A Bright Future and a Dark Historyby Shane McAdams
“When something has history in it, listen.”
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
In a recent essay titled “D.I.Y. Culture” in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman argued that the fluid exchange of information inaugurated by the age of globalization isn’t homogenizing world cultures as many expected it would, but rather tribalizing them. Apparently the geographic barriers and inclinations to stand apart from others that have fostered thousands of independent languages and twice as many types of cheese are powerful enough to stave off the neutralizing effects of the age of information.
I just happened to be reading Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction when I came across Kimmelman’s article. Unlike other, more skeptical cultural prognosticators Bourriaud was among those who saw the potential of globalization in the late 90s. Despite all the pessimism, many, including Bourriaud, recognized that the electricity of the digital age had the potential to defibrillate the flatlining arc of modern art history. This resuscitation, most agreed, would make use of digital tools and networks to distribute appropriated content in new and socially beneficial ways. Nicolas Bourriaud observed hopefully that, “Since the early 90s, an ever increasing number of Artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works. More and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use work made by other or available cultural products. This art of Postproduction seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age…”
Bourriaud and Kimmelman (and many others) are clearly on to something. It’s possible that the endists of the postmodern and post-postmodern era may have to eat some crow as they consider the tear in the fabric of the modern tradition. Artists such as Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, and Guthrie Lonergan are doing so in a spirit that rivals Duchamp and Rauschenberg, only now with the option to send their commentary around the world by pressing a button. So too are millions of meme-makers across the world, the vast majority of whom would not label themselves as “artists.” Given these conditions, the lines between artists and non-artists are getting harder to read, if not becoming completely irrelevant. According to Kimmelman, “What’s new is the power available to wide swaths of the populace, thanks above all to cheap travel and the Web, to become actors in the production and dissemination of culture, not simply consumers. A generation or more ago, aside from what people did in their home or from what’s roughly called folk or outsider art, culture was generally thought of as something handed down from on high.”
Given these democratizing forces, how is one to differentiate between an art project—such as the one recently brought to my attention, that locates “one’s place in the metaphysical universe” with a phone application—a commercial product, a virus and an ironic send up? It’s certainly more difficult to tell the two apart than it is to tell a Caravaggio from Indonesian 17th century stoneware. This ambiguity may not be a bad thing per se, but it does create a lot of interference between producer and consumer. Even so, for many, those complications are a small price to pay for the prospect of a new frontier.
In his essay, Michael Kimmelman qualifies his declaration of globalization-induced tribalism by addressing what he describes as a kind of cultural dark matter; a prevailing essence so absorptive and general that it can’t simply be measured by its physical attributes. To illuminate this murky essence rather than to fight the visible is the special province of culture.
Kimmelman’s essay struck me as so profoundly right that I made copies of it for a class and filed it away in my hall-of-fame article box before leaving my home to buy some shelving. Pressed for time I started where millions of lazy shoppers do: at IKEA. Only after hours of searching through an endless assortment of cheap simulations of modern design, did I give up to find something unique, something with growth rings or real lacquer, maybe with an irregularity in the planing or a knot in the wood. I went to a flea market in Fort Greene where I found a worm-eaten, antique set of USPS sorting shelves that called my name. So old and brown, corners rubbed blunt and smooth. So full of traces of life and passed time, yet something my grandparents would have thrown away and replaced with a new, machined product. The price: 1000 dollars. History is expensive.
And it leaves its fingerprints. It leaves artifacts that stink of mildew and must. The digital age differentiates like a bar code, individualizing laterally, not vertically, building sprawling arrays instead of accumulating and stratifying. Bar codes may technically individualize, but in numbers they depersonalize. Cultural production fostered by merging communication networks allows cultural producers the world over to individualize themselves, but only technically. After all the rapping Brazilian parrots, dancing Filipino prisoners, phone apps that read my mood, blogs that predict the end of the earth, Big Foot sites, etc., etc., the uniqueness of each individual, digital-age experience is lost in a DeLillo-like sheet of white noise, floating, groundless, and ahistorical in its divorce from flesh and dirt.
Any cultural critic can see that a wide necktie will one day look silly when the style changes, but it takes longer to suss out the more abstract anxieties that swish through a generation’s collective subconscious. The digital age is here and its products will undoubtedly light up the art landscape for years to come. We’ll continue to see art, as Bourriaud observes, made “on the basis of preexisting works” to “interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit work made by other or available cultural products.” But I think there’s a darker and less identifiable essence wafting through the ether, starting to collect on our laptops and assemble-by-number furniture. It’s settling on the ridges of paint on old canvases and in the indentations in paper made by ballpoint pens. Somewhere, in shadows cast by the electric networks, there’s a residue that many of us may not recognize until our grandchildren are laughing at our hairstyles in digital photographs. Put your head to the ground where the LED lights don’t shine, and listen.