[iDC] Can't think of an appropriate thread
c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Fri Aug 18 05:46:19 EDT 2006
Trebor has asked me to post something about my new book, Art, Time and Technology (Berg, 2006), as part of the discussion leading up to the symposium in New York in October. I have excerpted some passages from the introduction and the first chapter. Please forgive the length of this post, but I could not think how to boil it down further. Also my editing has meant that there may be some gaps and leaps and passages that are clearer in the original text.
The book is concerned with the question of the role of art in the age of real-time systems (by 'art' in this instance I generally refer to visual art, rather than literature, music or film for example). The term 'real-time systems' refers to the information, telecommunication and (multi)media technologies that have come to play an increasingly important part in our lives, at least in the so-called 'developed' countries. It is almost impossible to overstate the ubiquity and importance of the technologies in question. Real-time computing underpins the whole apparatus of communication and data processing by which our contemporary techno-culture operates. Without it we would have no email, word processing, Internet or World Wide Web, no computer-aided industrial production and none of the invisible 'smart' systems with which we are surrounded. 'Real time' can also stand for the more general trend towards instantaneity in contemporary culture, involving increasing demand for instant feedback and response, one result of which is that technologies themselves are beginning to evolve ever faster. The increasing complexity and speed of contemporary technology is the cause of both euphoria and anxiety. The book asks and tries to answer the question about what kind of role art might play in a world increasingly dominated by such technologies.
At first it might seem that the increasing importance of real-time systems is still of comparatively little importance to the status and continuing development of art, which generally operates according to a different, slower rhythm than that engendered by such technologies. In general artists do not exploit or engage with the possibilities offered by real-time technologies. If artists do use new technologies, such as video or image processing, it is usually to produce the kind of static, unchanging object that can be easily accommodated in a museum or gallery. (There are of course notable exceptions, some of who feature in the book. Since the beginning of the last century some artists have attempted to come to terms with the technological developments of their time, including those involving information communication technologies and, since the 1960s, artists have engaged seriously in the possibilities of real-time technologies for the making of art under various banners, including computer art, art and technology, new media art, and, most recently, net.art and internet art. On the whole such work has been ignored or marginalised by the mainstream art world and gallery system.)
Yet, the fact that most artists have not and do not either use or appear to engage explicitly with the challenges and possibilities of real-time technologies, does not mean that they have not responded to such developments. Indeed in the book I argue firstly that the history of modern art can be read, at least in part, as a history of various artistic responses to the increasing speed and accelerating evolution of technology in the modern era and, secondly that if art is to have a role or a meaning at all in the age of real-time technologies it is to keep our human relation with time open in the light of its potential foreclosure by such technology. As Bernard Siegert puts it:
The impossibility of technologically processing data in real time is the possibility of art... As long as processing in real time was not available, data always had to be stored intermediately somewhere - on skin, wax, clay, stone, papyrus, linen, paper, wood, or on the cerebral cortex- in order to be transmitted or otherwise processed. It was precisely in this way that data became something palpable for human beings, that it opened up the field of art. Conversely it is nonsensical to speak of the availability of real-time processing... insofar as the concept of availability implies the human being as subject. After all, real-time processing is the exact opposite of being available. It is not available to the feedback loops of the human senses, but instead to the standards of signal processors, since real-time processing is defined precisely as the evasion of the senses.
Relative to the rhythm of technical evolution the human had more or less stabilised biologically round about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. This is why the post-Neanderthal human was already, in biological terms, modern. Our genetic structure seems to have been stabilised at about this moment. But technical evolution has continued and accelerated since that point. In the transductive relation between our ancestors and technology that produced the human it is only technics that has continued to evolve. But if this is so, it is only recently that this has become evident, and its implications recognised. Bernard Stiegler suggests that certain effects of recent technical developments, those of 'real time' computing and 'live' media distort 'profoundly if not radically what could be called "event-ization" [événementialisation] as such, that is to say the taking place of time as much as of space'.
For Stiegler our human relationship with time is governed by the technical means by which we apprehend it. With the rise of real-time technologies this relation is brought into question. He suggests that the conjunction between the question of technics and of time made evident by the speed of technical evolution and by the ruptures in temporalization and 'event-ization' it provokes call for a new consideration of technicity, in which it is understood as constitutive of temporality as well as spatiality.
In particular, if, according to Stiegler, our transductive relationship with technics is the basis of 'what we call culture', then its accelerating development, especially as measured against the comparative stasis of human evolution, brings 'culture' to a point of crisis. Richard Beardsworth proposes that 'at stake... lies the human experience of time. Most immediately, it is clear that with the digitalisation of memory support systems, our experience of time is being rapidly foreshortened'. Through advances in, among other things, genetic manipulation and machine intelligence 'present conceptions of history, inheritance, memory and the body will need to be dramatically reorganised, if the "selection" of what is "human", and what is not, is not to become the monopoly of an organisation between the technosciences and capital'.
But against the speed of contemporary technics it is possible to posit the aporia of time, of delay, the impossibility grasping time in the light of difference and deferral central to Derrida's politics of deconstruction. The incalculability of the passage of time exceeds both its logical disavowal and its technical organisation. According to Beardsworth.
For Derrida, despite real time's reduction of the human experience of the passage of time, the passage of time... cannot be technicized, it cannot absolutely be reduced; and this is what makes any organization contingent... Technical invention (which in the coming years may be less and less organised by what we understand now as "the human") cannot reduce or "figure" the aporia of time.
As Beardsworth puts it 'the absolute future of technical determination, the "messianic" promise that trembles in every technical invention, delivers the latter over to contingency, a contingency that marks, precisely the finitude of all organisations, thereby giving human organisation its chance'. He continues that '[S]ubordinated to the passage of time, technics is... finite and the future contingent'. This is bound up with Derrida's conception of the 'decision'.
... a decision, if there is one, cannot take place without the undecidable, it cannot be resolved through knowledge... As to a decision that is guided by a form of knowledge - if I know, for example, what the causes and effects of what I am doing are, what the program is for what I am doing, then there is no decision; it is a question, at the moment of judgment, of applying a particular causality. When I make a machine work, there is no decision; the machine works, the relation is one of cause and effect. If I know what is to be done... then there is no moment of decision, simply the application of a body of knowledge, of, at the very least, a rule or norm. For there to be a decision, the decision must be heterogeneous to knowledge as such... Otherwise there is no responsibility... Even if one knows everything, the decision, if there is one, must advance towards a future that is not known, that cannot be anticipated. If one anticipates the future by predetermining the instant of decision, then one closes it off, just as one closes it off, if there is no anticipation, no knowledge "prior" to the decision. At a given moment, there must be an excess or heterogeneity regarding what one knows for a decision to take place, to constitute an event.
The event is thus always monstrous.
A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture. Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience. All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example in philosophy or poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, of a certain monstrosity (Derrida, 1992, p 387).
Art exists only within a certain 'economy' of time produced by the materiality and temporality of culture's means of inscription, storage and exchange. At the same time it must exceed the restricted economy of programmatic calculability, which forecloses the possibility of the event and of the decision. In his essay 'Economimesis' Derrida analyses Kant's Third Critique in terms of the economics and aneconomics of art. Kant proposes that 'liberal' or 'free' art, what we might call fine art, 'must not enter into the economic circle of commerce, of offer and demand; it must not be exchanged'. It must be capable of 'pure, that is non-exchangeable productivity'. In other words the work of art operates something like the logic of the gift, as defined by Marcel Mauss, in his famous work on the subject, The Gift. For Mauss the gift, especially as understood in certain native American cultures was a form of excessive donation that escaped the logics of economic exchange. Georges Bataille was greatly influenced in his thinking by Marcel Mauss' work. Of particular interest to Bataille was Mauss' investigation of the practice of 'potlatch', the excessive and destructive rituals of giving practiced by tribes in the American Northwest. Inspired by this counter-example to the rational models of restricted economy found within capitalism Bataille advanced a conception of the 'general economy', in which the universe is implicated, through, for example the flow of energy from the Sun, which is excessive for the needs of and produces excessive and useless results in plants and flowers. He suggests that the capitalist model of the economy as a harbouring of scarce resources is only one form of economic structure and proposes that the problem in many societies is not the increased accumulation of wealth but the annihilation of excess, through sacrifice or art.
Lewis Hyde, also influenced by the work of Mauss, explicitly describes the work of art as a gift, as opposed to a commodity. As Hyde himself admits at the end of the book this is somewhat simplistic. Art cannot avoid the restricted economies of financial exchange and critical and public reception. Nor, should it be supposed that artists would want to eschew either the possibility of renumeration or of critical and public admiration. In his book Given Time, Derrida analyses Mauss' idea and suggests the gift is impossible in that the moment it appears as a gift it enters into a system of reciprocity, exchange and debt. Any gift implies the expectation of another gift in return. Even if the giver does not expect any literal return, the act of giving 'makes a return payment to oneself'. Thus the gift can only be a gift if its status as gift is completely forgotten, and is not even lodged in the unconscious. But Derrida points to two intriguing aspects of Mauss' ideas. One is the notion of the excessive, which is an integral part of the operations of the potlatch. The other is that the relation between the gift and time. Even if a gift ritual involves exchange and reciprocity, time must elapse before a gift can be responded to in kind. This is what Derrida describes as 'the most interesting idea, the great guiding thread of The Gift'.
'The gift is not a gift, the gift only gives to the extent it gives time. The difference between a gift and every other operation of pure and simple exchange is that the gift gives time. There where there is gift, there is time. What it gives, the gift is time, but this gift of time is also a demand of time. The thing must not be restituted immediately and right away. There must be time, it must last, there must be waiting - without forgetting... It demands time, the thing, but it demands a delimited time, neither an instant nor an infinite time, but a time determined in other words, a rhythm, a cadence. The thing is not in time, it is or has time, or rather it demands to have, to give, or to take time - and time as rhythm, a rhythm that does not befall a homogenous time but that structures it originally.
But, like the gift, the work of art involves a gift, in that it 'gives time' by refusing to restituted right away. It gives the time needed for understanding, for the understanding to catch up with and recuperate the avant-garde, the advance guard of artistic development, for the reception and domestication of the monstrous or, as Lyotard puts it, for the infinite time required to '"consume" (experience, comment upon)' works of art. Lyotard was writing specifically about Duchamp's La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), otherwise known as The Large Glass and Etant Donnés. It is the former that Duchamp described as a 'delay in glass'. This the description by Calvin Tomkins with which he begins his life of Duchamp.
Just under nine feet high and five and a half feet wide, freestanding between aluminum supports, The Large Glass dominates the Duchamp gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is too big to take in at one glance. Your eyes travel over it in random patterns, over it and through it, to other viewers moving and stopping, and to the narrow window in back, which overlooks an outdoor courtyard with its central fountain. Prey to distractions of all kinds, the sexual comedy of the Glass verges on farce. Marcel Duchamp called it a "hilarious" picture.
Tomkins then describes Duchamp notorious suggestion for what The Large Glass actually was.
He also insisted that it was not a picture. In one of the working notes that he collected and published in The Green Box, Duchamp refers to it as a "delay." Use "delay" instead of picture or painting ... It's merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture--to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but rather in their indecisive reunion. Like so many of the Green Box notes, this one has been chipped away at and drilled into and bombarded by generations of Duchamp explainers, an international tribe whose numbers increase each year. Laboring to unlock the mystery of that little word, "delay," they have linked it, among other things, to Henri Bergson's theory of duration, to the medieval practice of alchemy, and to a subconscious fear of incest on Duchamp's part. One Duchampian has suggested that it be read as an anagram for "lad[e]y," so that "delay in glass" becomes glass lady. Duchamp adored puns and perpetrated a lot of them, but his were never as heavy-footed as that. Generally overlooked in the ongoing analysis and microanalysis of Duchamp's wordplay is that it is play. He played with words, juggling a variety of senses and non-senses and taking pleasure in their "indecisive reunion." As he went on to say in that Green Box note, a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.
The aim here is neither to add to the chipping and drilling Duchamp's suggestion has inspired nor to make a simplistic connection between his use of the term of delay and Derrida's notion of delay, difference and deferral. Yet Duchamp seems to have anticipated something of Derrida's analyses of the complex relations between time, inscription and experience, Tomkins' description of the continuing, and possibly never-ending process of interpretation tends to confirm.
What Duchamp also indicates with the idea of the delay is the degree to which particular the avant garde has always been concerned with time. Writing at the end of the 1960s the critic Michael Kirby called his book of essays on the avant garde The Art of Time. It is possible to argue that an explicit engagement with time is one of the factors that differentiates the avant garde from artistic modernism. The avant-garde is, according to one fairly simplistic definition, 'art that is ahead of its time'. The term 'avant-garde' itself comes, of course, from the French military term for 'advance guard' or 'vanguard' and was first employed in its current artistic context by the utopian socialist Count Henri de Saint Simon in the early 19th century, to denote the role artists would play in his ideal society as harbingers of future social progress. The very idea that the future can be anticipated, declared or produced, implicitly acknowledges that 'the time is out of joint'.
Reader in New Media Research
Director of Research
Institute for Cultural Research
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
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