“The job of the artist is dislocation of sensibility to prevent us from becoming adjusted to total environments. [ … ] The job of the artist is to upset all the senses, and thus to provide new vision and new powers of adjusting to and relating to new situations.” — Marshall McLuhan
No work of art has ever prevented or stopped a war. No work of art has ever solved poverty, unemployment, or any other political or social crisis. Yet, imagine a world without works of art, especially a “global village”—predicted by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s—in which people through mass media are assimilated into a unified or total environment. This total environment, in a social and political context, manifests as a consequence of war (for war has always been inseparable from the latest technology), among other destructive situations. Here we’re reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel: before the Great Flood, mankind spoke a single language. However, once they migrated to the land of Shinar, their ambition grew enormously by building a mighty city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. This ambition infuriated God. God in turn disrupted mankind by dividing them into different languages so they could no longer communicate with each other. As a result, the city was never completed, and mankind was dispersed over the face of the earth.
In our time, reality TV and social media (perfected by Donald Trump, who in turn brought alternative facts to the arena of world politics and committed the Faustian act of rapturously welcoming Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election) have created a hyper-reality in which the Internet and global digital technologies have the potential to proliferate English as the new universal language. We fear once again for mankind’s ambition. In the context of art, on the other hand, total environment, beginning with the Happening in the 1960s (as an event, situation, performance, nonlinear narrative) stressed the active participation of the audience, hence eliminating the boundary between the artwork and its viewer. With similar aims to blur art and life, performance art and Fluxus were equally consequential in the 1960s and the following decade, during which time new media technology was a force to be reckoned with. Artistic process was valued over finished products. Similarly, Earth art or Land art, while sharing the rejection of the commercialization of art-making with minimalism and conceptual art, re-embraced the emphatic return to nature, to make art as homage to different site-specifics.
As many of us acknowledge, artists, by nature, are non-conformists. They alone have no choice but to follow their callings, trusting the uncertainty of their lives to pursue their vision without guarantee of reward of any kind. They must remain as outsiders in order to observe and absorb social and political events. In McLuhan’s words, “[t]hey are engaged in detecting the social environment by probing and transgression.”
Then in the 1980s came the aggressive emergence of global economy during the Reagan era, from which laissez-faire economics and capitalist “greed is good” policy, ultimately led to the Black Monday crash on October 19, 1987. And how can we forget the Tiananmen Square Protests, also known in Mainland China as the June Fourth Incident, in 1989 (George H.W. Bush’s first year in the White House) that changed our world forever? The potent image of Jeff Widener’s photograph of a lone man halting the advance of China’s People’s Liberation Amy, evoking an Old Testament image of confrontation between David and Goliath, essentially signaled a dramatic shift from an old culture whose prosperity had been dependent upon the complete absence of individualism to the West’s emphasis on individual, unique ambition and desire. It’s frightening and worrisome to await the Tower of Babel befalling us in our near future.
For those of us who are familiar with (Gottfried) Leibniz’s “the best of all possible worlds” theodicy and optimism, and the philosophy of pragmatism that favors the priority of action (arising from the notion of usefulness, workability, practicality of ideas as criteria of their merit) over doctrine, we must mobilize our artistic and intellectual communities here and abroad, to bring us together, and to share the fruit of our labor to the general public. For the urgent necessity to undertake the monumental challenge of climate change and global warming, the relationship between art and technology needs to be nurtured in all earnest. While scientists have become hermetic and insular in their research laboratories, artists have gained a greater, more visible platform for their work and activism. As McLuhan believed that “every technology is created in the first place as a work of art, while every work of art, in its repeated use, becomes technology,” perhaps artists and scientists can subvert the “global village” to become the “global theater.” This subversion would mean our earth is a work of art. Art and ecology are one unity that also welcomes the indispensable roles of our friends and colleagues from the arts and humanities. In this unity, Joseph Beuys’s dictums A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART … EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST and Rikrit Tiravanija’s relentless relational production loom large in our current condition. The Rail’s “social environment” is our commitment to subvert our free journal into a total work of art. And so the rest of us, and our environment.
This issue is a celebration of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. We’re grateful to this historic event that taught us to be courageous for freedom for all. It’s also a dedication to our two remarkable friends, Paul Greengard, a brilliant neurobiologist and a 2000 Nobel laureate, who advanced our understanding of how brain cells communicate, which contributed to further treatments of a wide range of neurological and psychiatric diseases. It is also dedicated to Joyce Pensato, an artist’s artist who brought comic characters from Pop culture with iconic complexities and dignity into the realm of contemporary art with her caring hands.
Have a productive and restful summer,
P.S. After their two years spent with vigor and commitment at the Rail, both Dana Buhl, our Managing Director, and Yasi Alipour, our Director of Advertising, have decided to embark on their next journeys by devoting themselves to being artists on a full-time basis. All of us couldn’t be more happy and thrilled for Dana’s and Yasi’s consequential growth. We’d also like to send our most proud salutes to our other two friends, Alain Kirili (who in addition to being a great artist is a tireless advocate for music, poetry, and dance) on his recent Life Time Achievement Award by VISION Festival, and the brilliant and generous McKenzie Wark on receiving their 2019 Thoma Foundation’s Arts Writing Award in Digital Art.