"I DON'T TAKE VOICE MAIL"

by Charles Bernstein

[Presented at a symposium, sponsored by the Parsons School of
Design, on "The Art Object in the an Age of Electronic
Technology", at the New School in New York, on April 16, 1994]


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 artworld is
dominated by the 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 artworld, as in the corporate board rooms, the
focus of discussion has been on how to exploit this new media, as
if cyberspace was a new wilderness from which to carve your niche
--better get on board, err, 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 it objects; it
might testily insists that one of its roles is exactly 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 the first e-mail accounts on the net--to talk about it.
But you can't sell talk, and that can make the net a vexing place
for if not for art then for the purveyors of art.
     Of course, 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users -- will be superseded by what is aptly called the in-
formation superhighway.  Just as the old dirt roads and smaller
rural routes were largely 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 systems largely owned and controlled by Time
& Space, Inc. and other giant telecommunication conglomerates,
providing new and continually recirculating versions of the 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 Barbara
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 hyper-
textually 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 offence 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".  Of course, 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 simululationism 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 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 promises 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
that, for better or worse, they find themselves within.
     I want, then, to focus not on how electronic space will
actually be used, indeed how e-space will be exploited, but
rather to think about the new media that has been created by
technological developments combing computers and
telecommunications, and how works of visual arts 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 such as this one (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 the
poetry publishing and criticism, in which the poets themselves
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, or course, 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 provide an extraordinary
space for interaction and exchange among artist living in
different places and, perhaps more significantly, encourages
collaboration between visual artists, writers, and computer
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 delineate this and related computer and
telecommunications media, let's start with the "small" screen.
Indeed, 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 set-up as a means to
present work realized in a non-CPU medium, such as a video tape
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 here 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
is 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 ms 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 hypetextualists
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 in 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 date 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 a 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, of course, certain
computer features will provide novel methods for searching or
scanning material, for example, enabling 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.  Indeed 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 come 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 Paikation of the video
environment.
     The status of computer-generated films may help to test my
typology.  Anything that can 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, of course, and 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.

[Slide #1: Petah Coyne]  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 recent show at the
Jack Shainman Gallery.   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,semiotic density, opacity,
particularity and peculiarity, its complexity.

[Slide #2: Karen Dolmanish]  For this reason, I was delighted to
see a show of new sculpture at Exit Art last month 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 quote the title of
this work by Karen Dolmanish

[Slide #3: Byron Clercx]  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.

[Slide #4: Jess].  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.

[Slide #5: Susan Bee, "Masked Ball"]  I long for the handmade,
the direct application of materials on an uneven 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 tacticle surface, its engagement with my
thoughts.

[Slide #6: Susan Bee, "Help"] & here, a final image from Susan
Bee
-- 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.


--Charles Bernstein (bernstei@ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu)