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Creative Research Center

Art’s New Media – The 50th Anniversary Issue of ARTFORUM – by Neil Baldwin

Posted in: Director's Essay

Cake as Pie

“Media resist unification. They resist ontology. They are much like art. And art, we might say, is always becoming media.”Michelle Kuo, editor, ARTFORUM, September, 2012.

This 500-page “embarrassment of riches” arrived on my doorstep three weeks ago. It has taken me until today to read it selectively and carefully and set down my admiring thoughts.   That said,  to begin by addressing Ms. Kuo,  let’s assume she means, in the above citation from her lead essay, that the various “existences” and “beings-in-the-world” of media cannot be categorized; and therefore, in that respect, media share evolutionary essences with art.

And that the two possess this shape-shifting and fluid quality and will continue to do so to the point of intermingling…?

Then the set of cultural and aesthetic references that began to assemble in the previous mid-century won’t go away, and instead the pre-digital part of me weighs in with the notion that surely art has always been manifested via different media;  the medium is the vehicle through which the artist finds expression and conveys his/her intentions…?

Or is that definition obsolete, now that we inhabit the virtual?

My question was (temporarily) answered when I flipped a few pages along and came across an advertisement for Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, an art gallery at 620 Greenwich Street.  An “enterprise,” a place in a building, but not a place by name; rather, an entrepreneurial state of being, looking to the future.

Deeper into the magazine, in one of many fascinating side-bars called Media Study, film-maker Michael Snow itemizes the disappearing media that governed his work: “35 mm, 16 mm, Super-8 and 8-mm film; 35-mm slides; quarter-inch audio tape and cassettes; LP’s; several breeds of video…” Snow responded to the MoMA’s conservators’ plea that — if they were going to collect him — they required a more permanent iteration of his legacy. His existential response? To “shoot an HD-video documentation that could be used in the future when all the slides have finally faded.”

Does anybody out there remember Jack Burnham’s 1968 manifesto on “System Aesthetics?”  It defined art as “a disparate, sprawling, yet rule-bound system within which artists must strategically acknowledge dealers, viewers, performers, participants, buyers, fabricators, curators, programmers, institutions, infrastructures…”   Caroline A. Jones argues in her fine essay, System Symptoms, that over the past half-century the artist him/herself has likewise become a system: “systems are us.”

In Critical Condition, Hal Foster meditates on the changes in the concept of the canon that have taken place during the lifetime of ARTFORUM, and wonders whether we are better off now, at a time when the status quo is built upon shifting sands, and fundamental dialectical and modernist criteria have been “junked.”

John Rajchman offers an excellent essay, Strange Trip, on the revival of interest in the work of Vilem Flusser (1920-1991), first introduced into the pages of ARTFORUM by editor Ingrid Sischy in the mid-80s.  Flusser’s deracinated personal journey informed his theories on what he called a “search for a home” for communication; that “the real problem…is how to actually make a real image or piece of writing, one that causes us to think…”

The next page that seized my attention — given that every page of this compendium is worth attending to for one reason or another, I needed to exercise editorial selectivity — was a fabulous ad for another innovative gallery that has captivated me for its four years in NYC, Haunch of Venison, at 550 West 21st Street, where a stunning exhibition of sculptures by Kevin Francis Gray opened a week ago.  Speaking of media: porcelain, brass and marble are contoured in blatant homage to classical tropes.  Gray’s work is a chorus of paeans to romanticism and antiquity in an of-the-moment context.

David Velasco recalls the prophetic editorial stance of Annette Michelson in the early 1970s during a proliferation of articles about dance in ARTFORUM. Indeed, nowadays, it is becoming just as feasible to view dance in the Whitney as it is at the Joyce or City Center. In the Facebook era, “performativity” is no longer the sole province of those who set their bodies in motion.

The retrospective essay on photography by the brilliant Robert Pincus-Witten, Artificial Paradises, speaks my language, “the training of my distant generation,” he writes, “formal analysis and iconography.”  Those of you who likewise became enamored of Susan Sontag “back in the day” will know what Pincus-Witten references.  There once was a time when what you saw was what you got. There was the moment within which you stood in full confrontation with the work; you were inside that moment, and then, when you left the room, it went away. This forced attention without recourse to infinite access made for a different species of perception. Photography’s analog identity reinforced that perception.

There’s another seductive Media Study box, this one by Thomas Hirschhorn, that leaps out at the reader. The first sentence, boldface and all caps, is “I LOVE TO PRODUCE MY WORK!”  The artist goes on to assert that “To not produce or to refuse to do something, or to not participate, can be as important as doing something. As an artist, I have to confront this question every day.”

Further on, a “heads-up” I want to share with CRC blog readers: The NY Art Book Fair presented by Printed Matter, Inc., is returning to its old stomping grounds at MoMA/PS 1, September 28-30. I’ve been a faithful visitor for the past five years; this show never fails to deliver. Such variety! It’s cool and hip without being in the least bit pretentious. The people at the booths are friendly, cosmopolitan, engaging, and love what they do. There are books and book-like items for every budget, from pamphlets and posters and manifestos and stickers all the way to one of a kind artifactual pieces. The show is crowded, but in a good way, and when you get tired of milling about inside, the vast, unadorned courtyard with its concrete geometry welcomes you to hang out and enjoy a cool drink, listen to a DJ, chat and people-watch.

Tacita Dean‘s work has been of interest to me since I first saw her video of Merce Cunningham on view in the vast basement space of Dia:Beacon four summers ago. Rosalind Krauss, in Frame by Frame, discusses Dean’s Film, 2011, made for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, with provocative perceptions about the artist’s continuing  glorification of “the intrinsic object of pure aesthetic judgment.” Film, 2011, reductively speaking —  it must be seen to be believed — takes the medium’s “old” visual qualities, including frames and sprocket holes, and blows them up to fill a gigantic doorway-like void. It’s hard to know “where” the “film” actually “is” — [hmmm…shades of Michelle Kuo’s ontology.]

Dave McKenzie echoes Thomas Hirschhorn’s rumination on choices in his Media Study “box,” reminding us assertively that “The ability to do something, to participate in something, or even to access something should be critiqued by acknowledging one’s desires and needs and by imagining the possible outcomes of one’s actions.”  I will confess that as I sit here typing the foregoing, I wonder whether, in my case, the decision to put this decidedly long-form essay/blog out there was made with sufficient imagining of the consequences, i.e., will anybody even read this far into it, once they see how extensive the piece is turning out to be?  [One reflexive (or narcissistic) way to find out is by asking anybody who does read to this extent to email me at]

Fans of Theodor Adorno will enjoy On All Channels, Diedrich Diederichsen‘s reflection on Media, Technology and the Culture Industry. Do not be put off by the portentous title. Again, as in so many of the essays and sidebars in this magnificent ARTFORUM, the core concepts are sharply-etched. Diederichsen enacts some eye-catching riffs on Martin Heidegger‘s concept (with which I was heretofore unfamiliar) of  “The Gigantic.”  And guess what? Heidegger was writing in the 1950s about the still-emerging medium of radio: “The Gigantic presses forward in a form which seems to make it disappear; in destruction of great distances by the airplane, in the representation of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness produced at will by the flick of the switch.” Once more the theme of predetermination applied to deployment of media comes to the surface — a predictor of the Internet.

Greil Marcus steps up to remind us, in Twentieth Century Vox, that Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man,  was published six decades ago.  [An appeal to re-read it.]

“The computer is just another tool, another technology that has become part of the industrial frame. Inventing forms is not dependent on software.” That’s Richard Serra talking about his journey through “site-specific works in steel [taking him] out of the traditional studio.”  Serra’s world is monumental, foreboding/inviting, rustingly beautiful, grandiose. Conceptualized by him, it is fabricated by others — however, his vision conditions every step — even to the degree that for the MoMA 2007 retrospective they literally removed half the west-facing side of the building in order to deliver the works by crane into the galleries. [I was strolling along 54th Street at the time; you had to be there.]

Is an editorial statement being made by the fact that the final essay in the issue is Ghost Story, Eric C.H.DeBruyn on Kinetic Art and New Media? I referred earlier to the incursions of modern dance into “picture galleries.”  DeBruyn drills down to a deeper level. Kineticism, he writes, resides at the “very foundation of contemporary modes of experience.”

Spectacle is inherent in the arts, be they overtly “performative” or not.

Analog or digital – perhaps as a result of reading the 50th anniversary issue of ARTFORUM the best takeaway is, indeed, to forget such tired dialectical distinctions and categorizations,  abandon the tight paths of ontology — to look, listen, read, feel, enjoy, ponder, move — and, yes, theorize — with intelligence and without boundaries.