Systems Aesthetics and the System as Medium
From: Francis Halsall, Systems of Art, (Peter Lang, 2008)
NB – do not cite or circulate without authors permission.
In 1968 the artist, critic and art-historian Jack Burnham made the prophetic claim that "a Systems Esthetic will become the dominant approach to a maze of socio-technical conditions rooted only in the present". Burnham’s claim, in a number of publications at the time, was that a burgeoning interest in systems amongst artists and writers on art would lead (in both art practice and discourse) to a paradigm shift from object to system.
In this chapter I outline the implications of Burnham’s claim by exploring the key characteristics of a "systems-esthetic" (hereafter "systems aesthetics"). To do this I look at the ways in which a system can be conceived as an artistic medium. I do this from three main perspectives. These are:
1. The historical perspective – from which I look at how in the 1960s there was an interest in systems as both a theoretical and artistic concept and how artists began to use systems (broadly conceived) as artistic mediums.
2. The contemporary discursive perspective – from which I look at how "system" may be employed as a key term in what Peter Osborne calls a "retrospective critical discourse"; that is, as a means by which to rethink art practice at the end of the 1960s.
3. The contemporary practice perspective – from which I look at some examples of how contemporary practice engages in systems aesthetics through the use of system as a medium.
My central argument is that the concept of system can be used as an effective heuristic tool that provides a coherency amongst these three perspectives. It does so by demonstrating that all three positions share an investment in the idea of system as an artistic medium. Thus it allows for a wide variety of practices to be inscribed within the single rubric of system as medium. And it can therefore be applied to historical examples as well as contemporary practice and subsequently used as a means by which to map an expanded field of art displaying systems aesthetics up to the present day.
In what follows I will give a description of the historical conditions of the emergence of systems aesthetics and relate this to its reconstruction within the critical discourse of systems-theory. I will conclude with some examples from contemporary practice that can be productively contextualised through the application of systems aesthetics and the idea of system as medium. In doing so, one can begin to see a preoccupation with system as medium operating across different art-historical periods and across a diverse range of artistic practices. These practices are not necessarily concerned purely with the effects of a new technology (although many recent practices which explore the aesthetic possibilities suggested by new media are compatible with what I’m identifying as systems aesthetics). Systems aesthetics can also include new re-engagements with art from the end of the 1960s in which some contemporary artists have found a precedent for a socially integrated art practice that participates in social systems.
1. The Historical Context of Systems Aesthetics
The historical interest in the aesthetics of systems between the late 1960s and the early 1970s emerged from a matrix of influences. At the time a number of key exhibitions and publications based around the theme of systems, structure, seriality, information and technology (broadly understood) took place. These are discussed in further detail below. Such exhibitions and works drew upon popular understandings of systems theory and most notably cybernetics, information theory and general systems theory. They attempted to find artistic and curatorial expressions for such relatively new ideas. Significantly this interest dovetailed with three other important developments taking place at the time.
First, increased interest in the sociological and artistic significance of new technology meant that theories such as Marshall McLuhan’s were increasingly explored in art and technology groups (such as E.A.T [Experiments in Art and Technology], Billy Klüver’s collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg). As a result, several attempts were made to use new technology in transforming traditional object-based artistic practices into new, system-based ones.
Second, general social and political changes also raised interest in the notion of systems. For example the civil unrest around the year 1968 included student riots in Paris and Germany (the so-called 68er-Bewegung); civil rights marches (e.g., in America and Ireland); assassinations in the United States (including Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968); and worldwide anti-Vietnam war protests. Such civil disobedience often directed its anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian rhetoric against the "system". Hence systems became associated with institutional power or a prevailing social order. A similar concept of systems had also permeated the counter-culture and psychedelic movements of the 1960s. In art practice, this led to the belief that the social system could be changed by active artistic participation in it. Jack Burnham claimed, for example, that systems artists like Hans Haacke could integrate their work into the "real world", a sentiment echoed in Haacke’s own claims that his art had a political agency due to its participation in and use of systems:
Information presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful. It can affect the general social fabric ... The working premise is to think in terms of systems: the production of systems, the interface with and the exposure of existing systems ... Systems can be physical, biological, or social.
Third, the pre-occupation with system as a medium had parallels in the radical art practice of the late 1960s, which both questioned and then replaced the singular art object of modernism with the "dematerialised" art object of conceptualism, minimalism and other postmodern art practices. The outcome of these multiple influences was a number of different attempts to replace traditional media of artistic expression with the medium of systems.
1.1 Jack Burnham and Systems Aesthetics
Jack Burnham was a central, if mercurial, figure in the theorising of systems aesthetics and the idea of system as a medium at the end of the 1960s. He began his career as an artist in 1955 and until 1965 he (like Hans Haacke, his friend and collaborator) made kinetic sculptures and light based installations before he moved to art criticism. From 1968 onwards he was a contributor for Arts magazine and became Associate Editor from 1972 to 1976. Between 1971 to 1972 he was also contributing editor for Artforum, which he wrote for until 1973. It is for this activity as a critic and theorist (and briefly a curator of the exhibition Software) that he is now most recognised. His collected essays are reprinted in The Great Western Salt Works (1973), which includes the two key statements of his conception of an artistic application of systems aesthetics. These are "Systems Esthetic", which had previously appeared in Artforum (1968) and "Real Time Systems" (1969).
In 1968 Burnham published the book for which he is best known, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century. It is a survey of modern sculpture using vocabularies drawn from systems theory including cybernetics. It concludes with a statement on the future development for art via the use of system as an artistic medium. Such sentiments are explored further in Burnham’s essay of the same year in which he defined "Systems Esthetic." Burnham’s conception of systems aesthetics was an attempt to think together, under the rubric of systems, issues regarding artistic, technological and social conditions shared by a variety of groups including artists, scientists and social theorists. It was, in part, an account of artistic responses to new technologies manifested, for example, in early computer and video art. But Burnham also noted that such an artistic turn to systems-thinking was a reflection of a growing interest in systems spilling over from biological and cybernetic research into open systems and communication networks found in the writings Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Norbert Weiner, Claude Shannon, Ervin Laszlo (amongst others) into society at large.
Such concerns with systems in the 1960s included the infamous interest in systems analysis that President John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara brought into the United States government, largely as a strategy for modern warfare. One manifestation of this was the development of Project RAND which was established by the United States Army Air Forces in 1946 and took its name from "Research and Development". RAND was central to the implementation of systems-analysis in military and strategic decision-making in the decades following World War II. It pioneered the development of systems analysis and its particular application for defence. As a result, in the late 1950s RAND began offering short courses on systems analysis to "senior military officers and civilians associated with the Armed Forces". These lectures were subsequently published under titles such as Analysis for Military Decisions and advocated a systems-thinking approach to military decision making. In a publication from 1968, the use of systems-thinking as a defence strategy was clearly stated as the aim of such publications:
"One of the key problems of contemporary national security policy," as Henry Kissinger has said, "is the ever widening gap that has opened up between the sophistication of technical studies and the capacity of an already overworked leadership to absorb their intricacy." This book, a survey of the nature, aims and limitations of systems analysis in current defense planning, is an attempt to close that gap. We focus on systems analysis because it is unquestionably the most powerful and widely influential approach to systematic inquiry that decision makers and policy-orientated analysts have at their disposal today – and are likely to have in the foreseeable future.
Since 1961, the United States has introduced a new philosophy, technique and style of defense management ... In its research for the United States Air Force, The RAND Corporation has played a leading role in developing an approach to the full range of these problems and in bringing the methods used to national attention. This approach, which we call ‘systems analysis,’ is the subject of this book.
The potential for systems-analysis was enthusiastically pursued as a new paradigm in social thinking. For example, Norbert Weiner’s development of cybernetics had an early manifestation in his collaboration with Julian H. Bigelow on anti-aircraft defence systems in World War II (although he was later to move to more humanist applications of cybernetics); and in 1967 M. Ways could write the following optimistic analysis of the efficacy of systems-thinking as a military and strategic decision-making tool to implement "world system" policy decisions which reads chillingly today:
That the US still retains its limited-war option is due in no small measure to the confidence that a large part of the public and the white-house have in McNamara’s system of planning; it is deemed sensitive enough and effective enough to maintain a level of operations in Vietnam calibrated to our limited objectives there, and to changing circumstances. True there have been shortages of specific materials and underestimations of cost. Nevertheless, the Vietnam war thus far has been the best calculated military supply effort in 20th century US History. If McNamara’s planning system successfully demonstrates in Vietnam that the US can maintain an adequate, though limited, response then the consequences for foreign policy in the next ten years may be profound.
Burnham was familiar with such applications of systems-thinking. In "Systems Esthetics" he cited the following directly from E.S. Quade’s essay, Methods and Procedures in Analysis for Military Decisions: "Systems Analysis, particularly the type required for military decisions, is still largely a form of art. Art can be taught in part, but not by the means of fixed rules."
The use of the citation by Burnham presents a problematic conflation of military strategy with art making. It also, however, demonstrates Burnham’s equation of systems-thinking with a certain type of aesthetic sensibility as will be discussed in further detail below.
1.2 Exhibitions & Publications
By the end of the 1960s the interest in the application of systems-thinking by the military-industrial complex began to filter into cultural life. Between the years 1966 and 1972 there were a number of important exhibitions and publications that took the idea of systematicity as their central organising principle, with titles such as Systems; Information; Software and Radical Software.
For example, Kynaston McShine’s (with Lucy Lippard) Primary Structures show in 1966 (The Jewish Museum, NYC) was a key exhibition of forty artists (including Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson and Sol Lewitt) documenting the crystallisation of minimalism in the investigation of simplified sculptural form. Importantly, however, the exhibition emphasised the systematic structures that underlay such minimal forms. In a similar way, Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form: Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information (Kunsthalle Bern/ Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1969) explored sculptural possibilities of post-minimalism, while its subtitle invoked systems-thinking (albeit implicitly, by using vocabularies grounded in information theory and communication theory. In 1969 the British artist Jeffrey Steele organised an exhibition of English artists at the Amos Anderson Museum, Helsinki, under the title Systems, focusing on abstract art. Early the following year Steele and another artist, Malcolm Hughes, formed a group that focused on the discussion, promotion and exhibition of systems art. The main outcome of this group activity was the exhibition Systems, organised in conjunction with the Arts Council, which opened March 1972 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The exhibition focused upon how both system and structure (mostly mathematically understood) could be used as a foundation for abstract art.
In addition, there were also a number of exhibitions that took the intersection of art and technology as their central theme. These included Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (I.C.A., London, 1968) curated by Jasia Reichardt. Reichardt deliberately invoked Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics as a title around which to co-ordinate works that, as was claimed in the press release:
... are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement.
The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968) curated by K. G. Pontus Hultén also explored the connections between art and technology. It included works from over a hundred artists drawn from the fifteenth to the twentieth century and presented ways in which technological systems historically featured as part of artistic media. Amongst the works shown were drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci of flying machines, the first artistic exhibition of a video cassette recorder used by Nam June Paik and the winning entries to a competition organised by E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) promoting the collaborations between artists and engineers using new technology.
Such themes were mirrored in Kynaston McShine’s international show Information (Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Summer, 1970), which Lucy Lippard described as follows:
Born of an art-orientated interest in systems and information theory, and then transformed by the national rage attending Kent State and Cambodia, it became a state-of-the-Art exhibition unlike anything else that cautious and usually unadventurous institution had attempted date. The handsome catalogue looked like a conceptual artists book, with its informal "typewritten" text and wild range of non-art imagery from anthropology to computer science, and an eclectic, interdisciplinary reading list.
Hans Haacke’s MOMA Poll (1970) was included in the exhibition. It was one of the several "Visitor’s Profiles" projects Haacke conducted between 1969 and 1970 to collect statistical information from various galleries. For the installation at Information the 25,566 participants who took part voted either "yes" or "no" to the question, "Would the fact that Governor Rockerfeller has not renounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you to not vote for him in November?" The results were subsequently collated by an electronic counting device and displayed.
The aforementioned exhibitions were important public expressions of the emerging systems aesthetics. They were not, however, the only expressions. The journal Radical Software, for example, also explored the intersections between technological systems and art. Eleven editions were published by The Raindance Corporation between 1970 and 1974. The Raindance Corporation was formed in New York in 1969 by the artist Frank Gillette. As Davidson Gigliotti recounted:
It was Gillette’s intention to found an alternative media think tank; a source of ideas, publications, videotapes and energy providing a theoretical basis for implementing communication tools in the project of social change. To make his point, Gillette chose the name Raindance as an ironic reference to the Rand Corporation, then and now an establishment think tank advising government and industry.
Staff at Radical Software included Michael Shamberg (publisher), Ira Schneider (co-originator) as well as Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors). Radical Software was concerned primarily with the artistic possibilities of low-cost portable video equipment (such as the Sony CV Portapack, which had become available in 1965). Contributions included those by Nam June Paik, Douglas Davis, Paul Ryan, Frank Gillette, Beryl Korot, Charles Bensinger, Ira Schneider, Ann Tyng, R. Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Gene Youngblood, Parry Teasdale and Ant Farm. Although also concerned predominantly with the artistic and social implications of new technology, the journal also frequently included polemic articles that fall within the orbit of a "systems" outlook. As Bijvoet noted, Michael Shamberg actively engaged in the use of "new lexicons" such as:
Cybernetics and systems notions with their accompanying vocabularies were mainly applied to the possibilities of new media systems, such as video, cable, satellite, etc. Words like system, feedback, information, software, parameter, entropy and negentropy, process, pattern became the principal vocabulary in the writers’ argumentations.
These include, for example, an article by Paul Ryan declaring the need for an "information economy" in issue 3 (Spring, 1971), and pieces by Gregory Bateson and Gene Youngblood on ecologies of media and media systems.
1.3 Software and Systems Aesthetics
In the midst of this curatorial and publishing activity was Burnham’s own exhibition Software (The Jewish Museum, 1970) which to date has been the only curatorial expression of his ideas on systems aesthetics. As Edward A. Shanken noted, the uniqueness of the show lay in its attempt to express thoroughly Burnham’s concept of systems aesthetics:
In contrast to the numerous art and technology exhibitions which took place between 1966-1972, and which focused on the aesthetic applications of technological apparatus, Software was predicated on the ideas of ‘Software’ and ‘Information Technology’ as metaphors for art. He conceived of ‘software’ as parallel to the aesthetic principles, concepts or programs that underlie the formal embodiment of the actual art objects, which in turn parallel ‘hardware’.
The show contained a number of potentially innovative exhibits that explored ideas of systematicity, interactivity; the use of new technological systems in art making and the shift from singular art objects to systems of art. Several of the works were intended to be controlled by a DEC PDP-8 Time Share Computer (which, Shanken noted, failed to work for the first month.) Many works were conceived of as completely interactive with full visitor participation.
Paradigmatic works from the show included Labyrinth by Ted Nelson and Ned Woodman, described by Shanken as a "hypertext system" in which:
Users could obtain information from an ‘interactive catalogue’ of the exhibition by choosing their own narrative paths through and interlinked database of texts, then receive a print-out of their particular ‘user history’.
Les Levine’s Systems Burn-Off X Residual Software was also intended to be fully interactive:
The original installation at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago was comprised of 1000 copies of each of 31 photographs taken by Levine at the March, 1969 opening of the highly publicized ‘Earthworks’ exhibition in Ithaca, New York ... Most of the 31,000 photographs, which documented the media event, were [according to the catalogue] ‘randomly distributed on the floor and covered with jello; some were stuck to the wall with chewing gum; the rest were for sale’ ... Levine conceived of the 31,000 individual photos as the residual effects or ‘burn-off’ of the information system he created – as the material manifestation of software.
There were also two pieces contributed by Hans Haacke: News (fig. 3) and Norbert: “All Systems Go”. News presented several Teletype machines upon which reports of local, national and international news spilled out on continuous rolls of paper into the gallery. It thus brought communications systems directly into the gallery space and encouraged direct visitor participation. Norbert: “All Systems Go” (fig. 4) on the other hand was another of Haacke’s engagement with "Real-Life Systems" that is work produced with live animals or biological organisms. In this case a mynah bird, sardonically named after Norbert Weiner, was trained to say "all systems go".
As Burnham explained, Software was:
... an attempt to produce aesthetic sensations without the intervening ‘object’; in fact, to exacerbate the conflict or sense of aesthetic tension by placing works in mundane, non-art formats.
As the rationale and exhibits in the show demonstrate he was able to do this by invoking the concept of "software" as both a central dynamic and metaphor for an interactive art practice. To thus understand art as software is to invoke the paradigm of the coding of a computer program which is not copied in different hardware, but is rather given other manifestations. Les Levine, for example, saw his contribution to Software in these specific terms: and wrote the following description of Systems Burn-off X Residual Software in the Software catalogue: "In many cases an object is of much less value than the software concerning object. The object is the end of a system. The software is an open continuing system."
More recently, Lev Manovich argued that the application of the metaphor of "software" should be extended beyond computers to a definition of art since the advent of modernism in general:
To summarize: from the new vision, new typography, and new architecture of the 1920s we move to new media of the 1990s; from ‘a man with a movie camera’ to a user with a search engine, image analysis and visualization programs; from cinema, the technology of seeing, to a computer, the technology of memory; from defamiliarization to information design. In short, the avant-garde becomes software. This statement should be understood in two ways. On the one hand, software codifies and naturalizes the techniques of the old avant-garde. On the other hand, software’s new techniques of working with media represent the new avant-garde of the meta-media society.
Manovich, like Burnham, was looking for an adequate vocabulary to describe a variety of diverse artistic practices. Both recognised the potential in systems theory to reframe a discussion of the avant-garde. For Burnham in particular this entailed a formulation of an aesthetic theory based upon the central paradigm of the possibility for a system to be conceived as a medium. A further discussion of what this means from a contemporary perspective follows below.
2. Systems Aesthetics as a Retrospective Critical Discourse
To talk about art in terms outlined by Manovich and Burnham, that is, as software and system, is to invoke terms from cybernetics as well as information and communication theory. It means, therefore, to talk in terms developed in the 1960s and thus exclude the later configurations of systems theory (such as the social systems theory developed by Luhmann) that I wish to employ in my account.
To understand art as software is to understand it in terms of codes and information rather than in material or medium-specific terms. Burnham proclaimed that systems aesthetics necessitated the dissolution of the material specificity of traditional artistic mediums so that the traditional "objet d’art" would eventually be replaced by "aesthetic systems":
[The] cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called ‘systems consciousness’. Actually, this shifts from the direct shaping of matter to a concern for organizing quantities of energy and information.
In his advocacy of "the organizing quantities of energy and information" for a new type of art making Burnham advanced an art that was both ontologically unstable and interactive. He thus specifically linked a post-formalist artistic attitude prevalent in the art world at the time that was also interested in exploring de-ontologized and interactive art to the contemporary discourse of systems-theory. In 1968 he wrote:
The post-formalist sensibility naturally responds to stimuli both within and outside the proposed art format ... [but] the term systems esthetic seems to encompass the present situation more fully.
In doing so Burnham articulated in systems-theoretical terms the emerging historical situation in art practice toward the end of the 1960s. We need not, however, be constricted by Burnham’s definition alone. Systems aesthetics can also operate as what Peter Osborne called a "retrospective critical discourse", which "does not need to discover its terms literally or empirically within the discourse of the period under discussion". This means that systems aesthetics can also be identified as a function of the discursive system from which it is observed and constituted; it thus can be integrated into a coherent historical and sociological narrative. It is from this perspective that I wish to continue.
It is my argument here that Burnham’s systems aesthetics is compatible with a variety of art-historical descriptions and can therefore be employed as part of a retrospective critical discourse of systems aesthetics. Thus conceived, systems aesthetics allows for an expanded field of practice implying a shift from singular art objects to the use of systems as artistic mediums. These descriptions include: the "dematerialised" art object (Lucy Lippard); "Intermedia" (Dick Higgins); and the "post-medium condition" (Rosalind Krauss).
Lucy Lippard’s definition of the "dematerialised" art object highlighted what was at stake when the anti-modernist aesthetic lead to a dismantling of the modernist art object. In 1973, looking back on the immediate past, she observed that the six years following 1966 had been characterised by what she termed, "the dematerialisation of the art object". Lippard related how an interest in singular objects, adhering in specific mediums, was replaced by work which explored its relationship with its various systemic environments. Her micro-history of the six years at the end of the 1960s focused, in her terms:
... on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia, (with occasional political overtones).
At the heart of these activities lay a series of practices which radically challenged the faith in an ontologically stable, modernist art object; one that subsisted in a specific medium. In doing so it operated according to a self-aware artistic practice that placed the questioning of the relationship between a work of art and its various environments at the very centre of the work’s meaning. Such work can be understood as exploring an aesthetics of systems and in doing so thus functioned by investigating the ways in which it was embedded in various networks of display, representation, meaning and control.
Dick Higgins used the term "intermedia" in 1966 to explain the same historical situation that he described thus: "much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is no accident". He observed that the use of a wide variety of media in, for example: conceptual art; mail art; performance art (and so forth) was a means by which art of the age (which he called the "third industrial revolution") would identify its distinction from that of the art of the Renaissance. Given its plurality, intermedia art is resistant to an account of it in terms of the material specificity required of it by a limited account of modernism. Thus, the term "intermedia art", is, like Lippard’s phrase, combatable with Burnham’s account of a practice that attempted to make art without the production of unique art objects.
The condition of the dematerialised or intermedia art after modernism was called the post-medium condition by Rosalind Krauss. Krauss grounded her discussion in the specific historical role that the technological development of photography played in post-war artistic practice. In particular she focused on the convergence of art and photography in the 1960s. Photography, she argued with Benjamin, brought about a challenge to the unique status of art by challenging the status of the specific aesthetic object of art. Krauss argued that this challenge plays out in a lack of faith concerning medium specificity and in a "re-invention" of the conceptual coupling between modes of artistic production and the media within which those modes are enacted. It is worth quoting Krauss at length on this issue:
This time, however, photography functions against the grain of its earlier destruction of the medium, becoming, under precisely the guise of its own obsolescence, a means of what has to be called an act of reinventing the medium. The medium in question here is not any of the traditional media – painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture - that include photography. So the reinvention in question does not imply the restoration of any of those earlier forms of support that the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ had rendered thoroughly dysfunctional through their own assimilation to the commodity form. Rather, it concerns the idea of a medium as such, a medium as a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support, conventions out of which to develop a form of expressiveness that can be both projective and mnemonic. And if photography has a role to play at this juncture, which is to say at this moment of postconceptual, ‘postmedium’ production, Benjamin may have already signalled to us that this is due to its very passage from mass use to obsolescence.
Krauss thus argued that post-medium art required a jettisoning of a certain modernist understanding of medium specificity most commonly associated with Clement Greenberg:
At first I thought I could simply draw a line under the word medium, bury it like so much critical toxic waste, and walk away from it into a world of lexical freedom. ‘Medium’ seemed too contaminated, too ideologically, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded ... That such a definition of the medium as a mere physical object, in all its reductiveness and drive toward reification, had become common currency in the artworld [via Greenberg]. Indeed so pervasive was this drive to Greenberg-ize the word that historically previous approaches to its definition were now stripped of their own complexity.
Krauss, however, did not wish to completely dismiss the concept of medium and advocated instead a definition of medium as the "technical support" for the work of art. The benefit of this expanded definition of medium is that it does not make medium reducible to, "the specific material support for a traditional aesthetic genre". As Krauss argued, such an expanded definition of "technical support" is beneficial:
‘Technical support’ has the virtue of acknowledging the recent obsolescence of most traditional aesthetic mediums (such as oil on canvas, fresco, and many sculptural materials, including cast bronze or welded metal), while it also welcomes the layered mechanisms of new technologies that make a simple, unitary identification of the work’s physical support impossible (is the ‘support’ of film the celluloid strip, the screen, the splices of the edited footage, the projector’s beam of light, the circular reels?) If the traditional medium is supported by a physical substance (and practiced by a specialized guild), the term ‘technical support,’ in distinction, refers to contemporary commercial vehicles, such as cars or television, which contemporary artists exploit, in recognition of the contemporary obsolescence of the traditional mediums, as well as acknowledging their obligation to wrest from that support a new set of aesthetic conventions to which their works can then reflexively gesture, should they want to join those works to the canon of modernism.
The idea that medium be understood as the "technical support" for a work of art means that its definition is grounded upon a set of historically situated practices rather than a particular set of material conditions. Thus painting, for example, is not explicable by the existence of paint, canvas and brushes alone, but instead must be understood as the set of historical conditions that allow for the identification of a set of technical procedures (such as historical precedents and studio practices) to be acknowledged as painting. This is, crucially, a description of medium that is expansive enough to include system as a medium.
Krauss’ notion of the post-medium condition takes account of a situation in the 1960s, which was also described by Lippard Higgins and, crucially Burnham. This was a situation when artists began to critique ideas of modernist medium-specificity. The systems aesthetic thus provides the opportunity to re-inscribe materially diverse practices (such as minimalism, conceptualism and new media art) within the single medium of system. In doing so the "retrospective critical discourse" of systems theory provides the vocabulary to map different artistic strategies within a single rubric. One may thus discuss historical examples as contiguous with more recent ones. And it is to these that I turn in the concluding section.
3. Systems Aesthetics and Contemporary Practice
3.1 Open Systems and Relational Aesthetics
Recent curatorial interest in systems has demonstrated both its effectiveness as a descriptive paradigm and its relevance to contemporary practice. For example in the exhibition Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, held in 2005 at Tate Modern, the curator Donna de Salvo used the concept of system as an organising principle to arranged art from a few years either side of 1970. The show demonstrated that as an organising principle system was both flexible and suggestive enough for "rethinking" historical practice whilst also providing a focus that is effective, rigorous and engaging (and popular). The concept of system thus provided an opportunity to reevaluate the chosen work in a broader historical and aesthetic context in which the often unhelpfully narrow titles of minimalism, conceptualism and so forth could be sidestepped in favour of critical descriptions grounded upon a shared interest in systems of display, representation, meaning and control. The art historical benefit of this was demonstrated by the exhibition uncovering interesting connections between artists who produced work as visually diverse as Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Lygia Clark, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman. To reflect this systemic connection De Salvo explained in the accompanying catalogue that all works on display were, "linked by their use of a generative or repetitive system as a way of redefining the work of art, the self and the nature of representation". She further explained that the most interesting work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, both historically and in terms of its influence on contemporary practice, are minimalism, conceptualism, fluxus and neo-concretism. Da Salvo’s claim on the persisting relevance of systems art is supported by three instances of contemporary curatorial and artistic interest in systems.
First, there was the appearance of several shows between 2004 and 2006 that concentrated on a reappraisal of art from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These included several high profile retrospectives of Donald Judd (London, Düsseldorf, Basel); Dan Flavin (Washington, Forth Worth, Chicago); Robert Smithson (in Los Angles, Dallas and New York) all of which were accompanied by both critically important catalogues and several definitive publications such as Donald Judd: Complete Writings (Nova Scotia Museums, 2005) and Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (University of California Press, 2005). This was followed by contemporary installations by artists who had been active since the 1960s, including Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials (2004–2005, Tate Modern) which served as a type of audio retrospective of his work and Richard Serra’s 2006/07 installations at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and New York. All this activity re-enforced the cues that contemporary artists (for example Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller and Mark Dion) were clearly taking from conceptualism, minimalism and institutional critique; and thus demonstrated how systems could be employed to map an expanded field of practice from historically different times.
Second, such a mapping would draw direct connections with other artists who have specifically investigated how their own bodies are situated within various social, physical and psychic systems. An exemplary artist is Stellarc. In his bodily modifications he subordinates his physical body to cybernetic and technological systems. For example in Ping-Body performance (10 April, 1996, 8.00 pm at Artspace, Sydney, Australia, as part of the Digital Aesthetics Conference) his body was controlled by prosthetic extensions remotely controlled by users over an internet connection. Another, very different, example is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (Laforet Museum, Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan, 2006) for which he used self-generating and developmental algorithmic systems to create a sequence of evolving patterns or "paintings" displayed on monitors and television screens. These examples, although this is of course not an exhaustive list, demonstrate the diversity of art practices whose predominant mediums can be observed as systems.
Third, renewed contemporary interest in self-critical practice that expands its scope beyond the limits of a singular art work into the social systems within which it is placed has been the specific tenet of French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s sometimes controversial practice and of his concept of "relational aesthetics". Bourriaud has attempted to engage with artistic practice since the 1990s (again, the examples of Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller and Mark Dion are appropriate) and has pushed for a move into "the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space". Such work arguably takes its cues from the rigorous probing of the status of art and its institutions that is characteristic of art that engages in systems aesthetics (for example Burnham and Haacke’s work from the late 1960s and early 1970s). In his Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud argued that art institutions might become more than mere conditions of production and display. They are observable, he maintained, as part of the social systems that create new venues for relations among different practices and viewers; they are both "frame" for the work, and part of its medium. Relational aesthetics is thus compatible with systems aesthetics in so far as it radically reconceives the purposes and effects of art practice and thus puts into question common notions of the nature of art objects. This reconceived understanding locates art in a system of relationships between art and: its environment; its viewers and art discourse.
3.2 New Media, Systems and Medium
I close with a further example of how the notion of system might be usefully employed by contemporary art historians. This is in providing an account of so-called "new media art". New media art has had a problematic reception in art historical terms. As Charlie Gere observed, it raises the question as to what critical discourse is supposed to deal with it: "If new media art wishes to be taken seriously then it is necessary to start to develop appropriately robust and convincing means by which it can be examined critically". He continued to argue that a potential problem facing discourse concerning so-called new media art was how it had been contextualised and historicised. In other words, as Gere explained, the point was "not that there is no critical discourse, but rather that it remains the preserve of those involved, with little or no connection or engagement with outsiders".
Gere’s claim is one that art historians should take very seriously. However, this requires that a central problem needs be overcome. This problem concerns the traditional art-historical preoccupation with specificity of media and the question of how it may be reconciled with the proliferation of differing media employed in new media art. W.J.T. Mitchell diagnosed the problem in the following terms:
In the field of art history, with its obsessive concern for the materiality and "specificity" of media, the supposedly "dematerialized" realm of virtual and digital media, as well as the whole sphere of mass media, are commonly seen either as beyond the pale or as a threatening invader, gathering at the gates of the aesthetic and artistic citadel.
However, given the wide variety of practices characterised by the systems aesthetic the art historian can take nothing for granted. This is especially the case in new-media art which Lev Manovich argues, in The Language of New Media, is characterised by "variability":
A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something, that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions. This is another consequence of the numerical coding of media ... and the modular structure of a media object ... Instead of identical copies [of what Manovich calls ‘old media’] a new media object typically gives rise to many different versions. And rather than being created completely
Whilst the problems of critical purchase are undoubtedly foregrounded by new media art, they are not unique to it. However, if there is to be a convincing theoretical model for new media art, then it should not be tied to a specifically narrow set of artistic practices because this will rapidly open it to charges of anachronism or lack of relevance. Today’s new media quickly become defunct, and themselves become objects of nostalgia and aestheticisation. For example, the pioneering computer art of Ben Laposky and his Electronic Abstractions (from 1956 onwards) is a world away from the complex and aesthetically involving environments of recent popular video and computer games such as Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez (for Sony Playstation and Sega Dreamcast) or Valve Software’s Half-Life I & II. Equally, given that they are all constituted by particular historical and technological social variants, the early video art of Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci from the early 1970s has a clearly different aesthetic to that of the epic film projects of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. W.J.T. Mitchell discussed some of these problems with anachronism in his What Do Pictures Want? (2005). The first two of the "Ten Thesis on media" he outlines there are: "1 – Media are a modern invention that has been around since the beginning (sic.). 2 – The shock of new media is as old as the hills." Today's New Media, in other words, will always be tommorrow's old media.
Systems aesthetics and the vocabularies of systems theory, I argue, provide the basis for such an "appropriately robust and convincing" theory of new media art. They do so by expanding the discourse on new media beyond a discussion of a narrow set of art practices corresponding to a limited set of media into a discussion about systems art more generally. Systems theory and systems aesthetics thus employs the idea of system as medium to inscribe a coherency into what would otherwise seem to be utterly disparate works. This opens these works up to art historical analysis and provides continuity with historical precedents, which may, in the first instance, appear materially incomparable. My two closing examples demonstrate this.
Jeffrey Shaw is best known for his interactive multi-media environments. In Place–Ruhr (Computer graphic / video installation, 2000) the viewer negotiates eleven live-action and three-dimensional virtual environments from the industrial German region of Ruhrgebiet. The viewer participates in the work from a platform and an interface centrally located within the cylinder of the installation projection screens. From this platform the viewer controls both their spatial relationship to the screens and their progress through the environments that are realised as a sequence of cylinders. Upon entering these panoramic cylinders the environment is cinematically generated around the spectator in relation to them. The installation contains further elements of interaction by using sounds made by the participant to trigger projected words that move through the environment in paths dictated by the movement of the viewer. Mark Hansen describes this process of interaction in such computer-aided works as part of an embodied, phenomenological experience that:
... specifically invest the body as the site of a bodily, but also an ‘intellectual’ event. In these works, the body, rather than being assimilated into the deframed image-space, stands over against a now virtualized image-space and thereby acquires a more fundamental role as the source of the actualization of images. If the corporeal and intellectual processing it performs still functions to ‘give-body’ to the image, it does so by not lending its physical, extended volume as a three-dimensional screen for the image but rather by creating an image-event out of its own embodied processing of information.
Shaw creates multi-media systems which the embodied participant actively reconfigures with each immersive interaction. It is thus an example of Burnham’s model of systems aesthetics in which aesthetic sensations are produced without an intervening object and in which the "viewer" fully participates in the production of the system.
My second example is provided by Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno’s collaborative project No Ghost Just a Shell (1999-2002), which is another contemporary expression of systems aesthetics. For the project the artists acquired the digital files and copyright for a minor, generic female Manga character called Annlee. (it cost $400, about 46,000 Japanese Yen). The character was an "avatar"; that is sufficiently anonymous to be used in any story and not expected to play anything other than a minor role. She was a prepubescent girl with wide eyes, blue hair and little in the way of specific features. Huyghe and Parreno commissioned a series of twelve works from different artists for an exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthalle and the San Francisco MOMA (2002/03). The works included animations, paintings, posters, books, neon works and sculptures. Thus AnnLee is both a "shell" for a variety of different manifestations and the medium for those manifestations. For example Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Even Electric Sheep Can Dream), (2002) is an eight-hour digital animation in which the character Annlee reads the entire text of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Liam Gillick’s Annlee You Proposes (2001) is a digital film in which the character explores her environment and M/M produced silkscreen posters (2002).
No Ghost Just a Shell provides just one example of a post-medium practice that does not cohere with a specific material medium. Each of the different manifestations of it are a different form of Annlee. Crucially, each form of Annlee is materially very different from other forms and there is no material specificity to Annlee as a medium. Annlee is a set of conditions that may take a variety of material forms. Thus Annlee is a system that provides the possibility of forms within it (or a "shell" to be filled); but also there would be no Annlee without the various forms by which it can be observed. It is my argument that Annlee is both a system and a medium. That is Annlee is a set of elements integrated with one another to such an extent that they form a recognisable and coherent whole that performs some recognisable function. And Annlee is also recognisable as the medium of the work as she is a set of possibilities that allow for different and specific forms to emerge. No Ghost Just a Shell is thus exemplary of the move from object to system in the systems aesthetic; a move that, crucially, may have very different artistic outcomes (as illustrated by Spiral Jetty in the proceeding chapter).
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