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Art History Shake & Bake
by Sara Diamond
Side by side, twining, overlapping, influencing, borrowing from itself and mass culture - so runs the last one hundred years of Western art history. In turn, remix culture borrows from many movements within late and post-modernism: appropriation, collage, dada, graffiti, mail art, manipulated objects, photo montage, pop art, process art, scratch video - the beat goes on. The 20th Century avant garde understood the image as a representation, not a thing in itself. They sought to undermine its aura and authenticity, and open up its meaning, through shifting its context and interpretation.
Dada and Collage
Appropriation practices in 20th Century art start with modernism's fascination with industrial revolution, with essence and progress. The term "collage" derives from the French coller (to glue), and first appears in the work of Picasso - specifically, Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), wherein he used actual chair cane as well as paint. Collage continued through the Dada movement, spilling into surrealism. Inspired by peeling layers of Parisian street posters, LÈo Malet invented dÈcollage: the removal of images from an existing surface. Collage appears in the work of Braque and Picasso, whose work was in turn iterative of early advertisements. Remix is a form of collage.
Artists moved to society's periphery in the 19th Century, becoming bohemians and cultural critics. Dada was forged in the urban heat of the non-aligned European nations (Zurich, Barcelona, New York, and then Paris, Berlin, Cologne) during WWI, a time of anti-war sentiment and radical politics. Dadaists blamed society's rational forces of technology and science for the deaths of thousands in WWI. Dada's very name - "hobby horse" in French, "yes, yes," in Russian - suggests its anti-rationalist, intuitive, nihilistic, and confrontational and absurdist stance. Artists were encouraged to make a tactical response to social and political forces, to Èpater (spit in the face of) the bourgeoisie. Artists were to be "citizen provocateurs", both as individuals and as a collective force. Cabaret Voltaire created incendiary performances; Jean Arp used chance to derive compositions; Marcel Duchamp (www.marcelduchamp.net) presented the first cyborgs - people melded into machines. Duchamp originated the use of the "found object", or ready-made, remaking the meaning of an existing mundane thing or image through recontextualizing it, sometimes with a mere title. Duchamp posed his work as anti-art, a sentiment later echoed in the anti-aesthetics of the 1970s and 1980s. Again, this practice emerges in post-modernism in photo-texts with appropriated images, and certainly in the remixes of the current century. Dada continues to influence art, especially new media.
Pop Art and Conceptualism
A return to an acute consciousness of the power of everyday objects occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s with pop art. While the Surrealists, Picasso, and Duchamp were all influenced by (yet critical of) the emerging advertising culture of their era, pop artists opened their arms to the overpowering seduction of the commodity, incorporating mass media into their art. These artists were romanced by the remixed image and its voluptuous but chilly references to the excesses and successes of capitalism. An early example is Richard Hamilton's Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing?, exhibited in "This is Tomorrow", a show at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (1956). It is a collage of a house peopled by photographs from advertising pages, and it has become a stable reference for remix even fifty years later.
In the 1970s post-modernism hailed an epochal shift in consciousness: an awareness of the rise of commodity capitalism, corresponding to momentous changes in the economic and social order. In late capitalism, multi-national corporations control the economy and media. In the 1980s, a time of tremendous prosperity, there was also an ironic sense of a loss of control, an incapacity to affect political life, the rise of information. Traditional categories of knowledge eroded and merged, creating a dialogue between semiotics, feminism, sociology, cultural theory and criticism. Art developed its own refined discourse. Image making became self-conscious, not intuitive, and existing images provided a rich territory for remaking. In the last decades of the 20th Century, the aesthetic preference for mixture, hybridity, and post-colonial difference is evident.
Some of the first moves towards post-modernism took place with the emergence of conceptual art. This movement made the idea, and then the process, the dominant force rather than the object itself. Conceptual art resisted the commercialization of the art object, and instead embraced language. Conceptualists used theoretical approaches such as linguistics and feminism to differentiate themselves from "beauty as expression", and instead considered the ways in which images operate. They shifted attention to the viewer's understanding (or lack of understanding) of the image. Conceptualism harked back to the "readymades" (found objects given modified meanings through the addition of new inscriptions or contexts of presentation) of Duchamp, with a strong interest in the documentation of everyday life - again making the artist an intervener. Hans Haacke, a true precursor of tactical media and the remix, conducted polls of museum-goers to ask their opinion about the Vietnam War. Haacke's own readymades were politically charged. He changed the texts on advertisements, creating large public billboards that denounced corporate holdings in South Africa, and linked the global activities of certain companies with war. In 1975, the Guggenheim cancelled a planned show of his that was intended to reveal ownership patterns in New York City real estate.
Mail Art and Mimicry
The mail art movement - which kicked off as part of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, but quickly became an international force - involved the exchange of original mail art works (post cards, letters, notes), reworked mailed objects, and next versions (ie, remixes) of works by participating artists. These exchanges continued into early Internet and fax art exchanges, wherein artists remade works and circulated them in elaborate trades organized by the Western Front, Electronic CafÈ International (www.ecafe.com), and others - often as part of real time performances.
Other influences on remix include graffiti, which moved episodically into the gallery and then back onto the street. Process began to overcome product, with art-making (including its time of creation, residue of evidence, and temporal endurance) becoming a factor within the artwork itself. Performance re-emerged as a force majeure - an echo to be heard in remix culture in the 2000s. As art moves back into clubs and events, DJ/VJ sets promote the means as much as (if not more than) the end.
At the core of remix culture are antecedents in appropriation art practice. Contemporary artists often remake well known work by artists of the past, shifting meaning by shifting context, as Duchamp did with the Mona Lisa. (See http://www.studiolo.org/Mona/MONASV12.htm) In contemporary practice the image is redrawn, repainted, rephotographed (even animated). This is a discussion and critique of modernism's desire for essence and authenticity, and refers back not only to Dada but also to Warhol's soup cans. Warhol was, of course, the consummate appropriation artist. Artists in the 1970s and 1980s began to appropriate pre-existing imagery from one context (usually art history, advertising, or the media) and combine these images with new ones, creating new expressions. Practitioners included the Russian artists Komar and Melamid, and Igor Kopianski; Jeff Koons, David Salle, and Canadian Peter Schuyff; and many others. Sherrie Levine rephotographed Westin's nudes of his son, commenting on desire, representation and masculinity in the process. She remade Mondrian's watercolours in order to address the exclusion of women from the Modernist canon. One sees the direct lineage of the reaymade within this practice.
In photography, Joan Fontcuberta (Spain) used the archive as a source, manipulating photographic imagery to shift readings, as did Susan Hiller (UK). Photographs were embellished or assaulted. Meanwhile, the video art of the 1980s introduced a hyperconsciousness about imagery through the replaying and remaking of television - its mimicry and appropriation. Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, John Greyson, Martha Rosler, and Paul Wong all worked with echoes of television. In the UK and Japan, young artists built video jams with split-second imagery that was both constructed and borrowed. This "scratch" video technique was a precedent for today's DJ scratching of music mixes.
Appropriation is an intensely politicized term. In the 1990s it evoked ideas about cultural appropriation or theft from indigenous and other cultures by dominant cultures - a notion in sharp contrast to the cultural hybridity that characterizes a lot of present remix practice. Lyle Ashton Harris, Edward Poitras, Coco Fusco, Guillermo GÛmez-PeÒa, Richard Fung, and Shu Lea Cheang all have remixed their own cultural knowledge with popular culture's iconography.
Collaborative Practice and Collective Authorship
Art history describes many of these moves as the acts of individual artists. In truth, they often mark a collaborative or collective practice. But the idea that creativity, prescience, vision, or aura can reside with the group grates against the heroic tendencies of visual art. Design by committee seems to be feared by an art world where market value is placed on individual achievement. These notions are fundamental to the post-war American understanding of the artist and avant-garde. The movements of the 1930s (such as surrealism) may have had leaders (specifically Andre Breton, and John Heartfield before him), but operated as cohesive collectives with shared aesthetics, methodologies and projects. Even more so, collaboration has been key in media art from the Futurists through to General Idea, through to the video collectives of the last century.
However, collective praxis in new media art is different from that of its antecedents in these video collectives (though there are some links in terms of volition and structures). The new media of present day has brought about the neo-Anarchist formations of the tactical media movement - such as Kingdom of Piracy (http://bigboy.spc.org/kop/(link no longer active)), and corporations such AEtMark (www.rtmark.com) and Future Farmers (www.futurefarmers.com).
The new media space is one that combines collective authorship, an intensified elision of the traditional curator/artist/critic/audience division of labour, and exhibition spaces. It is a space wherein the process of the work, its emergence and its making, can be intentionally and incidentally more interesting than the trace of a finished work. Artists seem to have adjusted to some extent to this potential shift - perhaps because they use technologies, and live day to day with their inherent values. We can see the strong tradition of artists themselves insisting on discourse and peer-level dialogue to establish the value and context of their work, as opposed to the curator affixing value and meaning. For example, Backspace (www.backspace.org), a physical and on-line presence in the UK, provided a space for this kind of collaboration and intervention.
New media is filled with teams and collaborations, as the skill set needed to create effective work often requires the contributions of many. The problem of collective authorship does not end here, however. Technology-dependent creativity tends to require intensive collaboration between individuals and practices. Artists often share their creative space with scientists, engineers, and technologists. "Collaboration" and "interdisciplinarity" are emerging as trendy catch phrases, especially at the institutional level, but collaboration remains a challenge for traditional institutions to support.
The relationship to collective production opens a different space for the audience; a space enabled by - but beyond - the everyday use of peer-to-peer technologies. Some artists invite the audience in to remix their originals, and are eager to see their work mutate. Reception theory (an approach to literature that concerns itself primarily with the reader's actualization of the text) suggests that the audience's relationship to new media can be highly performative. In installation work, some viewers assume the role of performer/actor themselves, while others are spectators - much like audience/player roles in arcades.
Cumulative or generative works not only engage individuals - they engage entire communities who can write themselves into a media existence via artworks on the Internet. For example, in Subtract the Sky (a work by Sharon Daniels, Mark Bartlett and Raja Guhatkakurta; see http://www.subtractthesky.org/description.html), audiences create personal maps that function as diaries. They accomplish this by using fragments of scientific data from Hawaii's Keck Observatory as drawing materials, as well as other cartographic materials, such as genome or GIS (Global Information System) data, or Hawaiian indigenous mapping symbols. Once completed, each self-portrait is filed alongside many others, constituting a collective portrait of all the visitors to the piece.
In yet another example of a cumulative and generative work, Patrick Clancy's The Writing Machine (www.patrickclancy.org) uses weather pattern data from various locales as a means of writing semi-automatic poetry. Personal stories and histories are contributed by visitors to his Web site. These submissions are then reshuffled and rewritten by the Writing Machine's program in patterns dictated by recorded atmospheric changes, resulting in layers of cut-up text.
Inventing Open Source
Over the past fifteen years, new media artists have been inventing tools. Artists invent for several reasons: either to critique existing technologies, or to make a gadget to run their show, or to genuinely create something new at the source. Sher Doruff's team at the Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam created KeyStroke (www.keyworx.org), a tool designed to enable artistic exchange in a shared collaborative environment. (It allows numerous artists to work together in real time online in a digital audio, graphic and textual jam session while audiences watch via their computer screens.) And in Pagan Poetry, a reactive video and graphics work by InsertSilence and Bjork, the player redraws already-luscious animations of strange machines and bodies by stroking the screen while reveling in the music. InsertSilence are as proud of their code as they are of their visible content. This artistic practice has resonance in the world of software design. Some software architects have always considered themselves to be artists or writers.
The open source movement was built on the history of the free software movement. The latter believed that software was a fundamental resource and should be freely available, not owned. The open source movement is a less radical version of this: it believes that collective minds are necessary in the development of tools and complex systems. Progammer-collaborators co-own the software they develop. Versions must be credited and, if commercialized, paid out down the line. Arts organizations such as V2 or C3 all hold to the open source credo, and most artists who develop software choose to open source it. Some few, such as the UK's Simon Pope, have pointed out that open source is a very masculine culture where competition for the best code drives production, and where collaboration is actually less present than might be imagined. Still, the culture of programming increasingly demands collaboration.
This recent history of new media art layered on top of the art historical appropriations of the past creates the framework for REMIX. Slowly, the appropriator, the collaborator and the remixer have become the source of the image, and its auteur - much as happened with Duchamp's readymades.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.