Books

Art’s Post-Media Malaise

by Joseph Nechvatal on February 17, 2014

guattari1981_3

A new collection of essays explores the legacy of Félix Guattari’s thought on ‘post-media’ art (image via translocal.jp)

PARIS — Mute magazine, based in London, has been a robust critical presence in the domain of cyber-connected art and theory for twenty years now, but has remained somewhat unknown to the global art world at large. This may be changing with the launch of their Post-Media Lab book series, a collaboration with the Post-Media Lab at Lüneburg University, set up in 2011 to explore how post-broadcast media can be used to intensify collective assemblages, an idea originally formulated by Félix Guattari. The volume that grabbed my interest first was Provocative Alloys: A Post-Media Anthology (2013), their second release, available both as gratis e-book or purchasable paperback and featuring essays are by Adilkno, Clemens Apprich, Alejo Duque, Gary Genosko, Michael Goddard, Félix Guattari, Brian Holmes, Felipe Fonseca, Howard Slater, Cadence Kinsey, Oliver Lerone Schultz, and Rasa Smite, and Raitis Smits.

The post-media suggestion itself has been the subject of deliberation for around two decades now. This audacious anthology cleverly brings some of these historical texts together, along with newly commissioned ones, to explore the shifting ideas and speculative practices associated with the idea of post-media. In particular, the book seeks to explore what post-media practice might indeed be in light of the commoditization and homogenization of digital networks in the age of Web 2.0, e-shopping, and mass surveillance. It achieves this goal while advocating for a new politically engaged art based on the post-media computer (the universal machine) in which post-media art would be a means of dissent that revises the relationship between producer (artist), distributor (gallery), and consumer of art (collector and museum). Thus there is pertinent food for thought here for those interested in post-digital art, post-conceptualism in general, and anything to do with our post-convergent times. That would be almost everyone, I should think, as post-convergence in art is simply a reference to artworks that occur after the various art media converge into code and become dematerialized representational data embodied in the digital domain, to some extent.

Post-Media book coverIn the introduction to Provocative Alloys, Josephine Berry Slater and Anthony Iles quickly give us the lay of the land by reviewing some basics about the technical media aspect of artistic practice, such as the famous post-medium idea of art formulated by art critic Rosalind Krauss in her 1999 essay “A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition” (not in the book), where she discusses the work of Marcel Broodthaers in terms of conceptual art, television, and poststructuralist theory. Krauss tied her idea to the Greenbergian concept of medium-specificity where media is recognized as differential and self-differing. But with computers, artificial intelligence and robotics, these older techniques have become outmoded and a period of retro-media ensues in which unproblematic art practices are found to function in essentially complicit ways with global investment capital; as we see today in the run-away secondary market for effectively average abstract painting, usually by young men. Later in the book, Cadence Kinsey’s essay From Post-Media to Post-Medium: Re-thinking Ontology in Art and Technology takes Krauss to task, fleshing out the connections between a post-medium art that has embraced the idea of differential specificity (Krauss) and a more radical post-media art (Guattari) by focusing on art-as-code in terms of language, genetics, and computer binary code. I expected an investigation here of Nicolas Bourriaud’s post-medium condition, a condition that is based on digital networks while excluding digital art, but received none. Perhaps this condition has received all the attention it deserves.

Félix Guattari, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 1988 when I gave him copies of the audio cassette network project Tellus #20 (Media Myth) and #21 (Audio By Visual Artists), is the guiding light of this book — and the source of its coherent provocation to our digital status quo. His visionary term post-media, coined in 1990, is intensely investigated throughout the book — and updated. In his essay “Towards a Post-Media Era,” Guattari (then an enthusiastic champion of the French Minitel system), put forth the proposition that the beginning of our post-media era starts with “the junction of television, telematics and informatics” and the “collective-individual re-appropriation and an interactive use of machines of information, communication, intelligence, art and culture.” He then evoked a coming time of information-noise-resistance, aimed at the quietism of conventional post-modernism sample-and-remix culture. Understanding how digital convergence was remaking television, film, radio, print and telecommunications into new hybrid forms, his essay calls for a split with mass media’s construction of conformity and for a new period of media from below, advocating for the production of “enunciative assemblages” (something of a motto for this book) that break with the manufacturing of the norm.

Tellustapes

Tellus cassette tapes from the Christian Marclay cover art for TellusTools (image via Wikipedia)

Through his intense interest in radical Italian and French pirate radio, Félix conceptualized early on our current computer network, and the idea that if used by outsiders in eccentric ways, it would bring to us a socially beneficial “post-media era” where the mass media is stripped of its hegemonic power. Of course, this is easier said than wholly done. Our simple-minded celebrity culture, the totalizing inclination of art today as entertainment/spectacle, and the insatiability of the secondary art market as currency depository proves the point that hegemonic power tied to commercial mega-structure is doing very well for itself, thank you very much. That is why this book is not patting itself (or us) on the back, but rather, pushing the reader to try a bit harder in achieving more fully the Guattari vision of a bottom-up art world.

British cultural theorist Howard Slater’s essay from 2000, “Post-Media Operators Sovereign and Vague” is one of the longer and more difficult pieces, but he also basically defines post-media practice in variance with mass-media. In it, Slater encourages us to utilize our “radical imagination” by using desire as the method for “being free to go anywhere, free to draw on anything, free to say anything, unmoored and without vested interest…” For Slater, post-media art grows out of the networked activities of passionate individuals and groups acting in lateral — rather than vertical — configurations that use media such as copyleft publishing websites, indie mp3 file labels, and art blogs with a critical attitude.

Michael Goddard’s 1996 essay “Félix + Alice in Wonderland: The Encounter” hones in on Guattari’s post-media vision and points us toward a more complex theory that starts with a reflection on our new consensual era of consumer-generated content and the harvesting of our heterogeneous impulses, where our diverse and singular subjectivities and collective assemblages can be reified for surveillance purposes and profit.

To close the book, Rasa Smite & Raitis Smits, in their essay “Emerging Techno-Ecological Art Practices: Towards Renewable Futures” dig into art and media theorist Peter Weibel’s essay “The Post-Media Condition” (2006) where he develops a political/historical argument for art in the post-media condition in which “no single medium is dominant any longer; instead, all of the different media influence and determine each other.” Here Weibel offers the observation from the point of view of hybridity: that “all art is post-media art” because our media experience has become the norm for all aesthetic experience; hence in art there is no longer anything beyond the media. Thus we are left with this post-media condition, according to Weibel, that provides us with an alteration of the meaning of individual media and that leads art to new combinations and mixtures of artistic media when seen as code — specifically the binary code behind the computer. So, algorithmic code provides the secret aesthetic behind all art now, and the impact of digital media is universal. For that reason, all art is post-media art.

The questions remain however: do we need it, and if so, what do we do with it? Provocative Alloys’s keen awareness of the committed thought and actions of Félix Guattari suggests that traditional group solidarity coupled with informed opposition helps us answer these questions together, again, now, in the post-media era.

Provocative Alloys: A Post-Media Anthology, published in London by Post-Media Lab Books, is available in free e-book or paid soft-cover format. 

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