Benjamin Bratton on Tue, 9 Apr 2002 21:51:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] The U-Haul Trucks Are In Your Mind

Title: The U-Haul Trucks Are In  Your Mind

The U-Haul Trucks Are In  Your Mind......

As reported by the New York Times, Newsweek, Le Monde, The Guardian, Salon and others, Electronic Orphanage’s own Fagin, Miltos Manetas, armed but with a web site in drag and exactly 23 invisible U-Haul trucks, hi-jacked last month’s Whitney Biennial.

While the facts are simple, nobody is really quite sure what happened.

Miltos noticed that for some reason was not taken, registered it himself, and there staged an alternate exhibition of nice Flash work. Fine and well, except that many of the contributors were under the impression (one neither encouraged nor discouraged by Manetas) that this was the “real” web site, which by definition, it of course was.

Manetas also explained that in addition to the web site, this exhibition would take place in 23 U-Haul trucks circling the Biennial’s opening party. This unlikely specter appealed to those new media artists who (rightly) feel themselves to be still rather misunderstood and underappreciated by the “real” art scene, even a technology-forward one like the Whitney. The circling U-Haul trucks would be an undeniable presence. They would by sheer scale form an ominous obstacle between party and partygoers; out with the old, in with the new! These Flash U-Hauls would be the new gatekeepers, the new machines that decide who gets in and out!

The Whitney Biennial is, for the convenience of argument, the “Las Vegas of cultural capital,” and in this casino of cool, Manetas was handing out counterfeit currency. But as with any good counterfeiting scheme, the currency passed for real long enough that enough people used it, traded it as real that it became, in practice, as real as real money.

Many participants from new media art circles were less than pleased with their payment in simulated cultural capital. Perhaps because many of them are still stinging from the evaporation of stock option wealth, the whole counterfeit currency thing isn’t so amusing.

Miltos is always is happy to talk at length about the power of simulation, and it is in molesting the Reality Principle that his work takes the greatest pleasure. Manetas’ projects range from traditional oil paintings of Sony PS2 gear to the hiring of Lexicon Branding (coiners of post-English terms like Powerbook, Pentium, Zima, etc.) to name his new art movement -- that name is Neen. His Electronic Orphanage un-gallery on Chung King Road in Chinatown, Los Angeles is an opaque black box where Neen is allowed but confused passers-by from nearby openings often are not. As another incident at the Deitch gallery last Fall showed, he is also willing to provoke the plagiarism police to hand-to-hand combat.

The current sleight and diversion reaches the highest levels of the reality industry. The New York Times reported on March 4 that Miltos’ U-Haul’s would in fact be driving his trucks around the museum “tomorrow”. In fact the Paper of Record gave Manetas’ “work” as much coverage as the “real” event itself. Another story on the Biennial reported after the day the trucks didn’t come only mentions the forged web site.

Interestingly, it was not the old school art crowd who raised the biggest stink when (surprise, surprise) a battalion of U-Haul trucks doubling as Flash theaters didn’t descend on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Nor were they really the butt of the joke anyway. “I love the Whitney. They are like family,” gushes Miltos.  The truly upset were many (most definitely not all) of the apparently more literal-minded new media participants and co-sponsors. (name names here?) Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Whitney, was unperturbed and was quoted in the Times linking Manetas’ action to the venerable tradition of guerrilla action-art. However, a discussion forum on Archinect, a design community site that co-sponsored took far more offense. “He lied to us!” one post shouted. “We went to see the trucks and they weren’t there!” But were they?

This panic is complex, and more than a bit worrisome. One might hope that if anyone appreciates the digital logic of the whole effort -- now even museums can have an infinite number of perfect copies – it would be new media artists. And of course, many including myself do. But the general level of outrage was so pitched that this anger at the there-that-wasn’t-there may prove the most intriguing outcome of all this.

David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear and then reappear. Miltos made the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art appear and then disappear. Of course it was not true, it was better than true. But it wasn’t false either, and this is the complicated mess that simulation makes of representation and the various capitals that rely upon it.

As Krzysztof Wodizcko’s projections are and are not graffiti, that do and do not de-face architecture, Manetas did and did not Identity Hack the Whitney. If he had truly broken in and stole something, then things would be a bit less disturbing because more black and white. We would at least know what we know. As it stands, undecidable because the only thing broken was a promise never actually made, itself only imagined, we are left holding the invisible bag.

At the gala, this destabilizing ambiguity caused a ripple of curiosity but was soon cheerfully absorbed by the ‘real’ Whitney crowds, always jonesing for an ironic jostle. The re-absorption is made easier because Manetas sees this whole operation not so much a meta-commentary on the ultimate arbitrariness of cultural gatekeeping, but as a kind of Urpiece, a giant red ribbon placed around the entire event on which he can place his (virtual) signature. In cyberspace, is Earth Art, a big topological gesture referencing the site-ness of its location and locatablity.

But as Anderson suggested, all this is not new, and Miltos doesn’t claim it to be. The brothel in which Jean Genet stages his 1956 play, The Balcony, is a repository of illusion, a liminal zone within a contemporary European city aflame with revolution. After the city's royal palace and rulers are destroyed, the bordello's costumed patrons impersonate the leaders of the city. As the masqueraders warm to their roles, they convince even the revolutionaries that the illusion created in the bordello is preferable to reality, in fact is reality.

In the everyday life of global simulation, everyone is played by many roles, and the architectures of cultural venture capitalism –in/out, me/you, genius/idiot- have an animation of their own, one that conjugates the artist more than the other way around.

In Genet’s play, as the revolution burns itself out, the patrons emerge in the uniforms of the deposed leaders, and to a city now hungry for order, their presence fills the vacuum of the real and they are elevated to the positions they drag.

The U-Haul trucks are in your mind.

Have some more hors d’oeuvres.

--Benjamin Bratton.