New York

“Software”

The strategy animating most “technological art” seems to be to find a model for the terms of experience, especially esthetic experience, which can be represented or enacted by the available gadgetry, and then to design an encounter for the spectator in which he will recognize that this has been the character of his experience all along. This, despite disclaimers, was manifestly the strategy of the organizers of the Jewish Museum’s “Software” show. The difference between “Software” and other technological art is that the former is premised upon an informational or cybernetic model of experience rather than a simply mechanical one, the supposed advantage being that the cybernetic model makes the structure of communications systems within a situation determinative of the behavior generated. At least some of the participants in the show recognized that the cybernetic model is nothing but a refined mechanical model and that information technology is, if different from other technologies, only at a further remove from the lived terms of experience because it provides specious means through which experience is supposed to become more transparent to itself. At a time when the strongest art of recent years can be seen to have been concerned with the phenomenological possibility of art, this show was about the operational possibility of it. “Software” represented some of the latest and silliest efforts at turning operational philosophy into esthetics, and to hell with art.

Software, we are told, is “the part of a system which is more easily changeable,” “plans and procedures for action, as distinct from the equipment that carries the action out” (hardware); hence the inclusion in the show of some routine conceptual art and some ideological cant (John Giorno’s Guerilla Radio system). Though somewhat different in its uses, the catchy hardware/software dichotomy proves to be no less crude than “form and content”; imagine what a show called “Content” might be like.

The philosophical underpinnings of “Software” are given in a catalog essay by Jack Burnham who acted as curator of the show. This essay has probably been taken seriously by many people simply because it takes itself so seriously; had a little irony been evidenced, essay and exhibition might have been readable as a poor histrionic sublimation of the Dada impulse. In his essay Burnham says things like: “‘Software’ is about experiencing without the mental cues of art history” and “another goal of ‘Software’ is to make it clear that art itself is a form of intermittent dialogue.” According to the operational view of experience, which is apparently the source of such sophomoric remarks, the nature of time and history is functional; history, for Burnham, is “a conservative but necessary force which preserves by providing a mythical ambiance for objects and buildings that formerly would have been discarded.” There is no inkling that history might be an ontological category, indeed there isn’t even the suggestion that experience and being have any commerce at all; genuine experience, primary experience is then that which occurs without functional props like art history, ideally an experience with no horizon, which would be an experience divested of the conditions of experience. Most of the hardware in this exhibition had something to do with the putative reconstruction of this kind of experience which might or might not be art-like since art is taken only to be the result of “positional” circumstance. Much of the effort of “Software” really seemed to be to discover in information technology reified surrogates for transcendence. Naturally enough, along with the concept of history, a certain sense of self-consciousness came under attack in Burnham’s essay and in the show. Burnham doesn’t seem to realize that history is for us a medium of self-consciousness and that this state of affairs may even provide the impulse for making art and the appetite for experiencing it. Granted that this may not be a desirable or salutary situation, it is hardly to be overcome by the systematic alienation of experience from its own ground that “Software” promises.

Perhaps the most redemptive influence brought to bear on the show was the participation of Les Levine. The archness of Levine’s projects could hardly have been circumscribed by the curator’s intentions, and his pieces do manage a slight Subversion of “Software’s” earnestness. Systems Burn-Off X Residual Software, like many of Levine’s works, is about what we are willing to accept in place of firsthand experience, and thus relates curiously to traditional figurative painting. Still more generally, his inventions address our acute susceptibility to the declarative mode of presentation, which liability is just what a show like this banks on.

In the midst of all the otiose documents and machinery, some of which had fallen into disrepair (or risen to it) by the time I visited the show, there was a piece by Hans Haacke—an artistic gesture really—of breathtaking resourcefulness. This consisted simply in the installation in the Museum of working teletype machines representing the major world news services; the news was received and printed out and the streams of copy allowed to collect on the floor behind the machines. The machines themselves spewing information apparently at random incidentally parodied the anthropomorphic dialectic of inside and outside thematic in so much 20th-century sculpture. The whole contrivance is a serious and ironic metaphor for the situation of the art object in the world both as it is conceived according to software esthetics and as it is suggested in certain recent serious art. The wire copy collecting on the floor documents the intersection of “real” history and “art history,” i.e. the history of this work. As the news loses its value, being supplanted by more of itself, it becomes more object-like, the coils of print-out paper become more sculptural with time, and that in a double sense—according to experiences of those reporting events on one end and of those experiencing Haacke’s work at the other. There is thus the notion that thinghood, use, and value have reciprocal relations within experience and particularly within one’s experience of other people. The idea is also suggested that the sense that the work has a temporality of its own is connected with the temptation to see things anthropomorphically and that this connection may have something to do with the consideration we extend to works of art; the news, however, has minimal snob value.

Allan Kaprow produced a remote-controlled happening for the exhibition, his best that I am aware of; it involved the possible esthetic actions that might arise from taking words in the art vernacular, like “painting,” in the simplest and most literal way. This event too had some of the captious quality of Haacke’s News.

Accommodating “Software” which was “not specifically . . . an art exhibition,” the Jewish Museum tacitly agreed not to be “specifically” a museum for the duration as well, an embarrassing self-effacement which must have been intended by someone to enhance the Museum’s reputation as a hip and daring institution. “Software” will make one more appearance, slightly indurated by exposure perhaps, in the less vulnerable Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., starting mid-December.

Kenneth Baker