FEATURE.REVIEW: Reflections on Conceptual Art and its relation to New Media, a month long conversation at Empyre

BY: Eduardo Navas

I was a guest speaker on Empyre during the month of April 2005. The following text is a revision of two particular postings on Conceptual art, which I here use as launching platforms to reflect on the long debate that took place between Raul Ferrera Balanquet (CU/MX), Kate Southworth and Patrick Simons(UK), and myself. Other invited guests included Lucrezia Cippitelli (IT), Heidi Figueroa Sarriera (PR), Raquel Herrera Ferrer (ES), Lucas Bambozzi (BR), Andres Burbano (CO), and Joeser Álvarez. This text is also part of a larger essay which will be published at a later date in its entirety.

The conversation was fruitful in various ways, ranging from abstract theoretical propositions to more personal statements. The online exchange proved to be one of the most important experiences for me until now, because I learned that colonial ideology is more powerful than I expected. It is thanks to Raul's intervention (this is how he considered his writing) that I realized this shortly after the discussion came to a close. Such realization will be the subject of reflection for the second part of this series. In this first part I will focus on the premise proposed by Christina McPhee for the month long conversation.

The theme of the month:
Do conceptual art and curatorial practice merge in post digital cultural production? How are new media art, criticism and curatorial practice a 'transgressive' ecology"?

While it is true that artists part of the net.art group were influenced by a certain type of conceptualism, the premises behind conceptual art as it is understood from its origins in the New York scene is practically irrelevant in new media practice. When it is brought up it is often in allegorical form. In regards to this, we can consider a work that has been reviewed here. MTAA's One Year Performance,[1] which allegorizes Performance artist Sam Hsieh's One year performance where he stayed in a cell for a whole year.

Conceptual art, mainly in the New York scene, developed in reaction to Greenbergian modernism; this is specific to Joseph Kosuth and his contemporaries. However conceptual practice became quite diverse and took on many approaches around the world.[2]

Critical art practices since the turn of the twentieth century have relied on a materialist approach to art making.[3] To be specific, the artist looks at the subject and considers key material elements to then make them obvious to the viewer, who if the work is developed carefully, will come to question it according to the exposed contradictions, coherences, limitations, and excess, which can be read as open-ended questions, or at times as forms subject to the sublime (the latter may be problematic for some conceptualists who are critical of ideology). The artist can claim that what she has done is nothing but show what was already there, thus appearing critical and detached with proper distance, thus questioning not only what the role of the artist is, but also the idea of originality. This is what Duchamp did with his famous Urinal.[4] As it is commonly known, he did nothing but choose a work that exposed the artist's role in art practice and her/his relation to the growing industrial world. However, he was not directly questioning the material aspect of the work of art. Conceptualism did-New York conceptualism to be exact.[5] Whether moving towards or away from the object; the point is that, in conceptualism, the materiality of the object of art was in question, or at least it was the subject of reflection. Yet, if this is to be contested, what can be said about Conceptualism is that its subject was the idea as the object of art.[6]

With new media we experience works that are not materialized in the conventional sense to which conceptualism reacted. This is in part because new media works are easily reproducible. What is unique about new media art is that it did not face what other mediums had faced in the past to be legitimated. Issues of originality and purposiveness were previously dealt with by other media such as photography and most importantly Film. In fact, new media was understood so quickly as a vehicle for efficient dissemination that it swiftly moved to affect previously existing media. New media is considered to have pronounced major reciprocal effects, especially in Cinema. As Lev Manovich explains:

Computer media redefine the very identity of cinema. In a symposium that took place in Hollywood in the spring of 1996, one of the participants provocatively referred to movies as "flatties" and to human actors as "organics" and "soft-fuzzies." As these terms accurately suggest, what used to be cinema's defining characteristics are now just default options, with many other available.[7]

Here we notice how new media's language comes to redefine how previous media is negotiated creatively. And so, it can be stated that new media art rides on the histories of previous media thus functioning allegorically. It uses the language of film and photography--not to mention painting to create works that take on different forms according to specific contexts, and the viewers accept such work because the codes at play are already common knowledge. The power of such language allows for the actual object to disappear and eventually lets information take over.

It is important to note that there is no physical object of art with many new media projects--especially Internet art. Of course we can say that we have moved on to the actual discourse and its form as information becoming the object, but when this shift happens the criticism also shifts. We can consider the role of an electronic mailing list such as Empyre in relation to intellectual capital and its new power position within the gift economy as an example where discourse becomes the object of contemplation.[8] Their description reads:

Empyre facilitates critical perspectives on contemporary cross-disciplinary issues, practices and events in networked media by inviting guests-key new media artists, curators, theorists, producers and others to participate in thematic discussions.[9]

In such a list, discourse is always incomplete, ongoing (as the list moves from discussions from month to month), and full of slippages due to the immediacy of e-mail correspondences. Yet, those who participate in such lists have intellectual Capital that can be spent online to further their network connections. The lists depends on the academic institution to make it possible for those with the knowledge and the time to write, to participate in an activity where no actual pay is expected. This is important to consider in relation to early paradigms of conceptualism, which aimed to problematize institutionalization and academization of art discourse in the art institution.

What actually happens with this shift from object to information is that the artist --in particular the new media artist--can develop work using a materialist approach following the parameters of conceptualism while not worrying about an object and this may be why some people confuse new media practice following a materialist analysis with Conceptualism as understood with the likes of Michael Asher or (to show the complexity of Conceptual art) Adriane Piper. However, the basic criticism that made conceptualism a specific movement of resistance is no longer there; meaning, the object of art is no longer expected to be present, or critiqued in order to call something art, in the realm of new media. This type of criticism itself has become institutionalized, becoming part of what today is called "Institutional Critique." This does not mean that there is no such thing as a conceptual online practice that of critiquing the object or the institution, only that the criticism of such practice is quite different because the object of art is information (data) that can be presented in various forms.

So, the object of art (of new media) is metadata/data. Materialization of information (however this may be) is an after effect of power relations ending in careful distribution through diverse forms--for the information can be reconfigured to meet the demand of a locality according to a global market. This is the object of contemplation in new media practice and this is where artists who have made works of note in such a field have focused. And here we can find renewed forms of resistance, and new forms of criticism.

To further complicate this, the new media artwork is not easily labeled as just "art"; much of it crosses over to activism, hacktivism, and pervasive media. Without going into detailed definitions of these terms, it should be pointed out that they are all activities that actually influence the political spectrum around the world. It would appear then that the lines between art for a selective audience and mass media start to blur in New Media Art practice. And this is the model that carries the conceptual trace. The reason being that in new media, and online practice because there is no actual object, the focus is by default on the idea. This is the major difference in the aesthetics at play; meaning that the type of resistance expected of a New York conceptual avant-garde practice is not expected of online practice. This does not mean that some artists are not critical following the tradition of previous conceptualists, it just means that such practice is actually a specific choice. The model for new media practice is dependent on ideas not forms, and this is particular to new media, just like objecthood is for painting and sculpture in the fine arts.

1 MTAA, http://turbulence.org/Works/1year/ See Review:
2 Alexander Alberro , "Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977," Conceptual Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press, 1999), xvi-xxxvii.
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism
4 The pros and cons are reviewed by Thierry De Duve, see Thierry De Duve, "Contra Duchamp," Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1998), 454-462.
5 Joseph Kosuth, "Intentions," Conceptual Art: a Critical Anthology, 460-469.
6 Sol Le Witt, "Sentences on Conceptual Art," Conceptual Art..., 12-17.
7 Lev Manovich, "Digital Cinema and the History of a Moving Image," The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: 2000), 293.
8 Empyre, http://www.subtle.net/empyre/
9 Ibid.


Contributions/Questions: editor@netartreview.net