Such considerations lead us to consider another key difference between media art and fine art. Whereas the fine artist at the turn of the millennium exhibits an abhorrence of function, media art possesses strong liaisons with design. If we think this is a little too practical or pragmatic for artists to be concerned with, we should remember that the most socially relevant phase of fine art in the first half of the twentieth century occurred when movements such as De Stijl, Constructivism and the Bauhaus dissolved the boundaries between art, architecture and design. For all its problems (and there are always problems when dealing with the real world) this was a high point in the history of modern/postmodern fine art. From Dada and Surrealism onward, deconstructive aesthetics gave up the productive liaison between art and design in favour of an exploration of pure creative play, non-functionality, and games that the artist could play and be admired for. Games such as the Readymade and ‘transgression’ within the context of the gallery/museum spawned a multitude of variations since the 1960s, indeed an entire book could be written on that topic alone. It is therefore extremely interesting to see that a zone of art—media art—marginalized by the contemporary fine art system is not only achieving the goals of involving viewers and bringing art into life but is also returning to the liaison between art and design that characterises the most socially relevant phase in the history of modern art.
So in what ways does media art involve the viewer and bring art into everyday life? For the rest of this concluding chapter I will outline some ways in which media art achieves the goals that I have shown contemporary fine art finds so extremely difficult to tackle.
One can identify three key differences between media art and fine art: First, media art has a more collaborative orientation. Even when an individual artist guides the project they work with other people in manner that goes beyond even the groundbreaking fine art of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Unlike fine artists such as Tiravanija, media artists do not position themselves within the fine art system by using art gallery spaces, they position themselves in the world outside the art gallery using the alternative institutional structure offered by the emerging media art infrastructure.
Second, there is often no unique art product. What we have most often is an event, or series of events. Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art thesis (1973 orig. 1936) remains true today: only mass producible visual media can break the precious object barrier that ensures the continued social segregation of fine art production. But with regard to the label ‘media art’ it is often the case that the actual art action does not depend on media tools in itself but is merely recorded and represented via media tools such as video and internet.
Third, and finally, rather than being gallery-bound, and incessantly self-referential (e.g., the eternal return of the Readymade syndrome) media art is often resolutely focused on the world outside the gallery doors. We can now address some real world examples of art that finally confronts the issues of bringing art into life head on.
The Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) is a project sponsored by the Eyebeam new media foundation in New York. Institutional funding for such a project is somewhat paradoxical because GRL is an instance of what might be called an ‘art resistance movement’. We need to understand Eyebeam as a very different art institution to the commercial gallery or state funded museum because its principal orientation is media art rather than fine art.
The fact that GRL had such institutional backing has meant that a sector of the graffiti community have considered GRL as losing street credibility. But when compared with contemporary fine art practice their work is revolutionary. In an exhibition at the OK Centrum für Gegenwartskunst (OK Centre for Contemporary Art), Linz, Austria, 2006, a video of GRL’s activities was accompanied by Plexiglas vitrines of the tools of their trade. These include a video projector connected to a car battery via a powerful transformer so that the group can engage in video graffiti ‘bombing’ of public spaces. Instances shown were skyscrapers in New York and the Arc de Triumph in Paris.
One of the GRL’s most popular inventions is their LED throwies project, which is a species of relational-interactive game. The LED throwie consists of a flat battery about 1.5 cm (0.66 inch) in diameter, it’s the kind of battery that keeps a desktop computer clock ticking. These batteries are readily available and inexpensive but long-lasting. Next there is a small disk magnet the kind used for sticking notes and other objects onto fridge doors. Finally there is a large (1cm high) LED which can be in various colours. The three elements are bound together and insulated with a strong weatherproof adhesive tape (fibreglass ribbon reinforced recommended). When completed this glowing device can be thrown onto any magnetic surface such as a bus or a building or a public statue. GRL organise LED throwie parties in which people make the throwies and then go out at night to cover the urban environment with them. The results are visually very pretty and, in addition, there is an important social dimension. This is not only an instance of Bourriaudian ‘conviviality’ it is also a statement about collective presence within an administered urban environment in which people are surrounded and dwarfed by monuments to transpersonal corporate power.
LED throwie nights are convivial but they also an expression of what Foucault would call ‘resistance’ to institutional power. Moreover, because the throwies are easily detached, they do not constitute vandalism. One might think this is ‘not art’ but let’s quote Bourriaud speaking about a work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and quoting Gonzalez-Torres: ‘the appearance of the string of electric lights is connected with a secret vision that occurred in Paris in 1985: “I looked up and immediately took a picture, because it was a happy sight.”’ (2002: 55). If Gonzalez-Torres’ attraction to a string of electric lights can be ‘a secret vision’ (why do fine artists always have a ‘secret vision’ when the rest of us just have vision?) then why not GRL’s?
What is most important about GRLs projects is that they involve people not inside the sanctum of the art gallery but in the urban environment. This avoids the by now well-known strategy wherein the artist stages events inside the gallery/museum so that he or she can exploit the fact that whatever is sanctioned by the art gallery is framed as a work of art. In a sense GRL are doing the same because they are under the umbrella of Eyebeam, but such institutional framing seems highly positive when it is engaged in consciousness raising in a public, social context.
And if the reader still wants to question whether GRL’s work is art then the fact that an archaeological installation of GRL’s work was exhibited in the OK Centre of Contemporary Art affords it that status. And GRL’s is not a silly game whereby some clever artist places a pile of junk on the gallery floor in order to give the Readymade wheel one more spin. GRL is a much more ethico-aesthetically sophisticated enterprise.
We appreciate fine art for the beauty or interest of the aesthetic object, we appreciate relational-interactive art for its capacity to involve people and intervene in everyday life. But that raises an issue, which is I have never been involved in an actual GRL event, I have only watched the video and looked at the artefacts. So I have had what could be called a museum experience of this work. The difference is, however, that the objects I looked at are not poetic, or metaphorical, allegorical or fictional. They are, instead, documentary. The work of art is not inherent in the object as is the case in the work of fine art it is inherent in the social action that is documented.
With regard to the question of whether art such as GRLs could ever become assimilated by the fine art system, I think it could do so quite easily. I could quite easily imagine an art dealer selling one of the vitrines in the OK Centre for Contemporary Art as ‘conceptual’ or ‘situational’ sculpture. If the money generated was then channelled into further consciousness raising projects one could hardly complain.
Another work by GRL worth mentioning is their Postal Chairs project. This project was based on the discovery that there were public spaces in New York City that were not being used due to the fact that there were no amenities. In the GRL video they cite the NYC government website:
The 1961 NYC Zoning Resolution encouraged private developers to provide spaces for the public … as relief from certain building height and setback restrictions: ‘41 percent are of marginal utility’ and ‘inaccessible or devoid of the kind of amenities that attract public use’ (www.nyc.gov) This unusable public space makes up the equivalent of 21 football fields in NYC. (GRL 2006)
GRL’s tactic was simple they obtained a quantity of large Express Mail boxes which are made of a tough cardboard and taped them together with packing tape to make small inexpensive yet sturdy and functional chairs that could be placed in the designated public spaces, quite legally, for people to sit in. The GRL video shows the Robert Indiana’s red painted metal Love sculpture on 6th Avenue, NYC, surrounded by Express Mail box chairs with people sitting on them eating sandwiches and reading newspapers. It is an extremely simple intervention but one that speaks volumes regarding the lack of concern for community evident in a corporate mentality bound by law to have as its primary object of concern the financial gain of its stockholders.