Thirteen ways of attending an electronic art symposium

Nicholas Gebhardt in Montreal for ISEA 95 (for Wallace Stevens)

one: Let’s rehearse the electronic order of things: within cyberspace, which is both a new frontier and a new mode of existence (or perhaps, in the way of fascists, somewhere to get it right once and for all) and an economically driven zone of deregulated cultural action; a range of translucent or even transgressive identities struggle to shape the future of art and life: a revolution of sorts. Now where’s the thought in that…?

two: In a city devoted to malls of every kind, interconnecting tunnels, subterranean relationships, there was something inevitable about the primacy of the net. Of course we knew what we were looking for: a large seventies tower in suicide brown where the less important sessions (artists describing their work) drifted towards the top while what went on below sounded like a Baptist revival meeting.

three: The concept of electronic art is bound to various assumptions about the artistic field. There is the language of revolution, the heightened expectation of death and transfiguration: post-humans, post-politics; expanding networks and shifting morphologies; the utter belief in communication as the essence of life; and the shift to non-linear systems.

four: Metaphors curl and splice, gathering into themselves the metaphysical changes that might occur, setting up a series of other worlds, nether worlds, off-worlds; meanwhile great chunks of reality are sliced off, segued over, turfed out, by an endless cycle of endless science fiction fantasies in which artists get to make it all glow and gloom and flow.

five: Thought is replaced by the power of the market, by hyperbole. And the full range of accepted analytical categories—class, race, gender, ethnicity—are flung and plastered and floated through everything as though to merely use them is to guarantee one’s radical credentials as an artist, as a thinker…

six: And this by way of avoiding the question of art altogether, assuming that the components of the image are secondary or even irrelevant; that the frame is simply a window onto another world; that the connections to painting, to sculpture, to music are like that of a Mercedes to a model T Ford…As though abstract art or conceptual art, minimalist art or even cinema had never engaged with the critical potentiality of aesthetic practice.

seven: What becomes apparent is that the thinking surrounding electronic art assumes its own structural presuppositions (in the sense of networks, codes, instantaneity, simultaneity, synchronicity, etc.) as the universal model for all communication, and therefore, for all of life.
eight: There is a fundamental conservatism embedded within the ideology of interaction, of screen-based processes, of immersive environments: the demand for feedback (from our machines, from our lives); the primacy of exchange; and the kinds of lives that come to be lived in the very process of embracing this model of sociality, that eventuate from an aesthetics that all too readily pre-empts its own systematic transcendence.

nine: After a keynote address by the performance artists Arthur & Marielouise Kroker that oozed ethereal metaphors, empty signifiers, and bad puns to sustain its apocalyptic fervour, an audience member was heard to say, “It’s the Protestant ministry all over again. Fear of the flesh, end of the world, redemption, all that kind of hocus pocus…Where’s the thought in that?”

ten: I kept returning to the idea that “…no aesthetic or artistic practice, for fundamental reasons that derive from the determination of the very essence of art, can declare itself politically innocent.” In a city where the question of national identity was peeling back the layers of post-war hegemony, where the economic influence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) continues to reverberate across the political landscape, the very question of politics was subsumed, suppressed, by an overwhelming sense of determinism, by the laws of technology and of the market.

eleven: What was ignored except for a couple of isolated, and therefore, exceptional, commentaries, was a complex analysis of the modern state and modern corporate forms. In this context, we realise the degree to which the image of art as a screen-based phenomenon replicates the very structures of multinational and military-industrial distribution and production it sets out to oppose.

twelve: As paper after paper proclaimed the power of technology to change lives, to reconstitute the globe as a massive web of interconnected subjectivities, you begin to wonder, how is the artist/thinker to resist the ideological imperatives of networks and codes, of informatics, of a naive futurism, of technological determinism? What are we to call art in a world where the difference between a ride and a revolution seems to be in the type of operating system used?

I do not know which to prefer
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, from Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 18

© Nicholas Gebhardt; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 December 1995