This book looks at the changes that have swept the art world over the past twenty years, using as a framing device the rise to dominance of network structures and behaviors and their enabling manifestations: the database, the platform, the project, and the free agent or do-it-yourselfer. These are all terms the art world has come to rely on heavily, favored metaphors for describing the kind of dynamic landscape it envisions in its turn toward an art of performativity, sociality, and eventfulness: networks extending communications and connecting communities, platforms facilitating myriad activities, and so on. More than just slogans, I believe these keywords reveal more than their champions likely intend. The figure of the network plays a significant and complex role in plotting the emergent potentialities of our historical moment; it responds to new materialities and helps produce in turn new logics, new sets of practices, and new norms; it brings with it an ensemble of corresponding figures which together diagram or model the emergence and exercising of power and privilege today. Thus, despite all the references to information and networking in what follows, my argument has less to do with specific technologies than with general forms of organization. I try to describe an organizational shift in the art world, a whole new managerial imaginary, the effects of which are affecting not only material infrastructures and relations among people, objects, and institutions, but also conceptual categories and conventions, and ultimately the construction of meaning.
Such a transformation, of course, has not been inherent solely to art. It has unfolded in relation to—has paralleled, intersected, and resisted, been shaped by and helped shape in turn—developments in political, economic, cultural, and social life, changes that have often been analyzed under the general headings of globalization, postcolonialism, and neoliberalism. Particularly important has been the shift in focus from the national and even international toward the transnational, the global, and the diasporic, as well as the rejection among theorists in anthropology, ethnography, and postcolonial studies of essentializing models of culture in favor of stressing the specificities of material practices. Also influential has been the interest among political theorists in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the subsequent shift in emphasis away from big ideological struggles toward micropolitics and more local forms of agency, and of course the parallel transition within political economy from a Fordist to a post-Fordist paradigm, away from the production of large inventories to just-in-time manufacture and the providing of services and information. I'm not alone in wanting to understand the relationship of art to all these things.
At the same time, there are risks involved in deploying within an art context nonart models developed within different disciplinary histories and contexts and often dealing with empirical data specific to those disciplines. Cultural changes don't by necessity follow changes in other realms, and even in the fine arts themselves, change is often inconsistent. For example, at the very moment when many encyclopedic museums are attracting ever larger crowds by embracing contemporary art with its plurality of styles, mediums, and interests as well as its motley barrage of readymade and everyday materials, most venues for "serious" music like symphonies and operas grow increasingly conservative, limiting their repertoires to a relatively small number of "timeless" classics. Often changes in culture that appear obviously to parallel changes elsewhere will turn out to be more contradictory when examined in finer detail. Alas, it's a primary aim of this book to complicate analogies between, on the one hand, the recent turn in art toward agency, practice, sociality, and the performative, and, on the other hand, the transition from mass consumerism to mass customization, or what gets called today DIY culture, where an uptick in personal consumer choice can be read in different ways, by some as evidence of further penetration by the market into every aspect of life, by others as facilitating do-it-yourself empowerment and the expansion of authentic cultural undergrounds.
At the same time, parallels between art and other spheres may be indicative of only very superficial alignments. Hence, while I use a lot of techno-sounding terms and figures in what follows, I nevertheless don't feel that what gets called digital or net art has any prior or particularly urgent claim on the subjects I address, and so I ignore such examples almost completely. Finally, what might at first appear an obvious antagonism between values in the culture and those in, say, the economy may in fact conceal a very deep level of abiding agreement and mutual reinforcement. One example, which I elaborate on in chapter 3, is the misconception that current cultural fetishizing of the handmade stands in strict opposition to technological trends toward digitization and virtuality, a view that ignores how the handmade, as a conspicuous celebration of freelance performance and of practice—that is, of the pragmatics of doing elevated over the semantics of meaning, of the syntagmatic over the paradigmatic—is very much complimentary to the new priorities of a network paradigm.
This applies in particular to recent bricolaged sculpture, a major trend in art for the last decade or more, and especially the thrift store pickings that constitute the bulk of it, which, while aggressively low-tech on a literal level, would be impossible to adequately analyze and contextualize without bringing up the eclipse of spectacular culture by database culture and the practices and values encouraged by the latter's more DIY modes of handling.
An additional benefit of the particular analytical approach I take is that it attempts to make sense of exactly what many critics simply shrug their shoulders over—namely, today's profuse pluralism, the collapsing of structures that formerly organized collective practice and experience, the decay of canons and critical criteria, the inability to convincingly circumscribe what is most significant about contemporary art within deep historical logics or determinations. Placing blame on crass commercialization and the chaos of an insatiable market, while not entirely incorrect, at this point sounds more like a broken record than a historically specific explanation. My argument is that it's precisely by falling into disarray that structures like the museum or the canon become not obsolete but updated, it's how the spaces of art and culture are modernized. Such a collapse is only one side of a simultaneously integrative process, which is the replacement of hierarchical, restrictive, and summarizing models of culture, whether spectacular or canonical, with new, more horizontal and networked models based on ever-extending databases and platforms enhanced by better connectivity, a change that has brought with it a new subject, no longer the individual as distilled essence of a centered culture, whether high culture's elitist snob or mass culture's brainwashed couch potato, but rather a more spread-out and decentered actor, what sociologists studying this new normative type like to call the "omnivore." Indeed, it's the rise of the omnivore that might help explain why contemporary art museums boast healthier attendance figures than symphonies, which can't promise arrays of pick-and-choose attractions but are limited in their presentational options to linear, take-it-or-leave-it programs.
The artists who appear in the upcoming pages—including Andrea Fraser, Douglas Gordon, Rachel Harrison, Dave Muller, Jorge Pardo, Stephen Prina, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—in no way compose a coherent group, but they do crisscross one another's paths in representative ways, in their interests and working methods (including a preoccupation most share in the fate of site-specific art and institutional critique) as well as in their personal histories and career trajectories. Many of these artists established contact with one another in a couple of select art schools (the California Institute of the Arts and Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, the School of Visual Arts and Whitney Independent Study Program in New York) and went on to show in the same galleries (Galerie Christian Nagel in Cologne, American Fine Arts and Friedrich Petzel in New York), some even joining in collaborative projects with one another. Many were also curated together into important shows, such as Peter Weibel's 1993 exhibition "Kontext Kunst: The Art of the '90s," Nicolas Bourriaud's "Traffic" in 1996, and Bennett Simpson's "Make Your Own Life: Artists In and Out of Cologne" in 2003.
Most of these artists began their careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, launching performance-based and/or temporary projects about nomadic existence and prosaic daily life (documenting travels, temporarily intervening in various sites, creating way stations and environments for passing conversation). Over the years such work came to be credited with throwing off the limitations of art and reembedding itself in the everyday. As Miwon Kwon remarked in 1996, such art "drives toward the real world, privileging it over the art world, which is thought beside the point, detached and separate from the 'real.'" And yet the validation of these practices has remained highly dependent on a narrative about neo-avant-garde aims and ambitions, a narrative fully institutionalized within the specialized field of art (i.e., one emphasized in art schools, in art magazines and books, in art museums) and whose moment of initial articulation in the 1960s makes it historically anterior to the neoliberal paradigm that gained ascendance beginning in the 1970s. From this myriad contradictions arise, whereby new value hierarchies, or inverted old ones, are entrenched while also being bracketed from social, economic, and political perspectives that would problematize the attribution of progressivity to them.
The main task of this book, then, is an engagement with and transvaluation of this discursive situation. In recent theorizing about art there are at least three themes that I believe have gained prominence because of their involvement—sometimes critical, most times not—with the new priorities of an ascendant network paradigm. First is the theme of the dialogical or relational as taken up, for example, by Bourriaud in his books Relational Aesthetics and Postproduction. Second, the theme of flexibility with regard to categorical affiliations and identity, articulated early on and forcefully by James Meyer among others. And third, the theme of mobility and nomadism, especially as these have been examined by Kwon and Meyer in their writings on the site-specific art of Fraser, Mark Dion, Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, and others. Questions I ask include whether today's stress on DIY—and, beyond that, "practice" more generally—continues the devaluing of theory ongoing since the late 1980s. I also ask whether celebrating dialogical over monological approaches to art and exhibition masks the degree to which economic and social control today relies on feedback mechanisms that extinguish every space of privacy in favor of increased just-in-time responsiveness and flexibility. In addition, I inquire whether delusions of agency obscure underlying systematic determinants, including the inequalities that increasingly structure the field underlying the seeming formal equality of networks. In some cases—especially Bourriaud and Meyer—I question the ascribing of oppositionality to what are really central aspects of a new status quo; and in other cases, where these aspects are already problematized—especially in the writings of Kwon and Fraser—I outline how such arguments can be advanced and enriched by my framework.
A lot has been published lately about the art world as a functional system—about how museums, art fairs, and international exhibitions operate, about the workings of studios, art schools, and archives, etc.—and this book no doubt falls into that trend. The difference is that I try to push back against the all-too-common belief that these interlocking functions, this entwining of connection, distribution, and circulation, are somehow purely practical or technological, as if without political content. The institution of art is too often made out to no longer represent a politics because both the institution and representation have themselves been eclipsed—precisely by communication, by the metonymy of the nonreferencing connection, by things getting done, by getting things done yourself. Each act of communicating, of connecting, of practice, gets treated as what Bill Readings calls "a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system ... the moment of technology's self-reflection [which] refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information." Paradoxically, then, the move beyond the autonomous art object made in the name of critique and politicization would now grant cover for a depoliticization. In relation to such an innocent view of art's recent turn to services and socializing as simply human nature or right-thinking, I agree with Paolo Virno when he argues, "The putting to work (and to profit) of language is the material ground, hidden and distorted, on which postmodern ideology rests ... [an] ideology [that] underlines the unlimited and virtual proliferation of 'linguistic games.'" Indeed, such a depoliticization may be one consequence of seeing the art world as no longer a "system," as it was so often described in the 1960s. Instead we talk about "networks," in which behaviors and dynamics are easily and often portrayed as spontaneous, natural, organic. I offer a critique of precisely this characterization of the network.