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Can the Cultural Logic of the Digital Era Be Exhibited?

A Tale of Two Shows

By Ana Teixeira Pinto
  • Ana Teixeira Pinto
    Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon, based in Berlin. She is currently a lecturer at the UdK (Universität der Kunste) Berlin and contributes regularly to publications such as e-flux Journal, Art-Agenda, Mousse, frieze, frieze d/e, Domus, Inaesthetics, The Manifesta Journal, and Text zur Kunst.

The digital turn seems to correlate with a crisis in representation: though equipped with a growing variety of optical media, we are increasingly unable to grasp the algorithmic totality, which surrounds us. Data’s primary mode of existence, as Alex Galloway argues, is not a visual one, 1Alexander Galloway “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” Theory Culture Society, Vol. 28, 2011. and the twin forces of globalization and digitalization tend to widen the gap between individual experience and the economic structures that determine it. What happens to art when phenomenological experience—the raw material aesthetics is made of 2I am paraphrasing: Frederic Jameson “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988).—becomes secondary to information flows?

In Berlin this spring, two, almost co-occurring, exhibitions set forth to tackle the cultural logic of the digital age. The first, “Nervous Systems” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), curated by Anselm Franke, Stephanie Hankey, and Marek Tuszynski, explores the models and modes of algorithmic governance, to describe a world of biometric analyses and pattern recognition, which fully captures and profiles its users to place financial wagers on their near and far futures. The second, the 9th Berlin Biennale, titled “The Present in Drag,” curated by the editors of online magazine DIS, represents the jaded subjectivity this cultural logic engenders.

“Nervous Systems” could be construed as an exercise in what Frederic Jameson called “cognitive mapping” 3ibid.: a cartography of the structural coordinates which underpin the diffuse world of post-Fordist economies. The exhibition functions like a diagram, the model for which can be found in the works of artist Stephen Willats. Along its schematic organization of information, “Nervous Systems” hosted an ancillary conference program organized by Diana McCarthy (in the interest of full disclosure: I took part as a speaker). The problem of political agency is here reconceptualized as a problem of representation: the vectors of our digital infrastructure do not lend themselves to pictorial capture, in order to render the world intelligible we need a different set of intellectual tools. “The Present in Drag,” on the other hand, as no use for Marxist hermeneutics.

“Why should fascists have all the fun?” asks a Not in the Berlin Biennale (a communication and marketing campaign created for the 9th Berlin Biennale) poster by Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus, and Babak Radboy. The rub is that every time one flirts with fascist aesthetics—as this biennial brand of market-besotted nihilism abundantly does—one activates a weaponized sensibility for which terror is aesthetically pleasing. As Susan Sontag argues, art that seems worth defending as a minority or adversary taste, can become indefensible once the context changes, 4Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” The Partisan Review (Fall 1964): 515–30, http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html (accessed 4 July 2016). once the fantasy of the fascist super body is no longer just a sexual quirk but an increasingly strong, political force.

“You wonder in no particular order: Are we at war? Will Trump be the next US president? Do I like Shakira?” asks the biennial press release. It is a rhetorical question, meant to perform disengagement, but whereas the biennial’s title, “The Present in Drag,” would seem to point to a queer or camp magnification of that which is often misrecognized as natural—though it reduces all questions to questions of style, camp can constitute an effective strategy to denaturalize normative politics; representations of gender for instance, once magnified, tend to feel coercive and aberrant rather than ‘normal’—the biennial does not pursue that route. Instead, it reconceptualizes the role of contemporary art in order to render aesthetic experience as a direct extension of corporate spectacle, while arguing that the only valid form of engagement with the digital economy is via the reification of its hegemonic modalities.

Once you enter the exhibition venues, the vectors of incorporation permeate everything, textures, colors, surfaces, language. The Post-Internet style, which the biennial stages as a total artwork, carries the promise of complete malleability: all materials are made to behave like water—a convention of plasticity that sublimates the process of precarization through which labor is rendered ever more flexible. As the works bleed onto one another, they feel generic and deindividuated, which could be construed as a tardy attack on authorship were it not for the fact that, once labor is outsourced and content downloaded, the only open avenue to claim artistic ownership hinges on the privatization of collectively generated resources. The figure of the artist is, here, not so much negated as it is reconceptualized as a digitally literate gentry who is not invested in the circulation of images but in their fixation—as private property, or copyrighted content. 5I am paraphrasing the argument made by Melissa Gronlund in “What Was Pre-Post-Internet? Why Net Art and Cybernetics Are Forgotten” (keynote lecture, Lunch Bytes Conference, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 25 March 2015). To identify art and retail while preserving the institutional frame is an economic rather than aesthetic operation: in the case of an artwork it is paradoxically the appeal to a worth beyond monetary value that actually functions as a guarantee of that value. To manufacture this higher value is what the institution does 6Nicole Demby “Art and the Freedom Fetish: Some thoughts on art and the state after 1945” Mute Magazine, 28 May 2015.—which is why Kunst-Werke (KW) board member Julia Stoschek inaugurated her collection in a pop-up museum, displaying many of the artists included in the biennial the day before the press preview.

Other than insider dealings, there are additional problems with the curatorial proposal, like the notion that art ought to represent a reality Post-Internet art fundamentally misrecognizes, rather than imagine it otherwise. Symbolically speaking, this position piggybacks on the legacy of modernism as an oppositional figure, as a negation of the negation. Liberated from modernist critique, modernity is free to fulfill its capitalist destiny. But this double negative gestures toward a positive: a global visual idiom that conflates the vectors of Silicon-Valley-commodity-space with the spatial strategy of the United States empire. Riding on the coattails,of its cultural policy, a plethora of parochial forms—like the contradictory mix of state paranoia and personal narcissism, which constitutes the Californian Ideology 7The Californian ideology is a mixture of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. See Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” Mute Magazine (1995).—get to pose as universalisms. The moniker “NATO art,” which curators Maria Lind and Rike Frank have employed to refer to Post-Internet is an apt one. 8Lunch Bytes Conference, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 25 March 2015. It is no coincidence that the biennial is almost entirely white or that most Post-Internet artists come from the United Kingdom or North America—fittingly, the American embassy in Berlin hosted a high-security cocktail party to celebrate precisely this—countries which did not contribute significantly to modernism (though the United States contributed massively to its institutionalization by lionizing abstraction) and for whom modernist forms were always unreadable, or, to paraphrase T. J. Clark , readable only as fantasy figures, under the rubric of formalism. 9T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Displacing the fetishism for high art with a fetishization of high definition, Post-Internet art also appeals to the uneducated investor or venture capitalist because it is devoid of the complex codes and idioms that constitute the formal lexicon of most contemporary art. The corporate aesthetics it apes is familiar, under-complex, and sentimental, and we have all been trained to recognize affirmation as a significant conceptual gesture ever since Pop popularized the notion that celebration can be said to constitute a form of criticism.

Recently rediscovered by accelerationism, the argument goes more or less like this: there is no outside to capitalism, hence the only way out is the way through; capitalism cannot be negated but it can be accelerated until, by virtue of the law of quantitative accumulation leading to qualitative change, it ends up morphing into a novel socioeconomic figure. This narrative mirrors the rhetoric of Californian Ideology, which also maintains that capitalism can disrupt its own processes to reinvent itself in a creative way, and it is no surprise that both these discourses are now calling for universal basic income, or that Nick Land, Peter Thiel, and Patri Friedman all argue for overhauling democracy or restricting citizenship rights to the investor class. These libertarian proposals also have truck with the survivalist aesthetics the biennial peddles, and its worship of the hacker—the only political subject the exhibition is able to recognize—as self-sufficient lone wolf.

To quote McKenzie Wark, the great socialist utopia that actually got built is service infrastructure. 10McKenzie Wark, “Renotopia,” Harvard Design Magazine 41 (Fall/Winter 2015), http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/41/renotopia. Having private companies as the sole providers of essential public services implies a fundamental social division between a digital plutocracy who owns all the assets and a vast underclass of users who pay for access. Replacing social security with universal basic income would formalize the current trend. While the biennial assimilates technology to fashion and social media, as just a form of self-expression, for the exhibition “Nervous Systems,” mediatization and financialization are co-constitutive.

Inside “Nervous Systems,” the collective Tactical Tech (Maya Indira Ganesh, Stephanie Hankey, and Marek Tuszynski) staged a mock costumer center named The White Room, which makes manifest that the newest developments in wearable technologies—fitness trackers, subcutaneous contraceptive implants, biometric ID cards, body cams—are biopolitical tools that double as control mechanisms, making coercion from without appear as coercion from within. This nexus between communication and control constitutes what Keller Easterling calls “extrastatecraft:” the multiple semi-state or non-state forces that, under the conditions of globalization, have attained the considerable power and administrative authority necessary to undertake the building of infrastructure—Bitcoin, a form of private currency, being the most notable example. 11Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014).

All forms of social organization predicated on the privatization of property give rise to a class relation, but private property is not synonymous with capitalism, and the class relations that emerge out of financialization are not necessarily relations between capital owners and wage labor. 12McKenzie Wark, “The Sublime Language of My Century,” Public Seminar (14 May 2016), http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/05/the-sublime-language-of-my-century/. Financialization changes the social process by which capital itself is created, 13ibid. and whatever we choose to call it—digital feudalism, cleptofascism, 14This term was introduced by David Riff at the conference “(Post)-fascist Idyll” which took place in the Roter Salon of the Volksbühne, Berlin, 19 May 2016. postdemocracy—the coming convergence of financialization and digital tech is at odds with our current models and modes of social (re)production.

The industrially built environments we refer to as “second nature” have always been a contested place: “a space of fragmentation, alienation, class struggle.” 15McKenzie Wark, “Escape from the Dual Empire,” Rhizomes 6 (Spring 2003), http://www.rhizomes.net/issue6/wark.htm. Industrialization proceeded by shocks; its relation with the social and individual body was one of violence and mutilation, symbolic as well as literal. By armoring the social body, fascism emerged as a response to this disruption.

By contrast, the digital turn was alleged to foster abundance instead of scarcity and integration instead of divisiveness. “The virtual geography of the communication vector,” as McKenzie Wark notes, “emerges as the promise of a space where the contradictions of second nature can be resolved,” and alienation can be undone: a techno-ecology promising to heal the wounds industrialization inflicted on the social body through full participation and therapeutic immersion. 16ibid.

But whereas second nature treats nature as a standing reserve of resources to be plundered, third nature treats our industrial second nature as a standing reserve of resources to be managed and mobilized. Composed of opposing pulls, Californian Ideology is a mixture of technological determinism and libertarian individualism, able to reconcile radical innovation with a reactionary social ideology, and to recuperate collectivist ideals for the imperatives of economic liberalism and self-sufficiency. 17Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” Mute Magazine (1995).

By engaging in a sustained analysis of the history of cybernetics and digital technologies, “Nervous Systems” makes manifest that Silicon Valley’s “sharing economy” hinges on the figure of the “user” as a “unit of economic value,” 18Arthur M. Eisenson, “Ellis D. Kropotechev and Zeus: A Marvelous Time-Sharing Device, 1967” in Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question, eds. Anselm Franke, Stephanie Hankey, and Marek Tuszynski (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Spector Books, 2016), 52. and that the city is about to be reconfigured into a sentient environment inside which consumers are no longer addressed as individual subjects but rather as units of attention to be managed through a fully interfaced infrastructure. 19Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: a History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). Within this media ecology, the screen emerges as a biopolitical tool: at once “the object of attention and the object] capable of monitoring, recording and cross-referencing attentive behaviour.” 20Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). The process of surface aestheticization “The Present in Drag” engages in mimics this organizational logic but misrecognizes its truth-effects: The machinic gaze of a fully responsive environment has no truck with the scopophilic drive that fuels consumer fantasies.

As Orit Halpern notes in her contribution to “Nervous Systems,” information theory implies a model of temporality, which is irreversible but not necessarily progressive. For “The Present in Drag,” the future can only appear as the present in drag, an intensified version of contemporaneity, while the past is treated as a standing reserve of iconography, waiting to be mined. The result is a semiotic loop inside which drones, refugees, symbolist themes, normcore, stock images, ennui, or wearable tech circulate as Warholian currency, are used for trading in appropriation, debasement, and iconophilia. To put it in simpler terms: “Nervous Systems” is a survey of the way in which our current brand of technological acceleration begets cultural atavism; “The Present in Drag” is its symptom.