Thursday, February 4, 2010

monitoring processual art

[this is the slightly redacted text of my presentation at a panel on processual art, moderated by Susanna Jaschko on the 4th of February 2010, at the transmediale10].

Many people speak today of a global crisis. But it is not so much a global crisis as a crisis of globalism itself. Brasil, India, Korea, many developing countries in Africa are doing quite well. What has happened is not a global crisis, but apocalypse, in it's original sense of uncovering, revealing the crisis that was, is and always will be.

The Cold War provided for us in the 'developed world', as Susanna Jaschko said today "the illusion of stability". It is well known that the Cold War was very hot in many locations where proxies of the two dominant systems of the time (called ,we remember still, communism and capitalism) battled for the exotic and scarce materials which would provide the coming technological age.

After the end of the Cold War we are going though a period of apocalypse, where the true complexity and unresolvable chaos, crisis and conflict of our common lives on this planet are no longer deniable. Processual art provides many approaches for traversing the endless volumes of data flow produced by and in our increasingly real-time consciousness of this state of endless crisis.

I will attempt to provide certain Begriffe (1) and certain systemic metaphors which may serve useful in our discussions and in our contemplation of processual art.

With the ever-present spectrality engulfing us, the ghost which remind of our own mortality, our culture's response is to tell us to visit the doctor regularly, repeatedly to monitor our health.

And if the body is perceived to be in crisis it is immediately surrounded by monitors. The monitors, now form part of the cyborg medial attention, monitoring the health of the patient.

Monitor is derived from the Latin verb monere which means originally "to admonish, warn, advise". Lev Manovich in his landmark book: Language of New Media, described the first tele-vision, the first real-time monitor which was the radar screen. Here, the connotation of warning is obvious.

On the screens and monitors are visualizations of what are considered the 'Vital Signs' of the patient. By reading these signs, even the uninitiated can imagine what is going on inside the patient.

Nowadays, as society is stripped bare of its traditional, unifying beliefs & faiths, and the citizen is particle-ized by personalized and variegated media experience-spaces, we have a growing sense of the complexity of the globalized system in which we exist, and of which we are inextricably, a part.

So here, the metaphor is that, with the monitors, we are monitoring (can one say the health of) the body of society, or even that of our civilisation, such as it can be conceived to be, for signs of various kinds.

We get warnings, but we also get information we need or want or like, but most of all, the screens tell us that the body of society is still alive and being monitored.

But more significantly, there is a stand in, an avatar for the body of society and that is the electrical and, increasingly, the communications grid, the condition of which the monitors display.

This is why computer-generative art is so appropriate for public screens, it is public notice of the health of the system. The health of the infrastructure part is verified at the refresh rate of 50 or 60 times a second (the oscillation rate of electrical current), but also and implicitly, the ongoing process of civilization's complex social and economic systems, which are always incomplete and ongoing are monitored. A comforting illusion of social constancy is also thus generated.

Failing other, earlier notions of faith, monitor screens promise us we are making technological process. What appears on the monitor screen is a kind of elaborate progress bar by which we monitor trends to fruition, the anticipation of which may be just as enjoyable as is their brief consumption.

Two examples of the implementation of processual art on public media facades.
- Korea: the progress of modernity/modernization, technologies of fairness overwhelming the creeping mustiness associated with old beliefs. Fairness = equanimity. The line between art and design and social engineering is almost non-existent
- Europe: technological progress is also monitored but also our ethical and moral progress in the traditional function of art

Processual art provides visions, visualisations of civilization as an incomplete fragmented process, going on in myriad directions at once, a glorious 4-dimensional filigree of causeways of various breadths.

But underneath, and fundamental to these real-time patterns and figures on the screens, is a kind of urgency which makes this kind of processual work so compelling and also so exhausting.

It is the diminishing wegsehbarkeit (2) of the injustice on which our civilisation, and even more, of the technology of our glorified society monitoring systems are predicated.

These are unfair relations of labour, here at home, and elsewhere, the persistence of slavery & indentured labour (the Yes Men do a nice take on this), and, especially the lack of parity in the league of nations, in living standards, and, most importantly for me, this is not just in words, it is in the materials of technology itself.

Jaromil excellently described some of the problematic deep material relations of high technology utopias in a presentation at last transmediale, in the so-called conflict minerals trade.

We must acknowledge the hardware beholdenness of all our technological art. That this hard ware is produced through hard facts: where and when the materials which become the technology must be (have been) extracted from the earth somewhere before they can be refined into these exquisite processual instruments.

This extraction from the earth of metals and minerals and other necessary ingredients for high technology must be brought out of the earth by particular individuals at particular locations at particular stages of their particular lives.

At the mine head where the Bauxite comes from for the aluminum, essential for all the finest technology in this room, there are hundreds of men with parents and families doing another day's work for peanuts right now.

They have no choice. Some even work at gunpoint. Their government, in many cases has been completely bought out by ours, because we cannot and will not do without aluminum.

Camara was a controversial leader. Usually not my favorite type of leader, a throwback to old-school African nationalists from the early 'independence' period. For the purposes of this post, he did one thing that really got the high-tech producing countries angry, he re-evaluated all of his countries mining contracts signed by the previous west-friendly governments, for which he would suffer greatly.

I have a phrase for this "Absolute corruption corrupts absolutely."

This is why we must monitor the consequences of our abstract, hardly articulate faith in the noble cause of technological progress and its incipient industry.

The men standing around the mine from which the materials are abstracted from the earth, with their personal individual histories and needs are at work right now perpetually inside these monitoring screens.

The screen, you may, know, etymologically comes from the old French escran "écran" which was originally the wire mesh which was placed before the warming fire - to block the sparks which could set the house on fire.

So we watch this processual art like a warming fire, glorious patterns of immolation from which we derive a pleasant angenehm (3) warmth.
Standing around the ancient campfire, it is a scene reminiscent of our tribal past, a previous, pre-literate time Flusser often described where human consciousness was dominated by images and the magicians who understood and channeled their power.

Flusser described two future societal modes possibly generated from technical images: a totalitarian techno-magical consciousness dominated by techno-magicians, or a new form of literacy in the constitutive codes of technical images, a textual interpretability he might call techno-historical. Flusser would concede of course that these two consciousnesses would probably co-exist antagonistically.

To conclude, I would like to recall another etymological sense of 'monitor: "to admonish". The monitor is there to keep us in line, as a society, as a civilization. To keep us on the course. The monitor on which we enjoy (angenehm) processual art, you see, has its own agenda.


(1) We don't have quite the right translation of the German word 'Begriff'. In English, we use the word 'term' which has it's roots in 'termination' i.e. 'definition'. But, Begriff is built on the word Griff which in English would be 'grip' or 'handle'. So, unlike terminating a concept in a definition, we can, in German, get a handle on the concept while it is still alive.

(2) I made up this word, which doesn't exist in English either, the closest would be 'look-away-ableness' or 'disregardability'.

(3) this is best translated as 'pleasant' but angenehm also has the connotation of acceptance 'an-nehmen', to take on.