This semester, I am taking a course on contemporary art, and I have been thinking about the relationship between contemporary art and postmodernism. I have an essay due in about a week, and I’m (still) brainstorming for it right now. I thought that writing down some ideas that I have in my mind might be useful, so bear with me and my cluttered thoughts.
Both terms, contemporary art and postmodernism, have various issues and historical connotations, and this condition seems to make it difficult to elucidate their relationship. Liam Gillick, for example, attempts to use “current” art in lieu of contemporary art in his essay “The Good of Work,” and further illustrates the issues surrounding contemporary art in “Contemporary Art Does Not Account for That Which Is Taking Place.” For me, these essays are reflecting a typical symptom of postmodernism: a difficulty in identifying exact meanings. Compared to Gillick’s writings, contemporary art seems to be one step ahead by negotiating with this unstable condition of significance. Part of the main issue in contemporary art, for Gillick, is its inclusiveness of various types of art work, or its lack of differentiation among them. Taking “artist and activist” Paul Chan as an example, Gillick suggests a way to resolve the issue of contemporary art:
A recent solution to the way the contemporary subdues differentiation has been to separate the notions of artistic and other political engagements, so that there can be no misunderstanding that only the work itself, in all its manifestations, might be part of the “contemporary art context.
As the distinction between high and mass cultures has gradually disappeared since popular culture dominated society in the early to mid-twentieth century, political factors have clearly resurged in the domain of art. By distinguishing artistic engagements from political engagements, art can, in some sense, exploit political elements in itself. Participatory art, including relational art, is representative of this process of distinction, and Rirkrit Tiravanija‘s installation Untitled (Free/Still) is such a participatory art work:
What are the political factors exploited in this installation? Eating curry in quotidian settings does not make the activity of eating curry or curry itself art. Making and eating curry in the space of an art institution can, however, label such an activity art, and this art work is thus highlighting the institutional condition of art. By preserving the process of making, serving, and eating curry in an art gallery, this installation is also playing with the dichotomy of public and private spaces. In daily life, the average person consumes food in relatively private spaces with the exception of dining out at restaurants or other eating establishments. The placement of food consumption in an art gallery, museum, or an exhibition site, makes food preparation and consumption undeniably a public act. Tiravanija’s Untitled as art work is itself a mere act of eating curry in an art gallery space. By exploiting the institutional condition of art, this installation can clearly make both participants and viewers aware of such a condition. The context of Untitled then fully foregrounds its nature and value as an art work.
The preserved process of curry eating in Tiravanija’s Untitled is tracing the constantly passing present moment, and I sense that his desire, often obsessive, of preserving the present is a constructive threshold of understanding the current trend of art. Not only in the domain of art but also in our society, we have constantly encountered new information and experiences through it, and it seems to have become really difficult to engage with such preserved elements because of an overwhelming amount of information that we constantly attempt to preserve digitally. In order to unfold the condition of the contemporary, current, postmodernist or whatever-adjective art of our time, we need to make sense of these often never-looked-back-at elements in digital archives. In 2004, artist and computer scientist Jonathan J. Harris launched an interactive website called 10×10™:
Here is part of his statement on this work:
10×10™ (‘ten by ten’) is an interactive exploration of the words and pictures that define the time. The result is an often moving, sometimes shocking, occasionally frivolous, but always fitting snapshot of our world. Every hour, 10×10 collects the 100 words and pictures that matter most on a global scale, and presents them as a single image, taken to encapsulate that moment in time. Over the course of days, months, and years, 10×10 leaves a trail of these hourly statements which, stitched together side by side, form a continuous patchwork tapestry of human life.
This website functions as an archive of encapsulated moments through images and words, and provides us with a site for reflection. By reflecting upon the passed moment, we may finally be able to understand and genuinely engage with that moment. This way of engaging with images in the public domain can be easily available to us: we just need to select all of the folders of images on our computer or external hard drives and create a slideshow. In this sense, our obsessive impulse to constantly capture moments with cameras and to create our private (and public) archives of passed moments through images may be an indication of our inability to engage with the constantly passing present moments, which then requires us to reflect back on the passed moments if we wish to involve fully with them. By the way, the oldest set of images and words available on this site is from Wednesday, November 3, 2004, at 10 pm EST:
While Harris’s 10×10™ exploits images and words from the news, the following video clip by Robert Ellison, Time Zone Time Lapse, consists of live webcam videos from around the world:
Here is the description of this video:
Time lapse video showing webcams from around the world for the twenty four hours starting midday UTC on June 7, 2010. Most of the webcams are in the northern hemisphere so long days and short nights. All the webcams are from the Catfood WebCamSaver database.
You can read Ellison’s detailed description of this video here in his blog I Thought He Came With You. Although this video does not create its own archive, it does provide us with one way of looking back at passed moments. Since this way of exploiting archived videos does not involve any direct use of words like 10×10™, we can freely interpret the video and situate ourselves within its context without much restriction of signified connotations. Here is another time-lapse video based on the Catfood WebCamSaver:
The postmodernist (and poststructuralist) condition of destabilized meaning and displaced originality through the dominant sense of pastiche and schizophrenia can, at least, explain some aspects of the cause for society and culture’s obsessiveness with archiving the present moment. The lack of originality has led us to focus more on styles than on ideas; in other words, the context of art has taken over the content of art and become the dominant factor in shaping the domain of art. In a sense, contemporary art must have been highlighting an artistic shift from the content to the context, while the larger context of art controlled by (hyper-)capitalism has been attempting to prevent a further progress in this development of contemporary art. While the traditional sites of (post-)modern and contemporary art have been much more willingly open to the appropriation and exploitation of earlier art works (for example, Elaine Sturtevant’s work based on Andy Warhol’s creations), the commercial and corporate sites of art, particularly those in music, video, film, and TV, are not just resisting this development but preventing an artist from exploiting their sources of financial gain. Remix culture has definitely situated itself between receptivity and resistance and has been struggling to secure its position against capitalist, corporate greed. RiP! A Remix Manifesto (2008) by Brett Gaylor, for example, is an instance of such a struggle. This documentary explores and investigates the grey area of copyright. Here is its trailer:
If you are in Canada, you can watch this film on the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) web site; if not, you can watch it on YouTube. What interests me most in this film is its engagement and play with the grey area of copyright. This documentary makes its viewers further aware of the cultural condition of image and sound arts controlled by a handful of global corporations. By revealing this condition, the film then highlight both the politics of art through hypercapitalism and the art of politics through remix culture. “A Remixer’s Manifesto” that appears several times in the film actually lays out not only the condition of postmodernist society through articles 1-3 but also identify a potential way to overcome such a condition in article 4:
Again, this manifest takes us back to our obsession with nowness. During the period of modernism, society and culture strived for originality by negating the established norms while preserving potentially original elements as the representation of the permanent moment that would become part of our history. As the postmodernist sensibility has taken over this modernist stance, however, society and culture have felt constrained within this modernist domain of the permanent moment so we have explored the established domain of the past while not knowing if we can actually find any stable significance in it. At the present moment, or for about the past decade, we have been attempting to break away from the dilemma between modernism and postmodernism by focusing on the constantly passing present in order to identify the elements that allow us to differentiate our time from the past and the future.
I am not sure if building free societies that do not restrain us from anything is possible. The further public and private spaces merge into each other, the more vulnerable our life becomes to the authoritative power of a select few people from a select few corporations. In this sense, art and culture that appropriate and exploit the services, products, and ideas of such corporate entities may have indeed become the only means for us to be aware of the current socio-cultural condition surrounding us and to overcome schizophrenic and nostalgic feelings cultivated in postmodernism. Our society is definitely shifting away from postmodernism and entering into a new era. No matter what we denominate this era, post-postmodernism, re-modernism, neo-modernism, or meta-modernism, the present, or nowness, is the factor that can take us to this era.