The Disappearance of the Art Object

Horit Herman Peled
Delivered at ISEA98, Liverpool.

In 1917, a machine-made object, a urinal to be precise, was placed in a gallery in New York (Duchamp). At that point, the objects coined "ready-mades" surfaced in the art arena and stretched the borders of the plastic art field to include, in the words of Thierry de Duve, "the Whatever". However, the full significance of this gesture could not be appreciated by the art world, and by its intellectual discourse, until the last third of the 20th century.

The ready-mades appeared at an historical junction around World War I, a time in which western civilization was challenged by industrialization. Yet, the major players of that era had neither the capabilities, nor the vision, nor the will to grasp the new realities and ease the transition from the known to the unknown, new era. The result of that shortsightedness was the first total war ever. However, folded in the loss and destruction caused by that war were the blueprints for the new social, economic, and cultural arrangements of the 20th century. In the art field, the ready-mades were the germ of future developments that would come to fruition only towards the end of the century.

A ready-made is a machine-made object, produced by a technological apparatus characterized by its reproductive capabilities. The ready-made as an art object is a multi-signifier of all facets of industrialization. The acceptance of the ready-made as high art by the art world constituted a contradiction in terms of the realm of liberal idealism which houses the art market. While modern art objects embody the spirit of the individualistic artist, by merging her subjectivity into the object, a machine-made object cannot embody any creative spirit, only the sweat and blood of the alienated industrial workers who produced it. Why, then, was a machine-made object accepted as an art object, equal to any piece of subjective art, at the peak of the individualist liberal era?

This acceptance becomes understandable if we realize that, in the production of ready-made art, the machine is not a tool functioning as an extension of, or in collaboration with, human creativity. It is, rather, a substitute for the artist. In other words, industrialization necessitated new accommodations and new definitions of high art. The ready-made signified a transition to an industrial capitalist order, camouflaging the contradictions within the liberal ideology of individual freedom. The appropriation of craft skills from the worker-artisan and their incorporation into the machine, required a new language and new concepts for the expanding art field as well. Like all other spheres of social life, the art world too had to adjust to the phenomenon of technological hybridization. The reproductive capabilities of the machine severed, according to Walter Benjamin, the grounding of the artwork in both place and time, in short, in the particular tradition from which it had drawn its quality of authenticity. The art field responded to this challenge by seeking to endow the art object with the aura of uniqueness and authenticity through the very act of placing it in a museum or a gallery. This represented the final step in the process of the commodification of art.

By appropriating an industrial product made by alienated labor into the art field, Duchamp, in effect, emptied the art object of its unique content as a product of non-alienated labor and thus as a signifier of the possibility of human emancipation.
This act demonstrated that in the industrial era the aura of the art object no longer had anything to do with its intrinsic qualities, but rather with the very fact of its placement in the art field, that is, with its subsumption under the logic of the art market. Thus, all that was left of the subjective, individualist art object celebrated by modernity, were auratic shapes of commercial value that fill the physical spaces of galleries and museums and mirror endless outward and inward transactions of predictable cultural codes.

Inscribing dominant western cultural codes into an art object produces a unique commodity with speculative exchange value. While the visual representations etched onto the object grant it its artistic integrity, these representations are held captive by the art object's definition as a commodity, floating in as Marcuse would say -Of a market that is ready to accommodate and commodity the whatever.

If these are the circumstances of the art world, could there be an alternative, or oppositional, trajectory that could redirect artistic creativity and emancipate it from the commodified confinement of the commercial culture market? Do the digital media provide a new dimension in facilitating a paradigm for the autonomy of the art world from the commercial market? Or do they do precisely the opposite?

Considering these questions may lead to the cautiously optimistic conclusion that the digital revolution does contain a potential for recapturing the emancipatory thrust of artistic creation. I want to discuss these considerations through three analytic categories: hybridization, globalization, and the responsible subject

1. Hybridization
Hybridization, or the symbiosis between humans and complicated tools, is the paradigm of the digital revolution, which took it a giant step forward, as compared with the industrial revolution before it.

Digital hybridization has two faces:

(1) Alienation --- the result of the exploitation of workers and consumers by the industrial capitalist apparatus. As Theodore Adorno argued, "a technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."
The subjugation of nature means domination of human beings through the use of technology in the context of capitalist culture. The 20th century witnessed the monstrously destructive force of technology during World War II, especially in the Holocaust -- a meticulous factory apparatus for the mass production of death.

(2) A stream of potential for endless human creativity, that has become available, in an unprecedented way, to the end users of digital products.
The dialectic between human oppression signified by alienation and the liberating promise signified by technological creativity may open a window for an alternative, oppositional art making. In the Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway sketches the conditions for the potential liberation that could result from hybridization and views it from the standpoint of the cyborg:
" It is (the cyborg.) oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.
No longer structured by the polarity of public and private,
the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household.
Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world."
The matrix of cyberspace holds the potential for new dimensions of time and space, where access is abundant. Consequently, everyone is welcome to dwell inside, under the condition of their free choice to metamorphose into cyborgs. This optimistic assertion, however, must be qualified, in view of the fact that the technology that is the crucial element of the cyborg signifies alienation and exploitation. Moreover, cyberspace is an exclusive club, open mostly for the inhabitants of the first world.

The other element of the cyborg is the human side. The human embodies prospects for contradicting the technological, alienating aspect of the cyborg by exposing and negating the oppressive aspect of its existence. Moreover, existing digital technology can be utilized to draw awareness to the destructive forces technology produces in capitalist culture.

Metaphorically speaking, a cyborg existence is equivalent to the body - mind dichotomy, where mind is the human side of the cyborg and technology stands for its body. The human side is the conscience, which can tame the bodily side and bring it to a more humanistic comprehension and behavior by exposing and negating the alienating moment which technology represents.

Cyberspace hybridization enfolds the behavioral principles of the material world yet it is blind to the physical, bodily dimension of human existence. Cyborg identity is made up of sensual and intellectual expressions rendered by means of pictorial visuals, text and sound , the expressive media of the artist. A cyber artwork is free of the limiting and defining qualities of time and space, much more so than the traditional machine-made objects. Thus, a cyber artwork collapses the standard definition of the artwork. Because a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a video, a movie or even an installation are intact objects, whereas artworks in Cyberspace are interactive, streaming, and constantly metamorphosing. Still, they do share with traditional art objects a geometric frame that houses the changeable content.

A cyber artwork that exists on the net is framed with text and visual signifiers/icons representing the software hosts. Thus each virtual work is composed of two layers of signifiers: one representing the tools of production, and, indeed, their manufacturer; the other expressing visually the creative impulse of the artist. The second layer of signifiers corresponds to the artworks we find in the traditional spaces of the museum and galleries. The first layer, that bears the imprint of those who made the artwork physically possible, corresponds to the lists of patrons we find in museum catalogs and on their administrative rosters. However, while traditional patrons of the art are acknowledged only outside the frames of the art objects themselves, representations of the owners of the digital means of production are etched onto the artwork in a vivid and clear way. Moreover, unlike the traditional patrons of the arts, the new patrons are ignorant of the specific authors and producers. Their patronage is universal for all who choose, and can afford, to dwell in Cyberspace. It forms an inseparable, interdependent context for the changeable content of the creative work.

2. Globalization
Cyberculture roams on the elusive space of the digital means of production, a whole new culture is energized by electricity. The culture starts with turning on the plug, and there is no culture when the plug is turned off. No doubt a possibility for a new culture. New social and economic relationships are awaiting, and we are barley scratching the surface. Yet the new space is not empty, nor is it a void or a vacuum. With its inauguration, reproductive behavioral modes entered and filled the endless electronic space. At the same time the prospects for a new frontier, a promised land, extend our imagination and our romantic beliefs in the goodness of humanity. Taking Cyberspace as a resort location, humanity can graze in harmony. Pierre Levy, in his article "Toward Superlanguage," argues that cyberculture could lead to collective intelligence
where "we will invent techniques, systems of signs,
social forms of organization and of regulation permitting us to think together, to concentrate our intellectual and mental power,
to multiply our imaginations and our experiences."
The artist and thinker Roy Ascott built a cyberutopia with his telematics constructs, proposing a model for merging technology and intuition.

"In this technoetic culture, the art we produce is not simply a mirror of the world, nor is it an alibi for past events or present intensities. Engaging constructively with the technological environment, it sets creativity in motion, within the frame of indeterminacy, building new ideas, new forms, and new experience from the bottom up, with the artist relinquishing total control while fully immersed in the evolutive process. The viewer is in this interactively adding to the propositional force that the artwork carries. It is seduction in semantic space: ... an invitation to share in the consciousness of a new millennium, the triumphant seduction of technology by art, not the seduction of the artist by technology".

These few examples point to a prominent school of though in relation to cyberculture. Indeed, the digital tools are inspirational and one has to embrace the capabilities and potential of digital developments. Moreover, art works promoting the formation of creative, constructive visions of the future are inspirational for change. However, one must also be aware of the fact that Cyberspace is still just one field of human endeavor, and that it houses reproductions of social and cultural behaviors as much as the other fields.

Cyberspace is a milestone in Globalization -- it is the process of creating a global capitalist market. Globalization relies on digital technology for its consummation. Computer companies that facilitate Cyberspace function not only as its constructors but also as its landlords. They are the dynamic entrepreneurs who set sail for the horizon of forever expanding globalization.

Globalization is all-inclusive. The cliche, "the world is a global village" could be perceived and welcomed only by the members who are the masters of that village. Unfortunately, those who function as the serfs of the village constitute the majority of humankind, about 4/5 of humanity. Globalization redefines the capitalist mode of production in such a way that the manual laborers who assemble computer hardware reside in the third world, "south of the border," while management resides in the first. The consumers of hardware and software also reside mostly in the first world. Those users of the digital media are inducted into an exclusive, worldwide fraternity. The interiors of that fraternity are designed, basically, by one monopolistic conglomerate and the furniture is supplied by adjunct producers. Microsoft dictates to most computer users in the entire world, the styles and ways in which they can function, interact and produce in Cyberspace. Microsoft creates an inter-symbiosis with the computer hardware industry by forcing Microsoft operational systems on each and every PC, building an ever-growing web of digital points or stations between which no border or boundary prevails. By colonizing each point Microsoft is crowning itself as the significant sole monopoly in Cyberspace. Microsoft is thus a signifier for the new world of the 21st century.

But, as I have indicated, the digital industry also sustains the potential for the facilitation of a liberating creative environment. That potential is limited, however, to a distinguished group of world-citizens, while there are two other groups in existence: one that suffers the exploitation and repression of the globalization process and of the digital revolution, and includes the majority of humanity, and another that must compromise its own cultural identity in order to participate in the digital revolution, due to the mere fact that digital technology operates basically in one language only -- English. Thus, Anglo-American ethnocentrism functions as a universal axiom adapted to local arenas.

In spite of all these reservations, digital technology still has an emancipatory potential with respect to the art world. It functions as a means of producing, distributing, and viewing cultural codes, while never turning them into art objects. This disappearance of the art object emancipates the art producers, their production and their viewers from the bondage of the mirrored object situated in the commercial context. Stripping the artistic codes of their material objectivity and reaching the possibility of a state of mind detached from materiality, combined with the digital means of creation, can extricate a stream of free imagination that would melt into endless web arrangements of distribution.

3. The Responsible Subject
The disappearance or metamorphosing of the art object into electronic virtuality retains the signifiers of objective materiality, while shifting artistic production to a new mode, where oppositional work is not restricted by the contemporary narrational code of the art field. Artworks in the net are in a position to utilize globalization as a contradictory context for negating the terror aspects inflicted by the digital revolution. Compromising cultural identity is the price one has to pay for engaging in the process of collapsing the hegemony of the art object, if one does not happen to belong to the English-speaking world.

In the digital world the seen is not only a cultural signifier of abstract ideas, feelings, emotion, etc . It is rather a vast numbers of interactions of identities, values, commands, representations, etc., which appear visually on the screen through the means of changeable light points. The representation is paradoxical, metamorphic and nomadic. The context for the art work in the virtual is postmodern, as the same light points, in different configurations, can embroider an artwork, a commercial visual, an interactive command as a signifier of a tool, a monetary transaction, a legal document, etc. A streaming montage where the visual of an artwork is equal to any other visual, thus shifting the meaning of the digital artwork to a different paradigm. The digital context makes it possible to cut out the middle man, the gallerist or museum curator , and there is a dialog between authors/producers and viewers. And, of course, the monetary exchange value of a work of art seen on the electronic screen aspires to nothing.

All of these factors construct an art field where the merit of art could change from speculative exchange value to cultural use value. A cultural exchange on a non-economic basis can point to a different direction in art making. Moreover, access to a PC enables accessibility to the most advanced technological means of industrial production. Thus, there is a shift in the traditional relationship between the art producers and the social means of production. The artists are no longer only commenting/criticizing or mediating by the anesthetization of the means of production, from an outside and alienating position; they are working with the means of production from within. The artwork no longer represents the social means of production through simulation, but rather uses them directly. Paradoxically, the marriage between the economic digital means of production and the artistic ones produces a possibility for an art field outside the hegemony of the market. This could lead to the collapse of prevailing concepts about art.

To sum up, a meaningful art work on the plane of the digital revolution is a work that points towards the possible fulfillment of the emancipatory potential inherent in this revolution. It is a work that utilizes the advances of technology in order to criticize and subvert the socio-economic and political contexts within which this technology is being created, diffused and controlled. Since the means of digital artistic production are predetermined and controlled by profit-making corporations, indeed by one global conglomerate, to be a responsible citizen of the global village, the artist must seek to express the voice of those who are terrorized into silence by the digital revolution.

As Donna Haraway has argued, in regard to literature, "Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other ///.../// The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture". (haraway, cyborg manifesto)