PRINT Summer 2005

Navigating the New Terrain: Art, Avatars, and the Contemporary Mediascape

Tacita Dean, Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac, 1999, color photograph, 35 x 26 3/4".

It’s the electric whisper bleeding from earphones in subway cars, and it’s the disarming experience of believing for a minute that the well-dressed guy talking to himself on the street is crazy—until you see his headset. Or it’s the zombie dance, visible through the glass enclosure of a video arcade, of two adolescent boys whose virtual adventure is being conducted through their actual movements on a platform in front of a screen. These are the symptoms of a new spatial order: a space in which the virtual and the physical are absolutely coextensive, allowing a person to travel in one direction through sound or image while proceeding elsewhere physically. Imaginative projection is as old as the histories of art, theater, and literature—in other words, as old as humanity itself—but virtuality suggests the sensation of inhabiting such projections bodily. What makes our present moment distinctive is the degree to which devices such as the iPod, the cell phone, and the personal computer allow our bodies to occupy two places at once while, conversely, our physical environments function more and more as mediascapes composed not only of surfaces of print and electronic signage but also of the inhabitable three-dimensional signs of architectural branding.

This experience of straddling two or more locations simultaneously has caused the negotiation of both physical and virtual worlds to become increasingly disembodied, and, as with any cultural shift, this transformation has produced new opportunities for art. “Navigation” now describes how we move, and the term, given its dual associations with sea voyages and Internet surfing, perfectly captures the elision of physicality and virtuality. Beyond generating novel aesthetic responses, the experience of navigable space has led to a reconsideration, both among artists and art historians, of more literally territorial ecologies, particularly those of Land art. What is distinctive in “navigational” art, which encompasses not only Internet art but also much recent painting and sculpture, is not simply the association of virtuality with presence—which is implicit in any site-specific practice—but their confusion.

Land art was encountered by the urban art world as a series of media dispatches (photographic and/or cinematic) from exotically remote locations, often in the deserts of the American West. Efforts to experience such works physically were—and remain—difficult: One still hears amusing stories of art pilgrims trying, and frequently failing, to locate Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, or Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969–70. In Land art the desert, as a pure presence existing beyond the gridded precincts of urban or suburban settlement, marked the limit of media representation. It is symptomatic that in certain of his projects, Smithson called his “documentation” non-sites, since the assumption underlying Land art was that the earth functions as a non-sign, or the not-media. Undeveloped desert land is the sublime referent that will never be captured by contemporary spectacle. In other words, the limit of virtuality in Earth art was the presentness of territory.

Christian Philipp Müller, Illegal Border Crossing of the Austria-Lichtenstein Border at Bangs with Philip Hämmerle, 1993, five black-and-white and color photographs, 16 1/2 x 58 1/4". One of eight “Border Crossings” from Green Border, 1993. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

James Meyer, Miwon Kwon, and Hal Foster have developed a compelling reading of those site-specific art practices of the 1980s and ’90s that many have understood as a return of Land art’s concerns in the context of identity politics. While their positions differ in important ways, these scholars are alert to how artists such as Renée Green, Fred Wilson, and Mark Dion, to name just three, understand site as discourse. Such sites need not be distinct places but may consist of institutional structures like the museum or even heterogeneous cultural formations like AIDS. In such work, it is the artist’s activity that brings a discursive landscape into visibility. Kwon has argued that the itinerant or nomadic artist-ethnographer (this latter term is more Foster’s than hers) operates as a presence within the virtual site of discourse. In her pathbreaking article “One Place After Another,” published in October in 1997, three years before her book of the same title, Kwon writes:

The presence of the artist has become an absolute prerequisite for the execution/presentation of site-oriented projects. It is now the performative aspect of an artist’s characteristic mode of operation (even when collaborative) that is repeated and circulated as a new art commodity, with the artist functioning as the primary vehicle for its verification, repetition, and circulation.

In other words, it is the artist’s physical actions or manipulations—such as rearranging the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to demonstrate its unconscious racial biases, as Wilson has done (Mining the Museum, 1992)—that constitute discursive site specificity: It is literally a kind of performance art.

Land art and subsequent site-specific work therefore share a deep structure. Belonging to a period of unprecedented media expansion (the television era), both sets of practices center on the mutual delimitation of virtuality and presence. In Land art presence is associated with remote territories, while virtuality inheres in mechanically reproduced documentation. In site-specific art, it is the artist as diagnostician or itinerant consultant who signifies presence in materializing a hitherto-virtual discursive site, as when Christian Philipp Müller actualizes an unmarked international border by crossing it on foot (Green Border, 1993) or Andrea Fraser ventriloquizes the entire dramatis personae of the art world while undressing (Official Welcome, 2001). In one set of practices it is the land, and in the other, the body, that serves as the material limit of representation.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2005 (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel). Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2005. Photo: David M. Heald.

In navigational art, whose technological or media analogue is cyberspace as opposed to television, the line between representation and actuality (as marked by a territory or a body) is rendered indiscernible. Here, the opposition between virtuality and presence is restaged as a conjunction of virtuality and presence, as in works like Janet Cardiff’s “Walks,” where a viewer is immersed in an auditory world that contradicts or phantasmatically augments her physical perambulations. In spatial terms, such an elision results in mediascapes, where territories and signs are knitted together in a single fabric. In his important 1996 book Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai identified several “-scapes”—ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes—as the virtual-real “ecosystems” whose proliferation and superimposition constitute the ground of globalization. It is on such new terrain that aesthetic practices emerging from Earth and later site-specific art are being transformed into strategies that confuse document with fiction. Navigational art emerges when the two guarantors of presence found in Land and site-specific art cease to convince. Landscape becomes a mediascape whose contours and topography (as any Web surfer knows) are as unpredictable—even sublime—as an unmapped canyon in Utah; the body becomes an avatar, a presence beyond or beneath the threshold of identity that, like a sentient cursor, projects agency and mobility into a virtual world.


If mediascapes are characterized by the simultaneous occupation of virtual and physical space, Cardiff’s sound works are their locus classicus: Her aural sculptures project a simulated world onto an actual place and invite viewers to move about in this contradictory terrain. In Forty-Part Motet, 2001, for instance, in which Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium” is presented as a “chorus” of forty voices, each emitted from one of forty speakers arranged in a huge oval, the chorus is rendered as a collection of individual voices that the viewer may walk through—and thereby “arrange.” Not only is the voice elided with the speaker but the aural composition becomes a spatial object. As in her “Walks,” wherein one navigates a site while listening to a contradictory sound track, Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet spatializes an immaterial work, a piece of music. Like much navigational art (and unlike most Land and site-specific art) Cardiff’s “journeys” may take place in a gallery, for the portals to virtuality are by definition anywhere. And indeed, the laboratory space of the museum, where the contradiction between the virtual and the physical may be isolated and contemplated, is paradoxically central to the art I’m describing. This is the case in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s recent installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Untitled 2005 (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel), which established a guerilla television transmission within the gallery it occupied. Untitled 2005 includes two adjacent pavilions pressed against one another but slightly out of register. One pavilion was slick, built of glass and chrome to house a homemade transmitter connected by cables to monitors in a far corner of the gallery; the other was built from plywood and recalled the architecture of refugee camps. There was no access to the room-size vitrine that housed the transmitter, but the plywood “theater” was open to museumgoers: Sitting on benches, they could view the transmission of Punishment Park (1971), Peter Watkin’s “speculative documentary” on the backlash against leftist activism and Vietnam War protest in the US—its signal weak and interrupted by the kind of electronic noise that cable has all but rendered obsolete. In making this architectural collage, Tiravanija forced broadcast television’s invisible network conducted across the highly valuable but equally invisible airwaves to emerge as two noncommunicating chambers (one devoted to transmission and the other to reception). In other words, the decidedly undemocratic virtual space of television’s closed circuit, where the privilege of broadcasting is vested in a few highly capitalized corporations, was here rendered as a physical space of uneven access.

Tacita Dean, Teignmouth 
Electron, Cayman Brac, 1999, black-and-white photograph, 40 1/2 x 27".

Just as his two pavilions realized television’s virtual closed circuit as an actual spatial configuration (where the viewer felt herself a “prisoner”), his wallpapering of the gallery walls with various documents pertaining to broadcasting, pirate transmission, and his own installation produced a spatial model of the search engine’s nearly random juxtapositions. I doubt that many visitors had the patience or stamina to absorb the surfeit of information lining these walls (which would have involved a good deal of circumnavigation and neck craning while reading in public). Like his noncommunicating pavilions, Tiravanija’s info-wallpaper offered only the look of democratic access while undermining it physically. His spatialization of television was thus encased within a spatialization of the Internet like a box within a box, and this complex layering produced an architectural allegory of passive media consumption.

If in Tiravanija’s installation physical space crystallizes out of a virtual network like the precipitate in a chemical reaction, in Tacita Dean’s film (and accompanying book) Teignmouth Electron, 2000, a single object, the ruined boat of that name, generates its own cinematic, photographic, and textual events. The antenna installed above Tiravanija’s plywood viewing pavilion in Untitled 2005 was a beat-up replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913. By allowing the first readymade to function as a television antenna, Tiravanija suggests a structural relationship between the Duchampian readymade and the medium of television. This juxtaposition is initially mystifying but ultimately quite logical. If, historically, the readymade was invented to recode commodites by shifting their context (physically or through inscription), commercial television is a medium whose purpose is to derive a profit from such recoding—by making a brand of soap stand for beauty, say, or a cleaning product for liberation. Dean analogously links the readymade to media by doubly inscribing a single object (the boat) within two distinct informational fields: her nonnarrative film, wherein the Teignmouth Electron serves as the central “character” palpated by the camera, and her book, in which the complex and multilayered narratives circling around the vessel’s journey are engaged episodically. In its simultaneous exploration of physical and virtual space, the story of the Teignmouth Electron itself embodies the double nature of navigational art as I have been at pains to define it. The yacht was owned by English industrialist Donald Crowhurst, who disappeared in 1969 while racing it solo around the world. But his ill-fated journey, though real, was nonetheless discursive: It was self-consciously promoted by Teignmouth, the town from which he embarked, as a publicity stunt; Crowhurst himself brought log books, a tape recorder, and a 16 mm film camera on board to ensure the documentation of his exploits firsthand; and, finally, the tragic story of his disappearance (perhaps by suicide due to a kind of disorientation at sea known as “time-madness”) resulted in a media sensation netting, according to Dean, “at least one book, one novel, two feature films with another in production, two television documentaries, several radio programmes and endless newspaper articles.”

Donald Crowhurst aboard the Teignmouth Electron, ca. 1968.

Dean’s film and book, which I regard as two dimensions of the same project, thus navigate a mediascape composed of actual and virtual events. As she puts it with regard to a scripted sound work based on her own trip to find the Spiral Jetty in an interview published in the catalogue to her solo show at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2001, “It’s half fake and half real, which I always like . . . because it reminds me of Crowhurst, when my false journey meets my real journey.” For Tiravanija the encounter of the false journey and real journey is rendered as the crystallization of a media network’s undemocratic asymmetry, but for Dean it lies in the dilation of a thing, such as the Teignmouth Electron, into an event. The film is largely composed of a succession of shots—some stationary, others not, some close-up and others wide—of the grounded boat. The climax occurs with the takeoff of a light plane within view of the Electron, and it is followed by a shift in point of view to a window inside that plane, from which the viewer sees the yacht below disappear. An object that was lost at sea is lost once again in the blank stare of the Dean’s receding camera. But unlike the sealed vitrine that houses Tiravanija’s pirate transmitter, the blank time of Dean’s cinema offers a space in which anything (or nothing) may unfold.


In cyberspace an avatar is a moveable icon representing a person, a virtual-presence capable of navigating mediascapes. More the index of a location than a traditional form of subjectivity, an avatar does not possess an identity, but rather exercises one (or many) provisionally in order to chart a particular path: As a fictional character controlled by an actual body, it is defined by where it goes rather than what it is. In the context of art, the emergence of avatars has been a salutary response to the balkanized pieties of identity politics, but it has also brought the risk of mere cuteness that so much recent figurative painting, ranging from Ellen Gallagher’s catalogues of hairstyles to Amy Cutler’s revenge-bent scenarios, has fallen into—a parodic miniaturization of the crucial struggles around gender, race, and sexuality that characterized much of the best art of the ’80s and ’90s. Despite its dangers, the potential of the avatar is considerable: By injecting a powerful ingredient of fantasy into the delineation of identity, the avatar makes possible an imaginary/real mobility that the artist’s physical presence in site-specific art could hardly allow. It is as avatars that I understand the quasi-mythical characters that populate Matthew Barney’s most recent work.

In his Cremaster cycle, 1994–2002, Barney’s cast of fictional characters traveled simultaneously in exotic physical locations, phantasmic mythological terrains, and microscopic biological worlds beneath the threshold of human perception. It is perhaps only in his latest work, in which similar characters occupy documentary and fictional worlds at once, that they qualify as avatars. In De Lama Lâmina (From Mud, a Blade), 2004, for instance, a film that centers on a float Barney designed for the Carnival de Salvador in Bahia, Brazil, the worlds of virtuality and actuality are literally confused. As a fictional vehicle, the float serves both as an agent of forward motion and as a performance platform for three diverse “characters”: musician Arto Lindsay (playing himself); the Greenman, a creature with bulbs and roots growing out of his mouth and anus; and environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill (played by an actor). Documentary sequences of the float’s progress in the carnival parade amid police and reveling dancers are intercut with shots of the strange activities of the Greenman, who engaged in a fertility rite under the float’s huge tractor which included an autoerotic embrace of the vehicle’s monkey-feces lubricated driveshaft, and of Hill’s climb to the top of a candelabra-like tree suspended in front of the float. These sequences, in contrast to footage of the parade and of Lindsay performing, are characterized by the hallucinatory, almost myopic concentration on indecipherable tasks that Barney’s films are known for.

The juxtaposition of these contradictory cinematic idioms enable what the artist has referred to as the positioning of one mythology within another, or the refashioning of a place through its mythological transformation. In a text included at the beginning of De Lama Lâmina, Barney clearly states the reigning metaphor organizing his aesthetic vision: “According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the world will eventually die, decay, fall into drift, come to a hopeless end, burn out, slide into disorder. According to Ilya Prigogine, Nobel chemist, under certain circumstances and within certain localities the Second Law fails. Energy increases. An organism is able to reorganize itself into a higher level of order, to transcend itself.” The avatar is an organism that reorganizes or transcends itself in order to pursue navigational lines inaccessible to a being burdened with physical presence. The mutability of an icon in cyberspace is here actualized through its simultaneous occupation of the communicating worlds of myth and cinema verité. Barney’s method for evoking such figures tends toward the fictional, but this is not the only way of building an avatar.

Matthew Barney, De Lama Lâmina (From Mud, a Blade), 2004. Production still. Photo: Chris Winget.

In her installation, an inadequate history of conceptual art, 1998–99, Silvia Kolbowski offers a second, “nonfiction” model. Kolbowski’s work consists of two parts: audio interviews with a group of artists asked to “briefly describe a conceptual art work, not your own, of the period between 1965 and 1975, which you personally witnessed/experienced at the time” and a video projection in a separate room showing close-up the hand gestures of the interviewed artists. Not only were the audio and visual components of the work presented separately in adjacent spaces, but the person speaking and the person gesturing did not remain in sync. In other words, the mnemonic journey of the audio script is explicitly severed from the body’s agency, marked in vestigial form by the video images where out-of-context hand gestures suggest a puppeteer who has lost his grip on the strings. If Barney articulates the freedom of the avatar, Kolbowski dwells on the consequences of that freedom. The loss of the body she represents is further registered as a purposeful evasion of naming: Interviewees were asked not to identify themselves or the author and title of the work they described, leaving the vertiginous impression of identities unhinged.

Since the elision of document and fiction is a prominent characteristic of navigational art, and since the document is typically aligned with politics while fiction connotes quietism or escape, the confusion of these terms leads one to question whether a politics of the mediascape and the avatar is even possible. My own answer is affirmative. First, as in recent theories of the posthuman, such a politics could build coalitions across balkanized identities: It would construct new avatars for particular purposes, drawing its limbs from as far afield as the Greenman and Julia Butterfly Hill. And second, it would be truly navigational, committed to opening new paths inside existing closed circuits like broadcast television. It would focus less on diagnosis and more on action. To an accusation that such a program is utopian, I can only plead guilty. But why, especially in the virtual realm of art, should we cede our power in advance?

David Joselit is a professor of art history at Yale University.