Antoni Abad is a media artist based in Barcelona. I can call him an artist because his work has been shown at the Venice Biennale. And here one can make the point that mega-exhibitions such as the burgeoning of international biennials and Documenta are currently a very positive force for deconstructing the traditional concept of fine art by expanding its boundaries.
Abad is a media artist who works with marginalized communities giving the people concerned a voice. In Mexico he worked with taxi drivers drawn to their bad reputation. He has also worked with the disabled, prostitutes and gypsies. In 2005 he was commissioned by the Centre d'Art Santa Monica in Barcelona to create a project in that city. For his project he obtained sponsorship from Nokia and the Spanish mobile telecom provider Amena so that he could provide forty people with disabilities with camera mobile phones. This enabled them to photograph every obstacle they come across on the city's streets. Each of the photographs was transmitted back to Abad with an address closest to the location of the obstacle which Abad was able to specify on a postal map supplied by the Barcelona council (GPS being unusable in many of Barcelona’s streets). The result is a map of the inaccessible parts of the city that is of practical value to the disabled community. But the project also has a social-political dimension and drew the attention of the city council to problems it had previously ignored. The city set up a counter website showing areas which are disabled accessible, which is also of practical use for that community, but the primary value of the project is that of giving greater visibility and voice to a marginalized group. Thomas Hirschhorn who sees himself as a fine artist would probably look down on Abad a ‘social worker’ (see chapter three) but that is more a reflection on Hirschhorn than on Abad.
The history of deconstructive art is one of expanding the definition of art, leading us to the point where being framed by an art institution is the principal means by which we can tell whether or not the work is art. In the case of Abad the fact that it was commissioned by the progressive Centre d'Art Santa Monica, and the fact that Abad’s work has been shown at the Venice Biennale indicates that we can, indeed, call it art. But there is something beyond such framing which is an enduring aesthetic idea: the idea of breaking down the barrier between art and life. It is really this idea which lies at the heart of deconstructive art that enables us to call what Abad is doing ‘art’. But we could just as easily call it design, setting it within the context of urban planning. One can see here how close media art is to design and to what extent this resonates with the long lost liaison between art, design and architecture that was at the heart of utopian modernism. We no longer have much faith in mechanistic utopianism but we still have a desire to make society better. And Abad proves that an artist can contribute to this goal which has a long history in modern art. Abad’s website can be found on http://www.zexe.net
The Institute of Infinitely Small Things and Kanarinka Projects are collaborative creative ventures coordinated by the media artist Catherine D’Ignazio. Instead of working as an individual artist D’Ignazio collaborates with groups in situational ‘research art’, via the Institute and Kanarinka Projects. The Institute’s interests lie in the fields of psychogeography, public space, performative cities, experimental urbanism, social cartography and infinitely small things. The Institute conducts research via context, collaboration and microperformance. D’Ignazio defines microperformance as actions that have been disentangled from the representational structures of the traditional performing arts such as performers, audience, stage, specific duration, script, and so on, the Institute of Infinitely Small Things website elaborates:
Microperformance allows no outside and affords no audience—it always requires participants (everyone) to enact a politics, an ethics, and a sociality squarely within the real. The goal of microperformance is social transformation through the production of affect: to expand and reframe the real, to effect political change, and/or to invent new ways for being together in the world. (Kanarinka 2006)
Microperformance shifts performance art from its fine art focus on the individual performance artist to a more participatory, interactive, modality. In this sense microperformance evinces parallels with Foucault’s concept of micropolitics which refers to the way in which power relationships are exhibited in everyday human relationships in a manner that indicates the ways in which we are all woven into the web of power conceived of as a transpersonal and subliminal network of rules that influence how we behave (c.f. Judith Butler’s theory of performative identity) and how we think.
Micropolitics offers a new twist to the concept of expanding social consciousness that is one of the most valuable features of Marxist theory. The difference is that in Foucauldian terms it is never possible to grasp how things really are on a global scale because the observer is always immanent within, rather than transcendent over, the system it is observing. This lack of certainty distinguishes the Foucauldian from the Marxist position. In place of utopia there is uncertainty and unpredictability.
From the Foucauldian perspective schemes to create large scale social change are highly unpredictable, and awareness of that should be factored into such endeavours—which is often not the case. Foucault encouraged micropolitics at a local level due to the fact that we can understand and manipulate social situations better at that level. And one can appreciate that this decentralised model of governance is antithetical to the communist model. One might speak here of a localised, pragmatic communalism superseding globally oriented, utopian communism.
One of the Institute of Infinitely Small Things performative events was Corporate Commands@Dudley Square, 2005. This involved a collaboration with the Berwick Research Institute and Arts in Progress. Berwick Research Institute is non-profit, artist-run space located in Dudley Square, Roxbury, Massachusetts. It provides alternative programming and exhibition space for artists who work outside the commercial art world. Arts in Progress is an organisation that sets up arts residencies in schools and after-school programs in order to offer ‘opportunites for young people to learn and grow’. What is immediately interesting here is that the Institute of Infinitely Small Things appears to be forgoing the usual struggle to gain entry into the commercial gallery system in favour of community engagement.
Media artists do not necessarily want to be absorbed into the fine art system. There are certainly a significant number of fine art institutions, contemporary art spaces, enlightened art museums and international exhibitions that are favourable to such art. But there is also a growing network of alternative media art institutions. In addition, artists such as D’Ignazio and Abad have become as adept at gaining institutional support as aspiring fine artists are at cultivating curators and gallerists.
There is a prejudice against ‘community art’ in the fine art world which is understandable if one admits that the kudos of fine art is fed by its long history and its roots in the patronage of power (the church, monarchy, aristocracy and now capitalism). There is also the fact that, like literature, fine art can be intellectual. It is also the case, however, that the intellectual underpinnings of contemporary fine art are becoming seriously compromised.
In response to those who question the aesthetic status of communalism I would point them in the direction of the most discussed theoretical text to emerge out of fine art of the 1990s: Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002). If detractors read this text they will discover that the aspiration of the more enlightened fine artists at the turn of the millennium dovetails perfectly with communalism.
I will discuss one of the Institute’s microperformances: Corporate Commands@Dudley Square, 2005, took place in July 2005 in Dudley Square, Roxbury, Boston. It consisted of collecting and performing ‘corporate commands’ in the neighbourhood. The project was informed by the aesthetic strategy of psychogeography, defined by the French Situationists as ‘The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (Situationist International No. 1, 1958). Informing the Corporate Commands project is the notion that corporate slogans evident in ambient advertising can be deliberately misrecognised to creative effect. A statement from the Institute observes:
commands, largely and consciously ignored by a public oversaturated with advertisements, function at the scale of the infinitely small. Tiny events that do not disturb one’s consciousness or disrupt one’s identity as ‘free’ agents, these commands seep under the surface of the individual … Desire, memory, and future potentiality become territories for conquest and tactics for social and political control. (Hall 2006)
The aim therefore is to bring these infinitely small messages into consciousness and disrupt them not in the context of an art gallery but in the environment of the everyday via interpersonal interaction. One instance is a slogan used by the American mobile phone company Cingular Wireless who use the word ‘Rollover’ referring to their scheme whereby unused minutes can be carried over from one month to another for a period of a year. The Institute for Infinitely Small Things organised a social performance in which a row of white-coated researchers from the Institute lay on the pavement of a commercial street underneath a Cingular Wireless advertisement with the ‘Rollover’ slogan. Their bodies blocked the way of passers by but when a pedestrian came near the researchers called out ‘rollover’ and physically rolled over to let the person pass. More researchers with clipboards would then explain the action to passers who exhibited interest in what was going on.
It is noteworthy that the use of playfulness and humour rather than deadly serious political intention is a general characteristic of the new generation deconstructive art at the turn of the millennium. This playfulness is similar to the ‘conviviality’ that is a leitmotif throughout Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002). But The Institute for Infinitely Small Things is closer to the Situationist International than to Rirkrit Tiravanija, but with a more feminine touch. The Institute has as its goal an expansion of political awareness within the context of one of the most sophisticated and pervasive brain-washing machines in human history, the American mass media. We may think we can see through the lies promulgated by such media but there is also a pervasive sense of powerlessness in late capitalist society. The gentle gestures of the Institute are a long way from the machismo of ‘aesthetic terrorism’ but the theory is that humour and convivial contact with the public will be more effective means of expanding political awareness in the long run.