THE GRECIAN HORSE OF YOUNG ART
It is very difficult to issue a definition of life, but it is very easy to tell a dead horse from a living one — Chris Langton
1. The Terminological Gap
In one of his works Jean-François Lyotard, examining institutional forms of speech, gives an example of a typical set which includes an order in an army, a prayer in church, squealing at school, a story in a family, etc. This issue's proposed theme — "Young Art?" — is not something exceptional in this respect as it generally conforms to an institutional system of expectations (somewhere between squealing and prayer). But, while everything seems to be relatively clear with "squealing" — the desire to obtain information about what the young are doing simply means taking a missionary position (the young are somewhere outside and we don't know what they do), it is not that clear with the prayer. The very terminology and mode of questioning presuppose the reader's silent consent to the fact that art, by definition, must be young and daring, and thus to propose something new and interesting, and consequently to be suitable for public consideration. However, at this level the mechanism of the institutional — "to speak about certain things in a certain manner" — does not work, makes a blank-shot due to the absence of the very definition of "the thing". What is meant by "young art"? What is meant when art is called "young"? A number of interpretations are possible, from the trivial: "young" as "art of the young", to the prognostic: "young" as "new", not complying with the usual standard. It is obvious that the categories of "young" and "new" must be interpreted differently, scarcely come together and never imply equivalence. The fact that "young" does not necessarily mean "non-standard", and "new" does not necessarily mean "young", seems to be common knowledge. This is why a conclusion arises that this terminological gap has been left deliberately, so to say leased to an author, and implies a possibility of further focusing. Thanks for this.
It is striking how sometimes a single word (or even a punctuation mark!) can change a system of coordinates. For example, if a title sounds like "Art?" it is clear that the issue in question will be the conditional nature of art, its overcoming, undermining strategies and breaking borders. One recalls a list of keywords from an activist's notebook… So, that's one system of coordinates. But as soon as one single word is added and the title sounds like "Young art?", numerous second-rate dichotomies are brought to the fore, like "young/old", "European/Asian", "feminist (political, African… etc.) / directly opposite". You get, at once, a feeling of comfort and well-being, a slight intellectual obesity; market categories and various strategies of enjoyment are put into use. We face a figure of an art manager: not an artist but a brand name, a label, in his forties, dallying at the surface of pop culture and acting as a taste intensifier and image corrector. His art becomes a trademark, another service at a vast service market, and the three mighty C's assert themselves: Commerce, Concurrence, Corporation. At this stage, any attempt at intensifying one's art activity inevitably results in a lack of initial truth, urging the author to expand horizontally. As time goes by, everyone has to face the problem of expanding one's base of axioms. This is why one must admit that only the one who dares to call the existing criteria and institutional coordinates into question, the one who puts forth new rules, may enter again the polemics about art and set it free from the "three C-prospectives". Is not this what is traditionally expected from "young art"?
To make such revision in the area of arts, at least three coordinated stages are necessary: to reach unanimity regarding the problem of the nature of art and its rights; to break that convention; and to achieve new agreements. One can only guess how long and how much we shall have to pay for misunderstood classics, and how false is the idea that such a way of development had been abolished by the "postmodernist" declaration of the end of history. Getting rid of all imposed frameworks of artocracy which impose an institutional understanding of art (with all these pretty adjectives: "young", "European", "feminist", "political" etc.) would help the artist at last to begin to think what is the mechanism of today's public agreement regarding art and what is its sphere of interest. Then, it would soon become clear that art is be involved in the performance of a variety of functions, from simple entertainment, social therapy and criticism, decoration and political propaganda, up to providing a space for things not yet accepted by society, and examining itself as a theme. It would also become clear that contemporary understanding of art does not imply an obligatory revolutionary claim, that sometimes it attempts to widen its limits in a conservative way. As an example, one can mention a whole series of items of "hotel culture" aimed at a change of impressions and addressing some obsolete meanings (like fashion, lifestyle and clubbing, liked so much by the young). Today's total prevalence of installation practice, video and photography, oscillation from ethno-folk to minimalism, are evidence of poetryfication (replication plus banalisation) of strategies of exploring new territories popular in the 60s and 70s. The list can well be extended… However, with the broadness of contemporary art's "functional" diversity, the main elements which define the basic agreement about art's nature are still the old notions of author, artwork and audience. It is only in regard of these three components that one can evaluate the level of fruitfulness of certain polemics, the innovative nature of certain artworks and the progressive nature of certain trends. Thus, I understand young art as such art strategies which, while reacting and reflecting the level of medialisation of society, are capable of questioning these very three components of art.
The ideas of decentralised authorship were once numerously represented in the work of International Network Culture theorists, and are most widely spread in these circles. But with all the positive potential of strategies elaborated on the Net (which have been reflected first of all by the virtual battlefronts of ALife and AIntelligence), it is those ideas which have reaped the biggest harvest of critics as soon as they were published in popular visual art magazines. What an abundance of flaying words has been pronounced on the pages of those editions regarding "death of the author", and even worse — what a devastating weapon has the latter been turned into by dull-witted followers of "the postmodernist death of the author"! But is it not a creative transformation of the very notion of authorship (instead of the notorious "death of the author"), a replacement of the idea of the author's personality by an idea of multiple authorship, of collective authorship, of communes and interdisciplinary methods, which was and is the aim of the revision of the position of the author? A graphic example of such an approach can be demonstrated by a 2001 project by Portuguese artist Marta de Menezes called Nature? Her work was made in a lab at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Together with a group of biologists she created a series of butterflies whose wing patterns are nonexistent in living nature. To do this, she had to make certain changes to the biological mechanism of development of butterflies belonging to the Bicyclus and Heliconius species. The artist has changed only one pattern on one wing of each butterfly, so that all of them have one wing with a natural pattern and another with a pattern designed by the artist. Through this asymmetry, the artist tried to emphasize both proximity and difference of the natural and the new natural. An important feature of this artwork (which is very short-lived by the way) is that it is, by no means and by definition, a collective artwork (all the laboratory staff are listed in the pressruns). But an even more important fact is that the project demonstrates the potential of a joint work of artist and Nature.
Today, one possible artistic strategy is the investigation not of what art also can do (in the sense of hi-tech things) but of what art alone can do. To do this, artists transfer the emphasis of their activities from art production to research of the conditions which give rise to works of art. As a result of such an approach, artwork must fail first, in order to be beautified later; art must lose its technological value in order to obtain artistic value (cf. Deleuze&Guattari's "the more it breaks the better it works"). Speaking about the strategy of "total failure" (let us refer to it this way) I mean such kind of art activity which, while aiming at a conscious expectation of "failure" and "misfortune" of the project, has the purpose of representing some bans at functioning of an artwork. As an example of such a strategy, I can mention the project Pig Wings by Australian artists Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, made in 2002 by The Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. Using tissue engineering technology which enables one to cultivate organs and tissues of different organisms in vitro, the artists have grown a pair of wings out of a pig's stem cells. And though technological problems with transplantation of the artificially-grown wings to a donor animal have been successfully solved, the artists decided to close the project at this stage, not to bring it to the stage of getting a real chimera. The conscious decision not to complete the project points to the fact that it is precisely the pre-programmed uselessness of the pig wings, that are wings only by form, but are not designed for flying in their essence and inner construction, which makes them a fact of art. This Pig Wings by Zurr and Catts refer to a long list of historical "failures" of artists, among which are Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine, constructions by Tatlin and Tingueli, and others. This impression gets numerously multiplied at an external, visual level, because the form of the pig wings resembles the remains of an ancient pterosaurus — which was, by the way, mentioned by the artists in their synopsis of the project — the remains dissembled by modern researchers and buried forever in modern civilisation's cabinet of curiosities. This kind of art engineering has a distinct preventive character because, reporting the failure of modern science and technology, it also gains a human dimension and contributes to our idea that the world has once been different and is still able to become totally different than it is.
In 1998, the molecular geneticist William Gelbart stated in his interview for the Science: "The gene is a concept past its time." What could this mean for an audience not yet tired of technology? First of all, this means that today's society has entered a new, post-biological stage of development of science and technology, which is characterized by the fact that scientific research is now conducted at a nano-level. This also means that a whole series of scientific dimensions, like biomedicine, genetic engineering, nano-robotics et al., have overgrown the limits of their area and are ready to become society's aesthetic objects. Consequently, we must expect the appearance of artists, though they already have appeared — see http://ncca.smufsa.nu/chimaera/) working with moist media (pixels + molecules) in various social spheres. Leaving alone the exotic sci-art problems and summarizing, one can say that at the next turn of technological development the toolbox of contemporary art will be widened thanks to a large variety of art strategies which will, in turn, put forth a whole list of system requirements towards new technologies of perception. This does not mean of course that the audience will change in any way; what will change is the audience's attitude towards the perceived world, which will become an active character of the world of artwork and will gain a capability to alter it. Roy Ascott, one of the pioneers of British electronic art, calls such art reality a combination of three VR's: 1) validated reality, based on reactive technology of Newtonian mechanics; 2) virtual reality, using interactive digital technology; 3) vegetative reality, using a psychoactive "plant technology" based on the principles of ethno-botany. The audience's simultaneous existence in these realities proposed by the artist, must develop a certain metanoia in the audience, a "creative schizophrenia", i.e. a condition when the audience would be both inside and outside the image at the same time. The advent of the era of artificial life points renders possible a further dissolving of borders between different states of mind, between concept and construction, between understanding and realization of our everyday wishes.
Gradual assimilation of themes which are now being elaborated by post-biological culture will bring the art community to a new understanding of the role of art as an instrument which, by definition by Peter Weibel, props up the transition from "world outlook" to "media outlook" or, to put it another way, to an outlook of "communications". It is this form of media outlook, possible to look at from the point of view of new communication impossibilities and initiating new bans, that I call young art.
The author would like to thank artists who have granted him the right to reproduce their works, as wells as Art & Science Collaborations, Inc., New York, and personally Cynthia Pannucci, for their creative support.
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