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<nettime> Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code
Eric Kluitenberg on Wed, 21 Jun 2000 00:46:20 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code



Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code

by Eric Kluitenberg



Note: This text is an expanded version of a talk given at the Pro {AT} Contra
symposium in Moscow (May 2000) and at CFront 2000 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
(June 2000). Though the text does not specifically address the position of
artists and the cultural world in Eastern Europe, it does provide
incentives towards the development of practices and tools for cultural
resistance and autonomy that can be applied in this context.


A double conversion....

In the age of NASDAQ mania, technology and new media have become the
principal sites of manifestation for the next transformation of the
negative dialectics of avantgarde art. This tradition is by no means dead,
it is simply transferred to a new domain. The death of art, and its
subsequent rise from the dead, is followed by the death of the avantgarde,
and the subsequent discussion if either of them is actually dead or alive.
That discussion can be skipped. Art still exists and is very much alive, in
countless magazines, in art sections of news papers, in web environments,
in countless art galleries, in museums world-wide, and above all in the art
market.

The avantgarde has, however, performed a double conversion upon the sacred
concept of art: it has turned the profane into an object of art, but more
importantly; with this act, accepted, sanctified, and legitimised by the
very figurations that determine what actually counts as art, it has
simultaneously converted the objects and practice of art itself into
profane entities. As a result art has become part of the conventional
economy, part of the secular cycle of demand and supply, production and
consumption - it lives on but without the aura of the sacred.

Avantgarde practice itself might be a more difficult case, since its
operations rely on the 'shock of the new' or the 'blow of the sublime',
which it brought about by negation of the existing order of art practice,
the negation of the positive sign; the sign that wants to communicate that
points towards something it wishes to indicate, some message it wants to
convey. After a long century of avantgardes, practised in the most violent
and destructive epoch since the dawn of human existence and civilisation,
the avantgarde has apparently completed its task - Art has been
deconstructed beyond repair. It is now completely obsolete, irrelevant,
superfluous, out of date and out of touch with any significant social
reality. It is dead beyond dying, born again in insignificance, a notion
nobody wishes to take serious anymore, a playing field at the edge of the
social sphere that is reduced to pure amusement, a fancy for the tourist
industry. A domain where 'anything goes' because nobody cares.


The end of negation?

The avantgarde, in short, is left with nothing to negate. It would seem
that the avantgarde has lost its 'raison d'tre'. Its fundamental principle
of operation, the negative dialectics of denial, has lost its object to
deny. Art exists as if nothing happened even though its death has been
accepted, or at times even celebrated. It has, however, been stripped of
all its powers to inform the ways in which we speak about the world. Art
has dropped back behind the spectacles of the media and advertisement
industries, the abstractions of advanced physics, molecular chemistry,
genetics, medical biology and all the other natural sciences, and finally
the political scenographies that dominate the cerebral sphere of the global
populous.

But I do not believe that the avantgarde is now dead, or about to die.
Instead it is very much alive, but it has transferred its field of
operation. After the conversion of the (al-ready-made) profane into the
realm of aesthetics, after the disentanglement of the spectacle, and after
the dissimulation era, now the negation of the positive sign has entered
into the realm of pure simulation, the digital hypersphere. This digital
hypersphere is constituted by the interconnected structure of digital
networks, and its most familiar (and written about) manifestation is the
internet. The transferral of avantgarde practice from the realm of arts
into the digital hypersphere is by no means accidental, it occurs right at
the moment when the internet is turning into a mass medium, and at a
moment when the surface of the internet is cleaned of its radical past,
domestified, regulated, but also professionalised.

The dominant media discourse is not that of conversion, but that of
convergence. For some years the convergence of the new digital networked
media with the old (formerly analogue) has been discussed, proposed and
theorised. The big bang fusing the old and new media structures, was the
unexpected announcement of the merger between America Online and Time
Warner. If anything, this event woke up both the media world as well as the
political elites. We can now in retorspect evaluate this announcement as a
turning point in recent media history. The moment when the 'net got real',
as The Economist put it, and the final fusion of old and new media was put
on track.

The infrastructural preparations were already going on for many years.
Cable television was gearing up for the net age. Telephone was extended
into digital and asynchronous modes, and fibre-optic and satellite
connections stepped up the push for more bandwidth. In a contradictory way
the provision of net services for free proved to be the final ingredient to
turn the internet for the billions into a reality, enforcing critical mass
for the new medium. Obviously the massive influx of newly connected will
change, once again, the nature of the digital matrix. In many ways we can
safely predict that the net of the future will be much like the television
of yesterday, but the development is more multifaceted than simply that
alone.

'On Air'  - No Disturbance Please!!

On the level of the net as the media unifier of the future, its
professional augmentation will draw upon the traditions of the existing
media industry. What the network inherits from the old media is first and
foremost the illusion of the seamless surface. The professional code
demands the uninterrupted flow of information, communication and above all
entertainment. This seamless media surface provides the viewer with the
illusion of absolute professionalism and control. The image projected from
the screens is that of completeness: The 'proper' image of the world is
propagated through the appropriate and right use of the medium. It assures
the viewer that her/his electronic ears and eyes are still in focus. The
world becomes a transparent global village in which m/disinformation
disappears in the crystalline media scenography.

The absolute horror of the media professional is the interrupted broadcast.
In the TV format it is sometimes witnessed in an ultimately brief interval
as a traumatic black screen. In radio the despair of silence is even
greater than the absence of the image on TV.  Horror Vacui is replaced here
by an electronic form of  Horror Silentiae. The silence of the faded radio
signal and the blackness of the imploded TV screen does not merely mark the
absence of a signal. The horror implied is the immanent destruction of the
illusion of the seamless media surface, which requires the continuous
suggestion of immediacy and connection that gives the viewer the reassuring
impression of the transparency of the media screen.

This illusion requires the purification of the network environment. The net
has to be cleansed from its plethora of anarchic impulses. The temporary
autonomous zones are relegated to the far edge of the networks, replaced
and superseded by the professionalised media formats and codes. The media
professional applies skill, technique, knowledge, and the new
'net-subjects' brand loyalties to the new high bandwidth content zones, to
create the uninterrupted network flow of interactive shopping and fun,
interspersed with the occasional suggestion of actual information.

It is only in the moments when this flow is interrupted, when the code is
broken, when the sound has collapsed and the screen has extinguished that
the possibility for an alternative message, a new code is created. This is
the space of negation: The void created by the rupture is the open field in
which a new synthesis of unique forms in space and time becomes possible.
The emergence of the new code out of the void of the Horror Silentiae
reconfirms the connection of the media subject to the world. It is in this
moment of delight over the conquered threat of the end of existence /
connection that the avantgardes can come into play and transform the
meaning of the media codes.

The tools of avantgarde practice in the new digital hypersphere are
familiar, satire, reversal, appropriation, displacement. Nothing new here,
except that the interesting moment no longer is the disruption of the
aesthetic framework, or even the negation of the concept of the author, the
artist, or the artistic practice itself. Instead, the negative dialectics
of the digital avantgarde no longer challenge the notions of art, but those
of the by nature symbolical digital realm it operates in.

The examples of this new field of avantgarde operation abound, but one
interruption of the seamless media surface is particularly relevant here.
It both exemplifies but also points beyond the sphere of mediated
communication and media convergence discussed so far - the WTO web site
hack by the US based art collective RTMark. Though witty, original and
skilfully executed I did not choose this example to cultivate the mythology
of the artist/genius. The hack is rooted in an understanding of networked
communication and internet practice that is available too many digerati,
hackers and IT pro's. What is relevant about it is that it combines
avantgardistic gesture and net savyness with an acute sense of timing.

During the anti-WTO protests at the occasion of the WTO meeting in Seattle
in November 1999, the networked presence of the activists was an essential
ingredient of the activists' communication strategy. In the new media
ecology attention is a prime economic asset, and attention had to be drawn
to the negative side effects of the proposed world trade agreements for the
vast majority of the world population.

RTMark simply appropriated the web site of the World Trade Organisation
[http://www.wto.org]  by copying all the graphics and the lay-out of the
official site to the domain: http://www.gatt.org [note: GATT - General
Agreement on Traffic and Trade  one of the principal international trade
agreements]. The site however did not link to any official information of
the WTO organisation itself, but instead links to all counter-information
sites and web casts produced during the Seattle protests.

Where the official WTO site contained a personal address to the visitor by
then WTO director Mike Moore (a famous New Zealander, once a prominent
international protagonist of the "Lambburger" - a curious contribution to
'cultural diversity' in the global food chain, countering the dominance of
the US Hamburger), the GATT site of RTMark in turn contains the same
photograph of Mr. Moore with a text declaring the 'true purpose' of the WTO
organisation, "to broaden and enforce global free trade. Global free trade
already gives multinational corporations vast powers to enforce their will
against democratic governments. Expanding these corporate powers --as the
WTO intends to do in Seattle and beyond-- will further cripple governments
and make them even less able to protect their citizens from the ravages of
those entities whose only aim is to grow richer and richer and richer."
(citation from the www.gatt.org site)

The GATT site infuriated WTO director Mike Moore to such an extent that he
not only published a warning on the www.wto.org site warning the public
about "a fake WTO site misleading the public", immediately mimicked by
RTMark with a highly similar notice on www.gatt.org, complete with a link
to the official WTO site claiming its misleading and disinforming nature.
Moore also put out an official WTO press-release, condemning this action as
a threat to the transparency of the WTO organisation and its efforts to
make its thousands of drafts and policy documents public. With this action
Moore drew the attention of the mass media to the hitherto almost unnoticed
existence of the www.gatt.org web site and sky-rocketed the number of hits
on it, fuelled by world-wide media attention. Moore's press release thus
completed the hack by RTMark. The incident shows how the disruption of the
seamless surface of the WTO's media image produced a fundamental and
irreparable transformation of the WTO's pr strategy.


Beyond the politics of representation...

It is clear by now that the sphere of international economics and politics
has become inseparably linked with the new constellations of broadcast and
networked media. The principal challenge of the network society is the
complete fusion of media, digital technology, economics and politics. The
logic of the digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society.
This fact on the one hand marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has
become completely intertwined with the *real* world. At the same time,
however, every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by
virtue of how it is mapped in the digital domain.

Beyond representation, the space of digital networks has become the
backbone of economic interaction, enabling the immediacy of financial and
economic flows across the geographical and territorial divides. The
connections between the networked structures and the physical domains they
hook up with each other, have become so endlessly complex, manifold, and
interdependent that it is no longer useful to distinguish the physical
geography as 'real', from the networked constellations as 'virtual'. In
fact the very opposition of the real and the virtual has become misleading.
Geography and technological, social and economic networks together create
one system that becomes increasingly integrated and sophisticated. But this
system is highly problematic because it excludes more than it allows.

Access to tools and ideas is replaced by the dominance of vested powers
that project their outreach on a global territory by means of the most
sophisticated control apparatus in the history human civilisation. The
authority of this system can only be challenged, and its structure can only
be changed, if the seamless surface of the media-interface and its illusion
of transparency are broken and reconstructed in a multitude of alternative
agenda's.

The net, the space of interconnected computer networks, derives its power
from its disembodied informational nature. But this symbolical construction
(the digital code) also makes it vulnerable to symbolic de- and
re-construction and analysis. Saskia Sassen pointed out quite rightfully,
speaking on the edge of Europe in Tallinn (Estonia) only weeks before the
turn of the millenium, that the Internet is constituted by the practices
employed in it. This is the point of entry, where the negative dialectics
of the avantgarde can challenge the established canons of vested interests
and powers.

Avantgarde practice no longer needs to concern itself with aesthetics and
art. Those notions have already been thoroughly deconstructed, or otherwise
have become irrelevant beyond repair. The avantgardists can now concentrate
on the new sphere of digital mediation. Their practices break the clean
surface of digital media and disrupt the flow of networked interaction. The
subversion of 'real virtuality' breaks the illusion of so-called
globalisation, which excludes 90% of the world population. By breaking open
the semi-transparent box of consumer technology, the avantgarde breaks the
spell of over-mystified technologies.

The stocks are already falling, but the negative dialectic of the digital
age will only come to completion, after the bubble of the new economy has
finally and irreversibly burst.


Eric Kluitenberg
Moscow / Plovdiv, May-June 2000


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