PRINT April 1993

Media Kids


Cyberspace is where you are when you’re talking on the telephone.
—John Barlow

William Gibson, father of our collective imaginings about virtual terrain, recently wrote of cyberspace as a “neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics . . . awaiting received meaning.” As a telecommunications network, cyberspace is shot through with complexity and contradiction. Theorist Hakim Bey declares it both a “net” and a “web”—the net a high-tech operating system occupied with the concerns of multinational capital and the military, the web inhabited by technoanarchists, activists, and assorted partakers in lowbrow pursuits. Costing users little more than a local call, the web, a carnival of junk culture, bounces countless messages of varying import around the global phone system. At any one moment, teenage hackers are using message boards to urge software piracy and credit-card fraud, Holy Rollers are typing out epistles of salvation on a network called Keyboards for Christ, the Rush Limbaugh/EIB Network is dispersing reactionary paranoia, PeaceNet is exchanging demands for disarmament, and, to satisfy more cathected interests, libidinous musings are circulating on “adult” boards. With all this static, it’s impossible to decide how cyberspace should be defined, or to claim it, as some would like, as either symptom or savior.

Into this vexed landscape enters the Thing, a new network designed and run by “artists, writers, and other cultural producers.” At once slick product of the world art market and insurgent commune, the Thing is a telephonic computer bulletin-board that focuses on art and cultural criticism, but also provides message bases and files, like most any other computer BBS (bulletin-board system). The system has hubs in New York and Germany, and some messages echo between both nodes, allowing for a global-village feel.

Message areas, known on the Thing as “fora,” allow users to post responses on a number of topics. Recent fora have included a symposium on futurism, arguments over esthetic theory, and discussions of the application of biotechnology and technoculture to art, but these headings are misleading: by implying focus, they obscure the true nature of the Thing’s elliptical electronic conversations. With users endlessly generating long series of computer-modemed responses, messages pile up, creating digressive strings of discussion. Switching topics and sometimes languages at will, these strings resemble Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s “schizophrenic out for a walk” more than conventional art discourse. One art forum flowed from Marx to psychosexual narratives to commodity fetishism to art fairs and back to Marx again. Subverting boundaries like this, the Thing explodes the conventional intellectualism of the net, forcing a kind of slipstream thinking that clouds the divide between scholar and vulgarian.

Allucquère Roseanne Stone has argued that multiuser computer environments create symbolic communities, forms of what she calls “technosociality.”1 The Thing, then, is a symbolic art community, computer aided. Messages, as well as text files uploaded into or downloaded from a library filled with everything from interviews (with, for example, artist Raymond Pettibon) to bizarre meditations on such subjects as “Art, Culture & The Cow-Tomato,” are this community’s means of discourse. An area reserved for show listings, announcements, and news of art and art-related events connects back to the off-line world.

Another library contains visual representations in the form of digitized images in graphics files, turning art into a kind of computer “shareware.” Recent works available for downloading included General Idea’s Hope Chest, a bird’s-eye view of a Tom Otterness sculpture, and “Manifesto,” a group of artists’ posters. Digitized into flat images, the General Idea and Otterness works, both originally three-dimensional, were not convincing manipulations of the computer environment as an artistic medium. Unfortunately, neither were most of the “Manifesto” designs. Rather than forging hybrids of technology and art, the artists contributing to this visual library mostly follow traditional art practices.

“The Manifesto Show” is successful, however, in implying an alternative to the manner in which art normally circulates through galleries, magazines, and books. This may prove the Thing’s greatest success: the combination of computers and art suggests a new, anarchic form of “virtual gallery,” redefining the way we gain access to artworks, and proposing substitute patterns of dissemination. Julia Scher’s contribution to “Manifesto,” a simulated traffic sign reading “Caution Maximum Security Society Ahead,” underscores the Thing’s possibilities as a techie equivalent to the use of the street and other public space by the Guerrilla Girls, Gran Fury, and WAC—a negotiated “free” space, offering a means to manipulate spectacle to a variety of political ends.

Whether as legal puzzle or metaphysical angst, cyberspace emerges as trouble. Seemingly disembodied, on-line subjects navigate a space without material reality, where exchange exists only as “bits and bytes in computers.”2 They rely not on physical presence but on technologically mediated telepresence. Some critics have argued that telepresence is not as liberatory as claimed, but a naive diversion regimented by capital; two years ago in Artforum, for example, Vivian Sobchack cautioned against the desires of some tech fans “to escape both human body and human world.” However, as Donna Haraway reminds both fans and foes alike, telepresence requires that a body exist at the other end of the line. No one is ever completely disembodied, but, rather, combined into a cyborg, both body and machine.

The Thing self-consciously locates itself between these conflicts, spawning an engaged electronic community supremely self-aware of its existence in a purely symbolic space. Users debate how to inhabit this place by discussing the crisis of ownership and copyright in electronic speech, how on-line subjectivity is understood, and the kind of community a BBS creates. Here, identity is a text, malleable and provisional. In the anonymous blindness of modem communication, name, gender, and race become more blatantly performative aliases than in the “real” world.

Some inhabitants, however, argue vehemently for the continuity of structures defined in the off-line world, particularly ciphers of gender. The persistence of such forms in the face of the potential for revision only underscores the strength these frameworks exert on the shape of identity, rein-scribing bodies rather than emancipating them. Cyberspace finds meaning, then, not as a mode of escape, but in readings that uncover its emerging forms of identity and community, ultimately revealing how these new structures transform or extend frameworks disciplined by off-line existence.

Reconfiguring the nexus of art and technology, net and web, human and machine, the Thing shows that it is not a way out, but rather a way into a “deep play,” enabling and constraining the forms of subjectivity and community available for habitation. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together.”3

Sydney Pokorny is an editorial assistant at Artforum.

1. Allucquère, Roseanne Stone, “Virtual Systems,” in Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds, Incorporations, New York: Zone, 1992, p. 610.

2. Michael Synergy, “Crackers,” Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, New York: HarperPerennial, 1992, p. 55.

3.Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seems, and Helen R. Lane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 2.