The artists I have treated up to this point are marginal within the world of fine art, but that can change. And nobody would want to deny any artist the considerable benefits that the fine art system can offer. But the main reason for continually turning to the fine art system is not simply because of its power, its economic magic, the Midas touch that Benjamin called ‘aura’ and ‘cult value’. There is another reason for my continual return to fine art which is that the fine art system also has a collective mind and a collective conscience and what media artists art doing today is fed by what deconstructive fine artists did in the 1960s and 1970s and back into the early twentieth century. There is an umbilical cord connecting media art with the history of deconstructive art. And because of this the fine art world is not entirely closed to media art. There is a trickle of interconnection and one instance of this is the phenomenon that is Oda Projesi.
Oda Projesi is a Turkish art collective consisting of three women: Özge Açikkol. Günes Savas, Seçil Yersel. Their work, like the other work examined in this chapter, is communalist. Oda Projesi began in a very simply manner by renting a room Sahkulu Street, Galata, Istanbul. The group did two things that constitute a quantum step beyond traditional avant-gardism: firstly this room was for other artists to exhibit in, not themselves; and, secondly, they made contact with their neighbours and consulted with them regarding the types of exhibition that should be staged in the gallery. And typically for media artists, they document all of their activities with video and credit all the principal participants. Their website reports that this initial project was intended ‘to function as a milieu where all artists or non-artists, art viewers or non-art viewers can make a contribution, partly aware, and partly vague about their position.’ (Oda Projesi 2000: 1). The room became a space for avant-gardist art but without the elitism and concomitant individualism that haunts the world of fine art. In the instances of the Institute for Infinitely Small Things and Oda Projesi one can sense the feminine virus beginning to inoculate fine art against the cancer of self-absorption that is its patriarchal legacy.
Oda Projesi explain that in their first project in 2000 the group functioned: ‘as a field that exposed how the work of art acquired a place in everyday life, within a public space, and how it was coded with different meanings, thus engendering new readings’ (Oda Projesi 2000: 2). For A Day in the Room, 2000, Oda Projesi member Günes Savas facilitated one day’s activity in the room with people (children) from the neighbourhood. This series was realised without spectators and documented by video footage. One of the artists, Gunes Savas, decorated the room guided by one of the neighbourhood children. The walls were painted rose and an armchair was placed in the centre. The little girl was given a doll and a video camera. Another camera was fixed on the door. The girl was left alone for an hour ‘watched and watching’ via the cameras she is shown ripping up the doll ‘though she knew she was being watched then she hid the doll under the armchair she pretended to cry, she observed how she looked by checking the camera’s screen so all her moves were self-conscious and took the camera into consideration’ (Oda Projesi 2000: 2). This piece has the flavour of an experiment in social psychology because, of course, the girl was not alone and basically put on a play for the viewers.
For the sixth project also involved children but in connection with fine art. The group accidentally made contact with the Istanbul artist Komet whose work consisted of famous painters’ names. This idea seems appropriate for a project with the neighbourhood children who could create ‘second-hand Komets'’. Komet also participated by painting a work with the name ‘Momet’. On 23 April 2000 the paintings were taken out of the room as Sahkulu Street, Galata, and carried in a parade all the way from Tunel, Galatasaray and Beyolu to Dulcinea the exhibition site for a day long exhibition together with a party and feast. The sale of the paintings was designed to supplement the education expenses of the children. After that the work was exhibited in Oda Projesi’s room for three weeks.
Like the Institute for Infinitely Small Things Oda Projesi is a fascinating recent development at a problematic period in the history of deconstructive art. What is particularly interesting about Oda Projesi is that it is building up a considerable profile in the world of fine art appearing in various international fine art exhibitions probably because they fit Bourriaud’s prescription for relational aesthetics better than the artists he identifies in his book. Oda Projesi are in a very real sense part of a quiet revolution but what they are doing is currently more typical of media art than fine art practice. The media art orientation of their activity is evident in its interactivity and in their use of video to document their work. And the label ‘media art’ is almost as problematic as ‘fine art’ because of its connections with mass media. But one would not describe an Oda Projesi video as ‘entertainment’. But this is not really an issue for a fine art audience. We look at such activities not as a source of visual pleasure but as the opening up of a new dimension for art practice.
Media art is not about media so much as using media as a socially relevant tool. This is especially evident in the work of The Raqs Media Collective. The collective was founded in 1991 in New Delhi, India, by Monica Narula (b. 1969), Jeebesh Bagchi (b. 1965) and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (b. 1968). Raqs works in new media & digital art practice, documentary filmmaking, photography, media theory & research, writing, criticism and curating. The question arises then as to whether any of this has anything to do with fine art. What can be said is that the Raqs Media Collective were included in the international art exhibition Documenta 11 in 2002, and that gives us a precedent to discuss them here, if not in terms of fine art then in terms of art, which I would argue strongly is significantly more important than the issue of being fine.
A decade after their formation, in 2001, the Raqs Media Collective together with Ravi Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram founded The Sari New Media Initiative. Sarai is a program of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies at the University of New Delhi (http://www.sarai.net). Sarai seems to have become the Raqs Media Collective’s major achievement, and has engaged in community art projects such as Cybermohalla (mohalla = dense urban neighbourhood). This entailed working with young people living in slum settlements and working class neighbourhoods in New Delhi. According to Sarai literature:
It has witnessed the confident articulation of the visions of two groups of young people (aged between 15 and 25 years old) at the mainly Muslim squatter settlement of the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP), Basti … in central Delhi, and the primarily Dalit re-settlement colony of Ambedkar Nagar at Dakshinpuri in south Delhi . … The LNJP Basti is a decades old illegal settlement in the heart of the city. The denizens of LNJP Basti have no legal status as a result of which they face constant police harassment and the threat of eviction. The Dakshinpuri settlement is legal, but is home to endemic unemployment and low income jobs, and a culture of criminality born out of the desperate pressure to maintain the necessities of urban life. (Sarai 2006)
The local detail even in this short passage indicates to what extent socially oriented art requires community engagement and local knowledge rather than sweeping utopian generalisations. But it is in the next sentence that we find something that seems applicable anywhere in the world:
For groups of young people to find spaces for reflection and creativity in sites such as these is an act of everyday intransigence in the face of an increasingly cruel urban environment. (Nancy Adjania 2006)
This sentence is a remarkably concrete formulation of the deconstructive art project to bring art into life. The idealism of the goal of ‘bringing art into life’ actually attains a definition: to provide a space for reflection and creativity within an alienated urban environment. This seems as true for the Graffiti Research Lab, Oda Projesi and The Institute for Infinitely Small Things as it is for Sarai.
The Cybermohalla project provides media skills and equipment to enable the youths to explore, reflect and represent their environment in a politically aware manner: articulating the ‘consequences of what happens to cities when the spaces in them become cordoned off and gated’ and how such exigencies can be coped with and resisted.
Cybermohalla is so deeply socio-political that it raises the question of whether it is art at all. In chapter three I quoted Thomas Hirschhorn’s candid admission that ‘one thing has always been clear for me: I am an artist and not a social worker.’ (in Doherty 2004: 137). This is a useful observation because if we take Hirschhorn at face value then Cybermohalla is not art but ‘social work’. What we uncover here is the narrowness of the contemporary avant-gardist, who is content with onanistic political expression rather than a mode of action that might be of concrete social benefit. Instead the museum-bound fine artist preaches to the bourgeoisie what they already know. We must bow, however, to the wisdom of Hirschhorn because he is a canonised fine artist who will enter into the history books (how he will be treated by critical art historians is another question).
Art appears to be at a crossroads at the turn of the millennium. One route involves a capitulation with tradition, the other a continuation of the deconstructive project. Fine art appears to have capitulated with the core values that sustain it, which is not surprising given the rewards. Media art, digital art, interactive art on the other hand have become the new avant-garde. And like the avant-garde of the 1960s they are marginalized. But unlike art of the 1960s interactive and socially oriented media art is setting up its own institutions and creating a space for itself within the academic community. This may mean that interactive media art will not be eventually absorbed into the fine art system. It may also mean that as fine artists become more aware of the media art community there could be a degree of defection from fine art to media art.
The other significant feature of interactive media art is that it is a field that overlaps with media design, which recalls the productive liaison between fine art, architecture and design in the socially oriented art movements of the early twentieth century: De Stijl, Constructivism and the Bauhaus. Contemporary fine art, in contrast, has become almost totally aestheticist. What is especially interesting about the relationship between media art and design is that the focus on interaction means that there is more concern for the users than was the case in modernist design.
One can also mention the phenomenon of digital convergence in which many different art forms have taken on a digital dimension: photography, video, film, animation, design, architecture, and music. The intersection of these dimensions in the digital medium mean that interrelationships between different art forms are evolving. This gives another facet to the meaning of the term ‘media art’, which is that it represents a dissolution of the traditional boundaries between media. Digital convergence in media art encompasses and interrelates a wide variety of media. One can cite for example the interaction of music and visual art in the work of Ryoichi Kurakawa, Toshio Iwai and Yvonne Cornelius (Niobe).
What we have then is an exciting and substantive new artistic dimension emerging and expanding in the new millennium. One wonders how long it will take for the now somewhat cloistered world of fine art to hear about it.