6. CONCLUSION solving the problem
I wanted to make this book critical, but not pessimistic. Accordingly, I have been searching for art that actually achieves the core goals of deconstructive art spelt out by Peter Bürger (1984) and reinforced by recent texts such as Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) and Bishop’s critical history of installation art (2005). The great failing of Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde is its relentless pessimism. Strip away the pessimism and one has an outstanding aesthetic analysis. Whereas Bürger focuses his attention of the problems confronting the deconstructive art project the purpose of this concluding chapter is to point to solutions. But before so doing I will summarise some of the key points that have been made in the book.
The survey of contemporary installation art in this book has revealed that contemporary fine art is not especially well equipped to attain the most difficult and enduring ethico-aesthetic goals of the deconstructive project: interaction with the viewer and with everyday life. It has been shown that there are two main tactics whereby contemporary installation art strives for interactivity: first, the ‘writerly’ text, the nonlinear narrative that offers the viewer an intellectual puzzle through which he or she can admire the ingenuity of the artist-individual; second, the immersive, sensuous installation. Immersive installations such as Janssens’ mist installations and Eliasson’s The Weather Project not only provide the viewer with spectacular visual immersive experiences but, equally importantly, they undermine the maximum security of the gallery/museum regime. The same can be said for John Bock’s construction of a labyrinthine gallery within a gallery for Klutterkammer at ICA. But installations that immerse to the point of overcoming the panoptic regime of the art museum are rare.
Most fine art installation takes the form of the nonlinear narrative text composed of objects arranged in a gallery that the viewer is expected to piece together. The relationship of this strategy to the history of fine art become apparent if we understand such installations as three-dimensional pictorial projections that create ‘a picture that one can walk into’. But, of course, this is a modernist/postmodernist picture and so it is never a straightforward narrative (a Renaissance-like window on the world) it is always nonlinear (post-Cubist) picture that one walks into.
Then there are the very exceptional instances when fine artists try to attain a more direct interaction with the viewer, one that is participatory rather than spectatorial. The instances I cited include Angela Bulloch’s beanbag chill-out zones and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s convivial gatherings. But it was argued that even these instances are examples of deconstructive creative games that the artist plays. In spite of a more ‘embodied’ involvement, the viewer remains in the role of someone who understands and admires the ingenuity of the artist. Fundamental to both Bulloch’s bean bag works and Tiravanija’s ‘convivial’ gatherings (Bourriaud 2002) is the game of deconstructing the sanctum of the gallery, and that game is reserved for those who have been awarded the status of fine artist. The viewers remain outsiders even when dining with Tiravanija. One can compare Bulloch and Tiravanija’s ‘transgressive’ tactics with playful assaults on the fabric of the art gallery such as Richard Wilson’s Water Table, 1994, for which he dug a large hole in the floor of Matt’s Gallery in London, or Elmgreen and Dragset’s Spaced Out/Powerless Structures, 2003, when they dismantled the walls of the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt (Portikus 2003).
Contemporary installation art is characterised by a shift from the serious critique of the art institution evident in the 1960s and early 1970s to what might be called institutionalised transgression: a convivial, playful deconstruction of the art system. Another quintessential instance of this phenomenon which I have cited is Maurizio Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999.
Of all the strategies used by contemporary installation art the most solid, dependable and available is the nonlinear narrative strategy, which is not only evident in installation art but also contemporary video art. Nonlinear narrative puzzles are often rewarding to the informed reader but the difficulty of reading such texts also has the effect of making fine art appear aloof and elitist. On the other hand this could be considered to be one of the advantages of the non-narrative text, in the sense that it bestows intellectual credibility upon both the maker and the reader. This is, certainly, one identifiable feature that separates fine art from most mass mediated visual culture. I have spent quite some time looking at the nonlinear narrative strategy in this book. But although there is significant intellectual ‘fulfilment’ in such preoccupation one is also aware that using the nonlinear text as a species of private language might not be the best way of bringing art into everyday life. There ought to be more concern for the reader from the artist’s point of view. Indeed, one could compare the lack of concern for the reader often evident in the nonlinear text with the box-like, grid-structured, geometrical architecture of modernism which demanded that people adapt to it rather than it adapting to people. Systems which are not flexible tend to collapse in the manner of Pruitt-Igoe or Soviet communism. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to assume that the sweet spot on the narrative continuum lies somewhere in between the two poles that are the linear and the nonlinear. At that point lies a balance between a concern for the viewer-reader and scope for creative play with narrative structure. This is the stopping point, for example, for all but the most avant-gardist literature. And it can be noted that the term ‘avant-gardist’ possesses the connotation of total artistic freedom, in the sense of total freedom from any concern for the viewer. That definition of avant-gardism is radically introspective as opposed to a socially oriented extrospection.
One of the few instances that I cited where an artist did achieve viewer interactivity and interaction with everyday life was Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000. He was able to square the circle of avoiding the trap of an overly obvious narrative while preserving accessibility. And he did this via the strategy of the creative game. What is exceptional about Vectorial Elevation is that the artist did not devise a game that the artist plays and we admire. Instead Lozano-Hemmer designed a participatory creative game, complete with socio-political connotations. Vectorial Elevation can be described as digital interactive installation art, which is a subset of the field we can label ‘media art’. And within this field it is not at all unusual to find participatory creative games. Moreover, such engagements often extend outside the boundaries of the art institution into everyday life. In short, interactive media art can achieve the most difficult goals which fine art has found so insuperably difficult to attain. Media art, which includes digital interactive art, is actually solving the most serious problems confronting fine art so trenchantly outlined by Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984 orig. 1974).
One might ask then, why is it that none of the glossy texts on contemporary installation art (Bishop 2005; Rosenthal 2003; De Oliveira et al. 2003; De Oliveira et al. 1991) treat interactive installation art such as the work of Lozano-Hemmer? The reason for the exclusion is interesting, it is because Lozano-Hemmer is not perceived as fine artist, he is not a member of that exclusive club. He works instead in the parallel universe of media art. And in the same way that an object is only a work of art when it is accepted within an art gallery/museum it is also the case than an individual only becomes a professional fine artist when he or she is accepted into the fine art system.
The institutionalisation of transgression within the fine art world has led to a tightening of the discursive boundaries, an exclusivity, that has led to the evolution of an entirely new art system: the media art system with its own institutions and international exhibitions, conferences and workshops. These are mostly not attended by the fine art community. As a cultural theorist I can cross boundaries, and have attended events in this parallel universe. I can report that they are marked by more of a sense of creative community as opposed to exclusivity. There is also a sense of creative experimentation and interdisciplinariness wherein art, design, video, and music can intermingle and interact.
Media art is younger and less established than fine art. It does not have the support of the fine art institutional structures constructed over the course of the twentieth century—museums, international exhibitions, prizes, publishers, writers or the international art fairs filled with wealthy bijou hunters. But the success of media art in achieving the goal of interactivity that fine art finds so extremely difficult to achieve is impossible to ignore, unless one is enmeshed within the careerist sphere of fine art, as most fine artists and curators are.
Whereas fine art finds interaction with the viewer and everyday life an insuperable problem, media art thrives on it. Media art has become the new radical mode of art—the new avant-garde, one without the disdain for the viewer evident in the old avant-garde. Media art has become art without the fine, without the weight of tradition that Walter Benjamin pointed to so presciently when he spoke of the ‘aura’ and ‘cult value’ of fine art (1973 orig. 1936). What we are witnessing at the turn of the millennium is a bifurcation of art into two branches.
But it is also the case that although fine art and media art are following different paths they still have much in common. Most particularly, they have the history of deconstructive art in common which stretches back from art of the 1960s to Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. If we look closely at media art we find that it is less about media in itself than it is about mediation, about inclusivity and bringing art into life. And goals such as these engender strong resonances within the more intelligent quarters of the fine art community.
It is possible that at some point the two branches—fine art and media art—will intersect but this will probably take one or two generations. The fusion seems inevitable given the tremendous force and extent of the advance of digital visual technology. We are living within a postindustrial revolution and it is bound to impact at some point on visual ‘high culture’. In fact it is already happening because video art is, with sculptural installation, one of the most prominent forms of contemporary fine art practice. One wonders, therefore, why video is accepted as a fine art form whereas so-called ‘media art’ is not.
One reason is that a significant number of video artists subscribe to the notion that fine art is fundamentally a demonstration of the ingenuity of the artist-individual. Media art, in contrast, seems less concerned with authorship and more concerned with involving the viewer and everyday life. Media art is fundamentally interactive, whereas fine art (including videographic fine art) is fundamentally authorial: author-centric as opposed to viewer-centric; which entails sociocentricity.