Friday, May 15, 2009

Nothing is New

At the Manchester Social Media Cafe, after Thursday's Futuresonic, Dave Mee gave a fascinating thinkpiece on the "Merzweb" - basically an idea that German artist Kurt Schwitters, a fellow traveller to the Dadaists, was in many ways acting out in his work much of what we now see in the web and social media. It runs parallel with the presentation I gave a little while ago that much of our social media present and future is prefigured in avant garde literature.

For Schwitters art was all around us, was collaborative and participative, was mutable, never finished, but also locative. His "Merzbau" was a living organism - a house usually - a space becoming filled. If you think of the web as this structure, as this holder, then what people do with this space is very like Schwitters Merzbau. The mutability seems vital as well. One of the things that I imagine will come out of Charles Leadbetter's "Art of With" article for the Cornerhouse is a reappraisal of the value=permanence equation. The idea had took hold earlier in the day, at the Futuresonic debate, that perhaps our online presence, our blogs our facebook pages, our drunk photos when we were 16, that these should degrade over time. Of course the commmercialisation of 20th century art (or rather it becoming a value-holder, to be traded like gold or platinum - and this includes not just one-off visual arts masterpieces, but copyright in literature, film and music)is based on a belief in permanence that the Pharoahs would relate to. Perhaps, in many ways, the last vestige of our Abrahamic-based faith can be seen in that desire for permanence. Yet Shelley's Ozymandias, "look on these works, you Mighty, and despair", never seems more prescient.

The art of decay, of things being unfinished, or changing is challenged by a commercial artist like Damian Hirst, or rather by the business model around his success. Hirst's fascination with decay means that like the Merzbau, his sharks should, after a certain time, putrify, to be nothing more than cultural memory; yet the value invested in them is a late 20th century alchemy, turning these impermanent artworks into gold, not realising that there value is only in the beholder.

Even in the internet's short life span there is a tension between decay and permanence. Seeing a website from 10 or 15 years ago now, particularly if its an amateur design, can be a jolt to the system. Yet the data on our Facebook page risks being around forever? We can only hope that some of these pages and websites disappear into nothing more than memory. Google has short-fused this process, at least for a time, for all data is now equal. It is the equivalent of the peat-bog find where it is not the mighty emperor who history now puzzles over, but the Tollund man. For art there is a challenge, but one that it shouldn't shirk. Our culture depends upon some kind of artistic inheritance, the "shoulders of giants", rather than letting "a million flowers bloom." I wonder if that is the tension that "The art of with" is now looking at...the tension between the forgotten sheath of letters from a literate woman in Victorian England, and the production of "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre". The internets million flowers are containers, more often; it is a container itself. Those YouTube videos with several million hits are unlikely to feature in any retrospective except out of chance. Earlier in the week I'd been to the Videogame Nation launch at URBIS. I've hardly ever been a gameplayer, so this 30 year old history was a museum piece of artefacts. "I like the shiny things" I said more than once, finding none of the nostalgic reverance that a game player would have found, but liking the styles, mannerisms and sounds of this commercial subculture. Every loft could probably furnish an exhibit for the exhibition; every car boot.

For me, what interested me about Mee's talk about Schwitters was its reminders that art hasn't always been about the single object; that in many ways this was a 20th century construction based upon two things:- the electronic recording (whether photo, film or record), and the legal (copyright) framework that necessarily sustained that. I could now, if I wanted, put my entire works on the web, to let it be found, or not found as is the case. As permanent as a thing can be (at least until the water needed for the cooling systems for the vast server farms runs out). I think there's another side to this though. The artist as entity. Its the challenge that I don't think is addressed by those calling for a more participative culture. In our short lives, artistic progress can take time, from gaining a facility, to finding the voice, to having something to say, to managing to say it. The "transmission mechanisms" for art are actually probably very good models that are being replicated across social media, rather than the other way round. "Open source" would be no new concept to the impressionists, the surrealists, the imagists, the PRB. Once an idea has been circulated, or the culmination of that idea has been made, then it is free to be disseminated. Wasn't Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment and those other salons of the day a meeting place similar to Tuesday nights? The cafes as Myspace or Twitter? Indeed you could argue that the transmission mechanisms then, letters sent back to friends in America or Britain ("You must come to Paris") were slower than email but as equally able to catch-fire.

The artist as an entity, as someone who wants to do this with their life, is actually the bigger challenge to the hierarchies of contemporary culture than anything else. History sees its more interesting work come from more interesting places, yet "old media" whether its the publishing industry or the BBC, is as dominated by Oxbridge as any other time. Those - like the Old Boys network - are "transmission mechanisms" across time; informal rather than formal networks, and therefore more powerful over time and space.

I think we can go back to the artist as entity, the idea of a "body of work", that can progress, that can change, that can grow, that can decay. Whereas celebrity culture spits people out for their 15 minutes, our gatekeepers are keener on having a fixed list of writers, composers, painters etc. Shouldn't those bright poets who made their mark in the early 70s be at least forgotten for a little while, at the very least so they could be rediscovered later? I kept being reminded of the great American chronicler, Walt Whitman, and his single work, his "Leaves of Grass," appearing in a range of different issues, orders, with poems changed, added, subtracted. This is a website for the 19th century, a written Merzbau, if you like. Whitman, saw America as a vast whole, but that to approach it you had to try different entry points, not start at an entry point in New York, and spread out like the settlers, but come from a thousand different points in the American landscape.

The artistic life lived sees change as inevitable, the works altering, both in themselves and in their context, or their intercontextual value. It is this, rather than the putting a price and value on a particular artwork, that is the more interesting. It is possible that the web will be like 20th century art, with a whirlwind of creativity passing through a different centre, leaving another -ism (another dot com boom) in its wake. Yet old websites, or ones with decaying audiences, are like empty properties after the boom has passed and the gold has run out; an artist goes on, repapers over the old canvases, changes, looks again, sees, in many ways, the bigger picture.

1 comment:

davemee said...

Thanks for this considered and complimentary piece; I think you make some excellent points about permenance and the creative process. Looking forward to Leadbetter's work now!

The original presentation has now been posted at TANDOT's website where I'd like to point anybody interested to read it... (until the linkrot sets in :)