Autonomous Knowledge and the Diffuse Network

Models of Relationality and the Project of Radical Democracy by Steven Cochrane May 2005 & January 2007

The underlying aim of the project that Nicolas Bourriaud and subsequent others have termed “relational aesthetics” can perhaps be summarized as simply, “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.” Artists working within the critical framework of relational aesthetics aim to do this by providing alternatives to the dominant patterns that structure human interaction—the aim of this work, “to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real 1.” As such an endeavor, by its very nature, seeks a break with most inherited models of artistic practice, we cannot hope to assess the merits of this new work in the conventional terms drawn from art history; rather, we must endeavor to determine the efficacy of its tactics and, in turn, the quality of the interactions that these works and practices engender 2. If the very substance of such work inevitably arises from the intangible experiences of its participants or agents, how then can we hope to maintain critical distance from it? Without a lens of criticality, how can we hope to problematize the strategies of this work and suggest potential ways of improving it? and can any practice whose very form seems to evade incisive external critique truly contribute to the dialogue of meaningful change held in such high esteem by Bourriaud and the artists with whom he identifies? For points of reference, we must look to the structure of the relationships engendered by these practices as they differ between various models of relationality; in this way, we can potentially evaluate the ways in which the manifestation of a given model either echoes, upsets, or
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Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Paris: Les Presses du Réel. 2002. 13 2 Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October. 110 (2004) 64

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subverts the dominant systems and societal forces that their practitioners seek to supplant. By analyzing the work on this level, we can begin to measure it against the ideal of radical democracy. It is my assertion that, beyond their modest goals of transitory “microtopian” or “convivial,” interaction, many artists working within the field of relational aesthetics are motivated by a broader impulse towards the realization of radical democracy, even in its smallest manifestations. It seems difficult to imagine that, in bringing strangers into a supposedly democratic or democratized location (the gallery, in most cases) for the purpose of sharing food, company, or some other collective experience, Rirkrit Tiravanija and others like him do not consider the broader potential of unmediated discourse in unmediated spaces (whether or not a museum or gallery can be thought of as being either democratic or unmediated). Few artists or collectives, though, have explored the aims of radical democracy as thoroughly as the Bureau d’Études, a French artistic and activist collective whose essay, Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects—which can be seen as guiding the group’s entire artistic practice—unequivocally aligns the group with the goal of promoting free, “lateral” discourse, as well as the independent production and distribution of knowledge, skill, and information, in conjunction with grassroots political, social, and economic action by self-directed individuals and organizations. The essay places as their primary objective the creation of meaningful alternatives to atomized or spectacularized existence within the dominant capitalist oligarchy. The object of such activity, according to the essay, is always autonomy: knowledge is liberated from the constraints of institutions and conventional media outlets, and power is asserted by self-governing parties without the requirement of political, economic, or ideological allegiance. The consequence of autonomy is always, they maintain, the empowerment of the individual and the upset of restrictions imposed by contemporary society.

“Different kinds of autonomy stand out [from the context of what they term the 'world supermarket culture']. They reveal themselves in the rising power of diffuse intellectuality, diffuse creativity and diffuse resistance, exercised by individuals and collectives creating forms of life (expressive, dietary, passional, urban), bringing forms of social or civil disobedience into play, developing their skills and secreting meaning autonomously, critically. These manifestations of autonomous knowledge/power provoke a crisis in the monopoly of access to possibilities held by the productive organizations of consumer society [...]Autonomous knowledge decolonizes possibilities, opens up the existence and potential of being through horizontal exchanges of knowledge and experience.”3
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Bureau d'Études. “Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects” Trans. Brian Holmes. 2002. 18 Mar 2005 <http://utangente.free.fr/anewpages/holmes.html>

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But the project of autonomy, as the Bureau defines it, is not one of world revolution or of a universalized utopian vision; indeed, the ideal of autonomy stands in fundamental opposition to any such universalizing tendencies. The approaches outlined by the Bureau are, rather, examples of small, self-directed actions, ranging from software hacking and squatting to community

management of natural and economic resources to pirate radio and independent journalism, all carried out at sites of tactical importance. In this regard, the types of activist gesture encouraged in Autonomous Knowledge, which might at first seem to bear little resemblance to the gallery-located, more clearly art-informed relational work, are revealed to be conceptually analogous to those practices, in that both practices seek to disrupt and redirect the normal course of interaction between people. They strive to create and exploit sites of potential, and, in other words, they seek to help us “inhabit the world in a better way.” The notion of autonomy and its bearing on relational practice as a whole provides a stable platform from which we can begin to understand (and perhaps assess the merits of) the Bureau d’Études’ “experimental cartography,” an undertaking which has been the thrust of their artistic practice. These “maps,” complex webs of icons, coded lines, and blocks of copy, chart the political, economic, and cultural ties between key players (be they governments, agencies, corporations, individuals, etc.) in world government and finance. The maps, which are available online as PDF (Portable Document Format) files, and which the group offset-prints and distributes free of charge, chart everything from the business ties of world religious organizations 4 and the spread of information technologies5 to the extensive and unsettling influence of elite social clubs within the nuclear industrial complex6. While one of the functions of these maps, much like the pencil-drawn charts and timelines of the late Mark Lombardi, is to elucidate the often hidden complicities and interdependencies that construct the apparatus of global capitalism, the maps’ bearing on relational aesthetics (and the idea of autonomy) has more to do with the way the maps might be used. While, as informative documents, the maps may at first seem impenetrable, close inspection reveals that even in the tangle of manifold allegiances, there are weak points and blank spaces in the network. For the Bureau, these are sites of opportunity, and acquiring a full, deconstructed view of the system at hand is the first step towards concrete action; “On the basis of such a deconstruction,
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Bureau d’Études. “Monotheism, Inc.” 2003 < http://utangente.free.fr/2003/monotheisminc.pdf> Bureau d’Études. “Governing by networks.” 2003 < http://utangente.free.fr/2003/governingbynetworks.pdf> 6 Bureau d’Études. “The Ring.” (free broadsheet). April 2005.

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involving a precise identification of the operating principles of a given administration, or the links or networks between administrations, lobbies, businesses etc., you can define modes of action or intervention on these businesses, lobbies or administrations.”7 The success of the maps lies in the efficacy with which they render the supposedly diffuse network of global Neoliberal politics, in which corporations are said to exist independently from governments and one another, operating in a smooth space of financially-energizing, equitable competition, in the light of what it truly is: an integrated network of mutually-reliant players operating in a structured, typically hierarchical pattern of complex power relationships. The maps fail, however, in two areas. The first shortcoming is one of legibility: it could be argued that the Bureau has yet to forge an effective compromise between the aesthetic form of their maps and their intended use as informational resources, and, as such, the clarity of their data currently suffers. The second failure lies in the condition of their production. It must be acknowledged that, however broad their intentions, the Bureau d’Études is a finite collective, and, as such, has finite access to the data used to produce their maps, a finite amount of available time in which to produce them, and finite resources with which to distribute them (though online distribution renders this last point only marginally significant). However, the network of power they seek to map, integrated though it may be, is nearly infinite and evershifting, with new nodes cropping up, others disappearing. New alliances are likely being forged and broken at a pace difficult to imagine, yet the Bureau’s approach to production is heavily rooted in time-consuming research and design concerns. It would be simply impossible for any collective, no matter how mobile, to produce even remotely up-to-date maps using the Bureau’s current methods, and, beyond even that, the mechanisms of capitalism are so immense that they could simply never be condensed to a point where they would fit on a single broadside or poster. While these logistical concerns certainly do impede upon the certifiable use value of the maps, they are less relevant to the artistic viability of the maps as mass-distributed “pieces.” There is, however, a deeper, ideological discrepancy that arises from the group’s choice of collective agency, which suggests that their current mode of practice is not in keeping with the broader politics outlined in Autonomous Knowledge. For the Bureau d’Études to operate and produce content as they do, that content must necessarily be filtered through the lens of a small group of artists and intellectuals working primarily in France. While the group itself maintains autonomy, their project of

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Bureau d’Études: Autonomous Knowledge and Power

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knowledge-production mirrors, on a structural level at least, the very conventional media outlets that the group professes to find unacceptable, those that regulate content based on occult biases and distribute it in unilateral fashion, communicating an air of impartiality and expertise that, nevertheless, does not incorporate a venue for dissent. If the maps are to do nothing more than highlight the need for a better understanding of the systems that govern us, then this model can function, provided that the viewer approaches the information they receive with due skepticism. In this case, the Bureau would operate in a role of artist-as-pedagogue, thus indebted to the likes of Hans Haacke, much in the way other relational artists function in the role of artist-as-manager, an approach inherited from the conceptual and performance work of the 60s and 70s. If, however, the maps are intended to help locate and guide real action in the spirit of autonomy, the Bureau will have to adopt another model of practice: they must explode the collective. In a second essay, Resymbolising Machines: Art after Oyvind Fahlström, updated in 2004, the Bureau outlines their plans to do, ultimately, just that:
“The insufficiencies of our artisanal approach to information and the meeting of friendly minds has led us to associate ourselves with them in order to create a map generator. The generator will be a machine allowing everyone to generate the maps they need for their actions, by entering data concerning the business or administration in which they work, or about which they have found some information. The accumulation and coordination of all the information should gradually permit the visualisation of the immense lines of production [...] contributing to the design/production/distribution/use of a computer.”8

When and if this “generator” project is realized, it will potentially rectify not only the logistical shortcomings of their information-gathering and map-producing efforts, but, by opening up the field of their collective practice to a limitless, unmediated network of autonomous agents, it foresees the establishment of a venue that would not only aid in the carrying out of separate autonomous activity, but would integrate the values of autonomous knowledge and power into its very workings. In a laudable and distinctly contemporary gesture, they have incorporated their own eventual obsolescence as a collective into their projected goals. At the time of writing, no concrete timetable for the development or implementation of the generator had been published.

At this point, it seems appropriate to return to the notion that the work of relational aesthetics can best be judged in terms of its success or failure by addressing the need for spaces of

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Bureau d'Études. “Resymbolizing Machines: Art After Oyvind Fahlstrom” Trans. Brian Holmes. 2004. 28 Apr 2005 < http://ut.yt.t0.or.at/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=102&Itemid=70>

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radical democracy. Much of relational work seems wrapped up in creating the effects of radical democracy (instances of relationality or conviviality not outwardly mediated by the dominant mechanisms of capitalism and the spectacle), where it tends to fail, though, is in implementing radical democracy as a mechanism in its own right. This is attributable, in many cases, to the work’s reliance on existing museum-institutions (with their accumulated baggage of racial, class, and educational privilege) for funding and for venue; to the fact that the pieces often generate a profit for either the artist or the host-institution; to the finite temporal existence of the work, and to the fact that much of relational work relies on a construction, either in the form of instruction or actual objects and environments, created by an artist or artistic agent whose involvement in the piece distances her from the interactions of other parties, that which effectively constitutes “her” work. If we accept that what truly produces these works is not the artist but the relationships, temporary or otherwise, that arise between the viewers/participants/agents, who are supposedly random and supposedly equal in the “world” of the piece, and that the object of the work is to fashion and promote meaningful alternatives to the repressive governances of daily life, it would make sense that the presence of the individual “artist” should be marginalized to as a great a degree as possible in order that the work operate, as much as possible, in a realm of “pure relationality.” The Bureau d’Études’ proposal for the generator anticipates precisely that.

One of the foundational falsehoods of Neoliberal capitalist ideology is the notion of free competition (with its implicit lack of covert allegiances), the professed—but never realized—diffuse network of autonomous competing powers; it is this dream of capitalism, perhaps, which appeals most poignantly to the fondness for democracy and liberty so often expressed in our society. What the Bureau has worked to do with their maps, thus far, has been to destroy the illusion that capitalism follows democratic principles and works toward democratic aims, doing so by revealing integrated nature of the capitalist network. What the generator stands poised to do is to implement an actual diffuse network specifically brought into existence for the purpose of subverting the dominant system of power relationships, in essence, to create an open-ended, self-sustaining and self-governing meta-collective purposed for the facilitation of dissent and radical change.

To the end of illustrating the way in which the proposed generator presents us with a model of relationality that fully integrates the aims and means of radical democracy, I will turn now to a

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project that came into its own fully apart from the concepts of relational aesthetics and the field of art and art-informed practice, but which, nevertheless, embodies many of qualities that the Bureau's generator would likely exhibit. Wikipedia (from the Hawaiian wiki wiki, frequently translated as “very fast”9) is an online project conceived of by a retired stock options trader who, in the late 1990s, found himself suddenly rich thanks to the “dot-com boom” and his well-timed departure from it10. The goal of his project was to create an encyclopedia that would not only be free to access, but would be based on software that allowed any user of the site to freely contribute information, in formation that, in turn, any other person could freely edit. The project was met with enthusiasm, and, after four years in operation, the database contains some 1.3 million articles submitted by over 16,000 people writing in 75 different languages, making it the largest encyclopedic collection of any kind11. Wikipedia, though dedicated to general encyclopedic content, effectively facilitates the same types of relationship investigated and promoted by the Bureau, and it performs effectively the same task as the Bureau's proposed generator, in that it enables and fosters the autonomous production of knowledge within a diffuse-network model of independent contribution. Its defining characteristics are likewise closely aligned with the goals for independent information production and distribution as outlined in Autonomous Knowledge, as well as the aims of relational art: the nature of the project eschews conventional copyright laws in favor of “open-license” modification, reproduction, and distribution, which prevents institutional or individual coöption of informationcontent. The system of submitting and editing content entirely deëmphasizes traditional expertise in favor of an intense system of peer review, which discourages the undue influence of institutional convention and pressure, all the while fostering an engaged interaction between participants. The format, by allowing for unmediated editing of content and free discussion of any additions and changes made, embraces spontaneity and disagreement, both elements vital to the fostering of radical democracy. Because Wikipedia, unlike the Bureau's printed maps, never approaches or claims to be a “complete” document, it resists obsolescence and likewise rejects the trappings of authority evidenced in finite documents. It is by necessity and definition a nomadic “becomingdocument,” always a product of the engaged relationships between a far-flung, diffuse network of

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Wikipedia (EN). “Wiki”. 28 Mar 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki> Pink, Daniel H. “The Book Stops Here” Wired 13.03 (2005):<http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.03/wiki.html > 11 Ibid. (figures current as of May 2005)
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autonomous, equal peers. As such, Wikipedia can be thought of as a functioning application not only of the diffuse network as a relational model, but radical democracy in a self-perpetuating system. It should not be entirely difficult to imagine how a similar web interface could be applied to the type of content that the Bureau d’Études’ database would eventually contain. Developments in vector-based graphical interfaces and Dynamic HTML markup language could easily, in the hands of a competent developer, be employed to allow independent contributors to manually establish and reconfigure the spatial relationships of nodes on the computerized version of the newlycomputerized maps, while, using database and search-query technology, users would be able to set any number of variables to automatically limit the size and scope of personalized maps to suit their individual needs and interests. Users could also comment directly on, correct, modify of expand upon the contributions of other users and the relationships they demarcate, and, if the precedent set by Wikipedia were to hold, all of this could be done with a minimum of regulation on the part of the Bureau itself, maintaining a truly democratic environment.

Interestingly, two projects have emerged that apply the use of a graphical interface and open-editing capabilities to the very types of power relationships tackled by the Bureau’s maps. Theyrule.net compiles information about the individuals who sit on the boards of many of the world’s largest companies, which individual users are invited to use to compile graphical, Bureaustyle maps based on themes, relationships, and problems of interest to them; these maps can then saved on the site’s server to be viewed by others. The list of board members is not continually updated, however, and that information is not subject to editing by individual users. Doug McCune, a student at Stanford University recently, and with no prior knowledge of the Bureau d’Études or their work—though partly inspired by Mark Lombardi’s maps 12--set about to create a parody of the popular “social networking”/dating site, Friendster, dubbed PoliticalFriendster.com, that would be geared towards illustrating the “networking” of global politics13. On the original Friendster, individual users maintain profiles of personal information and formalize relationships by inviting other members to join their “friends groups,” which in turn overlap to create vast network of tangentially associated individuals. McCune applies a derivative structure to the world of politics, with users able to add information concerning a given figure or institution to the database and then define links

12

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Email correspondence. 3 May 2005. McCune, Doug. Political Friendster. 1 May 2005 < http://www.politicalfriendster.com>

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between those figures and others in the system. The site also includes a rudimentary vector-based mapping application to visualize these relationships.

All relational work makes manifest a root impulse to, in any manner possible, be it local and temporary or enduring and global, create and share some vision of a different way in which we, as an ever-increasingly atomized society, might be able to live and interact with one another. In what way, though, can projects such as Wikipedia, TheyRule, and PoliticalFriendster, in conjunction with the Bureau's own work, both real and proposed, aid us in the establishment and refinement of a critical framework for assessing all relational art? How can a practice such as the Bureau's illuminate a practice such as Tiravanija's? How can a user-maintained database of corporate and governmental data help us understand the cooking and serving of free pad thai in a gallery space? The Bureau, Wikipedia, and the proposed generator represent what can be thought of, perhaps, as the least ephemeral instantiation of Bourriaud's idea of relational art. The workings of the generator can be witnessed directly in the form of its code and the data it produces, and, more importantly, it produces a definitive record of the interactions it engenders, as its first and primary locus of interaction is mediated through text, which is subsequently archived and preserved. What occurs as a result of these interactions can likewise be recorded, and the changes they effect will, one assumes, be borne out in the data of generator itself. What the generator may lack in emotional resonance, it compensates for by representing a knowable, systemic application of diffuse relationality not conceivably possible in other ways. That the generator, in and of itself, is unable or unlikely to foster, directly, the kind of emotional exchanges in shared physical space that occur among participants in Tiravanija's work should not diminish our appreciation of the its functional accessibility; by that same token, the degree of functional accessibility absent in Tiravanija's installations should not diminish our appreciation of its capacity for emotional and physical engagement. The generator proposal and similar projects should instead teach us about the potential for true autonomy in relational art. They can teach us how social art can exist when the role of the artist is considerably diminished and the institution is all but completely absent. We might begin to advance new theories of relationality in which the functions and workings of the generator have conceptual or even metaphorical relevance to other manifestations of social art. Comparison and

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contrast between these two poles, Tiravanija and the Bureau, have the potential to deepen the critical understanding of both. The way in which such a comparison illuminates the composite accomplishments and shortcomings of each practice makes possible the assessment of its overall success or failure. The mechanisms of the generator, of the diffuse network, shore up premise of relational artwork, and provide a more solid platform for building and improving upon a set of practices which, by their very aims and definition, are rooted in the intangible.

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