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Platform Propositions

In Bill Arnings brilliantly titled essay “Sure, everyone might be an artist…but only one artist gets to be the guy who says that everyone else is an artist” Arning writes about a bake sale that artist Elaine Tin Nyo held at the New York City gallery Deitch Projects. An invited group of artists baked pies, cookies, and sweets; Tin Nyo and a few other curators and artists sold them to passers-by.

“Bake sales are, of course, a small-town American way of raising funds for modest projects of civic betterment. The art world tends to raise its funds with black tie parties, celebrities, and blockbuster auctions. The confusion between fundraising styles maligned neither, but rather reminded us that art is an activity that takes place within a network of other worthy activities, and that its systems of promotion and self-sustenance are as strange and as normal as baking and selling a pie to pay for new soccer uniforms.”

Arning looks at the generosity and conviviality of giving and inviting practices as a mirror of our own fundamental goodness, giving-ness, decency; a powerful counterweight to the cynicism of the notoriety-driven art-commodity market. The implication being that drawing attention to the mechanisms and networks by which we survive and by which we exchange materials and acts, how different networks value and enact value, is an artistic act that asks us profound questions about who we are and what mechanisms we use to relate to one another. They propose a model by enacting it, not explicitly critiquing the present model but instead asking what another model would look like.

This invites the oft-ignored but unmistakably jarring anthropological view of the artwork which asks “what purpose does this serve to the larger regime in which it appears?” How does that which contains the work shape it? Not simply the physical or institutional space but the larger perspective which assigns value, allows some types of engagement while discouraging, rendering meaningless, or simply outlawing others. A gallery is a on a street, in a neighborhood, in a city, part of a network of other galleries, connected to the internet, part of a system of promotion and attention capital, an economic engine, an employer. Divorcing the entity from all its meanings is impossible. Why is the artwork any different?

The use-value of the artwork is the obscured shadow, that which lurks beneath the ostensible meaning but is rarely mentioned in polite company. In capitalism though, if you don’t address your use-value explicitly, one will happily be assigned to you. As American art collector Donald Rubell said to the New York Times: ‘people are now realizing that art is an international currency’. In the developed West things do not exist outside of the information capitalism or the attention economy by accident. It’s always worth asking, for any art object: what will this be used for inside the regimes which allow it to exist?

In 1980 the technologist Langdon Winner wrote an essay called “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” where he examined, among other things, a tomato harvester. A nifty little piece of technology that makes getting a nice ripe tomato easier. This harvester replaced workers, remade how farms were laid out, closed down smaller farms and made larger ones more profitable, reshaped the social and economic order of agricultural towns.

“What we see is an ongoing social process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural research and development in American land-grant colleges and universities has tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns. It is in the face of such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations like the tomato harvester are made to seem “antitechnology” or “antiprogress.” For the harvester is not merely the symbol of a social order that rewards some while punishing others; it is in a true sense an embodiment of that order.”

Everything built is an expression of the culture that creates it, be that tomato harvester, salt shaker, or artwork. So then what is the artwork which expresses the data overflow, economic insecurity, blurry disembodied identity, and structuring logic of what Benjamin Bratton calls “the Stack”? Computational art, that is, art which addresses explicitly its connection to the computable reality and the machinery that creates that reality, wants to position itself as that artwork. But what is the computational artwork? An expression of an equation? The logical conclusion of a method? An artifact of a process? In the early foundational “computer artworks” of the 1970s and 1980s, all of the above. Yet in this formulation of making artwork, for all the freedom from labor afforded to the artist, there is surprisingly little space to invent, to inspire, to suggest a thing other than a rejection of labor and craft and a claustrophobic embrace of procedure and automation. The possibility of the computational artwork is contained in the expression of the medium itself, in how things can be made computable and made of computation. The computational is an abstraction until it is used to structure the world. When it is used to structure the world it becomes an element and under-girding of the platform. The platform is the structure which defines value, moderates exchange, promotes content, and gives identity to agents. Think of it as a Facebook but also as an Amazon or a gallery system or a religion. It’s within the notion of the platform-as-work, rather than platform as a tool to generate work, that we see the promise of the computational artwork: an alternative logic of what, how, why, we can compute understandings of our world, our selves, how each fits together. Much like the simple-on-the-surface exchanges of Elaine Tin Nyo ask us to think about our own capacity for generosity and conviviality, platform based artworks ask us to consider the possibilities of seeing outside of the regime of platforms. They express possibility and proposition in how things can be put together. Work can tend towards the platform or it can tend towards the content; in the logic of abstracted data there is no other space, no other recognized category, so we should ask: which do we most urgently need to engage now? Making things for platforms or making platforms themselves?

The most profound characteristic of the platform is how inescapable it is, the inevitability of its logic, that it structures not simply a way to do something, but the very notion of the thing itself. The platform doesn’t want to be one among many ways to find something out, the platform wants to be the very essence of knowledge itself, a terminal epistemology. To propose an alternative, any alternative, is itself an act of radical imagination and fiction as vital as any other. Because as platforms structure more and more of our networks, our relationships, our possibilities, the need to simplify them and to slow them to observable quantities becomes more vital. A computational work doesn’t need to be a platform itself to propose a way of being within platforms, just like an exchange-based work does not need to be an economy to propose a way of being within an economic regime. A bake sale run from one of the nodes of influence in the rarefied air of the art world offers a proposition enacted. It asks us to consider value and exchange in the form of a simple and open gathering together that stands just outside of it, in a proposition of a different way to interact with one another. To point that propositional spirit at the computational means to ask what it means to position ourselves just outside of the platform and look to see what the world looks like from there.

The art of proposition has a long history: the situationist works of Guy Debord, the relational aesthetics of Rirkrit Tiravanija, the political explorations of Tania Bruguera. None of these works though had access to the nascent realism of the platform though, the possibility that any proposition could, at any second, emerge into the real world. With a server and a smartphone and a network and access to some machine learning algorithms and a credit card, anything could become as real as anything else in this world can be. This is a vital element of the platform proposition as tool for art-work: it takes a long time to create a world, it takes a long time to express a world, it takes a long time to introduce someone into a world, to propose not how a single thing works but how a system functions and what that system means for the humans within it. Creating a proposition of a world requires borrowing everything from the world as it is to imply the world while replacing the one element that allows us to see that we are no longer in the world as it is but rather a world as it could be. This isn’t any different than the myth-making of any enterprise: ‘this is the world, normal and recognizable, save this one difference’. The age of acceleration is always pushing us forward, we’re always living in a recently arrived future. Embracing that dissonant “not quite here”-ness means embracing the “not quite realness” of the proposition or the slightly more substantive “not yet real” of Kickstarter videos and beta software. The importance of the platform proposition is to help create small alternative interventions in the logic of the platform, the agreement of the reality that it requires, and to help us see what those platforms are becoming and how we become a part of them.

You don’t know what kind of technology a technology truly is until you see what kind of society that technology requires to actually be completely realized. There’s more to explore than just the computation that builds the platform or the inner workings of the platform itself, there’s the small but rather urgent matter of what these platforms mean in our society and, even more vital, what kinds of alternatives platforms we might need. One of the strange privileges afforded to art that originates from its communal origins is the ever present possibility that it can exist outside of capitalism as we know it. Design springs from industrialized production, architecture is married to governance and the state, most forms of organized creativity are in one way or another inextricably bound to logics that constrain them. The logic that binds the artwork to the humans around it is always up for debate, always negotiable. So sure, only one artist gets to be the artist that makes the proposition but anyone can pick up a well-made proposition and apply it and in that we can see a remarkably equitable and generous mode of art-making and art-participating and in that it is a vehicle for optimism and hope.

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