ART or TELECOMMUNICATION

by Robert Horvitz

 

Published in New Observations 17 (ISSN 0737-5387, pages 24-26), edited by Peter Halley in connection with the exhibition "Science Fiction" at the John Weber Gallery in New York City, 17 September - 8 October 1983. Originally written for - and presented at - a conference on "Art and Telecommunication" at the NY School of Visual Arts on 10 March 1983.


 

Some of the assumptions we have about art, some of the biases that are still so firmly entrenched in our thinking, are quite inappropriate to telecommunications as it seems to be developing now. And some of these assumptions are really misleading if we want to focus on the positive potential of this technology.

To some extent, it seems to me that even positing a link between art and telecommunication is just opportunism on the part of some elements of the art community, a reflection of a growing conviction that the leading edge of culture is no longer defined by what's being shown in galleries and art magazines, or being daubed onto canvas and talked about in New York studios and bars, a feeling that maybe we should modulate over to this new area that seems so exciting and powerful and significant and well-funded - if we can.

Let me state clearly that the word "opportunism" has no negative connotations when I use it this way. After several decades of expansion and redefinition, the ONLY meaning I can find in the word "art" is "culture-changing opportunism" and it's an essential force in keeping our culture alive.

If anything, I'd want to encourage artists to try to modulate over to this new, exciting, etc. area - but not in a simpleminded or naive way. By naive and simpleminded, I mean trying to transplant ideas and goals and formal ideas that come from art-making directly into the realm of telecommunications. Like: "I know, let's get a satellite circuit and put on a video performance that connects two museums." I'd much rather have people stop to think: "What is the most useful or exciting or creative way I can relate to this technology?" - regardless of whether the results are art-like or whether the artworld acknowledges it. If people did that, they might find that the most exciting, useful, etc., way might not be anything like producing a specific, discrete, program-like event. It might not involve producing anything at all.

See, although our concept of art has changed in the last thirty years, the concept of "the artist" hasn't changed much at all. The artist still gets most of the public attention and glory - even though it's the gatekeepers to the distribution channels - the curators, dealers, critics and editors who wield the power. Meanwhile, the audience is regarded with indifference, or at best, ambivalence. It's a little hard to think of an artist striving to produce work that's "user friendly" without being accused of selling out, pandering or going soft. And yet in information technology, "user friendliness" is something everyone demands, and the suppliers of both the information and the technology are doing their damnedest to meet that demand. That element of confrontation or deliberate difficultness we've come to expect from art is just dysfunctional in telecommunications.

And so is this one-sided emphasis on production. When I look closely at what I enjoy most about all this new communications/information media, what's most empowering and most unique about it, it's having access to a huge, diverse array of inputs and outputs, and being free to choose among them. Access means the right to send AND to receive, to produce AND to consume - both modes being valued and perceived as complementary. Freedom of choice is probably more empowering from the consumer's point of view.

Telecommunications is about linkage, interaction, the idea that input and output are the same thing seen from different angles. This is what I was trying to get at when I said that directly transplanting artistic values (with all the attention and honor going to the producer, and indifference or worse to the consumer) into a realm where switching freely between production and consumption is the obvious ideal - seems to be really wrong-headed. It implies that the most desirable relationship to telecommunications is as a producer, when in fact, intelligent consumption is just as rewarding and honorable.

A related, and equally wrong-headed, fixation is on individuals as producer-stars, when my experience indicates that networks and constellations of people are the most creative units. And in the near future, we'll also have to acknowledge the achievements of nonhuman creators. Individualism is a by-product of the print era, as McLuhan has pointed out.Its value is only relative to the current mix of social values and options. Satellites offer glimpses into exciting areas of group and nonhuman creativity.

Tonight's discussion was probably framed with one type of satellite in mind - a RELAY that transmits information sent up from Earth down to another point on Earth. But there's another type of satellite that I find even more exciting, and that's remote sensing satellites. Here, the satellite generates information based on its own perceptions and analysis programs, and communicates it to humans. Sure, humans built it and told it what to do. But once it starts operating on its own, it's doing something that no human could do.

The question of the cultural status of computer-created imagery, music, prose, etc., is a profound one, and, in my opinion, it challenges our notions of art every bit as much as Darwin's theory of evolution challenged the doctrine of divine creation.

So, to sum up, I think the notion of "art" as we find it today, even though it's been diluted, stretched and made very porous, is still pretty much of a red herring in discussions of telecommunications. And the notion of "the artist" is in many ways the worst sticking-point.

I think there are better paradigms to apply in trying to fit telecommunications into our cultural thinking. In particular, I don't think it's an accident that three of us up here have gravitated toward the role of "editor" as the most creative and empowering position in an information-rich environment. Editing involves gathering, selecting, distilling, contexting information and then sending it back out, hopefully in a more meaningful, useful and intense form than it came in with. It explicitly acknowledges being part of a flow, of being dependent on input - this in contrast to the myth of the artist as originator, as an autonomous point-source of creativity. Other role-models that seem to fit the telecommunications environment well include investigative journalist, programmer, spy, gossip, scavenger, manager, and so on.

I think the attempt to link art and telecommunications may just be a way of acknowledging that telecommunications has a lot of cultural significance. Art is a status-conferring label that means "this is culturally significant."

But I think that if you look closely at the implications and ideas hidden within these two words, you'll find there are some strongly conflicting values. It's time to stop thinking so much about art and start thinking more about "teleculture."