.. devolve into II .. [Reinhard Braun]



by Reinhard Braun

The work is never in a state of completion, how could it be so? It subverts the idea of authorship bound up within the solitary individual. It subverts the idea of individual ownership of the works of imagination.

Roy Ascott

Broader audiences are tempted to regard the much discussed phenomena of the information society as being closely linked with the developments of the "Net", whereby the concept of the Net, for its part, is used as a synonym for the World Wide Web. "Simulation, interface, immateriality, simultaneity, fugacity, acceleration, intensification of complexity, elimination of spatial and temporal dimensions, as well as the cohesion and continuity of the normal realm of perception are catchwords commonly used to characterize what presents itself through technology as the process of permanent protean change." Thus, the current, massive transformations in the area of the constitution of public spaces and cultural segments, of the organization and communication of knowledge and experience, and therefore of the perception of cultural interconnections are usually immediately understood as consequences of a technological development, which have increased since the beginning of the nineties or which can be traced back to the introduction of the personal computer in the first half of the eighties. "Just as the camera has come to symbolize the entirety of photographic and cinematic processes, the computer has come to symbolize the entire spectrum of networks, systems, and devices that exemplify cybernetic or 'automated but intelligent' behaviour."

This symbolic representation, regardless of the extent to which this development is historicized, suggests a general cultural shift; namely, from a culture "driven by representation" to a culture "driven by networked operations". Not enough consideration, however, is being paid the fact that this cannot be attributed to technical developments alone. "The tools always presuppose a machine, and the machine is always social before it is technical. There is always a social machine which selects or assigns the technical elements used." The transition from representation to the operative moments of manipulating cultural systems of symbols with the aforementioned consequences, therefore, also has something to do with the shift of this "social machine". And in turn there is hardly a cultural field of this "social machine" in which the conflicting processes of representation and symbol manipulation would be more clearly reflected than in the field of art. Critique of the relations of representation means first and foremost critique of a more or less symmetrically understood relation between image, society, and subject. Relations of representation are only meaningful if something meaningful can and should be represented that goes "beyond the naive belief in the simple reproducibility of reality." (Peter Courtemanche) This is not, by any means, to contend that the images or the relations of the images threaten to disappear, on the contrary; their massive and mass-media generated circulation alone does not say anything about their functional links within cultural exchange processes, about what, if anything at all, is represented or made accessible through images, and above all which operations these images and image formations are dependent on or being subjected to...

Here, however, we are only interested marginally in issues of representation. The main focus is the aforementioned relation between society, subject and, generally speaking, cultural artifacts and productions, the relation between cultural "objects" in the broadest sense (images, objects, as well as sound and texts) and the exchange and manipulation processes they are subjected to (representation, communication, information), or - to be more specific - the shifts of these "objects" in relation to the contexts defining them (social space and social time). Furthermore, we've examined several of these shifts and reconfigurations in the field of artistic practices since the sixties (although we will, of course, be able to cite examples of only a few of these works). The aim of this brief outline is to follow the course of the cultural shift described above, to follow a stated transition of the role of artistic production from an arranging of meaning to an arranging of operations, to describe this shift independent of technological or apparative scenarios, and to demonstrate that this constitutes a significant moment in an overall cultural transformation.

Of course this is not to in any way underestimate the complex interaction between technology and the production of meaning or the potential for action. "Artifacts for use in media and media's labeling practice exist in intimate reciprocal relation to each other. Results of communication refer to the forms and structures in which their use takes place and visa versa: aesthetics and dramaturgy have been put aside in apparative arrangements, where they can be picked up again later. In this interdependency, a historical sequence of events is also in perpetual operation: new media heralds new labeling practices. It is important to decode the latter from the former early on."

Thus our objective here is to pursue these new (artistic) labeling practices or to outline a few aspects of practices that can be regarded as such a decoding process, whereby this is not to say that only the effects of the said technology are being doubled.

After Synchronization

"The separation of the message from the physical messenger is not just a cultural-historical vanishing point of more than two millennia of telecommunicative development. It is also a metaphor of the political economy of the historical process that has culminated in the dematerialization of the exchange or transaction between people (with the transaction of goods as the ideal overall transaction). It is the symbol of the increasing elimination of the sensual-physical (own) experience of our everyday life connections (...)." This process - at the center of the military/industrial complex of modernity - cannot be simply taken as a fixed concept of dematerialization and virtualization. At the core, namely, lies no less than the complete reexamination of the forms of cultural exchange and their re-presentation, from the economy to the organization of the subjective memory and its archives. The process of disengaging information and representation is the very foundation for mobilizing society in general: (moving) pictures/images, sounds, and texts (as text, information, software, or instruction) and their meanings are sent out into the world and become, so to speak, living dead that have the latent potential of materializing temporarily in any given place at any given time, capable of being hooked into diverse contexts, of being revised, manipulated, converted, archived, transformed, they are open-ended and sometimes fleeting. "It is this that characterizes postindustry: information rather than the thing itself is what counts."

In particular, mass media such as television and radio have been described in their capacity of converting social time to media time, i.e. imposing and inscribing a time structure immanent in media (and in the course of time increasingly determined by economic factors) upon social life. By contrast, media time is by no means intrinsic to networks, rather they run exclusively on "latent time". Thus here the integration of social time into media time alters the latter completely: from aesthetic disciplining through images to conditioning through availability.

Television and radio as forms of mass media present themselves as projects of modernism: access to and control over public spaces via a centrally organized institution (present paradigmatically, for instance, in Bentham's "panopticon", and structurally in the "classical" architectonic utopias from Le Corbusier to Gropius.)

This form of organization of society corresponds to a homology of space and time, a spatial structuring accompanies the temporal structuring.

What emerges from the last fifteen years of postmodern discourse (accompanied by the corresponding technological development), is, on the one hand, an at times radical critique of this disciplinary form of society and, on the other hand, the attempt to formulate cultural forms of organization (flat hierarchies, distributed levels of production and mediation, and above all the task of the relentless synchronization of culture and its streamlined public spaces as reified in exemplary fashion on television) that follow and correspond to other structural relations. "Worn traditions of the public sphere, the sociology of post-industrialization, the discursive discreteness of postmodern presence, the imbeddedness or better immersion in the mediascapes of tele-culture must co-evolve a communicative practice whose boundaries are not mapped in physical space. Instead, the geography of cognition, the utopos of networks, of reception, and of community are emerging in territories whose hold on matter is ephemeral, whose position in space is tenuous, and whose presence is measured in acts of participation rather than coincidences of location."

The disengagement of information and representation, summed up in the metaphor of the separation of the message from the messenger, reveals itself as a project of the disengagement of social organization and its representation. The present and presence vanish into participation, input, and transference/transmission with all their consequences for the constitution of the subject, for questions of identity and questions of representation, for the constitution of a recognition of self. These conditions, however, need not be seen as a disintegration and decline: "[t]echnologies of networked communication offer remedies for the deracinated cultures of modernity and confrontations with the return of the polis to the condition of political affiliation and discursive collaboration. As much concerned with ideology as with identity, the electropolis is more than a new sociological issue. It stands as a location for the establishment of new cultural logic (...)." It's just that this place isn't a place anymore, it no longer shows symmetry of the present, of action, perception, and social space in which the subject might take up his/her defined place, i.e. it is no longer about presentation or representation (both of which could be read or interpreted), but about activations, participation, circulation, and being hooked into the system (not just in the technical sense). Which places, which territories and spaces could we be dealing with here?

The Disappearance of the Objects

In respect to the object's retreat (in the sense of closed-ended formations of meaning) from representation contexts, we return to the field of art, where this retreat is clearly linked to the position of the "artwork" as a prototypical object, and the transition from the representation and from the object, to no one's surprise, especially in the concept and in the conception of the artwork, can be traced to more or less open fields and options of action, to process constellations, and ambiguous possibilities of interpretation. This transition opens up the notions of initially conceptual spaces that are no longer defined by physical coordinates, but in which things and meanings are arranged in an open and open-ended system of relationships. Spaces arise beyond spaces, formal spaces whose elements are no longer bound by their capacity to represent. The shift from object to process is not just inherent to technology, in the subsequent, briefly outlined artistic practices, discourse has already become more important than object.

Whereas minimal art already called into question the role of the art object as bearer of meaning, creating in its use of "primary structures" abstract material relationships and reduced surfaces, many artists, who would later be grouped under "concept art", saw their work as a clear critique of object and thus commodity fetishism. Under concept art, works of art emerged as anti-objects, as a departure from the specially designed object, artworks that instead sought to appropriate existing object formations and media forms (Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler) and which ultimately even called into question the autonomy of art and artwork. The basis for skepticism was the separation of concept and execution (i.e. the time element of production) as well as the differentiation of the connections between presentation and reception; what is presented is a reflection on the work itself or on the use of the signs/symbols demonstrated in the work (the observers essentially have already become part of the work at this point).

Between July 1, 1969, and July 1994 Douglas Huebler completes the work "Duration Piece no. 13", in which 100 one-dollar bills are brought into circulation with the notice that if someone receives one of these bills and sends it back to Douglas Huebler, he will receive 1000 dollars in return. What, in this case, can be identified as art material, as art space, or as artwork for that matter? How can a closed-endedness of the "work" beyond the (arbitrary) fixed timeframe be formulated? Who is the producer here? Who determines the "form" of the work?

Thus in the narrower sense art is removed from virtually every notion of production, leaving nothing but a strategy, a descriptive and explanatory context, as Douglas Huebler put it, a "system of documentation". The use of a process as a material is thus just as valid as the use of a material as a material, or the non-use thereof." Robert Barry expressed this even more laconically: "My work doesn't have a particular place or the place is unknown."

In the area of mail art projects have been carried out since the sixties (within the Fluxus movement as well) in which the focus was not on the sent object as an aesthetic manifestation, but on the spreading of ideas and information, on the circulation of concepts and the construction of a/n (art) community. Thus these types of art practices occupy contexts far removed from the institutional framework of art and in which the recipients have always been actively involved, contexts that by virtue of the artistic practice itself cannot be transformed into art contexts: everyday events, relationships between these events, information and object shifts within society, the world of commodities, and ultimately also the sphere of information processing and technical media. Artistic practices infiltrate cultural systems, "occupy" or stage in them specific sequences of events, thus producing spatial and temporal constellations that refuse to be pinned down absolutely and which therefore evade representation. These projects have led, long before the integration of culture with and based on information technologies, in a narrower sense to the emergence of spaces beyond art spaces, spaces beyond definable public spaces, spaces that ultimately can only be completed in the imagination of the recipients or produced in and through the activities of the participants.

This recourse seems important and necessary because the emergence of certain media-art practices cannot be explained simply by the availability of the corresponding technical apparatuses or infrastructure. Of course evidence of the "impact" of the media is incontestable; Robert Adrian X, for example, speaks of the fate of nearly every artwork, "that it undergoes a constant metamorphosis while passing through the media mill, shedding and gaining meaning and content as it is processed by the machinery of modern communications technology." But it's not a matter of priority or originality either, i.e. no attempts to reanimate the avant-garde in the sense of its permanent expansion of the art field; rather, it is important to keep in mind that art is a culturally relevant practice and to regard cultural developments (in the area of art as well as science and technology) as "articulations of interlinked practices" that operate together in a common pragmatic and conceptual terrain. If one is concerned with understanding work like that of Peter Courtemanche's, to which we shall return at the end of this text, although it was his work that both triggered and served as point of departure for this essay and the thoughts within, and if this work is concerned with the blurring of the borders of spaces (not just art spaces), with phenomena like fugacity and open-endedness, with the fact that the work doesn't have a clearly defined appearance or image, since it is primarily through the recipients accessing it and the participating artists accessing and contributing to it that it unfolds, then an understanding of this work and its references only emerges through calculations that are theoretical and historical, transcending a history of the development of media and technology, which frequently has science and technology playing the role of the subject in its developmental process.

Thus if we said that a transition has taken place from traditional, delimited, and clearly localized objects/spaces, from closed and completely structured images to interfaces, to communication, dislocation, and simultaneity, then these changes will initially become apparent in the revisions of the concept of art and in art practices as they have developed while grappling with modernism. Interfaces, communication, and simultaneity are not a priori technical concepts, a network of artistic or, in general, of socio-cultural practices is not an a priori technical network of wires, protocols, and programs. Rather, it becomes clear that what we are concerned with here is a comprehensive transformation, "which is redefining the practices by which we handle signs and, with this, the bedrock of our understanding of reality."

Electrified Territories

If we are concerned with the articulations of interlinked practices, then we must take into consideration at least a brief history or genealogy of media art practices, or of art's access to technologies.

In 1967 the "Art and Technology" program was founded at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; in 1968 Gyorgy Kepes founded the "Center for Advanced Visual Studies" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the same year the exhibitions "Cybernetic Serendipity" are held at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. Moreover, in 1967 the organization "Experiments in Art and Technology" (EAT) is also founded in New York by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Laboratories. The organization's platform was strongly influenced by the view that any art that refused to acknowledge modern technology would lose social relevancy. "If you don't accept technology, you better go to another place because no place here is safe. (...) Nobody wants to paint rotten oranges anymore."

In 1966 a series of performances entitled "9 Evenings. Theater and Engineering" took place in New York's "Armory Hall". It consisted of various audiovisual performances in which the idea wasn't just to achieve novel effects or new possibilities of interaction between actors, music/image, and observers, using technology or specifically developed technical systems; rather, the technical/media components employed for these projects were conceived as additional complex variables in the fields of action and events. The demands the artistic concepts placed on these fields of action effected an eminent modification of the technology employed. "In other cases we were unable to convince critics that we were deeply sceptical about technology and that we were using it in order to understand it, exploit it, subvert it, but not beautify it or apologise for it."

In 1975 Carl Loeffler, among others, founded "Art Com" (La Mamelle Inc.), an artists' organization that was interested in conceptual art, performance art, video art, television art, and telecommunication art. In 1978 a conference called "The Fifth Network" was held in Toronto and broadcast on local cable television. Robert Adrian X met Bill Bartlett and learned from him about the slow-scan TV experiments being conducted on the east coast of the USA. Soon after, in 1979, Bill Bartlet conducted the computer communication conference "Interplay" for "Computer Culture 79" in Toronto, in which Robert Adrian X, Richard Kriesche, Heidi Grundmann, and Gottfried Bach participated from Vienna. A studio at the ORF station was set up as a kind of temporary project switchboard and incoming and outgoing messages were read live on the program "Kunst Heute".

In 1980/81 ARTEX (Artist's Electronic Exchange Program) was implemented in the commercial network "I. P. Sharp APL Network", becoming worldwide one of the first mail programs that was regularly accessed and used by artists. It was ARTEX that for the first time enabled the new production forms of a distributed authorship, which at the same time constituted a new form of communication-oriented cooperation, to be used as a permanent experimental "space" in the context of artistic practices. Moreover, Robert Adrian X also completed a series of further projects in the area of telecommunications and art, the most well-known of which certainly was "The World in 24 Hours" for Ars Electronica 1982. As a member of the Group BLIX, Robert Adrian X was also involved in a series of "telephone music" projects between 1979 and 1986 (in cooperation with the "Western Front", which is also a partner of ".. devolve into II .. "), among them "Wiencouver IV", 1983, that with the help of different media - mail art, telefax, slow-scan TV, telephone music, computer - aimed at establishing "an imaginary city hovering in the invisible space between the two poles of Vienna and Vancouver." In 2000, "Wiencouver 2000" was conducted as a "Project for the Millennium", a production by Kunstradio, Vienna, Firstfloor, Vancouver, and Western Front, Vancouver; "In 1980, when the modern Fax machine was still an exotic promise and computers either massive mainframes or playthings for the hobbyist, artists in Vancouver and Vienna were collaborating on the first of the projects known as Wiencouver. WIENCOUVER 2000 is not a nostalgic look at the early years of Art+Telcom but an exploration of the new technology available for artists working in the field as we approach the new millennium." "Wiencouver 2000" continues into the present the "devolve into" projects are a part of this production context for networked contributions from different media, different times, and different spaces.

As part of "Laboratoria Ubiqua" (organized by Roy Ascott, Don Foresta, Tom Sherman and Tommaso Trini), which was part of the "Art & Science" highlight at the 1986 Venice Biennial, Robert Adrian organized "Planetary Network", a worldwide computer-network, slow-scan TV project with participants from Venice, Vienna, Sidney, Honolulu, Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Boston, Bristol, Paris, and Milan. During the live event slow-scan images and faxes were exchanged worldwide and texts were sent via ARTEX. Through Carl Loeffler a gateway to Compuserve was established for the conference held afterwards, and a controversial debate ensued over potential future scenarios in the face of electronic media, the development of technology, and the artist's place within this development.

The genealogy of these telecommunication projects - which in different forms were always coupled with other media, like radio, television, live performances, installations, exhibitions, etc. - extends ultimately to the "Multi-User Dungeons" (with "Trek Muse" and "LambdaMOO" and other multi-user games since the beginning of the seventies), hypertext-based projects (e.g. "text-tours" by PooL Processing, Heiko Idensen/Matthias Krohn, for the "ZEROnet" project for the Steirische Kulturinitiative in 1992/93, organized by Robert Adrian X and Gerfried Stocker), as well as countless user groups and conference groups (e.g. on WELL - Whole Earth 'Lectronics Link). Finally, square in the middle of the tradition of these experimental telecommunication projects are also works like "Chipradio" (1992), "Realtime" (1993), and "Horizontal Radio" (1995) created for Ars Electronica.

"Sound Drifting", "conceived for the Ars Electronica festival 1999 as a temporary system of international remote sub-projects, which use a wide range of methods and approaches to achieve the simultaneous online generation/automation of data/sounds, and to form for the duration of the festival a continuous collaborative on line - on site - on air sound installation that can be experienced in many different ways," was another project platform that was simultaneously online on the Web, on-site on the "Mediadeck" of the O.K. in Linz as well as other cities, and on-air on ORF "Kunstradio" and a number of other radio stations, extending beyond the timeframe of the "ars electronica" festival and comprising a multitude of inputs and presentation forms which in a communication form between man and machine exploited various "objects" und "spaces" - "both dissimilar in material, size, and appearance."

A characteristic of all these projects is their live character or the possibilities of user participation - the course it will take is therefore not predictable or controllable, there is no longer an audience in the original sense: "In a non-hierarchic structure, like this generative sound installation, all participants have equal rights: artists, users, and machines."

"The success of a project like ACEN [see note 31] isn't rooted in the mere existence of an electronic network. Success is determined above all by the users, by their input to the network and the quality and quantity of their interaction."

Another major feature is the breakdown of any homogeneous and synchronous media time, especially that of classic radio: the "flow" of input and output, processing and transformation, none of this adhered to a central authority of synchronization, but rather emerged in different time zones and different contexts, didn't orient itself towards media formats or events, connected asychronously different locations via the nonstop streams of the Net. "Destructuring by asynchronicity is an extremely important, if not crucial facet of new electronic technologies."

In the context of an "artists' use of telecommunications" the focus is not exclusively on art and technology, but rather, what we are dealing with more than anything is an analysis of new cultural interfaces, with (temporary) processes and frames of action in which important newly designed cultural coordinates are placed in relation to each other: presence, representation, and public space/s take on completely new forms of appearance. The aforementioned "utopos of networks, of reception, and of community are emerging in territories whose hold on matter is ephemeral, whose position in space is tenuous, and whose presence is measured in acts of participation rather than coincidences of location."

devolve into

".. devolve into II .." is a networked streaming project with radio artists from around the world. It was initiated by Peter Courtemanche and will take place with the following participants: Lori Weidenhammer (Vancouver), Roberto Paci Daló (Rimini), Kim Dawn and Scott Russell (Vancouver), Markus Decker and Ushi Reiter (Linz), Andrew Garton (Melbourne), Ken Gregory (Winnipeg), Emilia Telese and Tim Mark Didymus (Brighton), Wolfgang Temmel (Wies/Styria), and Fujui Wang (Taipei). The project carries on the outlined tradition of a telecommunication art form of the seventies and eighties, however it interweaves this with a form of radio art, which apperceives itself as part of these telecommunication projects and reflects the change of radio through the development of new communication media. This change does not only apply to television's aforementioned loss of the mass media synchronization function, its completely altered status as the would-be daily companion medium, but rather, accompanying this is its new function as a horizon of meaning production. The transmission format of the radio and its contents have altered its function in the context of cultural communication and information. They now exist in direct relation to countless other media and communication formats, where they are commented on, complemented, processed further, or where their basis and their point of departure lie. What this means for artistic production on and for the radio is that they no longer constitute closed units (lose their work character), and they were not always developed primarily for the radio. Radio is often just another albeit very specific - "window" for the temporary manifestation of projects oriented towards such very different media.

".. devolve into .." is informed by the history of telecommunication art-work that uses the media of communication to provoke exchange, build networks of artists, and engage in the discourse around the role of global networks in culture (either electronic networks or groups of artists who communicate and collaborate across distances trough travel, mail-art, and other forms of dissemination). (...) Informed by the idea of real-time exchange over distance, '.. devolve into II ..' works with the streams on the internet - the broadcast of audio and image in a text based network. The images are presented as a slide show or slow-scan (as opposed to a 'moving picture' or video) - thus referring to early methods of sending images over telephone lines." (Peter Courtemanche)

".. devolve into II .." can be traced back to a pilot project in 2000 that is accessible as an audiovisual online installation on Kunstradio Online and Western Front Online. A special on-site version was created in 2000 in the ORF Landesstudio Steiermark, Graz, for the "musikprotokoll" for the Styrian Autumn festival.

"The title - 'devolve' - refers to the process of change or alteration that takes place when something in the analog world is digitized - compressed - stored - moved - copied - transmitted - decompressed - and turned back into a physical object (in the form of light waves and sound pressure). Regardless of the process, the material that has been pushed through the internet is ultimately different than the originals." (Peter Courtemanche)

".. devolve into .." is a good example of the outlined transformation of meaning productions and fields of action, and not just in the area of art. "Art goes from being the producer of meaning to the arranger of operations." Hans Ulrich Reck continues, "A constant semantization, re-semantization and trans-semantization of materials can be said to characterize both art development and media use. (...) A dehierarchization of materials and poetics focuses primarily on a cultural concept that has oriented itself far too long on the unalterable great works. Through the development of new forms of use in the audiovisual mass media, new contexts are emerging (...)." These new contexts do not only apply to practices with interactive media but they also re-define classical media like the radio, whose underpinnings of "broadcasting" through streaming technology on the Net (as Peter Courtemanche uses it time and time again) and thus through likely convergence phenomena of different media are lent a utterly new meaning. For radio, too, we see that we must completely re-examine the notion of which public spaces it will reach, indeed how these public spaces will be addressed, which spaces will emerge in the process, which role as mentioned above the new types of works will play in respect to a concept of radio.

By unequivocally referring to the genealogy of telecommunication projects and by literally inserting retroactive elements into the project - as can be seen, for instance, in the reconstruction of the image aesthetics of slow-scan television - Peter Courtemanche departs just as squarely from a view of the Net as a kind of online gallery that, as it were, just interprets it as a "receptacle" for existing aesthetics, practices, and forms of production logic. "In all of its forms - web, radio, installation, performance, and this CD - this project hopes to extend an ongoing dialogue about communications technology and the role of the artist in relation to that technology." The "Net", for Peter Courtemanche, is a space of temporal immediacy, of the integration (including experimental) of participants and agents, and which, in its essence, reevaluates the underlying principles, not only of artistic practice but of social practice in general.

"How do these objects persist? How do we find them? How do they alter themselves through contact with the nodes? What does digitization/alteration mean to our idea of icons - our connection with culture and history?" (Peter Courtemanche)

Network-supported artistic work, as Peter Courtemanche has, in cooperation with a number of international artists, initiated in the project ".. devolve into II ..", does not therefore apply just to the internal transformations of a use of symbols (image, sound, language, writing), but above all also to the external weave of this use of symbols: what is described as distributed authorship, cooperative production, or the like, also appears as an extended inhomogeneous socio-cultural practice that keeps tying the project back, over and over again, to contexts of concrete production and of life itself, though they be non-hierarchical, placeless, and aimed at unalterable cultural systems of order. Therefore if we place ".. devolve into II .." within the genealogy outlined here and the implied art, media, and cultural-theoretical discourse, it seems legitimate to also regard artistic practice as a contribution to an understanding of our symbolic action and thus the underlying basis of our perception of reality.

(January 2002)