PRINT March 2009



Illustration from Cory Arcangel’s essay “On Compression,” from his book A Couple Thousand Short Films about Glenn Gould (Film and Video Umbrella, 2008).

AS THIS MAGAZINE continues to chart the rapidly changing coordinates for art within the broader landscape of contemporary culture, two recent experiences—a pair of discussions with students in graduate art programs, one of which took place in Rotterdam, as part of a symposium on art criticism at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, and the other at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles—have laid greatest claim on my attention. However distinct their European and American contexts, both groups of artists seemed wary about the art-world system as it stood before them—but, strikingly, their desire to look beyond it did not stem from any jaundiced perspective on market forces, as one might have expected, or from some idealistic, democratic vision of the arts, as one might have hoped. Rather, their impulse to step outside the defined networks of the white cube was prompted by a deep-seated sense (or better, intuition) that the grounds for art had already shifted beneath our feet. In Rotterdam, these students expressed—with remarkable clarity—their feeling that the potential for making interesting work was simply greater outside the art world; one could not ignore, in any case, the possibility that rapid developments in technology and visual culture might be outflanking entrenched discourse and practice in art. In Los Angeles, the young artists I spoke with voiced an almost matter-of-fact awareness that the present-day art world—that circulation-and-display system highly evolved during the past decade and more—was precariously situated (as was its style of art) and, in light of economic developments, could hardly be considered an absolute. Both abroad and at home, in other words, upcoming artists feel an imperative to move past the territory ordinarily prescribed for art. Yet this stance is perhaps more pragmatic than romantic, less a matter of choice than of necessity. And so while the idea is hardly new, recalling as it does similar navigations by artists in previous times—one thinks of earlier generations turning to easily distributed mediums such as photography and video as a way of initiating dialogue (and clashes of context) between art and popular culture—it is acutely resonant now.

These very concerns are, in fact, central to this issue’s conversation between artists Dara Birnbaum and Cory Arcangel—a discussion both provocative and informative for its study in contrasts. Whereas Birnbaum describes her attempt, as an artist coming of age during the late 1970s and ’80s, to press beyond the limits of art’s traditional context in order to work in popular media—“[using] television on television,” as she puts it—Arcangel suggests that popular media have lately been migrating in the opposite direction, becoming ever more an approximation of art in their aesthetic and structure. Indeed, if Birnbaum’s first videos were hailed for isolating and looping footage from, say, the TV shows Wonder Woman (actress Lynda Carter incessantly transforming into the superhero) and Kojak (Telly Savalas in a never-ending gun battle), for Arcangel this editing technique is ubiquitous on YouTube today. Of course, as the two artists point out, the question then arises, What is different between what was being said then and what is being said now? Birnbaum, as she explains, once sought to reveal the “hidden agendas” in popular media. It is, however, hardly clear what such a project might look like today, since popular media already solicit so many direct engagements from their audiences. “Media is no longer a one-way street,” Arcangel remarks. “It’s participatory. People just make things. And so I don’t know whether it’s so necessary to ‘reveal’ anything anymore.” Taking a step back from his comment, one could even imagine that any conventional attempt to “reveal” within this participatory field might only be to obfuscate.

The implications of this debate course through these pages in texts that look both back through history and ahead. It is hard to read Arcangel, for instance, and not think of scholar Tom McDonough’s damning assessment here of Jacques Villeglé’s décollage in the wake of the Situationist-inspired defacing of posters in May ’68: “This direct talking back to the monologue of the commodity, this détournement of product-propaganda, effectively short-circuited [the artist’s] own appropriative gesture and made him, to put it bluntly, obsolete.” Art’s depiction of engagements with dominant culture, in other words, is moot when such grappling is already being done on the street. And then there is artist Charlie White’s consideration of collage’s popular role today—more specifically, of its iteration on the widely known shopping site Polyvore, where browsers can assemble and combine images of merchandise from anywhere on the Internet. “Polyvore’s use,” White argues, “is directed precisely toward converting its users into consumers, rather than supporting the otherwise unregulated possibilities of its digital cut-and-paste tools (even the term set, used [by the company] in lieu of collage, evokes consumption over expression).” Users might “talk back” in this forum, but perhaps in voices not entirely their own; if McDonough’s vandals reclaimed their ability to speak to power, as he says, perhaps Polyvore teens do so as well, if only by taking back what has already been given.

Within this complex set of circumstances, a role for art as such becomes ambiguous, with its reflexive models employed by the very system it seeks to engage critically. But those seeking other modes of engagement should take notice of this issue’s frequent recourse to the notion of “misusing” technology—whether by Arcangel, regarding his distilling of the skies in Super Mario Bros., or, outside the art context, by Eric Mast when discussing how to make a misshapen music video. Such discussion revolves around the possibility of holding open “holes” within whatever realm popular media is putting forward. Such holes must exist within, and arise from, the realm of art as well.