Pit Schultz on Tue, 17 Sep 96 03:23 METDST

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nettime: Media and METIS - Peter Weibel

this article was faxed to and distributed at the Media and Ethics conference
Helsinki, September 1996 instead of the presence of the author himself.

Peter Weibel

Media and METIS
On the functional transformation of electronic media art in the nineties

the historical public sites of art such as the castle, church, museum and 
villa are today being augmented by the trade fair, lobby, newspapers and 
television, banks and the Internet. In view of this changing public sphere, 
the question arises as to haw art has changed in its public function. Has it 
conquered new realms or has it submitted to the same logic of public decline 
as diagnosed back in 1962 by Juergen Habermas in his book the structural 
transformation of the public sphere [1]. According to Habermas, the public 
sphere has gradually declined to become a marketplace of commerce, according 
to Richard Sennett a dangerous tyranny of intimacy. [2]
This question is of particular intensity particulary for media art whose 
public sites are naturally enough all new sites. Firstly because we are 
currently experiencing the demise of naivety with regard to the public 
sphere of media art. The revolt against historical forms of art has been 
terminated by the cultural assimilation of media art. Major festivals, big 
group exhibitions today present media art as a matter of course. The phase 
of exclusion by historical forms of art is slowly coming to an end. Of 
course, there are a number of victims that fall by the wayside, avant-garde 
film or video art, for instance. The digital form of media art has proven 
particulary successful in a fusion with appropriated forms of historical 
media art such as film or video. Secondly because media art can no longer 
superficially belie its proximity to the electronics industry to whom it 
owes its equipment. The origin of electronic technology from the innovations 
of war and weapons technologies has long been an integral part of the techno 
discourse. The close link between electronic media and the industry must 
hence be analysed and translated in artistic terms as part and parcel of 
conceptual practise. However, this task still lies ahead for media art for 
the main flow of electronic arts serves the techno-industrial complex as an 
expert of legitimation. A great many media festivals and exhibitions look 
like product presentations at trade fairs and business jargon has swamped 
the cultural field. You enter electronic playing fields as you would a 
waiting lounge at the airport or in a big company. Management lingo speaks 
of innovation studios and bridges to the future, etc. The standardised weave 
of norms of technical apparatus, from frequencies to software, is accepted 
without criticism and provides standardises artistic packages. Instead of 
experimentally investigating artistic practice in laboratories, evolving 
discursive collages beyond and against the industrial empire, instead of 
investigating the conditions of production and consumption of art in a 
cultural laboratory, creating a new framework for an existence in the data 
world, most media artists become voluntary victims within the mighty text of 
technology. They celebrate their own fascination with fetish technology 
instead of developing a distance to this fascination. To date, technology has 
tended to see the subject as a technical object, even outwardly. The result 
was that technology was ever defined only in terms of technology. The 
industrial definition of technological objectives and values was more or 
less regurgitated by artists, in a similar manner to the historical panel 
painting that visualised the aims and values of the church, the great tale 
of Christian religion. Today, the global media mix is a milieu in which the 
subject itself forms a part as an object. The artists articulate the text of 
great tales of the techno-industrial complex. We are talking about equipment 
instead of mentality and about machine craze instead of psychodrama. 
Technoostentation ios converging with poverty of experience. But the task 
would be for media art itself to differentiate between technology and 
technological experience. For if we pursue the origins of the notion of 
mechanical arts, e.g. in John Scotus, we come to realise that free arts 
differ from mechanical arts in that the act of perception is a process of 
inward differentiation in the free arts, while mechanical arts are provided 
as a disposal from outside, i.e. as an option presented by the industry, as 
an offer of constantly renewed machinery that the artist may avail himself 
of. This distinction between mechanical and free arts has an Aristotelian 
origin, namely in class division. The slave has no art because he is not 
free. At best, his art is mechanical and, being mechanical, the slave is no 
citizen. The citizen's art alone is free and must have the mutuality that is 
a feature of the zoon politikon. The freedom of art and the freedom of the 
citizen are reciprocally defining. The central question for media art today 
is thus to what extent it is able to make free citizens of consumers 
(slaves) in this age of media and its incomprehensible feudal structure. As 
long as it creates only mechanical art, it will remain subjugated to big 
transnational industry. 
In his prophetic book Habermas lamented the demise of the public sphere from 
a site of rational, free political debate between citizens to an arena or 
stage of tempting and convincing the consumer. In view of the fact that the 
big computer and ohter firms are currently transnational and that the states 
themselves are becoming their customers as it were, the state has taken up 
the habit of addressing its citizens as customers. The word citizen's 
service is all too obvious evidence of this whole pitiful decline of the 
public sphere. Just like industrial products have a service adress and are 
always beeing sent in for service, the citizen too becomes a mere part of 
the big operating system of consumption with the effect that he too becomes 
a mere service address, too. Companies strategically arouse the idea in 
their customers that they are acting in their function as citizens when 
making their consumer decisions. The state as an inferiour rival to the big 
companies treats its citizens as consumers: citizen's service is the result. 
If you buy a television set and choose from a number of video films, you 
think you are fulfilling you duties as a citizen.  And the tax-paying 
citizen feels this to be a gift. The citizen is treated like a customer 
especially during elections, he is no longer addressed as a citizen at all, 
rather propaganda illusions are sold to the mass public just like in 
advertising. The customer or consumer in contrast is gushed over as if he 
were the most free, autonomous citizen upon whose welfare whole states 
depend (save America - buy Americal products). In this zone of electronic 
feudalism, media art would have the task of liberating itself from its 
slavish function towards the industry and to transform the media into an 
instrument of the citizens in this age of media, emancipating itself from a 
mechanical art and evolving to become a free art. In the techno-industrial 
complex, what is involved is a new dynamics between art cultural and 
technology, between society and technology, a mapping of this dynamics in 
the art work itself. In this age of global displacements the role of the 
mass media is to create a network to strengthen historical forms of rule by 
restructureing them. In view of the fact that the big companies themselves 
are becoming the driving force of global displacements, art and, 
specifically, media art - if it can recall its original function at all - 
will have the task of analysing this displacements and its causes within the 
global network so as to create the conditions for a resistance to the new 
feudalisms and new vertical structures of mediacracy. The amnesia of the 
media is their daily routine called television. Media art, in contrast, 
would be memory art. Searching for free electronic citizens instead of 
enslaved, electronic consumers, we can expect more in this respect from 
artists on the periphery that from mainstream media artists in the big cities. 
The ancient godess of reason and cunning, Metis, Odysseus and Daedalus who 
owe their lives, their survival and their immortality to the great Greek 
allegories for the mature citizen, are also adequate figureheads for the 
media. Vis-a-vis the power of the media and their frenzied exteriority, 
browsing on the rails of cunning is the only site in a world that no longer 
knows where its site is.

The text reflects in a interesting way the practise of the author as the former
chief curator of Ars Electronica and his influentive role in the field of
'media art' in the last 10 years. It may sound like hipocrisy that Weibel is
distancing himself from a position he was himself bringing to success. 
While the "technodiskurs" once has been a avant-gardistic arena
for european data-dandies it got today adopted by the corporate aesthetics
from AT+T to Siemens or MTV to Wired and leads the neoliberal promise
of self-realization in the hardworking middle class. The euphoric futurism
of media technology as the motor of culture, the postmodern agenda of the
disappearing of the everything in the simulacra of information, or the
positivistic belief in the eschatology of rationality, which he
bound virtousily with a transdisciplinary field of fringe-science and
salon academism did not collapse yet into an end-millenial 'Goetterdaemmerung',
nor the 'digital revolution' has led to a shift in the organisation of power
in the western world. Especially the social and ethico-political sphere which 
opens with the global connection of personal computers gives place to a changed
problematic for the elektro-artists compared to the elitism of hitech 
installations of the last decade of _SGI_-art. Instead of contributing to
the museums for the future, falling into nostalgic melancholia, or 
participating a self-referential art discourse by posing as techno-rebels, 
there are several options to higher the insecurity inside the system by 
relating to the incoming sonic from the borders of the digital realm. The net
is first of all increasing the question of inclusion and exclusion not only to
the non-wired population but also 'between the firewalls', it is obviously 
following not only the lines drawn by 'the war of browser standards' but by
cultural differences, language barriers, the distinction between 'citizen' and
'slave' which goes beyond the question of representation and relates to the
singular subjective modes of existence and the possibilities to break the
capitalistic semiotics of media technology. It's a good sign for the
of an originary 'new media art' which legitimates through the novelty of it's
medium itself, that Mr. Weibel does some encrypted old school self critique
here. Ethics in media could at least mean the right to noise.


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