Monday, December 6, 2010

Art Then Technology (Part 1): I Want To Be A Verb

Fat Bastard (2010), 11’ X 14’ X 14’

My favorite essay by my favorite artist is Robert Smithson’s 1969 Towards The Development of an Air Terminal Site. It’s not a piece that gets a lot of attention from academics or other artists - so part of my affection for it is that I have it somewhat to myself. It is a great, if sprawling, totally confounding, think piece loosely dealing with the intersection of art and technology. In it Smithson proposes looking at the relationship of an air terminal and the aircraft it hangs below in order to “find a whole new sets of values.” The existing set of values attached to high technology of flight he wanted to see past were “a rationalism that supposes truths--such as nature, progress, and speed.” In the same essay he suggest looking at a dam construction site as “an abstract work of art that vanishes as it develops.” Each moment, he suggests, is a “discrete stage” in a series. But Smithson admits that that functionless wall will cease being a work of art when it becomes "a utility." (Incidentally, it is the essay that sparked this blog - in it Smithson also uncannily predicts the faceted aerodynamics of the stealth bomber and the crystalline shapes of the space ships in Star Wars. It is a bad-ass piece of writing.)

Tucked somewhere in the middle of the piece, in a tangled paragraph about language and art criticism, is a phrase that has stuck with me since I read it the first time: “Usage precedes meaning." I am not entirely sure what Smithson meant by that, but it works on me like a jingle I can’t stop whistling. I recently spent a couple of weeks with that curious meme rolling around my head. I was working in Frankfurt Germany on the installation, Fat Bastard, shown above. The piece was built for an exhibition called Abstrakt Abstrakt - The Systemized World, which was curated by two very tech savvy artists, Eno Henze and Marius Watz, for a festival of "generative arts" called NODE10. The term ‘generative’ is usually applied to work that uses computers running algorithmic code; this is Stephen Wolfram territory, the crumbling edge of “new media.” My sculpture is digital only in that I build them using my digits; no computers, no algorithms, just typical primate fingers, with their characteristically flat nails and coupled with human's particular thumb architecture. I also had about 2500 rectangular blocks. While mine were custom cut polystyrene, that is still a combination that has been around for over ten thousand years. As I circled Fat Bastard, piecing it together block by block I enjoyed the piece as a series of "discrete stages," but Smithson’s assertion that “usage precedes meaning" plagued me. I could not imagine anything less useful or more meaningful (to me personally) than what I was doing while I made that piece. As I worked I thought about the relationship between art and technology, and between meaning and usage. I did not think about airports and airplanes, the technologies that were reshaping Robert Smithson’s 1960s America; I thought about new media, the computers and information technologies that are reshaping the world today. But I didn’t do it alone, I had help. I had brought along Kevin Kelly.
Sets of Polystyrene blocks ready to be assembled.

Because I really didn’t want to be the guy reading Human Smoke on a flight to Germany I dropped what I had been reading and picked up Kelly’s new book What Technology Wants. As it turns out, I made a great choice. Kelly has written a manifesto, and I love a good manifesto. Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York is my all time favorite favorite; Koolhaas calls it “a retroactive manifesto for Manhattanism.” Koolhass believes that “the fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack evidence.” Like Koolhaas who sought out a “mountain range of evidence without a manifesto” (Manhattan), Kelly has made an end run around the prescriptive art’s fatal weakness by digging into whole mountain ranges worth of evidence far bigger and deeper than Manhatta. Kelly has written a manifesto about trends he believes began with the big bang. Still he has not written a retroactive manifesto, Kelly projects the trends he sees in the past forward. What are the trends? In a word: Progress. That is Progress with a capital P - the way your dad used to spell it: Technological Progress. We are talking good old fashion Modernist meta-narrative, and one that Kelly believes is inevitable.

I don’t want to give the impression that Kelly is retreading the Jetsons however, his ideas about technology--as something that is older than, and inseparable from, humanity--is more nuanced than what the Modernists put their faith in. Additionally, the future he projects, of all of human creation (which he calls the technium) moving forward in an inevitable progress towards greater complexity and greater beauty, is more grounded and pragmatic than that 20 word summery makes it sound. Still, that is a bold fucking assertion. Progress is an idea that has elicited embarrassed laughter, eye rolling and even foot-stomping fury my entire adult life. The kind of people who worship at the shrine of Robert Smithson (like me) are supposed to dismiss Progress out of hand. I had been raised to believe the intellectual relevancy of Progress was delegitimized by the Vietnam War; was imploded with Pruitt-Igoe; blown up with the Death Star, but here is Kelly telling me that Progress is alive and well like it’s no big thing. That it’s inevitable advance can be charted as a series of s-curves linked together into a diagonal trajectory of exponential change. Right fucking on.

As I worked to glue together polystyrene blocks together one by one I spent a lot of time  watching the work happening around me. I watched the installation of flocking and collapsing algorithmic animations, filmy laser cut parts, servo driven rubber bands and the pandemonium of whirring motors take shape around me, I thought about Progress and what it means to make art in the wake of countless rolling waves of future-shock (I don’t feel alienated - but it is strange to be making art right now - its like spitting into a tsunami). “No longer a noun, technology was becoming a force — a vital spirit that throws us forward” Kelly writes, “Not a thing but a verb.” I think Kelly is right. Andy Warhol was wrong, I don’t want to be a machine; I want to be a verb. I believe that desire, to be a maker for its own sake, to make useless things, to be generative; to make beautiful, meaningful things is much older than humanity. Smithson was wrong as well (it’s surprisingly hard for me to write that), and not just about Progress; usage does not precede meaning, desirableness precedes use. It is a desire that precedes both humanity and technology. Art precedes utility.

I will try and make clear exactly what I mean by that sentence in a series of posts. Like kelly and Koolhaas I will move backwards in time inorder to make my case. (Continue to Part 2.)
Artist as verb (Jeanne Charlotte Vogt)

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