Jemima Rellie


Feedback: ‘a process by which information concerning the adequacy of the system, its operation, and its outputs are introduced into the system.’

Feedforward: ‘a process, akin to feedback, that informs current operations with future ideals, and adjusts the output model accordingly.’

The term ‘contemporary art’ refers to art created now, in 2007. Contemporary art is also a catch all term that groups all ‘fine art’ practice from the late 1960s on. Arts practice within this period is immensely diverse and is not easily categorised into the formal ‘-isms’ that have been employed to document the modern period through time and space.

What distinguishes contemporary artistic output is that most of it is based on ideas as opposed to objects. An emphasis on thoughts not things ensures that contemporary art remains a slippery field, where meaning is reliant on interpretation as opposed to seemingly straightforward facts.

Today’s art world is a notoriously complex and unstable space, and nothing ultimately extends beyond its remit. The most relevant contemporary art is however united at least in its challenge to the logic and structure of art history. The most revealing art in 2007 builds on past challenges and hints at the art experiences of tomorrow.

FEEDBACK is intentionally a contemporary exhibition as is indicated by its title. The term is associated with systems theory which was influential in the 1960s. It is simultaneously descriptive of the individual pieces included in the show and the process through which this art has evolved.

The exhibition groups together works from the last 80 years that can be read through a contemporary lens as being in some way responsive to instructions, interaction or the environment.

Most of the works included are from the broader contemporary period, but the exhibition is not intended as a survey of all arts practice from the 1960s. InsteadFEEDBACK offers one narrative to illustrate key concerns in contemporary practice which signal the direction that artists will take in the future.

In an article written for Artforum magazine in 1968, Jack Burnham suggested that a ‘transition between major paradigms may best express the state of present art. Reasons for it lie in the nature of current technological shifts’. Although Burnhamwent on in later years to downplay his ‘Systems Esthetics’ thesis, theorists today, such as Luke Skrebowski, argue ‘that we might think [of] systems theory (as mediated to the art world by Burnham’s systems aesthetics) as a productive methodological framework for considering postformalist art as a whole’.

What Burnham and Skrebowskiidentified, and FEEDBACK illustrates, is that a fundamental shift in artistic production, dissemination and engagement accompanied the transformation from an industrial to an information society.

Burnham describes this shift as being ‘from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture’, where ‘change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.’

In the information age, individual objects and actions are less interesting than their context and the active relationships between them.

By extension, art which is reliant on input and is therefore explicitly processual is more interesting in 2007 than art that is confined to unique, isolated objects.FEEDBACK takes this premise as its focus.

The ‘transition’ towards systemsbased arts practice that Burnham identified was neither clear cut nor sudden. Its roots can be traced back to cultural production pre-dating Burnham’s article, itself written some 40 years ago.

But while the roots of this artistic shift can be found in work dating from the early 20th century, such as László Moholy-Nagy’sLight Space Modulator (1928-30), andMarcel Duchamp’s RotoReliefs (1935), both included in the FEEDBACK show, it was not until the late 60s and 70s that the range of related activities intensified.

This intensity of activity has been summed up by Donna De Salvo in the catalogue for the 2005 Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 exhibition she curated at Tate Modern (London) as ‘a radical rethinking of the art object (that) led to wide ranging experiments in all media – film, video, dance and performance, challenges to the traditional categories of art making and to the institutions and galleries that formed the art system’.

Closely related to this interest in systems was an interest in emerging technologies.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of art exhibitions explored the interface of art and technology, including the now legendary Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts show, which was presented at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 1968.Cybernetic Serendipity included poetry, music, graphics, animations, painting machines and robots to explore the role of computers in contemporary art.

Interactivity and chance were a significant component of much of the art in the exhibition, two qualities which also feature prominently in FEEDBACK. Indeed many of the works from Cybernetic Serendipitycould easily be integrated into FEEDBACKand unsurprisingly, several of the same artists such as Nam June Paik and Jean Tinguely, feature in each show. Only two pieces actually make a re-appearance inFEEDBACK however: Charles Csuri’sRandom War (1967) and Edward Ihnatowicz’s SAM (Sound ActivatedMobile), (1968).

Like so many art and technology works from this time, SAM is unfortunately no longer functioning, so it is accompanied here by video documentation which displays by proxy how the sculpture should react in response to low-level noise.

Cybernetic Serendipity was a popular and financial success, but despite the historic enthusiasm, the early explorations into the artistic potential for new technologies have largely been excluded from mainstream art history, until now.

Even the recent and otherwise excellentOpen Systems exhibition left out works from this period that were based on new technologies, despite its explicit interest in interdisciplinarity. FEEDBACK seeks to redress this balance and revisit some of the early works which explore art and technology, to re-assess their relevance and to trace the significant but often over-looked lineage of contemporary practice in this field.

One example of such inclusions inFEEDBACK is Open Score (1966), byRobert Rauschenberg. This piece was performed as part of the seminal 9 Evenings of Theater and Engineering, which took place in New York in October 1966. Over the course of these evenings ten New York artists and 30 engineers from Bell Telephone Laboratories collaborated on a series of dance, music and theatre works employing emerging technologies.

The series was later described by John Giorno, one of the collaborators, as ‘the first time artists formally used technology and electronics in their work.’

Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, another mastermind behind the series, went on officially to found the nonprofit organisationExperiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) the following year in 1967, facilitating further rich, collaborative opportunities between artists and engineers.

Although Open Score is linear in overall structure, the narrative details relied on the participants’ input. In the tennis game at the start of the work, for instance, the players are simply instructed to rally and knock out as many lights as possible, in no particular sequence.

Their efforts are fed back into the piece and determine the experience of the audience, 500 of whom are themselves participants, carrying out prescribed actions in response to the players’ random strikes. Despite the poor reviews the piece received in the press at the time (in part due to technical glitches experienced on the night), Open Score embodies many of the qualities that are now regularly associated with contemporary art, and which continue to challenge the art world today.

It is an interdisciplinary, multimedia, performance-based piece, encompassing gaming and audience participation, which is difficult if not impossible to recreate in its original format, not least due to technological obsolescence. The rapid development of technologies over the last 40 years has contributed to the reluctance of many organisations and individuals to collect new technology works.

Preservation policies for technology based art remain in their infancy, still championed by important but relatively small communities of interest such as theVariable Media Network, the Daniel Langlois Foundation and Rhizome. Indeed few of the international modern art museums have established acquisitions programmes for this work.

More often, as is the case at Tate, they started strategically collecting photography, film and video only at the start of the 21st century and have yet to tackle computer-based practice in any comprehensive way.

As long as this is still the case there remains a very real threat as is evident in the fate of SAM, that key works in the early history of technology-based art break down and disappear. Venues such as LABoral Centre for Art and Creative Industriesand exhibitions like FEEDBACK make a crucial contribution to preventing this from happening.

LABoral’s efforts are particularly timely as recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the artistic potential of science and new technologies. Since the 1990s the established art world has arguably come closer than ever before to embracing this practice into the mainstream.

Many of the younger artists in FEEDBACKworking predominantly with new technologies are now regularly invited to exhibit their work at internationally established venues that have to date favoured painting and sculpture.

Within the last decade, leading museums of modern art have put together temporary exhibitions focusing on art and technology including 0101010: Art in Technological Times at SFMoMA (San Francisco), and both BitStreams and Data Dynamics at the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), all in 2001.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, American museums have lately been a little more energetic in this area, since the key driver for this change of pace has been the development of, and public interest in, digital technologies and in particular those associated with the Internet.

The artists who make use of these new technologies in their practice are now frequently, if awkwardly, grouped together under the banner of (new) media arts. By adopting digital media—the single most significant catalyst for change in cultural production in the last 100 years—as their tools, their artistic output offers some of the most insightful, if often difficult work to engage audiences. It is insightful because it reveals more about these technologies and, more importantly their effect on our lives.

This is particularly evident in politically charged works such as Marie Sester’ (2007), which uses surveillance technologies and video projections to critique the military and entertainment industries.

It is difficult because we have as of yet to agree on the appropriate language or framework within which to describe this effect. What is however clear is that by adopting digital technologies, new media artists are fundamentally altering deep-rooted Western notions of truth, authorship, value, and by extension art.

This evolution of the concept of art is demonstrated repeatedly in FEEDBACK, not least in the various works based on computer game modifications, includingMary Flanagan’s [giantJoystick], (2006),JODI’s Max Payne Cheats Only (2006),Eddo Stern’s Fort Paladin: America’s Army (2003) and Cory Arcangel’s I Shot Andy Warhol (2002).

These ‘mods’ all involve the artists re-working of low-culture (classic Atari games from the 1980s, a violent third-person shooter by Remedy Entertainment and the American army ‘s recruitment training game, both from the turn of the century, or Nintendo’s Hogan’s Alley from 1984, respectively) into high art by hacking it and modifying the contents to alter the audience’s perceptions.

The ongoing transformation of art is however perhaps best exemplified inThomson and Craighead’s Short Films about Flying (2003). This work re-mixes live video feeds from Boston’s Logan Airport as ‘directed’ by members of the public with music from net radio stations and textual dialogue from online bulletin boards. The content is all sourced via the Web and automatically collated into a potentially endless series of previously unseen movies, which are then streamed in the gallery installation.

The work demonstrates the cut-and-paste ethos cultivated by digital media, where original content is collaboratively produced—if often unknowingly—and is obviously the result of re-sampled earlier efforts.

Digital technologies allow contemporary artists to create new forms of cultural experience. Computer databases are used to store information that can be re-configured on the fly into targeted, personalised works, while the Internet serves as a limitless and dynamic content resource, as put to good effect by Herwig Weiser in Death Before Disko (2005). In this work Weiser has created a fetishistic new version of the disco ball, developed in collaboration with the electronics engineerAlbert Bleckmann and the soundprogrammer Bernhard Zösmayr, which samples and visualises noises from outer space streamed from the World Wide Web.

A new aesthetic is often required to appreciate the results of these efforts by media artists to change our perceptions.

This is the case in Antoni Muntadas’ On Translation: Social Networks (2006), in which the artist, in collaboration with new media students from San Jose State University, pursues his interest in language by analysing and mapping how the economic, cultural, technological and military terminology used characterises and defines organisations.

The work displays raw information scraped from numerous international websites in a data-visualisation that would not look out of place in a science venue. Constantly evolving, the same data can be projected in multiple locations simultaneously, and is currently on view in both San Jose and Gijón.

Another data visualisation project in theFEEDBACK exhibition is Free Network Visible Network, (2006), by Boj and Diaz, in which data exchanged across open wireless networks is made visible.

In doing so, the artists redefine the notion of public space and solicit community based interventions. No longer a passive subject, the visitor (or audience, or participant, or user) is actively engaged in producing the content of the work.

This opportunity for public participation in the creation of the work is a trait that distinguishes many recent works of new media art, such as Jenny Marketou’s Be Careful Who Sees You When You Dream(2005) and Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming (1992).

In Marketou’s piece, the public collect video footage outside the gallery space which is fed back to screens within the gallery using wireless spy cameras mounted to helium weather balloons.

In Sermon’s piece, two beds in different locations allow complete strangers to share an intimate artistic experience via videoconferencing software. Without any real-time input from the public bothMarketou and Sermon’s works are effectively empty.

The impact of digital technologies— otherwise tellingly referred to as ‘information’ or ‘communication’ or ‘disruptive’ technologies—on contemporary art is all encompassing. This was summed up in the introduction to Art in Technological Times which stated that ‘Over the past decade the world of contemporary art has experienced the beginnings of a tectonic shift: digital technology has arrived as a component of everyday life and contemporary art on a global scale… Neither art, nor those who make it, show it, and look at it can ever be the same again.’

Digital technologies and media do indeed signal a paradigm shift in cultural content, delivery and reception. They dematerialise the object, subsume all other media in the process and facilitate on-demand access, at any time and from any place. WhatFEEDBACK reveals, however, is that this is part of the same trajectory previously drawn by Burnham in 1968.

Media arts are the focus for FEEDBACK, but FEEDBACK does not solely address works that feature new technologies. In fact, it also shares artists, and specific works in common with Open Systems, namely Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1965), Lygia Clark’s Dialogue Goggles (1968), and a wall drawing by one of the pioneers of instruction based art, Sol LeWitt.

Furthermore, it could easily have included work by a number of notable younger contemporary artists not working explicitly with digital media, but who nevertheless engage the audience in an immersive or time-based process, dependent on some form of input.

Arguably the single most popular participatory and interactive work of the last decade was Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003-4), which attracted over one million visitors in its six months on display.

The work transformed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall into a microcosm dominated by a giant electric sun and a mirrored ceiling which reflected the actions of the visitors below.

Another noteworthy younger artist not utilising new technologies but nevertheless tackling many of the issues these technologies raise is Tino Seghal.

Although he is considered to be a visual artist, Seghal does not create material objects. Instead, he produces situations in which the audience is addressed directly and provoked to react, such as in the wonderfully entitled This is so Contemporary (2005) staged in the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

Seghal’s tactical resistance to being collected or catalogued in any traditional way by refusing permission to document his work, be it by textual description, photography, video or even a contract is highly provocative in an age where information is considered to flow freely and be inherently reproducible.

What these works by Eliasson andSeghal suggest is that the qualities associated with new media arts are not media specific, but are rather contemporary values which can be, and increasingly are, ascribed to art in a variety of formats.

Contemporary art in 2007, in all its varied formats, is now imbued with qualities brought to prominence through our daily exposure to technology.

Frequently interdisciplinary, art today is regularly performative, interactive, participatory, collaborative, non linear and/or networked based.

Playful and socially engaged, gaming and politics are recurrent themes. Global in reach, it is not defined by one particular time or place, but is rather pluralistic and diverse.

Art history or the study of artists and the contributions their art has made to culture and society is a discipline that looks back, but evolves as it moves forward, and as the interests of artists and society change.

By exploring the history of art and technology through one common theme,FEEDBACK provides a timely opportunity to consider how new technologies have affected, are shaping and will influence art practice, experience and interpretation in the future.

For now we remain resolutely in the contemporary period but what LABoral Centre for Art and Creative Industriesand its inaugural exhibition FEEDBACKboth offer is an opportunity to explore what will come next.

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