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Themesicon: navigation pathOverview of Media Articon: navigation pathSociety
Social Technologies
Deconstruction, subversion and the utopia of democratic communication
Inke Arns[1]
Global Groove (Paik, Nam June), 1973


Joseph Beuys is perhaps the best post-1960s example of an artist whose work changed society. Rather than adopting a perception of art that is formal and aesthetic only, his concept of «social sculpture» includes «the kind of human action that is directed at structuring and shaping society—Beuys calls it the ‹social organism›.»[2] When seen in this way, art is not just a material artifact: it is also, and above all, action designed to have social consequences. Beuys' idea of relating plastic creativity to socio-political activities took up the social utopias of the historical avant-garde.

Beuys was not primarily interested in including and using media in this context, but many post-1960s artists have both addressed media explicitly, and also used them to pursue concrete socio-political aims. They start by assuming that in a society increasingly influenced by media, an (artistic) change of media content or media structures can contribute significantly to democratizing society.

And ultimately, behind this idea there lies the hope that art can change society. My title, «Social Technologies,» is an attempt to pin down the ambivalent meaning of ‹(new) media› or


‹(new) technologies› as addressed by artists working with these media or technologies. On the one hand they are asking how much these media are being used for social conditioning, expressed in limitations, restrictions, surveillance and access control. At the same time they are examining how much these media can be used to create new public and social links and structures and thus can be turned into their opposite. Here utopias involving a social function for media—with the possible exception of Nam June Paik's «Global Groove»—are no longer directed mainly at television, but at alternative channels independent of the mass media.

But in the 1970s, analytical deconstruction, subversion and the development of alternative production and distribution channels were only some of the television-related «postutopian strategies»[3] that this essay's key artistic examples will present. Media artists deconstruct the mass medium of television analytically using the resources of art (Dan Graham, Dara Birnbaum, Klaus vom Bruch, Marcel Odenbach).[4] They also use subversive strategies by occupying niches in the expanding media landscape

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