Mayuir Sidhpara questions Mark Cooley
Published in the Rhizome.org digest - 7/21/2003
I would be interested if you could explain whether you have used new technologies and what constitutes as "conventional traditional media", and where you would class yourself as an artist in respect to either traditional art or multimedia art.
Do you use multimedia to produce your art (in combination, instead of, not at all)?
I have tried to include the preceding questions in a single (yet fragmented) statement. Let me know if you have any follow up questions and sorry for the delay.
Along with many other contemporary artists, I have used digital imaging technology, and yet in-and-of themselves the development and use of these new technologies does not, for me, automatically designate a break from the conventions of "traditional" visual arts practice. Any changes in the conventions of visual arts practice are the result of much more than the development of technologies. There is a popular view (the industry view that is also reproduced by new media practitioners and others) that the development of new tools necessarily revolutionizes artistic practice. Rather, I see the development of new tools as a way to fulfill older agendas. When we think of new media vs. traditional media we first must think of the different values attached to Analog and Digital philosophies - the technology follows the philosophy or the desire that is directly tied to politics/economics. Analog as a western philosophy can be traced back to the rediscovery and celebration of Plato during the European Renaissance and then on to Descartes etc. through to Modernism of the 20th century (see the art criticism of Greenberg). The philosophy revolves around the construction of the Original and the Duplication / the Real and the Fake and similar dichotomies. The Original is given value in ideological and monetary terms and the fake is stripped of value also in those terms. A Van Gogh is absurdly valuable because of its "authenticity" while a duplication (forgery) no matter how perfect amounts to a criminal activity at worst/best and a cheap poster at best/worst (depending on copyright permission and claims to authorship). Of course similar value systems extended far beyond "Fine Art." Up until the late 19th. early 20th. centuries with the onset of mass production and Modern Capitalism we also see the beginnings of Digital philosophy. Although the technology had not quite caught up to the philosophy, something close to Digital philosophy (although not referred to as such) was relied upon by early industrialists to further profits. Let's take Henry Ford as an example since he is often credited for developing modern production processes - the assembly line. Ford's plan was to transfer value from the more-or-less one-of-a-kind production processes of crafts-people who worked in small shops with hands-on all steps of construction process to factory work where workers were alienated from both the entire production process (the products of their labor) and access to the wealth generated by the sale of such items (Erich Fromme writes eloquently about this subject in his book Escape From Freedom. Also, see writings by Critical Art ensemble - http://www.critical-art.net/). It was Ford's plan, following in others footsteps, to generate more profits by working to automate the production process as much as possible, thereby eventually eliminating the need for human workers at all (we have seen this philosophy taken to it's logical limits in today's production environments where human employment only exists to aid the present shortfalls of machinery (this is also partially the story of cybernetics, but let's not get into that now). To make a long a long complex story shorter and more simple than it deserves let's take two of Ford's fundamental concepts for profit reproduction, Automation and Duplication (which are also fundamental concepts in digital technology) and relate them to the culture industry. Although today practically every other industry has openly embraced these concepts of the so-called "Digital Age," which is the economics of Postmodern Capitalism, the Culture Industry has not so easily conformed to these concepts although it is trying. Cultural institutions including celebrated artists, patrons, curators, museum directors, critics, collectors, educators, etc. have placed so much value on the assumptions of analog philosophy that it has become a difficult transition to make. Clearly, institutional capital is built and reproduced upon the production and collection of "original" works and all of the assumptions and value systems that go along with that, i.e. the supposed autonomous artist genius creating original works which represent eternal and timeless truths to those who are not directly in touch with those things. Increasingly, institutions find themselves behind in terms of keeping up with contemporary artistic production using new media tools and older systems of value reproduced by the institution. The predicament is not unlike the situation faced by museums at the rise of performance art. Many artists working in performance art in the 60's and 70's were reacting against the monopolization of culture by institutions by staging events outside of the museum context which by nature could not be collected by museums and reproduced different assumptions of what art could be about - immediacy over timelessness, context over autonomy, etc.(at the same time artists were struggling maintain rights to reproduction of their own work and other such matters). Eventually, museums found ways around this by simply collecting and controlling the documentation of performances in addition to collecting "artifacts" from performances as works unto themselves. The dilemma now is most concentrated in the realm of Net Art; an art form that is a product of digital technology and philosophy. Institutions have been asking themselves, how to limit what is infinitely reproducible, how to house and control access to that which is accessible to anyone with internet access, how to collect payment for showing art that by its nature can be experienced as intended without a visit to the museum. Various plans have been thrown around. One such plan talked about and abandoned by the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has for some time now featured Net Art through it's Web site ArtPort, was based on a "Pay-per-view" system. We will see how institutions choose to manage these dilemmas as Net Art begins to take a more important place in their collections.
Getting back to your question concerning where I place myself in terms of my artistic practice and the myth of traditional vs. new media or multimedia practice. As I said above, those lines are not distinguished, for me, by use of technology. I use new technologies to develop concepts and assumptions that I have acquired from my studies of postmodern theorists, conceptual artists, activist art, new genre public art and other sources. I tend to resist defining artists according to the media they work with, but more by the assumptions and values they place in the work they do. For example, to be called an expressionist is much different than being called a painter or sculptor etc. The latter designates the tools used in the formation of work and of course the baggage that goes along with that, and the former is to designate by the assumptions, philosophy, values etc. with which the work is produced. It seems that many artists today working with digital technology feel good about defining themselves by the tools they use - the tools define them and the work becomes simply advertisement for software companies and new technologies (who are often sponsors of new media exhibitions). This gets back to how economics is being played out in the realm of "New Media Art." If I say that I am a New Media Artist, which I admit to having done, I am saying that my artistic practice rums parallel to the development of new technology, which makes me subservient to the demands of investors in the new economy. Since much of my work is a direct criticism of the excesses of Capitalism, I don't feel so good about defining my artistic output by the demands of the market. This is what bothers me most about many of the opportunities being made available to artists working in new modes of expression/communication especially through web sites like Rhizome.org, exhibitions are more-and-more being organized around the exploitation of new digital technologies rather than critical issues. It is a reemergence of modernist principles in the form of new media - it is as if to say "let's have a show about painting, not about what artists are saying through painting, but just about painting itself as an autonomous activity" and there we are back in the 1950's height of modernism.
mark cooley 2003