Missing Links

Timothy Druckrey

"When Sontag celebrated camp, and when Warhol, around the same time, elevated soup cans into art, they crossed the once-forbidden line separating high and low culture. Three decades later, the line is gone, and so is any sense of irony. Today's pop devotees seem weirdly sincere -- and that's what makes them so compelling."  Deborah  Salomon: In Praise of Bad Art  (NYTimes, 1/26/99)

Claims for the death of irony often come ornamented with the pompous forms of sanctimony, moral hypocrisy, or reactionary aesthetics that typify times of social instability. Indeed, pious sincerity characterizes the end of the millennium in a way that seems oddly compulsive, distinctly pathetic, and as much a signifier of anxious righteousness as it is one of unlikely stability. How else can we conceptualize the astonishing turns characterized by the attempt to retrieve aspects of a century whose sheer destructiveness is paralleled by unprecedented disorder. Indeed, the cumulative effects of 20th century modernity is surely the topic for a massive reflection on the century that began with the split of the atom and ended with atomic sculpture. It also ends with a kind of rendezvous with speculative digital technologies,  rhetorically destined to bring fruition to computational or algorithmic life.

Salomon's essay, In Praise of Bad Art, hailed a reactionary trend to celebrate schlock mediocrity and emerged as a kind of apology for the misunderstanding of tastelessness for meaninglessness. But a capitulation to "bad art" is a ridiculous form of retreat, and the attitude represented by the Salomon article, and particularly the phrase "weirdly sincere," strikes a kind of oxymoronic chord that is supported by an avalanche of unfortunate electronic  metaphors and outlandish virtual interpretations in a time in which the boundaries between the imagination and technology crumble in strained artistic posturing, lamentable curatorial narratives, and tortured -if not preposterous- notions of variability.

So instead of "variable media" how about viable media, media not drowned by artistically useless demands for upgradable usability, not hounded by domineering state-of-the-art implementations, not 'normalized' by institutional imperatives for stable performance, not limited by demands that they be on the web or not in line, on the screen or out of sight, or not "reduced," as Kittler notes, "to surface effects, known to consumers as interface."

The drive to continue developing resistance to an over-hyped 'necessity' to root contemporary media art on the web or find persuasive alternatives to the managed ideologies of so many institutional-new-media-initiatives is a continuing saga. Indeed, the willing misinterpretation and refunctioning of media could easily be misread as Luddism or technophobia. Yet it is clear that an assault on the 'triumphs' of technical reason, can expose more than the imperfections of technology. It can extend the normative and blissfully functional ideology of technology into destabilized, ruptured, and absurd systems more laughable than logical, more possible than rational. Often instantiating their possibilities, assimilating their available techniques, and equally often parodying their optimisms, resistant media often serves as both caution and possibility, evolving a critical relationship with a field fueled by relentless, often reckless, and generally unconceptualized development. Suffering from mainstream marginalization, this so-called 'alternative media' has become the centerpiece of many initiatives in the territories of electronic media.

This has led, after decades of substantial consideration, to a burgeoning discourse of media archaeology in an attempt to rethink marginalized or abandoned technologies eclipsed by the corporate spectacles of cinema, television, IMAX, etc., etc. Easily rationalized as "retro," the more pertinent understanding of this move to retrieve and utilize "dead media" could be understood as a willingness to counteract the drive to ubiquitous and incessant obsolescence and an unwillingness to sustain the imperatives of corporate R&D's desperate interest to market innovation. As evident in web media as it is in the music scene, the ability to outdistance crumbling marketing models is revealed by the inconceivable over-valuation of virtualization so evident in the media biz. Circumventing this system is one of the most potential after-effects of current media.

"As a hybrid of different technologies, VinylVideo™ reveals and connects a variety of media history alignments, combining art, science and technology, low-and high-tech and analog and digital elements to create a new vision (a breaking-open) of the limits of a medium, of consumer technology and of the artifacts of everyday life that quotes the contemporary renaissance of vinyl at the same time that it questions the expiration of technologies." Video, encoded as sound, is pressed onto vinyl records. A "black box" between the record player and a conventional TV interprets and plays the video. Usable as an element of a home entertainment system, VinylVideo™ can be understood as a gadget that can redeem archaic analogue playback while integrating itself with notions of the set-top-box and its intimations of interactivity.

Part subversion, part retrieval, VinylVideo™ stands on the border between the current frenzy for cut-and-paste home production and the nostalgia for pseudo-retro emerging in the reissue of the VW Beetle and its computational cousin the iMac. Posed as a "fake archeological relic of media technology," VinylVideo™ provokes a range of questions around the expectations of  "a fictitious technological past" (as Charles Gute suggested), the faux-status of innovation, the ploys (and plots) of advertising, the quotidian benefits of aesthetics, the esteem of media theory, the vacuous virtual venture of investment, and the participation of artist collaborators producing editions of "records" (Heimo Zobernig, Oliver Hangl, Annika Eriksson, Monoscope, Harald Hund, Visomat Laboric/Gereon Schmitz, Cut-Up/Geert Mul, Vuk Cosic/Alezej Shulgin, Andrea Lumplecker, Peter Haas, JODI, Lampalzer-Oppermann and Olia Lialina).

In refusing virtualization, VinylVideo™ avoids the dead-end of another web project destined for obsolescence by coyly integrating itself into the materialized and mechanical system of objects and the semiotics of the tele-visual. Often omitted from the discourses of state-of-the-art media theory, the flickering black and white images are both deeply coded by their intimations of authenticity and historically destabilized by the collapse of the broadcast ideology that sustained their so-called authority. This oscillation, between credibility and disavowal, surely characterizes an approach to media that straddles the line between the parodic and the farcical while proposing to reflect on the status of the image and the technologies that empower them. As Raymond Bellour writes:

"So the point would rather be to make this commonplace but necessary observation: there is no visual image that is not more and more tightly gripped, even in its essential, radical withdrawal, inside an audiovisual or scriptovisual (what horrid words) image that envelops it, and it is in this context that the existence of something that still resembles art is at stake today.  We are well aware, as Barthes and then Eco have been pointing out for some time now, and as was so admirably reformulated by Deleuze with an extraordinary emphasis on the image, that we are not really living in "a civilization of the image" -- even though pessimistic prophets have tried to make us believe that it has become our evil spirit par excellence, no doubt because it had been mistaken for an angel for such a long time. We have gone beyond the image, to a nameless mixture, a discourse-image, if you like, or a sound-image ("Son-Image", Godard calls it), whose first side is occupied by television and second side by the computer, in our all-purpose machine society."

(from: Eikon Magazine, 09-1999)