From: (Pit Schultz)
Subject: nettime: The Work of Art in the Age of Cyber Technology - By Toshiya Ueno
Date sent: Tue, 20 Feb 1996 21:03:57 +0100 (MET)
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----- Forwarded message from Geert Lovink -----
From: Geert Lovink

A Preliminary Thesis Toward "The Work of Art in the Age of Cyber Technology"

By Toshiya Ueno

Discussions of network art, of artistic practice on the net, or "the work of art in the age of cyber technology" best begin with a consideration of the antecedents of network technology and cyberspace. Only by looking back to its antecedents can we liberate our thought and our practice as we face the "beyond" of network art and electronic technology. We might refer to this stance, along with Geert Lovink and Pit Schulz, as a gesture towards "net criticism," both in the sense of criticizing the net and developing a critical net theory.

In terms of art, practices such as "Mail Art" and "Fluxus" cannot be overlooked as predecessors of network art. They emerged out of the ceaseless metamorphoses of practice and method along the trajectory from Futurism, to Dada, to Surrealism to Situationist mouvement. Beginning in the late seventies, "Mail Art" was a particularly ground-breaking experiment in expanding the horizons of artistic production to include the processes of communication and transportation. (It is interesting to note that an artist like Genesis P. Orridge, who later became important in the fields of media art and noise music, was once involved with Mail Art.) In Mail Art written texts and other articles are not only mailed and forwarded, but the elements that constitute the works are themselves "traveling" objects; Xeroxed, made into collages, and cut and mixed together. In some sense, free radio and pirate television were also developmental forms that arose out of this context. However, these kinds of "broadcasting-style" free media, even "narrow casting" or "public access," tended to emphasize the sharing of a physical space with those on the sending side, and they had little of the relationality and connections characteristic of electronic space. The addition of a telephone connection to the equation in the interest of interactivity does little to change this fact. These may have been able to function as a certain mode of practice for media art, but they were fundamentally different in character from network art. In general, practices and art using electronic media can only be said to exist "alongside" media art and mail art; "before," that is to say, the advent of network art. (Of course this does not mean that they are any less valuable. Their use by media activists in the former Yugoslavia is surely proof enough of this. Of course these are not so-called "works of art," but they are technologies/techniques of life; nothing less than works-as-action.) Is it possible to trace these "befores" any further back? If we think of the concept of the network as having to do fundamentally with "connections between people" or "connections between things" there is no reason why this kind of relationality should be limited to that made possible by electronic technology. Indeed, inasmuch as they functioned to connect the "here and now" to another time and place, networks that existed before the age of electronic technology must have incorporated characteristics and desires similar to contemporary ones. Consider, for example, the case of peoples or other groups (communities) which live in a place other than their original location. Unlike simple distribution, traffic, or travel, experiences such as immigration, refuge, exile, expatriation, and Diaspora give rise to networks which may not be readily perceptible but nonetheless have a definite existence. When people live apart (both spatially and temporally) from their originary location and yet collectively maintain a strong ideological, ethical, or spiritual connection to that place, net-like or web-like relations begin to proliferate. We cannot ignore the fact that not only is the number of people in this situation rapidly increasing to include more than just the Jews and overseas Chinese, but that our own cities and media are also splitting off from their origins and transforming themselves into a complex of traveling vernacular culture. Without even mentioning electronic technology, writers of cultural studies like Paul Gilroy and James Clifford are already using the term "Diaspora web" in reference to the kind of secondary indigenousness which arises from cultural mobility and communication. Rock was born from blues and gospel, and Reggae from the convergence of Calypso, Ska, and Rock. From there system DJs wove together Hip-hop and House using (electronic) sampling technology. Popular music of the twentieth century at least has been an effect/result of a web of this kind of cultural traveling and communication. Similarly, networks can evolve in a way that can only be judged retroactively. Or perhaps one could say that networks already in place have simply become visible thanks to electronic technology. For this reason network art is not a genre in any sense, nor should it be.

Just as it makes it possible freely to move and connect links and nodes, it is trans-genre from the very beginning. It is local at the same time that it is global, but is never merely "glocal." It is a "translocal web" (Kogawa Tetsuo) to the extent that it transcends this dichotomy. To say that something is "not a net but a web" is not a matter of terminology, aesthetics, or methodological categories or distinctions. The emphasis on a consciously and unconsciously expanding web in place of an all-engulfing network is also to be found traversing Hakim Bay's thoughts on T.A.Z and the uses made of the Internet by the Chiapas FZLN movement. Experiments like Ingo Gunther's "Refugee Republic" and David Blair's "Jews in Space" are closer to "Diaspora web" art than network art. Okazaki Kenjiro and Tsuda Yoshinori's "Atopic Site Generated" from their "Bulbous Plants" also deserves special note as a valuable experiment in the inter(con)textual pursuit of the potential critical force of the linking function on the World Wide Web and the semantic shifts between the "net" and the "web."

*In short, if there is in fact something that we might call network art it is primarily a form of thought and practice based on the concept of weaving and not simply an interactive mode of art based on network technology. Bridges connecting separate land masses or links between islands floating in the sea are not webs. Rather, it is important to keep in mind that it is precisely the "bridges" and the "betweens" which produce discrete land masses and islands. Such an awareness makes it possible to conceive of and weave together worlds which do not preexist movement and communication. At this juncture there are always certain uninspired minds who bring up the aesthetics of "bridges," "karmic bonds" (en), or "betweenness" (ma) to claim that Japanese culture has always been characterized by this kind of net or web-like relationality. Projecting network-like elements onto traditional cultural forms such as linked verse (renga) inevitably results in the proposition of some preposterous illicit connection between the pre- and the hyper-modern. Such thinking is as barren and void of content as Japanese-style postmodernism. Network art based on this type of ahistorical thinking is on the increase in Japan.

It is, however, possible to reread Japanese cultural forms such as renga and Noh theater through the concept of the web from a position that critically evades the impoverishing effects of this kind of "techno-orientalism." Such a rereading entails setting up links that liberate "the place called Japan" into "a space which is not Japan." In an essay titled "The Story of a Box," the gifted literary and media critic Hanada Kiyoteru (1909-1974) wrote of a certain rakuchu rakugai zu (1) as a platform-like screen expressing the "group mind" of Kano Eitoku, Oda Nobunaga, and Uesugi Kenshin. As you know, there were several versions of this screen, but here we are concerned with the one presented (sent) to Uesugi Kenshin by Oda Nobunaga in 1574. Painted by Kano Eitoku, this depiction of a tranquil Kyoto done in a combination of Japanese and Chinese styles functioned in fact as a challenge to Kenshin by Nobunaga, who by this time had already seized control of Kyoto. This rakuchu rakugai zu screen given to Kenshin by Nobunaga was a landscape painting of the capital, a diagram of marketplace communications, and a strategic map of Kyoto as a battlefield.

Hanada provides a dynamic perspective of this painting as one which necessitates a "group." The bustling activity of battles, festivals, and marketplaces all depend on the existence of groups. Rakuchu rakugai zu are media which, when presented and sent to individuals, repeatedly convey this fact. Hanada refers to Eitoku, Nobunaga, and Kenshin as sharing a "group mind," to each one of them as a sender and a receiver, an interpreter and a mediator of "pictures." He actively affirms group action based on the assumption that "there is no mutual understanding among individuals" and gambles that communal information processing is possible even in relationships where the participants are anonymous and lack mutual understanding.

There is no doubt that what we have here is another web. Using the stratagems of network art and weaving, net criticism ought to be able to reposition even history and tradition in the context of "translocal" communication.

Note: "Pictures in and around the capital"--a genre of screen painting originating in the Muromachi period which depict scenes in and around Kyoto. Ueno's reference to "platform-like screen[s]" employs the term used both for a surface for painting and for a computer/television screen, but translation into English further complicates the matter by adding the sense of a folding "screen" (Jpn.: byobu) like those on which the rakuchu rakugai zu were originally painted.