I Don't Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology

collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems

Charles Bernstein

Before diagnosing the condition of the art object in an age of electronic technology, let me first address the question of the object of art in an age of global commodification. I won't be the last to note that capitalism transcends the technologies through which it operates. So just as today's art world is dominated by marketing, sales, and promotion, so the object of art in the age of electronic technology will continue to be profit; and the values most typically promoted by the art world will continue to be governed by market, rather than aesthetic, formal, philosophical, or ethical, values.

Within the art world, as in the corporate board rooms, the focus of discussion has been on how to exploit the emerging electronic media, as if cyberspace were a new wilderness from which to carve your niche -- better get on board, er, on line, first before the prime sites are staked out. For if the object of art is to sell objects, then the new electronic environment presents many problems but also many opportunities.

But art, if it could speak, might well object to these assumptions. (If art could speak we could not understand it -- that's one way to put it; perhaps it's more accurate to say if art could speak it would be poetry and poetry's got nothing to sell.) Art might speak not of its object but its objects; it might testily insist that one of its roles is to resist commodification, to use its materiality to push against the total absorption of meaning into the market system, and that's why it got one of the first e-mail accounts on the net -- to talk about it. But you can't sell talk, or not for much, and that can make the net a vexing place for the purveyors of art.

Today's internet -- a decentralized, largely text-based, linking of individual sites or constellations of users -- will be superseded by what is aptly called the information superhighway. Just as the old dirt roads and smaller rural routes were abandoned by the megatraffic on the interstates, so much of the present informal, non-capital intensive exchanges on the net will become marginal back channels in a communications system owned and controlled by Time & Space, Inc., and other giant telecommunication conglomerates, providing new and continually recirculating versions of USA Today with up-to-the minute weather and sports information, sound files offering Nirvana: The Classic Years including alternate studio versions, hypertext tours with high resolution graphics of the British Museum collection, plus hundreds of other choices, available at the click of an icon, including items never before available in any media such as In Her Home: the Barbra Streisand Collection; a construct-it-yourself simulation of making a Shaker chair; and a color-it-yourself portfolio of the complete appropriations of Sherrie Levine, together with hypertextually linked case dossiers of all related legal suits. All with modest fees for each hour of viewing or receiving (the gaze finally quantified and sold) and downright bargain prices for your "own" personal copy, making available unlimited screenings (but remember, "it is a federal offense to make unauthorized copies of these copies," or, as we say in Buffalo: it's okay to copy an original but never copy a copy). Indeed, much of what is now the internet promises to become the largest shopping network on earth, and possibly in the universe (even exceeding the Mall of the Milky Way on Galactica B282); those old back roads will be the place to hang out if you are looking for something other than franchise FastImage.


One of the hallmarks of formalist art criticism as well as media theory has been an analysis of the effects of newer media on already existing media. So we talk about the effect of photography on painting, or movies on theater; or how movies provided the initial content for TV before it arrived at its own particular formats (just as the content of the net is now largely composed of formats taken from books, letters, and magazines). It is useful to remember that in the early days of TV, many observers predicted that such spectator sports as baseball would lose their stadium audiences once the games were broadcast "live." However, the opposite occurred; TV increased the interest in the live-and-in-person event. In a similar way, art on the net may actually increase interest in seeing art in nonelectronic spaces.

Formalist critics have wanted to emphasize how new technologies "free up" older media to explore their intrinsic qualities -- to do what only they can do. But new media also have a corrosive effect, as forces in the older media try to shift their focus to compete for the market and the cultural capital of what they may see as their new competitors. Within the visual arts, many of the most celebrated new trends of the last decade -- from simulationism to multimediamania to the transformation of Artforum -- are symptoms of a fear of the specific and intractable materiality of painting and sculpture; such fear of materiality (and by extension face-to-face interaction) is far greater and long-lasting than the much more often discussed fear of technology -- a fear so often discussed the better to trivialize and repress.


What are the conditions of visual art in the net, or art in computer space? We can expect that most visual art on the net will be reproductions of previously existing work, along the line of Bill Gates's plan to display in his home rotating CD-ROM images of the masterpieces of World Art, images for which, notably, he has purchased the CD-ROM reproduction rights. The Thing, a new visual arts online service, which has been immensely useful in imagining many possible formats for art on the net, already features an innovative, in the sense of anachronistic, pricing structure -- selling over its BBS (bulletin board system) a numbered and "signed" diskette of an art work. (The idea of selling a disk is itself no more objectionable than selling a book, but numbering and signing a disk is an attempt to simulate scarcity and limit in a medium in which these conditions do not apply. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if this format was included on The Thing to call attention to the issue and also to poke fun at the net's prevailing ideology of utopian democracy, a.k.a. netiquette). In any case, telecommunications systems promise to dominate the distribution of text and image in the near future at a price -- though few are now willing to acknowledge it -- of more controlled and more limited access (through high user fees, institutional restrictions, and technological skills barriers) and loss of privacy rights we now take for granted. But technological change -- it's a mistake to call it progress -- will not be reversed and artists run the risk of nostalgia if they refuse to recognize and respond, the better to resist, the communications environment within which, for better or worse, they find themselves.

I want, then, to focus not on how electronic space will actually be used, or how e-space will be exploited, but rather to think about the new media that has been created by technological developments combining computers and telecommunications, and how works of visual art can recognize and explore these new media -- even if such works run the risk of being relegated to the net's backchannels, along with "new mimeo revolution" poetry magazines and psychic readings by electronic Tarot.

The most radical characteristic of the internet as a medium is its interconnectivity. At every point receivers are also transmitters. It is a medium defined by exchange rather than delivery; the medium is interactive and dialogic rather than unidirectional or monologic. At this moment, the most interesting format on the internet, apart from the basic electronic mail function, is the listserve: a series of individuals join a list -- any post to the list address is immediately delivered to all list subscribers. Individuals can then post replies to the entire list or to the individual that sent the post. Lists may be open to anyone to join or may be private. The potential for discussion and collaboration is appealing -- the format mixes some of the features of correspondence with a discussion group, conference call, and a panel symposium (with the crucial difference that the distinction between audience and panel is eroded).

While many cyberspace utopians speak of virtual communities with much excitement, what is particularly interesting about the interconnectivity of computer space is its difference from other types of group formation; for what we are constructing in these spaces might better be called virtual uncommunities.

The art world remains a difficult place for community or group formations because the gallery system recognizes value primarily in terms of individual achievement. In contrast to poetry publishing and criticism, in which poets play a substantial and perhaps determining role, individual visual artists are largely restricted to (or restrict themselves to) the role of producers of potentially saleable objects. Competition among artists is more common that broad-based alliance, with the occasional exception of loyalty to a small circle of friends.

At the national level, there are local communities of artists in every region. Various movements and schools -- aesthetic or political or both -- can also be understood as art communities. Most recently, the connections of artists within ethnic, gender, or racial groups have been seen in terms of community. But despite these sites of community among visual artists, sustained interaction, dialogues and collaboration remains rare; indeed, these activities are not generally recognized as values. The internet provides an extraordinary space for interaction and exchange among artists living in different places and, perhaps more significantly, encourages collaboration between visual artists, writers, and computer designers and engineers. In a way remarkably anticipated by the mail art movements of the seventies and eighties, the net suggests the possibility of art works created for their exchange rather than market value -- works that may be altered, augmented, or otherwise transformed as they pass from one screen to another. -- What I am envisioning here is not art from another medium imported into the net but rather art that takes the unique constraints and potentials of the net as its medium.

To begin to delineate this and related computer and telecommunications media, let's start with the "small" screen. We might begin to speak of the screen arts to suggest the intersection of video, TV, and computer art that share the same physical support or monitor. More and more computers are now equipped with video quality monitors and the screen arts -- in this broad sense -- will be transmitted via modem, cable and wireless systems as well as plugged in through cassette, CD-ROM, disk, and cartridge.

I distinguish among interactive, interconnected, and presentational screen media:

Presentational screen media is the broadest category. On the one hand, it includes the use of the CPU (computer processing unit) set-up as a means to present work realized in an other medium, such as the presentation of a videotape or photographs, or read-only text files. On the other hand, presentational screen media also includes work produced and viewed on computer systems that do not require viewer intervention beyond basic directional and operational parameters such as those available on a video recorder. - A hugely important subcategory is works produced on computer screens but not presented on screens. Word processing, "paintbrush," and "photoshop" programs are some of the tools of this medium, which promises to reimagine the way we read and see text and graphics; moreover, this new medium allows for a greater integration and interaction of verbal, visual, and sound elements than possible with previous printing technologies.

Interactive computer screen art utilizes the processing system of the computer and includes significant viewer participation via keyboard, mouse, or joy stick. While video games are the most elaborate visual realization of this medium, works of computer art can be created that are not game-oriented but that use many of the features developed in video games. Still another format for interactivity is often discussed under the general heading of hypertext. Hypertext involves the lateral movement and linking of a potentially infinite series of data pools. It allows for nonlinear explorations of a range of data bases; that is, unlike presentational modes, in hypertext there need be no established forward path through the data. For example, Jerome McGann and colleagues are at work on an edition of the complete works of Dante Rossetti that will include multiple discrepant versions of his published poems along with manuscript versions of these poems, together with his related paintings as well as source material for the paintings and the poems. All of this information will be linked so that one can move through the data in many directions. Claims of many enthusiastic hypertextualists notwithstanding, many of the most radical features of hypertext are technologies made available by the invention of alphabetic writing and greatly facilitated by the development of printing and bookmaking. Such formats as page and line numbering, indexes, tables of contents, concordances, and cross-referencing for encyclopedias and card catalogs, are, in effect, hypertextual. Much of the innovative poetry of the past 100 years relies on the concept of hypertextuality as a counter to the predominance of linear reading and writing methods. While hypertext may seem like a particular innovation of computer processing, since data on a computer does not have to be accessed sequentially (which is to say it is "randomly" accessible), it becomes a compensatory access tool partly because you can't flip though a data base the way you can flip through pages or index cards. (I'm thinking, for example, of Robert Grenier's great poem, Sentences, which is printed on 500 index cards in a Chinese foldup box.)

Finally -- my third category -- interconnectivity utilizes the network capability of linked systems such as the internet and formats such as listserves, bulletin boards, newsgroups, and group-participation MUDs (multi-user domains) and MOOs and other "real-time" multi-user formats. Inteconnectivity allows for works of collaboration, linking, and exchange, as well as the possibility of simultaneous-event or immediate-response structures. Interconnectivity turns the screen into a small stage and in this way combines features of theater with writing and graphic art.

The most static of the three modes I have just defined is the presentation screen mode. Presentational screen media will merge with what is now available via broadcast TV, video cassettes, or video disk and CD. But certain computer features will provide novel methods for searching or scanning material, for example, enabling one to find one particular item or graphic or song or word amidst a large data base.

Yet because computer screens are often smaller than TV screens, a class of interactive and presentational screen art can take advantage of the more intimate single-viewer conditions now associated with books and drawings. New technologies for viewing texts may well supplant print as the dominant medium for writing and graphics. Books, I should add, will not be replaced -- and certainly will not become superfluous -- any more than printing replaced handwriting or made it superfluous; these are different media and texts or graphics disseminated through them will have different qualities. Nonetheless, it is useful to consider graphic and verbal works created specifically for the intimate presentational or interactive space of the small screen that use features specific to the CPU environment, including scrolling, lateral movements, dissolves, the physical properties of the different screen types (LCD, gas plasma, active matrix color) -- an extension into the CPU environment of the sort of work associated with Nam June Paik's exploration of the video environment.

The status of computer-generated films may help to test my typology. Anything that can be viewed on a small screen monitor can also, and with increasing resolution, be projected on a movie screen. Nonetheless, it is still possible to distinguish, as distinct support media, the small backlit screen of the TV and computer monitor and the large projection-system screen of film. Moreover, the scale, conditions of viewing, and typifying formats make video, film, and TV three different media, just as animation, photography, and computer graphics may be said to be distinct media within film. (Hybridization and cross-viewing remain an active and welcome possibility.) Computer-generated graphics, then, may be classified as presentation computer art modelled on small screens for big screen projection.

Note, also, that I have not included in my sketch nonscreen art that uses computers for their operation (for example, robotic installations and environments) -- a category that is likely to far surpass the screen arts in the course of time.


But I don't want to talk about computers but objects, objects obduring in the face of automation: I picture here a sculpture from Petah Coyne's April, 1994 show at the Jack Shainman Gallery, which featured candelabra-like works, hung from the ceiling, and dripping with layers of white wax. For it has never been the object of art to capture the thing itself, but rather the conditions of thingness: its thickness, its intractability, its untranslatability or unreproducability, its linguistic or semiotic density, opacity, particularity and peculiarity, its complexity.

For this reason, I was delighted to see a show of new sculpture at Exit Art, also in April, that seemed to respond to my increasing desire for sculpture and painting thick with its material obsessiveness, work whose response to the cyberworld is not to hop on board for the ride or play the angles between parasite and symbiosis -- but to insist ever more intractability of its own radical faith, to cite the title of this work by Karen Dolmanish, consisting of a floor display of obessively arranged piles of broken things -- nails and glass and metal.

Object: to call into question, to disagree, to wonder at, to puzzle over, to stare at . . . Object: something made inanimate, lifeless, a thing debased or devalued . . . Whatever darker Freudian dreams of objects and their relations I may have had while writing this essay, nothing could come close to Byron Clercx's witty sculpture, Big Stick, in which he has compressed and laminated 20 volumes of the complete works of the father of psychoanalysis into one beautifully crafted Vienna Slugger, evoking both the uncanny and the sublime -- finally, an American Freud. Here is the return of the book with a vengeance, proof positive that books are not the same as texts. Go try doing that to a batch of floppy disks or CD-ROMs.

In Jess's 1991 paste-up Dyslecstasy, we get some glimpse of what hypertext might one day be able to achieve. Collaged from thousands of tiny scraps collected over many years, Jess creates an environment of multiple levels and dizzyingly shifting contexts; and yet in this world made of tiny particulars, it is their relation and mutual inhabitation that overwhelms and confirms.

I long for the handmade, the direct application of materials on an uneven, rough, textured surface. I feel ever more the need for the embedded and encrusted images and glossings and tones and contours of forgotten and misplaced lore, as in Susan Bee's painting Masked Ball.

I want to contrast the solitary conditions of viewing a work on a computer screen, my posture fixed, my eyes 10 inches from the image, with the physicality of looking at a painting or sculpture in a large room, moving around it, checking it out from multiple views, taking in its tactile surface, its engagement with my thoughts.

On the journey of life, lost in cyberspace, where will we find ourselves: not who we are but who we will be, our virtual reality.


Presented (with slides) at a symposium, sponsored by the Parsons School of Design and organized by Lenore Malen, on "The Art Object in the Age of Electronic Technology", at the New School for Social Research, in New York, on April 16, 1994. I have resisted the tendency to revise this essay in the light of the often oppressively (or possibly exhilaratingly) fast changes in computer technology and the formats for using it. For example, the essay was written before the World Wide Web had become generally available in its current form. The essay is an extension of "Play It Again, Pac-Man" in A Poetics, and relies on some of the concepts developed there. First published in M/E/A/N/I/N/G 16 ( 1994).