The Future of Memory – the Contemporary in a cul-de-sac

Ines Doujak, excerpt from Loomshuttle Warpaths (2013)
Ines Doujak, excerpt from Loomshuttle Warpaths (2013)

In Vienna, slowly the – still relatively new - director of Kunsthalle is showing his profile. After many years under the populist autocrat Matt, Nicolas Schaffhausen brings some well needed profundity to Kunsthalle. This latest exhibition, The Future of Memory, while well conceived, exposes also the dilemmas of hegemonic neo-conceptualism, which I call the contemporary.

The Future of Memory takes as its starting point the changes which memory undergoes in network society. The basic thesis behind the exhibition, according to which memory changes under the impact of digital technologies and “virtual” networks, is correct. The exhibition shows work by artists who in their majority have been born between 1975 and 1985 and, whilst coming from a range of different, but mostly European countries, live in Berlin. A number of works are critical of neoliberal capitalism, and basically all the works use the formal language of conceptualism.

Together with the exhibition, an eBook was launched in both eBook and PDF format Given the appalling state of knowledge with regard to digital media in the mainstream art institutions, this is a laudable step. Kunsthalle is financed by taxpayers money and should make its work as accessible as possible to the wider public.

What strikes me as interesting is that nearly all of those artists seem to be represented by a gallerist. The coincidence between the rise to success of the globalized conceptualist language of art and the gallery system propped up by neoliberal capital is a particularly interesting topic.

What I describe as “formal language of conceptualism” is a type of art practices which has its origins in what was first called the New Art Practices in the late 1960s. This term connotes a range of artistic practices that followed on to the “explosion” of experimental art in the 1960s and not just conceptual art in the narrow sense – it also includes Arte Povera, land art, body art, performance, feminist art, video art, etc.. If we believe – and I think we should – the grandfather of the curator-as-art-star model Harald Szeemann, who curated the seminal “When Attitudes Become Form” exhibition in 1969, the conceptual turn was the last great paradigm change in art and this paradigm remains intact as of now.1

This paradigm does not even need a name anymore, it is simply the contemporary. In the contemporary, all art is by definition postmedia art. What I meant by conceptualism was that in the 1960s artists started interrogating the formal possibilities of art. This was later turned into a particular sub-domain which was called institutional critique. The best definition – to my knowledge – comes from former Yugoslavia, where curators defined this type of practices as a questioning of the meta-language of art2.

Art practice becomes also, always, an art theory. The medium, while important, does not define the art. The contemporary has inherited from modernism the self-reflexivity of the medium, but it does not see its sole task in carrying self-reflexivity to the bitter end. The material properties of the medium – whatever the medium is – are important, but the artwork hovers above the materiality, and the message, if this loaded term can be used at all, is the idea which forms in the mind of the viewer, and not something inherent to the medium. This was evident throughout Schaffhausen's recent exhibition.

Mandla Reuter's installation City (2014) uses bottled water and a plastic water tank to remind us of the industrial usage of water, but nobody would conceive water, or plastic bottles the “medium” of the exhibition. A number of works used video, but those did not “question the medium video” as artists did during the era of video art. Antoine Renaud's digital cats made of Styropor do not reflect the medium but connects the master narrative of “cats online” with automated production of synthetic materials. Each of those works carries forward the meta-narrative of the contemporay; each of those works carries out more or less subtle language games by bringing different materials, ideas, places and people into interaction. The contemporary has inherited from conceptualism a basic critical attitude vis-a-vis the technocratic values and managerial techniques of post-industrial capitalism.

The moment of birth of this movement was the crisis of Keynesian Fordism and the point zero of the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism3. The contemporary has thus internalized – even if this aspect is sometimes less apparent – institutional critique and a critical questioning attitude. This results in an artistic language which often uses several layers at the same time and uses montage on a meta-layer, by bringing conflicting systems of meaning into contact with each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dragana Žarevac's Resist: Disappearing Happiness (2014) a selection of videos of “happy people” found on the net dancing to a pop song, whereas some of those videos have been shot at sites of conflict such as Gaza and Syria.

Žarevac's work is one of the clearest and most pointed in its ambiguous, multi-layered character. In The Future of Memory as a whole, the contemporary exposes itself in its whole contradiction. The work is critical and political to a certain extent, but in a rather soft and conformist way. While the new art practices in the 1970s took a risk, and, often coming from an anti-art impulse, pointed beyond the institutional art system, this art strifes to be shown at the many bi- and triennials that have sprung up all over the world.

The conceptual pioneers often put themselves at risk, exposing their bodies and minds to unpredictable interactions with audiences. Here, the artists vanish behind the work. They act as neutral specialists in symbolic operations, men and women in white coats, so to speak, professionals, like doctors or accountants – and not by coincidence the work often has a kind of clinical sterility.

And while their predecessors in the 1970s put the institution of art itself under the searching spotlight, thereby risking their own careers, attacking the commercial gallery system, fighting against the myth of authorship with which the artist as creative genius is imbued in capitalistic societies, often forming groups and collectives to escape the market, the myth of the artist has been firmly re-established in the contemporary paradigm.4

It is thus not surprising that the curator of the film program which comes with this exhibition, Goran Petrović, speaks of our era as “post-political.” The globalized visual regime of the contemporary has to congeal with the museum policies of, for example, Abu Dabhi or Guangzhou, cities which exist – lets call a spade a spade - in totalitarian regimes. How “political” art can really be which is shown in museums under autocratic and dictatorial regimes is anyone's guess.

The language of the contemporary is often capable of showing us a mirror of neoliberal globalization, but fails to point beyond it. The contemporary has managed, this should definitely be acknolwedged, to open spaces inside the institution of art which allow reflection of a range of critical issues related with globalization which find few other outlets in the streamlined capitalist media world. However, the contemporary has inscribed into its operating system the postmodern loss of all utopia and the end of the narrative of progress. It has opted for postmodern difference whilst it has given up on the core conflict of capital and labour. The idea of real, all-encompassing and fundamental political change is ruled out by definition.

Schaffhausen's exhibition is thus a tautology. The language of the contemporary is already based on the idea of a timeless continuum of the now in which there is novelty but nothing really new – because the possibility of fundamental social change is by definition excluded. The contemporary is like a blanket that folds the past, the present and the future into its all-inclusive language. Now Schaffhausen comes and makes an exhibition about the timelessness of the Internet age. It is true that there is a relation between temporality and a world increasingly based on networked communications. Nevertheless, this is a tautology from the point of view of contemporaneity.

What is quite astonishing is that there is only one work which actually uses the net. Schaffhausen seems in accordance with another famous curator whose first name is also Nicholas, Bourriaud who claimed that it is not necessary to show work by digital artists because other artists who do not use the computer are actually better able of understanding technological change than computer artists. This is not a simple argument and I am not going into Bourriaud-bashing. We need a bit of history to understand this.

If conceptualism was the last big paradigm change, then this was challenged in the 1980s and 1990s by media art. According to Peter Weibel, media art is better than all other art, because it uses the most advanced medium, the computer. Well, he did not say “better” but used, over the years, a variety of terms which all amount to the same: the step to digital represents such a profound move so that only artists who directly work with the computer can understand the new paradigm (you can ready all about it in my MA Dissertation Technological Determinism in Media Art Bourriaud, and most likely Schaffhausen too, says exactly the opposite. Edward Shanken has written about this and also organized a debate between Bourriaud and Weibel at Art Basel. The debate is rehashed here but it seems the video does not exist anymore:

As Shanken has analyzed in his book on Roy Ascott5, media art is caught in limbo between Modernism and Postmodernism. On one hand it has adopted the Postmodernist rhetoric of the end of history and is profoundly apolitical. At the same time it bases itself on a rhetoric of technological progress which is a direct continuation of the liberal, modernist utopia. And this is where the conceptualists happen to disagree. The contemporary has a profound skepticism with regard to the technological utopia and all narratives based on technological determinism. It has thus rebuked the challenge of media art in the 1990s. The contemporary art world has withstood the challenge of media art, which had to form institutions of its own.

However, what contemporary curators such as Schaffhausen and Bourriaud are possibly unaware of is that there exists a wide range of political postmedia art practices which are coming from the tradition of media art and which have absorbed conceptualism's criticality and meta-linguistic reflection. This type of art was shown at the recent Fields exhibition as part of Riga Culture Capital 2014 ( ).

Political postmedia practices now operate in the large gap between the contemporary ignorance towards political digital art on one hand – those curators simply do not know it, they do not look at it, they do not study it and their dismissal is based, in Bourriaud's case at least, on a complete ignorance of the Field; and on the other hand political postmedia art has a difficult standing in the digital art world. The way in which digital art has been institutionalized in the shape of brick and mortar institutions such as Ars Electronica does allow only a very limited spectrum of criticality.

Media art has an institutional system of its own, often called a “ghetto.” As a result of this schism, attitudes have hardened. The contemporary does not see the necessity to deal with this art at all, but this, in the long run, will be to its detriment, as it does not have the means to take a deeper look into the operating system of network society. And digital art is indeed often so affirmative vis-a-vis the master narratives of digital capitalism, so that the contemporary can appear to be justified in not looking at it. That there exists also a variety of cutting edge critical practices which makes actual use of new technologies and does not only comment on them, this would never come to their minds.

The conclusion thus can only be that we need a new paradigm. We need to overcome the timeless post-political contemporaneity of generalized conceptualism, but we can only do so by also having a new social and political paradigm. The new paradigm in art can only come about if there is also a new world which we can collectively envision which is worth fighting for.

NOTE: The exhibition still runs till end of March and is accompanied by lectures, performance, seminars and a film program:

  • 1. paraphrased from Christian Rattemeyer et al., Exhibiting the New Art: “Op Losse Schroeven” and “When Attitudes Become Form” 1969 (London: Afterall Publishing, 2011).
  • 2. Marijan Susovski, ed., The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1966-1978, Documents 3-6 (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1978).
  • 3. I would like to thank Misko Suvakovic for confirming this idea which had been breeding at the back of my head from some time.
  • 4. My usage of the term contemporaneity or simply “the contemporary” is inspired by the work of Terry Smith on the subject.
  • 5. Roy Ascott and Edward A Shanken, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).