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Ana Teixeira Pinto on the cultural logic of the digital era


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For Witte de With Review, Ana Teixeira Pinto writes about two Berlin exhibitions, “Nervous Systems” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the 9th Berlin Biennale at Kunst Werke et al. She is not happy with the “post-internet flattening effect” at BB9, but seems to appreciate the politics of “Nervous Systems.” Read Pinto in partial below, or in full via WDW Review.

The digital turn seems to correlate with a crisis in representation: though equipped with a growing variety of optical media, we are increasingly unable to grasp the algorithmic totality, which surrounds us. Data’s primary mode of existence, as Alex Galloway argues, is not a visual one, and the twin forces of globalization and digitalization tend to widen the gap between individual experience and the economic structures that determine it. What happens to art when phenomenological experience—the raw material aesthetics is made of—becomes secondary to information flows?

In Berlin this spring, two, almost co-occurring, exhibitions set forth to tackle the cultural logic of the digital age. The first, “Nervous Systems” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), curated by Anselm Franke, Stephanie Hankey, and Marek Tuszynski, explores the models and modes of algorithmic governance, to describe a world of biometric analyses and pattern recognition, which fully captures and profiles its users to place financial wagers on their near and far futures. The second, the 9th Berlin Biennale, titled “The Present in Drag,” curated by the editors of online magazine DIS, represents the jaded subjectivity this cultural logic engenders.

“Nervous Systems” could be construed as an exercise in what Frederic Jameson called “cognitive mapping”: a cartography of the structural coordinates which underpin the diffuse world of post-Fordist economies. The exhibition functions like a diagram, the model for which can be found in the works of artist Stephen Willats. Along its schematic organization of information, “Nervous Systems” hosted an ancillary conference program organized by Diana McCarthy (in the interest of full disclosure: I took part as a speaker). The problem of political agency is here reconceptualized as a problem of representation: the vectors of our digital infrastructure do not lend themselves to pictorial capture, in order to render the world intelligible we need a different set of intellectual tools. “The Present in Drag,” on the other hand, has no use for Marxist hermeneutics.

“Why should fascists have all the fun?” asks a Not in the Berlin Biennale (a communication and marketing campaign created for the 9th Berlin Biennale) poster by Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus, and Babak Radboy. The rub is that every time one flirts with fascist aesthetics—as this biennial brand of market-besotted nihilism abundantly does—one activates a weaponized sensibility for which terror is aesthetically pleasing. As Susan Sontag argues, art that seems worth defending as a minority or adversary taste, can become indefensible once the context changes, once the fantasy of the fascist super body is no longer just a sexual quirk but an increasingly strong, political force.

“You wonder in no particular order: Are we at war? Will Trump be the next US president? Do I like Shakira?” asks the biennial press release. It is a rhetorical question, meant to perform disengagement, but whereas the biennial’s title, “The Present in Drag,” would seem to point to a queer or camp magnification of that which is often misrecognized as natural—though it reduces all questions to questions of style, camp can constitute an effective strategy to denaturalize normative politics; representations of gender for instance, once magnified, tend to feel coercive and aberrant rather than ‘normal’—the biennial does not pursue that route. Instead, it reconceptualizes the role of contemporary art in order to render aesthetic experience as a direct extension of corporate spectacle, while arguing that the only valid form of engagement with the digital economy is via the reification of its hegemonic modalities.

Once you enter the exhibition venues, the vectors of incorporation permeate everything, textures, colors, surfaces, language. The Post-Internet style, which the biennial stages as a total artwork, carries the promise of complete malleability: all materials are made to behave like water—a convention of plasticity that sublimates the process of precarization through which labor is rendered ever more flexible. As the works bleed onto one another, they feel generic and deindividuated, which could be construed as a tardy attack on authorship were it not for the fact that, once labor is outsourced and content downloaded, the only open avenue to claim artistic ownership hinges on the privatization of collectively generated resources. The figure of the artist is, here, not so much negated as it is reconceptualized as a digitally literate gentry who is not invested in the circulation of images but in their fixation—as private property, or copyrighted content. To identify art and retail while preserving the institutional frame is an economic rather than aesthetic operation: in the case of an artwork it is paradoxically the appeal to a worth beyond monetary value that actually functions as a guarantee of that value. To manufacture this higher value is what the institution does—which is why Kunst-Werke (KW) board member Julia Stoschek inaugurated her collection in a pop-up museum, displaying many of the artists included in the biennial the day before the press preview.

Other than insider dealings, there are additional problems with the curatorial proposal, like the notion that art ought to represent a reality Post-Internet art fundamentally misrecognizes, rather than imagine it otherwise. Symbolically speaking, this position piggybacks on the legacy of modernism as an oppositional figure, as a negation of the negation. Liberated from modernist critique, modernity is free to fulfill its capitalist destiny. But this double negative gestures toward a positive: a global visual idiom that conflates the vectors of Silicon-Valley-commodity-space with the spatial strategy of the United States empire. Riding on the coattails,of its cultural policy, a plethora of parochial forms—like the contradictory mix of state paranoia and personal narcissism, which constitutes the Californian Ideology—get to pose as universalisms. The moniker “NATO art,” which curators Maria Lind and Rike Frank have employed to refer to Post-Internet is an apt one. 8 It is no coincidence that the biennial is almost entirely white or that most Post-Internet artists come from the United Kingdom or North America—fittingly, the American embassy in Berlin hosted a high-security cocktail party to celebrate precisely this—countries which did not contribute significantly to modernism (though the United States contributed massively to its institutionalization by lionizing abstraction) and for whom modernist forms were always unreadable, or, to paraphrase T. J. Clark , readable only as fantasy figures, under the rubric of formalism.

Displacing the fetishism for high art with a fetishization of high definition, Post-Internet art also appeals to the uneducated investor or venture capitalist because it is devoid of the complex codes and idioms that constitute the formal lexicon of most contemporary art. The corporate aesthetics it apes is familiar, under-complex, and sentimental, and we have all been trained to recognize affirmation as a significant conceptual gesture ever since Pop popularized the notion that celebration can be said to constitute a form of criticism.

*Image of BB9 via artinfo