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ThemesOverview of Media ArtSociety
Social Technologies
Deconstruction, subversion and the utopia of democratic communication
Inke Arns[1]

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 artistically (Paul Garrin, Brian Springer), and try to develop their own production contexts and distribution media (Rabotnik TV, Kanal X). Like every new medium, video also fosters hope about artistic scope and revolutionizing the means of production. Many 1970s media art projects therefore aim consistently at transforming the broadcaster-receiver structure—a demand that Bertolt Brecht had already made in his «Radio Theory» in the 1930s. Hans Magnus Enzensberger brought this up to date in 1970 in his essay «Constituents of a Theory of the Media». In the early 1970s, a number of feminist artists started to work with the medium of video (Ulrike Rosenbach, Valie Export and others). In this context video, as a new medium unburdened with rigid rules and traditions, is seen as an ideal medium for emancipation. But in the 1980s it became clear that video had only been able to fulfill the hopes placed in it for alternative media channels to a limited extent. In the early 1990s, new media emerged in the form of the Internet and the digital media. These, because of their technical structure and relatively good access availability, once again bring Brecht's utopia of a genuine‹communication apparatus› within striking distance. While the (artistic) Net activism of the 1990s links up in many ways with the social or socially critical processes of the 1970s and 1980s, it is distinct because of the global reach that only became possible via Internet communication.

Forerunners: Situationist Internationale, Burroughs and Gysin, Fluxus

The Situationist Internationale's theories and practices, Brion Gysin and William Burrough's cut-up techniques and the strategies employed by some exponents of Fluxus are very important in terms of politicized forms of media art since the 1970s. Here the Situationist Internationale and Burroughs and Gysin in particular were clearly adopting the historical avant-garde movements' techniques and aims (Dadaism—here John Heartfield in particular—and Surrealism). The Situationist Internationale was founded in 1957 by Lettrists, the Cobra group of artists and the Imaginist Bauhaus movement.[5] In the person of Guy Debord among others it formulated a radical social critique and also a radical critique of the media society. It rejected creating aesthetic objects in favor of socially constructing situations aimed not at art but at life—and this was long before happenings and performance were discussed in the art context.[6] Central to Guy Debord's «Rapport sur la construction des situations,» which appeared in the late 1950s, was «the demand not to limit oneself to producing works of art any more, but to raise artistic practice to the level of the technological possibilities offered by modern industrial societies.»[7] The Situationists coined the term détournement (diversion) and the concept of dérive (drift), intended as a criticism of town planning at the time. In «La société du spectacle» (1967), Debord's two hundred and twenty-one theses analyzed the way power and sovereignty function in bourgeois society. In the second half of the 1960s, Debord's theory became increasingly more radical, leading to subversive campaigns for a revolutionary change in society. This made the Situationists important driving forces behind May 1968 in Paris. The general strike arising from a student revolt, and the occupation of universities and factories, brought the bourgeois state to the brink of collapse.

In the context of May 1968, film directors like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard worked on making anonymous «CINEtracts» (film flyers). These attempted to review the immediate daily events in short silent film montages with subtitles, thus pursuing an agitatory and didactic role, reminiscent of the Dziga Vertov model.[8] Godard had been seen as the most original and radical exponent of the French ‹Nouvelle Vague› with his feature film début «A bout de souffle» (1959), and became increasingly radical in the late 1960s as a result of the Vietnam war. He did not just want to «make political films,» but to «make films politically,» to be «militant» (Godard). With the socialist theoretician and ex-student leader Jean-Pierre Gorin he founded the «Dziga Vertov» group to produce revolutionary films in a collective outside the commercial cinema.[9] When the Sonimage studio was set up (1973) with Anne-Marie Miéville, Jean-Luc Godard became one of the first film directors to come to terms with the medium of video.[10] He now turned to concrete images and sounds that leave their traces in everyday life—mainly advertisements from magazines, television commercials and icons of political reporting. He combined this acoustic and visual found footage with sequences from his own films, and later with long, specially filmed interviews. Godard was not just aiming to thoroughly revise his own material, but to wrest the images and sounds he found from the descriptions that dominated them by using an omnipresent media machinery, thus making them visible and audible again (interview 1976).[11]

A second important inspirational element in political media art since the 1970s came from the writers of the so-called ‹Beat Generation›. On October 1, 1959, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, whose book «Naked Lunch» had just been published, invented the cut-up technique in the Beat Hotel in Paris. This involved cutting up found textual and audio material at random and reassembling it in the same way.[12] This produces sentences that actually are complete, some containing amusing nonsense, but also appearing to contain some codified meaning. Gysin and Burroughs also used tape recorders, pulling the tapes across the playback heads by hand to produce sudden and completely new sounds and words. «It was as though avirus was driving the word material from mutation to mutation,»[13] and Burroughs found it entirely natural to use a report about the current state of virus research in his first text montages. So William Burroughs uses media (tape recorder) to produce texts: in the first half of the sixties he published three novels produced using the cut-up process: «The Soft Machine,» «The Ticket that Exploded» and «Nova Express.» As well as this, Burroughs applies the cut-up technique directly to media products in his experimental short films that appeared at this time: «Towers Open Fire» (1963) and «The Cut-Ups» (1965). In the novel «Nova Express» (1964), which demonstrates the cut-up method in all its radicality, Burroughs' current interests are central: «Linguistic theory, behavior control, thought control, the virus as a sinister organism on the border between living and dead matter and the virus as a metaphor for the way language works.»[14] This is also the origin of Burroughs' thesis that «language is a virus from outer space,» which was to find unhoped-for exposure in an early 1980s hit single by the performance artist Laurie Anderson.[15] The literary critics were at a loss in 1964. But Marshall McLuhan, who analyzed Burroughs' cut-up novels in an essay for the magazine «The Nation» in December 1964, reached the conclusion that these were something like «an engineer's report on the new electronic environment's risky terrain and compulsive processes.»[16] Burroughs' use of media was finally directed, in a third step—after the approach to text and film production in the first half of the 1960s—towards an extra-artistic subversion of social processes. In order to undermine these «compulsive processes» emanating from omnipotent media power successfully, in «The Electronic Revolution» (1971), Burroughs recommended the subversive technique of playing tape recordings in public spaces. This «playback» is to be used «AS A FRONT LINE WEAPON TO PRODUCE AND ESCALATE RIOTS.» Burroughs writes: «There is nothing mystical about this operation. Riot sound effects can produce an actual riot in a riot situation. RECORDED POLICE WHISTLES WILL DRAW COPS. RECORDED GUNSHOTS, AND THEIR GUNS ARE OUT… .»[17] Underground music groups like Psychic TVand others[18] readopted these methods, originally from the sphere of psychological or subliminal warfare, in the 1980s.

Important initiatives within the Fluxus movement were Wolf Vostell's «Television Décollage»[19] and Nam June Paik's 1960s and 1970s works, in which he approaches television analytically and critically and adapts himself to its structures so that the medium can reach a wider audience. Even in his first video works in 1965 he goes back to television material, which he processes using the primitive resources available to him at the time. In «Mayor Lindsay» (1965), a scene from a television report in which the New York mayor faces journalists is repeated in short sequences. As there were no video editing tools available to amateurs in 1965, Paik had to work with manual interventions in the running video tape, causing constant distortion, interference and breakdowns. Paik also returned to television material in his later videotapes.[20] This distinguishes him from all the early 1970s body and performance artists, who worked almost exclusively with their own images.

Appropriation, montage: Political/Analytical deconstruction

In the context of fine art in the restricted sense, analytical deconstruction is certainly the most important of the ‹post-utopian› strategies listed. One typical exponent of deconstructive media analysis is Dara Birnbaum, who subjected television as a style to a very precise examination from 1977 to 1980. The psychological and cultural significance of image and editing techniques is revealed in a logical dissection and new montage of TV material. The best known of these videos is «Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman» (1978). It consists of a new montage of key elements from the American TV series «Wonder Woman.» An average woman is transformed, complete with special effects flash, from a typical secretary into the female equivalent of Superman. This event is constantly repeated, which makes it the center and starting-point of a new narrative structure. Birnbaum reports that at a public presentation of the video in the window of the New York «H Hair Salon,» and when the video was shown on television, viewers were disturbed, confusing the video with the familiar television series and waiting in vain for the actualstory.[21] An overdose makes the crucial identification elements in the TV series, which suggested to every female viewer that she might escape from everyday drudgery by being transformed into «Wonder Woman,» into rituals that are as empty as they are fascinating.

In her 1980s videos and installations, Birnbaum used mainly pictures she had taken herself, but for a large public installation she worked with appropriated TV images. «Rio Videowall» (1989) was realized in the Atlanta RIO shopping center as part of a competition, and was the world's first long-term video installation in a public space. Dara Birnbaum used twenty five large monitors to combine pictures of the landscape before the RIO shopping center was built with live television images from CNN, which was started by Ted Turner in Atlanta. She also used a video camera, which superimposed silhouettes of passers-by on the TV and nature images. The constantly changing images from the twenty-four-hour news station, the memories of the former landscape and the outlines of the passers-by again point to the contrast between the private and the public medium, with the 1970s approach expanded by the addition of a historical and sitespecific dimension. German video artists also subjected the mass media to critical analysis in the late 1970s. Klaus vom Bruch and Marcel Odenbach both started in 1977 with the topically mediadominating subject of German terrorism, which definitively terminated the 1968 utopias. In «Das Schleyerband» (1977–1978), Klaus vom Bruch undertook a selective revision of television reports on the kidnapping of the industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer. «Sich selbst bei Laune halten oder der Spielverderber» (1977) juxtaposes scenes showing little puzzles with photographs of the key events surrounding the hunt for and death of the terrorists: «Doing puzzles as a symbol of the condition, position, attitude, etc. of the majority of our society. The other side, the second element, to which the word spoilsport applies … are the generalized terrorists … one link lies in the fact that each group reproaches the other with a senseless, irresponsible attitude, occupation—way of spending time.»[22] The end of the 1968 utopias is stated factually, almost resignedly.

The juxtaposition of quotations from the media and images of their own, sometimes including the artist inperson, remains a key feature of the two artists' work for the next few years. The specifically German problem of coming to terms with the past is linked for both these artists with biographical elements to form a media analysis that does not just address the status quo of the media situation, but reflects comprehensively about the historical links between media power and historical image. In «Das Duracellband» (1980), Klaus vom Bruch uses a clearly structured, sharply edited media montage to link a false fascination with technology (embodied by a TV commercial for Duracell batteries) with its politically disastrous consequences (images of the atomic bomb exploding and its victims in Nagasaki).

Marcel Odenbach's videos are aimed above all at linking personal and social experience. His quotations from television and the images he creates are not sharply juxtaposed, but blended together almost to the point of unrecognizability. The sound often forms a counterpole to the images, investing them with a new significance. In «Die Distanz zwischen mir und meinen Verlusten» (1983), Goethe's poem «Der Erlkönig,» in the setting by Franz Schubert, forms the basis of an emotionally dense montage linking a look back into his own past with a historical dimension. The losses mentioned in the title of social, family or religious ties are equally a threat and a relief. In Odenbach's installations, individual, symbolic objects identify the monitor's position in the space. Thus the unlocated electronic image is directly linked with the viewer. A few shoes on the floor in front of theTV screens in «Das Schweigen deutscher Räume erschreckt mich» (1982) are enough to indicate a number of cultural associations and possible behaviors. In his work on German reunification «Wenn die Wand an den Tisch rückt» (1990), the monitors themselves replace set pieces of German history. A GDR soldier is doubled up into two images. He is still guarding, at his fallen state'sbehest, the Eternal Flame at the Neue Wache Memorial for the Victims of Fascism in Berlin's Schlossplatz.

The process of analytical deconstruction was a commonly used technique from the 1980s onwards.[23] Work with ‹found footage›—as it is called in the experimental film context[24]—is found in work by artists including Gorilla Tapes (Gavin Hodge, Tim Morrison and Jon Dovey), («Zygosis,» 1988), Johan Grimonprez («Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y,» 1997), Philipp Lachenmann («Surrogate I (Dubai),» 2000), Walid Ra'ad/The Atlas Group («I Only Wish That I Could Weep,» 2001) and many others. But these works, created from the 1980s, but above all in the 1990s, are marked by a strongly ‹synthetic› aspect: found fragments are placed in a new fictional context and new narrative structure, and often read ‹against the grain›. Daniel Pflumm («anti-logo video,» 1997), Sebastian Lütgert («rolux,» 2000) and Daniel García Andújar («Technologies to the People» from 1995) explicitly address deconstructing corporate identity and the company logo culture of the 1990s.

The concept of alternative public quality: Video and media activism in the 1970s and 1980s

The strategy of media analysis has certainly had a part to play in the art context down to the present day, but has had no repercussions in actual media development. The idea of alternative public quality goes back to the 1960s, and tends to be continued either in peripheral areas or outside the context of art. After the introduction of cable television (Cable Access Television, CATV) and Sony's Portapak video camera, a large number of video groups emerged in the USA after the early 1970s, directing their activities towards cable TV's state sanctioned public access channels. At this time, cable television was the democraticwhite hope—thus playing a similar part to that of the Internet twenty years later. The magazine «Radical Software» (1970–1974), published by the Raindance Corporation, became a forum for the CATV video movement. «Raindance believed that television could be democratized through the deployment of video—on the street, on cable television, and in exhibition venues—and that this information liberation could lead to political democratization.»[25] The magazine was edited by Beryl Korot, Phyllis Gershuny (now Phyllis Segura), Ira Schneider and Michael Shamberg, the author of the important Raindance publication «Guerilla Television» (1971). «Radical Software» felt that the concept of feedback had to be introduced in order to democratize the centralized broadcasting structures of commercial television. Given that they had the practice of feedback in common—and this meant genuine two-way communication as well as deliberately disturbing communication by feedback noises—art and activism were closely linked structurally and conceptually—see the text on Guerilla Television.[26] Since the 1970s, video groups like Top Value Television (TVTV) have been doing politically committed work in the USA in his respect. The video collective Paper Tiger TV (motto: «Smashing the Myths of the Information Industry») has been producing a committed and amusing magazine each week for the open cable channels in New York and San Francisco since 1981. Their alternative reports on the 1991 Gulf War also attracted attention in Europe. From the mid-1980s, Deep Dish Television (DDTV), «the first national grassroots satellite network,» linked independent producers, programmakers, activists and viewers across the USA.[27] Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish Television can thus be seen in retrospect as the forerunners of Indymedia, a union of independent journalists and activists who have been providing information about WTO protests and other activities critical of globalization on the Internet since the late 1990s.[28]

In the early 1970s, similar groups and collectives emerged in Germany, with mottoes like «Make your own television» or «Where television ends, videobegins.» Among the first of these, from 1970, was the group telewissen from Darmstadt, headed by Herbert Schuhmacher, which carried out communicative actions with spectators as early as 1972 at documenta 5. The group placed a van with video monitor and camera outside the exhibition building, so that they could produce communicative situations and «microtelevision»[29] through direct feedback from passers-by. In Berlin, Michael Geißler and the video group VAM (Video Audio Media) started alternative public work in 1969, and MedienOperative Berlin in 1977. All these projects wanted to create public quality for minorities and affected parties, working partly against and partly with television. As early as 1977 they had got such a response that public television produced a broadcast of its own as part of «Kultur aktuell,» with portraits of these groups, and documenta extended its branches of art to include political and documentary media work. But the utopian aim remained democratizing television by means of new broadcasting and production forms. Klaus vom Bruch, Marcel Odenbach and Ulrike Rosenbach, also in 1977, staged an act of anti-authoritarian television piracy that came more from an artistic context, «Alternativ Television ATV.» From their workshop in Cologne, which was converted into a studio and (illegal) broadcasting station, they put out an alternative television program they had produced themselves, which could be received over a radius of a few hundred meters. In the same year, Friederike Pezold realized her «Radio Freies Utopia» action.

In the 1980s, ‹genuine› pirate radio and television stations become a real sub-culture. In Amsterdam, the group Rabotnik TV, which emerged from the squatters' movement, fed its signal into the official TV channels, illegally at first, through a small pirate station at night after programs had finished, then acquired a legal slot on cable. The success of their spontaneous image aesthetics, related to rap, scratch and sampling music, attracted about 50,000 viewers per week.[30] Also in the mid–1980s, the illegal Radio Dreyeckland regularly broadcast ten minutes of information on political protest movements from the point of view ofparticipants and affected parties in the Freiburg area.[31] In Leipzig, Ingo Günther and others[32] were involved in founding the pirate TV station Kanal X in spring 1990, which in the quasi law-free GDR area produced genuine citizens' television before reunification. These continuations of the subversive strategies created by Burroughs and the student movement of 1968 meant that the broad impact requirement was met to an extent, but the power of the mass media remained undisputed.

Media activism

One model for a tactical switch in terms of this power comes from the case of Paul Garrin: by chance, he became involved in a street battle in Tompkins Square in New York in 1989, where the police were taking brutal action against homeless people to drive them out of a park. He made himself scarce to the top of a car and filmed the events with his video camera. He was noticed by the police and beaten as well, but managed to rescue the videotape and pass it on to several TV stations. The topic was then discussed all over the USA, and put the term ‹video artist› in the news for the first time: the artist as video amateur and exemplary citizen (Garrin called it the «camcorder revolution»). Garrin condensed the events down into a video clip in «Man with a Videocamera (Fuck Vertov)» (1989).[33] Garrin achieved international recognition with the installation «Yuppie Ghetto with Watchdog» (1989–1990), which was later developed from this video. Brian Springer's video «Spin» (1995) was genuinely subversive: during the 1992 US presidential elections, Springer used simple, homemade satellite equipment to receive and record satellite feeds (unedited raw material for television stations). Springer's documentation, which made this unofficial satellite material public, shows how politicians and journalists operate behind the scenes and reveals how power and the media are inextricably entangled in the USA's spectacular TV democracy.[34]

In the 1990s, the concepts of interventionism and activism acquired a special significance for the artbusiness. The AIDS crisis made these approaches particularly relevant, in New York first of all, and linked political and cultural strategies firmly together. Poster actions and video documentations by various gay and lesbian groups like ACT UP («Voices from the Front—Testing the Limits»), Gran Fury and General Idea[35] «targeted the homophobic subconscious of the state and its representatives.»[36]

Video as a medium of emancipation: From feminism to cyberfeminism

«When art took up the subject of ‹women› in the 1960s, female artists were speaking from the social fringe, as a minority, as a lone voice, which of course was ignored by the maledominated art business. Female artists made their presence felt in public with campaigns and performances, pamphlets and pictures that seem dramatic in places today—and were perceived by the public above all as women.»[37] Valie Export strapped the «Tapp und Tastkino» to her chest in 1968, to make it ‹comprehensible› how the female body is felt all over by men's voyeuristic eyes. In the early 1970s, a number of artists started to work with video as a medium. In this context, video is seen as the ideal medium for emancipation, as it is new and not yet tied down by social and institutional rules. Its technical structure also makes it possible for artists to work more independently with film as a medium than they had previously.[38] In 1972, Ulrike Rosenbach was the first female artist in Germany to get involved with the medium, to model herself and her body and to make a name for herself with feminist videos and performances. «Glauben Sie nicht, dass ich eine Amazone bin» (1976) became one of the first classics of German video art history. In this video performance, Rosenbach aims a bow and arrow at a medieval portrait of the Madonna, which for the artist represents the epitome of the ideal image of the woman: «always young and smooth of skin, innocent and beautiful, with downcast eyes.»[39] But the video dissolve of theMadonna portrait after being hit by the arrow and Rosenbach's own face shows that the Amazon's arrows hit Rosenbach herself as well. Friederike Pezold's work, including her video sculpture «Madame Cucumatz» (1970– 1975), reduces the screenplay to a «Scham-Werk» (1973–1976) and the performance treatment «Die neue leibhaftige Zeichensprache» (1975) restricts the female body to reduced, almost minimalist symbols. Martha Rosler's video «Semiotics of the Kitchen» (1975) is a feminist reflection on diet and food preparation and also the domestic context of women's work, which the artist shifts into a studio-like kitchen of the kind used for popular cookery programs: a serious-looking woman, the antithesis of the perfect TV housewife, shot full-face, presents an alphabetic encyclopaedia of kitchen utensils. Rosler's tendency towards the banal at the same time corrects the all too puritanical and anemic tendencies of the conceptual art that dominated the 1970s. Thus she paved the way for female media activists like the Guerilla Girls group. They demonstrated outside US museums from the mid-1980s, with large posters («Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?»), to draw attention to the scandal that these institutions still showed no art by women.

In the early 1990s there was a lot of discussion about changes and reconfigurations for the individual given the conditions of the new digital space offered by the Internet. One thing they were sure of was that sexual roles were unimportant in the virtual world, as they can be changed at will. In the USA in particular, some theoreticians felt that the physical body would lose its importance on the Net. They saw cyberspace as a stage for the individual liberated from gender, race and class, who would find perfect conditions for his or her absolute self-realization in virtual space. This would finally put an end to discrimination and disadvantage for ethnic minorities. But this view stands and falls with the premise that body configurations on the Internet would cancel out those in real space.

As early as 1984, the cultural historian Donna Haraway had written her «Manifesto for Cyborgs,» in which she asserts among other things that society would find itself on the way into a post-gender world when it started developing cyborgs («cybernetic organisms»).[40] Haraway's manifesto made a great impact in academic circles at first. A cyberfeminist movement was set up by the British cultural historian Sadie Plant and the group of female Australian artists called VNS Matrix in 1994.[41] It was not until then that «the cyborg idea gained political momentum, while at the same time losing its theoretical incisiveness. The politicization of cyberspace suddenly made this a special place for women.»[42] Since 1997, the Old Boys Network (OBN) has organized various projects in the context of cyberfeminism, including the «First Cyberfeminist International» (Hybrid WorkSpace, Kassel, 1997), the «next cyberfeminist international» (Rotterdam, 1999) and the «very cyberfeminist international» (Hamburg, 2001).[43]

Post-colonial discourse, transculturality, translocal identities

«Post-colonial discourse,» writes Christian Kravagna, «begins at those moments when the political, theoretical or artistic definition of the relationship between ruler and ruled, between the dominant culture of the West and the dominated culture of the former colonies is not exclusively reserved for the side with power. The discourse takes place from the point at which the subjugated individuals gain access to the means of representation and are seen as subjects who can hold different perspectives up to the perspective of dominance.»[44] After documenta 9, in 1992, showed work by two African artists for the first time, it acquired its first African director, Okwui Enwezor, ten years later. In fact it has been possible to discern a (slowly) increasing overall presence for non-Western art production in the last ten years, something that had hitherto been ‹invisible› to the Western eye. Additionally, in the process of (economic) globalization, cultural identity has been replaced as a passivelyaccepted, uniform scheme by a productive, open practice that continually creates new identifications.

In this sense, theoreticians like Arjun Appadurai see ‹transculturality› as a process that produces a new cultural diversity—in contrast with the much-mentioned uniformity. «According to theory, transcultural fusion and overlapping lead to a constant flow of new identificatory subsets that can no more be reduced relative to each other than they can be separated from each other in principle. Partially overlapping subcultures are created, characterized as such by differences.»[45] Artists increasingly addressed these processes in the 1990s, like for example Renée Green in her video installation «Partially Buried Continued» (1997), and Fiona Tan in her video «Thin Cities» (2000). In the performance «Two Undiscovered Amerindians» (1992), Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña put themselves on show in a cage as two representatives of a hitherto undiscovered species of native American. Post-colonial problems are also addressed explicitly in works by Shirin Neshat («Turbulent,» 1998), Kutlug Ataman («Never My Soul,» 2001) and Mona Hatoum («Measures of Distance,» 1988).

Public space, media space

Since the 1970s, artists have used their work to address the way public space is increasingly being transformed by the influence of (mass) media and private commercial interests. Pioneers in this field include Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Sanja Iveković, Jochen Gerz and Jenny Holzer.

Hans Haacke's installation «Nachrichten» (1969)[46] makes it clear that immaterial information can structure urban space just as much as built architecture. He made news distributed by the Deutsche Presseagentur (DPA) accessible in the exhibition gallery in real time, via a teleprinter. In his photo-text work «Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,» Haacke analyzed and recorded the connections between property speculation, ownership relations and the price of living space. The New York Guggenheim's censorship and rejection of thisexhibition has become legendary: Haacke's project had unmasked bogus companies—some involving trustees of the museum—and their entanglements, thus publicizing these trustees' connections right up to the top political circles.

Examining architecture and urban space has developed into an important theme in fine art since the sixties. Key works are Gordon Matta-Clark's so-called «Cuttings,» dating from the 1970s—projects in which real buildings were dissected—and Dan Graham's «Homes for America,» a series of photographs and tables analyzing American suburban architecture.[47] In the early 1970s, Dan Graham turned to interactive video concepts. In the foreground here were questions of privacy, control and media surveillance. The treatment for «Picture Window Piece» (1974), for example, foresaw a kind of ‹two-way surveillance›: a camera and a monitor were to be set up both inside and outside a building, so that the observers standing on the two sides could watch the other people and themselves as they were watching as well. In 1979, Sanja Iveković's action «Triangle»[48] showed how private space is kept under public observation, and how the state can see a private, sexually explicit act as a threat to public well-being. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and others took political criticism of stereotypical gender roles and the violence associated with them into outdoor urban space. Jenny Holzer has been working with language since 1977, above all with so-called «Truism»—disturbing statements, contradictory sentences, some shrewd and some annoying, maxims, clichés, prejudices. Holzer places these «Truisms» on various support media in public places: thus for example in 1982 on the seventy-five square meter advertisement display in New York's Times Square and in 1989 as a clip series on MTV. Stan Douglas' «Television Spots» (1987–1988) and his «Monodramas» (1991) fall into the same period; they were both intended to be broadcast during the commercial breaks in the normal television program. These series consists of twelve or ten short mini-fictions of commercial length in each case, which—as they are shot in real time—seem to have been enormously slowed down in contrast with ‹normal› television, and thus disturb viewers' watching habits.[49]

Politico-artistic activism

In contrast with this, the works of Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jochen Gerz, Peter Fend and Ingo Günther explicitly intervene in political and social matters. The artist-engineer Krzysztof Wodiczko immigrated first to France from Poland, then to the USA. He made a name for himself in the 1980s with his large-format slide and video projections on public buildings and monuments. His «Homeless Vehicles» (1988) are part of a series of nomadic instruments that the artist developed for homeless people and migrants, with their cooperation.[50] The items involved are mobile, collapsible carts, with enough room to transport possessions or store accumulated tins with deposits on them; but they also offer protection against the rain or when spending the night outdoors. Wodiczko's aim is to make homelessness more publicly visible: «When the carts move through New York City, it is an act of resistance. It resists the ongoing collapse of a municipal community that excludes thousands of people.»[51]

In collaboration with students from the Saarbrücken College of Art, between 1990 and 1993 Jochen Gerz realized his «2146 Steine—Mahnmal gegen Rassismus» project in the square in front of the castle in Saarbrücken. This work—completely ‹non-media› and invisible—is distinctive because it acquires a presence only through the mass media. Gerz and the students started to replace the flagstones in the Schlossplatz in Saarbrücken secretly with ones they had prepared themselves: the names of the 2146 Jewish cemeteries in Germany were engraved on 2146 stones, which were then let into the square with the writing facing downwards. After replacing some of the stones, Gerz appealed to the Saarland parliament, which found itself unable to reject the half-finished monument despite heated arguments: the project was accepted with anarrow majority. Finally, in 1993, the square was renamed «Platz des unsichtbaren Mahnmals» («Invisible Monument Square»).[52]

In contrast with Wodiczko's and Gerz's local projects, Ingo Günther and Peter Fend («Ocean Earth Construction and Development Corporation,» since 1980) adopted a markedly global perspective. In Ingo Günther's «Refugee Republic» (from 1995), he suggests setting up a supra-territorial and supra-national state that could accommodate all the refugees in the world (in 1990 the US Committee for Refugees estimated that there were forty-seven million, i.e. one percent of the world's population). Günther's idea was that this de-territorial and immaterial refugee republic—he even aspired to a UN seat—should link all the refugee camps in the world via Internet.

This project to an extent reflects the (often completely) exaggerated hopes that were invested in the Internet in the mid-1990s. It was rather like the early 1970s, when cable networks and video were seen as ways of democratizing the mass media, and the 1980s, when Paul Garrin talked about the «camcorder revolution» (thus defining the hope for a mass medium coming from below): the Internet was now seen as a means of democratization. The high-flown hopes and ambitious plans of this period are embodied in a series of virtual ‹city-like› communities and ‹context systems› that developed in 1994 and 1995 in the then new World Wide Web (WWW): the Digitale Stad (DDS) Amsterdam and the International City Federation (ICF) Berlin. But these early utopian approaches were rapidly overtaken by commercial developments and fell apart as a result.[53]

But even if these two pioneering projects disappeared, the theme of extending and changing public space via the new media was by no means off the agenda. This is shown by the project by the «IO_dencies» (1996–1999) project by the Knowbotic Research group, which was located on the interface between the Net and real space. «IO_dencies» (pronounced ‹tendencies›) explores the possibilities of intervening and acting in complex urban processestaking place in network environments. It examines the potential that digital technologies have for creating interlinked, participatory models and investigates how public space could look if it emerged within electronic networks, or through them.

Since 2000, various political and at the same time artistic campaigns have drawn attention to themselves: «Deportation.Class,» «Bitte liebt Österreich!», «[V]ote-auction» and the «The Yes Men» use the tactic of resistance by apparently affirming and conforming to their opponents' image and corporate identity. While Deportation.Class exposes «Star Alliance» set up by Lufthansa and twelve other airlines in the 1990s as a «Deportation Alliance,» thus agitating against Lufthansa's deportation practices, Christoph Schlingensief's «Bitte liebt Österreich!» campaign adapted the mass media Big Brother format to stage a media friendly deportation, voted for by TED viewers of asylum-seekers and carried out during the Wiener Festwochen directly from a container in Herbert-von- Karajan-Platz. As the whole thing was promoted as an action by Haider's Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), Schlingensief could be sure of media attention. Similar waves of outrage were cause by the action by, «[V]ote-auction,» which offered voters the opportunity to sell their votes online to the highest bidder, just in time for the US presidential election in 2000 (Gore vs. G.W. Bush). Here the link between capitalism and (voter) power was demonstrated with astonishing clarity. The American activist group RTMark, in their «The Yes Men» action, sent ostensible representatives of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to international conferences, where they reported some astonishing facts about the state of the world economy and proclaimed the end of the WTO.

Net activism

RTMark is part of so-called ‹Net Activism›, which developed from the mid-1990s and includes a variety of strategies. These extend from setting up alternative communication and information channels to practicing ‹electronic civil disobedience.› The ‹enabling› orlinking approach here identifies a use directed at establishing communication. In the second half of the 1990s, environmental and human rights activists linked themselves up increasingly, and so did critics of globalization, who wanted to pit themselves against the so-called ‹empire› and organized their protest via the Internet. As well as this, independent communication systems were developed (at least conceptually), above all by media artists («ZaMir,» «Name.Space,» «INSULAR Technologies»).

Alongside developing autonomous communications systems of this kind, the strategy of ‹electronic civil disobedience› was one of the most important Net activism practices. This concept, which was coined by the American artists' group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) in 1996, transfers the principle of civil disobedience into the sphere of electronic data. Electronic civil disobedience is based on the thesis that the non-violent strategy of ‹civil disobedience,› which temporarily disturbs the smooth functioning of business headquarters and other power centers by blocking access, is no longer adequate today. Businesses have become transnational corporations operating globally, increasingly shifting from concrete locations to the nomadic electronic data-stream of cyberspace, and thus avoiding provocation by civil disobedience. CAE maintained that to continue to be effective under these conditions, resistance should no longer be aimed at blockading physical locations, but should stem the actual information flow. Various projects use this ‹virtual sit-in› strategy (Electronic Disturbance Theatre, etoy).[54]

Finally, Heath Bunting's «BorderXing guide» Internet project (2001) records illegal border crossings inside and outside Europe that Heath Bunting and his partner Kayle Brandon have carried out themselves in recent years. «BorderXing guide» sets out to provide instructions for crossing borders without papers. But the information that Bunting and Brandon post on their website in the form of photographs, detailed notes, maps and laconic comments on the individual routes is not available to all Internet users. For example, to gain access to the project as a Western European, you haveto travel in person to one of the ‹social servers› (places with public Internet access) available world-wide that Bunting has come to trust—the artist himself had to depend exclusively on these contacts on his travels in recent years to gain access to the Internet. This principle of ‹reverse authentication› also alludes to the everyday experiences of people crossing borders illegally.

From video surveillance to dataveillance

In international video and media art, artists often address the subjects of surveillance and control. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's «Film No. 6, Rape» (1969) is one of the first works to anticipate with almost uncanny precision the reality TV aesthetics of the late 1990s. Classic artistic treatments of social surveillance devices include Vito Acconci («Following Piece,» 1969), Bruce Nauman («Live-Taped Video Corridor,» 1969–1970; «Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room,» 1969–1970) and Dan Graham («Time Delay Room,» 1974; «Yesterday/Today,» 1975). The eighty-two-minute video «Der Riese» (1982–1983) by Michael Klier consists exclusively of images taken by surveillance cameras, thus suggesting an omnipresent controlling authority. Julia Scher equips museum galleries with so-called ‹security systems› that film visitors and transmit the resultant images all over the exhibition space («Welcome to Security Land,» 1995). Harun Farockis video piece «Ich glaubte, Gefangene zu sehen» (2000) focuses on surveillance technologies in American high-security prisons.[55]

Some artists have been creatively diverting surveillance and security systems, today almost omnipresent in public spaces, since the mid-1990s. The aim here is to develop potential protective or counter-measures against the control device. This can be done for example by converting entertainment electronicsinto (self-)surveillance technologies (Bureau of Inverse Technology, or by unusual use and redesignation of existing surveillance systems (Surveillance Camera Players). One of the earliest Net art projects on censorship is «The File Room» (1994) by Antoni Muntadas. Cases from all over the world of state, religious and political censorship were archived in a database that was openly accessible via the Internet and that users could add to—thus revealing the act of deletion and censorship. The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) have been performing short plays by Jarry, Poe and Beckett to New York surveillance cameras. The dialogue is not spoken, but displayed on panels—rather like the subtitles in silent films. The audience is made up of the security staff who monitor the surveillance camera pictures, and passers-by who happen to be upon the performance venues. Between 1997–1999, the Bureau of Inverse Technology developed the «Bit Plane,» a converted remote-control model spy plane, equipped with a video camera so that it can fly out over ‹enemy› territory and take pictures there. The first surveillance flight was conducted over Silicon Valley, California's «glittering heart of the information age,» in 1997.

But in the second half of the 1990s—at the latest after the publication of Duncan Campbell's ECHELON[56] report for the European Parliament in 1998—it also became clear that there are now many forms of surveillance and control other than video surveillance. The main things to be mentioned here would be data surveillance in particular, on the Internet among other places[57] («Dataveillance») and the use of biometric control techniques.[58] Various artistic projects have examined these new «post-visual»[59] surveillance options: they deal with revealing power structures in the sphere of electronic communications. For example, Marko Peljhan has been running his «makrolab» mobile research station since 1997. This works as a kind of private ECHELON system using all kinds of technical apparatus to map the «topography of signals»[60] across the electromagnetic spectrum. «makrolab» is equipped with broadcasting and receiving aerials thatpick up signals at various frequencies and record the data streams circulating there. In his GPS-supported, psycho-geographical performance «UCOG–144 (Urban Colonization and Orientation Gear–144)» (1996), Peljhan referred directly the dérive concept used by the Situationists. In the course of their «insert_coin» project (2000–2001), Dragan Espenschied and Alvar Freude manipulated the Merz-Akademie's proxy-server, successfully gaining full control of all its web and mail traffic and inserting their own material into it. The fact that the experiment remained completely unnoticed despite conspicuous manipulation suggested that the users had a low threshold of problem awareness. The Italian Net art duo, which for simplicity's sake also answers to «zero one dot org,» ceaselessly collects information about the two members and make it publicly available uncensored. For the project «VOPOS» (January 2002), the duo wore GPS (Global Positioning System) transmitters. These sent information about the artists' location to their website, which is available to the public at all times, at regular intervals. The data were transferred to city maps, thus constantly showing where the two artists were at the time.


Deconstruction, subversion and the development of alternative production and distribution channels are important tactics that media artists have used since the 1960s. These approaches can be called ‹post-utopian› in that they no longer postulate different uses for the mass media television and film, but work against these firmly established media. But at the same time, a genuinely utopian element can be discerned in some of them: both in the early 1970s and the early 1990s the media that were new at the time in each case (video, Public Access Television, Internet) triggered euphoric visions of genuinely democratic communication because of their greater ease of access and wider distribution—in stark contrast with the established and centralized mass media. These new media, all without social handicaps, also offer themselves for alternative uses, indeed for very personal, subjective handling modes. As well as this, many of the projects presented in this essay question the extent to which devices thatare by no means all of a technical nature can be used to create social, political or economic boundaries. But these projects are also interested in the linking of social elements or potentials that certain technologies can contain, and that could be used to subvert the above-mentioned boundaries. In this respect, both borders and border regimes and surveillance structures come under the heading of technology, and so does subverting technological structures and generating counter-discourse in society.


Translation by Michael Robinson

© Media Art Net 2004