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16 October 2012
Systems aesthetics, or how to be critical with/through art

Adrián Hiebra

Burnham conceives art, says Skrebowski- as a relation of relations that, despite the evident similarities, as Cristina Albu so rightly reflects, goes way beyond the construct with which Bourriaud –making use of the succulent term relational aesthetics – undertakes the (partial) description of an essential change in artistic praxis. The initial idea, in both cases, is that a shift has occurred, “from an object-oriented culture to a systems oriented culture” (an approach that has germinated the contemporary transformation, described by Brea, from the ROM culture – of storage – to the RAM culture – of processing), however, it seems unfeasible to equate the undisguised reduction of the institutional context, that Bourriaud unequivocally favours, to Burnham’s desire to take the exploration of “the conceptual limits of the system” to its final consequences –to a pure exercise of immanent self-criticism.

It is interesting Luke Skrebowski’s idea to recuperate, overcoming its ambiguity, Burnham’s system aesthetics as an explanatory principle of conceptualism or, to be more precise, and to cite him textually, as a “methodological framework for considering post-formalist art as a whole”. Proposed in these terms, his theory facilitates an analysis of the roles of language and the structures of digital communication in the redefinition of the artistic context, in relation to the emergence of new modes of creation and distribution of knowledge.

Systems aesthetics refutes the need for the material concretion of artistic creation as much as its autonomy, presupposing the explicit renunciation of its commodification and the consummation of the old avant-garde dream to dissolve art into life. All this is in tune with the contemporary proposals of Fluxus and, in particular, with Beuys’ idea of social sculpture, a concept still in force, as evidenced by the current re-vindication of art as techné -knowledge oriented towards action- i.e., the verification that the artist can intervene directly in the construction (programming) of reality (hardware and software, both literally and figuratively) and that the artist’s working space extends way beyond the ambit of mere representation and its institutional context.

In general terms, when we take a closer look at the consequences of these types of proposals as much as the metamorphosis experienced by the system in its process of adaptation to a scenario of communication dominated – at least from a theoretical point of view – by the distributed digital networks, we tend to place a special emphasis on aspects that don’t substantially alter the nature of the art object. We talk, in the main, of synchronic or diachronic collective creative processes, in line on the whole with poststructuralist criticism of notions of authorship and originality, so clearly exemplified by Rosalind Krauss; in parallel, we emphasise the forms of distribution of contents inherent within the digital logic –by which every operation of reproduction entails one of duplication, if one has to distinguish between the two terms- that neutralise any attempt to discriminate between matrix and replica.

Consequently, it would be convenient to go deeper into those projects that endeavour to blurr the boundaries that delimit the object (concept) of artistic creation, those that work with, not in – new media, spaces and tools, emphasising, in accord with this rereading of Burnham’s aesthetic, the role of the artist as architect (artifex) of the real.

I’m thinking, for example, of nzmbe – grotesque position, a project – presented by Miguel Prado, at the beginning of 2012, on the micro-financing site Verkami, with two objectives: an explicit one –to round up 1.300€ to produce a vinyl record, “an experimental album, with a lo-fi spirit”– and another implicit one –to reflect upon authorship, intellectual property and the way crowd-funding platforms function– with the particularity that the failure as much as the success of the first would contribute, from one perspective or another, to the appropriate securing of the second.

This proposal established a system of rewards that introduced important incentives for more substantial contributions: in exchange for 700€, Prado would cede the copyright of the record to the sponsor, registering it in the sponsor’s name; taking it one step further, if anyone was willing to donate 1.300€ this would secure the destruction of all the fabricated LP units, so that the rest of the contributors, instead of the rewards designated for their respective donations, which would be returned forthwith, would receive envelopes full of vinyl dust.

From these two basic axes, the binomials (un)production-destruction and artist-patron, the project expanded in multiple directions, in such a way that each one of its variables introduced different itineraries that, together, configured a critical discourse around the structures of artistic production/distribution. In the event for example of the initial fundraising initiative failing, as finally happened, it would place in evidence the importance of authorship – understood as a brand – when obtaining funding (public or private: “if it was Santiago Sierra any art centre would pay this amount”); on the contrary, in the highly improbable eventuality of economic success, a process of hyperfiction construction would be activated –to which Prado expressly alluded– that would reproduce the general conditions of the project, a sort of conceptual matrioska, in which each agent accepted to participate acknowledging the possibility of seeing this contribution gobbled up by the contribution of a higher sum. However, the idea prevails, in one circumstance as much as in the other, that the recuperation of micro-sponsorship obeys a capitalist logic, the commodification of the creation of culture, that nzʉmbe – grotesque position would reject by using the structure and mechanisms of Verkami –and by extension the web itself– not to produce and distribute under the conditions and forms prescribed by the institution or the market, but to subvert these through their transformation, so that they no longer operate as a means for transmitting the object (physical or conceptual) to become the work–system itself.

Simultaneously, Prado’s predisposition to delegate the possible materialisation of the first of the two levels of the project, fully recursive, we point out: a work is conceived in accord with the creative process of another, like his own authorship (playing, it ends up being obvious, with the inalienability –pro-commerciality?– of such a notion) seeming to return us to the origins of conceptual art, to take to its final consequences the famous declaration of intent by Lawrence Weiner (1968): 1. The artist may construct the piece. / 2. The piece may be fabricated. / 3. The piece need not be built. / Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership. With the addition that nzʉmbe – grotesque position is configured as a system of non-fictional and minimally regulated relations that transcend the specificity of the artistic.

Many projects have gone deeper into these aspects from different coordinates. One of them is Ten Thousand Cents, by Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima, that involved the contracting of thousands of people from across the world to draw, collectively and unconsciously, a one hundred dollar bill. The action was possible thanks to Mechanical Turk, the platform of Amazon that makes it possible to recruit volunteers to carry out mechanical tasks in exchange, in general, for scant economic compensation; the banknote in question was divided into ten thousand small parts, so that by assigning the participants a centime for each fragment drawn, the total cost of its reproduction corresponded to its actual value: the aforementioned one hundred dollars.

Beyond the exhibition of the final result of the piece in Ars Electronica 2008 and its commercialization, for charitable causes, in an edition of ten thousand prints (at one hundred dollars per print…an ironic wink at the speculative nature of the art market), what is interesting is its capacity to reflect upon a system not through its representation and the subsequent discourse, but through its effective manipulation. Making use of the Mechanical Turk –in what still constitutes an act of over-identification– Koblin and Kawashima found a way of tacitly formulating questions about; the use of the philosophy of open source crowd-funding platforms, the latter’s complicity with the abusive practices of the companies that contract their services or the conversion of citizens into consumers and, finally, of consumerism as a mode of production.

The approach of Ten Thousand Cents penetrates the technological opacity that Vicente Luis Mora talks about when referring to this double tendency in our time to “see more and not see anything”. If, independently of the possible ideological bias, the definition of the architecture of a technological application always brings with it a political declaration –in the sense that it specifies conditions of access and possibilities for use that are not always explicit– its utilization, as such alteration, can also do so; if Mechanical Turk hides the productive structures intrinsic to the socioeconomic paradigm, the work of Koblin and Kawashima serves to highlight them. Recursion once again –the structure of the system determined by its very execution– to transcend the iconic logic of the image and to generate a real economic process, or what is the same, to transform technical programming into social programming.

Obviously this last idea has been developed much further in initiatives like The Biljmer Euro, instigated by Christian Nold, that generated since 2009 its own currency for a district in the South-East of Amsterdam, by sticking RFID-tags to conventional euro banknotes, that -recycled- comply with the double objective of differentiating them and monitoring the transactions in which they are employed, in an endeavour to quantify the impact of the new currency in the local commerce and connections, clearly a positive one, let it be said in passing. The Biljmer Euro operates as a system and as a model, with the ultimate aim of having an international network of regional and interconnected monetary infrastructures, adopting and spreading the functioning of P2P networks so that critical reflection be the consequence, not the cause, of the action, not the representation.

The same concept prevails, in perhaps a more obvious manner, in the displacement of the object of the action towards the very structures of communication. Does not by chance constitute an intervention of this very nature? It is not by chance that its proposition to establish an “open, free and neutral telecommunication network” determined, already in 1999, the appearance of INSULAR, the decentralized radio network, for the transmission of voice and data, proposed by Marko Peljhan. It becomes evident that the triad work-distribution-preservation –that even today seems to monopolize the debate surrounding new media, on an institutional level– becomes obsolete when the work is constituted as an autonomous and autopoietic system.

However, it is possible to capitalize on this friction between the self-referencing of the institution-Art and the programming of exogenous structures for the creation and distribution of significant production. This is precisely what is achieved by etoy.CORPORATION, an artistic collective, subversive in character, known for its confrontation with the multinational eToys during the nineties and far-reaching, more than for the latter, for the implications of its self-definition as corporate sculpture.

Etoy mimics how capitalist corporations function, presenting itself as a business structure that proposes, as opposed to the (gallery) object based logic, of exhibition and commercialisation, an alternative model of distribution and remuneration, consisting in abandoning the sale of art in favour of the sale and revaluing of participations in its own brand (etoy.SHARES), with the aim of sharing the retro-alimentation of its productive apparatus, dedicated to projects of not economic but social and cultural profitability.

This correspondence between discourse and structure generates a fertile conceptual ambiguity. Do etoy.TANKS, for example, as mobile research platforms, act as icons for the contemporary economy or symbolize the disruptive capacity of artistic creation understood as the generation of temporarily autonomous zones? Does the model of shareholding, for its part, allude to the distributed networks of management or financial speculation? Does it criticise the notion of authorship or refer to the impossibility of determining responsibility in large financial conglomerates? The bulk of the project constitutes another (sharp) example of over-identification, how it does it is very evident, with etoy.HOLOGRAM: a holographic certificate that guarantees the authenticity …of the fiction.

In a paradoxical way by introducing the fictional territory –not as a space so much as an instrument and object of reflection, in the most pure style and along the lines of a long-lived meta-pictorial tradition– we can recuperate the idea of the artistic creation as a metasystem, carrying its self-critical function to the questioning of its hermetic autonomy and the material and conceptual conditions under which it functions as a relational structure. Or, in other words, art- returning to Burnham- as the (recursive) processing of information.

Adrián Hiebra


16 October 2012

Systems aesthetics, or how to be critical with/through art

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