing it. They use blogging and other Internet technologies to share their knowledge in real time. It is knowledge you can share on the Internet but in communal spaces, too, which means it is not about distancing people from another but about bringing them together in different ways. I was not defending the term technology, but I defended the concept of different disciplines. I think there are all sorts of strategies we can employ, all sorts of ways that we can interact with the urban environment including mobile technologies that can improve our quality of life in the cities. It has to do with  lowtech, too, it has to do with ensuring green spaces and making sure that we have outdoor and communal spaces and real public space in the cities, while most public spaces in the cities at the moment — certainly in this country — are actually private public spaces and they are not conducive to sociability.

Jim Fleming: One of the points of attention we’ve found ourselves circling around a great deal was between tactical media projects, often artistically involved or localized efforts to be critical or to resist, and something more strategic than tactical, involving perhaps longer periods of time, perhaps grander gestures or efforts to do something which wasn’t defined by the past or the enemy. I guess we would have to say we could not identify or at least name these strategies terribly well, but I think to speak in a kind of utopian register it felt to me like we were talking about ways of developing strategies of abolition, strategies of abolition of work through various kinds of intentional or unintentional refusals of work, abolition of money which I tried to argue was a kind of capitalism that has outstripped the mechanisms of commodity production and has become financial strategies that feed on the money form itself. We need to find a way to abolish money, the infernal equivalence of everything; so that every kind of difference gets measured in terms of more or less and radically different kinds of desires are somehow all conflated into quantification. And then perhaps a strategy of abolition for some people perhaps characterized as an abolition of technology. I think that this word is less useful than something like machines that are destructive of the social. I think the register within which this repeatedly came into the discussion had to do with environmental strategies and ecological disasters and the problems of community when there are said to be no limits to growth.

With respect to actual technologies I am fundamentally agnostic: I don’t think that there is a plus factor or a minus factor in the technologies themselves, it really feels to me as though the technologies are use-values and that in some sense the technologies which are in some way complicit in the destruction of the social wouldn’t necessarily be in a different kind of world; a world that perhaps can be produced outside of that older social relation.

The relative autonomy of “art,” as perhaps simply a special genre of “media,” grows increasingly irrelevant, along with that greater class of corporate media to which some art aspires. Many of the commercially compromised forms of the “old” media — which found their representational strength in quantification: polling, sales figures, markets, and the like — are being superceded, technologically if not ideologically. Whether the same regime of old values can simply move onto the faster and vaster terrain of the “new” media, without some fundamental transformations in the attendant means of social organization, is somewhat doubtful.The chief responsibility we bear today with respect to critical media strategy is to extract ourselves, carefully but as quickly as possible, from the old institutional forms (not necessarily the technological formats, but with an interest in promoting “im-mediacy”) of all corporate media, and craft alternatives with novel structures: less hierarchical, more participatory, antagonistic with respect to the hegemonic mechanisms of social control — more truly autonomous media, which may look like the end of “media” as we know it. To truly do this, we must also strive for as little participation in the money economy as possible, since that money form — the universal equivalent of exchange — is precisely capital’s own tongue, and always forked.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: My skepticism goes back all to the beginning of the Romantic era. The idea of art in opposition to civilization is essentially Romantic; artists have attempted this in many different ways ever since 1795; and each time an attempt is made somehow the artistic movement is coopted, made again into a part of capitalism. Look at Surrealism and what happened to it. It became very expensive, then it was discovered by advertising and PR to be an extremely effective technique for what they wanted to do, and now people sneer at it and say it is unfashionable and stupid, and that it somehow betrayed the cause. This is nonsense — it was just another one of those avant-garde movements that was co-opted and ruined by capitalism, something that has been going on since the 18th century. It is still going on today. Artists can never stop making art, that’s what  we do. But so far we have not solved the Romantic problem of how everyone is to be a special kind of artist.

On the day of the conference I made no comment on Bifo’s “call for silence,” which, on consideration, I find quite moving. It reminds me of some of my old tags, “Will to Power as Disappearance,” or perhaps “Failure Is the Last Possible Outside.” If I understand Bifo correctly, he’s implying that Theory has betrayed us, “seduced & abandoned us,” by explaining everything & changing nothing, & that the sole plausible response to this failure would be “silence & cunning,” a tactical withdrawal.

Could this silence be compared with what I called droppingout in my opening remarks? Withdrawal from the “worldly world” into a sort of secular (or Neo-Pagan) Anabaptism, a communal refusal of technopathocracy? A form of strategic retreat? The Amish & other Anabaptist sects fuel their refusal (or sacrifice) of modernity with religious fanaticism. Must we engender a secular equivalent to this fierce spirit in order to energize & maintain such an armed silence?

So far, in North America anyway, the benefits of Progress (including the latest CommTech goodies & cars that run on salad oil) far outweigh any will to rebellion or even refusal. The Left has been almost totally absorbed into Cyberspace, & Theory remains helpless against the Great Mechanism with its perpetual motion of disinfotainment & shopping. Theory, it turns out, is just another (shopworn) commodity. Escapism, “the deliberate avoidance of  the modern world,” is generally condemned as an exercize in selfish hedonism. Carried out by viable groups however, this pleasure could take on revolutionary implications. In my view even a picnic by the side of a stream with friends, with the right intentions, can be experienced as an insurrectional act (a Temporary Pastoral Zone!) — how much more so an intentional settlement or community of neo- Luddite mutualists! What looked like “voluntary poverty” to outsiders might appear as real luxe to the drop-outs themselves, e.g. the luxury of organic speed, freedom from noise (silence in the positive sense), freedom from vapidity & materialistic numbness, etc.; bright days & dark nights, a new poetic sense of science & nature, the exhileration of synergistic creativity.

As for the spiritual fervor that may be required to overcome the sacrificial aspects of such cohesion and conviviality, I suggest that a kind of imaginal syncresis is nowadays taking place gradually in the form of a new & very old “religion of Nature” that links shamanism with romanticism, psychedelics, neo-paganism, green anarchy, primitivism & other anti-Civilization & eco-mystical trends, into an acephalous “congeries of sects” structurally similar to revolutionary Anabaptism  [see the novel Q for this argument] or to Classical paganism.

My friend the anthropologist Jim Wafer said (in The Taste of Blood) that Afro-American paganisms such as Santeria, voudoun, candomblé, etc, should be seen not as opium of the people (even in the strangely positive & rather wistful sense Marx used this phrase) so much as areas of resistance to imaginal &  material oppression. (Some European witchcraft for example was really underground pagan resistance to the Church, and so on.) Even the montheisms themselves can be surreptitiously re-paganzied, as they are, so beautifully, in Santeria; Nietzschean HooDoo, Jesus in Dionysus, etc.

Debord liked Napoleon’s aphorism about strategic retreat, i.e., that it should be directed toward areas of logistic resource & renewal, if possible, and not a mere rout, as if of random particles after an explosion. We find ourselves, perhaps, lost in one of J.G. Ballard’s endless shopping malls; this, rather than some Waterloo, is the scene of our defeat. In such a situation “Escapism” is simply the name of a necessary psychokinetic skill, that of a Fantomas, or Houdini with his motto, “Love Laughs at Locksmiths.”

As a corollary to this argument I suggest that, like Theory itself, the Conference has become for us an unproductive form (accounting in part for the intimations of “depression” mentioned by more than one participant). Why waste the rare opportunity for real conversation & friendship on a structure  derived from bureaucracy &  academia? Instead of Conferences we might instead give our attention to some Bakhtinian–Rabelaisean experiment in festal  conviviality, such as a Temporary Pastoral Zone. The problem with such deliberate magic of course if that sometimes it works &  sometimes it doesn’t. But why not at least give magic a chance? 

Ted Byfield: My main point had to do with stepping away from an emphasis on visual representations of social activity, from individual lives to smaller groups, activist groups, organizations, and towards thinking about things rather in terms of time. Although we have an enormous range of vocabulary for describing aspects of time, ranging from moments to millennia, the particular historical position that we are in now, there seems to be a sense of crisis, a sense of transformation or transition. It seems to be a very event-driven moment and we don’t really understand whether we are at the beginning or at an end of something. I think that people are viewing things as though they are coming to an end, for example the 20th century has come to an end and now we are shuffling along in its wake. That someone would naturally describe things in relatively pessimistic terms. Or if someone views us at the beginning, they potentially would be more optimistic. Everyone who spoke here lived and flourished in the latter half of the 20th century which became increasingly concerned with an unstable version of what the future would be. Oddly, we have spent a lot of time in the last couple of years increasingly living in this notion of “the future” how we understand it. In that regard I think it’s the best to step away from visual, territorial, cartographic, imagistic, schematic representations, but instead to think in terms of something that lends itself to greater fluidity. The world of time where one can be part of a generation, a part of a century, in a phase of one’s life or in a relationship to a project all coextensively and at the same time as opposed to the more territorialized “Are you on this side, are you on that side, are you a member of this country or this movement or not.”

Optimism and pessimism are first and foremost ways of evaluating a situation. Two people could look at the same situation and observe the same phenomena, and one could say, “This is good” and the other “This is bad.” Optimism is a moral or aesthetic mode you want to do an evaluation of a particular situation as it expresses itself in time. Is there possibility? Is there no possibility? My own view, in particular after listening to the other speakers, is beginning to confirm for me my skepticism about the heroic, individualist, deliberate model of activity. I mean obviously we should all try to be critical and deliberate in our actions, but I think that if we hold ourselves too accountable within the ways that we imagine the world that we live in, we end up in an awkward situation where we take our optimism or our pessimism and ultimately turn it back on ourselves to say, “I have succeeded.” or “I have failed.” All these things are temporal ways to segment the fluidity of what we do so we can say, “This is over.” So I think, it’s neither, nor. I think that optimism and pessimism are positions that people can take, but it doesn’t really change the outcome of what happens. We can’t possibly know.

When you hear the word “new,” reach for your revolver. Something, anything may indeed be new, but that fact is independent of the evaluation of whether or how new it is, which in turn has nothing to do with the declaration that it’s new. The thing, the estimation, and the declaration operate on autonomous orders, or at least orders that have been (and so one would hope can be autonomous). Of course, they can be conflated, and regularly are: that’s the defining trait of the cult of novelty (in which the salient fact of something is its alleged newness) and its related pathologies — the naive heroism and eternalreturnings of modernism, the abysmal webs of nostalgia, the compulsive dilemmas of postmodernism, the culs-desacs of authentism, and so on.

The drive to declare something new is usually  reducible to some mutation of the profit motive: maybe capital, maybe cultural, it doesn’t “really” matter, because the two are  deeply intertwingled at some point. “Motive” not in any psychological sense; to the extent that they exist, they’re expressed  socially, and for now the environment in which they do so is “capitalist.” It’s conceivable that, somewhere, somehow, someone could act out of some pure motive utterly independent of this historical context; but it’s less conceivable how this historical context  would behave independently of itself. Historical contexts may change (what else can they do?), but the current vogue for  real-time diagnoses of pseudo-historicized phenomena — that is, the affectation of ahistorical perspectives — is, like  declarations of novelty, an exercise in the a priori: redefinition by fiat, reevaluation by other means.

This points us in the direction  of rhetorical analysis, a field associated with activities like literary criticism, which are often deemed to be impotent, abstract,  and/or academic. But, of course, if that’s the conventional wisdom we really — instinctively — ought to regard it with very long  pincers. It’s true that the alpha and omega of lots of rhetorical analysis is the manufacture of still more derivative rhetoric, often of  a kind that affirms rhetoric’s allegedly terminal quality (think, for example, Lacan and his spoor). But it needn’t be so: there’s  nothing intrinsic to rhetorical analysis that dooms it to justifying circular reasoning. On the contrary: it’s hard to imagine how we’d  ever escape from any sort of cultural quicksand without learning to listen in ways that weren’t intended by the speaker or  assumed by his or her milieu.

Exercises in the a priori are hardly limited to the “new,” of course: they equally include all kinds of  evaluations masquerading as descriptions — for example, in this context, categories such as “radical,” “alternative,”  “progressive,” and well as their antitheses and everything in between. Wherever indigenous (in the descriptive, not the ennobling,  sense) knowledge, a genius loci, organic techniques and ephemeral strategies are displaced, dissolved, distorted  — or abstracted, eclecticized, exported — there you’ll find this kind of a priori evaluation rearing its head: by the bucket, raised to  the level of an artform, as inexplicably pervasive as a trendy habit, and (worst of all) “constitutive” — central to the logic of whatever  needs to be prioritized and legitimized, and probably to the logic of how it’s being legitimized as well.

Make no mistake,  the problem isn’t novelty: new things can be fine, and so can old ones. The problem lies instead with novelty as an axis of  analysis, because it invites a sort of nouveau régime, an inversion of its ancien predecessor — one that replaces monadism with  multitudes, authority with consensus, tradition with process, hierarchy with dynamism, and so on, but preserves the  underlying fascination with chronology as a basis for figuring much of anything out. 

Brian Holmes: What does one admire in a piece of art? What is its autonomy? And what could be its consequences? I have    asked myself these questions for years. Like most thinking people, I have come to a few conclusions.

Humans are excessively complex by nature, and inherently social. We are defined by the surfeit of symbolic activity that goes on in our brains and indeed, in our full sensorium, and that comes out not only from our mouths but in all sorts of gestures and postures and practices directed toward the senses and symbolizing activities of others. A long anthropological tradition running from Sapir through Lévi-Strauss to Sahlins holds that so-called “primitive” societies are no less complex than modern ones: their languages show comparable range and variety, but they are (according to Lévi- Strauss) oriented differently, more concrete in one case, more abstract in the other. There is so much going on in any human being and between any group of human beings that just ordering or harmonizing all this excessive symbolization — I mean, excessive over what the utilitarians think of as the simple quest for satisfaction or corporeal pleasure — be comes a problem in itself. Because madness always lurks on the edges of our  eeling imaginations, and then there is also depression, or anger, or jealousy, or prejudice or extreme paranoia, indeed a  large number of obscure problems that can disrupt the life of the one and of the many.

Religion has been the great social  technique for bringing all this roiling thought, expression and sensation into some kind of predictable pattern and harmony,  constituting entire narrative and figural universes, with their built environments, rituals, music, poetry, smells, tastes, etc, all  associated and carefully correlated with orders of kinship, canons of sexuality, responsibilities of care, expressions of  tenderness, commandments, prohibitions and the like. What we now call art, as it gradually detached itself from religion and  became a series of aesthetic traditions interpretable and modifiable by individuals — as it became autonomous, in other words  — seems to have taken on the role of being the sensuous and ideational mirror of the individual’s proper “fit” with society; it  became a way of continuing the vast and mostly imaginary conversation about the ways that the one relates to the many, and  vice-versa. However, this conversation was no longer necessarily about harmony: because depending on the very particular  context, the proper “fit” could have aspects of a “misfit,” and the quest for an idealized harmony could involve extreme disruptions  of the status quo, disruptions appearing both in art and in life itself. Just think about the Antigone of Sophocles and you will see  that this kind of problematic was not invented with the Romantics, it goes back quite a way. Clearly it gets particularly intense in  modern democracies, where we are all brought up to conceive ourselves as both legislators and revolutionaries.

Now,  amusingly, one of the reasons I ever even bothered to think about such complex and excessive things, so far from “direct political  action” and what have you, is that for many years I have found myself with a certain nagging problem of getting up in the morning.  Perhaps others have experienced this? It so happens that on certain mornings I may spend as much as an hour just thinking  about a certain constellation of things: a group of people, an artwork, a political issue, a line from a song, a concept, a phrase  from a book, an image, a rhythm. Without showing any particular signs of anxiety, insanity, delirium, fever, swine flu or whatever, I  still found it necessary to bring such constellations of ideas and sensations into some kind of dynamic pattern that would lend a spring to my step, a direction to my speech, an effectiveness to my gestures. Being a bit of a misfit — according to the aforementioned tradition in the democratic societies — I had to work on this question of how to fit all this in, nonetheless: how to  fit into my own overflowing symbolic and sensate world, first of all, and how to fit that world into the multitude of others with whom  daily activity brings me into contact.

So how ’bout the politics then? Well, according to my little theory, the personal is clearly both  aesthetic and political, because if you can’t get out of bed you are definitely not going to make it to the office, the march, the  meeting, the voting booth, the library, or wherever your activity is going to have some conse-quences in terms of organizing social  relations. What is more, this is not just my little theory, because going back to Plato’s Republic or maybe the Rig Vedas,  social thinkers have been very conscious of the influence of things like music on the order and harmony of the community, the  city, state or whatever. Indeed, not long ago we saw with dazzled and almost disbelieving eyes that a great nation-state like China  could put a significant fraction of its resources into organizing an aesthetic display which was not just supposed to knock  everybody out, American style, with its overwhelming show of wealth, but also and above all to enact and celebrate an ideal of  harmony and societal coordination which, from my anarcho-individualist viewpoint, was at once vastly impressive and also  frankly terrifying, because here I could see an intensive use of all the latest, hypercomplex aesthetic techniques to knit together  an order that could power a vast authoritarian economic machine and infuse it with the enthusiam and belief of the many —  which is a lot, when we’re talking China. So you want new media? Replay your .avi file of the opening ceremonies of the 2008  Olympics.

What I am trying to get at with all of this is that art is essentially media, it is not merely but essentially about  communication, only what is communicated is not just a phrase or a slogan or a piece of information, but a problematic attempt to reconfigure a world on every level of sensate and imaginary experience. That can be an attempt to fit in or to stick out, to  harmonize or to disrupt, to smash the current relation of self and society or to conserve it or to invent another one; but insofar as  art is expression, it always projects this struggle over the shape and balance of a world towards  the ears and eyes and  excessive imaginations of others. When we say that art is autonomous, we situate it in the long democratic tradition where the  self, autos, tries to help establish the law, nomos, according to which it can freely develop in the company of fellow human  beings.

Now, the problems of this attempt at autonomy are almost infinite, they are sexual, technical, ecological, emotional, mystical, contractual, material, they involve philosophy, science, babies, great art and also the plumbing. And they always involve  the relations of individuals and groups to others whose worlds they do not understand, whose rhythms they do not feel pulsing in  their own veins, whose tacit concepts of harmony and disruption are not expressed by the same patterns and shapes and  colors and combinations of tones. So when I say, Wow, great work — as I often do, just the way people in the new media arts  circles have done for years at festivals sponsored by Philips and Microsoft and Sony and the like — the first consequence for me  is to inquire into the world from which that art arises  and to which it points, and eventually to see how I fit into or desire to break  out of that world. This means that a deep and searching criticism can never just be criticism of the work, it always has to look  further back, into the world from which it sprang, and ahead to the consequences of a potential change in the worlds we share, or  at least to the consequences of a change in the way that I or we will relate to other worlds in the future.

Finally, it seems to me,  in my anarcho-democratic world, that to say Wow, great work, without inquiring into the consequences, is one of the closest  things one can do to never getting out of bed, i.e. it’s close to sleepwalking. Because at best, you would then be just letting the  great artwork fit into your own impassioned dream, or letting it be the colorful and striking tattoo that will fit you into your own micro-circle of admirers. That’s at best — because in the present world of biopower and noopower, just admiring a work in itself  and for itself can mean accepting without question the world that it mediates, which in the case of the networked technologies  sold by Sony, Microsoft and Philips and abused by a vast array of corporations and governments, can be an extremely predatory  world, configured precisely in order to capture your consciousness and extract some value or utility out of your passions and  dreams. Value that can ultimately be devastating for the collectivity (as in the debt-fueled consumption boom of this decade), utility that can make you into the most terrible of instruments (like the voters lured by nationalist rhetoric into supporting our  proliferating wars).

In my view, the poverty of new media art — its “crisis” — has intrinsically to do with the poverty of media  critique tout court. It is the failure to see how the cultural politics of individuals and groups are mediated in the work, how they are  expressed at every level of their ineluctable complexity and excess over the “mere communication” of what already exists. (From  “New Media from the Neolithic to Now”) 

Konrad Becker

Art and Media Practice

It seems quite impossible to address artistic media practice on the whole since the field of artists and cultural workers is all too heterogeneous. On one single mailing list you might find precarious “artist in residency” nomads, aspiring upwardly mobile blue chip createurs, mid-level academia pragmatists, or art school teachers, as well as those who see themselves as cultural entrepreneurs of the Creative Industries to name just a few variants. As an example for diversity, one artist in the audience admitted that she simply could not stand the alienation of living in opposition, counter to and against the powers that be.Traditional art markets are invested in specific aesthetic games in spaces of representation. The mechanisms of this sector of the cultural economy also inform non-profit funding bodies and public resource allocations. Its logic thrives on the mystification of creation, questionable originality, and insignificant stylistic “innovations” rooted in the requirements of branding. Classical art production today has been criticized before — amongst others by Alexander Rodtschenko as early as the 1920s: “Down with art that aspires to be nothing more than a spot of beauty on the ugly lives of the rich. Down with art that tries to be a glittering stone in the merciless and dirty lives of the poor. Down with art whose sole purpose is to escape a life not worth living. Work for life and  not for palaces, cathedrals, cemeteries and museums. Work in the midst of all and with everyone.”

However, when culture is seen as an economic engine in post-industrial societies, art comes out of the luxury decoware closet and into the realm of Creative Industry. Its televangelist Richard Florida has become famous due to his scaling of cities according to “creativity,” as well as the dubious formula “technology, talent, and tolerance.” Well-meaning centre-left and centre-right decision-makers are fascinated by Creative Industries key words allegedly offering simple solutions for the shift of the economic focus in the direction of a dematerialized creation of value. Despite dubious data, leagues of politicians and journalists rant about the “Creative Class” even though they have totally different ideas about its actual properties. The commercial exploitation of cultural niche markets corresponds to the transition from traditional disciplinarian modes of preconfigured categories towards new societies of control; from educational indoctrination to the fluid mining of cognitive response and reaction flows. The so-called “Web 2.0 interfaces” enable the commodification of subjectivity where regressive exhibitionism is exploited in narcissist “social networks” and then licensed back to the user.

Dilemma of Dissent
Similar to the prisoner’s textbook predicament of cooperation, the rebel’s dilemma presents the participation in dissident activities as irrational. Rationality results in the market failure of rebellion. Why participate and pay the costs if potential rebels receive the benefits regardless of whether they get involved in revolutionary activities? With an incentive to a free ride allegedly a rational actor will not voluntarily engage in fighting oppression, popular revolutions remain an enigma.

Obviously the late 1990s were a time of experimentation with digital network technologies, driven by enthusiasm and a strong overlap in the fields of art, activism and “hacker” culture. However, a lot of practices of these pioneering days of DIY global communication networks have become solidified in genres and routines. By now the media culture of the Nineties can easily be emulated by anyone who sees a niche market or seeks a spotlight in the self mutilating vanities of Web 2.0. At least since the Sixties, much of counter culture was just a lifestyle of alienated middle class youth, a rebel pose widely segregated from real social struggles. Today, beyond the “be a rebel, buy Nike” type of marketing, rebellion has become a niche product for cultural markets and for dissent management. Since these are the only available choices of rebellion, and since the more traditional monolithic systems of social control and dominant mass media have lost their contours, it seems much harder to define dissent and articulate opposition. For many engaging in the cultural field it may appear as if “heroic failure” were not even an option but only the banal fate of simply being ignored.

Boutique activism is on the rise; it is boom time for artivist niche aesthetics and the exemplary inconsequential quasiironic bourgeois-bohemian gesture. Ersatz statements and cheap renderings of critical culture that make the notion of dissent absurd are the order of the day. Art is just not the last resort of scoundrels to placate the public when really we need change, but peak-oiling towards an eco-fascist control society or just plain green capitalism with lots of cute eco-art. Meanwhile, conflict management has migrated into the domain of culture, media and the Creative Industries, the precarious civil arm of the dromological military-entertainment complex. Where high-tech weapons technology shape-shifts into applications of Creative Industries and into the domain of desire, imagination and mediated lunacy. At the heart of symbolic information dominance and contemporary panem et circenses lies the cultural peacekeeping for the educated classes.

Artistic practice certainly does not need a code of conduct or self-policing and there is no scale from lucid and seriously critical work to decorative bourgeois fetishism well aligned to art market games, but the “emergent patterns” of cultural production are well worth attention. Linguistic mind-games or media art entertainment applying a toothless critique are of limited use in challenging the power economies behind the phantasmal regimes. Counter-information campaigns are seldom very effective if they cannot address the hidden channels of libidinal economies.

Crisis of the Real
The new wave of fundamentalist eligious beliefs in the second half of the twentieth century are directly related to the processes of globalization, the crumbling beliefs of modernity and the rise of post-industrial network culture. Increased connectivity does not necessarily translate to greater concurrence but provides evidence for difference and oppositions that can lead to instability and conflict. As connectivity spreads, complexity, instability and uncertainty grow, giving rise to a desire for simplicity and certainty. This does not only include religious ideas but also reductionist forms of science that paint an illusory picture of clear borders and logo-centric purity, despite the instability of foundational structures and the deficiencies of supposedly comprehensive systems. Fundamentalism is just the other side of the coin of postmodernism. Like religion, money as the means of means integrates and permeates every element of societies. The endless accumulation of capital to eternity, the defining feature of capitalism, becomes an end in itself that increasingly dispossesses human potential and options.

The inner affinity of money and religion has been clearly identified in the past. Capitalism, a religious cult without a strict dogma, is composed of a multitude of technical, organizational, or consumerist myths. Religious beliefs, or art as a concept of “beauty” that displaces religion in secular societies, are both incorporated into market and finance. Since capitalism does not create meaning but destroys it, the objective
reality of finance suffers from a deficit of meaning. This is where money develops a parasitic and syncretistic relationship to religion (and later) art. The gods in modernity are inaccessible, beyond the subjectivity of humans, but the arts come with a promise to make the invisible perceptible. Even though they do not fuse, religion, art and economics are interwoven. Culture and socioeconomic processes are codependent, cultural systems condition natural systems, and attitudes shape values and the socioeconomic fabric of societies. As long as the production of myths continues to feed the imagination, the hidden god of capital may remain invisible. Art has come to provide legitimacy for the post-political machinery of exploitation of life.

Scarcity of the Imagination
According to a recent BBC survey the majority of the population of 27 nations do not believe in capitalism anymore — the main post-ideological religious faith, the only remaining hegemonic belief system is in crisis. Where the economy of finance is a synonym for rationality, the crisis of money becomes a crisis of rationality itself. In a society in which “finance” is synonymous with social rationality, a so-called “financial crisis” can be nothing more than a deep crisis of rationality. In parallel, the environmental degradation and depletion of fossil fuel resources indicate more crises - but the biggest challenge is the growing lack of imagination. Although Thatcher famously claimed that “there is no alternative”, in her time the imagination on the street seemed very vivid in comparison with today. Now we presumably have a choice of 1001 consumer alternatives but imagination seems rather scarce. Much of current discourse makes utopian thinking look illegitimate which supposedly translates into oppression or qualifies as a security risk. In the legacy of postmodernism any resistance is considered futile because all dissent is just there to refine the instruments of oppression and all modes of resistance are absorbed in the discourse of power. Everybody knows the emperor does not have clothes, but pretends to see them, which is then called irony. Since is easier to pretend than deal with complexity, postmodernists promote the political system they pretend to resist.

It is imagination itself through schemas of figuring and disfiguring that informs cognitive processes, deploys transcending schemata to organize experience, and thereby creates realities. Since all figuring and identification of forms is the product of human imagination it becomes obvious that imagination is not just a subjective process but also involved in the creation of the so-called “real world”. The configuration of expectation influences results, which is where the structures and operations of the mind meet with the world out there. How does the crisis of the imagination translate to the professional manipulation of cultural symbols, to the world of art and media?

From Tactics to Strategy
Tactics depend on time; they offer a path for those who cannot count on a place or institutional localization and who do not control a space. According to writers like Michel de Certeau, strategy seems to focus on force relationships with agents of power that can be isolated from an environment and assume a bounded place that serves as the basis for relations with a distinct exterior. From this perspective it seems inadequate for marginal and heterogeneous agents of change and might give the impression as if strategy was con- servative in nature. Apparently the focus in media culture was also largely on questions of the tactical, like tactical media. But the concept of territory and space has to be extended from the absolute space of  walls, bridges, streets, buildings, mountains, gated communities, or state boundaries, to the relational space-time of lived  spaces of desires, dreams, memory, frustration, phantasms, and to the technologies of the imagination. Multidimensional  spaces are formed by use, experience, and understanding. There is a need to go beyond tactical media interventions and their  decorative appropriations driven by the Creative Industry curricula.

Cultural intelligence and practice is concerned with the  psycho- geographical analysis and depiction of multidimensional spaces. Strategies of change and conceptual manipulation of  relational space-time may change potentials of cognitive labor into strategic realities of an informational matrix. Focusing on the  deployment of tactics in The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes: “All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is  the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” Sustainable action needs to go beyond the tactical toward strategic operations  implying a trajectory of purpose and intention, if only virtual. Not spectacular action heroes but discreet operations of a process of  change are at work in long term agency and extended trajectories.

Operative Art and Media
In order to illustrate the dubious  reputation of art these days, I brought up a Guy Debord quote from “Methods of De- tournement” in 1956. The quote goes on —  although I did not get the chance to bring into the discussion — and I like the second part even better than the first:

“The cause of  this deterioration is clearly the emergence of productive forces that necessitate other production relations and a new practice of  life. In the civil war phase we are engaged in, and in close connection with the orientation we are discovering for certain superior  activities to come, we can consider that all known means of expression are going to converge in a general movement of  propaganda which must encompass all the perpetually interacting aspects of social reality.”

It refers to the role of the artist in an  information age civil war, and the future of symbolic manipulation in societies saturated and structured through powerful  information and communication technologies. Predictably the so-called “information society technologies” have brought us a  new disinformation age. But disinformation is not necessarily about a simulation of regimes of truth but about the manipulation  of hidden dimensions.

Cultural circles sometimes debate on the issue of “political art.” There is always a crowd that will make  claims about the aesthetic deficiencies of what they identify as political art, or its obsolete didactic gesture. Or they will explain  their profound and personal experiences in perceiving a piece of art which they place above all “unclean” political issues in some  imagined realm of purity. They fail to realize that not just any piece of art but any communication is foremost and first a  political act.

From a critical intelligence on representation of the real and the unreal to the intervention and understanding of  processes and flows, the operative artist gives primacy of critical agency in intervening actively and applies a post-aesthetic  strategy.

Clearly new forms of cooperation and collective practices that result in playful interventions in processes and flows are much more stimulating and relevant than the obsolete model of the artist/author genius and the aura of the fetish object. Urban  art practices investigate overarching spheres of influence at the crossroads of the trivial and the attractions of popular  imagination.

Art and culture, beyond their function of status decorum, tax conserving investment, or precarious entertainers, serve as an autonomous examination of processes and systems and the generators of systemic reality.

Content type
Projects Critical Strategies in Art and Media book 2010
Critical Strategies in Art and Media
World-Information Institute
Date 2010


anti-capitalism activism public amateur Austrian Web Resistance Awards molecular revolution interdisciplinarity processes of collaboration silo-based knowledge Amish Anabaptists anti-optimism optimism pessimism shared knowledge Romanticism avant-garde anti-pessimism art as media neo-Luddism art as religion escapism autonomy Temporary Pastoral Zone voluntary poverty aspects of time cult of novelty religion Cultural and Creative Industries (CCI) social networks boutique activism globalization capitalism anarcho-individualism anarcho-democracy Creative Class political art Félix Guattari Guy Debord Claude Lévi-Strauss Richard Florida Michel de Certeau Sun Tzu Alexander Rodtschenko
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