Problems in Technocratic Art

[From commodity, technology and the white cube – 2009]

“The decision makers attempt to manage these clouds of sociality according to input/output matrices, following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and that the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and of scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimising the system’s performance-efficiency. The application of this criterion to all of our games necessarily entails a certain level of terror, whether soft or hard: be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear.”

The birth of mechanised art technique, starting with photography and film and continuing through the array of digital media, coincides (cohesively) with a shift in social and political understandings of knowledge. And the position of art toward technology needs to be recognised clearly. Factors of commodity, communication, celebritism and culture surrounding art are developments of technique that do not constitute art in themselves. Photography did not usurp painting at the turn of the century it redefined its roll as an aesthetic medium and instigated changes within art and its reception. The rapid development of technology is a path that has run relatively distant to the gallery space. By some this is seen as a reluctance on behalf of the gallery to engage with such technologies, yet if we look at theory developed from Benjamin into the latter part of the twentieth-century we may see justification for its absence. Technology shares a common goal with capitalism in its emphasis on performance and function. The pervasiveness of (and desire for) technology is testament to its exalted status in society. However, in art the language of success cannot be easily aligned with function. In fact, it can be strongly argued as anathema to aesthetic language:

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…”

Shklovsky highlights defamiliarisation as a constant in art technique. The object must be detached from its reality and then returned in order for us to perceive its aesthetic. But how do we defamiliarise the functional? This very question becomes the form of technocratic art. Digital artists deal with this question by attempting to challenge the functionality of technology, a common theme being the by-products of the invention and deterioration of technology. Glitch Art, the use of retrograde technologies (Polaroid, VHS, analogue synthesisers), the corruption and manipulation of commercial code through hacking, the mimicry of traditional techniques by digital means; all share a common desire to defamiliarise. Yet outside of the rhetoric of the gallery space these works are sublimated by the commodity system and will always be subsumed by the value of their origin in technological development (one man’s functionless device is another’s innovation). This fate of technology is ascribed by its filiations with industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. It is a misconception that art must align itself with the path of technological progression, “Artists, after all, are no more obliged to consider the effects of technology today any more than they were bound to directly consider the effects of industrialisation in the nineteenth century”. Yet though art needs no confirmation of its autonomy and liberation from responsibility to technological progress, it is important, within this progress, to acknowledge a change in the perception and use of such technology and its artfulness. A like-for-like comparison cannot be made between the trains, turbines and machine-guns of Futurism and the networks, displays and databases of the cybernetic age. As Jameson relates, this transition is a move from “machines of production” to “machines of reproduction”. The structures of modern technology are displaced from the world of aesthetic production and able to deal only with simulacra. Whereas the defamiliarised objects of Futurism could garnish ideas of speed, power and production, the simulacra of contemporary machines are all reified to a system of value. This is by no means a condemnation of digital production as an invalid and inert tool of capitalism. Yet its current usage cannot claim a freedom from its industrialist birth. If no evidence can be found of a non-functional discourse at play, the languages and uses of technology can only serve multinational capitalism. By requiring a ‘media literacy’, Internet art exposes itself as a product of the structural hegemony of commodified knowledge. At the present time it can only defend itself from charges of exclusivity by a suggestion of supposed democracy within its network: the World Wide Web. In reality this very network is, in fact, the hegemonic structure itself. Subversion (or alienation) within this mainframe remains exclusive to the socio-political practice of hackers and entrepreneurs, an area where art is powerless to exert aesthetic discourse in any other manner than as critique. The doorway out of theory and into technique effectively closes behind art leaving it isolated as product or comment. This would leave us an art of the digital age that has leapt from its ancestry (photography, film) to a present status of functionality unenriched by the discourse of avant-gardism and uninformed by the conflicts fought around the territory of the White Cube. The untarnished functionalism of technocratic art unmasks it of any apparent aestheticism. Its root as the communicational tool, constructed by a society that seeks to assign value homogeneously, allies it with a late-capitalist system that requires art as acquisition leaving it replete of internal purpose or mediation. As an art form, digital art in its current two dimensional and/or web based format (as distinct from digital art existing in a sculptural, projected plain within the gallery) can only be theorised postmodernistically and holistically as part of contemporary political and informational structures.