Workers and Technology as Artists
Critical Artists Devolve to Political Technologies
Critical Images II : DVolution!
The Lux Centre, 27th May, 2000
Apparently the artists at Andy Warhol's Factory spent most of their
time doing celebrity portraits and promotional work just so they could
pay the rent. At the end of the day Andy would assemble his staff around
the table and say "Now, what are we going to do for Art? I can't
think of anything today, does anyone have any ideas?" Artists that
work with forms of mass media can be faced with the double edged sword
of having to afford access to the relevant equipment and also the opportunity
to pay for it by using their skills to accept commercial work. But balancing
time spent working on paying jobs against time spent on "personal
work" has led to unique conflicts in their roles as well as unique
insights for media artists.
Critical Images II was a four day programme of events at the Lux Centre,
London, culminating in a one day conference on strategies for moving image
based arts in online and interactive contexts. Unlike the dismal performance
of last year's Critical Images conference where panels of tasteful
art house film makers and trendy 'Hoxtonite' multimedia designers
engaged in an endless orgy of professional back slapping, the emphasis
this time was on practitioners from further outside mainstream culture.
In fact, nearly all the speakers present could have been described as
In the morning film maker Ana Kronschnabl showed examples of online movies
from her Plugincinema site while artist Nick Crowe presented his web based
movie Discrete Packets which showed how linear narratives could be stretched
by using links to live real and fictional web sites. Then film maker Jon
Jost moved the direction of the debate away from aesthetics as such by
talking about the problems artists had in gaining access to the expertise
that would enable them to pursue these more technologically sophisticated
forms of movie making. Nick Crowe made the crucial point that artists
must avoid relying too much on technical experts because they always work
with reference to received notions of "quality" - technicians
are not trained to exploit "bugs", only to erase them, and in
doing so new avenues of exploration are missed. If the art world pursues
these technical standards blindly then it would lead to the situation
that Jon Jost described where art galleries would become cineplexes that
just made people want to see more Hollywood films.
In the afternoon Kate Rich from the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT)
showed several projects which involved the placement of video cameras
in spy planes flying over the high security bunkers of silicon valley
companies or planted in childrens toys to create films of the consumer
landscape from the point-of-view of the technologies that created it.
Jim Fetterley and Rich Bott of Animal Charm recycle footage from industrial
documentary and corporate videos. In picking out the bits inbetween moments
of dramatic significance they create an eerie world made up of figures
distractedly waiting or standing around with looks of misplaced concern.
These are the minute things the camera records when it is being least
influenced by the desires of its human operators. Chris Wilcha talked
about his documentary The Target Shoots First which was composed out of
camcorder footage shot while he worked as a marketing manager for Columbia
House records, exposing a corporate culture which erases distinctions
between personal values and marketing strategies.
The writer Chris Darke chaired the final session called Culture Jamming
in which he vigorously championed the featured work as encouraging examples
of "art re-engaging with social conditions." Animal Charm and
Chris Wilcha both pointed out that in the US public arts funding has practically
disappeared and this has generated a peculiar feeling of freedom and urgency.
The need for these artists to pursue day jobs has given them a keener
sense of the divisive values and limited visions of the corporate world,
their work acquiring a politically oppositional motivation. Lev Manovich
stated that commercial culture is now more formally innovative than the
arts, which also suggested that artists must direct their arguments towards
the level of the quality of lived experience instead. Kate Rich said that
when corporations found out about their work what they most objected to
was not the technological ingenuity of concealed surveillance but concern
that they were being made fun of and their beliefs questioned. These artists
seemed to be using their proximity to commercial media to recover from
its technologies the remnants of alternative futures, or ambivalent energies
that ignite other desires whose promises are not yet patented.
But then an odd thing happened. In a comment from the floor, the conference
organiser Rhidian Davis questioned whether the debaters had assumed an
outdated romantic role for the artist as a social outsider fighting against
an impersonal corporate world. This comment had the effect of misrepresenting
the practitioners as criticising from an arbitrary subjective position,
as though they were grumbling about a mainstream culture that they had
elevated themselves above. As if on cue, each of the panellists then denied
one by one that they had ever claimed they were artists. This may have
been intended to distance themselves from the implication that they were
old fashioned elitists but it effectively silenced the debate, seemingly
robbing the panellists of any basis on which to continue their discussion.
It was as though either an objective social critique were not possible
from the position of the privileged subject with their disorderly emotions
and interests, or in contrast because of their romantic isolation from
the cut and thrust of daily life. But the fact that artists at this conference
had been forced to support themselves by working commercially had led
to the direct personal motivation behind their strongest work. Perhaps
it is this very familiarity with the unpalatable realities of corporate
politics that is limiting the debate in the art world to presentations
of formal innovations couched in soothing poetic terms or somehow trying
to leave the responsibility for critique to internal conflicts articulated
by the technology itself. Devolution indeed.
The complexity of this relationship between artistic intentions and the
language of the technology itself had been made plain when Lev Manovich
showed his Little Movies project. He had taken some footage from the early
cinema of the 1880s of characters involved in simple, gestural actions
like circus performers posing and progressively reduced them down to single
pixels to create an alternative movie aesthetic that preceded Hollywoods
technical standards. However, the LUX Centre's internet connection
proved unable even to cope with this as the sluggish playback stuttered
to a halt during the presentation. But was this a technical "problem"
or a further "feature" of Manovichs digital "aesthetic"?
Perhaps this means we should not discount human intention entirely and
not leave everything to the unfolding of the technology (or perhaps some
technologies make bad "artists" just as some people do?). Technicians
pursue "quality" and artists seek "meaning" - either
may imply technical standards as well as other agendas.
The general tendency of the work shown at this event was to allow the
technology to suggest its own internal potential or structures of meaning.
This strategy works for a while but breaks down at the point where it
comes up against how the technology is already being deployed by other
parties for their own interests. The best you can then do is to expand
your field of reference to include the social and political dimensions.
At the moment when you find yourself in a world where standards, protocols
and channels of communication are already in place then a space for technological
neutrality and objective experimentation no longer exists. We are now
in that world.