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The Resilience of Art; critique and sustain

Jelke de Boer 3884023

Introduction In November 2011 I visited the STRP art & technology festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Besides an impressive musical line-up, featuring artists such as Amon Tobin (performing his ISAM Live installation) and Aphex Twin, there was a large exhibition space showing contemporary media art. Although there were many interesting works on display there is one work that I would like to describe in more detail; Nano Chair 2.0 by Lucas Maassen: Nano Chair 2.0 is a work that, with its size of merely 3 micron, can only be investigated using a powerful microscope. The work is created by the use of state of the art scientific methods. While the object when designed most certainly is representing a chair, the artist notes that its shape is highly unstable, and that even the act of investigating it trough a microscope is altering it. Six months later, May 2012, the Dutch electronic art festival (DEAF) was held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. One work especially drew my attention, the One Sheep Sweater project by Christien Meindertsma. The work consisted of five woolen sweaters that were produced using the wool of five Merino sheep; one sheep provided the
Nano Chair 2.0

One Sheep Sweater

wool for one corresponding sweater. The installation was completed by samples of wool of these sheep and an overview of the entire production process. These two works seem exemplar (though certainly not representative in the sense that they do not in any way cover all possible artists explorations) of the variation and diversity in todays contemporary art. But do they challenge the notion of what an artwork is and how art could (or should) relate to society? Do these artworks reveal new functions, establish new critiques or symbolize a fundamental change is society as a whole? Is the Nano Chair 2.0, despite its

minimal size, of any fundamental difference from a more traditional work such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, a work that often has been disregarded for its lack of scale? Does One Sheep Sweater represent a new form of artistic critique on established social structures? All these questions that emerge pivot around one central point; is there a fundamental change in the practice of art and its supporting institutions? Method To investigate this question a logical starting point should be found in Walter Benjamins epochal text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as this is one of the most quoted texts in media studies concerning the work of art. This is surely not the first, nor likely the last time that this particular text is investigated. I will therefor compare it with the more recent The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recombination by Jos de Mul and The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction by Thomas Michell that are dealing with exactly these types of works such as that were on display at both the STRP and the DEAF festival. However, before exploring these texts I should start by clarifying my use of the concept Artwork, as what makes an object to be a work of art seems highly contestable. Walter Benjamin recognizes that mass reproduction may reveal new functions of art and seems to suggest that the profane notion of higher art is to be dismissed as something of the past. He suggests that mass production could liberate the arts of its elitist character. De Mul (P. 98) however seems to make a clear distinct between mass cultures (and the according mass production) as represented by his example of Paris Hilton versus the higher works of art he is reviewing. The question of what is art becomes even more problematic when code and algorithms are involved, as questions of agency arise. Some even argue that this contestableness is actually part of the concept of art itself (Gallie, 1956). For now, following the arguments presented by both Benjamin, de Mul and Michell, I will assume that a work of art is both intended to be a work of art towards the standards that are valid at the time the work is created and that the work should be recognized as being a work of art in its (art) historical context. This assumes

that a profound distinct can be made between different timeframes in art history, and that exactly is the central argument provided by these authors. Whereas Benjamin investigates how art is transformed by mechanical production claiming that the traditional art value of cult value is being replaced by exhibition value, de Mul adds that in the age of digital recombination, the database constitutes the ontological model of the work of art and, secondly, that in this transformation the exhibition value is being replaced by what we might call manipulation value (P. 95). Thomas Michell provides a similar argumentation in The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction although he also takes into account a wide variety of (artistic) experiments in biomechanical and artificial intelligence. I will compare these three distinct stages of art and the provided characteristics and examine how they can be applied on the works of art that I presented in the introduction. Art as tradition Walter Benjamin assesses the difference between the traditional work of art in contrast to the artwork in the area of mass production. It is of importance to note that he does incorporate these in a broader perspective and should by no means be accused of any form of determinism. Still he does make a very clear and rather dramatic distinct in traditional art that he evaluates in terms of its uniqueness and its ritual position in cultural traditions in contrast to mass-produced art. To illustrate this distinct he writes that even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This uniqueness is explained both by its purpose, as artifact of worship, as from the process of its creation. Benjamin places the work in a ritual tradition; stressing that not only the religious artifact is subject of this ritual tradition. The art pour lart is essentially derived from that same tradition as it is the negative theology in the form of the idea of pure art The physicality is also of importance, and we should note that even though the perception of the work could change over time, this history will inevitably become part of the work itself in its physical surface The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable

from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle-Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. De Mul usefully adds that It is important to notice that in the auratic work of art the sensible and the supersensible, the material signifier and the spiritual meaning, are inseparably linked with one another.(97) From these statements the first set of characteristics can be drawn. The cult value of the traditional work of art according to Benjamin is unique in time and place, the result of craftsmanship, in its essence ritual, represents a supersensible value and allows (a history of) multiple interpretations that become part of its surface layer. Exhibition value According to Benjamin mechanical reproduction offers a radically opposed situation. It is obviously not just the technical properties that are affected, as he writes that for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. Here Benjamins position, as a Marxist theorist becomes manifest, in his bold rejection of the ritual, and in the hopeful notions of the possible revolutionary and liberating power of mass reproduction. De Mul playfully dismisses the last by now we know that mass media can indeed mobilize masses, though more often in the direction of the shopping mall than in the direction of the government building. (99) The claim that mass production inevitably leads to the work of art being designed for reproducibility however does withstand time though it may have worked out less of revolutionary as hoped for. In photography and film, the cult value gives way to exhibition value, which is precisely situated in the endless reproduction of the copies. This especially becomes clear in the case of celebrities like Paris Hilton, who do not have any unique talents but are just famous for being famous. In the same vein, the success of politicians strongly depends on how mediagenic they are, that is:

on their exhibition value (de Mul, 98). The pervasive presence of celebrities, and similarly international corporate brands is a recognizable and possibly disturbing notion, especially in the light of politics as the last was precisely what Benjamin was warning for stressing the dangers of possible political miss-use of mass media by the fascist state. However it is not only the commercial world and politics that have exploited mass production; de Mul also points at artists such as Andy Warhol that successfully used the mechanics of mass production to empower their artistic presence. One could argue that the value of the artwork in the age of mass production was determined by the persuasiveness of the artist, by the quality of design of the character exposed to the media. An artist active in the age of mass media would have to assume a public character to be successful even if this character was in essence performing in a hyper reality, in the sense that its existence only accounts for so far as that which takes place within the media itself. That being said the characteristics of exhibition value could be summarized as optimized or designed for reproduction, pervasive, of commercial value and hyper real. Manipulation value From here we leave the path that has been set by Benjamin to explore how the artwork has evolved beyond the area of mass production. As both de Mul and Mitchell claim we have yet entered another area that radically contrasts both mass production and the age of tradition. Or as stated by de Mul : In the age of digital recombination, the value of an object depends on the extent of its openness for manipulation (2009). For a contemporary scholar, a databased version of the collected works of a philosopher is of much greater value than a traditional paper edition, because it enables her to execute all kinds of sophisticated searches, to investigate implicit relationships between the texts, and to make new recombinations of existing texts (P 102) For de Mul Create, Read, Update, and Delete (P 100), the commands that operate a relational database, form the new paradigm of cultural production. One could thereby say that Form no longer follows function (in tradition or in its exposure) but that the function has become the form itself. Mitchell adds that in the age of bio cybernetic reproduction the duplicate has become an improved version of its

original; the clone is no more a duplicate, as it has become to be an improved or even superior version of its predecessor (488). The ontology of the database thereby not only accounts for recombination and manipulation; it also accounts for version histories that enable every new release with a distinct set of new or improved qualities. This presumed new and improved as posed by Mitchell should be considered with suspicion as it could also echo the rhetoric of mass reproduction in which any adjustment is merely a vehicle for media attention. When applied to contemporary art it is however undeniably true that art has accepted the challenge of biological engineering and cybernetics as a field of interest. I would suggest that in the age of recombination art has become involved in domain of (playful) scientific practice more then ever. This does not however necessarily result in improved objects; it merely shows that art has picked up production methods formerly assumed to be strictly scientific. Accessibility has allowed the artist to play and experiment with structures formerly restricted to the domain of scientific practice. It is in this playful embrace of science that we find the last characteristic; contemporary art has become highly discursive, it contests and questions the subject it is dealing with. Thereby the characteristics of manipulation could be summarized as being available, accessible (create, read, Update and Destroy), scientific production techniques and discursive.
Figure 1. Distinct Stage, values and properties of art Traditional Cult value Unique in time and place Result of craftsmanship Ritual & supersensible value (History of) multiple interpretations that become part of its physical surface layer. Mass produced Exhibition value Optimized or designed for reproduction, Pervasive Commercial Hyper real Networked Manipulation value Availability Accessibility (Add, Browse, Change, Destroy) Scientific production techniques

Discursive

Now that the parameters have been set let me return to the two criteria as stated before; 1) a work of art is intended to be a work of art towards the standards that are valid at the time the work is created and 2) the work should be recognized as being a work of art in its (art) historic context. Before returning to the examples from the introduction of this essay first let me shortly review Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa. This being a 16th century work it surely was created in the area of traditional art, intended to be an artwork towards the standard of its time. Specialists can confirm this by placing the artwork in its art historic context by parameters such as its date, style, technique and subject. We could also state that if a similar painting, no matter how virtuoso its technique, was created recently it could not be considered to be a work of art as it, according to the standards of our current time, lacks the Availability, Accessibility, scientific production techniques and Discursiveness associated with contemporary art. Let me return to the two works mentioned in the introduction to review weather these do meet these criteria. Nano chair 2.0 Lucas Maassen used a highly scientific method (Platinum, assembled using Focused Electron Beam technique) to create the Nano Chair 2.0, an object that in all aspects resembles what we think of as being a chair. It both questions our perception of the world and the concrete objects and our understanding of accessibility. The object itself takes the shape of an industrial designer chair while its function (as a chair) is merely discursive. While not being connected or networked it does in all aspects meet the notion of manipulation value; though it does so with a blink., It is only accessible through a layer of technology and while we browse the work we simultaneously change it. Its history is in a sense becomes part of its surface layer though it cannot be analyzed to reconstruct this history. Thereby it is strongly embedded in todays contemporary art practice though an interesting link towards the traditional work of art can be investigated.

One Sheep Sweater At first glance One Sheep Sweater may seem dealing merely about craftsmanship, a melancholic echo of a time long past. This work is more than just a nostalgic memory of a time before mass production erased tradition. While this work does strongly dismiss mass production it also reveals a new interest and approach towards tradition. It is however strongly depending on the availability of information across its entire production chain to reveal this. The database thereby functions as a tool to reinvestigate properties primarily related to tradition. It shows that tradition, mass production and networked society are not exclusive per se. The database can reveal and reestablish processes of artistic production not by restoring them into their initial shape but by its own methodology, by providing accessibility. Playful boundaries These examples show that artists do not merely activate within the rules of the suggested stages of art; they also play with the boundaries, or operate between the different stages. Huizinga (1955, P 11) suggests that to play does not automatically mean following the rules of play. He proposes four levels of playability. The first level is that of the player who submerses to the rules of play. It consists of those artists that work within the parameters of their age, those that follow its doctrines. The second level is that of those that cheat, those that deliberately break the rules for their own benefit. The third level is that of the spoil, the ones that ignore the rules. This would account for those artists that work outside of the formal institutions. It is of importance to note that for these three stages the player, or artist, is still acting within the rules, either by following them (player), breaking them (cheat) or ignoring them (spoil). The fourth and final stage is that of the outlaw, the revolutionary that tries to reshape the game itself. It is here that the artist would finally break into the superstructure by questioning the merits of art itself. It is easy to confuse these levels as they only become clear in a historic retrospective. If the Mona Lisa would be exemplar for the first stage, how can we account for the Dadaist parody by Marcel Duchamps? Does his L.H.O.O.Q. really question the merits of art? I

would argue that it is merely a deliberate act of breaking the rules, or perhaps of deliberately ignoring the rules, and thus still subjected to the rules. It does thereby not notably affect the superstructure. Conclusion One final argument remains; both Nano Chair 2.0 and One Sheep Sweater were presented as discrete objects in an art exhibitions space. No matter how interactive, accessible, scientific or discursive these works may be, they thereby remain bestowed by the magic, the rituals of contemporary art. Presented in the majestic spatiality of institutions; galleries, art festivals and the solid white spaces of the contemporary art museum one can hardly deny that at least this one aspect of art has survived the forces of the past century. As Benjamin notes in the preface to his article the transition of the superstructure takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure. The catch 22 is that as soon as there is the intention to make a work of art, no matter how revolutionary its content is, it is automatically is engaging the rules of play. The same goes for the work of art that is recognized as being art, even if it is in retrospective. To add, browse, change or destroy its content does not necessarily affect the database itself.

References Benjamin, Andrew E. 2005. Walter Benjamin and Art. London; New York: Continuum. Benjamin, Walter. 1969. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books. De Mul, J. (2009). The work of art in the age of digital recombination. Digital Material, 95. Duchamp, M. (1919) L.H.O.O.Q., Retrieved from: http://www.marcelduchamp.net/L.H.O.O.Q.php

Gallie, W. B. (1955, January). Essentially contested concepts. In Proceedings of the aristotelian society (Vol. 56, pp. 167-198). The Aristotelian Society; Blackwell Publishing. Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo ludens. A study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon. Mitchell, W. J. T. (2003). The work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction. Modernism/modernity, 10(3), 481-500. Meindertsma, C. (2010) One Sheep Sweater, Dutch Electronic Art Festival (2012), Rotterdam, the Netherlands http://deaf.nl/works/one-sheep-sweater-christienmeindertsma Maassen, L. (2009) Nano Chair 2.0, STRP Festival (2011), Eindhoven, the Netherlands http://strp.nl/en/programma/2011/lucas-maassen/