Devouring the middle to see the endsby Stephanie Owens
Bottlenecks are always in the middle. Being in the middle of a line is the most uncomfortable position.
— Gilles Deleuze, from Dialogues II.
Much has been written about how global communication technologies have fostered a network-based society, even a network-generated society. But less has been written about how this fundamental change in the way we communicate has challenged the notion of representation as the fundamental grammar of art and life. Representation, or a re-presentation of the world, assumes a subject with a view and consciousness originating from within it. If our middle way has gone—as society is increasingly pushed to economic, political, religious, and climatic extremes—the symptoms of our complicity are all around.
Our desire to extend our bodies and minds beyond our own corporeal limits has resulted in everyday extrasensory perception that we have willingly adopted as our own. Things as vast as global warming, the North Pacific Gyre, and Bitcoin are phenomena we incorporate as tangible experiences with the same reality as the book in front of us or the horizon we see through the window. It is not that these extraordinarily large, durational phenomena are abstract. They have a physicality, but one whose totality exceeds our innate capacity to perceive. Yet by incorporating these phenomena as real, the ends of our perception have devoured our means. What was meaningful as the human middle—the space defined by our localized, particular, and immediate perception of the world—is now merely phase transition between edges or data points. Edges, not middles, bring the world into our midst.
Art and design made for communication networks and our pervasive use of web technologies reveal our romance with edges. Working, socializing, and playing in spaces that have multiple users, occurring in multiple time zones and locations simultaneously, we create art in ways that require neither author nor artifact but merely action and context. Web-based art practice, in particular, has contributed a notion of art making as a process akin to making an instrument (rather than making music) where individual expression in form is less potent than the form that shapes the quality of play and performance of others. Creating art as an instrument through which others describe the world extends the artist’s sense perception through the body of others remotely. Art made from this extrasensory point of view turns individual human sight, memory, and activity into an impersonal phenomenon that permits the web to be visible as a totality.
As participants in web-based experiences, we have become conditioned to see our actions, words, and shared media as a transpersonal grammar that constitutes a remote intimacy with others. This remote intimacy has inverted the field of our vision, so that the places and people we encounter are seen only as the deferred expression of our networked profile. Online social media taken as a whole, as well as the web in general, can be seen as a Platonic volume of relationships consciously co-authored and materialized through collective, continuous wandering.
This kind of malleable, “just-in-time” culture has seeped into contemporary consciousness beyond Google’s function as our collective memory and Facebook’s function as our coffee house. This seamless territory, where the personal is both plural and emergent, has universally constructed a sense of self that transcends the subject-object discourse of representation. Unlike the one-point perspective central to the idea of self from the Renaissance to Modernism, it seems clear that the divide between self and other, self and object no longer holds as true. “Self” is now a vicarious, aggregate act of reciprocity between self, others, and the world. It is an ongoing act of reciprocity in form that has begun to require a new reciprocity of behavior, relationship, and power. As our basic human commonalities across cultures and demographics have become more visible, our economic and political differences have become more apparent and more acute. Extreme end-point positions of alienation within politics, economics, and religion have become active across the world in part because they have been imperceptibly woven into the most intimate aspects of our lives. We mistake intimacy with knowledge.
The remote, web-based hacking of the 2016 U.S. election has shown how extremes of political position and virtual aggression sit comfortably, nearly unnoticed, alongside local product ads or photos of vacations with friends. The visual equivalence made in social media is both a radical amplification of our singular experience and the radical personalization of the larger forces of society, geopolitical power, and industry. The individual is now always collectivized and multiplied, and the larger body of this collectivized self is a growing tissue of biological and informational patterns seeking homeostasis from one end of its vast organ to another.
Individually, we are still seeking a middle space because we have bodies that seek connection. Much of what in art is termed “relational aesthetics” has moved in to fill the gap of a representational aesthetics that cannot account for the hybrid and inter-subjective experiences whose mix of directly perceived, remotely sensed, and fabricated realities are not easily parsed, were it still a critical project to do so. Art that seeks to define relations, or social practice, is an art informed by a subject in time—an event or exchange—rather than a subject in space. Within this event-based or translational understanding of art and life, where art is merely one of many possible constructions of experience, the role of the artist is, to borrow from Bourriaud, “no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real.” Reflecting a more pervasive transformation in human society overall, artists have shifted roles from interpreter of a persistent world through objects to the role of inventor and caretaker of an existentially fugitive, volatile new world that seems to be testing the limits of what will hold it together cohesively.
If current unrest in all parts of the globe has any bright consequence, it may be that this vast techno-social organ, through which we simultaneously invent and perceive the world, is a unique opportunity to develop a more integrated world view—a larger, whole-system, consciousness that exists to balance human and information resources more equitably for all. Because our humanity is no longer defined by the limits of a physical body, it can be redefined as a particular way of being in the world, affirmed and continuously evolving in serendipitous relationship to others.
STEPHANIE OWENS is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, and educator interested in the influence of digital networks on contemporary aesthetics and the production of subjectivity. She has exhibited her work internationally, including in the First Beijing International Media Arts Exhibition (Beijing, China), Dashanzi Art Festival (Beijing, China), 5th Ewha Media Art Exhibition, (Seoul, Korea) and the Machinista International Arts and Technology Festival. In August 2018, she was appointed Head of School of Arts + Media at Plymouth College of Art in Plymouth, England.