Collection of the Artist
originally published in 'Beyond Ethics and Aesthetics', Ine Gevers and Jeanne van Heeswijk ed.
publisher SUN Nijmegen, isbn 90 6168 493 5
The Museum as Public Domain
The relevance of a public, 'museified' (and 'museifying') space for the art objecta special setting created for the reception of the art work (in a room in a museum, gallery or public space) that generates the optimal meaning for the workis a largely uncontested value in the debate about the status of the art object. The need for a space where interaction with the art object can take place with the public is never doubtedneither in criticism of art's 'splendid isolation', nor in exonerating discussions about the relationship between object, location and institution. Opinions on the spatial and ideological 'context' of the art work generally refer to cultural heritage that is publicly accessible, and little or no attention is paid to non-public places for the art work. Criticism of art institutions on the part of the artists themselves has also tended to call for an even greater public role for their work: its place was in the streets or the countryside, away from the domineering surroundings of the authoritarian art palace...
Cultural property is generally considered to be for the general goodsometimes as a national asset, coupled with traditional politics, religious or social cultural identity and histories, sometimes as the property of a further unidentified, broader, contemporary 'public'and never as a set of privileged objects. This observation can best be illustrated through the practice of setting rescue missions in motion when 'great' works threaten to 'disappear' into private hands at auction. Private ownership and withdrawal from the public domain are regarded as tantamount to the destruction of the art work, and in a few cases this indeed threatens to be the case. Take for instance the Japanese collector Ryoei Saito, who wanted to take Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet with him to the grave. We should not forget that the art work is in its very origins a private possession. It was part of the 'collection of the artist', andat some point, on a specially selected platform, for an interested and informed public, in its recently acquired formit was usually intended to bear witness to experience, insight and creative ability. Until that moment of being 'made public' the art object remains inaccessible, unknown, unencumbered, more necessity than choice, awaiting its breakthrough to new opportunities, to more sense and more meaning, to becoming recognized by a circle of connoisseursor, its total destruction in the banality of popularization: employed as a museifying sign.
That cultural heritage gains a status that makes it communal property within the cultural context in which it was made is not in itself a strange starting point, as long as it is concerned with objects whose symbolic power and value are, at least partly, derived from and resonate within the culture in which they were produced. As long as they remain in the place where they acquired their meaning and do not end up in the museifying context of another culture as exotic rarities. However, cultures also change, and in doing so set their own inheritance to one side in their own museified 'national' collections: they are accommodated within a selective cultural memory whose influence on reality is sometimes opaque, but which generally supports a dominant epistemology. 'Museality' is public-ity or 'public-ness': 'interring in history', a programmatic act that, despite the idiomatic differences between cultures, nowadays contributes to the construction of a world culture we are perhaps inclined to view as a multicultural landslide, but whose epicentre must be sought in the modern, Western, public museum.
That contemporary production also always seeks out the public domain of the museum, and thereby a cultural consensus, instead of directing its energies towards an environment focusing upon a much narrower set of interests, is at the very least surprising. For the contemporary artist the path to a satisfying response to artistic expression apparently always runs via the same media that lauds the dominant culture as being the only realityeven if this expression formulates a critique of the institutions or market. The modern museum is not only the epicentre of a landslide in which both Western and non-Western cultural idioms have to be sounded as a new world language, but also the crisis centre of a contemporary expression indigenous to modern Western art that is forced to construct its cultural identity within a public, museified consensus.
'Revelation through "museification"' is as valid for objects which acquired their ritual significance in non-Western cultures as for symbolic objects that were produced in a highly mediated Western environment, as enough exhibitions have managed to prove. Once positioned on the platform of the Western media, the culturally loaded object dies a quick death through museification. The sign that is left behind sometimes has a strong effect on the media and today contributes to the construction of a tolerant, hospitable, pan-cultural publicity, in the form in which a contem-porary discourse conceives it. Cultural diversityparticularly from the Western standpointis propagated as a contemporary phenomenon we can never get too much of; but I have never discerned more than a therapeutic interest in this product of the rapid information exchange brought on by our consumption-driven nomadism and the economically-driven nomadism of the non-Western migrant. The fundamental basis for multicultural propaganda lies in the expressly progressive, modern demand for publicness and visibility. Within the framework of the museum's own publicness, this provides the other with enough space to make them so visible that their steps can be traced.
Under a museifying control, a dominant discourse labels the artefact an exotic objectwhether it comes from a cultural niche in its own culture, or from a foreign culture that is viewed with a certain arrogance as a niche within the panorama of global cultural capital. Difference and the Other can simply be accommodated in one's own museum collection, where it is given a place that has been cleared out for the cultural object in a modern history of publicness and visibility. To give everyone the illusion of contributing to the realization of a global cultural publicness in their own language, the modern museum was brought to life as the contract killer of a living cultural confrontation. The museum became the place where dominant models met their ideal preconditions. The modern List der Unschuld (trick of innocence)1, the rational belief in transparency and transcendence, in legible maps and models, in objective observation, carried out a hygienic operation to drive away forever the ghosts of irrationality through museification. It took possession of the messy cultural diversity of a world that was still considered possible to colonize.
Whilst I am aware that the symbolic object possesses a great ideological strengthwhich can contribute considerably to the construction of the collective cultural memory for a larger cultural denominator (such as a people or nation)I find it increasingly difficult to defend the coupling of art with museified publicness. The contemporary work of art, the museifying place and societal publicness, as far as I'm concerned, are part of a (modern) construction which, under the creed of cultural emancipation and democratization, overshoots the mark and monopolizes the market for artistic expression and cultural identity.
The liberation of objects that are only readable in a museifying context cannot be achieved by simply placing them outside the architectural and organizational isolation of the museum, as has been propagated (and repeatedly so) by some art movements. The social publicness of the street, countryside and media was included from the very beginning within the massive museification of modernism and in the meantime has ceased to exist as an alternative space. The adjustment of the ideology of publicnessthe ideology of control over and of colonization of the Other and the Newcannot be achieved by museifying means. Only by exaggerating publicness, by maximizing it way beyond the borders of the museum and mass media, or by minimalizing it, by reducing the publicness to the 'collection of the artist', whereby the visibility of a work is limited to an extremely select public, can the significance of the artistic expression return, and advance, to an essence in which the integrity of an act of communication is guaranteed. The artist cannot be a slave to a cultural consensus, but works either in the infinite arbitrariness of maximum publicness, or in the minimal space of personal contact with individual recipients.
The art work loses its meaning predominantly in the context of a channelled reception thatfor the reasons mentioned abovewe know from twentieth-century 'museality'. I am convinced that it will only acquire meaning through making maximum use of the communicative possibilities offered by the transformation into information. In the following pages I hope to clarify just what I understand by transformation into information and why it will liberate artistic expression from its unbefitting progression into museified colonization.
Transformation into Information versus the Public Domain
I have contemplated the phenomenon of the substantial epistemological need to make the contemporary art work publicly accessible in the quarantine of a specially chosen place, to privilege its significance for the dominant culture. Isolation is part of the production of the art work: its museification is the manufacture of meaning. That this splendid isolation is immediately the object's admission of weaknessthe object that also wants to prove its eloquence outside its own cultural nicheis usually left unmentioned. In the last few decades, public and contemporary production have been marked by an unconditional pressure for publicness, for museification. I don't know a single artist who makes his or her work exclusively for a small, privileged public equipped with the correct information. An artist's public may be small, but this is always seen as a problem and never as a favourable precondition for the meaning of the work. Elitism is not an option.
It is above all the political hypocrisy and social opportunism of contemporary artists and their disciples that omits the semantic dependence of museifying practicewhich can be seen as a form of elitismfrom the agenda. The isolation of contemporary art is regularly lamented in its (self) criticism, though never explained as the obvious product of the struggle for publicness, popularization and democracy. The unease about a market that can give and take can be heard in every discussion about or criticism of the position of contemporary art, without any of those involved being the slightest bit interested in distancing themselves from this market-monopolized publicness and going to work for a much smaller, more exclusive market. Contemporary art is imbued with a moral fear of elitism, exclusiveness and thinking in economic terms.
However, a new economy of the information age may offer a sound approach to the construction of free cultural surplus value and the selective distribution of artistic expression. The art work employed as a means of information exchange not only finds a new public and another market, but also new raw materials for its production. An idealistic and economic information exchange, in which the art work, as one of the possible forms of information, generates information ('information that wants to be free'as the basic condition of information is described), supplies artistic expression with a means of escape from the paralysing publicness of museums, characterized by an unsophisticated notion of cultural diversity and a lack of dynamism.
The museumbeing a solid cultural model and with a long maturation as a meaning generating institutionwill undoubtedly be able to develop a significant role. We have reached the point at which fanatical renewal would sooner testify to the reformulation of museifying preconditions in the light of the transformation into information, than take part in extra-museifying exercises. Ultimately, the museum has a future, precisely because new technologies and media have accelerated the museification of our culture. However, I'll limit myself to describing the 'media-izing' dynamic of the information revolution and its effects upon the museifying status quo, seen from the point of view of artistic expression and its communicative preconditions. Even within the new communications possibilities, a dominant discourse still searches for the comfort and overview of a museifying position. However, from artas a drive for expression and communicationI hope to hear a very different cry, as soon as the possibilities of new media have really hit home.
The Transformation of Art into Information
What does it mean if a traditional symbolic order like fine art loses privileged, signifying ground to new media, if it becomes apparent that a highly mediated everyday reality is leaving art behind in an archaic context of museified craftsmanship and conceptualism, and in the scarcity economy of its own market? What does it mean if it appears that the most revitalizing aesthetics and social codes are created in the promiscuous culture of the mass media, technology and science, and in a combination of these three? What does this mean for the artist, the art and the art-loving public? Do they still exist, and if so where? Do they, undiminished, create each other's preconditions, still resting in communal possession and maintaining the theme park Contemporary Art? What justifies the wastage of the individual talent that doesn't know how to free itself from the index of Biennials, Documentas, theme shows, art fairs, competitions and inter-national exchanges? And how should we judge the improvised advances of established criticism and museality towards these 'new' media, which in turn achieve their current pulling power thanks to the blind mobilization of an ecstatic designers guild, that thinks it makes the 'art' of the twenty-first century?
While outside the artistic disciplines the commercial media safely dictate their primacy over the symbolic processing of our ideas and experiences, in the development and implementation of new communication technologies and global networks contemporary art is controlled by hopeless, thoroughly local exercises in expression, participation and publicness. While a horde, incited by commerce, emancipated and democratic, throw themselves into the Internet, the artist is led by various kinds of officials and small dealers through the cultural region, and in the last isolated neighbourhoods and districts, elicits a little cultural identity by presenting one last product of museified publicness to the people...
The lack of knowledge about new media within the fine art world is escalating. Witness the efforts undertaken by museums and exhibition-makers to include the increased productivity in this area in their programmes, and better still to peruse what art critics have to say about such ventures. With some exceptions, they fail to testify to a single historical or current notion: about the potential of a transformation into information; about the extent to which forms of interaction can differ between isolated media such as CD-rom and a network like the Internet; about what the technological and organizational background and characteristics of the new media are; who the most important players are; or how crucial subjects like intellectual property and copyright, digital financial transactions, privacy and encryption are debated. With such limited knowledge and experience of the medium it is difficult to judge the work made in this medium and impossible to speculate with artists and other producers on future projects.
If art as a symbolic order wants to tear itself away from an intellectual andin the not so distant futurevisual deficiency, then those involved will have to make a serious effort to improve their knowledge of the media. If they are to continue to control the unique skills and the rich and signifying tradition of such a highly developed visual language as art, they will have to be able to draw on newer media for their unique qualities. The competency of art after all, in what I call the Early Information Age, is something we cannot do without, precisely because our discipline can be viewed as a well sustained and richly developed experiment in signification and visualization. New media do not translate the refined visual communication of the arts automatically, but initially regress to visual cliches and crudity, as every Internet user will have already experienced.
Art of course is not responsible for rescuing visual communication. As an area in which conceptualization and visualization in a long experimental tradition has yielded such a rich array of both shocking and classical images, it contributes at a very lonely level to the communication and awakening of essential experience and knowledge. The cultural diversity of our world is alarming, excessive, in a certain sense comforting and above all alive. The best proof of our existence. Live diversity has survived the museification of the twentieth century and is now seeking out new carrierscarriers of information, channels of communication. Unfortunately, technological acceleration is not developed out of, or even embedded within cultural diversity, in which case it would be possible to learn and profit from the traditions of various disciplines. The agenda is mainly set within the socio-cultural and design-based disciplines by commerce and the media. These 'directions' operate from the Modern tradition of mass emancipation and communication. The technology and the services that have been developed are therefore mainly designed for the benefit of emancipatory and social-democratic ends. In the background is a business world already rehearsing its supporting role within a digitally communicating civic culture within which, many would agree, governments should occupy a more discreet position. While new technologies open up opportunities for great communicative refinement and the recognition of diversity, the main sounds coming from the 'digerati' camp support a vision of new media as a means for the maximum levelling-off of knowledge and power.
Most products and services on the Internet, and most of the views about these media testify to a one-sided cultural framework and mission. It is presumed that the race for communication media should take place between commerce (the 'market') and politics. The original developers and early users of the Internet took on the role of critics and pleaded the case for turning this medium into an open platform on which information could be accessible to all. The struggle for 'user-friendliness' united the various parties with the designers of information architecture and interfaces. The development of the medium demanded a multi-disciplinary approach, all the more so since here also 'form' and 'content' constantly question and challenge each other. The active role played by the user in configuring information demands that an emphasis be placed on the nature and configuration of the public. Strikingly enough, in the last few years it has come to light that the advent of Internet has heralded a vital advance in communication between extremist groups. Right-wing extremists in particular have been able to improve contact between American and German cells and thrive in the relative anonymity of these media. This abject example demonstrates how the identity of a relatively small cultural group suffering from extreme dislocation is strongly supported and given form thanks to the intensive communication and information exchange offered by the Internet. Users of new communication channels have a great deal of freedom and anonymity and therefore have particularly powerful means at their disposal. If everyone, at very little cost, can publicize and acquire written and visual information, potentially reaching thousands of individuals who in turn do not need to organize themselves in order to procure this information, new cultures come into being. We know from experience that such processes take place in a complex cultural force field, in which experiments and excesses remain the exception. Even the information society and its new media will eventually be applied to a consensus reality and the cultural domination of large interest groups. However, this technology contains built-in qualities that are far less easy to regulate and which, at least for the time being, in the pioneer phase, must be tackled by experimenters who can speculate on new developments.
Art in the age of information will have to find a means to couple the dynamism of information exchange with the museum-like slowness in which a work acquires meaning. The most important characteristics of the information media are: the intricate nature of the possibilities they offer for communication, making a very selective distribution of artistic expression possible; the capacity of the communication channels and the large number on offer; the diversity of a context whose construction is entirely different from that of the old mass media, whereby the art work is absorbed into an aggregate of ideas and developments in other disciplines; and the interaction between different disciplines and fields, at an abstract level, in which the focus is no longer on inter-disciplinary activity, but on discipline-specific competence and traditions.
The publicness of information media is of another order than museified publicness. It is distributed instead of being concentrated, dynamic rather than static, open not categorized, exceptionally profuse, free from the physical limitations of time and place, omnipresent instead of local. Art in the age of information technology can truly aim at another market than that of the museum's public domain. Hence my earlier argument for 'elite' markets. The most small-scale expansion of 'the artist's collection' could be a form of correspondence, consisting of a minimum number of participants and a market motivated to the maximum. Similar micro-markets for the distribution of cultural production form both a selling area and a source of inspiration for artists. Works come into being in the exchange of information between participants and it will no longer be clear which of them will bear, earn or claim the title of 'artist'.
Art legitimizes the production of alternative options, alternative interpretations of available information, of aesthetic experiments, the wastage of raw materials and energy. The language that is developed in art has never primarily been one of 'user-friendliness'. Experimenting always involves a rise in cryptic content, even if the final aim is to provide as clear as possible a visualization or articulation of complex experiences and ideas. The history of art knows many cryptic moments and works. Artists permit themselves to speak in riddles. Deciphering their work brings the recipient rich rewardsgreater insight and knowledge that can be shared and lived by. Art offers a place for the articulation of our experiences, the reception of which provokes a deep aesthetic and contemplative experience, in the communication of which the multi-facetted and complex cultural memory of a late twentieth-century pan-cultural society is brought into being. A revolution in our communication that exceeds the intelligence of museified cultural memory, and for which no answer can be found other than user-friendly Ummedialisierung aller Medien ('re-media-ization' of all media), is doomed to be blinded by the blinkers of social and commercial reformers. With the absence of a continuation of the fine art tradition in these media the Early Information Age will lose the capacity to mediate in the wealth of experience that life has to offer.
The wealth of expression and signification in a material world is infinite. This illustrious 'old' profusion will gain a very intricate medium in the coming decades, which may be used to expose people to essential ideas and initiatives. Whatever 'information' may turn out to be, it provides these essential ideas and initiatives with a form. It is not material but mediates just as well as the material world in our aesthetic and contemplative questions. If we do not want our experience to be preserved in a single, big theme show, the material world will have to learn to apply information networks to go beyond the museified, in order to be able to test the conceptual and design-related qualities of information exchange.
'Learning' is the best word for the task confronting us. We cannot be reminded too often that one of the express conditions of the development of a meaningful information society is the learning and controlling of cultural memories. The Internet in its current form is merely the first model of a medium that the information societyin all its efficiency and refinementwill exploit. It is true that the 'old' media threaten to become museified under the influence of information exchange dynamics, but a museified state can also offer a meaningful, intransigent, physical counterweight to communications dynamics. As I argued earlier, the 'museum' will have to claim 'information' in order to be able to continue feeding a contemporary discourse with its collection of individual, material essentials . The task of art lies in reaching a balance between the expressive and formal embodiment of ideas and experiences in objects on the one hand, and on the other in the unlocking of these objects to become information carriers and the processing and control of mediated informationin the interaction between a static and a dynamic pole in our acquisition of knowledge. If alongside this, the information medium doesn't at least match the discretion, elegance, sensuality or abstraction of the material media, then it in turn will be lost for the mediation of essential experience: here lies the task of the information media.
In the period of transition that lies before us, information will have to guide us through the material and conceptual saturation of a museified existence. Information that 'wants to be free', not tied to technology but to media, carriers, vehicles, connections between people, content, ourselves and our cultural aspirations. Such information 'materializes' in the growth and decline of our bodies: we are the media and that exhausts us. After all, as long as we're energetic enough, we are not part of the great museified collection within which we have constructed the world. In this period of transition the museified reality we are trying to live in will serve as an anchor, urging the transformation into information towards 'aesthetification' and materialization. An exchange of energy and qualities will have to take place between museality and information, mediated by small-scale interest groups for whom the formation of a new mass media, new consensus reality or colonizing power means nothing.
Artists use their energy to communicate. They don't say, 'this is how the world is', but, 'this is the world', or, 'I am a world'. The work doesn't decide about the materiality or immateriality of the world, the form or the content or old or new: it has no probative value in issues of life and death, it merely proves itself and the maker.
In the past it was all about shaping the materials to hand to make something visible from them. Now it is all about filling up with matter the stream of forms that gushes from our theoretical display and apparatus in order to 'materialize' these forms. In the past it was all about ordering the apparent world of matter into forms, whereas now it is about making apparent the predominant world of immense, increasing forms, encoded in figures. Before it was about formalizing the given world, and now it is about realizing the drawn up forms to alternative worlds. Meaning that 'immaterial culture' should actually be called 'materializing culture'. (Vilém Flusser)
In an information culture, the work of the artist brings alternative worlds to lightstill does and always will. For the artist information is: material, raw material, fuel. It is there to be changed, wasted, refined and sacrificed to ideas that can only become reality thanks to a creative refinement. And information is not 'material', but digital facts, digitalized images and text that can be inexhaustibly and infinitely changed.
The greatest cultural transformations therefore take place where the material world doesn't save itself from being turned into information. Thus, within these changes the idea of publicness also radically changes. On the one hand we see the maximal publicness of a medium like the Internet, in which (as yet) not a single hierarchy can be discerned, and on the other hand we see the possibilities of an endless quantity of minimal publicnesses, embedded in the chaos of the Net, between individuals who, independent of time and place, meet in the dynamics of the information exchange: artists find new materials, new contexts and new channels, and face the task of throwing all their energies into learning to use themto inform the world.