Art as Experience: Meet the Active Audience part 1

published: December, 2006

Slightly refined version of the thoughts expressed in No Ego. This essay appeared in the book Network Art, ed. Tom Corby, Routledge, 2006. First part.

The way we look at art is defined by what we look for. It is defined by what we want it to be or think it to be. It is not necessary to understand a work of art, its background, maker, and art historical context in depth to appreciate it. But when working with art professionally, presenting it, representing it, funding it, or archiving it with public funds, one does have to understand what one is dealing with. There seems to be a problem of classification in art today. The need for clarity and professional skill can become an obstacle when dealing with highly interdisciplinary art works, and the number of these kinds of works is growing. Much contemporary art is created using “new media.” Most of this art is therefore simply called “new media art” or something similar. The problem with this is that it increasingly locks varied types of art into one category and technological approach. At the same time it creates an exclusion of works that are part of new media art’s (material and immaterial) discourses but are not recognized as such. It is important to adopt a more flexible attitude towards technology and technological categories in art, because blindly following tracks laid out by technical instruments in cultural processes can, in the words of historian Siegfried Zielinski, “lead to standardization and unification,” creating a situation whereby, “progressive is regressive.”

I am going to be a bit of a nuisance now and ask you some seemingly trivial and clichéd questions. What came first: the charcoal or the drawing? Most people would probably answer this question with “the charcoal.” This answer is based on very basic physical evidence. The visual presence of the charcoal precedes the visual presence of the drawing. Yet did the cave woman who made the drawing not conceive of the idea to make this drawing before she actually made it? Does this not mean the drawing really came first? Some questions simply cannot be answered, or rather; they have more then one possible answer, depending on who does the answering. What matters is to know that most of us would answer “the charcoal came first” when this is not certain. It is also impossible to say with certainty that the drawing is mostly a product of the mind of the individual artist. One could just as well suggest that the drawing is really dependent on the environment it sprung from and that it might have been part of a bigger cultural expression. Could the cave drawing be the remains of an early piece of media performance art?

When it comes to art in the past few centuries there is less to speculate about. We know most of its context and history, at least of art in western cultures. The past decades however we have been faced with a situation that has evolved at the same time as the expansion of the art context beyond institutional and western elitist cultures. The problem as arose within a set of clearly related linear art historical developments as an intellectual and artistic evolution of individual artists and artist movements. Within these specific political and social contexts, the material certainties of the physical art object were questioned and ultimately replaced by immaterial situations, processes and ideas created or initiated by the artist. This analysis however failed to acknowledge the role of the audience in the creation of this historical process. The audience is in the end the artist’s toughest critic, and even competitor in the social and cultural environments in which art is made. Historically the audience has been divided into layers of knowledgeable and less knowledgeable spectators. In this text I would like to make a plea for recognition of the profound and influential relations between artists and audiences, which have only become more important in the era of networked cultures.

Within the classification schemes of Western art much significance is given to a separation of mediums in which artworks are ordered according to their material manifestation. The meaning and the context of the work are generally seen as second in line of importance. In the last decade, developments in new media have enlarged the art context and domains of arts reception and production. Art is increasingly developing beyond the reach of traditional institutional contexts and art criticism. Not only does it reach outside of obvious art spaces, but it can also operate in the home. New media practices in addition, tend to create a representation and production space simultaneously. Does this mean that the development of new media technology preceded or provoked a radical change in art? Are we suddenly facing totally new issues and practices? Or have we missed some important historical moments that might help us create an art theory that embraces all art practices, from which we can then look at specific local cultures with a fresh mind? How did we get to this point? After all surely the audience did not turn into cultural producers and art collaborators overnight.

The role of both artist and the audience is changing. We have entered a new situation (and “new” is no value judgment), in which our perception and experience of the world is increasingly mediated, for better or worse, through the fast evolution of media environments. We find ourselves surrounded by echoes of technology in our public and private lives. On a material level we seem to be engaged in endless struggles to keep our exchanges with computers, telephones, and palmtops, but also with wireless networks and the older electronic media television and radio, in balance with our needs (or what we think are our needs). Less visible, but no less intrusive, are the immaterial echoes of our social encounters. As our interactions with other people change, our relationship to information and knowledge is changing as well. We are forced to deal with a new materiality, that of copyrighted information, an abstraction we do not experience as object. The convergence of personal and mass media through new media technologies has caused changes in legislative politics and in the intimate sphere of personal relationships. We see evolving a completely new landscape of shared spaces of culture. Part of this burgeoning cultural space is the new public domain, deeply connected to the digital commons and given the ironic title Public Domain 2.0 in a collaborative text written by Eric Kluitenberg and the Indian mailing list Sarai. In these shared spaces, both the public and the corporate overlap with the personal sphere of the individual generating battles over representation, ownership rights and access to information. The corrosive effects of the new legislative environments make it a necessity to protect the possibility for personal media development and activity within the public domain; a situation that has forced critics and cultural producers, from various backgrounds, to create alternative approaches to standard copyright protocols. The refinement of the definition of what constitutes Public Domain 2.0, and the education of the audience about open content licenses, are two examples of initiatives which try to ensure the public (including artists) retain the possibility to maneuver within different cultural, scientific and technical discourses. Re-defining the public domain is a never-ending enterprise, or in the words of Eric Kluitenberg, “[t]he public domain is something that is in constant transformation, never fixed, and as a result needs to be reinvented continuously. Truly public spaces, more often than not, just simply emerge spontaneously, and are not consciously designed.” One might question whether there is anything we can call the public domain at all. Geert Lovink suggests this when he writes, “we may find out that the digital commons is a negative utopia. As an event or experience rather then a fixed space, the digital common existed in the future (or is about to happen in the past).” When asked to explain this he states “[o]ne could also call it a temporary autonomous zone that can only be recognized as such when the zone, as a real existing utopia, already has vanished.[sic]” Despite the confusion we can distinguish the main features of this new public space—the elusive Public Domain 2.0 Kluitenberg describes. Most importantly access to, and knowledge of, social and technological media are of vital importance for individual activities in a mediated environment to flourish.

In her book Netzkulturen the curator and critic Inke Arns writes, “[in] an expanding networked world the stimulation of a critical media competence is unavoidable. Only through this can people use the net and new communication technologies for their own interests and goals.” Public spaces in electronic media cannot emerge spontaneously, when the specific technologies are inaccessible and/or unfamiliar. Yet it is necessary to create room for their development in order to support representation of cultures and discourses that are not represented through proprietary media channels. Art institutions and governments both have a responsibility in this matter, but art institutions especially need to be more aware of how the changed cultural environment asks for new structures of openness. Copyright issues are the main problem here. In the introduction to the Guide to Open Content Licenses published by the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam it says, “[c]opyright stories assault us everyday in our newspapers, our emails, and in the next few years [they] will play a very important role in determining the way we think about creativity; either in terms of property or in terms of collaboration.” The guide itself is published under the Creative Commons license, and on its reverse it says, “Price: A Gift.” This publication gives a list of all the open content licenses, from the Free Art License to the Ethymonics Free Music License and briefly explains their history and context. It is designed to teach the public how to enable a lively and productive discourse around cultural artifacts. As we will see later the definition of “artist” has broadened, as the “public” increasingly involves itself in media content production.

Even if the activities and experiences of individual audience members are caught between the intimate sphere of personal exchanges and public, semi-corporate media discourses, the development of “personal media” has led the audience to take part in media content production in its own right. “Personal media” are consumer media that everybody can use; such as image and video cameras, sound recording devices and personal computers. British artist Graham Harwood describes such tools, as “meaningful media.” The term is significant within the context of this discussion as it suggests an empowering of individual voice and identity within the whole of the electronic media arena. Harwood describes it as:

Everyone with access to clean drinking water is also making meaningful media for themselves. Snapshot photography, tape recordings, photocopied letters… all the things that people manufacture that have got access to clean drinking water. The next thing after clean drinking water and reasonable food is: make meaningful culture for yourself. So you start to save the pictures of your grandparents, you start to grab the pictures of your parents; you start to build your archive of meaningfulness that you make for yourself.

So whereas the creation of “meaningful media” does depend on levels of wealth, on being free of the worst kind of material poverty, it is something that everybody engages in once they don’t have to worry about their basic survival anymore. “meaningful media,” as Harwood describes it, is therefore the first term in electronic media discourse that takes the connection between media and wealth into account. It also is the first term to actively involve all media products of individual audience members indiscriminately in the “Grand Discourses" (sic) of media art theory.

We now live in a media era in which mass media and “meaningful media” have started to complement and change each other. It is in this environment created both by traditional media players and personal media, that artists produce work. The work is therefore engaged with initiating processes of communication outside of a recognizable art contextual frame.

A speculative theory of immaterial spaces of engagement
I want to take you on a journey through history in order to enable us to look at new media art as something that is neither highly materialistic nor immaterial. Art that is made inside the context of new media cultures is inseparable from a very broad cultural context; i.e. all media and audiences are important vectors within it. What we are dealing with is not so much a change of disciplines, but a change in attitude towards art, generated by both technology and the emancipation and education of the audience.

We are witnessing a further development in the domain of the arts, forced by the historical impact of a range of mechanical reproduction technologies. This change cannot solely be traced back to the invention of photography or the Jacquard Loom machines (just to name two popular starting points of many a new media history ), but to the invention of print. The invention of print produced the end of an intimate relationship (i.e. one on one) between the writer and reader. Print created the author, a writer whose words are reproduced many times, which forces her to confront different meanings for her work, generated by the new spaces of interpretation opened up by the technology. Print moves the author away from the book itself, because of its mechanical production process, but also quite literally because the text’s location became more unpredictable due to wider distribution. Compared to the old handiwork the seemingly infinite reproduction and dissemination of texts caused a breech between the authority of the writer and the perception of the reader, the effect of which was to replace a select group of readers with an audience. The intimacy between writer and reader was replaced by an intimacy between writer and audience that was at the same time distant. The new space of interpretation caused a sliding scale of different levels of intimacy and distance to develop, on which the individual reader could place herself, depending on her reading environment.

The reading environment of the individual reader depended entirely on her place in society, her class. A servant reading the books of her employer must have felt a very different kind of reading experience to that of her mistress. The manner in which the book potentially opened up a previously unknown world of knowledge, into which she might enter, would have been a heady experience, as would the privilege of being allowed access to such a valuable asset.

Even with the obstacles of class differences and different levels of wealth, in time the new interpretation space of print gave members of this audience the possibility for self-expression and even interaction with the author or story.

If historically the impact of print on the reception of art is less obvious than that of photography, print is still significant. It takes education to be able to read—a process that commonly teaches reading and writing at the same time. Even Walter Benjamin recognized the activities of the new or amateur writers and connected their position to that of the new audiences of art and film. He noted a change in attitude that had evolved amongst readers, if only briefly, whose texts started to inseminate the realms of the professional writer through letters to the editor sections in magazines and newspapers: “[t]he reader is always willing to become a writer.” The audience therefore was not as passive as it might seem; reading ultimately educates the writer within the reader.

Print created a distance between producers of culture and members of the audience that we can still feel today. As a result of the large scale distribution, and circulation of texts a broader field of interpretation emerged, spread over different classes, communities and cultures. It was enlarged and energized by pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and even personal letters and diaries. This new space of interpretation became visible in the shape of cults, fashions or movements around writers and books. The engagement of the audience—which Benjamin saw mostly as a result of the impact of film—was not completely unprecedented; for example, fans of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther took to imitating the main character’s melancholy, mania and self-destruction. The audience not only started to freely interpret a text, it started to participate in its story by creatively enacting it in a manner previously only associated with the communal experience of religious texts. This engagement precipitated a gradual emancipation of the audience from professional criticism and contexts. It revealed itself first in various forms of visible expression and investment (also described as consumerism), and manifested in the creation of dress codes, the active participation in both printed and live discussions on art and culture, and the purchase of decorative reproductions of art for the home, or friends and relatives.

Popular culture as interpretation space and fully-fledged cultural producer
The term popular culture is seldom defined positively. However it is unwise to work from such negative definitions if one believes that art history has traditionally been a tool of exclusion which eliminated certain groups from the cultural debate, such as women, marginalized ethnic groups, or the poor. I define popular culture as “the creative expression of the people,” because this definition contains no quality judgment (unless one naively calls creativity a positive characteristic by default).

The judgment of art quality has moved away from the semi-objective realm of professional art criticism (the domain of the authentic, approved art object with its linear discourses) to that of the present day—decentralized, ultra-local spaces of engagement, which often support intimate experiences. The entanglement of popular culture, technology and the culture industry has been problematic for critics of art and culture from the mid- nineteenth century. The masses were said to have a deluded, unrealistic experience of freedom inside an economically defined cultural complex. Yet popular culture could never have developed in the rich production space it is today without the development of the consumer. The industry has inadvertently given the consumer the tools to educate herself, by developing increasingly smaller and cheaper media tools. The culture industry (in Adorno’s definition ) is continuing to grow in its attempt to be the dominant factor in cultural consumption and creation for the sake of profit and its own survival. In order to maintain profits however, it has to resort to more varied and stronger means of controlling the audience, e.g. in the excessive use, development and implementation of copyright laws. Despite the efforts of these vested interests, this does not signify the end of interpretation as there is still a potential for freedom (of action, of interpretation) in a situation where an oppressor has to go to extremes (of power and possibility) to get his way. Oppression provokes rebellion and also an involuntary breaking of rules. Friction always allows for movement to occur.

As discussed above, the new interpretation and participation spaces opened by popular culture and print technologies have occurred over an extended period. However, popular interpretation in the visual arts has developed more slowly and it is possible to identify three reasons for this. Firstly the development of mass reproduction technologies for the visual arts was to occur much later. Another technical influence was the difference in the reproductive quality and distribution of writing and the visual arts. Last but not least, the slower development of a popular interpretation space for the visual arts is deeply connected to economic and political histories, which in turn are related to technological developments. This means that the popular interpretation space of the visual arts was, and is, very much dependent on the wealth and social position of individual members of the audience. For a significant popular interpretation space to develop a large group of people need to be able to access whatever medium serves as carrier and context for the art work or its copy. Remember that the arts are developing in relation to this popular interpretation space, and it is therefore necessary to maintain and cherish it. Historically the mass audience has limited access to any kind of academic art education. In order for it to gain entry to the interpretation spaces of art outside of traditional physical exhibition arenas, it was, and is, dependent on affordable books, magazines, newspapers, cameras, radio receivers, television, and computing media in all its forms—including networks.

New technologies serve as a cultural vector, and seem capable of enabling earlier cultural and political desires for freedom. The influence of what is still called the fine arts has reached into popular culture and social life since at least the end of the nineteenth century. What is more important is that more recently, particularly in the twentieth century, it has become entwined with popular culture to the extent that it cannot be separated from it, despite influential attempts by critics, such as Clement Greenberg or Adorno. Instead the audience’s association, on various levels, with the arts in popular culture was always an active, lively environment, and in the twentieth century this environment developed from being almost purely an interpretation space into high-end production space as well. The twentieth century started with art salons for the cultural elite and ended with intimate interactivity and autodidactic artists emerging on the Internet.

A short summary
The exchanges between artist and audience, as a broad historical development can be described as follows:

- reproduction created distance from the original which in turn caused a freedom of interpretation to emerge;
- freedom of interpretation created a reaction from the side of artists, in which an attempt was made to complexify interpretation. Expressionism and abstraction (and later conceptualism and interactivity) were born;
- in turn the audience was challenged by this process (and eventual reproductions and documentation produced around a work) to develop a further expansion of interpretation;
- this happened in a growing industrial market which finally was complemented by personal and mass media;
- consumer technology, combined with relatively accessible networks, meant that audience and artists became difficult to distinguish from each other;
- the emancipation of the audience to the level of collaborator and participant within the arts finally reduced the distance between artist and audience to pre-print relations.

This wavering, circular movement led to a highly active and productive interpretation space at the end of the twentieth century, a space that developed within the whole of the media and the local cultures connected to them. The Internet in its entirety (wired and wireless) has, to this date, been most influential in the development and emancipation of the audience.

Popular culture, once seen as the domain of “bimbos and fans” of all kinds of class, has developed in such a way that it is producing its own autodidactic artists and contexts consisting of artist initiatives, journalism and publications. Art has irreversibly become part of daily life; the avant-garde can rest in peace. In the last few decades in particular, a part of what we must now call the former audience has gained access to higher levels of cultural production. This occurs both through the Internet and easier accessibility to the various media presentation and production platforms now commonplace on home computers that have replaced the specialist domains of experts.

On the Internet grassroots artist movements and art initiatives have developed, often with a more profound understanding of media art and its ever-changing environment then older, established art institutions. Some of these artists and initiatives already collaborate with all kinds of art institutions worldwide. The standard of many of these Internet art projects is relatively high, however the quality is difficult to judge and the work presents problems with conservation. The reason for the latter is that often this work involves part of an action or process of communication, which can be time and location specific, and which does not take the form of a finished self-contained object or structure.

Art as Experience: Meet the Active Audience part 2