> Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code
> by Eric Kluitenberg
> Note: This text is an expanded version of a talk given at the Pro@Contra
> symposium in Moscow (May 2000) and at CFront 2000 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
> (June 2000). Though the text does not specifically address the position of
> artists and the cultural world in Eastern Europe,
>it does provide
> incentives towards the development of practices and tools for cultural
> resistance and autonomy that can be applied in this context.
> A double conversion....
> In the age of NASDAQ mania, technology and new media have become the
> principal sites of manifestation for the next transformation of the
> negative dialectics of avantgarde art.
No -new media has apparently simply become a hype filled fuelling system for NASDAQ
>This tradition is by no means dead,
> it is simply transferred to a new domain. The death of art, and its
> subsequent rise from the dead, is followed by the death of the avantgarde,
> and the subsequent discussion if either of them is actually dead or alive.
> That discussion can be skipped. Art still exists and is very much alive, in
> countless magazines, in art sections of news papers, in web environments,
> in countless art galleries, in museums world-wide, and above all in the art
Unfortunately hype does not die either -it just feeds on itself.
> The avantgarde has, however, performed a double conversion upon the sacred
> concept of art: it has turned the profane into an object of art, but more
> importantly; with this act, accepted, sanctified, and legitimised by the
> very figurations that determine what actually counts as art, it has
> simultaneously converted the objects and practice of art itself into
> profane entities. As a result art has become part of the conventional
> economy, part of the secular cycle of demand and supply, production and
> consumption - it lives on but without the aura of the sacred.
The hype too apparently
> Avantgarde practice itself might be a more difficult case, since its
> operations rely on the 'shock of the new' or the 'blow of the sublime',
> which it brought about by negation of the existing order of art practice,
> the negation of the positive sign; the sign that wants to communicate that
> points towards something it wishes to indicate, some message it wants to
> convey. After a long century of avantgardes, practised in the most violent
> and destructive epoch since the dawn of human existence and civilisation,
> the avantgarde has apparently completed its task - Art has been
> deconstructed beyond repair. It is now completely obsolete, irrelevant,
> superfluous, out of date and out of touch with any significant social
> reality. It is dead beyond dying, born again in insignificance, a notion
> nobody wishes to take serious anymore
guess that is understandable concidering texts like this -although I
thought it was alive and kicking a few paragraphs back!
>, a playing field at the edge of the
> social sphere that is reduced to pure amusement, a fancy for the tourist
> industry. A domain where 'anything goes' because nobody cares.
So who is responsible for reducing it all to this?
> The end of negation?
> The avantgarde, in short, is left with nothing to negate.
Is that the postmodern avantguarde -or the avantmodern post-guarde?
Does that mean it will have to start thinking again from scratch -if the old negation trick doesn't work any more?
> It would seem
> that the avantgarde has lost its 'raison d'�tre'. Its fundamental principle
> of operation, the negative dialectics of denial, has lost its object to
> deny. Art exists as if nothing happened even though its death has been
> accepted, or at times even celebrated. It has, however, been stripped of
> all its powers to inform the ways in which we speak about the world. Art
> has dropped back behind the spectacles of the media and advertisement
> industries, the abstractions of advanced physics, molecular chemistry,
> genetics, medical biology and all the other natural sciences, and finally
> the political scenographies that dominate the cerebral sphere of the global
Gosh -now you see it -now you don't!
Here today and gone tommorrow!
Cerebral spheres become a load of balls
> But I do not believe that the avantgarde is now dead, or about to die.
> Instead it is very much alive, but it has transferred its field of
> operation. After the conversion of the (al-ready-made) profane into the
> realm of aesthetics, after the disentanglement of the spectacle, and after
> the dissimulation era, now the negation of the positive sign has entered
> into the realm of pure simulation, the digital hypersphere. This digital
> hypersphere is constituted by the interconnected structure of digital
> networks, and its most familiar (and written about) manifestation is the
> internet. The transferral of avantgarde practice from the realm of arts
> into the digital hypersphere is by no means accidental, it occurs right at
> the moment when the internet is turning into a mass medium, and at a
> moment when the surface of the internet is cleaned of its radical past,
> domestified, regulated, but also professionalised.
After the balls are over!
Domestified, demystified .........professionalised?
Or hypified beyond hope?
> The dominant media discourse is not that of conversion, but that of
> convergence. For some years the convergence of the new digital networked
> media with the old (formerly analogue) has been discussed, proposed and
Which unfortunately does not seem to have helped very much -in a practical sense that is.
>The big bang fusing the old and new media structures, was the
> unexpected announcement of the merger between America Online and Time
> Warner. If anything, this event woke up both the media world as well as the
> political elites.
You mean -after all that discussion and theory they were still not expecting it?
>We can now in retorspect evaluate this announcement as a
> turning point in recent media history. The moment when the 'net got real',
> as The Economist put it, and the final fusion of old and new media was put
> on track.
Although the hype apparently still survives -and those responsible sail happily on!
> The infrastructural preparations were already going on for many years.
> Cable television was gearing up for the net age. Telephone was extended
> into digital and asynchronous modes, and fibre-optic and satellite
> connections stepped up the push for more bandwidth.
As could be expected.
>In a contradictory way
> the provision of net services for free proved to be the final ingredient to
> turn the internet for the billions into a reality, enforcing critical mass
> for the new medium.
So where is the contradiction?
Hadn't Minitel already proved that in France?
> Obviously the massive influx of newly connected will
> change, once again, the nature of the digital matrix. In many ways we can
> safely predict that the net of the future will be much like the television
> of yesterday, but the development is more multifaceted than simply that
You mean after all that hyperspace cyberspace hype -and it all ends up looking like tv?
Or just hedging your bets?
That it will all be the same -only different!
> 'On Air' - No Disturbance Please!!
> On the level of the net as the media unifier of the future, its
> professional augmentation will draw upon the traditions of the existing
> media industry. What the network inherits from the old media is first and
> foremost the illusion of the seamless surface. The professional code
> demands the uninterrupted flow of information, communication and above all
> entertainment. This seamless media surface provides the viewer with the
> illusion of absolute professionalism and control. The image projected from
> the screens is that of completeness: The 'proper' image of the world is
> propagated through the appropriate and right use of the medium. It assures
> the viewer that her/his electronic ears and eyes are still in focus. The
> world becomes a transparent global village in which m/disinformation
> disappears in the crystalline media scenography.
As manifest in this text?
> The absolute horror of the media professional is the interrupted broadcast.
-or the interrupted hype?
> In the TV format it is sometimes witnessed in an ultimately brief interval
> as a traumatic black screen. In radio the despair of silence is even
> greater than the absence of the image on TV. Horror Vacui is replaced here
> by an electronic form of Horror Silentiae. The silence of the faded radio
> signal and the blackness of the imploded TV screen does not merely mark the
> absence of a signal. The horror implied is the immanent destruction of the
> illusion of the seamless media surface, which requires the continuous
> suggestion of immediacy and connection that gives the viewer the reassuring
> impression of the transparency of the media screen.
I guess writers don't like running out of words -or theorists out of theories -either!
> This illusion requires the purification of the network environment. The net
> has to be cleansed from its plethora of anarchic impulses. The temporary
> autonomous zones are relegated to the far edge of the networks, replaced
> and superseded by the professionalised media formats and codes. The media
> professional applies skill, technique, knowledge, and the new
> 'net-subjects' brand loyalties to the new high bandwidth content zones, to
> create the uninterrupted network flow of interactive shopping and fun,
> interspersed with the occasional suggestion of actual information.
So where's the difference?
> It is only in the moments when this flow is interrupted, when the code is
> broken, when the sound has collapsed and the screen has extinguished that
> the possibility for an alternative message, a new code is created. This is
> the space of negation: The void created by the rupture is the open field in
> which a new synthesis of unique forms in space and time becomes possible.
> The emergence of the new code out of the void of the Horror Silentiae
> reconfirms the connection of the media subject to the world. It is in this
> moment of delight over the conquered threat of the end of existence /
> connection that the avantgardes can come into play and transform the
> meaning of the media codes.
"to create the uninterrupted network flow of interactive shopping and fun,
interspersed with the occasional suggestion of actual information" -for intellectuals?.
> The tools of avantgarde practice in the new digital hypersphere are
> familiar, satire, reversal, appropriation, displacement.
No original thinking?
>Nothing new here,
> except that the interesting moment no longer is the disruption of the
> aesthetic framework, or even the negation of the concept of the author, the
> artist, or the artistic practice itself. Instead, the negative dialectics
> of the digital avantgarde no longer challenge the notions of art, but those
> of the by nature symbolical digital realm it operates in.
Perhaps that is an error!
In fact, if it did challenge the digital realm it operates in -then presumably there would be less to be concerned about!
Surely all cultural realms are symbolical -it is the realities behind the symbols that one has to be aware of.
By flitting around in rhetorical
hyperspace the meaning becomes dissassociated from the symbol -so the
myth of "virtuality" as total freedom from restraint can be propagated
and people become easilly distracted from the realities of the
> The examples of this new field of avantgarde operation abound, but one
> interruption of the seamless media surface is particularly relevant here.
> It both exemplifies but also points beyond the sphere of mediated
> communication and media convergence discussed so far - the WTO web site
> hack by the US based art collective RTMark. Though witty, original and
> skilfully executed I did not choose this example to cultivate the mythology
> of the artist/genius. The hack is rooted in an understanding of networked
> communication and internet practice that is available too many digerati,
> hackers and IT pro's. What is relevant about it is that it combines
> avantgardistic gesture and net savyness with an acute sense of timing.
Do you mean they used intelligence -and not simply "reversal, appropriation, displacement"?
> During the anti-WTO protests at the occasion of the WTO meeting in Seattle
> in November 1999, the networked presence of the activists was an essential
> ingredient of the activists' communication strategy. In the new media
> ecology attention is a prime economic asset, and attention had to be drawn
> to the negative side effects of the proposed world trade agreements for the
> vast majority of the world population.
interesting paradox because "ecology" involves a detailed study and
understanding of complex and subtle interactions, which can often
generate parasoxical and unenexpected results -and yet current media
hype indulges in mental mastebatory free association which makes
serious discussion virtually impossible -and creates a fantasy
hyperspace where the relevant interactions all dissapear in a cloud of
So as to see -current cultural theory obscures exactly the interactions it should be studying!
> RTMark simply appropriated the web site of the World Trade Organisation
> [http://www.wto.org] by copying all the graphics and the lay-out of the
> official site to the domain: http://www.gatt.org [note: GATT - General
> Agreement on Traffic and Trade � one of the principal international trade
> agreements]. The site however did not link to any official information of
> the WTO organisation itself, but instead links to all counter-information
> sites and web casts produced during the Seattle protests.
> Where the official WTO site contained a personal address to the visitor by
> then WTO director Mike Moore (a famous New Zealander, once a prominent
> international protagonist of the "Lambburger" - a curious contribution to
> 'cultural diversity' in the global food chain, countering the dominance of
> the US Hamburger), the GATT site of RTMark in turn contains the same
> photograph of Mr. Moore with a text declaring the 'true purpose' of the WTO
> organisation, "to broaden and enforce global free trade. Global free trade
> already gives multinational corporations vast powers to enforce their will
> against democratic governments. Expanding these corporate powers --as the
> WTO intends to do in Seattle and beyond-- will further cripple governments
> and make them even less able to protect their citizens from the ravages of
> those entities whose only aim is to grow richer and richer and richer."
> (citation from the www.gatt.org site)
> The GATT site infuriated WTO director Mike Moore to such an extent that he
> not only published a warning on the www.wto.org site warning the public
> about "a fake WTO site misleading the public", immediately mimicked by
> RTMark with a highly similar notice on www.gatt.org, complete with a link
> to the official WTO site claiming its misleading and disinforming nature.
> Moore also put out an official WTO press-release, condemning this action as
> a threat to the transparency of the WTO organisation and its efforts to
> make its thousands of drafts and policy documents public. With this action
> Moore drew the attention of the mass media to the hitherto almost unnoticed
> existence of the www.gatt.org web site and sky-rocketed the number of hits
> on it, fuelled by world-wide media attention. Moore's press release thus
> completed the hack by RTMark.
-a very "ecological" strategy -using mimicry and the turning of
strength into weakness (and vice versa) by pitting available weapons
against those of the opposition in a game of "catch as catch can"!.
> The incident shows how the disruption of the
> seamless surface of the WTO's media image produced a fundamental and
> irreparable transformation of the WTO's pr strategy.
A bit optimistic, if you ask me -surely just another round in the game of set and counter-set!
> Beyond the politics of representation...
> It is clear by now that the sphere of international economics and politics
> has become inseparably linked with the new constellations of broadcast and
> networked media.
Or vice versa -but one could hardly have expected otherwise.
How can the lure of the mass-media
market be resisted -when a relatively low-cost investment in
infrastructure has so much potential profit? What else could keep the
labour market going when everything is becoming automated? What else
could one expect in a global virtual system -except global virtual
Are you claiming that "culture (theory)" is not also a part of commerce?
> The principal challenge of the network society is the
> complete fusion of media, digital technology, economics and politics.
It is alreadty happening -I presume you mean the challenge is to find a suitable response to this!
> logic of the digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society.
Is this strange?
Doesn't the logic of the infrastructure always prevail -whether based on steam, oil, or electrons?
Where you too lost in "virtuality" to understand this?
So what is this "logic of the digital network" -you still seem more than a little confused by it all?
> This fact on the one hand marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has
> become completely intertwined with the *real* world.
These two were always intertwined -unfortunately, people like you appear to be responsible for having obscured this simple fact.
> At the same time,
> however, every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by
> virtue of how it is mapped in the digital domain.
Significant to whom -to what -why and when?
Surely things are significant in relationship to the strategy of those involved.
You are confusing things again!
> Beyond representation, the space of digital networks has become the
> backbone of economic interaction, enabling the immediacy of financial and
> economic flows across the geographical and territorial divides. The
> connections between the networked structures and the physical domains they
> hook up with each other, have become so endlessly complex, manifold, and
> interdependent that it is no longer useful to distinguish the physical
> geography as 'real', from the networked constellations as 'virtual'. In
> fact the very opposition of the real and the virtual has become misleading.
> Geography and technological, social and economic networks together create
> one system that becomes increasingly integrated and sophisticated. But this
> system is highly problematic because it excludes more than it allows.
highly problematic -because people like you lump all the constituent
parts into a single system -and therefore miss all the interactions!
The system has indeed become sophisticated -but not the critics apparently!
Perhaps the system includes more than it excludes -but how could one know without a detailed analysis?
Just because things are interacting in
a single system does not mean that all distinctions are suddenly
unimportant -individual (or group) intereractions may vary widely from
> Access to tools and ideas is replaced by the dominance of vested powers
> that project their outreach on a global territory by means of the most
> sophisticated control apparatus in the history human civilisation.
So what happened to RTMark's ecological approach?
That was successful -so why is it apparently forgotten and replaced by "the dominance of vested powers"?
> authority of this system can only be challenged, and its structure can only
> be changed, if the seamless surface of the media-interface and its illusion
> of transparency are broken and reconstructed in a multitude of alternative
The system only has authority if one has no viable counter-strategy.
> The net, the space of interconnected computer networks, derives its power
> from its disembodied informational nature.
But didn't you just proclaim the end of "virtuality"?
> But this symbolical construction
> (the digital code) also makes it vulnerable to symbolic de- and
> re-construction and analysis.
didn't you just say that the system needed that -in order to break the
seamless surface and challenge the system which has taken over the net?
> Saskia Sassen pointed out quite rightfully,
> speaking on the edge of Europe in Tallinn (Estonia) only weeks before the
> turn of the millenium, that the Internet is constituted by the practices
> employed in it.
Gosh -isn't the world "constituted by the practices employed in it" too?
> This is the point of entry, where the negative dialectics
> of the avantgarde can challenge the established canons of vested interests
> and powers.
Are you assuming that the "avantguarde" has no vested interests of its own?
Are you still expecting the (avantguarde) "saviour" to come like superman and save the world?
Don't you think it is time that you and the "avantguarde" questioned your own established canons?
If we are all global players in a
single interconnected system -isn't it a little old fashioned to keep
these old ideas of (left-wing?) "avantguarde" noble saviour vs. the
evil corrupt system?
Is there anybody still without sin? Arn't we all guilty (to some extent -in some way?)
Arn't we all fighting for survival (even our opponents) -in our own way -for our own ends?
> Avantgarde practice no longer needs to concern itself with aesthetics and
> art. Those notions have already been thoroughly deconstructed, or otherwise
> have become irrelevant beyond repair.
you seem to keep killing them off and then ressurecting them -so I can
understand that they are a little tarnished -which is a great pity,
because if you just left them alone then I'm sure they could still be
Of course -they might need to be redefined -after all this confusion.
Certainly, it might be usefull if
people accepted "aesthetics" as being concerned with the dialectic -and
not just involved with superficial (or arbitrary) "visual prettyness"!
Then "art" might again be concerned
with "aesthetics" -which could reintroduce the possibility of
"discussion" (via alternative "aesthetics" -and alternative
Perhaps this might involve "artists"
once again in some really useful exploratory (and investigatory)
research -and release them from being propaganda hacks for some
or other psuedo media-theorist lost in self-created confusion!
> The avantgardists can now concentrate
> on the new sphere of digital mediation. Their practices break the clean
> surface of digital media and disrupt the flow of networked interaction. The
> subversion of 'real virtuality' breaks the illusion of so-called
> globalisation, which excludes 90% of the world population. By breaking open
> the semi-transparent box of consumer technology, the avantgarde breaks the
> spell of over-mystified technologies.
And apparently creates the new mythology of rhetorical pseudo-theory!
> The stocks are already falling, but the negative dialectic of the digital
> age will only come to completion, after the bubble of the new economy has
> finally and irreversibly burst.
And texts like this have been definately consigned to the rubbish dump of history!
> Eric Kluitenberg
> Moscow / Plovdiv, May-June 2000