Infotactics as Art:
by Hannes Sigurdsson
What, for example, is the artists aim when he works? On the traditional, modernistic model it is the work itself. Or it is the exhibition, the interplay between the work and the viewer, the work completed by its audience. But now we must face the possibility that the work may be only a means of achieving something altogether different, a means of influencing something or taking part in a discourse for which the presence of the artwork itself is not needed.
Jón Proppé: The Disappearing Original, 1996.
We have come a long way, some critics proclaim to the terminal point of conventional art practices. Yet the debate over the current state of the artwork is still alive. In his frequently cited essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, originally published in 1936, Walter Benjamin prophetically concluded by asserting that when the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on a ritual, it begins to be based on another practice politics. Benjamins prediction that mass reproduction of the artwork through the duplicative means of printing and photography would ultimately depreciate its value, destroy its aura of authenticity and emancipate it from the bondage of tradition, has not come to pass at least not in the way that he envisioned it. Once the art object was shattered into its mechanically reproduced mirror images, he believed it would no longer belong exclusively to the domain of the ruling class. Instead the artwork could now meet the beholder under his or her unique circumstances, rematerialised as a public property.
What Benjamin did not foresee, or refused to face up to, was how this very same technique for dissipating visual material would be usurped by the power elite and applied as a marketing tool at the expense of the proletariat, known simply today as the consumer. He did not anticipate the sheer magnitude of conflicting visual stimuli and voices targeting the potential buyer at every turn, effectively paralysing our senses. He did not count on the ubiquitous power of television, the proliferation of channels and direct satellite broadcasts from the scene just as it happens. He did not consider the explosive marketing share of the movie and fashion business, the success of pay-per-view, the toll-free number and the monotonous fabrication of the news industry operating under the disguise of true democracy (locally controlled by the reigning pressure groups and internationally fed by Reuters and CNN). Neither did he predict the advent of the Internet, the digitised image and Information Super-Highway, nor did he reckon with the uniform nature of corporate civilisation, administered around the clock throughout the Global Village. And he completely miscalculated the potential of the entertainment industry as well as the violent nature of modern advertising where every choice has merely become an issue of lifestyle, spanning the entire human gamut from the latest in swim-wear to religion, philosophy and politics. (Similarly to the anonymous craftsmen of the middle ages, the advertising people are the invisible masons of the corporate cathedral.)
But above all, Benjamin did not expect the rapid decline of the bourgeoisie in late-capitalistic society and the gradual liquidation of its intricate value system to be replaced by the universal law of the spectacle. Benjamin was, as we know, a firm believer in art for the people, even if they might not care for it. In accordance with the modernistic division of labour the artist was seen as the exclusive wellspring of creative energy, while the task of the intellectual was to interpret his accomplishments and provide moral guidance by speaking on behalf of the masses. Benjamin was a formidable spokesperson and it is safe to assume that his legacy will continue to nourish the discourse for some time.
Let us leave the familiar details of Benjamins theory. What is of greater interest here is the peculiar timeless nature of his essay. Untold number of copies and translations of this essay have been reproduced over the decades to be commented on, interpreted, quoted and churned out by the printing machine anew within different discursive contexts. In return these writings have triggered off fresh waves of comments that can intersect in any number of ways with other levels of meaning, thus further extending the repercussions of Benjamins original text. Or the references may, of course, lead one back to the prototype, as it where. There is indeed no set of limits as to how a given text can affect the complex mechanisms of ideological production, nor, for that matter, can the impact on subsequent theories accurately be measured. Some of the notions may even trickle into the social sphere where the initial message becomes impossibly entangled with the so-called collective consciousness. Texts give birth to other texts as Salman Rushdie so imaginatively demonstrated in his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and the more widely disseminated the greater the likelihood that the output will leave a lasting imprint. Considering all the forgotten artworks that have been made since Benjamin published his essay, we may wonder why we still place such a faith in the object.
At a symposium on art criticism held last autumn at the Nordic House in Reykjavik, the Icelandic philosopher Jón Proppé cited the first sentence of Benjamins essay before making some highly illuminative remarks about how the distinction between the original and the copy had evolved within avant-garde circles to the point of theoretical redundancy. Besides terra cottas, cast bronze, print, lithography and film, we now have the artist book and the multiple of which there are no originals. But these are not copies either. On the other hand, one could maintain that all the pieces combined amount to an original only to be faced with a contradiction of terms. The installation and the performance are another case in point, for we can scarcely refer to an event as being an original. Not only do such works undermine our ideas of skill and craftsmanship in art, as Proppé correctly noted, but they blatantly overthrow any simplistic definitions we might have of what constitutes a reproduction.
What might be the reasons for this post-modern condition of the artwork? In his effort to maintain a voice, Proppé appeared to be saying, the artist has been forced to abandon the insular nature of the original by having it translated into a proxy or some other meaningful form, most commonly a discourse. Unlike a sculpture or a painting the book and the magazine are not uniquely placed in time and space. Moreover, the artwork continually begs to be relieved of its silence with the aid of interpretation. The art object is thus not the primary unit against which its contribution to the historical progress has to be measured. Exhibitions divided up into the one man show, the retro and the thematic category accompanied by a five pound catalogue is now the preferred form, and sometimes one can even do without the exhibition. Take, for instance, Rony Horns recent exhibition at a gallery in Reykjavik. In a typically whitewashed garage space she positioned an austere table and two solid metal chairs along with a shelf on which the viewer could browse through a selection of her books. Apart from that there was nothing in the room.
A small exhibition like this one may catch the attention of the international art press and trigger off such a quantity of commentary and discussion that the actual artwork can seem all but superfluous. It would nevertheless be absurd to suggest that the physical object was no longer required as it is both the catalyst and the referent around which the subsequent discussion evolves. The exhibition is the rocket platform, metaphorically speaking, from which the artwork is launched into the rhetorical orbit. Once it reaches that destination, the artwork is transformed into linguistics and simultaneously breaks away from its solitary confinement to become apart of the ongoing historical progress, the progress of discourse. This state of affairs is reflected in the disposable nature of much of the art produced today that often leaves nothing tangible behind once the show is over, except the reviews and the photographs. The discourse is the primary and ultimate aim of such work, while the exhibition is more like a tool, claims Proppé, and points out: this attitude occurs not only among artists. It is becoming increasingly prevalent among curators, many of whom now feel, perhaps not unjustly, that it is not really necessary to include any actual works of art when one is mounting an exhibition. (Jón Proppé, 1996.)
While Proppé has provided us with a helpful model for understanding the relationship between the artwork and the critic, essential for its historical instalment, his lecture did not address the current predicament of the discourse and the particular social, economic and political forces that are responsible for shaping it. If the intention is merely to bring the work of art within the purview of specialised art journals, then we have nothing to worry about. But to someone like Benjamin, and those who have followed his example, this must be regarded as insufficient and he would not have been happy with the situation we now face. The art world is a very apt term since it has increasingly become more isolated from the rest of the world. Armed with structuralism and Marxist theory Benjamins successors began to deconstruct the ideology of bourgeoisie order in the early 1970s by means of critical resistance and radical negativity. These art historians fervently believed that if they could only make the exploitation of the masses transparent enough the capitalistic system would ultimately collapse or somehow go away. Now we know better. The left has retreated with its theoretical utopia into the safe haven of the academic tower, where it continues to breed new generations of Marxist scholars. Meanwhile socialism in Europe has made a hasty U-turn to the liberal centre of market economy under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the English Labour Party. But do not take my words for the demise of the historical avant-garde. Listen to Benjamins namesake, H. D. Buchloh, one of the most ardent promoters of the cause, who seemed to be announcing his withdrawal from criticism in the January issue of Artforum, declaring: What has come into sight as a distinct possibility is, if not the end of art, then the end of these historically determined definitions of artistic practice and with them the end of their protagonists and institutions. Buchloh also remarked, it is only fair to add, that when art critics reach the end of their historical line, they tend to mistake the failure of their prognostic identifications or lack of comprehension for the end of art. (Benjamin Buchloh, 1997.)
In some sense at least art does seem to be waning. Leaving aside such public spectacles as the museum block-busters, the big auction houses and tourist attractions like the Venice Bienniale and Documenta that have little to do with the communal day-to-day aspect of the local art life, it is safe to say that the contemporary art world has witnessed a steady decline over the past decade as far as attendance ratings and sales are concerned. General apathy rules and even the artists themselves have largely ceased to attend each others exhibitions unless they happen to be intimately acquainted or working along the same lines. At any rate this holds true of the development in Iceland. If art is a mode of communication and no one appears to care about it except those who make a direct living from it, then we have surely come to the end of a long tradition.
The downfall can perhaps nowhere better be traced than in Iceland, and though the country has hitherto not made any significant impact on the international art world, we may very well have taken the lead in the sense of being the first to reach the bottom. This statement should not, however, be seen as an acceptance of Buchlohs pessimistic rejection of current art practices, which he takes to signify its end as most of the output fails to support his critical mission. True, the avant-garde may have depleted its originality; everything nowadays appears rehashed and academic, whether it be a serene landscape painting or a photograph demonstrating the final battle with a deadly disease. (Blasé is the name of our new survival-mechanism.) But the fusion of art and spectacle more accurately reflects the end of a particular ideology rather than the end of Art as such. The death of a tradition is liberating, as death always is, not inhibitory. When art touches ground zero, there are no guidelines to be followed, no utopia to be emulated, no hierarchy of masters and masterpieces, no references or preferred sources of inspiration of greater importance than any other, only limitless expansions of various possibilities. Once art ceases to be definable by virtue of tradition its presence can only be gauged from the way it deviates from other modes of production, by means of its radical otherness or futility, whichever comes first.