“vita brevis, ars brevissima”
If you don’t like risk, complexity, flux and change, you came to the wrong century.
Something is about to happen: “Something wonderful” according to Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke. Or, according to WS Burroughs, “Any moment now the entire fucking shithouse is going to explode”. Or implode (J. Baudrillard). Whatever.
What’s great about the future is, no-one knows, because it doesn’t exist – yet.
Art isn’t dead. But walk into any major museum gallery, any fashionable opening, and watch it committing suicide. New York circa 1960 went high concept about a decade before Hollywood. Since then the hottest thing has been to riff on Duchamp’s
Fountain (What would music be like if we were still trying to fathom Cage’s silent 4’33”?) – as if the chessmaster hadn’t found another gambit (Etant donnée). When art started its great enquiry into perception and objecthood in 1905, it undertook what philosophy had abandoned in the ‘turn to language’: the philosophical critique of modernity. Now the avantgarde is autodeconstructive.
Rejecting the modernism of Joyce, Schoenberg, Mallarmé and the Duchamp of The Bride Stripped Bare it rejects difficulty, responsibility (to the difficulty of modern life), and craft (an art
at least as well made as a machine tool).
And where these persist (in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta in the Scottish borders perhaps) is the margin.
Because if you’re at the centre, you aren’t.
Because the centre is a point – the dimensionless victim of relentless acceleration and the death of distance. Dimensionlessness – the catastrophe of speed, the black hole of meaning, implosion of the commodity spectacle, empty heart of hyperindividualism, windowless monad, singularity, the infinitessimal at the end of history: pick your theory. At the centre, Nothing exists.
The contemporary is always elsewhere
And where you are, where you can, is the margin
The centre doesn’t exist and the future doesn’t exist. But we know some stuff about What Happens Next. There’s a diary of elections, international meetings, budget announcements, sporting fixtures,
opera seasons…. New Line have a release strategy for Lord of the Rings stretching to 2006. The calendar of Olympics and biennales piles up at the feet of Benjamin’s angel.
And then we know some other stuff. The oil business will go on strangling the seas, slaughtering species and throttling the human world. The weather will get stranger.
And this will be the Chinese century. Why else would Microsoft have brought forward their handwriting-recognition handheld as the Next Best Thing?
“The third beta (late test) version of Microsoft 2000 included a handwriting recognition system that duplicated the functionality of the popular PRC product Han Wang. “
Not content with stealing the Chinese code, the entire concept of the MS product was propelled forward at least a year by the announcement of the NGO-supported, extremely cheap Indian Simputer designed for village communication in poor regions with low literacy using universally available freeware net code: http://www.simputer.org/
We will only get voice recognition when Africa and Papua New Guinea become enticing markets (like we will only get decent batteries when the power supply goes feral).
What happens next was meant to be a surprise.
Someone stole our future.
Coming soon, the informationalization of everything. If you rip and burn its DNA, does it matter if the painted apple moth goes extinct?
Tom Ray’s Tierra was meant to model eco-catastrophe. Today it looks like a compression algorithm for coral reefs.
Not the least striking quality of digital media and the media arts in general is the level of skill involved, indeed required, of the artist who wants to make a mark.
Mark-making has a machinery under it for. Designers, engineers, offshore parts and construction plants, maquilladoras with their broken lives, immense generosity of unnamed barefoot philanthopists of code and crystals, the famous and the infamous.
Give, before it is taken from you.
(When DG Phalke made the first Hindi films, he apologised for using a camera Made in England. Until such apologies are once again forthcoming, the idea of a national film industry is shallow, far less impressive than digital craft, which few people, beyond an occasional funder, care to identify by nation. You could of course say we grew up borderless in the web because the web was American, but now English has only a few years left as the majority language online. The new lingua franca will be written and typically a second or third language (Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, English). What that means for literacy – a paradise of mutation, a hell of instrumental jargon, the annihilation of the remaining small languages – becomes a political issue in the warmest sense: a question of citizenship in the polis, the cosmopolis.
“Biology is destiny” (Freud): As much as the genome drives the scientific imaginary, and as much as science is the dominant culture of globalization, Freud’s crude epigram describes tomorrow’s cosmopolitan art. Dimensionless again – the only thing worth becoming is what you already are (“Neo – You are the One”). When the only thing worth looking forward to is the past, the future is only the past you discover that you already are – that you were born with.
will be only the most highly priced commodity in a world of proletarianised consumption, where the rest of us poor schmucks have nothing to sell but our attention to the screens.
Already in the wind is the de-professionalisation of art and to a lesser extent of media. Not that there will be no livelihhods had from creative making, but that the amateur can-do spirit of sharing is already more significant than the professional gate-keeping of schools, galleries, institutions, critics and the artist star-system. Unfortunately the proliferating amateur media makers mostly want a slot at Sundance.
Digital tools for creativity – and biotechnical alife tools – can in any case be expected to automate gag-writing and plotlines.
How long does it take to train an actor? Say a few carers, a few friends, a few teachers, for fifteen or twenty years: about a hundred and fifty person years. How soon will synthespians be trainable in less? And to give them an environment to observe? Say, something scriptable in five years time, but something autonomous, capable of reacting, of charming like George Clooney? – - twenty years time?
The self-generating movie may become a possibility in a handful of decades, like the self-generating factory product.
What is harder to imagine is a way of automating the consumption of culture. Work, in the old sense of labour sold for a wage, is fading from the knowledge economy. What’s left is the saleable commodity of audience attention, yours and mine.
We’re worth paying for only as long as we consume.
Ideology began to fade away in the 1980s, not because we got bored of spotting sinister motives in innocent texts, but because there was no longer any reason to hide anything. Hollywood-MTV-CNN is an industry of hidden shallows. In terms of its ideological ambitions, it aims low and misses. Deep structure and concealed messages are only redundant functionalities, like the unusable button on the VCR that will record on a Wednesday lunchtime halfway to Kingdom Come (but only if you don’t use it for anything else for the next ten years).
Ideology is added-value. Like a crowded CGIbackground or the never-before-seen extra sequence cut from the release print, it’s only there to encourage you to buy the DVD.
- if the deeps become shallows
- if the creative becomes automatic
- if attentive consumption replaces factory discipline
why should we worry about intellectual property?
The copyright owner is rarely an artist. Bertelsman’s 2002 relaunch of Elvis tells it like it is: copyright is a library, the archive is wealth, and the fostering of talent that’s claimed as a rationale for over-pricing and exploitative contracts a myth.
First privacy disappears.
Then private property.
The web giveth and the web taketh away.
But if there is, as Richard Barbrook says, an internet gift economy, the undisciplined consumer cannot just take. Such was the contract between the Greatful Dead and their legitimated pirates – give and you shall receive. There is no honour among thieves. The trader must have something to return: a story, a good luck charm, the name of a new god.
The global free market is a lie and a deception. The confrontation of the Chinese gerontocracy and their planned economy with the ideologists of GATS is the beginning of some strange new world. Capitalism is visibly failing. Land reform (Mugabe) and Islam –
however demonised – flag the beginnings of a revolt of the dispossessed.
Because, since the Bretton Woods agreement, all debts are paid in US dollars, the dollar is over-valued. It was that surplus value that created the vapourware dot.com pile-up of the 1990s. Solutions for global inequity 1: disestablish the dollar 2. open the borders. Once Europe meets its colonial past at home instead of on the tourist beach, it will find reasons to develop the underdeveloped world.
Arts and media communicate, but in the 21st century e-cash communicates universally. The new culture can no more afford to be economically illiterate than it can afford to be digitally innumerate.
The old modern politics was conducted in a geography of exclusion.
Today global flows maintain, corrupt and decimate nations whose politicians cling to the last vestige of power: the chance to attract more global flows. Distinguishing politics from economics has become impossible. Politicians merely mediate money and power – that inevitably come from elsewhere and go elsewhere – and are mediated by them. The more globalisation binds all humans (and all environments) together, the more communication becomes inevitable, and the more it is mediated.
Money and power are becoming media.
Ideas are money and money is an idea. Information wants to be free but is everywhere traded in the marketplace. The global mediascape is our new planet. Anyone not in the information society is left to die on the old, brown, desolate place abandoned in the rush to the data economy, no longer ghost towns or rustbelt regions but the tragic continents of agriculture and manufacture.
Neither creating nor consuming the information economy, Africa is supernumerary.
All art, all media in the 21st century must confront this actuality or be condemned to the depthlessness of entertainment.
The 19th century avantgardes wanted to make artworks that would escape the clutches of the old – and became collectible. The 20th century avantgardes wanted to make techniques that would be unrecuperable by the old – only to see montage, surrealism, even
conceptualism become advertising and branding.
No work and no technique is of itself radical, progressive or good. Only the relentless pursuit of works and techniques other than those that existed before is worth the effort, and even then in the knowledge that as soon as it is public, it becomes the property of Madison Avenue (further proof of the fallibility of the intellectual property argument).
The Walker Gallery archive of net.art is emphatic – what it shows is no longer ‘art’ but a history of art. It is an honesty all galleries should have.
The phrase ‘finished work’ is no longer applicable to 21st century art. If it is finished, it is over, a museum piece. And even the unfinishing has been relieved of the burden of art by advertising.
The arts of the 21st century are radically ephemeral. (further reason for the failure of ‘ownership’ to account for art)
and radically social. C21 can no longer afford individual artists, not just because the tools are already the congealed form of all the workers who made them but because the studio is no longer a garret but Paramount c. 1939.
The most significant modes of media are now, like games, CDs and graphic novels, collaborative. P2P and Open Source contest the privatisation ofbiotechnology, the individuation of destiny.
The individual – crown of creation from renaissance perspective to Romanticism to the guitar heroes of the 1960s – is now a museum piece along with the art it made. The individual that remains is only a temporary node in a shifting network of communications. That, or the micro-unit of increasingly precise target marketing. The family imploded under the weight placed on it in the destruction of the old communities. Now it is the individual’s turn.
Anonymity is no longer James Joyce’s choice (“silence, exile and cunning”) but the necessary condition of any making.
After the end of geography and history.
Because new corporate media will be increasingly transnational, the new art will be translocal.
The only art that looks like art that’s still worth looking at comes from the geographical or social margins where the traditions have not been mined out and the contradictions still play. The rest of us have to invent new margins, and learn from the old margins what is most unwanted by the art system. Art itself has to vanish if it is to get through and beyond the vanishing points of the spectacle, hyperindividualism and the cybernetic black box.
After the work, after the technique, the new art is the invention of dimensions.
At the margins of exclusion, of relentless innovation, of the perpetual building of vehicles for escape from the boredom of the professionalised centre, there can be no vanishing points.
Only moments of becoming.
Either we are alone in the cosmos, or no-one wants to talk to us, or they are talking but we aren’t listening.
If Islam can’t hear the voice of the West and the West won’t listen to Islam – if we cannot establish intercultural dialogue – what hope of talking with another species? What could we possibly have to say?
Either we learn to hear when our organic and technological sidekicks on the planet try to talk or the universe may never experiment with consciousness again.
Our planet and our own species are dying. The future has already started.
We had better get ready to change.
Sean Cubitt is Director of the Program in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne. His publications include Timeshift, Videography, Digital Aesthetics, Simulation and Social Theory, The Cinema Effect and EcoMedia. He is series editor for Leonardo Books at MIT Press.