A note of the editor

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Finitude and Eternity in Artwork in Collections and in Other Contexts

A Note from the Editor

This collection of texts is being published either relatively early, or perhaps a bit too late: about one year after the original colloquium Art Works from the Digital Era in Galleries and Museums. During that time things took a course towards unexpected changes which framed thinking about the overlaps between art, time, entropy, duration and disappearance in new ways and provided it with perhaps an even more urgent meaning then it had one year ago.

The colloquium was organized to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Center for New Media Vašulka Kitchen Brno. We discussed the topics with colleagues from the Brno House of Arts and the National Film Archive in Prague, hoping to promote thinking about the state and fate of art works of an “unstable (1)“ nature, especially within the context of Czech collections, galleries, and museums. The objective was to establish contact and potential cooperation among similar initiatives in the region of Central Europe. During the two-day meeting, the contributions mostly touched on the basic orientation of artistic and expert initiatives and institutions which already focused on this issue, or were planning to turn their attention to it. Apart from contributions from Czechia, we also welcomed contributers from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Hungary, Poland and the USA, who shared their experience and opinions on the topic.

In the Czech context the strategies of acquisition, management, archiving, exhibiting and restoration of “digital art in a post-digital age” are still in their infancy. Confronting the turbulent reality of the past few months, one must even ask the heretical questions whether it really is necessary to store and save all such items for posteriority while the climate is changing drastically and forests burn and disappear all around us.

The technological and social development towards virtualization and digitization of communication and information within the older paradigms of storage and distribution of (audiovisual) art have provided the substrate for deep social and epistemic changes. The symptoms of these changes will eventually have to be resolved by the up-and-coming generation. Taking a step back, what does it mean to be “digital” or to be “born digital”(2) within the context of contemporary art? How did our conception of tradition and our own identity change through our having access to such a plethora of images and such a vast volume of information? And what broader changes – i.e. not only art-historical, archival, or cultural, but rather social, political and environmental – in fact brought about such a shift in paradigm? Does it still make sense to delineate audiovisual art and culture into spheres which use “new” media, and others which remain “free” from their influence?

Electronic media are no longer “new” and are no longer the mark of revolt, of a privileged class, or a community of pioneers. They are no longer a tactic, a strategy which bestows exceptional status and are no longer a means to achieve social transformation. Today they have rather become a dominant political and power formation and a means for manipulation. The clouds of moving images, sounds and codes have come to define and are a testament to the situation of the early 21st century. This media-sphere can also be considered a sad consequence of the naive visions of 20th century modernity, which likely brought humanity to the brink of a ubiquitous environmental crisis and social collapse.

Artefacts which directly or indirectly contain a derivative or a reference to digital code no longer get released within the context of projects focused on “new media,” and internet-based art works and works which are featured within the context of game engines have become standard items in the exhibitions and collections of contemporary art galleries and museums. No one gives artefacts with elements of interactivity, processuality and performativity a second thought. The problem with the acquisition and storage of this type of artistic practice is not so much in their controversial, or even subversive content or non-standard form (perhaps that's why art works created in the first decades of media practice are still so inspiring for us?), but rather in that they are functionally dependent on specific technical conditions, meaning Devices of display. They might oftentimes be exhibited only in rather complicated and , - open or closed, commercial and proprietary environments. It is the interest of the technological companies which manufacture these tools to design and program them in such a way that they quickly become obsolete, and must be replaced or updated by newer ones. From the position of the user (for example the artist, conservationist, private collector, or curator), the display environment thus becomes unavailable. In this way, the artefact appears in danger of remaining virtual, as without a functioning display device, one can access it only as a historical document.

May I just say it again: Loss is to be avoided when possible, but it’s also formative. New histories arise around loss.

  1. pda15 #pda2015—@footage, 2015–04–24

What might it mean for us if a large part of industrial and post-industrial culture disappeared? Would it be because we did not pay proper attention to the methodology and cultural politics for implementing the economic, political or aesthetic tools for valuing and caring about our “contemporary cultural heritage”? Why do we still lack a proper systemic and legislative method for conserving such art which is so temporally and technically fragile, similar to the one which has already been used for conserving the cultural heritage of a material nature? This publication does not aim to provide concrete solutions to these important questions, nevertheless I do hope that it might at least spur further discussions on the topic. Due to limited means and the attempt to limit our carbon footprint, it was not possible to include all the contributions which were featured as part of the colloquium and we also opted for a Czech-only version.

The stories and myths of new media were mostly fanned in the cultural and political context of the economic and military hegemony of the Atlantic countries in the years following the Second World War. At least as a homeopathic attempt, this publication presents certain connections and cultural frameworks which have influenced the generation of pioneering artists like Woody and Steina Vašulka to whom the Center of New Media in Brno and this collection are dedicated. The appendix includes the Czech translations of short texts which offer bits of a prehistory of new media: by Vannevar Bush from 1947, Gustav Metzger from 1969, Gene Youngblood from 1978 and by Erkki Huhtama on the archeology of interactivity from 1999. Bush’s article was published in the magazine The Atlantic Journal and is carried by the scientist's optimistic faith in the employment of technologies after the war, one which might lead humanity into a new age, finally liberating it from its past. Artist and political activist Gustav Metzger focuses on the development of technological society and the potential use of computers in artistic practice with equal vigor, but he rather discerns the threat they pose to independent artistic work and perceives them as tools for potential dehumanization and destruction of the natural environment. In the manifestos on Auto-destructive art which Metzger has published in a few versions since 1966, he warns against the influence of technology which, by means of cheaper and more simple methods of reproduction and distribution, has the power to be detrimental to artistic practice: the artist should stand up against the prerogative that his work ought to last and must rather take care that it is properly and quickly destroyed after being performed. In the text The Massmedia and the Future of Desire (1977), Gene Youngblood – the author of the influential book Expanded Cinema (1970) – charts the contours of the social and political discourse which determined the pioneering generation of American artists who started experimenting with the then-novel and miraculous technical devices, such as those of video and computers. The lecture of artist, curator, and out-spoken proponent of new media art Peter Weibel considers the more general relationships between various concepts which have framed the human desire for immortality and our relationship to the future.

I do not wish to enumerate all the themes broached in the texts presented in this collection. It does not aspire to be a rigorous academic publication and the topics discussed are not only related to technologies and methodologies of collecting, conserving and restoring “unstable artefacts,” but also to artistic databases or alternative social communication environments.We would like to thank everyone who collaborated on it, especially those authors whose texts were provided under the Creative Commons license.

To close, I would briefly like to mention one thought which I find rather relevant and actual in this context. Just as our world and our world-views are rapidly transforming, our mental models which we use to grasp at history, our own culture and art change along with them. Thinking about finitude, duration, eternity and redemption has constituted the fundamental pillars of Western religion, culture and art. These value hierarchies determined what should and shouldn't be retained through time, meaning that they defined what we ascribe or deny the privilege of being precious, holy, what we consider to be cultural heritage or art. But this Western hierarchical conception has been founded on a sentiment of unconscious superiority over “the other” cultures – especially those we consider to be “naturalist” or “primitive”. These are societies in which the mindset and values towards infinity, eternity and redemption pointed towards the space in which people lived and celebrated, the living organic nature. Towards trees, forests and animals, rather than architecture, objects, silos, or cemeteries. If we accept the inevitability of our own transience and finitude, as it is with all things which surround us – including those of art and of humanity in general – would we turn our backs on our enmeshment within the world of our ancestors, of our history and our future? The world on which the philosophy of “primitive” or “animist” cultures was dependent was the “Great Chain of Being” – living, dying and revenant hybris of men, animals, plants, trees, food, rivers, stars and wind, rather than codes being embedded into hardware and other technological apparatuses, which we are constructing in the hope to stop or at least to slow down the process of our own disappearance. These databases, air-conditioned depositories and gigantic data centers require tremendous investments of energy just to stay in operation. And we must draw this energy for maintaining their operability from the environment which we colonize and exhaust for our own intentions. What if transience, fragility, temporality and poetics of media art is somehow akin to that archaic transience and intangible poetics of ancient song, dance and stories? Perhaps the cultural traditions have been determined by the degree of necessity for the context of the biosphere, for the living depository of both the cultural and natural community. Perhaps our desire for duration, the need to protect things, images and words against disappearance and obscurity is based not only within a conception of the archive and conservation methods intended for slowing down the processes of aging, decay and forgetting. Perhaps today it is just as necessary to care for and preserve the open system of living, dying and revenant - people, animals, plants, trees, images, words, sounds, water, earth and sky.

Miloš Vojtěchovský, Prague, September 2020

1.“Unstable media” is a term used in the context of new media art since 1980s. “All media which make use of electronic waves and frequencies, such as engines, sound, light, video, computers, and so on. Instability is inherent to these media." Unstable media art is art created with technological media, unstable (i.e. modifiable, unfinished, process-based) by nature. See: The Manifesto for Unstable Media http://archive.v2.nl/v2_archive/papers_general/200109_v2_archive.pdf

2.Born-digital records are records that have been natively created in the digital format (rather than digitized from paper records). See: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/manage-information/digital-records-transfer/what-are-born-digital-records/