Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: A Political Formula

Here is a simplified equation to represent the as-yet unmet opportunity that the new technologies of infinite reproduction and access can offer the visual arts:


The printing press showed the world the awesome potential of mass reproduction for cultural and democratic change. Martha Stewart's omni-media empire showed Americans that contemporary design has an everyday value [PLATE 81]. Like Russell Simmons' promotion of Hip Hop onto the top of the charts and into all forms of consumer products, Stewart exemplifies how entrepreneurial exploitation of contemporary media can change consumer behavior and expand markets. Their celebrity brands have the power to knock down entrenched barriers, to eliminate arcane distinctions between high and low tastes, and even to maintain public confidence despite law-breaking pursuits of market dominance (one a "gangsta" at the start; the other, convicted at the helm).[1] The visual arts need similar market expanding forces, not just to catch up with the size and scale of the other arts, but to leapfrog from what is now an almost cottage-industry formation, dominated by non-profits and small family-owned business, beyond the multinational arts and entertainment conglomerates, and right into the post-industrial technological and organizational parameters described by this Twenty-First Century formula.

The formula calls for something else that currently does not exist (as least not as a widely available consumer product): an iPod® for the visual arts. Apple's iPods (and iTunes) combine technology, law, and economics in an art delivery vehicle with the potential to move beyond celebrity and passing fads, to a previously unattainable diversity of production and consumption. With the internet as its backbone, it seems less likely that the system imbedded in iPod will yield as empty a promise as cable television's early potential for greater media democracy. Warhol's use of reproduction led to his own celebrity and influenced the individual enterprises of numerous artists in his wake. The elements of this formula, in contrast, create a virtual factory for truly limitless creative production and consumption. Everyone can now really have their fifteen minutes of distributed fame—but in a way that offers the technical possibility of dislodging availability from celebrity. Key to emerging artist livelihood, iPod provides an economic model for non-celebrities to get paid.

This formula joins two types of knowledge, the positivist, productive kind realized by technology, and the critical, reflective kind manifested in avant-garde art. The political impact of these technological developments depends not only on who has access to the digital output, but also who can appreciate its meaning. Such outcomes are largely a function of who designs the technology, controls its market applications, and writes the rules for its use. The formula can be used for any purpose, but will its potential to liberate and transform be unleashed by our present political and economic structures of decision-making? Some observers think not, such as The New Atlantis editor Christine Rosen, whose article "The Age of Egocasting" concludes that technologies of individual choice such as remote controls, the Walkman, VCR, TiVo, and iPod "encourage not the cultivation of taste, but the numbing repetition of fetish."[2] The latter confirms what we already know and want. Art, in contrast, exposes us to new ways of experiencing the world, which, as teaching artist Eric Booth argues, is exactly what distinguishes art from entertainment.[3]

iPods bring art into public spaces, but usually for individual consumption that isolates and distracts, rather than challenging or engaging in any kind of transformative artistic or social process. Yet complex systems yield uncertain outcomes; this is the technological paradox. Conservatives often fear access to an appreciation of wider diversity of cultural inputs, because this can undermine traditional Western standards of taste. Infinity and its relationship with chaos are scary and confusing. Freedom is not safe or predictable. Surely such new technologies of infinite reproduction and access offer at least the possibility of stumbling into emerging terrain, of moving beyond fame and fetish to the rewards of experiencing art and art making.

Reversing the way remote controls led advertisers to product placement (compensation for ad-skipping), new devices such as iPod can inspire art placement in ways that insert creativity into the unlikeliest destinations outside of the gallery-world "white cube".[4] The market-expanding potentials of such smart mob and narrow-casting technologies abound, and can be used towards corporate or anti-establishment hacker ends.[5] One corporate example: Nokia's "Connect to Art" allows its mobile phone customers free downloads of exclusively licensed work by celebrity artists, including Louise Bourgeois [PLATE 82], Nam June Paik [PLATE 83], David Salle [PLATE 84], and William Wegman [PLATE 85] (though Nokia claims to limit the number of downloads "to highlight the value of the artwork," another nonsensical digital homage to cancelled plates).[6] At the silly-end is Pac-Mondrian [PLATE 86], in which Toronto art group Prize Budget for Boys inserted Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" into a Pac-Man game.[7] James Buckhouse's "Tap" downloads a dancing figure onto Palm Pilots for mobile choreography [PLATE 87]. Cory Arcangel, cofounder of Beige Programming Ensemble, created NIPod by hacking a Nintendo® game onto an iPod® [PLATE 88]. The " Barbie Liberation Organization" [PLATE 89] is an older example from the early 1990s, when artist collective ®TMark inserted subversive art directly into children's toys by switching the voice boxes on three-hundred GI Joes and Barbies, with gender-bending results..

White earphones and cords turn any iPod listener into a walking brand builder, but such technology is also being co-opted by art students, technologists, and political organizers for counter-cultural purposes, melding virtual and real-world activism into hybrids known as "tactical media," "hacktivism", and "video samizdat".[8] These strategies have already changed the landscape of political activism, coordinating anti-free-trade protests and creating the fundraising powerhouse behind the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign.

The formula is based on a technological construct, but artists are engaging its market-expanding political implications with low-tech and anti-tech applications as well. These range from free-good surprises, such as Alec Thibodeau's "noney" currency [PLATE 90], Peter Walsh's reverse waterworks [PLATE 91], Anissa Mack's "pies for passerby" [PLATE 92], or Zoë Sheehan Saldaña's "shopdropping" [PLATE 93] to innovative retailing such as Mack's Tupperware-like art home parties or Harrel Fletcher's bodega exhibitions [PLATE 94], to outright luxury good co-branding, such as the Collage Project at Bergdorf Goodman, the pop-up Comme des Garçons Guerrilla Store, or Takashi Murakami's Louis Vuitton handbags [PLATE 95, PLATE 96].[9] Whatever these wide-ranging artistic enterprises might reveal about art, human interaction, and the marketplace, this bottom-line is clear: broader transformative impacts depend upon audience size, which in turn depends upon reproduction and access.

Navigating infinite choice is what freedom and art are all about. This formula contains the seeds to expand the public reach of contemporary art. Artists can use it for any purpose whatsoever, but without mastering the most advanced methods of technological reproduction and access, the vast majority will be prevented from significantly influencing the popular culture of our times and from reaping financial rewards from their work. Instead, artists of new and old media alike will continue to be left settling on the riches of creativity's non-pecuniary satisfactions, moonlighting to make ends meet, and lining up (by the thousands) for the largesse of a very limited selection of wealthy benefactors. Only with the exploitation (subversive and otherwise) of the new forms of interaction and appreciation offered by the latest technological trends, can contemporary art and artists move beyond individualist "egocasting", to forms of art practice with broader social impact.

1. Save Martha Poster. nd.
Derived from J. Howard Miller's classic World War II "We Can Do It!" poster, produced by Westinghouse for the War Production Co-Ordinating Committee. According to the National Archives Still Picture Branch: "Of all the images of working women during World War II, the image of women in factories predominates. Rosie the Riveter--the strong, competent woman dressed in overalls and bandanna--was introduced as a symbol of patriotic womanhood. The accoutrements of war work--uniforms, tools, and lunch pails--were incorporated into the revised image of the feminine ideal."

2. Louise Bourgeois. You and Me 1. 2004.
Screenshot. © Louise Bourgeois 2004 and Les Films du Siamois 2004. Courtesy of Nokia Corporation.,,65686,00.html

3. Nam June Paik. Global Groove. 2004.
Screenshot. An homage to Nam June Paik's classic work "Global Groove". Courtesy of Nokia Corporation.,,65690,00.html

4. David Salle. Have a wonderful trip. 2004.
Screenshot. Courtesy of Nokia Corporation.,,65680,00.html

5. William Wegman. Trio. 2004.
Screenshot. Artist's statement: "We are a mobile society. Man is doing all he can to push the boundaries that contain us and make us conform to obsolete norms. Today everything is push button. Gone are the days of the rotary phone, the Rotary club, the 78. We need an efficiency expert for the 21st century and Nokia has provided it. I am happy to be a small part of it." Courtesy of Nokia Corporation.,,65683,00.html

6. Prize Budget for Boys. Pac-Mondrian. 2002.
Screenshot. Courtesy of Prize Budget for Boys.

7. James Buckhouse. Tap. 2002.
In collaboration with Holly Brubach, also with dancer Christopher Wheeldon and programmer Scott Snibbe. Tap was installed at Dia Center for the arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at beaming stations placed around Manhattan through the support of Creative Time, and has since travelled to Boston, LA, and London.

8. Cory Arcangel (aka Beige). Nipod. 2005.
Hacked interactive Ipod® programmed for the Nintendo®. Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York.

9. ®TMARK. The Barbie Liberation Organization. 1993.
The artist collective switches Barbie and GI Joe voiceboxes, so Barbie says "Eat lead, Cobra" and Joe says "Let's plan our dream wedding".

10. Alec Thibodeau. Noney. 2004.
Noney notes are available by offering a trade for goods or services. Transaction proposals are welcome from anyone around the world. Courtesy of Alec Thibodeau.

11. Peter Walsh. Celebration of the Reversal of the New Croton Aqueduct. 2001.
As part of the first Brewster Project festival, in upstate New York, Walsh reversed the flow of New York City's drinking water, creating an imaginary public works project that included a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Brewster's 83-year-old Mayor, John Cesar, and connected with community concerns over the political and financial control of area resources. Courtesy of Peter Walsh.

12. Anissa Mack. Pies for a Passerby. May 17 - June 23, 2002.
Mixed media installation, Brooklyn Public Library (Central Library, Grand Army Plaza). A project of the Public Art Fund, commissioned through In the Public Realm, a program of site specific proposals and projects by New York artists. Courtesy of Public Art Fund.

13. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña. Secret Treasures Peasant Boxer Set (Blue Print). 2003.
Saldaña purchased this item for $9.94 from the Wal-Mart store in Berlin, Vermont, then duplicated the item, copying the pattern, and used matching fabric, thread, and embellishments (such as lace, elastic, ribbon, embroidery, and fabric paint) to make as faithful a reproduction as I could. I inserted the original tags, including the price tag, into my hand-made copy. She returned to Wal-Mart with the duplicate, placed it on the rack, and left the store. Courtesy of the Artist.

14. Harrell Fletcher. This Container isn't Big Enough. 2004.
According to the artist: "A free newspaper for the Whitney Biennial. The publication features information about ten different artists who I know from around the country. I worked with a group of student volunteers from Cooper Union who found exhibition venues for the artist's work in various cafes, a furniture store, a library, a senior center, etc. The newspaper gives all of the exhibition information and also describes a project I did for Socrates Sculpture Park, as well as a long list of unused ideas." Courtesy of Christine Burgin Gallery, New York.

15. Takashi Murakami. The Double Helix Reversal. 2003.
Coutesy of the Serpentine Gallery, London.

16. Takashi Murakami. Louis Vuitton Murakami Multicolor Speedy 30 handbag. 2003.

[1] Simmons 2001; Hays 2005.
[2] Rosen 2004/2005.
[3] Booth 2005.
[4] O'Doherty 1976.
[5] Wark 2004.
[6] Nokia 2004.
[7] Boxer 2004.
[8] Grether 2005; Gilbert 2004; Curry 2004; Taylor 2005; Garcia and Lovink 1997.
[9] Fineman 2004; Horyn 2004; Trebay 2004; Polsky 2003; Siegel 2003; Howe 2003.

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