The Insufficiency of Technology in today’s Museum

By Séamus Kealy

From Andrés Ramírez Gaviria, catalogue published by Metroverlag, Vienna, 2008

By means of negative investigation, this text will wander in and out of this subject of art and technology by nudging up, at times, to the work of Andres Ramirez Gaviria, namely the works Between Forms of Representation and Interpretation, and 0..

A peculiarity of much contemporary art – perhaps in its ever-growing kinship with design – is its tendency to remain self-satisfied in its own forms. That is, for example, within much new media or digital art one can discern an automatic erasure of history or seminal references, while also detecting how the work encourages, in itself, a fetishistic relationship to the machine and its potential reproductive and surveillance methods. This is despite the prescribed eeriness often encountered in, especially again, new media art. This assertion might appear to be contradictory – having both a ghostly form of resonance and an apparent lacking of any kind of immediately obvious history or narrative. This seems to describe, in a shifting of the expression, a ‘ghost in the machine,’ in the most post-modern (again, eradicative of history and meaning; a giddy re-invention of meaning), twisted usage that befits the paranoia that gives reason to the madness in the machine, and explains the emptiness that lies behind the paranoia.

New media work by Andres Ramirez Gaviria seems to be within this conundrum. But perhaps this work, in its embrace of the technologico-aesthetic, might come to insist, in itself, on an eradication of the uncanny (die Unheimlich) and call for something more substantial. This is an unusual claim, perhaps in that this artwork is programmed – we know programs and gadgets control it – and the discernable dispelling of uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit) or life within the machine is still concurrent with an odd feeling of displacement. Andres Ramirez Gaviria’s work survives in this tension where the movement, flashing mechanisms, and interaction could have all the symptoms of uncanniness but more often, if ever, do not. An example of this is Between Forms of Representation and Interpretation, a dark room full of light probes hanging from the ceiling, which illuminate in a succession of changing patterns determined by the textual description of that same work. The flashing immediately brightens the room and blinds the viewer; and the rattles, beeps, sliding noises, and computer twerps, snaps, and clicks all resemble an electronic anemone. However, it is not some thinking apparatus, it’s patterned source is a statement programmed to repeatedly spell itself out to the viewer in an encoded sequence of lights and sounds that sets off a firstly tranquil, and later irritating, experience. Although Gaviria could have shaped the work to artificially appear to produce an uncanny experience, the artist somehow resists this temptation and the ‘spirit’ beneath the electronic system of lights and noises resonates with different terms, and different intentions.

This might be, firstly, because a deliberate purity of form dominates in his work. The work leans towards an aesthetic of grand, human absence and emptiness associable with industrial design in its appearance. In such an appearance the cold, metallic grayness of dystopian science-fiction cinema or the malevolent gadgetry and hyper-paranoid, uber-controlled societies appearing in Phillip K. Dick novels are the protagonists – not so much the audience that is reflected, surveilled, or interacted with. Someone in the same room as this aesthetic might immediately have an inherent pessimism about technology and its impact on humanity if such an aesthetic is not immediately entwined within some sort of product placement or dream studio design for the globe-trotting super-bourgeoisie or art and leisure-educated trust-fund babies, which is, today, this aesthetic’s most common vocation.

It is important to consider that technologico-aesthetics are most often acting as a preventative measure against the present-ness of harsher realities. New medias are a constant, opiatic dream-world in the making (is it any accident that science and technology seek to tackle the limits of life and the body?), they are buffers that distance the Real and become perpetuators of the neglect of social realities (no matter how capable they are of representing, archiving, and disseminating these realities) and the eventual apex of individualist needs.

In this same vein, most new media and digital presentations in the museum setting often appear fetishistic and repressive of social realities by insisting on a clean, precise aesthetic – one that nullifies otherness and empties out the breath of life – which has an inherent proto-fascist tendency to it. This, one may argue, is the same aesthetic of a future military-corporate order (and a capitalist-totalitarian present) and it also contains the means to employ a new world order within its very functionality. This is a conversation very infrequently made in current discourses on new media. We live within a contemporary climate of intense optimism for technological development and its place in improving our world and predicament. However, the truth of the matter is that nearly all technological development these days, no matter where one lives, is for military purposes. In fact, military personnel have recently had a dramatic tangible and financial presence in university research, where grad students and professors alike have their skills and talents employed towards improving and developing technological instruments for military and surveillance purposes. This is no new phenomenon, but the utopian or 1960s optimism once associated with technology is only a memory in the reality game, although wishful thinking might prevail in the new media museum.

What is evident is that the vastness of the world does not function or look this way of the grey, metallic new media installation, at least for the time being. However, there are always those who wish to impose this aesthetic (and its functionalities) onto grander ideals or societal organization (as it greatly has informed administrative, bureaucratic, and thus social structures). When this aesthetic becomes not only ever-present in the museum setting but emblematic as a societal and ethical aesthetic of the museum (which we have seen lately), we can observe not a forward-leaning shift towards a future of new technologies and better quality of life, but more accurately and very often a retroactive, retrograde shift to an obsessive fascination with gadgetry and the flashiness of technology unto itself, beneath which lie the impulses of destruction and totalitarianism. Very often, there is little in the way of examining its social function, despite that very often there are strong attempts to situate technological innovation alongside psychoanalytical considerations. Altogether, this is not an indictment of technology and new media, but what is within these medias, if we can consider this as Walter Benjamin considered the notion of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. That is, if we do not discern (for example) a sense of the uncanny in an encounter with a new media installation, are we experiencing anything different from a computer in the office or a microwave oven humming next to the refrigerator? Or, if it is certainly not a sense of the uncanny within these machines, what might the artist (or industrial factory) in fact be attempting to transmit? In the case of the iPod, the answer is clear, but this form of customer satisfaction is not enough when one enters a museum setting.

Another problem is that however much commentary or mimicking there is of surveillance technology, for example, and references to Michel Foucault’s analyses of the panopticon or modern prison, new media technologies in art are, more often than not, as much about a jittery fascination and spectacle-excitement associable with corporate and entrepreneurial ethics and giddiness for domination and subjugation of the world’s human and non-human population. This aesthetic, without a critical agenda, is simply an exegesis for New World Order. The itemization, categorization, and teleological segregation of species, nations, classes, and different forms of wealth-production are not distant cousins of the hard-edge, flashy techno-aesthetic, which in itself enthralls its viewers or its consumers and makes them loyal to a fatalistic and blindly deterministic socio-political order.

As the modernist world of art either parsed social realities or attempted to bury them, we must admit that new media art, often art made with new technologies, has a relationship, firstly, to social realities by virtue of its construction (technology from multinational companies that mostly causes more ills for human society than not); secondly, new media art’s very aesthetic (these works mimic, imitate, or emulate surveillance technologies, office computers, electronic devices in corporate architectures, and electronic ‘pleasure-producers’ such as the iPod); and, thirdly, new media art’s function (although new media artworks rarely have a use-value, their import and function within a museum setting is linked to the reliance of everyday modern life on technology).

To take this argument one step further, the grand discourses and opiate of museal representation of new media and technology are themselves symptoms of a generalized reluctance to consider the very notions of politics, collective political agency, social crisis, divisions of wealth, and other tremendously real and ignored crises that have not only defined our contemporary world, but have also dramatically burgeoned alongside technological growth. It is not that one has caused the other, but perhaps that one perpetuates indecision and abstraction of the other into the merely real, and thus part of what might be considered an obsoleteness of being. That is, if one is not only savvy but also fully immersed in the technological, one is safely out of the picture.

We might see parallels in the proliferation of technology into life as into the museum, with the proliferation of military technology and its natural tendency to benefit from global economic trends and power relations. It is no accident that, for example, radical free-market economist Milton Friedman, who influenced the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney, and Margaret Thatcher, was involved with United States foreign policy and advised military dictatorships worldwide, including that of Chile’s Pinochet regime. Today, advanced technological warfare is increasingly linked to economic production; it begins to resemble postfordist production in its mobility, integration of intelligence and labor, and far-reaching spatialization of previously unreachable areas. Hardt and Negri identify a “proliferating proliferation” of the “military-vital complex,” where it is crucial “to realize how intimately biopower and war are connected in reality and at every level of our analysis.” Warfare, with its psychological and infrastructural destruction, is thus the key form of hostile economic transformation, one of several multi-aggressive strategies that have dominated United States foreign policy for decades, usually and necessarily in collaboration with allies.

If a future archaeologist were to examine detritus of this period we now live in, or if an alien could singularly view the earth in its entirety at this very moment, a relationship between the world of images and representation, technology and capitalist consumption, human desire and drive, the world’s ongoing drive for war would be all too discernable. Producing a comparable vision of, and for, ourselves – the alien lens onto our everyday reality, a shock of the Real within the illusion of an organic, symbolic world, whether by action or aesthetic – is a key task for current generations to prevent not only a domination of space, but also of mind and culture. What appears as an inseparable relationship of modernistic categorization, contemporary living, knowledge, perception, and militaristic purpose within the ephemera of the machine of war (military-entertainment complex, military-education complex, general infiltration of militarized violence, military forms of observation and documentation) demands ongoing, active redefinitions and aggressive thefts of visuality and language, as well as assaults on both the apparatuses that dominate these spheres of experience and the resulting symptoms of these dominations in human experience.

It is now a time when ‘experiment’ in contemporary art often means some solipsistic, narrow set of ideas that are meant to be, for the most part, hidden from the audience and discoverable by a few, usually close to the artist or the curator. Even so, the revelations are very rarely euphoric – it is a reclusive and shared, small community that engenders a pleasure in its communion. This, simply, is not an optimistic or generative direction for contemporary art.

Where much new media artwork today enters the world of specific, almost micro-entertainment and distraction for a chosen few (despite recent tendencies to spur audience growth with spectacular architectures and festivals that host contemporary art)– no matter how complex its creation, influences, or stakeholders may be – out of avoiding the substance of the political or social Real (or romanticizing it) that gave rise to its form, new forms of new media might well align themselves with traditions that do not naturally foretell their form. That is, new media work should not follow the melancholic-bureaucratic aesthetic of much Conceptual Art or the grant-gestalt of much Minimal art but instead seek other traditions and, more importantly, currencies that challenge its very form. Here one might encounter a ravaging of the machine that produces obverse and unspeculated effects and affects.

A work such as 0. by Gaviria is steeped with these questions, their implications, and a human desire to resist and embrace New World Order. This work remains caught between these tensions, and the sensation is not a comforting or comfortable one. In Gaviria’s work, there is an ongoing obsession with control and the frame in which a spirit of inhuman, categorical rationale speaks out from the work alongside its clean, delicately constructed boxed-in-ness. With 0., this order is demolished and its complete annihilation withheld where the destructive moving image is slowed down to a fetishistic precision. What one encounters is a positioning of disintegration itself as form in itself, but here as suffused with a proto-modernist, idealist, almost Suprematist desire to contain and control with the ever-presence of rectangle frame/cube. Beneath the slickness of metallic, glittery machinery, one encounters underlying destructive impulses.

Where Gaviria often references modernist pioneers Mondrian or Kandinsky, 0. references Malevich. This work speaks to an overarching concern the artist seems to have where, within the most contained method of production, means of visualizing a future through media, no matter how proto-modernist or out of date the envisioning may be, can be and perhaps should be inherent to the production and form of this media. However, it should be remembered that Malevich’s production called for a “destruction of the sun,” an entire sweeping away of this world and its histories for a grandiose, imaginably Russo-Nietzschean revolution. This sentiment is uncomfortably close to the cynical determination of our technological world discussed in this essay. The difference is that the former intends to blot out the sun in order to replace it with a better one; the latter has yet to truly consider much beyond the bottom line and thus seals the world’s fate. As such, it is clear which one should align oneself with, whether an artist or not.