Towards Narrative

This essay intends to serve as a critical assimilation of two moments in art history, the emergent moments of video and (post-)internet. Although largely historical in its focus, it aims nonetheless to find a new footing from which to understand art of the present moment, or a new position from which to return.

Excursions / ‘Without context there is no communication.’[1]

In 1970 a new magazine was founded in New York. An initiative of the Raindance Corporation, a self-styled alternative media think tank that sought to provide a ‘theoretical basis for implementing communication tools in the project of social change’, this publication provided a dynamic sphere for a now mythologised generation of artists working at the frontier of networked practices.[2] The magazine was Radical Software, the medium was video, however what was achieved provides an important precedent for understanding networked art of our own time.

Inspired largely by now familiar McLuhanist tendencies, Radical Software is perhaps more enticing today for its allusion to the work of Gregory Bateson, an English visual anthropologist and cyberneticist. Whereas McLuhan had famously argued for technological formats as extensions of the body, Bateson was more radical, redefining the self as an expanded mental field in which the subject and objects are no longer separable; a model of the mind propagating integration and realisation in the world through communicative ecology.[3] Whilst perhaps this isn’t the place to rehash the idiosyncrasies of 1960s systems thinking, this moment nonetheless seems striking, as both a rupture from latent mind-body dualisms of the traditional empirical subject, as well as a trope by which to re-imagine the formalist artwork and its emphasis on separation between technology, communication, affect and sociability. Filtered through the video art apparatus, this burgeoning awareness of media ecology inspired a practice demonstrating that ‘every act of mechanical reproduction occurs within a particular spatial, social and psychological topography.’[4] Or, reconfigured, an artwork was imagined that began to locate itself within structures of communication, rather than objects or even ideas.

Through Bateson, Radical Software and its affiliate practitioners (amongst others, Ira Schneider, Frank Gillette and Nam June Paik) learnt to explore beyond the material lens, towards context, or integration. Thus was instigated a manoeuvre perhaps not fully articulated until the turn of the millennium, in Rosalind Krauss’s own explorations of the post-medium condition. Tracing three narratives, we find a pivotal moment at the intersection of video and television, or the introduction of the Raindancers’ beloved Portapak. Widely held to be the first commercially available portable camera, this Sony device emphasised the revolutionary ability of video to reconfigure previously coherent forms, spaces and temporalities (an example uncannily familiar today would be watching back childhood memories on old VHS tapes). Such experiential heterogeneity, Krauss claimed, provided the nail in the head of modernist medium specificity; consequently, ‘In the age of television, so it broadcast, we inhabit a post-medium condition.’[5] It was something like this, the post-structuralist recognition of the individual’s dependency on and constitution through external sources (interdependence and intermediation), that the pioneering video artists intuited in their radical ecologies.

The post-medium today seems a given, the current transience of traditional boundaries between object, action and documentation, and the centrality of this in post-internet practice, emphasised perhaps most concisely in the * new jpegs * exhibition this August.[6] So too will the concept of art as communication be familiar to anyone versed in post-network practice. Yet I’d nonetheless like to posit an integral difference between our two ostensibly correlative (re-performative) moments, albeit one perhaps best illustrated with reference to another art historical precursor.

Incursions / ‘My subject matter is in-formation.’[7]

Dan Graham’s Time Delay Room (1974) serves as an elegant example of the defining mood of both early video art and concurrent networked interests. Although not included in Tate Modern’s 2005 exhibition Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970, we can nonetheless read into it the influence of Minimalism upon networked practices, as highlighted by Boris Groys in the accompanying catalogue: ‘The typical Minimalist installation is perceived as a fragment of a formalised algorithm of reiterations and modifications. However powerful and fascinating the immediate visual impression of these installations on the viewer may be, ultimately they point to something invisible, merely conceivable, virtual.’[8] Although clearly not as monumental as a Minimalist installation, Graham’s work nonetheless garners its power in revealing the hidden forces directing and shaping the viewer/participant’s subjectivity in the situation. For upon realising their entrapment in its closed-circuit, the viewer is forced to confront their identity and self-awareness, how they are constructed as a self by their surrounding environment. This is a result, it is inferred, of all media circuits. Think of the last time you unthinkingly did your hair in a webcam.

It was such structuralism and phenomenology that categorised much art of the period, to once more lean on Groys: ‘it is precisely such potentially infinite projects that the art of the 1960s and 1970s repeatedly formulated and presented, projects that make visible the infinite operation of the formal, logical system that determines both the individual processes of thinking and the way that modern social institutions function.’[9] It is in this respect that post-network art of today dramatically differs. For if the previous generation of artists worked to identify these patterns, to place their viewer (participant) within these hidden structures, artists today begin to play with them, to construct narratives and explore new situations. In short, if network art revealed these relationships, post-network art begins to question them.

Consider here two London artists, Ed Fornieles and Ben Vickers. Although each have their own independent projects, they collaborate on businesses/projects(?) whatamithinking.biz and characterdate.com (the latter collaboration completed by Holly White). These offer, on the surface, a radical point of departure from historical projects such as Graham’s, the viewer being confronted with a rather corporate and hackneyed web fill-in as opposed to the traditional video work or gallery installation. Yet of course this is far from a radical manoeuvre, following an established net art interest in revealing our complicity with the systems that define us. And indeed how far removed is this from Graham’s concerns, albeit with added transparency towards the stringent bureaucracy that defines post-Fordist capitalism? (In fact one might realise their role as ‘observed observer’ in the process about eight seconds after arriving at the site, with the (admittedly more active) gesture of typing in their own name). Such are the limits of formalist reading in contemporary art.

Befitting the artists’ dry humour, the full scope of both projects is revealed only in their terms and conditions, which give a clue towards the prospective consequences of signing up. For far from merely placing their viewer within a certain phenomenological context, Fornieles, White and Vickers reserve all right to fully interact with them: to contact them; to offer gifts, props or incentives; to introduce fictitious characters into their life and workplace; ‘without notification or justification’; or even to inform them of their ‘thoughts, activities and[...] past’. This is Beuysian social sculpture, sure, yet it is social sculpture with an imagination, with a desire to question the real from without, not within, a Borgesian drive to explore reality through an added layer of fiction (and, like in the best of Borges, who’s to say the two might not converge?). Fully active imaginative participation is required to grasp the artwork. It is this tendency that I’d like to highlight under the rubric of narrative.

Yet the mechanics of this fiction are interesting. Whilst it is true to say that all art involves a degree of fiction (the historical ‘art vs life’ debate relies on this assumption), in these examples the relationship is complicated. Despite the characters created in the above examples being fictitious prior to activation, upon activation this is collapsed, the each becoming an echo of the other. Here is the importance of the online mediation of the project, for whilst the crucial interaction happens far beyond the computer screen, the online portal locates the projects in the shared language of the internet generation, and the implicit agreement upon the heterogeneity of authentic or real experience upon contact with any device mediated by the net. In the sense that language is heterarchical, so is narrative, and this is its importance. My apologies for all the Greek.

However as in traditional narrative we must place an emphasis on person, or more specifically its inherent distinctions. For with its direct intervention in lived situations, work such as that of Fornieles and Vickers can be characterised as second person, weaving narratives and encouraging interaction amongst other people. (Use of second person as opposed to third in this context accounts for the active role encouraged amongst participants, it is intended to de-emphasise spectacle). This distinction seems a useful tool through which to highlight the differentiation in this schema from first person narrative, in which the artist constructs her own (invented) narrative, often integral to the work’s context.

This latter scheme has been a popular conceit in internet practice over the last few years. However, building upon Brad Troemel’s clear consideration of the web 2.0 shift towards traditional identification online, (this is not an attempt to celebrate or propagate the phenomenon of online alter-egos), I’d like to suggest that the notion of artist persona is important in both the appreciation and consideration of particular post-network art.[10] An interesting example here is Jeremy Bailey, who almost parodies himself and the whole idea of himself as ‘Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey’. Of course, how famous Bailey actually is is debatable, offering a humorous nod towards questions of the heteronomy of new media practice in both art world and popular culture context at large. What is more significant is the way Bailey has collapsed the space between fiction and reality in his persona, in what is almost a sublimation of artistic aura, and a wry comment on the complex relationship between lived and invented aspects of our personalities in the mass-internet age. Furthermore, this becomes a tool in the reading of the work itself, (in Bailey’s case adding a certain pathos, in the inaccurate use of the word), acting as a tracker in the artist’s development. For by force of their imagination, by their reading this into the work, the viewer is made complicit in a new way, as part of a shared narrative connecting artist and system. It is this tendency I’d like to call attention to as first person narrative. Perhaps a more obvious instance is Helen Benigson using her Princess Belsize Dollar persona as a vehicle for her work, or even Parker Ito developing something of a mystique around the notion of Parker Ito (this is a far more subtle example than Jeremy Bailey, although it’s a narrative generously supported by his America Online Made Me Hardcore project), although examples seem widespread and varied.

Whilst perhaps edging towards a celebration of the artist as self-mythologiser, this is true only in recognition of a wider cultural trend of self-mythologising, as we invent ourselves almost daily on social networks, negotiating the complex dynamics between what we post and what we do not post as we construct the informatics of our mirrored selves. Further, even myths can be radical.[11] Yet to what extent one argues for the politics of this phenomenon is more probably subject for a separate investigation, here it seems sufficient to note merely further blurring of the virtual and the real, a landscape not yet fully mapped. Only once more the invitation is inwards.

The play between the real and the virtual seems less radical every day. Thus the function of narrative seems not just to identify this convergence, or even enact it, but to activate it, to bring into real space the same fragmented moral zone we’ve created online, and to open this space for everybody.

Thus, perhaps, narrative makes the virtual real.

Inasmuch as reading back in a relationship between video and post-network constructs and contests its own narrative, I’d be the first to admit that this essay intimates its own blurring of the virtual and the real. To what extent we might maintain this network / post-network dichotomy seems interesting; in what ways the two moments might question each other seems key. And perhaps this new working of the digital grid might be a final riposte to the silent Modernist grid; through which lines of communication are exploited not merely exalted, in which structures are reworked and not simply revealed.

[1] Bateson, Gregory. “Cybernetic Explanation”, in Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (399-410). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, 408

[2] http://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/history.html

[3] See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972); and Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964)

[4] Joselit, David. “Art as Information: Systems, Sited and Media”. in Joeslit, American Art Since 1945, London: Thames and Hudson, 2003,159

[5] Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the

Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000, 32

[6] http://www.johanberggren.com/past/11-07-newjpegs.html

[7] Dan Graham, from Kaizen, William “Steps to an Ecology of Communication: “Radical Software”, Dan Graham, and the Legacy of Gregory Bateson” in Art Journal, 67, no3, Fall 2008, 99

[8] open systems, 55

[9] ibid., 63

[10] http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_72/11774000/11774401/1/print/Brad_Troemel_Peer_Pressure_2011.pdf

[11] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/228

  1. Erik Stinson says:

    there is no distance, now

    no ground to cover

    only shapes that look like faces

    and many many voices in every direction

    especially inside