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Събота, 16 Март 2013 00:00

Maneuvers of the Good Old Aura: The Artwork in the Culture of Convergence

Krassimir Terziev
The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is
a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

Walter Benjamin

Lev Manovich’s latest book Software Takes Command(2008) ends with a chapter on the relations between the art world and the broad field of the culture of remix, intensified online. This part of the study raises the key question about the ways in which the explosion of media content generated by the net users affects the professional art world. Manovich formulates the problem from the perspective of the online developments. In the present text I would like to examine, even if only fragmentarily, the same problem but from another perspective, focusing on the art world and its professionals. This perspective is on the one hand somewhat intimately close to me, since I am an artist myself. On the other hand, it seems to me that the vantage point is principally important since it shows all the dramatism and tension to which the art world is subjected under the influence of the popularity of the techno-media culture.

 

Weighing up the new against the old. The glitter of digital gadgets and the patina of analogue media.

The Web 2.0 era indicates a change in the cultural model – from mass consumption to mass production of art content (Manovich 2008). Two major developments have led to this situation. The first one is the arrival of digital technologies for image production on the consumer mass market, whereas the second one is the changed understanding of art – a change in the rules according to which something is recognized as art or not.

With the democratization of the digital technologies market, the growing strength of consumer electronics and prices constantly dropping, the consumer ends up armed with almost the same tools for image production as those used by the professionals. On the other hand, under the conditions of globalization, contemporary art adopts more and more of the features of mass media, competing for publics with the world of fashion and design. As a result from the massification of art consumption and from the availability of “quasi-professional” tools for image production to anyone, at the present moment millions of users of social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, etc. produce and present their work online under conditions not too different from those under which a digital artwork is presented.

As per the statistical data Michael Wesch refers to, more than 3250 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube – the equivalent of 365 TV channels broadcasting 24 hours a day (Wesch 2007). This definitely begins to pose a problem for the institutions of the museum and the market, which, without the argument of exclusivity and the glamour of authenticity, face the risk of losing the legitimacy of their existence and operation along the established rules.

At my visit to the highbrow art fair Art Basel in 2006, I was struck by the overwhelming presence of movie projectors in the halls of the fair. Their presence was tangible because of their huge dimensions, the irritating noise they made and the incredible heat emitted by such a projector on a scorching July day. At first, I was startled and puzzled by the eccentric decision to bring to the fore a technology which is close to going extinct with the advent of HD video technologies. But I came to realize that this was a powerful strategic move undertaken by the market against the depreciation of the video, caused by the mass spreading of HD video devices, made accessible to any amateur. It is hard to convince the prospective buyer of a video work in its high value given that both the work’s carrier (DVD, DV cassette) and its mode of presentation (TV monitor, projector) are part of the amateur’s everyday life. Whereas the sheer look of the 16 mm and 35 mm film reel, the costs of the film production, and the bulky, unfamiliar body of the movie projector in the hall produce an immediate physical respect and clearly distinguish the product on offer as something unavailable to all.

Gugenhaim_ViewingRoom
 
Ill. 1. The viewing station in the media conservation lab of the Guggenheim Museum.
Source:
© 2009 PACKED vzw (RPR 871.517.086) – All rights reserved.

Thus the logic of the glitter and the dropping prices of the ever-newer technological devices the industry has to offer starts raising the value and giving an added aura to the media going out of use. At the moment when anything physical gets its digital simulacrum, the medium of analogue photography (dia projection) and film, the technology and apparatuses of the early cinema are enjoying a renewed interest from the artists and the public. Undoubtedly, the nostalgia for the bygone days plays not a small part here, but what also matters is the rarity of the medium which raises the value. The materiality of the film reel, which has fallen out of mass use, is set in opposition to the immateriality of the digital video which has pervaded all through the mediatized everyday.

Certainly, things are not so clear-cut and the field of art cannot be reduced to one solid whole. We can observe the culture of remix making its way into contemporary art along with the intentions for finding distinctions setting it apart from the popular forms of culture. Again, Manovich registers the effect from the incorporation of the language of the 20th century experimental and avant-garde cinema in the format of the music video clips, characteristic for the mainstream media of the 1990s, and particularly for MTV. Upon this transition, the sophistication of the techniques, which had once been exclusive for the avant-garde of the moving image, becomes a trivial convention of spectacular (but more and more often meaningless and manneristic) montage tricks (Manovich 2001). In the film and video works of contemporary artists today we can observe the increasingly more complex hybridity of the form along with a striving for simplification and purity – montage is either fully rejected or applied in the pure form of the 1930s experimental cinema.

The second development comes as a consequence of the heritage of Marcel Duchamp and the widespread use of the “ready-made”. Boris Groys analyzes the logic between the dematerialization of the art object and the contemporary post-Fordist economic models.

Today, we do not identify an artwork primarily as an object produced by the manual work of an individual artist in such a way that the traces of this work remain visible or, at least, identifiable in the body of the artwork itself. During the nineteenth century, painting and sculpture were seen as extensions of the artist’s body, as evoking the presence of this body even following the artist’s death. In this sense, artist’s work was not regarded as “alienated” work—in contrast to the alienated, industrial labor that does not presuppose any traceable connection between the producer’s body and the industrial product. (Groys 2010)

The major shift is not in presenting industrial objects as works of art[1] but in introducing the industrial model of production as the common practice in the art world – what’s more, to an extent that both the software and the hardware, employed in the production, remain visible factors in the work.

jeff-koons-studio

Ill. 2. Jeff Koons in his studio/factory among his 120 assistants.
Source:
Art News Blog.

Under the pressure of market demand every Post-Duchampian artist with commercial success – from Jeff Koons to Olafur Eliasson – ends up as the owner of a factory for the production of his art. There are assistants and workers employed in it who manufacture his works in a manner, not much different from any other industrial production. Artworks are just serial products bearing the trademark of the author, semiotic signs alienated from his physical body, embodying the myth of the established brand.

Hirst-Love-Of-God

Ill. 3. Damien Hirst “For the Love of God” (2007).
Source:
Wikipedia.

An absolute climax in this tendency is the latest “blockbuster” by Damien Hirst from 2007 – “For the Love of God” – a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull, encrusted with 8601 diamonds, at a production cost of 14 million British Pounds, and an asking price of 50 million British Pounds. It would be too trivial to describe here the sensation that the work aroused. A lot more interesting is the paradox, taken to the extreme – it is impossible to look at the work, or to consider it, ignoring the brutal materiality of the value invested in it. It is probably no accident that Hirst’s work appeared in 2007 – right before the financial crisis, when the virtual financial indicators of the global economy reached their peak and Web 2.0 platforms became a global phenomenon. It seems to me that this is the context which allows us to grasp the logic of the work. The encrusted skull is something that only the Hirst brand can produce.[2] This is the utmost possible degree of estrangement of the figure of the superstar artist from any human dimension. The notion of art’s eternity has reincarnated itself in its most cynical farce.

Regimes of aura reproduction. Regimes of access control.

The technical reproducibility of the work of art, enabled by the image production media, naturally leads to art’s drawing near to the masses and to the dismissal of the restrictive regimes of access. In principle, photography, film, and digital imagery allow for the work’s unrestricted passage to the viewer. This, however, turns out to be a problem for the film industry and for the art world alike.

Benjamin comments on the mechanism Hollywood invented to compensate for the vanishing “cult value” of the multiply reproduced work of art: the construction of the “artificial aura” of the big stars. Thus the system of film stars was established as the model for the economies of the image in the cinema.

What is essential for the functioning of this cult is the control over and the meticulous orchestration of the access to the personality of the star. Film studios realize that loosening the access too much carries the risk of profanization, and therefore stage every public appearance of the star under strictly controlled conditions – similarly to the cult objects which are shown only on certain festive occasions, while being kept out of sight in the mean time and made accessible only to the initiated few. The film industry further develops a particularly sophisticated system of control over the screening of the works: the most prominent and promising titles have their premieres at prestigious festivals. Their first-time screening is preceded by promotion campaigns generating heightened expectations in the public. It is only after the specially staged premieres at selected cinema halls take place that the mass distribution across the network of conventional cinema halls comes, and much later – across the system of home video.

With the development of mass culture this cult grows into a “celebrities cult”, gradually extending over all spheres of publicity, including politics, if you consider the rise of populism today.

Cultural industries are striving to get a hold over the erosion of aura by carefully controlling the media’s capacity to reproduce. The industry capitalizes on this capacity and for that reason it not only develops and utilizes it, but also protects it with maximum stringency. On the other hand, however, the hysteria about intellectual property protection campaigns comes as a convincing proof that such control is more and more difficult to sustain in the conditions of a global network.

Feeding the appetite for newer and ever more ostentatious spectacles with higher and higher budgets and mind-boggling special effects, coupled with the general effect of advertising towards removing any obstacles to satisfying the desire for instantaneous consumption finds an easy answer in the Internet networks for sharing user content of the P2P type[3]. Every new title can be found in the network only days after its premiere, distributed in copies captured with an amateur video camera directly from the cinema hall. This is the world of shadows, and, of course, lovers of the “real thing” could raise objections that this is not the same thing as experiencing the “original” view, the atmosphere, etc. But in the contemporary reality of electronically mediated images this in fact is the normal regime of daily image consumption to which the users have adapted their senses and their mind to the degree of compensating for the differences in their imagination.

In the professional art world the institutions of the market and the museum come up with their own strategies for coping with the dissolution of the aura by introducing artificial regimes of “limited editions” of the works.

Particularly interesting is the application of this strategy to works in digital media which generally allow unlimited mass reproduction. In the context of their institutionalization and marketing, however, these types of professional artworks are distributed in extremely limited series and thus remain accessible only to collectors and museums. Oftentimes in a gallery on the label next to a video work one would read “Edition 1 of 5, 1 AP”[4]. Technically speaking, these 5 editions are identical to the author’s copy since the master copy from which they all originate is one and the same. If, in these circumstances we seek uniqueness, it is solely in this file. But the ephemeral substance of something as abstract as a file in fact makes the original unfit for any socialization. After all, that would come critically close to the practice of unauthorized file sharing. Besides, what could a museum or a collector actually do with a pricey file? Instead, a small number of editions are produced on suitable data carriers.

Distributing such artworks in exclusive limited editions is the way for a conservative and slowly changing professional environment to generate an artificial deficit. This is its strategy to raise the cult value of the work as a product in an economy saturated by media objects moving rapidly between people, machines and networks. (Manovich 2008)[5]

How do professional art institutions react to net art?

With the wide spread of the technologies for mass image reproduction in the 20th century the aesthetic experience has become linked primarily to the perceptions of the broad nonprofessional public. Photographic reproductions deliver artworks to every home on a mass scale. In his exaltation of the potential of photography André Malraux arrives at the idea of a “museum without walls” in which reproductions copy the universally recognized masterpieces, promote other works to the same rank, and sometimes create new classical works too. Pictures, frescoes, miniatures, and stained glass works on the pages of this “museum without walls” become colorful illustrations belonging to one and the same family (Malraux 1978: 44, 46).

The same need for mass reproduction and consumption is characteristic for the cinema too. As a form of art it is an entirely collective ritual which can’t exist without the availability of mass audiences. The statistics, which Benjamin used to base his classical analysis on, are symptomatic in this regard: “It was calculated in 1927that, in order to make a profit, a major film needed to reach an audience of nine million.” (Benjamin 2002: 123).

In these conditions going after as broad a public as possible and wooing it accordingly emerges as the only alternative for art, unless it wants to remain an esoteric ritual for a small number of elitist collectors. Art has become part of the popular culture today, together with architecture, design, fashion, lifestyle – just as the early avant-garde pioneers of Bauhaus or the Russian constructivism envisioned.

Here is why every museum director strives to build an image and a profile for the institution which would guarantee a critical mass of visitors. In the realm of the cultural industries marketing a special department, called “Audience Development”, has emerged. It seeks out innovative approaches to the public by acting out scenarios around the main focus of the institution, thus sustaining a heightened interest in its cultural programs.[6] This in turn, however, naturally means that the subject of museum display alone is not sufficient enough and that additional stimuli are needed for raising public interest in it.

YouTube Play: A Biennial of Creative Video

In 2010 the Guggenheim Museum, one of the iconic institutions for modern and contemporary art, launched a museum project, engaging with the artistic audio-visual production on YouTube, called YouTube Play: A Biennial of Creative Video. As the project’s website claims, “YouTube Play aims to discover and showcase the most exceptional talent working in the ever-expanding realm of online video. […] YouTube Play hopes to attract innovative, original, and surprising videos from around the world, regardless of genre, technique, background, or budget. This global online initiative is not a search for what’s “now,” but a search for what’s next.”[7]

This is a project developed by the Guggenheim Museum in partnership with YouTube (owned by Google), and in cooperation with another technological giant – HP.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDv4oPpj8vs&feature=player_embedded

Video 1. YouTube Play – live from the Guggenheim.

The competition was open to anyone and the number of applications submitted to the website totaled 23 000. A jury of artists and curators was set up, among which the respected director of the museum, Nancy Spector, as well as world-known figures such as Laurie Anderson, Douglas Gordon, Shirin Neshat, Takashi Murakami. Their task was to evaluate the applications and eventually select 25 works as the winners in the competition. In the end, the 25 “lucky ones” were to be displayed in the museum for a weekend, whereas all shortlisted videos could be seen on the website of the project.[8] The results were announced at a lavish ceremony in the museum, organized in the spirit of the ritual conferring of prestigious film awards that we have been seeing for years.

As it might have been expected, the main target of such an initiative is an ambitious corporate PR. This in turn provoked fierce polemics in the press and in the social networks throughout the months in which the competition was running and applications were being submitted. A feature article in the New York Times on the project summed up the sentiments of the commentators in the following way:

Those who thought they heard the barbarians at the gate when the Guggenheim announced this project can exhale. There is no rabble here, only technically savvy competence, much of it already quite popular on YouTube and some of it already singled out for praise and prizes. On the other hand, those who thought the gates were being flung open to encompass some of YouTube’s amazing creativity and egalitarianism as the world’s greatest showcase (and stimulator) of digital folk art will be disappointed, by the prevalence of high polish. The rest of us may be left puzzling over the difference between YouTube video and art-world video (a.k.a. video art). (Smith 2010)

The conclusion that the author of the article, Roberta Smith, draws regarding the lack of glamour of the works in this first edition of the “biennial” is that none of the top 25 videos qualifies in either of the two categories. “They seem to occupy a third sphere of slick and pointless professionalism, where too much technique serves relatively skimpy, generic ideas.” (ibid.)

The other surprising and provocative observation made by Roberta Smith is that all of the selected works were produced by authors with a professional background in the field of audio-visual media. Obviously, this is at odds with the image of YouTube as a platform for amateur production in the first place (DIY)[9]. Or, in other words, as a place open to anyone, a place with minimum entry requirements of predominantly technical nature: availability of a device for image production, basic computer skills and decent Internet connection.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQXAC9IVRw&feature=player_detailpage

Video 2. “Me at the zoo”, Jawed Karim. The first video uploaded to YouTube by the founder of the platform.

This being said, it can be argued that on a structural level the Guggenheim project failed in two aspects. In the first place, although it engaged with YouTube video production, the museum did not seek a model of spectatorship and interpretation that differed from the conventional one. The second problem is that to the egalitarian network culture it did in fact apply its own elitist model of screening, excluding and finding an exceptional value. Or, as the word goes, the Guggenheim seeks “to find a work of genius”. There is no way, however, to apply this principle of selection to a platform such as YouTube without losing entirely the “flavor”, the specificity, the very authenticity of the initiative. It is trivial and already clichéd to claim that in the social networks, and YouTube in particular, it does not go about presenting brilliant ideas but about communicating in the media and collaborating without an end result/product in mind.

It is hard to believe that a museum such as the Guggenheim would find itself trapped in such a naivety. We could rather take the initiative of the three corporate giants (Guggenheim, Google and HP) as a cynical and high-handed populist act aiming to attract and seduce the masses of users in a pseudo-game of participation, in a simulative scenario of a reality show where the script is in fact part of the props, and the actual dividends are not the prizes for the direct participants but the capitalization on the participation of the rest of the audience. The fact that the museum (an institution based on altruistic principles for the sake of art) is implicated in a flirtation with the millions of YouTube users, or rather, that it initiated this flirtation along with two of the world’s most powerful corporations, is indicative enough of the degree of hybridization between culture and economy.

* * *

Artistic creativity on the net is ubiquitous. It is, however, a creativity framed by preset menus, modules, gadgets, buttons, links, protocols, format, codecs; by online platforms, each rationalizing its own model of production and communication; by standards compressing the substance of the media in order to achieve the highest data transfer rate possible; by the dynamics of participation yielding priority to compressed experience over contemplation, to intensity over immersion, to quick access over restrictiveness, to compatibility over elitism. Creativity and participation are becoming key aspects of the culture of this decade. This, however, appears to pose a problem for that part of the art world which insists on autonomy and exclusivity in the spirit of Modernism. Artists, institutions, and the market are searching for means to distinguish the field from the realm of popular culture. This is a process in which the permanence of the material and the appeal of the analogue media, already out of use, have suddenly acquired a new value.

While looking for markers of exclusivity, the art world is at the same time drawn to the potential of the net to generate new publics and supporters. Museum institutions are both tempted and compelled to invent ways of addressing the Web 2.0 phenomenon in their practices. Convergence, however, is fictitious for the time being. It is put into practice as a reality show in which participation is staged so as to be capitalized on, whereas the chance of it happening for real remains utopia.

Krassimir Terziev is a visual artist and researcher (Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology). His work has been exhibited widely, including: MuHKA, Antwerp, Generali Foundation, Vienna, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, TATE Modern London, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Renaissance Society, Chicago, The Kitchen, NY. He has had solo exhibitions at Würtembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Sofia City Gallery, ICA-Sofia, Belgrade Cultural Centre, The Kitchen, New York. He received a Ruf Award for New Bulgarian Art (2007) and a special award from the Mtel Awards for Contemporary Art (2011). His book \"Re-composition. Author, Media and Artwork in the Age of Digital Reproduction\" was published in 2012.

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. 2002. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1935-1938 (Vol. 3). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Presses du reel.

Groys, Boris. 2010. Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies. e-flux journal, 19. [December 2012].

Greer, Germaine. 2008. Germaine Greer Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of many artists you don\'t get. The Guardian, 22 September. Quoted in Wikipedia. [December 2012].

Malraux, Andre. 1978. The Voices of Silence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XXIV.

Manovich, Lev. 2008. Is Art After Web 2.0 still possible?.Software takes Command (draft version: 20.11.2008).

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Smith, Roberta. 2010. The Home Video Rises to Museum Grade. New York Times, Art Review, 21.10. 2010. [December 2012].

Wesch, Michael. 2007. Human Futures for Technology and Education. Presentation at 2007 Summer Symposium for Higher Education IT Executives. [December 2012].

 

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[1]  Duchamp’s gesture had a liberating shock effect as it considered the artwork beyond the cult of the fetish/art object; paradoxically, however, when this gesture has become a mass practice, it has all sorts of effects but a liberating one.

[2]  “Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative - revolutionary even.” (Greer 2008)

[3]  These are networks for peer to peer exchange of torrent files.

[4]  Five copies for sale and a master copy, marked “Author’s Proof”, which is the last one that the author would part with.

[5]  This is a kind of mobility defined by Manovich as a key dimension of the “culture of remix”.

[6]  Several years ago at a lecture given by an expert in Audience Development a rather successful initiative of the Sydney Opera House was pointed out – on the Long Night of Opera House people brought along sleeping bags and spent the night in the concert halls.

[7]  See the project’s description on the website of the Guggenheim Museum.

[8]  See the YouTube channel and the website of the Guggenheim Museum.

[9]  DIY: abbreviated from “do it yourself”. Moreover, the ideology of integrating non-professional techniques and creative practices has been ascribed value as an approach in a large part of contemporary art. For example, this is an important category in the 1990s “Relational Aesthetics / Relational Art” movement, as discussed by Nicolas Bourriaud.

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