Sunday, April 2, 2017

ARS17 Californian Ideology and the appropriation of music into art

There's a few things I want to talk about, rather than being totally critical about the many things I think should be addressed with the curators of the exhibition, as someone who was actively engaging in post-internet aesthetics and movement in its peak around 2010 onwards I was struck by what I saw as I walked into the ARS17 exhibition about the post-internet now open in Kiasma museum in Helsinki.

It should be made clear that the exhibition is not about the internet, not about internet art, net art or other forms of art that have existed in and around the internet for several decades. It is clearly and only about post-internet, and not just any post-internet, as the movement spanned the whole globe, but specifically California, and more specifically regions around San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley, as well as Los Angeles and its suburban areas.

Why would I say this about an exhibition that says it is about a whole zeitgeist by using the title Hello World!

To start with a quote from Richard Barbrooks & Andy Camerons 1995 THE CALIFORNIAN IDEOLOGY (link to article at bottom):

"At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. Once again, capitalism's relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts. When the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of information in any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks, existing forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New industries will be born and current stock market favourites will swept away. At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology."

What better proof of this Idealogical stance than Microsoft as the main sponsor. But that again is not something I want to critique since Otso Kantokorpi has already done so here. What I want to talk about is the art itself, which I think is important, and since so much seems to be taken at face value without actually understanding the full scene that was post-internet.

Much of what has been termed post-internet was born out of subcultures of teens and young adults who were interested in engaging with people and ideas from around the world in a direct way, this way was the internet and more specifically social media, which is a different thing to the internet. The world itself became about publishing, any work could reach any person, not only could people and ideas communicate over vast distances, objects themselves started doing so. I was personally involved in the Alt-Lit (alternative literature) scene as a poet and publisher first, as a composer and musician and as a visual artist, the internet was more literal then and this is also something I will talk about later. I played a role in what was a part of the larger network of musicians, artists, poets, writers and everyone else who wanted to put things out there fast, to reach an audience now. It was an embodied and manipulative accelerationism. I say this not to be authoritative, but to make clear why I will write what I write, that I have come to see post-internet as I describe through my own experience in it.

What marked the post-internet of that time was the absolute belief in technology as ubiquitous and perversive and unavoidability that fuelled the dystopian and utopian visions that can also be seen in ARS17. Hollywood styled 3D renderings are also a hallmark of this type of late capitalism, which can be seen in the aesthetic fixtures generated by computer graphic rendering possibilities available to specific hardware architecture that are by far not free nor available and are made by huge organisations and thousands of hours of labour from thousands of persons intentionally making something that can be used in only one way (and glitch came as a reaction to this determinism). What ARS17 lacks, like most conversations about post-internet or the internet in general, is the clear signification that this is intentional and that there is a huge gap in access to such devices that are able to produce 'post-internet'. The internet did not form by accident but it was created for specific means and purposes, it then spread laterally through people using how they want to, but through big data mining and AI it has again been possible harness this laterality in UI/UX design incorporating the free agency of individuals to use for corporations.

There are several critiques to be made about the exhibition based on what I have just stated. Not only that it does not clearly differentiate between post-internet as being part of social media use rather than internet architecture as such even if there are many artworks that deal with the internet as an object, or delve into the internets materiality. Nevertheless the cables are there to connect people. The exhibition, nor the discussion organised after the opening, did not in any meaningful way open up the curatorial choices of the exhibition. This was a total shame because I think if it were made clear that the exhibition was not only not about the internet as such, or a generation of artists or works born after the internet, but about a very specific type of post-internet and the problematics of that specific culture and its ways of dealing with its problems, inherent in the works, ARS17 would communicate beautifully well to artists and curators and other creative sector workers and to any general audience a specific type of post-internet that could be used to reflect everything else.

I saw ARS17 as a point, not as a cross section, but a point of a specific cultural way of being. While it is a shame is that it seems that this was not achieved consciously but by accident and because of this it seems that it could not be communicated in the curatorial work. At the same time post-internet is not about being conscious, but about creating and recreating through embodied acceleration and zone, it is about finding yourself in the flow and going with it without critical self reflection, of trusting and being confident about the fact that you are creating, rather than what you are creating. In this way ARS17 is the perfect dot of post-internet.

Yet a dot is not a general, it is not a cross-section, nor a historical review, and the dot ARS17 has landed on is the specific nature of Californian culture as the trashy grungy, 'organised trash' (paraphrasing Ed Atkins from the conversation I had with him before his performance) feeling of putting things together fast in a mental state infused with the cure of cannabis. Trash because the people who are making memes and internet art and whose lives are lived online are generally very poor. While the subject of poverty is very important to post-internet art, and from the post-internet has emerged many activist who are working towards better representation of immaterial labour rights and unionisation of M-Turk workers and so forth, and this is something I have also been personally involved in since 2013, the poverty itself is not something that the aesthetic embraces. In fact, the hardware architecture and software solutions often used for making such artworks deny this possibility through their natural functioning as vector graphics.

Then post-internet art is never concerned with poverty, but gleams through that povert in the cure of cannabis which is related to the specific this socio-political situation of the USA. And where the post-internet occurred most strongly outside of the USA, countries like Uruguay, Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Germany, UK, etc, cannabis is available and easy to access. Like the rest of the hippie (or in this case yippie going back to Californian Ideology) movements Californian post-internet is fuelled by the interplay substances such as cannabis which helps people get past their problems and poverty. Anyone familiar with LA, San Francisco, or Oakland can see what I mean, there a ton of problems that are not visible through traditional media channels, which only report things like the tragedy of Ghost Ship. And it was places like Ghost Ship where the communities of post-internet formed and grew irl. And it is precisely these types of coagulated poor undergrounds where post-internet became a thing, where I met it before it came into the museums. It is no coincidence that post-internet coincided with the legalization of cannabis in the USA.

Weed and cannabis are really nowhere to be seen in the exhibition. Only one single work, which is also related to what I will talk about next, Yung Jakes music video on the fifth floor directly shows him smoking cannabis. Cannabis is not seen as bad, this should be made clear, and I have used the word 'cure' specifically because it is viewed as a cure by everyone who has fought for its legalization. Cannabis is seens a a healing substance and it is important to see that this view on its healing power is not only connected to post-internet as it appeared but connects it strongly to California Ideology and people like Terence McKenn who are big infliuences.

At the same time as cannabis works as a cure it also works as a melancholic agent, it is a manipulative mood agent, and forms a cycle of use and un-use which when connected to poverty does not necessarily heal completely, but it is seen as a help for a difficult life. Famous artists of course do not live difficult lives, and I cannot go into their use or un-use of cannabis.

The previous is somewhat of an introduction and tries to lay the groundwork for the understanding of the specific type of post-internet that ARS17 shows. Next I will talk about post-internet more generally but again focusing on something that was not shown in the exhibition and which I think is essential to the aesthetic.

What lies at the heart of post-internet that is totally invisible from the exhibition and is accessed again through accident only rather than conscious decision, is music. Music is, or can be if used that way, like cannabis, a manipulative mood agent and popular music culture has always been the culture of substances. 

In terms of the internet and music, Metallica vs. Napster was perhaps the first indication of a changing attitude towards in the internet in terms of the freedom to distribute music laterally, its appropriation. Music was distributed at huge rates before images, before social media took over and created image platforms where young people would flock to. The internet project of social media and post-intrenet emerged from this distribution. Everyone started making music. Music is also immaterial, like Eric Dolphy said, 'it's in the air, once it's over it's gone', it provides musicians and composers with a platform to connect and distribute their work as they want. As a machine the computer is a neutral musical instrument, especially when accessed as hardware architecture, when the computing experience is not mediated through ready-made software vector graphics but directly through dsp programming.

Focusing back on the internet visual art aesthetics, post-internet has always been obsessed with immateriality, and again, it is not a coincidence that performance art has received such a push during a time when the immateriality of the internet is so widely discussed.

What makes music so important to post-internet is that all artists listen to music through the internet. It might be DIY, it might be noise, but usually it is trap or other forms of rap music or glitter pop or Math rock etc etc, but the setting is always the same concert or record where a traditional popular listening mode is engaged in order to consume the music. And the internet provides the platform to combine interest in images and music.

After the death of Napsters music became the de-facto underground commodity online, it went to soundcloud first and then, and more importantly, to Youtube and which has since then become the distribution channel for everyone because in youtube artists were able to indulge in their desire and sense for immateriality and affectivity in music while at the same time without needing to know how to make music properly because the strong images would override any musical skill, which anyway was after affect in order to pump up the images.

It is this combination of music with video that is the key to understanding the post-internet. Music videos area the heart of post-internet aesthetic. Artists recognized that images do not communicate that immaterial affective feeling they wanted so much to communicate and thus they turned to simple gimmicks and effect in music production that every composer learns through studying classical and popular music. Every artist from Ed Atkins to Hito Steyerl to Tuomas Laitinen and Pink Twins are all replicating music videos and they do this because it is a fantastic form of art. This is a nail that Kiasma did not hit upon, but that is not their fault, I have not read a single essay or text which directly points towards the relationship between the visual arts and music as a centre of post-internet. The problem is of course that to find someone who has knowledge of both art history and music history to a level where they are able to see the connection is hard in a world where they have been separated structurally for so long. I wrote about this for the first time in 2015, but only through ARS17 was I able to see exactly where the connection happens.

Youth culture, and that is something I think the curators of Kiasma are correct in saying, that post-internet is the appropriation of youth culture, is not obsessed with pure images, for youth and therefore for post-internet there is no purity, and again this can be seen in the rise of Witchcraft and other forms of belief systems and divination methods like Tarot and Chaos Magic and Kek. Youth sees the song, the voice and the image together, as being of the body, and I was glad that Ed Atkins was able to channel this, albeit unconsciously (and I base this on our conversation before the performance where we shortly talked about the relationship of music to the internet) into his performance at the Kiasma Theatre, and in this sense he is tapping into the Californian post-internet spoken word world.

The reason it is Californian post-internet is not the aesthetic but the focus on spoken word culture. The post-internet of USA is specifically not a text culture even when text is so important to how the internet works, but like anyone who has read memes knows, it is not literacy, not about spelling, but about directly notating the sounds that are spoken, the music. Thus every member of post-internet recognizes that writing, like any music notation, is underdetermined.

Music is the most important thing because it happens under and emerges through the images, it is the base for the images over which they run at a speed not possible for sounds, you cannot hide from it, only consciously reject its affective manipulative consequences on the body (read Eduar Hansliks The Beautiful in Music for a 19th century analysis of this). Music is more directly related to the immediate feelings and happenings of those young people that established post-internet artists are appropriating. Music is played on instruments and computers, and through the computers it leaks into the images as music videos. Unlike still images, or different to images, music is underdermined in its physical form. Being underdetermined means that the music that is written down, that can be archived viewed and repeated is not the music itself which is a coagulation of notation, sound, space, place, history or concept and situation. Music recordings are also underdetermined, even if they are more like images in that they have a specific physical shape that reproduces the sounds more or less accurately to the performance. Acousmatic and concrete music have been attempts to solve this problem from a musical standpoint. These questions of immateriality and the location of music has been under discussion in music history for hundreds of years and art historians especially would do well in studying music history in finding specific ways and ideas to deal with the change that is happening in the internet to visual art.

This fuzziness and instability, or the desire for this instability is what is generally themed melancholy in ARS17, are all normal for music as they are to images in some way, the difference being in the pervasiveness and lasting effect of the feeling. Music is the true immaterial and images can only hint at that. Thinking about ARS17 through this lens that I have outlined makes it interesting to me. Not only does it point towards one of the centres of origin of post-internet, the Californian consumer culture and ideology, but it also able to discover and show, albeit accidentally but itself a feature of post-internet, how the main feature of the change in aesthetics of visual arts is the appropriation of music as visual art.

California Ideology:

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