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Art vs Content

As part of the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), Darwin and Sydney were linked for a week through a project called The Portals featuring five telematic artworks.

I went to the Darwin base of the synchronous Sydney/Darwin launch and got a copy of the Portals program. One sentence about the artwork “Distributed Empire” by artists Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash has been resonating with me ever since:

“In the age of global networked data, nearly everyone in the developed world has signed away their rights to privacy in exchange for the privilege of tirelessly working, for free, to produce content for a handful of massive global data-capitalist corporations.”

An expanded version of this taken from the ISEA website reads:

“In this age of global networked data, nearly everyone in the developed world has signed away their rights to privacy … to produce content for a handful of massive global data-capitalist corporations – who delete none of it, ever, presenting nothing but the right-now, erasing history and context and replacing them with an endless parade of banal distraction. Our experience is presented back to us in a networked digital simulation so comprehensively distracting that it actually becomes our experience, an endless now without context, pure representation, the perfect visual medium for advertising nothing but itself; promising self-empowerment, this perfect simulation delivers nothing but … a need to produce more content for itself.”

Distributed Empire

The work itself takes data of participants’ faces (uploaded by partipicants) and mashes these together to form an endlessly morphing, network-generated image of a fuzzy, distorted “face”, symbolic of the de-personalising effect of contributing personal “content” to the data-stream. Aesthetically, it is not that exciting but conceptually, it really makes you think…

The exchange of content that is “pure representation…advertising nothing but itself” is the post-modern phenomenon Jean Baudrillard dubbed “simulation” (in Simulacra and Simulation, 1981) in which signs are circulated endlessly without any particular meaning or purpose but for this endless exchange.

This got me thinking about today’s seemingly fertile “art” scene – about how content is invariably being celebrated, often in the absence of what McLuhan would call “art”. Seduction of the audience (a nod, again, to Baudrillard) has apparently become the artist’s primary role in this global economy of “content” – thus the revival of burlesque (the art of seduction) and the sexiness/shock value of many contemporary artistic statements.

It may be harder than ever today, hacking through the forests of content proliferating on social media and data sharing/streaming sites, to remember the real purpose of the artist in the McLuhanist sense: to stay attuned to fluctuations in the media-environment and effectively awaken the public to these changes to enable clearer perception and control of that environment.

In this, the Portals artists have been most effective. I encourage you to check out their work at the ISEA site.

(Revised 27/06/13.)

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