Hypermedia: Critical Issues in Contemporary Media Art is a column written by artist Artie Vierkant for Hyperallergic. Each article discusses an existing or emerging theme in practices at the intersection of electronic media and the arts, drawing from the contemporary and the historic, the pervasive and the obscure.
You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it.
– Dr. Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park (ironically, paraphrasing the famous idiom)
Recently on Hyperallergic, artist An Xiao contributed a piece called “Cover Art, or Vito Acconci Gets a Follow Back,” making the case for artists who choose to directly reference or re-stage existing artworks. The article draws a comparison between derivative works and cover songs, arguing essentially that a piece recreated by another artist is much the same as a song re-performed by another group. This may be an apt comparison, but she glosses over an important fact: most cover songs are terrible.
And in much the same way, art which relies exclusively on recreating and rephrasing existing pieces carries a tremendous probability of emerging as flat and unconsidered. Particularly in digital art, where the open transference and transformation of cultural materials is of critical importance to many artists. What it comes down to — and An alludes to this — is that while now, yes, it is possible to take a conceptual action and recreate it within the framework of the Internet and digital media, it had better be pretty poignant if it desires to read as anything but a conceptual exercise by someone burdened by the context of art school.
For instance, searching for “Following Piece,” the 1969 Vito Acconci performance that An writes about re-staging, yields this video:
Aron Taylor, Following Piece (2008)
The artist restages “Following Piece” in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” blindly following rudimentary artificial intelligence characters around the game world until the NPC (non-player character) is killed due to simulated civil disorder. This video is accompanied by a text which explains it as being “based stupidly on Chuck Baudelaire’s concept of the ‘flaneur’ [and] Jean Baudrillard’s ideas of simulacra,” continuing for several paragraphs to provide descriptions of other works by Acconci. The entire text, then, is a justification for an artwork wherein we immediately get the joke and which is incapable of transcending the barrier of benign cleverness, no matter how many theories and thinkers are hurriedly paraphrased as justification. To a degree I’m surprised to not see a dual mention of Baudelaire’s flâneur and Debord’s dérive, simply because both deal with walking.
To “stand on the shoulders of giants,” is a commonly stated but often loosely implemented idiom. The idea is that one standing on the shoulders of giants is able to see further and do more than the giants themselves. Which is to say, a metaphor for taking what has come before us and building upon it, or perhaps most appropriately, work done with full knowledge of what has come before but not beholden to older forms. Progress itself.
Some cover art becomes very problematic when viewed in this light. At the beginning of this year an artist named Ramsay Stirling emerged briefly, his work circulating on the likes of Rhizome and VVORK, whose online portfolio consisted almost entirely of major conceptual artworks recreated for the Internet. He has since, for reasons unknown to me, taken his site down and replaced it with a large “BRB” in italic yellow, but his work still bears exploration given the question at hand.
Among Stirling’s recreations were works like “Abstract Webpage (.com) (After Ad Reinhardt)” (an .html page with a black background and nothing else) and “Enduring Freedom (∞ Flags)” (posited as a collaboration with Jasper Johns; click the image to the left to view it in all its glory). Much of the site functioned as these do — as humorous gestures that updated postmodern and other 20th century art pieces using the Internet as the primary method of distribution.
This became very problematic, though, with Stirling’s “Internet Delivers People,” (2008) a flash video redux of Richard Serra’s “Television Delivers People” (1973) in which the artist changes the entire script of Serra’s video piece to turn the original commentary into a vessel to critique the commercial structure of the Internet. This is a piece that has tried so hard to be poignant that it has missed the point entirely — Serra was critiquing a “one-to-many” distribution system, Stirling is regurgitating this argument and trying to align it to a fundamentally different platform.
It seems in fact that, especially in media art, updating an older work most importantly necessitates a scrupulous examination of the medium of transmission itself. Eva and Franco Mattes of 0100101110101101.ORG occasionally make what I would argue are in fact successful pieces of cover art—in their Synthetic Performances series they re-stage important works of performance art in Second Life. This could easily fall flat, but their specific selection of which pieces to perform [for instance, Chris Burden’s “Shoot” (1971) and Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s “Imponderabilia” (1977)] suggests an interesting exploration of our relationship to the body in virtual space.
This medium specificity is something which actually makes the piece An wrote about, Platea’s “Following Piece 2.0,” a bit more interesting. Key to the initial “Following Piece” is that Acconci wrote out the results of his performances and mailed them to major figures in the art world. In this way the performance was just as much about the act of surveying a stranger as it was about the artist creating a different kind of art object, one disseminated through the postal system rather than the gallery, and marking his transition from experimental poet to performance artist. The difference being, now the people who receive the message are selective — those who followed @platea or the appropriate hashtag on twitter.
It’s easy enough to take someone’s canonized artwork and reframe it within your new historical context, but this can only truly be rewarding when the gesture is appropriately thought out in terms of both contexts.