Urban Scrawl 011: There will be a Duchamp of Second Life — and I’m still trying to deal with the first one!
barmecidal: adjective: Giving only an illusion of something; unreal.
nescient: adjective: Lacking knowledge or awareness.
babel: noun: 1. A confused mixture of noises or voices. 2. A scene of noise or confusion.
So a couple of months ago, I went and saw this show at Paul Young’s gallery in the PDC. It was called <<<(((Mods & Hackers)))>>> Game Modification, Hacking, Patching Avatars and Code-based Practices within Contemporary Art, and it melted my brain and I’ve been obsessing over it ever since.
I was with my friend the artist Rick Robinson, and we were making a special trip to see the QR code stuff because of some things he’d been working on with street art and video projections. Also David Stone had just done this show at Charlie James Gallery. Ron English had been getting up to no good. Josh Levine had told me about his web show APP ATTACKS! THE QR CODE EDITION. The Cory Arcangel show was up at the Whitney.
Etc, etc. So I was prepared for nifty, but I wasn’t prepared for Paul to show me a sculpture that wasn’t really there. Daniel Franke’s “Sound Sculpture.” Is a work of art that exists in real time and in real space, but can’t be seen with the naked eye. You can only see it with a camera or computer — a digital lens that can decipher the series of large, printed QR codes that are all that adorn the walls. When you raise the screen, the piece appears. When someone walks into frame, you see them too, also right there. As you move the lens, it sees other pieces of code, and the sculptural object moves and you see other parts of it. It’s there all the time, in the same space that you’re in, but it lives in a parallel universe.
After that, I had a lot of questions for Paul about how I was supposed to deal with this insanity, and he was very generous with his time and ideas. I’m still not sure exactly how I’m going to handle this, but here are some of the more salient piece of our exchange over the weeks that followed, in which I struggle to understand, not so much the work itself, or even my personal experience of it — but rather, to understand how an evaluation of this work vis a vis my job as an art critic, was to be undertaken. As you’ll see, I’m having some trouble figuring out how to get past description and into evaluation and interpretation — in other words, I’m fine as a viewer, but I’m feeling daunted as an arbiter.
I’m sure you saw this article in the New York Times, which talks about the design show at MoMA. What is surprising to me is that this show, and the article, only focuses on how products—meaning industrial design pieces—are becoming increasingly interactive and thus, more intelligent. Yet it doesn’t talk about the revolution going on in contemporary art, where artworks can either “sense” a room or its viewers and change accordingly, or provide access to another, virtual world, which is far more radical and exciting than our own; a world full of real experiences and virtual objects.
I did see that, and I think I know why that might be the case. It’s like we started talking about it when I came to see Mods and Hackers — when it comes to design and technology, there are extant standards by which to evaluate innovations. Functionality, for example — what does it do and is it good at it? How are its look and purpose better or more modern or more delightful or sinister than whatever it is meant to replace. But when it comes to art, it’s not so easy. Like I was saying about that one piece you had — the sculpture that isn’t really there — that touched off an existential critic-crisis for me, because, you know, how the heck am I supposed to evaluate it, do my job as a critic, etc. without access to precedent or influence and without any familiarity with its materials. Should I go by sculpture standards, or video, or what!
I mean, is it generational? I’m nearly 40, and I’m tempted to just let it make me feel old and move on. But then again, I don’t know how to mix paint but I feel confident discussing paintings. So mere unfamiliarity with and/or fear of the unknown doesn’t fully explain it. I think it’s a challenge to my training in art history because it is without precedent in some sense. Do I judge that particular piece in the context of sculpture? Video? Performance? Drawing? Animation? If I’m reduced to mere description, I feel thwarted and irrelevant. If I try to force the work into an ill-fitting context, I deny its pioneering essence and do everyone a great disservice.
In terms of coaxing people to understand it, I’m constantly confronted by that problem! Those who have spent their lives learning about, and understanding, painting, sculpture and even installation, can have a lot of trouble understanding “new media” art. To them it’s utterly alien. Similarly, those who only know moving imagery through the movies or television, can also have difficulty in understanding it as well. For both I like to explain to them that the main thing is to look at it as an object. That’s all. It’s a thing that sits in a room or hangs on a wall. It just happens to be moving. Once you see it as a thing, or an object, you can come at it with the same conditions, values and prerequisites that you have for virtually any artwork.
Daniel Franke (who made that piece that wasn’t there) has devoted his entire practice to this notion of the “Post Simulation”, which is a term that Peter Weibel coined to describe our current age. What that means is that art has always been about a simulation of some kind, whether it’s the simulation of nature or an internal experience. And that simulation is the object—whether it’s a painting, book or movie. But with Post Simulation we can have “virtual objects” which do not exist in our world at all. At least not in our perception. But they can be experienced nevertheless.
That actually made me feel a little better. Having a capitalized movement to refer to like “Post-Simulation” is just how I like it. But I’m still stuck on this idea of how to handle it as an art critic? How do I know if it’s bad, or if I’m the one that doesn’t get it? I don’t want to be the equivalent of the people who threw Impressionism on the garbage heap, I learned that lesson from Art History, too. I want to be on the right side of this. I don’t want to be too credulous or too skeptical. My job entails both teaching and learning.
I myself, have come to terms with some of these ideas by putting together <<<(((Mods&Hackers)))>>>. This new language of course, has to do with digital technologies, and specifically the Internet. I don’t think it’s overstating the case at all to suggest that the Internet may be the most profound change in our culture since the invention of the printing press. People are now saying that Second Life is the future of the web, and I believe that. I promise you, there will be a Duchamp of Second Life. So, as critics, artists and lovers of art, shouldn’t we be looking to the same area for artistic ideas? Duchamp asked, Can one make art that is not art? And of course, that has been the guiding principle for artists for nearly a century. Yet here we have artists who are either making works of art that do not exist in material form at all, or exist everywhere at once (on the web) for everyone to see simultaneously.
It’s so funny I’ve thought about that forever but maybe in a different way — thanks for sparking this memory — but in reading my Walter Benjamin I remembered all this business about the maker’s hand and the aura of the original. Now, whatever position one takes on those old-timey philosophies, we can no longer be certain that the idea of an original even retains its meaning. If something exists only online, then everyone’s laptop is an original — as distinct from an open edition which is still finite. Or are only the master hard-drives at the artist’s studio the original? Or am I the only one that cares about this kind of thing any more? Are questions like that themselves as obsolete as floppy disks?
In other news, I just got this press release: “Marco Brambilla, will screen his latest piece Evolution (Megaplex), a 3D video collage at the 68th Venice International Film Festival on September 9. This momentous event marks the first time, since the festival’s inception, that video art has been included as an “Official Selection.”
Are you stoked?
Shana! Hell yeah!! And I just heard about something that confirms my belief that the artists who are exploring new media are dealing with the most relevant questions of our age, and hence, in my mind, are the most “contemporary” of any of their peers. I just heard that you can now go to Google Street View (where you “walk” around any street in the world) and insert the avatar of your liking. More to the point, you can meet other avatars there and interact with them. Can you imagine? You can actually go to Berlin by logging in, where you can join your friends, shop, have coffee, talk, go dancing, whatever! I heard that this is still in the Beta stage, but the point is, it’s here!
Paul my dear,
Now I’m officially freaked out.