Conceptualism?

1. To call this panel conceptualism is to makes quite a strong claim about the nature of the work. It situates it in relation to a legitimate, recognisable and interesting kind of art practice, one that is certainly also profoundly historified enough to be undergoing a process of revisionism. But it also locates the work labeled as ‘new media art’ as somehow able to be situated under the sign of continuity. And not insignificantly with the most apparently difficult and hence most ‘autonomous’ and inviting art practice.
But it also locates medial work synchronically with two recent ‘revivals’ or re-uses of conceptualism. Firstly, that of the rather sloppy short-hand for art that somehow involves thought. They’re all conceptual nowadays. Secondly, the recognition through multiple impetuses, not least the complex and often difficult genesis of art as a globally articulated paradigm that there are many, unequal, ‘conceptualisms’.

2. But it is perhaps possible to makes use of such a title. I want to use it to establish a parallel between the way conceptuality, that is the domain of reflexive thought, was used to gain entry to, establish new dimensions to and throw out of whack, art systems. (Crucially, when I’m talking about art systems, I don’t mean the system, but many interlocking, symbiotic or mutually disinterested activities: the media ecologies of art, but also its means of going about things, and the various imaginal, perceptual, technical and social processes they are in relation to. Art systems include of course the commercially internalist system of art represented by the acquisitions committee in this organization, a particular operation which does not even recognise the work discussed here. But they also include many other patterns and kinds of activity using art methods and approaches in other contexts.)
One of the things that interests me is how with the explosion of art education over the last five decades we now have a vast amount of art as a way of thinking going on in societies. As a subset of such thinking there is also a great deal of art which invents new dynamics for its development. Such development often means assembling new ways of working, layering them in with existing ones, or making breaks. And by doing so, subtly or fundamentally changing the work that is being done.

In order to deal with the theme of this panel then, I want to suggest how conceptualism might be read, not as a ‘style’, but as an invention of a new dimension within art systems and then to go on and see how it might have parallels in work using networked and computational digital media.

3. Peter Osborne writing on Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth, early Art & Language, what he calls ‘strong’ conceptualism (with its roots in a use of – rather than an absorbtion into – analytical philosophy) states:
“Philosophy was the means for the usurption of critical power by a new generation of artists: the means by which they could simultaneously address the crisis of the ontology of the artwork (through an art definitional concept of their practice) and achieve social control of the meaning of their work.”1

For these artists philosophy, and a particular kind, analytical philosophy, was a means to wrest control from critics, or rather the systems of representation, appearance and circulation of art and to establish a new plane of activity or cultural field for art practice which would insinuate itself into existing parts of art systems, but would remain also rather detachable from them. Crucially, the kind of philosophy used was distinct from that then predominating as a means to name and structure the understanding of art.

The two kinds of work that philosophy did in Osbourne’s account have strong echoes in certain of the currents of art in digital and computational networked media discussed here.

Firstly, the effect of the introduction of analytical philosophy as a media is to
‘address the crisis of the ontology of the artwork’
secondly it is to:
‘achieve social control of the meaning of their work’

I suspect that these two aspects that Osborne recognizes in the work he discusses belong more generally to much activity in art. The development of artists spaces, the introduction of different media systems, mail art, artists books, sound art, performance, community art, uses of theory, can all be understood in relation to these terms

4. address the crisis of the ontology of the artwork (through an art definitional concept of their practice)

One of the things that characterizes much art on the internet is exactly this question. If ontology is the question of the fundamental nature of the work: how are fundamental natures ascribed to or generated by art work?

I think part of the moves made in this regard are to make such a question difficult. The question is made difficult not because the ontology of the work is made to refer back to a nebulous idea of the artist. The difficulty is produced because the work is deliberately generated through the mixing of different contexts, that it contains multiple ontologies. I would say too that to talk of ontologies is not to go in search of essences, but to engage in an experimental politics of determining and productive powers.

5. A crisis is a moment when one particular kind of understanding or way of doing things no longer matches with what is actually occurring. It must be supplemented or broken, added to, layered or subordinated. In such a condition, there is a need for the recognition of the multiplicity of a reality. It is common that such a crisis does not come from ‘inside’ art, but from those who recognise that they also belong to other sets or conditions. Such figures use arts terms, its apparatus, art systems, perhaps as one of many sets of terms to describe and make what they do. That, in part, is why it is necessary to talk about art systems in plural.

At such moments, art must think what it does not think. It must imagine what it forbids, what it keeps itself from thinking, what it has forgotten or what it is not yet thinking.

6. One of the things that is interesting here in relation to this problem of broken or multiple ontologies is the particularly suggestive nature of the internet. I would like to suggest here that the internet, and more precisely the figure of the network which it carries, whilst not performing in exactly the way Osborne suggests analytical philosophy did for strong conceptualism provided the opportunity for a comparable moment of crisis to be forged. Like logical analysis or capital, it is partly a technology for the abolition and recomposition of hierarchies.

On one level we can see its roots as a system designed to negotiate chaotic ontologies, the proliferation of jargons, the overproduction of knowledge in the post-second world war era. This level is the view of the internet as seen presently by virtue of the rear-view of its predominant usage, the world wide web, the idea of hypertext and also in the variant use of the term ontology itself in the developments grouped under term ‘semantic web’.

7. The other concept that can be said in part to be technological is that of the open system. That is, the interface to the system at the scalar level of both hardware and software are available as publicly available descriptions. They are designed to be platform independent and to have no maximum number of participants. (That is, they take the modularization of technologies typical of modernism but make it not just internally coherent, but aware, in some sense, of its outside.)

8. What is interesting though in this context is not this relatively well worked-through pair of imaginaries of the nets of themselves, but how they combine with other phenomena occurring in art systems. If it were ever possible as a map of art, Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s schematic diagram of Modern Art, with its thrusting trickle down from the 1890s to 1935 is in many familiar ways no longer tenable. We move from the genealogical flow chart, to the figure of the network.

9. It is the figure of the network which makes the title of this symposium rather treacherous. I suspect that alongside many artists I do not regard my work as being ‘british’. One of the powers of art is its refusal to have itself demarcated by the boundaries and interfaces of states. In the title of this event, we have a kind of art defined by an administrative boundary. Britain does not exist. The empire has contracted like a leech sucking on lemon juice. Britain does not exist, but it hangs on, a spasm. Art moves in and out of this rictus of administration, in much the same way that people stuck in Yarl’s Wood or Campsfield2 removal centres for refugees do not.

10. Open systems have a specific historical development in computer science that dates back to the 70s, but they also have a history as intentional cultural forms. This is something picked up for instance by Craig Saper in his book Networked Art or in Umberto Eco’s pre-semiotic book, The Open Work. However, I want to suggest that there is something more fundamental inherent to art that that can not simply be mapped by collating two images of the network. And, it is inherent in this idea of the crisis of ontology, the definition of our practice is a definition of multiplicity. Multiplicity of course has become a very contemporary virtue, like creativity or innovation. It can mean nothing. But an ontological commitment to it can be extremely significant, threatening of life.

It is stated in the most clear way by Pierre Klossowski in his book on Nietzsche:
“A society believes itself to be morally justified through its scientists and artists. Yet the very fact that they exist – and that their creations exist – is evidence of the disintegrating malaise of the society; and it is by no means clear that they will be the ones to reintegrate the society, at least if they take their activity seriously”3

And it is with this in mind that I turn to the next thematic:

11. How artists use emerging dynamics to achieve social control of the meaning of their work

Self-theorisation / Direct publication
Collective practice
Non-art context, not just art

12. Self-theorisation
One can question whether – in the context of this symposium where the length of time allotted to artists to discuss their work is a fraction of that allocated to those whose work is to mediate, organise and interpret such work – whether such a strategy has had any success. The division of labour is clear. Show pictures artists, tell anecdotes.

However, I think that this partition of the right to speech in this event is relatively anomalous. Perhaps it indicates a change in conditions, one characteristic of the museumification of work, of the kind where the specificities of an art practice are simply slotted into an eternal format rather than being used to rethink the museum, as well as the practice. (I’m presuming here that such issues are going to be raised more fully in the later panel on curating new media.)

13. Every new media, practice, or approach that brings itself into being in relation to art systems is accompanied by and produced through its theorisation. Usually, for the first cycle or generation of such an introduction, such writing, including statements, manifestoes, performance scripts, flyers, mailing lists, reviews, interviews and so on, is made by artists or those working with them. Art work is very closely allied to its public, polemical, thinking through. A key to the work of those artists that Osborne discusses is that this practice is absolutely conjoined. The claiming or indeed making of critical territory is the work here.

Such texts make it a precondition of access to certain work that particular aspects of it are taken into account. The relations of dimensionality to a practice, object or process are signposted, declared or given as a simple statement, or act of wishful thinking.

Partly this is done through necessity, to draw and shape attention to the work. It is done to lodge an indigestible lode in the archive. And importantly, it is done simply to make certain kinds of work possible. Without the work of thinking it through in the space of text certain kinds of work does not exist. But, more than that, it is characteristic of much that is interesting in recent work that it includes theoretical activity in the expanded domain of media practices as part of the work. That is, in relation to a project that might use the media systems of the gallery, the internet, art media re-representation, theoretical work is also used as another dimensionality, another kind of activity that has its own idiosyncracies, sets of potential or blockage and capacities for production.

14. work in explicit collectivities
All the artists on this panel4, make, in one way or another, a reflection on the conditions of their agency part of their work. And I would like to suggest that this is true within art activity in networked and computational digital media more widely. This is not to make a particularly strong claim. Rather, I just want to list out some of the ways in which it is useful to acknowledge.

15. On a technical level, the range, number and specialization of the tasks involved often mean that work has to be shared. This means that the engagement with technical aspects of a project is to some extent brought into the pattern of work itself rather than hived off to a separate party.

16. Equally, at a wider scale, the materiality of the media is integrated into the work. Reflection on the technicity and particular natures of networked and computational digital media involves an acknowledgement, and a testing of the social construction of the media. Hence for instance the currents of work engaging with software.

17. It is important to recognise the ways in which artists organize to explicitly mark their position within multiplicities. Often this has been in the practice of artists interviewing each other, the public guessing at or making of ideas; in the production of events which use a relatively open and scalable format for work to be made manifest and available; the use of mailing lists, archives and repositories in which work is debated, reviewed and published or fought over.

In relation to other events and processes covering this area over the last decade it is useful to provide pointers to the sheer number of people involved. I started to make a list of the names of all the artists I knew of who were busy in some of the subsets marked by the theme of this symposium. There are tens and tens of people, perhaps hundreds eventually. I think one of the thing this symposium should mark is that formats for debate and documentation of such work need to find ways of recognizing work that is around, that is crucial but not named in the blurb here. (Additionally, one should recognize the exclusory nature of pricing an event at a third of a week’s income for someone qualifying for a concessionary rate!)

This however is not to say that such art conflates a recognition of collectivity with conformism, that the artists are habituated to recycling the same water of the same small puddle. But perhaps it is to say that it is emphatically necessary to see on both the microscopic and macroscopic levels the relations one is embedded in and working through, but also to see the possibility for the recognition of many kinds of affiliation as productive powers and to tend to make those explicit in the work, the way it is named, and in the contexts and means by which its circulates.

Work in digital media with its mixtures of formal and natural languages, logic and excess, standard objects and systemization interacting with livid deregulation often makes such connections massively and profoundly palpable.

18. not just art
This bring us to the last characteristic to discuss, that what is often developed here is a social aesthetics as well as a medial one. For much of the work that is significant in this area, there is a refusal to be detached from non-art contexts. Music, politics, different kinds of activity, different intensifiers of life, energy and materials, all provide a background and context for this work. What makes it art is the capacity of reflection it draws upon, the commitment to lived experiment without a control. Such art requires a dose of carefulness or courage to make things strange, to risk life rather than the certain death of business as usual.

Thus I do not want to talk about an equally administered aesthetics of paternalistic personal growth, industrial creativity or instrumental ‘art as police referral’. This is simply shifting subjects from one databasing system to another, simply applying cultural rather than control interrogatives and filters. This is a social aesthetics, not a socialised one. And it is in its negotiation and invention of medial life that it commands attention.

19. So in short, yes, there are potential parallels to conceptualism, as if this were a marker of anything particularly significant, but as a question of understanding the particular conditions and capacities of art systems and the particular historical conditions in which a crisis of multiplicity might be made. On such a basis we can, not recapitulate stylistics, but, make art.