Culture-shock: An Open Letter to Four Young Artists:

Arriving and Departing:

What a beautiful and varied international bouquet of final papers that I have been sent by my friend and colleague Jacqueline Hoogeveen, as crowning glory of her years of dedicated service to the AKI college of fine art in Enschede, Holland -where I once worked for ten years and she (until this year) for much longer.

I hope you will forgive me the arrogance and indulgence of pretending to be an external examiner -but old habits die hard and I find it difficult to resist the temptation to comment on the texts presented.

I also wish you all good luck -and hope that you will keep contact with each other to continue the dialogue together. Hopefully, we too shall meet again somewhere -don't know where don't know when.

Comments on my comments are also welcome....

Beware of the Ghost:

However, please also note that these are my personal reactions -my ghosts and my thoughts. They are not a criticism of either the people or the work. I do not wish to dampen enthusiasm -or motivation in any way. What I would like to do is to reflect on my own thoughts, feelings,experiences and background in relation to the texts -in the hope that this can provide a useful clarification for me -and hopefully, for you too.

However, I will also warn you -that this text contains some pretty powerful statements. So, if for any reason, you are not able (at present) to withstand some pretty heavy seismic shocks yourself -then DO NOT READ FURTHER!

Culture-shock as Creative Motor:

Martha, from the Philippines (where by chance I am now living) talks about "culture-shock". This too is one of my favourite themes -and as a result of looking at her texts I suddenly realised that perhaps one basis for making art is indeed simply as an exploration of the "culture-shock" we all feel at some point in relation to some (or perhaps many) things in our own (normal) lives. For some, perhaps, there is an early (or perhaps later) dissonance between themselves and their home, educational, national, economic and political -or perhaps even adopted environment that makes them start thinking about their own identity in relation to the others around them.

Superficially, I have lived in Britain (where I was born), in Holland and now in the Philippines: Plenty of chance for "culture-shock" there -but in fact, my experiences in the Philippines seems somehow to resonate with my experiences as a (fairly low class) boy growing up in post WW-II Britain (I was born 10 days after the "liberation" of Holland -and a few days after the end of the
"European" war for Britain).

Two Personal Culture-shocking Experiences:

Amazingly enough, I now realise (while writing this) that the two biggest "culture-shock" events in my life -probably focus around my arrival at the aki and my departure from the aki (perhaps somewhat under a cloud):

On arrival at the aki for the first time as a teacher (as opposed to a visiting lecturer) I met my first student: When I asked what his "artistic motivation" was -he looked at me as if I had just asked if I could screw his grandmother. A few minutes later, in the middle of our engaging conversation, he greeted his friend who had just entered the room and then got up and just walked off to look at the latest computer game his friend had brought on a diskette (these were the "old" days).

Directly prior to this enlightening experience, I had spent around ten years of my life messing about (as an unpaid project assistant -working on my own projects) in an, at that time, internationally famous university institute for classical (studio) electronic music (Sonology) in Utrecht. Apparently, a girlfriend of Stockhausen was a fellow student when I first arrived. Since then, another fellow student has been in the music jury of the Ars Electronica competition -and another ended up running the "soundscape" project in Canada. Needless to say, this institute was closed down (which was why I lost contact) by the university bureaucracy -because it didn't fit in with the normal structure....

I'm sorry to sound so arrogant -but, although there were obviously some interesting and beautiful plants trying to survive there -when I arrived, the Media Art Department at the aki was an intellectual and cultural dessert based on the principle of dog eat dog. However, it seems that my arrival did act as some kind of a catalyst -and over the many happy and exciting years that I worked there, with lots of hard work from, and sometimes fights with, my colleagues -the MAD became transformed into the bold, beautiful and creative working environment that has now produced the current harvest. A safe haven in a sea of madness. I understand that it too is being closed down.

I guess that such a MAD transformation is impossible without making both friends and enemies. At a certain point, I felt that it was a pointless dead-end job -teaching in a purely undergrad situation, where after years of hard work, one's best students simply disappeared to join the daily grind -or be transformed into clones of some postmodernist ideal by a post-grad finishing school somewhere else.

So I played the Prima Donna and got myself dismissed. Initially, I was quite optimistic: The Internet was getting established and although I'd focused mainly on the aki -I did have some (pretty good) international contacts (I'd participated in two UNESCO seminars) and I believed that I'd soon be moving on to better things.... Unfortunately, for a number of complex reasons (including perhaps my charming personality and certainly the death of my beloved Amiga, which was then essential for my work) -my optimism proved to be an illusion.

The biggest "culture-shock" at this point was the discovery that -because I had been so busy with the aki for ten years -I hadn't noticed that in the meantime apparently the entire world had gone completely mad (and not even MAD)!

All the silly attitudes that I thought were simply local (aki, Dutch) madness had apparently now become common usage throughout the entire (Internet linked) English speaking world..... I was totally gob-smacked (and perhaps I am only now starting to recover, several years later -as a cultural refugee in the Philippines)....

Cultural Aftershocks -The Flight of the Young:

Interestingly, and perhaps logically, some of this earlier "culture-shock" was again manifest and repeated (in different ways) in the little seismic packet with the ex-student texts, kindly sent by Jacqueline... However, if one lives on a seismic fault line, then one must get used to shocks!

Danja Vassiliev:

Perhaps paradoxically, the biggest shock of all came from Danja Vassiliev: This work is truly impressive. The artistic motivation is clear, the implementation reflects the motivation and there is also evidence of intelligent creative feedback with regards to the understanding of the finished work. The technical knowledge is far superior to my own. All this makes it exemplary media art, in my book.

However, I have serious problems with the conceptual context that he weaves around his work.Clearly, the task he set himself (with regards to theory) was difficult -luckily, he also seems to be a little cynical with regard to all the conventional wisdoms that role out of the search machine.

A chance(?) visit to Oxford (in England) by the aki media art department (several years ago) reminded me at the time of the difficulties of finding a good intellectual tradition for media art -one that avoids the useless Romanticism of Ruskin on the one hand and the sterility of (modernist) design (and later the reactionary post-modernist theory) that grew out of the Bauhaus
tradition (which had also influenced the philosophy upon which the aki had been built). Actually, the Bauhaus also played an important role in my own artistic education, many years ago.

Ruskin and the Contemporary Experience:

Perhaps (especially in the context of the aki, which somehow managed to convert the theory of the Bauhaus into the opposing practice of Ruskin) it is worth standing still for a moment -and contemplating the consequences of Ruskin (the famous British art critic who provided the intellectual cornerstone for British romanticism at the height of the industrial revolution) -because it might have some important lessons for us today. Our current circumstances may well be more similar than one might at first imagine:

Perhaps if one takes a quick panoramic view of western history -three major (and perhaps related) phenomena stick out like a sore thumb: Imperialism, Industrialisation and World War II. The scars of these three are still painfully felt every day around the whole world -in varying degrees,depending on where one lives. In my view, the "healing" process with regard to these three phenomena cannot even begin properly -simply because the nature of the problem has never been fully revealed and understood.

Suffice it to say -that (as far as I can see) during the two worst periods of recent (European -and by extension Global) history -19th century British colonial expansion -and the 20th century colonial expansion of NAZI lead Germany -both perpetrating societies showed a similar aesthetic and social schizophrenia: In these respective periods, Britain was characterised on one hand by an expanding network of industrialised factories and railways -and on the other hand by Pre-Raphaelite rustic romanticism. Nazi Germany also had Rhinemaidens, Jet engines and the expansion of the motorway.... I will lead the reader to imagine what the implications are for current day society -where we have the (illegal) invasion of the middle east (by the US and Britain) using automated rocket based warfare, expanded industrialised production distributed via the Internet and all coupled to an ecologically responsible love of whales, democracy and the dawning of a romantic techo-utopia.....

Italy, it seems, did not have a Ruskin -or a Wagner to inspire it. So some of its artists choose for the direct route: They embraced the machine -like a frustrated lover finally united with the subject of his own wet dreams -and, indeed ended up by destroying (in alliance with the NAZI's) almost all that had remained of humanity after the previous almost total destruction of World War I.....

Interestingly -as far as I know -the futurists were all males. I'm sure that women have a completely different (natural) view of technology.... In fact, I have a theory that women are the real technologists -and that such basic and essential home based tasks as cooking, weaving and pot making are the true foundation for all modern technology. While the women provide us with all the comforts that practical technology can give -most men, it seems, have not yet progressed much beyond the social rituals that keep them focused on killing the prey (or enemy) instead of each other while out on the hunt.

However, perhaps the Russian tradition was slightly different to the others. I have the feeling that perhaps "futurist" tendencies in (early post-revolution) Russia were more related to "constructivist" tendencies -which, in turn, were much more social(ist) orientated -perhaps relating more to some phases of the Bauhaus. Certainly the British Computer Art scene in the 60's and early 70's -to which I marginally belonged was (in its early phase) basically involved with a kind of "Stochastic Constructivism" -which (although perhaps not realized at the time) somehow seems to combine the two apparently opposed traditions of Dada and Constructivism....

Anyhow, I believe that a more life sustaining approach must be found to the issue of aesthetics and/of technology -if we are to avoid techno-fascism..... and it may already be almost too late.

Presentation, Interpretation and Dialogue -Martha Atienza:

Regarding Martha, I believe that I understand absolutely her problems of "presentation" -I have had similar discussions here in the Philippines regarding the problems of how the public will "interpret" certain images.... Indeed, as my earlier comments perhaps show -I have similar problems with my own work, which does not sit easily within the context in which it would superficially seem most similar.

In my view, art is a personal therapy for the artist (and perhaps for society working through the artist) -the "audience" is also the person creating the work -the "public" is irrelevant (except perhaps for funding).... I see the work as a (externalised) dialogue between the artist and themselves. It is a way of clarifying their own thinking process. Of course, this is not to deny that an important part of the creative strategy involves "looking" at the work from different (external) "perspectives" -and of course this can also include thinking about "presentation" and how to clarify one's ideas for an imaginary public.

So, despite the taboo -I do like "therapeutic" art -but I don't like "pedagogical" art (although I may sometimes be a bit guilty of this myself)....

I think the answer to "presentation" (or at least the approach that I prefer) is to question what exactly is the "function" of the work -who exactly the work is made for -and how the work can actually fulfill its function effectively. Perhaps too, it might be worthwhile contemplating a shift of focus away from "images" and towards the underlying "processes" that create the phenomena behind the image. To a certain extent, you have already done this in your comparison of Finland and the Philippines....

In fact, should for some horrific reason Postmodernism be correct -so nothing means anything at all (because it also means everything) then there is no point in saying anything.... and so "presentation" or even making art at all becomes a pointless mind game at best -or, at worst, the commercial production of fetish items for the mental masturbatory fantasies of a public too lazy to produce its own...

In my view, the real value of art lies not in what it does for others -but what it does for the mind of its creator. The good programmers programme themselves -and not others....

The Specter of Postmodernism:

Oh such cruel irony: To be confronted so inescapably by the specter of one of my own ghosts giving birth before my very eyes... to bear the personal weight of being directly responsible for a piece of polymorphic multidimensionality that simultaneously declares its own futile redundancy while also insisting upon its own infallible supremacy. Am I really so?

Can there be a form of cultural imperialism more disastrous than the playful destruction of all meaning and the earnest focus on games which distract all intelligent thought away from the global crimes against humanity committed by consumerism? Can you not see?

How can there ever be any poetry left alive after the destruction of all meaning and beauty? Did you not hear from Dante that purgatory is the mindless and endless repetition of the once meaningful? Is postmodern life truly so perfect that you wish to remain in the time-worp, endlessly repeating things until the brain grows weary of its own weariness. Do you not understand how futile this is?

From whence this urge to steal and destroy? We do not need this thievery: The early computer art was creatively aleatorical (it is said that even Bach played the same games) -I grew up on nonsense poems -and Alice in Wonderland was my mental playground: Although I suspect that my interpretation would kill poor Carrol if he were alive today. Apparently, even Humpty-Dumpty understood the problem only too well -and all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put poor Humpty together again. So what on earth are we going to do with you?

Why can't things be what they are -instead of being encapsulated into a false, hypercritical and pernicious philosophy.... So chop up these words and throw them to the winds.... In future, go for the (nourishing) originals -and don't waste time and energy with the (poisonous) fakes. Your texts are good -they can survive on their own and don't need a false alibi.....

The only thing I can give you in return is a nonsense poem. I wrote it to tease my love. It is the best that I have to offer to exorcise those that haunt me most. Please take it and cherish it, but please, please, remember: It does have meaning, so please don't destroy it. The poem is very precious to me. IT IS NOT POSTMODERN -it is the opposite!

  -A silly nonsense poem:

   There was a silly man
   and he said a silly thing

   His wife looked sad
   and said: "You're mad!"

   He said, "Better mad than bad"
   and she said "Did y' say I'm bad?"

   "No", he said,
   "But why" she said...

   "Did you say what you clearly said,
   if y' didna mean what you said you said?"

   "Ah," he said.... "But if I said
   'better a nutter than a piece of butter'
   would you be a knob of butter?"

   "Aha", she said, eyes all a flutter,
   "I will be your knob of butter
   if that's the price of loving a nutter!"

   Now they live as fish and batter
   and nothing ever seems to matter

   He spreads her butter and she nibbles his bread
   and they're both happy and well, it is always said

   So what does it matter if you marry a nutter,
   as long as you batter the fish and not the butter.....

Ordinary Fantasies:

Due to the personal nature of both the work and your remarks about the work there is little that I can say about them: Except that you certainly seem to be applying the concept of "art as therapy" in a very positive and practical way.

If I was working with you, then I too would be fascinated by the question of how to keep the spontaneity and originality of a personal vision within a large scale (and formal) collective production system.

I also sincerely hope that your "therapy" can bring sanity to a troubled region (and not just to a single deeply troubled nation). It is exciting to think that the aki could potentially play such an important role in future world history.

Good luck to you all!

best wishes,
Trevor Batten
Manila, September 23 2006