Hard Going: Resisting the Fantasy of Distance’s Irrelevance
Brian M. Reed
University of Washington
Citation: Reed, Brian M.. “Hard Going: Resisting the Fantasy of Distance’s Irrelevance.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 7, 2010. doi:10.20415/hyp/007.e03
Abstract: The contemporary art world conceals its complicity in global capitalism by subscribing to the myth that geographical distance can be overcome instantly and effortlessly. This fantasy distracts attention from the capital, labor, power relations, and expensive communication technologies that enable its existence as a transnational entity. The author illustrates that artists can resist this process of concealment by reminding their audiences what it takes to "free" the art world from the constraints of locality. Figures discussed include Kimsooja, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Walter de Maria.
Jane McFadden begins her essay "Toward Site" (2007) by recounting Walter de Maria's 1969 attempt to carry out an artwork titled Three Continent Project. First, he wanted to make "three large-scale linear cuts on the desert floors of Africa, India, and North America." Next, he wanted a satellite to photograph these cuts from orbit. Finally, he proposed to integrate the resulting photos "into one image in the form of a cross within a square." This ambitious plan was derailed by geopolitics. While working in the Sahara, the artist was arrested and "thrown in jail in Algiers under suspicion of unauthorized oil speculation" . Three Continent Project was quickly abandoned, and de Maria moved on to other endeavors.
For McFadden, this story is emblematic of the late 1960s, "a decade in which all sites — from the banal to the profound — increasingly seemed to be reduced to circulating images on television" . Thanks to advances in satellite technology, broadcasting had gone global (even interplanetary), and wherever one traveled, the same dramas played out on the small screen: "distant wars," "moonwalks," and the antics of "pop stars." Three Continent Project was a logical albeit utopian next step. De Maria sought a "breakthrough ... into the immaterial and the international" . As he saw it, art could now escape the spatial and temporal constraints of embodiment. Artists and their audiences could thus occupy a vantage point heretofore reserved for gods and angels, that is, a high-flying simultaneous overview of the whole planet.
After this opening anecdote, "Toward Site" reassess the celebrated site-specificity of 1960s land art and minimalist sculpture. McFadden makes a convincing case that artists of the time understood "site" as a thoroughly mediated, plural concept, in other words, anything but a means of achieving a Heideggerian fullness of presence. When viewed from within a more contemporary perspective, however, Three Continent Project takes on a different significance. What matters most is de Maria's failure to realize it.
I. Mobility and Global Capitalism
The fantasy of obliterating distance through technological means has special resonance at the present stage of international economic development. As Zygmunt Bauman explains in Globalization (1998), capital has become fully, instantly mobile . Nation states can do little more than impede its restless quicksilver movements around the world. In this new era, sufficiently wealthy individuals have access to internet telephony, text messaging, e-mail, streaming video, podcasting, and many other ways to communicate in real time across vast distances; in other words, they benefit from participating in the transnational flows that subtend and extend the global reach of the market.
In contrast, less-well-off people have a much harder time eluding the constraints of the locations in which they find themselves (urban slums, polluted mining towns, malarial river villages, and so forth). Moreover, nation states, no longer able to control wealth distribution in any meaningful sense, have reinvented themselves as guarantors of "security," in other words, the privileges and possessions of the middle and upper classes. The underclass becomes subject to careful policing, above all via control of its mobility. States employ obstacles both physical (fences, surveillance cameras, rentacops) and intangible (citizenship status, credit rating, racial profiling). In those rare cases when migration is encouraged — for example, in the agricultural sector during harvest season — it is only to extract needed labor.
The twenty-first century art world is exhibit A of how this two-tier economic infrastructure has shaped contemporary cultural phenomena. The visual arts have become big business on a global scale. National, ethnic, geographic, and other localized "schools" of production signify chiefly as marketing labels within a transnational network of museums, galleries, auction houses, and commercial web sites. A number of factors have contributed to this process of "globalization": touring blockbuster shows, proliferating biennials, the spread of institutional collecting, the blurring of the boundaries between art and fashion, and the emergence of an internationalized cadre of jet-setting curators, critics, and artist-celebrities. No longer centered in New York and Paris, the art world has become a six continent project.
The arts today are, admittedly, more "multicultural" than in the past. Any given Dokumenta or Biennale is liable to feature, say, Chinese conceptualists mingling with Ethiopian painters, Icelandic photographers, and Mexican sculptors. This apparent diversity has been achieved at a price, however. As Johanna Drucker argues in Sweet Dreams (2005), the present-day art world has become so thoroughly bound up in "the institutions and values of contemporary culture" that it can no longer "bear the burden of criticality" . Artists, in other words, have largely lost the hard-won autonomy that once-upon-a-time distanced them from the marketplace and thereby gave them the moral authority to intervene in the public sphere. While a mythology continues to circulate idolizing "bad-boy artists" who "claim to have no interest in money and are scornful of success," in reality "[n]o one is fooled." Announcements of radical leftist politics amounts merely to "posturing," one of the many "ideas and trends and consumable positions embodied in objects of a rarefied trade" .
Drucker's diagnosis can sound overstated, but it is at least partly true. A piece such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Vectorial Elevation is a good example. In 2000, "to celebrate the new millennium, participants used a Web-based interface" to control "18 robotic searchlights" placed around Mexico City's Plaza de la Constitución, "the world's third largest urban square."
When a participant's design for Vectorial Elevation reached the head of the Web queue, it was beamed into the sky, visible to the crowds on the ground in Mexico City and, via Web cameras, to a large online audience. The searchlights were connected by data cables and calibrated by Global Positioning trackers. More than 800,000 people from 89 countries visited the Web site in a two-week period. The light show they produced was visible within a 20-kilometer radius. When each design was executed, its maker received an e-mail linking to an automatically-generated personal Web page displaying both photographic images and virtual renditions of the performance. Each page also featured participants' uncensored texts, ranging from dedications to political manifestos.
Vectorial Elevation was a marvel of planning and execution. A time-bound event in a single location was opened up for world-wide observation — and participation. Each participant, too, whether living in Veracruz or Vladivostok, received a personalized souvenir. New media technologies enabled not only an aesthetic experience — an updated computerized son et lumière — but also a political one. They held up a mirror in which a new international public could recognize itself. "We" collectively created and watched this elaborate spectacle. But "I" do not disappear into the collective: I own a slice of this artwork, and I enjoy my consequent fifteen minutes of fame.
As an allegory for a new millennium, Vectorial Elevation has to give one pause. Instead of intervening in a lasting fashion in a public space identified with the Mexican government, the art work temporarily displaces its brick-and-mortar solidity with a flashy, intangible choreography of lights. This interval of time is also privatized — marked as "made by" and "belonging to" a sequence of individuals — and transnational — open to being claimed on a first-come, first-served basis by entrepreneurs from anywhere, provided that they have access to the equipment, expertise, and information necessary to stake out a claim. Vectorial Elevation conveys the giddy fun of a fireworks show, and it communicates the promise of a fully participatory democracy in which everyone will have his or her say in how events unfold. But it also tells another story. The crowds who view it in person will be left behind to struggle with issues of local governance, while its Web audience will click away to a new high-traffic hot spot somewhere else in the infosphere.
Lozano-Hemmer is an accomplished artist well aware of the dangers presented by contemporary surveillance technologies, as demonstrated by such fine, disturbing pieces as Subtitled Public (2005) and Glories of Accounting (2005). In an important sense, Vectorial Elevation has to be considered a dated performance, more redolent of 1990s technohype than post-9/11 xenophobia. Yet the same faith that space and time can be tailored to suit the "art consumer" continues to surface in such recent works as Homographies (2007), which employs movable light fixtures and elaborate surveillance systems to create illuminated paths between individuals who happen to enter a large empty room. This can feel like a humanizing gesture, a rejection of the impersonality of modernist gridspace in favor of new topology that valorizes everyone's particularity while also encouraging interpersonal connection. It also invites a different but complementary interpretation. The age of one-size-fits-all mass production is over: the right software and hardware can make capital serve *your* needs!
II. The Art World as MMORPG: Kimsooja's Needle Woman
How does an artist avoid complicity in the unjust socioeconomic order that makes the contemporary art world possible? It depends, naturally, on what one means by "complicity." If one tries to imagine art whose form (conceptual and/or artifactual) does not betray traces of the conditions and means of its production, the answer has to be negative: one cannot avoid complicity. Infrastructure is legible in superstructure. But that rule cannot be construed to mean that infrastructure determines superstructure. The two relate dynamically. As Georg Lukács long ago taught in History and Class Consciousness (1923), one can use art and literature as vehicles for bringing to consciousness contradictions within the infrastructure, which can in turn inspire collective action to alter it .
A case in point: De Maria's Three Continent Project failed. The artist banked on his ability to travel unobstructed from nation to nation. He believed local governments would permit him, in the name of "art," to gouge lines in their soil visible from outer space. He saw himself as a citizen of Buckminster Fuller's "spaceship earth," freed to assert a universal identity. But he bumbles into postcolonial Algeria, still smarting a bitter bloody war of independence from France (1954-1962). Is it any surprise that de Maria finds himself read as a different kind of citizen, someone bearing a passport issued by an imperialist superpower? Moreover, he's seen as an ambassador of international capitalism, an oil prospector. De Maria's artwork depended on a worldview that was possible to maintain while back home watching television but impossible to sustain when confronted with the uncomfortable, discomfiting consequences of intercontinental travel. The unobstructed mobility of images and bodies turns out to be a self-serving illusion, valid only under limited circumstances.
Kimsooja's six-channel video installation Needle Woman (2005) achieves by design what de Maria accomplished by accident. The Korean artist traveled to six cities around the globe: Havana (Cuba), Jerusalem (Israel), N'Djamena (Chad), Patan (Nepal), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and Sana'a (Yemen). In each case, she filmed herself standing perfectly still, back to the camera, in the midst of a busy urban locale, either a street or marketplace. She wears a shapeless gray androgynous garment, and she has her hair pulled back severely into a pony tail that dangles off screen. People mostly ignore her. They walk or bike past, barely veering out of the way, or they go about their daily business, selling, shopping, and chatting. There is no sound; a gallery-goer stands in a silent room and looks from one screen to another, taking in multiple indistinguishable Kimsoojas.
Anyone familiar with contemporary computer games, especially MMORPGs (massively multiple online role playing games), will find Needle Woman an uncanny piece. Kimsooja has reproduced with startling fidelity a typical third-person view with a player's avatar standing motionless in the center of the screen, awaiting instructions on what to do next. What one sees on the different video channels in the installation is eerily reminiscent of such busy virtual spaces as EverQuest's Plane of Knowledge or World of Warcraft's Shattrath. The fact that the videos are all looped only heightens this similarity: in most MMORPG cities, wandering NPCs (non-player characters) endlessly repeat the same paths and actions regardless of whether it is supposed to be "day" or "night." Needle Woman seems to present six windows or video-captures featuring the same PC (player character) as she navigates game space.
South Korea is, of course, the world leader in broadband access. Nearly ninety percent of households have high-speed internet connections. Not only does the nation have a thriving gaming culture, but it has the highest density per capita of MMORPG players in the world . Kimsooja in Needle Woman makes an implicit analogy between the global art world and a form of "second life" digital sociality enjoyed by millions in her home country. What is the force of this analogy? At a biennial, say, you contemplate an artwork and thereby "open a window" on a far-off location. You can then explore the conceptual or sociohistorical or geographical world that unfolds; you can even chat with others engaged in the same "game." The virtual space opened for you and the other "players" by the art work's "window" displaces, even substitutes for, the actual physical locale(s) where the art work was produced and to which it often refers indexically or iconically. As a result, the messy economics that make it possible for "all of the globe" to be instantly available to the connoisseur becomes obscured.
Kimsooja undermines this process. She reminds viewers in subtle ways that the places depicted in Needle Woman are not so easily "virtualized" — or visited. In the physical world, one cannot easily travel between these six places. Most are on the margins of the global transportation network, and politics often interdicts direct travel (from Jerusalem to Sana'a, for example, or from New York, where Kimsooja lives, to Havana). Reading the wall labels, one puzzles over how Kimsooja ever managed the insane logistics. Moreover, all these cities are caught up in tumultuous local histories that make it difficult for an "avatar" to pop in and out with ease. The trip to Patan was especially dicey:
When I first visited Nepal, the country was in a state of emergency, and there was no phone service in between the cities and even countries, with no internet connection during most of my stay. Foreign ambassadors were being called back to their own countries, gun shots were heard from different parts of the country while traveling, and armed soldiers were occupying every corner of the streets in Kathmandu. Even in my video there's a scene with armed soldiers passing by.
Other incidents occurred while filming. In a favela in Rio de Janeiro, for example, she had to ignore nearby gunfire . Kimsooja might have dressed in neutral-to-nondescript clothing, but she was nevertheless an obvious foreigner standing stock-still in public spaces with a camera running. These videos might look like they realize the fantasy of instant spatial collapse and remote mastery, but the resulting "avatar" in fact represents a very vulnerable body placed in precarious circumstances. Anyone who passes by could shove her, shout, or otherwise react negatively to an artist "slumming" on the market periphery for the purpose of bringing back "exotic" footage. The art world might see itself as MMORPG-like. In fact it is hierarchical institution in which those at the summit are able to enjoy the myth of distance's irrelevance because surrogates and subordinates insulate them from "on the ground" realities.
Needle Woman resists the structural injustice in the contemporary art world by (1) invoking a dream of despotic control over distance and (2) puncturing that utopian ambition by making viewers consider what it would truly be like to travel to the "ends of the earth" (a.k.a. the developing and underdeveloped world) in the name of extracting aesthetic experiences (and monetary value). If this "avatar" were attacked by soldiers, she wouldn't have an opportunity to do a "corpse run" and revive where her body lays. The art world is not innocently super-added to life-as-usual; one cannot jack in, enjoy the benefits, and return home without there being ripple effects in RL (real life); it is a game with global stakes and impact. By failing to live up to the fantasy that it provokes, Needle Woman achieves its polemical aim.
Is such resistance effective? A critic such as Johanna Drucker would shrug her shoulders and repeat that leftism sells. Kimsooja's take on the transnational art world could be just an updated version of 1970s and 80s museum-critique, a genre that has proved to be a lucrative investment. Drucker would insist that critics judge Needle Woman not as a political intervention but as an aesthetic statement. From that point of view, the installation is probably inferior to Kimsooja's To Breathe / Respirare (2006). To Breathe placed a large screen on the stage of Teatro La Fenice in Venice. A soundtrack plays — her respiration, amplified — while a video projector cycles through a color spectrum. Kimsooja evokes the storied history of opera performance at La Fenice but in a contemporary minimalist vein: grand spectacle is boiled down to mere breath and chroma. To Breathe builds on the European artistic canon, and it conveys delight and wonder. In other words, it fulfills the fantasy that it evokes. One might therefore call it a "satisfying" work of art. But — whoever said that we value art solely for its beauty or sublimity? Needle Woman makes one think.
I would like to thank Phillip Thurtle and Ellen Garvens, without whose instruction and inspiration this article would never have been written.
- Jane McFadden, "Toward Site," Grey Room, no. 27, p.37 (Spring 2007). http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/grey.2007.1.27.36
- McFadden, p.42.
- McFadden, p.37.
- This paragraph and the next offer a précis of Zygmunt Bauman's in Globalization: The Human Consequences (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998).
- Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p.246.
- Drucker, p.252.
- Mark Tribe and Jana Reese, New Media Art (Cologne: Taschen, 2006), p.62.
- Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).
- Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), pp.52-53.
- Kimsooja, Interview with Oliva María Rubio (2006), http://www.kimsooja.com/texts/rubio.html, last accessed 15 December 2007.