Art + Thought / AF 2011 - Edward A. Shanken

Alternative Nows and Thens To-Be:  Re-imagining History to (Re)view the Future - Photography, New Media, and Art Historical Revision [1]
Edward A. Shanken

History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play on the dead. – Voltaire
The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. —Mark Twain
History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.  – Winston Churchill
The best way to predict the future is to invent it – Alan Kay

Without denying the factuality of actual events, the malleability of history is demonstrated by the many ways the canon of art history has been written and rewritten from the perspectives of ever-changing presents.  But this is also a two way street.  Just as every “now” arguably constructs an alternative “then,” so every “then” constructs an alternative “now.”  Moreover, every alternative “now” and “then” establishes a particular foundation for imagining the future.  This inevitably impacts the “nows” and “thens” to be; those that are yet to come.

My scholarship is deeply concerned with writing and rewriting the history of art. Academic writing in the humanities is predicated on a simple formula:  1) identify a problem; 2) discuss what other people have said about that problem; 3) articulate your own original perspective and argue in support of it.  Coming up with an original perspective that is compelling - even just to oneself - can seem like a gift from above.  Even if so blessed, convincing others that one’s position is worth considering can be an extraordinary challenge, one that is proportional to how far it diverges from the status quo.  But this is precisely what is required to influence people; in effect, to alter history.

So why bother?  Others’ ideas expand my understanding of the world, making my life more meaningful and, well, awesome, in the most literal sense.  By creating and sharing ideas I hope to have the same effect on others. My idealism goes even further, for I believe this process helps cultivate a more peaceful world. If we know more, are open to alternative world views, and can understand others’ perspectives, then perhaps we can be more sensitive, tolerant, and embracing of others.  The more we can embrace other individuals and cultures, the more difficult it becomes to harm each other and easier it becomes to reconcile our differences in a mutually beneficial way.  Although I can find little tangible evidence to support this belief, my commitment to it was reinforced when I heard Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, articulate a very similar position expressed in 2007 Regardless of our differences, the interconnectedness of world economic markets and the global perils of climate change make it clear that we are all in this together.

In what follows, I shall outline some of the strategies I have employed in my own attempts to rewrite history. The strategies I will focus on have to do with questioning categories and boundaries, especially distinctions based on binary oppositions.  These strategies will be illustrated with examples from my work on the history of art and technology, my book, Art and Electronic Media, and from my current research on bridging the gap between mainstream contemporary art and new media art.  I will analyze my work’s implications in terms of the idealistic aims mentioned above.  And I will frame this all in the context of how each present demands a reconfiguration of history, and how the revision of history enables new possibilities for the future.

Art in the Information Age
One of my strategies for historical revision concerns questioning categorical divisions that obscure parallels and continuities. It is important to make distinctions, lest everything all be an undifferentiated muddle.  At the same time, distinctions, boundaries, definitions and the like must be scrutinized with respect to the motivations behind them and the potential violence they impose on the people, places, and ideas that get the short end of the stick.  As sociologist Thomas F. Gieryn has written, “Boundary-work is strategic practical action …  Borders and territories … will be drawn to pursue immediate goals and interests… and to appeal to the goals and interests of audiences and stakeholders…”[2] Quoting Pierre Bourdieu, Gieryn further notes that such boundaries constitute “ideological strategies and epistemological positions whereby agents … aim to justify their own position and the strategies they use to maintain or improve it, while at the same time discrediting the holders of the opposing position and strategies.”[3]

As an example of putting these ideas into art historical practice, my essay “Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art” (2001) questions the sharp categorical distinctions that art historians have drawn between “conceptual art” and “art and technology.”[4] To this end, I analyze some of the ideological factors underlying how and why these practices became historicized as discrete. The 1970 Software exhibition, curated by Jack Burnham, serves as a key source of evidence for this research. The exhibition was predicated on the notion of software as a metaphor for experimental art practices that consist primarily of ideas, as opposed to materiality or hardware that characterized formalist aesthetics.  The exhibition included works of conceptual art, together with technological works of art, and technological devices that were not intended as works of art.  The exhibition itself thus questioned the categorical boundaries that have been set up between these various practices.  By reinterpreting works of conceptual art in Software as information processing systems, I propose that conceptual art and art and technology can be seen as sharing significant commonalities as early aesthetic manifestations of the so-called “information age.”  Following is a brief overview of my argument.

By the early 1970s, public interest in Art and Technology was waning dramatically, while interest in Conceptual Art was on the rise.  This disjunction contributed to exacerbating distinctions between these two artistic tendencies, rather than to identifying continuities between them.  For it stands to reason that artists, critics, dealers, curators, and collectors invested in internationally prestigious and increasingly valuable Conceptual Art would want to distance themselves from any association with Art and Technology, which, for many reasons, had become increasingly unfashionable and problematic.

In order to identify parallels and continuities between art and technology and conceptual art, I apply Burnham’s software metaphor to interpret conceptual artworks by Kosuth, Hans Haacke, and Les Levine as information processing systems.  Kosuth’s “Seventh Investigation (Art as Idea as Idea) Proposition One” (1970) included the same text in various international contexts:  a billboard in English and Chinese in the Chinatown neighborhood of lower Manhattan, an advertisement in The Daily World, and a banner in Turin, Italy.  The English billboard text, part of the Software exhibition, was comprised of a set of six propositions:

[1] to assume a mental set voluntarily.
[2] to shift voluntarily from one aspect of the situation to another.
[3] to keep in mind simultaneously various aspects.
[4] to grasp the essential of a given whole; to break up a given whole into parts and to isolate them voluntarily.
[5] to generalize; to abstract common properties; to plan ahead ideationally; to assume an attitude toward the ‘mere possible’ and to think or perform symbolically.
[6] to detach our ego from the outer world. [5]

Kosuth’s statement in the Software catalog emphasized his intention that the work not be able to be reduced to a mental image, but that it exist as information free of any iconography, “The art consists of my action of placing this activity (investigation) in an art context, (i.e. art as idea as idea).” [6]

The Software exhibition suggested a parallel between the way computer software instructs the operation of the hardware that runs it and how aesthetic information directs the activity of the human mind. [7] In this regard, I interpret Kosuth’s propositions as instructions or software in the brain or hardware of the viewer. [8] But whereas computer software has an instrumental relationship with respect to coordinating the operation of hardware, the artist’s propositions function as meta-analyses of the phenomenological and linguistic components of meaning.  In other words, they demand that the viewer examine the process of processing information, while in the process of doing so.  Though Kosuth did not draw on computer models of information processing, his investigations follow a logic that shares affinities with that model, while at the same time demanding a self-reflexivity that goes beyond it.

I claim that this critical attitude can be seen as constitutive of social transformations during the Information Age in general, and in the shift from an Industrial to Post-Industrial economic base.  Here semantic meaning and material value are not embedded in objects, institutions, or individuals, so much as they are abstracted in the production, manipulation, and distribution of signs.  These vast cultural and social changes have theoretical roots in cybernetics, information theory, and systems theory at mid-century, and the manifestations of those theories in digital computing and telecommunications.  By interpreting conceptual art and art and technology as reflections and constituents of the Information Age, I conclude that the two tendencies share important similarities, and that this common ground offers useful insights into a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary art.

Now, getting back to the overall theme of writing and rewriting history, and the importance of doing so – my utopian goals of making life more meaningful and helping cultivate world peace - an essay like this admittedly will not take us very far.  But I do think its implications extend beyond the debates pertaining to contemporary art.  If my work, and that of other intellectuals, can offer a model for successfully questioning and thinking across categorical boundaries, and if it can help others do the same, then perhaps it can contribute to advancing larger idealistic goals.

Art and Electronic Media
I am fascinated by the entwinement of art, science and technology, and especially the relationship between new media, art, and visual culture.  This area of artistic practice has expanded my understanding of the world, making my life, as I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, more meaningful and awesome.  And I want to share these amazing artworks with others in the hope that it will have the same effect on them.  Given this commitment, I have been frustrated by the exclusion of my field from the art historical canon.  For example, Art Since 1900 (2004) is a canonical text on modern and contemporary art by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, arguably the most powerful group of contemporary art historians in the US, if not the world.  The authors, however, are so unknowledgeable about, or antagonistic to, any sort of art that happens to use technological media that even the most major monuments in the discourses of media art history, such as Billy Klüver and E.A.T., are ignored. If Klüver and E.A.T. are unfamiliar to you, it is not your fault but rather demonstrates the problem.  People who should know these things, and have the authority and responsibility for disseminating this knowledge, have failed to do so.

My recent book, Art and Electronic Media, amounts to a canonical history of a dynamic, diverse, and rapidly growing area of artistic activity that has been largely ignored by the likes of Foster, Krauss, et al.  It attempts to enable the rich genealogy of art and technology in the 20th century - and beyond - to be understood and seen (literally and figuratively) as central to the histories of art, media, and visual culture. [9] While writing the book, I felt a profound sense of responsibility to do justice to the material and to represent the breadth of the field and its theoretical discourses as fairly, yet rigorously, as possible.

Consistent with my belief in challenging conventional boundaries, I organized the book thematically – rather than chronologically or by medium - in order to highlights continuities across periods, genres, and media.  I struck a balance between major figures and historical monuments from the early- and mid-20th century and more recent works by contemporary artists whose impact on the field remains uncertain.  Issues of race, nation, gender, and sexuality are integrally woven into the narrative fabric.  And the work of artists, designers, engineers, and institutions from more than thirty countries is represented.  By identifying non-artists – like engineers and institutions - as key actors, I mean to suggest, as Burnham did in Software, that art is continuous with, and contingent upon, factors that typically are considered external to it.  Similarly, I flatten market-based systems of value by seamlessly joining blue-chip contemporary artists such as Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, and Olafur Eliasson with major figures in new media art, such as Roy Ascott, Lynn Hershman, and Stelarc.  Because I strongly believe that artists play a vital role articulating aesthetic theories, especially in experimental art practices, most of the critical essays that I selected for the Documents section consist of artists’ writings. This highlights their theoretical contributions alongside those of critics and historians. [10]

Again, it is hard to see any tangible gains towards world peace.  I would be highly gratified simply to know that I turned some people on to ideas that helped make life more meaningful and awesome for them.  That must be a net positive in the cosmic karmic calculus.  Moreover, if the book can help shake off prejudices against the explicit use of technological media in and as art, if it can play a role in a canonical revision that redresses some unfortunate elisions from history, then it may also make possible alternative futures that are less ideologically constricted.  That scenario portends well for my more idealistic aims.

Hybrid Discourses
My current research even more directly attempts to bridge the gap between what I call mainstream contemporary art (MCA) and new media art (NMA). My goal is to forge a hybrid discourse that joins the best of both worlds, informing each other in a way that is mutually beneficial and fortuitous for art in general.  Inevitably, new media and the longer history of electronic art will be recognized by MCA, once a potential market for it is developed and promoted. [11] Proactively theorizing the issues and stakes involved may play an important role in informing how that merger unfolds.  As historian of photography John Tagg has noted of the reception of an earlier “new media,” the more experimental aspects of photography were not well-assimilated and the impact of the discourses of photography and contemporary art on each other was highly asymmetrical: the latter changed very little, while the former lost its edge in the process of fitting in. [12] Ji-hoon Kim has further observed that despite the extraordinary assimilation of video by MCA, much experimental film and video, particularly the sort of material championed by Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema (1970), and its progeny, has been excluded from mainstream museum shows, while being celebrated in exhibitions held in new media contexts. [13] Needless to say, many in the NMA community are wary of losing this critical edge in the process of assimilation…

For Art Basel in June 2011, I organized and chaired a panel discussion with Nicolas Bourriaud, Peter Weibel, and Michael Joaquin Grey, under the rubric, “Contemporary Art and New Media:  Toward a Hybrid Discourse?”. [14] That occasion demonstrated some challenges to bridging the gap between MCA and NMA.  One simple but clear indication of this disconnect was the fact that Weibel, arguably the most powerful individual in the world of NMA and Bourriaud, arguably the most influential curator and theorist in the world of MCA, had never met before.  Although I see significant parallels and overlaps between MCA and NMA (as do other theorists and curators), these worlds do not see eye-to-eye, no matter how much they may share the rhetoric of interactivity, participation, and avant-gardism.  Part of the challenge to reconciling these discourses may be related to the different historical narratives they adhere to and the divergent presents that are affirmed by them. I will argue that a narrative of contemporary art in which new media is a central component demands a different history that includes a reappraisal of key monuments.
Citing the example of photography and Impressionism, Bourriaud claimed that the influences of technological media on art are most insightfully and effectively presented indirectly, eg. in non-technological works.  As he wrote in Relational Aesthetics, “The most fruitful thinking … [explored] … the possibilities offered by new tools, but without representing them as techniques.  Degas and Monet thus produced a photographic way of thinking that went well beyond the shots of their contemporaries.” [15] On this basis, he states that, “the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers” (p. 67).  On one hand, I agree that the metaphorical implications of technologies have important effects on perception, consciousness, and the construction of knowledge and ways of being. [16] But on the other hand, this position exemplifies the historical, ongoing resistance of mainstream contemporary art to recognize and accept emerging media, a prejudice and boundary that demands careful scrutiny.

Photography, initially shunned as a bona fide form of fine art practice, became a central aspect of mainstream contemporary art practice a century later. This occurred not simply because photography was relatively unaccomplished compared to painting during the heyday of Impressionism (1874-86) as Bourriaud suggests.  Rather, the acceptance of photography was delayed primarily because of the rigid constrictions of the prevailing discourses of late 19th and early 20th century art, which were unable to see – literally and figuratively - beyond the mechanical procedures and chemical surfaces of the medium in order to recognize the valuable contributions it had to offer MCA of the time.  Although the Museum of Modern Art in New York collected its first photograph in 1930 and launched the Department of Photography as an independent curatorial division in 1940, photography remained a poor relation in comparison to painting and sculpture for another half century.  By the 1980s, changes in the discourses of MCA, collector attitudes and market conditions, and the practice of photography itself, resulted in the medium’s warm embrace by MCA (though not as photography per se, but as art that happened to be a photograph.) In the 2000s photography became highly collectible and expensive.  Average auction prices rose in value 285% from 1994-2008, with works by contemporary artists Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky reaching auction highs of $2.1 million and $3.3 million respectively. [17] Video, equally shunned at the moment of its emergence in the 1960s and now the darling of MCA curators, reached a market peak of over $700,000 for a work by Bill Viola in 2000. [18] Even at that price, in comparison with photography, video might still be vastly undervalued.

Bourriaud’s argument authorizes a particular history of photography aligned with a conventional history of art, in which technological media remain absent from the canon.  A history of art that accepts, if not valorizes, the explicit use of technological media, as in kinetic art and new media, will reconsider its precursors. In this scenario, one can imagine an alternative history of photography that celebrates the chronophotographic practices of Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, and Thomas Eakins concurrent with Impressionism.  This revisionist history will recognize that such work consists not just of the images produced, but of the complex and inextricable amalgam of theories, technologies and techniques devised in order to explore perception.  It will recognize, as well, the substantial transit of ideas between art and science (Marey was a successful scientist, whose work influenced Muybridge, who conducted extensive research at University of Pennsylvania and later collaborated Eakins, both artists deeply concerned with biomechanics.)  The important artistic, scientific, and hybrid art-science researches of these pioneers will be interpreted, moreover, as key monuments in and of themselves, not just as metaphorical inspirations for their contemporaries working with oil and canvas, as Bourriaud suggests.  It took decades, in fact, for these chronophotographic discoveries (to say nothing of the advent of cinema) to penetrate painters’ and sculptors’ studios.  And when they did, they infected art with both implied and explicit motion and duration, as in the work of Duchamp, Gabo, Wilfred, Boccioni, and Moholy-Nagy in the 1910s and 1920s, and subsequent influence on time-based art.

Bourriaud’s comparison of photography during the Impressionist era with computers and computer networking now is troubling for further reasons.  The Eighth (and final) Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 predates the introduction of Kodak #1 camera (1888), prior to which the practice of photography was limited to professionals and elite amateurs.  By contrast, new media started becoming a widespread, popular phenomenon by the mid-1990s, with the advent of the Web (1993) occurring five years prior to the publication of Relational Aesthetics in 1998 (the same year that E-mail became a Hollywood trope in You’ve Got Mail.)  Moreover, since 1890, photography and its extensions in cinema and television radically altered visual culture, saturating it with images.  The context of image production and consumption during the Impressionist era – and its impact on art – simply cannot be compared with how the image economy since the late 1990s has impacted art (to say nothing of how key artistic tendencies since the 1960s strategically shifted focus away from image-centered discourses.)  This is especially true since the advent of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s, when new media tools and corresponding behaviors have transformed the landscape of cultural production and distribution:  social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter now compete with search engines like Google and Yahoo for popularity, “prosumer” is a marketing term, and critics debate whether the Internet is killing culture or enabling powerful new forms of creativity. [19]

Bourriaud's position is, moreover, at odds with the actuality of what he curates and writes about. For if he genuinely embraces the so-called “post-medium condition” as he suggested at Art Basel, then the exclusionary prejudice against the use of technological media in and as art would not exist.  The curator would not favor indirect influences of technology on art.  His discussions and exhibitions of contemporary art would be blind to medium, and there would be no reason for this paper. But that is not the case.  Peter Weibel astutely picked up on Bourriaud’s distinction between direct/indirect influences and pointed out the inconsistency of valuing the indirect influence of technology while ignoring the direct use of technology as an artistic medium in its own right. Weibel provocatively labels this "media injustice."  Indeed, following Gieryn’s claim that “Boundary-work is strategic practical action,” the implicit/explicit dichotomy that Bourriaud constructs serves as a rhetorical device to elevate the former member of the pair – the lofty, theoretical ideal - at the expense of the latter – the quotidian, practical tool.  That epistemological logic of binary oppositions must be challenged and its artifice and ideological aims deconstructed, in order to recognize the inseparability of artists, artworks, tools, techniques, concepts and concretions as actors in a network of signification.

If we look back over the preceding paragraphs of this section and analyze not just what I have claimed but how I have made those claims, it will be clear that my argument deploys several strategies.  The institutional critique offers insights into alternative histories that refuse to accept museological or market criteria as a yardstick for artistic merit.  Rather, market criteria might better serve as a useful yardstick for measuring ‘media injustice.’  The interrogation of the implicit/explicit dichotomy challenges the epistemological foundations of Bourriaud’s position and reveals it as a rhetorical strategy in support of an ideological agenda.  Removing that prejudice, pervasive in the history of art, at once opens up an alternative history of photography and admits the explicit use of technological media in mainstream contemporary art. 

Indeed, I have maintained that a revised history authorizes (and demands) rewriting the present just as the revised present authorizes (and demands) rewriting history.  But beyond the limited debates of art history, my analysis also operates on a metacritical level.  I question not just the assertion itself but the underlying epistemology that makes the assertion appear to be logically coherent.  This powerful tool for cultural critique can be used to challenge a wide range traditional categories, in which typically one member of a pair is valorized and the other subjugated:  white/black; male/female; west/east; culture/nature; good/evil.  Such simplistic oppositions fail to capture the richness and complexity of phenomena – the gray areas between black and white, so to speak. 

While many people prefer the comfort of simple, clearly defined oppositions, others find more highly textured descriptions to be more meaningful and fulfilling.  The point is not that one is right and the other wrong (another binary opposition).  Nor is the point that everything is relative, and therefore nothing can be wrong (or right), which is a misinterpretation of relativistic philosophy.  The point is that we need to empathize with, respect, and make room for each other’s perspectives, even if we disagree.  To return to the utopian aims with which I began, if we are open to alternative world views, and can understand others’ perspectives, then perhaps we can be more sensitive, tolerant, and embracing of others.  The more we can embrace other individuals and cultures, the more difficult it becomes to destroy them and the greater our motivation becomes to reconcile our differences in a mutually beneficial way.  Ultimately, I hope that my work serves as a catalyst for this level of engagement, sowing revolutionary seeds for writing alternative histories and envisioning alternative futures.

[1]  An earlier draft of this essay was published online in the WRO2011 Reader <>
[2]  Thomas F. Gieryn, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999): 23.
[3] To give one widely reported example from US political parties have redrawn local district borders in order to benefit at the polls.
[4] First published in SIGGRAPH 2001 Electronic Art and Animation Catalog, (New York: ACM SIGGRAPH, 2001): 8-15; expanded in Art Inquiry 3: 12 (2001): 7-33 and Leonardo 35:4 (August, 2002): 433-38.
[5] See Joseph Kosuth, “Seventh Investigation (Art as Idea as Idea)  Proposition One” illustrated in Software:  69.
[6]  Joseph Kosuth, artist’s statement, Software:  68.
[7] Burnham, “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems.”
[8] A further parallel may be drawn between the event scores of artists like George Brecht and Yoko Ono, and Kosuth’s propositions, which can be interpreted as functioning like event scores for the mind.
[9] Edward A. Shanken, Art and Electronic Media.  London: Phaidon Press, 2009.  For more on canonicity and the history of art and technology, see my “Historicizing Art and Technology:  Forging a Method, Firing a Canon,” in Oliver Grau, ed., Media Art Histories. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007): 43-70.
[10] My commitment to artists’ writings is rare among art historians but is consistent with my own academic background, as a student of Kristine Stiles, who herself was a student of Peter Selz, the editors of two key collections of artist writings.  My first book, in fact, was a collection of writings by Roy Ascott, a pioneering practitioner and theorist of Cybernetic Art and Telematic Art.
[11] This may demand institutional assurances regarding as-yet unresolved conservation issues.  Though concerns regarding the longevity of experimental media are far from unique to new media, and are shared by work from Leonardo’s Last Supper to Eva Hesse’s latex sculptures, they remain a sticking point against NMA.
[12] See John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press,1993.
[13] Ji-Hoon Kim, “The Postmedium Condition and the Explosion of Cinema,” Screen 50:1 (2009): 114-23.
[14] A video recording of the event can be found on the Art Basel website. See
[15] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2002, c. 1998): 67.
[16] This was a key point in my essay, “Tele-Agency: Telematics, Telerobotics, and the Art of Meaning,” Art Journal 59:2 (Summer 2000): 64-77.
[17] Nina P. West, “The $900,000 Librarian,” (Oct 1, 2008)
[18] Noah Horowitz, Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market.  Princeton UP, 2011.
[19] See, for example, Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur:  How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.  Crown Business: 2007; and Clay Shirkey, Here Comes Everybody:  The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin, 2008.