Imaginaria reviews

|The Guardian|

‘Living in a gee-whiz age’
Jonathan Romney
The Guardian, Wednesday October 6, 1999


…Oddly enough, the most affecting exhibit doesn’t have a website, and functions in the most classic installation fashion. Mark Dean’s Universal (Turing Machine) is a tribute to Alan Turing, the pioneer of digital logic. Two [sic] large digital photos of Turing dissolve and reform, the features blurring as numbers morph over his face, so slowly you can barely see the change. Meanwhile, an electronic voice gives a fragmented reading of a soliloquy from Frankenstein, and a binary-code representation of the words flashes on the ceiling like a map of the stars. Simple and solemn, but extremely rich in connotations, Dean’s piece evokes the chimera of the conscious electronic brain, the “monster” of artificial intelligence returning to pay homage to the father who could never have predicted the fate of his offspring. The piece may seem traditional and stuffy in its concern for mystery and a sense of the sublime, but seems particularly daring in the over-heated new digital rhetoric.

We’re used to celebrating the newness of digital possibilities, the immediacy of the internet, the sense of digital communication as a game open to all comers simultaneously, but Dean is going provocatively against the grain, opting for slowness, stillness and contemplation, a spot of philosophical sobriety among the wow (or should that be “Wow!”?) and flutter.


Making the Right Connections
Dr. Future
Mute, Issue 15, Dec 1999

The Imaginaria prize has quietly eclipsed the ICA’s New Media Centre as the organisation’s creative technology crown. Dr. Future inspects this year’s jewels

Does anyone still remember the ICA’s New Media Centre? It only seems like a short while ago that the NMC was the flagship of the new look Sun Microsystems ICA, buzzing with events, talks, project proposals and shiny leaflets fluttering around. Now all mention of it has disappeared from the ICA’s publicity, the website is inactive, the director has left and the hi-tech computer studio has been locked away in a room that looks more and more like a cupboard under the stairs.

At least we still have the Imaginaria show. Now in its second year, Imaginaria stepped back ever so slightly from its quest to become the digital arts Turner Prize by commissioning new work instead of restaging old and selecting four short-listed artists instead of one star winner. All the rest of the usual art world paraphernalia was rolled out for the awards ceremony, however, including Peter Mandelson (Jarvis Cocker was unavailable), whose task was to congratulate the finalists at a champagne dinner while making vague references to the importance of the new digital media Brit pop whatsit.

All but one of the artists exhibited work which relied on elements and processes outside the gallery context. Scanner and Tonne presented Sound Polaroids, projected video and sound montages collected from samples taken from places in the urban landscape suggested to them on postcards by members of the public. Mongrel showed four different projects in which their Linker software had been used by the participants of various workshops to create Invisible Geographies, subjective maps of their communities, memories and journeys. Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie built a Multi- User Domain on the Internet and then made An Artist’s Impression by making a scale model of the results in the gallery. The ICA show itself was only able to present one facet of these works, however, at the point where the process condensed into locatable products, although each of the above works struggled to overcome this. Sound Polaroids left little piles of postcard lying around for people to fill in, but they looked more like calling cards made to mark the occasion. The An Artist’s Impression model drew the visitor into an addictively childlike world of toy cars, trains, tunnels, little plastic trees and grassy textured hills. But when I went up to one of the two terminals in the gallery to enter the MUD I was told by a smiley ICA attendant that they were only there for show. It reminded me of what it felt like when your father bought you a new train set and then insisted on playing with it himself.

The Mongrel collective went furthest in trying to control the context of their work, firstly by presenting their laptops on top of cleaning trolleys in order to make the décor of the Mall space more ‘down market’. It failed, of course, but had the side effect of suggesting that the role of the Linker might be a collector and reassembler of cultural detritus. Mongrel also published their own User Manual complete with an essay by Matthew Fuller about ‘software as culture’ in which he argued the importance of the design of computer software as a medium for articulating conceptual material and cultural values. But there was no evidence that any of the critics covering the show had read his efforts or had understood them.

For the star of the show was undoubtedly Mark Dean whose work generated at least twice as much attention in the art press as any of the other exhibits. Dean’s video installation No. Turing consisted of a portrait of Alan Turing, credited as being the creator of the theory of the binary computer and early apologist for artificial intelligence, whose features were blurred by ten different Photoshop filters applied according to a numerical sequence. This was juxtaposed with Universal (Turing Machine), in which a recitation from Mary Shelly’s [sic] Frankenstein was simultaneously translated into a binary code of dots and projected onto the ceiling in a constellation reminiscent of a star chart. The passage quoted was where the creature asks, “What does this mean? Who am I? What am I? Whence did I come? What is my destination? These questions continually recur, but I am unable to solve them” and was enthusiastically described by various critics in such terms as “a powerful and poignant exploration of intelligence” and “simple and solemn, yet extremely rich in connotations.” Yet this reaction reveals more about the artistic conservatism and limited references of the writers concerned than it does any conceptual richness in Dean’s work. His strategy of reducing a technology that is actively restructuring most aspects of our social relations into an abstract discourse of origins fails precisely because of its inability to address the situated practice of that technology. After all, it was Alan Turing’s narrow belief in the internal logic of abstract rules which made him unable to realise that the internal logic of his own homosexuality could not be reconciled with the rules of the society that he lived in until it was too late.

This is a work which seems to critique the self-contained logic of the information society, but which implicitly supports it by restricting its field of engagement to the self-contained space of artistic speculation assigned to it by that same society. This argument is the classic avant garde position opposed to institutionalised arts practice. The question that arises from this is what values art making can contribute to social life once the distance between the two fields has been recognised and a willingness to overcome it has arisen? The situation is now greatly complicated by the fact that critical art, institutional art, commercial art and their audiences are all encoded into the same information economy.

In the Imaginaria catalogue, Kodwo Eshun writes about the dynamics of this integrated information system in which we live and its relevance for creative practice. Taking off from a different essay by Matthew Fuller, he reminds us that the concept of the interface – the means by which the real subject (us) achieves access to the virtual object (the work) – is now obsolete. This is because, “urbanism is already as informational as it is infrastructural; pixels and concrete are interlinked at all levels of the modern city. Rather, interfacing triggers a chain of actions which oscillate between the possible and the functional.” This is potentially embarrassing for the ICA which states that Imaginaria aims to “redefine the interface between artist and audience”, if by that it means that it merely wants to reconstruct this interface of the gallery space. For the gallery has never been very good at being a catalyst that “triggers a chain of actions” – only at providing a distanced reflection on external actions. Eshun’s analysis of the information society on which these works are premised seems contradicted by the very form of the show itself. This is because gallery work is connected to the information society in a specific way, as products following a predefined trajectory of cultural consumption that defines which actions are allowed.

Nicholas Negroponte famously said that if you want to understand the future, connect everything together. However, by using terms like ‘connect’ or ‘interface’ in an abstract, ill-defined way, we fail to distinguish between the connections in a networked society – between ones that are mobile and ones that are static, between the interface as transformation and as protocol. The impact of networking together every aspect of the life world does not necessarily result in its cross-the-board mobilisation; some things maintain a static position. It is this stasis that makes the ‘interface’ necessary. The gallery may provide a space for reflection on this, but it is no longer possible for such a disinterested contemplation to really appreciate these complex effects of our integration into the Matrix without losing sight of how it is incorporated into that system itself. The ICA, with its club nights, gigs, trendy bar and “fundamental commitment to nurturing and reframing the relationship between art, science and commerce”, should be in a better position than most art spaces to find a suitable format for an arts practice that overcomes the gallery’s ‘interface’. Or did the experiment with the New Media Centre prove that digital arts was in danger of connecting to all the wrong places and that it’s better to concentrate on throwing swanky parties for dodgy politicians?

.Modern Painters.

‘Art I Like’
Julian Stallabrass
Modern Painters, Summer 2000

My book about ‘young British art’, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s [Verso, London 1999], seems to have hit an exposed nerve. In a review for the Independent Richard Gott, a long-time booster of the Britart scene, styles me as a ‘youthful curmudgeon’, while Adrian Searle for the Guardian asserts that the book’s thesis is somehow refuted by the profound qualities of Martin Maloney’s paintings (an opposition with which I am not entirely unhappy). Furthermore, in an intemperate attack unencumbered by argument, David Rimanelli of Artforum concluded: ‘Death to fustian British academic Marxists. Take me to the Groucho Club’.

So what was the crime of High Art Lite? Being fustian or academic or even British can’t be it (though being Marxist might). Rather, it was to take a detailed but detached view of ‘young British art’, neither dismissing it as a whole from the usual conservative perspective, nor favouring it with the reflex, wide-eyed musings on its wonders that in some quarters pass for criticism. Anyone making such an analysis risks the accusation that (gasp) they don’t actually like art. Although in fact I do like some art (as any reviewer prepared to undertake a smidgen of research would know), the charge is not so shocking, for there are plenty of good reasons to be suspicious of art, its uses and its institutions. The old presumption that art was a higher/ ethical/ spiritual/ humanist/ non-instrumental matter, and thus worthy of respect and support, can hardly survive the self-conscious immersion of artists in the content and techniques of mass culture.

My book does celebrate the positive qualities of ‘high art lite’, most notably, indeed, its critique of the hypocrisies of the art world of the 1980s­—a world defended by the high cant of critical discourse even as, in its rapacity and shallowness, it mirrored the bubble economy of the time. Given that spectacle, the open vulgarity of the new art seemed bracingly honest. Yet the promise held out by the critical aspects of high art lite was never fulfilled in any positive programme. Its terminus is a conventional, academic take on postmodern shibboleths, thoroughly internalised and stripped of their radical content. Despite its avant-garde sheen, this is an art completely at home with the received wisdom of its time, its artists the Meissoniers and Bouguereaus of the turn of the new century.

The critical element of high art lite came to its most extreme form in the practice of the artist-curators’ group Bank which, in making art, exhibitions and publicity material, mounted a detailed and relentless examination of art-world contradictions, bad faith and slackness of thought. As with a number of artist-led initiatives, some of which have provided a salutary alternative to ‘young British art’, Bank is now in crisis. In the long run, the strength of its practice—that its critique was conducted with microscopic precision—may turn out to be a limitation: can Bank think beyond the confines of the scene that it has so accurately skewered?

The development of such thinking is necessary, especially now when storms are brewing that portent the end of the postmodern lull. In this space, I can only sketch in the outlines of this change, and in doing so, I will draw on Perry Anderson’s analysis in his important book, The Origins of Postmodernity. For Anderson, the mainstays of postmodern culture are as follows: a technology of reproduction (not production), especially television, which is devoted to the propagation of mass culture; a dominant and successful capitalist economy; and the absence of a viable alternative politics.

The most obvious recent departure from this scenario is a new wave of technological development, qualitatively different from the sound and image receiving sets that dominated the postmodern era. Computers are machines for simulation but they also allow interaction, and when coupled with the material world—at the level of genes, say, or atoms acting as tiny machines—promise a comprehensive transformation of our minds, bodies and the environment. The new technology does not yet offer the visual drama of the ocean liner or the airship that so stimulated modernist artists, but the far-reaching changes it has already wrought, and the greater ones it promises or threatens, are already the subject of romantic attachment.

Economically, while since 1989 the capitalist system has widened its ambit to become virtually universal, it has combined that ubiquity with fragility. Aside from the severe crises in Mexico, Russia and East Asia (the latter previously vaunted as the proof that capitalism could develop the Third World), in the delicate balance between the major trading blocks, amelioration in one is purchased only at the expense of another. While there is no major shift in the impetus of the system, there are prominent warning signs of change—particularly in the vast over-valuation of stocks and shares on which the buoyancy of the US economy is based.

Finally, and connected to the previous point, while there is not yet a powerful alternative politics, there has been the slow but steady rise of anti-corporate and anti-capitalist activity, which came to media prominence in the protests against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle last year. Of those words that had once seemed so out-dated that they could not longer be uttered, the liveliest Lazarus is ‘capitalism’. The positive project of the new movements is vague and contested but its broad outlines are evident: to protect the environment, to increase equality, and to make democracy mean more than the periodic election of leaders and parties in otherwise unchanging plutocracies.

In these dynamic and dangerous circumstances, it is obvious that what is currently celebrated in British art is an inadequate, complacent and parochial response. What certain collectors and curators have recently put forward as the replacement for ‘young British art’ is no better—whether it be sugary-sour ‘neurotic’ painting, or works of post-conceptual whimsy.

Fortunately, to borrow the title of Gott’s review, such work is not ‘the only game in town’. Art is being made that engages with these new developments, or is at least symptomatic of them. (In looking at a few examples here, I am not, of course, claiming that the artists subscribe to the views of this article).

First, to look at the technological side, the work of Mark Dean, particularly a piece he made for the Imaginaria show at the ICA last October, Universal (Turing Machine) raised sharp questions about the transformation of humans opened up by the marrying of genetics and information technology. A video projected onto a ceiling, the digital representation of a text from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, resembled the sequencing of a gene. Viewers stared up at it, as if to decipher the image of a constellation, while a computer-generated voice intoned ‘What does this mean? Who am I? What am I? Whence did I come? These questions continually recur, but I am unable to solve them.’ The point made here is an old one, though it is made with new means: that identity becomes unstable when subjected to rapidly moving technological change. This change, which affects everyone to a greater or lesser degree, is laid over and transforms the skein of other identities, and like them is as much forced upon people as actively embraced.

In an entirely different register, the Internet works of Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson focus not upon the seductive future but upon the current condition of the Web. Weightless, for instance, simply takes various found elements from the Web—animated icons, muzak, messages (intimate and aggressive) from chat rooms—and sets them into a display with which the viewer interacts pointlessly. The utopian promise of computer-mediated communication is set against its use as a broadcast medium, loaded with pap and meant for trivial and instrumental ends. Taken together, Universal (Turing Machine) and Weightless encompass the contradictory field of the new technology, its potential to manufacture utopia or dystopia obscured by its current banality.

As for universal capitalism, some artists have been turning to an examination of corporate culture. Such work goes beyond the examination and critique of administrative and bureaucratic systems in conceptual art, for it takes the habits and practices of corporations as a culture, revealing large areas of gullibility and irrationality. It is not as if the corporations are immune from the ocean of verbiage that they themselves produce. Carey Young has made a number of projects in this area which include her futile but funny soapbox lecture at Speakers’ Corner on the principles of successful corporate presentation, her appropriation of management consultancy drawings as works of art, and her analysis of the respective performance of the shares ‘Art’ and ‘Life’ (‘Art’ does better, surprisingly). She also appears in a series of photographs snapped at corporate events and entertainments, a constant presence in awkward displays of camaraderie. Young herself does not set out to mount a critique of corporate culture (for that, look elsewhere to the practices of Heath Bunting and Rachel Baker) but in revealing it as a social and cultural artefact, the work implicitly raises questions about alternatives.

On the political front, there is a wide range of practices that oppose mainstream ideologies, of which I will discuss only one telling example. Among the conflicts over the commercialisation of the Internet, the issue of domain names is among the most hard-fought. It is like staking out territory, with the added twist that brand name and navigation device are entwined. So it was that last year etoy and eToys found themselves in dispute. The former is a well-respected electronic art site, the latter a new but large business selling toys. Upset that some of its customers were accessing the art site by mistake, and finding obscene words, nudity and worse, eToys took out an injunction against etoy, closing their site down.

etoy did not take this lying down, mounting a noisy campaign of protest which gathered wide support. At this point, Internet activists ®™ark (pronounced ‘artmark’) joined the fray. ®™ark’s politics are very much of the anti-corporate type described above, and at the time of the Seattle protest, they set up a convincing simulation of the WTO’s website, containing what they called a ‘clarification of the WTO’s messages’. ®™ark’s response to the eToys suit was to state that it would set out to destroy the company. The threat might have seemed foolish, but ®™ark knew what they were about: the value of stocks depends upon turnover (if not profits) and the number of hits a site receives. By publicly announcing that they would attack the eToys site, and by actually staging some attacks using Floodnet and other tools designed to block access to a site, ®™ark made investors nervous. Customers had some difficulty accessing the site in the period before Christmas, and given that eToys was registering many false hits, the valuation of its shares became uncertain. The campaign made a contribution to a substantial fall in eToys’ share price, and the company was forced to back away from its lawsuit. This clash showed that corporations may be vulnerable when the terrain and means of dispute are intelligently chosen. It also showed that large numbers of people—or at least enough people—were prepared to act in favour of cultural freedom.

Was this art or mere political action? In the virtual world, lacking the solace of objects, such lines are hard to draw. As with a number of devices that these new movements have invented—and not only software—Floodnet simultaneously serves practical and cultural functions. In attacks in support of the Zapatista rebels against the official website of the Mexican government, the following error message was repeatedly returned: ‘human_rights not found on this server’. Such action combines elements of conceptual art with widespread public participation.

There are, then, artists who are alert to the novel circumstances of our time, and there are some who are discontent with the idea that art should do no more than divert or entertain. It may even be that they are the majority. For there is a mismatch between the statements of high art lite’s defenders and their actions: if art is really just a part of the general culture, then there is no reason for it to get special treatment—either in the form of state subsidy or delicate critical handling. Art can and has offered complexity, depth and dialogue, and if these qualities proved increasingly difficult to sustain in the postmodern era, artists and writers, viewers and readers should welcome the signs of its passing.