Date: Tue, 17 Sep 1996 03:03:52 +0200

From: Pit Schultz <>

Media and METIS

On the functional transformation of electronic media art in the nineties

Peter Weibel

The historical public sites of art such as the castle, church, museum and villa are today being augmented by the trade fair, lobby, newspapers and television, banks and the Internet. In view of this changing public sphere, the question arises as to how art has changed in its public function. Has it conquered new realms or has it submitted to the same logic of public decline as diagnosed back in 1962 by Juergen Habermas in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [1]. According to Habermas, the public sphere has gradually declined to become a marketplace of commerce, and according to Richard Sennett this is a dangerous tyranny of intimacy. [2]

This question is of particular intensity particulary for media art whose public sites are naturally enough all new sites. Firstly, we are currently experiencing the demise of naivety with regard to the public sphere of media art. The revolt against historical forms of art has been terminated by the cultural assimilation of media art. Major festivals and big group exhibitions today present media art as a matter of course. The phase of exclusion by historical forms of art is slowly coming to an end. Of course, there are a number of victims that fall by the wayside, avant-garde film or video art, for instance. The digital form of media art has proven particulary successful in a fusion with appropriated forms of historical media art such as film or video. Secondly, media art can no longer superficially belie its proximity to the electronics industry to whom it owes its equipment. The origin of electronic technology from the innovations of war and weapons technologies has long been an integral part of the techno discourse. The close link between electronic media and the industry must hence be analysed and translated in artistic terms as part and parcel of conceptual practise.

However, this task still lies ahead for media art, for the main flow of electronic arts serves the techno-industrial complex as an expert of legitimation. A great many media festivals and exhibitions look like product presentations at trade fairs and business jargon has swamped the cultural field. You enter electronic playing fields as you would a waiting lounge at the airport or the reception of a big company. Management lingo speaks of innovation studios and bridges to the future, etc. The standardised weave of norms of technical apparatus, from frequencies to software, is accepted without criticism and standardises artistic packages. Instead of experimentally investigating artistic practice in laboratories--evolving discursive collages beyond and against the industrial empire--instead of investigating the conditions of production and consumption of art in a cultural laboratory--creating a new framework for an existence in the data world--most media artists become voluntary victims within the mighty text of technology. They celebrate their own fascination with fetish technology instead of developing a distance to this fascination.

To date, technology has tended to see the subject as a technical object, even outwardly. The result was that technology was ever defined only in terms of technology. The industrial definition of technological objectives and values was more or less regurgitated by artists, in a similar manner to the historical panel painting that visualised the aims and values of the church, the great tale of Christian religion. Today, the global media mix is a milieu in which the subject itself forms a part as an object. The artists articulate the text of great tales of the techno-industrial complex. We are talking about equipment instead of mentality and about machine craze instead of psychodrama. Techno ostentatiousness converging with poverty of experience. But the task would be for media art itself to differentiate between technology and technological experience. For if we pursue the origins of the notion of mechanical arts, e.g., in John Scotus, we come to realise that free arts differ from mechanical arts in that the act of perception is a process of inward differentiation in the free arts, while mechanical arts are provided as a disposal from outside, i.e., as an option presented by the industry, as an offer of constantly renewed machinery that the artist may avail himself to. This distinction between mechanical and free arts has an Aristotelian origin, namely in class division. The slave has no art because he is not free. At best, his art is mechanical and, being mechanical, the slave is no citizen. The citizen's art alone is free and must have the mutuality that is a feature of the zoon politikon. The freedom of art and the freedom of the citizen are reciprocally defining. The central question for media art today is thus to what extent it is able to make free citizens of consumers (slaves) in this age of media and its incomprehensible feudal structure. As long as it creates only mechanical art, it will remain subjugated to big transnational industry.

In his prophetic book Habermas lamented the demise of the public sphere from a site of rational, free political debate between citizens to an arena or stage of tempting and convincing the consumer. In view of the fact that the big computer and other firms are currently transnational and that the states themselves are becoming their customers, the state has taken up the habit of addressing its citizens as customers. The word citizen's service is all too obvious evidence of this whole pitiful decline of the public sphere. Just like industrial products have a service address and are always being sent in for service, the citizen too becomes a mere part of the big operating system of consumption with the effect that he too becomes a mere service address, too. Companies strategically arouse the idea in their customers that they are acting in their function as citizens when making their consumer decisions.

The state as an inferiour rival to the big companies treats its citizens as consumers: citizen's service is the result. If you buy a television set and choose from a number of video films, you think you are fulfilling you duties as a citizen. And the tax-paying citizen feels this to be a gift. The citizen is treated like a customer especially during elections. He is no longer addressed as a citizen at all, rather propagandistic illusions are sold to the mass public just like in advertising. The customer or consumer in contrast is gushed over as if he were the most free, autonomous citizen upon whose welfare whole states depend (save America - buy American products). In this zone of electronic feudalism, media art would have the task of liberating itself from its slavish function towards the industry and to transform the media into an instrument of the citizens in this age of media, emancipating itself from a mechanical art and evolving to become a free art. In the techno-industrial complex, what is involved is a new dynamics between art cultural and technology, between society and technology, a mapping of this dynamics in the art work itself. In this age of global displacements the role of the mass media is to create a network to strengthen historical forms of rule by restructuring them. In view of the fact that the big companies themselves are becoming the driving force of global displacements, art and, specifically, media art - if it can recall its original function at all - will have the task of analysing this displacement and its causes within the global network so as to create the conditions for a resistance to the new feudalisms and new vertical structures of mediacracy. The amnesia of the media is their daily routine called television. Media art, in contrast, would be memory art. Searching for free electronic citizens instead of enslaved, electronic consumers, we can expect more in this respect from artists on the periphery that from mainstream media artists in the big cities. The ancient godess of reason and cunning, Metis, Odysseus and Daedalus who owe their lives, their survival and their immortality to the great Greek allegories for the mature citizen, are also adequate figureheads for the media. Vis-a-vis the power of the media and their frenzied exteriority, browsing on the rails of cunning is the only site in a world that no longer knows where its site is.

annotation by pit schultz:

The text reflects in a interesting way the practice of the author as the former chief curator of Ars Electronica and his influentive role in the field of 'media art' in the last 10 years. It may sound like hypocrisy that Weibel is distancing himself from a position that he was bringing upon himself. While the "technodiskurs" once had been an avant-gardistic arena for European data-dandies, today it has been adopted by the corporate aesthetics from AT+T to Siemens or from MTV to Wired and leads the neoliberal promise of self-realization in the hardworking middle class.

The euphoric futurism of media technology as the motor of culture, the postmodern agenda of the disappearing of the everything in the simulacra of information, or the positivistic belief in the eschatology of rationality, which he bound virtousily with a transdisciplinary field of fringe-science and salon academism did neither collapse into an millenial end 'Goetterdaemmerung', nor has the 'digital revolution' led to a shift in the organisation of power in the western world. Especially the social and ethico-political sphere which opens with the global connection of personal computers gives place to a changed problematic for the elektro-artists compared to the elitism of hitech installations of the last decade of _SGI_-art. Instead of contributing to the museums for the future, falling into nostalgic melancholia, or participating in a self-referential art discourse by posing as techno-rebels, there are several options to higher the insecurity inside the system by relating to the incoming sonic from the borders of the digital realm. The net is first of all increasing the question of inclusion and exclusion not only to the non-wired population but also 'between the firewalls', it is obviously following not only the lines drawn by 'the war of browser standards' but by cultural differences, language barriers, the distinction between 'citizen' and 'slave' which goes beyond the question of representation and relates to the singular subjective modes of existence and the possibilities to break the capitalistic semiotics of media technology. It's a good sign for the obsoleteness of an originary 'new media art' which legitimates through the novelty of it's medium itself, that Mr. Weibel does some encrypted old-school self-critique here. Ethics in media could at least mean the right to noise.