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<nettime> "Systems Panic" Days
Konrad Becker on Sat, 4 Oct 2008 22:01:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> "Systems Panic" Days

In times of crisis we all need a little security. For your safety and
pleasure Brian Holmes' speech at the "World Security Days" Vienna.
(A significant contribution to the rather scary debate on artistic

Cheers, K

PS: new video on urban peacekeeping and black operations
feat. Brian Holmes, Eva Horn and many others,


"Security Aesthetic = Systems Panic"

This isn't the first time I've participated in the events of the
Global Security Alliance. Previously I spoke under the fictional name
of Frank Beauregard, director of the Paris-based "Risk A" division,
with some slick European ideas on "security aesthetics" for cultural
peacekeeping. The chic aesthetic future of security tried to look
good in the face of an explicit critique of warlike, ineffective
Anglo-American practices used in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what I want
to talk about today, in case anybody missed it, is the implicit angle
of Beauregard's critique, and the target of GSA operations in general.
None other than the deep paranoia and drive toward total paranoid
control that's now being expressed in even the "fuzziest" realms of
security society, namely culture.

Let's approach this whole thing philosophically. Where does security
end, and insecurity begin? Systems analysts recognize this as
a classic boundary question. Its answer determines the precise
deployment of any security system. But as we shall see, this
particular boundary question cannot be answered under present
conditions, except through the definition of a second system, a
specifically interrogatory one. Drawing on the special definition of
an American art critic of the 1960s, I'll call this second kind of
bounded entity an "aesthetic system."

First we should consider how security systems are installed in
reality. Attention is focused on every point where an environment,
conceived as "secure," comes into contact with its outer edges.
Typically, these edges of the system are doors, windows, property
lines, borders, coasts, air-space - every place of ingress or egress.
At each of these edges, a catalogue of known and present dangers is
established. An analysis is conducted to determine the most effective
responses to these dangers; and locks, barriers, fences, warning
devices, surveillance personnel, armed guards, etc. are positioned
at the system's boundaries to repel the threat. Further efforts are
expended to look into the crystal ball of the future, predicting
all those points where new threats could call for the definition of
new boundaries. More material and personnel can then be deployed,
or at least, readied for deployment. The security system expands
dynamically, continually adjusting its relations to the outside world,
continually redefining its own boundaries as a system.

One can easily imagine how a home, an airport or a harbor can
be made "secure." An initial, safe or "quiet" inside space must
simply be preserved from outer harm. But what happens in a complex
social system, one composed of many different actors, some with
irreconcilably diverging interests? In other words, what happens in
an environment where threats can arise from within? The response is
clear: what happens is deep paranoia.

The problem of the system's edges suddenly multiplies: the boundary
to be secured is now the entire volume of the system, its width, its
breadth, its depth, and most damnedly of of all, its human potential
for change in the future. The resulting proliferation of eyes, ears,
cameras, snooping devices, data banks, cross-checks and spiraling
analytical anxiety in the face of every conceivable contingency is
what defines the present security panic. Yet there is a further
complication, which merits our attention, particularly in what is
called a democracy. This is the fact that security measures, in
the face of an internal enemy, come very rapidly to be shrouded in
a veil of secrecy. This is not only to preserve their immediate
effectiveness, though that is, of course, an issue. But secrecy, from
the viewpoint of the security system, is also required to keep the
initial security measures from backfiring and actually increasing

For what if innocent but marginalized social groups knew the extent
to which they are being spied on? Would they not then feel further
alienation, and maybe even defect to the side of the enemy? And what
if mainstream citizens themselves had to be surveilled, for fear that
a violent anomaly might be lurking somewhere in an average profile?
If they knew they were being spied on, wouldn't these honest citizens
become angered, and demand an end to the proliferation of security
measures? Doesn't opinion control then become necessary too? And how
about cultural censorship? Where does security end, and insecurity

As you can see from the world around us, any security system is
destined under stress to become an entity of uncertain contours, a
veritable black hole in society, extending its cloak of invisibility
to the extent that its internal paranoia deepens; and at the same
time generating an external paranoia about its operations that can
only translate into a redoubling of its initial drive to stealth and
invisibility. Under these conditions, what becomes necessary for the
maintenance of a democracy is a specific kind of social system, whose
probing and questioning can provide some renewed transparency. This is
is where art criticism used to have great ideas.

Writing in 1968, Jack Burnham predicted the coming demise of the
traditional art object, and with it, of the figure of the artist
as Homo faber, or man the maker. In their place would arise the
"aesthetic system" shaped by Homo arbiter formae, man the decider of
forms. The essential reasons were technological and organizational:
in an age of ever-more complex and powerful information machines,
constructed by ever-more sophisticated and extensive organizations, an
art that retained the simple posture of manufacture, or hand-making,
would inevitably be condemned to lose all relevance in the world. Yet
this declining relevance could be countered if the artist rose to
the challenges of the contemporary process of production. As Burnham

"The systems approach goes beyond a concern with staged environments
and happenings; it deals in a revolutionary fashion with the larger
problem of boundary concepts... Conceptual focus rather than material
limits define the system. Thus any situation, either in or outside the
context of art, may be designed and judged as a system. In evaluating
systems, the artist is a perspectivist considering goals, boundaries,
structure, input, output, and related activity inside and outside
the system. Where the object almost always has a fixed shape and
boundaries, the consistency of a system may be altered in time and
space, its behavior determined both by external conditions and its
mechanisms of control."

Burnham's ideas were way ahead of his time. In the 1960s, what he
mainly had before his eyes were sculptural environments, or what we
now call installations: relatively simple systems of interaction with
the public, which no longer appeared as art objects, but rather as
heterogeneous assemblages of parts, some of which might break down and
could then be replaced, without in any way damaging the originality
or authenticity of the system. That was already a revolution. What
we've seen emerging in the art of our time, however, particularly
since computerized communications technology became available in
the 1990s, are aestheticized versions of complex socio-technical
systems: networks of actors, equipment, physical sites and virtual
spaces allowing for the orchestration of quite diverse activities. In
this context of spiraling interactivity, the most important artistic
decisions are the ones that shape the systemic boundary, lending the
system its degrees of recognizability and irrecognizability, and
thus, its potential for symbolic agency. As Burnham remarks, the
systems artist "operates as a quasi-political provocateur, though in
no concrete sense is he an ideologist or a moralist."

How then does a democratic aesthetic come into play, in the face of
a security panic with its inherent tendencies toward invisibility,
concealed intentions, censorship and even aggression? What we have
is the paradoxical, yet also paradigmatic case where one systemic
boundary can only be identified by determining another. What this
means is that an aesthetic system must be constituted as a fully
operational reality, an alliance or network, which can probe the
contours of the secret, dissimulating system, and at the same time,
reveal those hidden outlines mimetically, through its own outer
forms, its own vocabularies and images, its characteristic modes of
appearance and communication. What you get then, in art, are elaborate
fakes, doppelgangers, double agents, fictional entities that strive to
produce outbreaks of truth at their points of contact with the hidden
system. What you get, in other words, are counter-models, the virtual
outlines of rival systems. This is the principle of some of the
most advanced art of today. Jack Burnham understood it in 1968. But
there's just one problem: later generations of critics did not read
him. The job of art and cultural criticism today is to help create
space in democratic societies for the necessary fictions, satires,
double-identities and shadow-boxing of aesthetic systems.

Brian Holmes

Vienna, 2008

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