Even if we are to resign ourselves to thinking of artworks as produced by structural or economic conditions, we end up bumping into a larger problem of having a hard time locating the way structural or economic conditions actually work today. Maybe we are still inside the long historical tail of institutional critique trying to identify coercive structures when actually most of the institutions have already been defunded. Or maybe it’s a new formal regime altogether, amplifying Lippard’s pronouncement that conceptualism dematerialized art’s formal language in favor of time-based systems and ephemeral events. The material support, so to speak, became information. Only now we are dealing with a situation where the ephemerality of abstract concepts has become monstrous in its capacity to absorb financial values and meaning effects alike into a confusing soup of affective or speculative projections. And these effects decide the status and the fate of not only art objects, but entire cities, countries, and economies in a way that is difficult to describe or represent, and yet relies almost primarily on visibility and spectacle in order to transmit its information across the long distances of the planet. Under a regime of visibility that usurps older notions of substance, what figures can we use to affirm its surface effects, to understand its refractive powers, to crack open its hidden energies and make its calculus work for us and not against us? How has this new superficiality realized and flipped the politics of spectacle described by Debord? And why should we take a closer look at the sun?
In its time, the dematerialization of art carried a liberating spin—freedom from objects can be easily understood in idealist terms as a freedom from the burdensome worldly interests that surround material things, from scarcity and economic value. And of course critics of the way Lippard’s claims have been inherited are always quick to point out how the art establishment had to then fetishize and archive the material artifacts of conceptual works, essentially stuffing the Idea back into its material support for an indexical historical record that restores the status quo of exhibiting objects as such. And while this is usually thought to show the conservatism of an art establishment with the market always in mind, it also offers a crucial instance where physical material and abstract information are shown to rely upon each other mutually. Yes, the works needed a material base in order to be catalogued, historicized, remembered, and sold, but they also needed a material artifact in order to be visible in the first place, whether as object or as information.
Now, for some time, information has been central to not only the development and distribution of artworks, but to their visibility as such. And the questions opened up by Lippard and conceptual artists in the early days of the information-based economy should not be understood as a happier road not taken in the development of a utopian, fully abstract artwork, but rather as the beginning of a road that has since been taken all the way to the end. The museums that preserved the artifacts of conceptual works, and the galleries that sold them, knew very well that the material support of conceptual artworks, or immaterial ideas for that matter, are what makes them part of a global economy in which their visibility decides whether they exist in the first place. The question of visibility has become so important that notions of information or materiality become subordinate to the point of irrelevance. But it may be useful to rescue them in order to understand how an economy of visibility necessarily adjusts the status of material or information to suit its purposes in often paradoxical ways, by appearing to privilege their optical, emotive, or sexy qualities over, and often as, their substantial characteristics. We might say that we now function so purely in the realm of the idea that any substance becomes ephemeral regardless of whether it is art or not. Heavy and light material come to be married by a logistical calculus concerned primarily with the amount of energy they can mobilize and release. Or it becomes a matter of mood. Do you like it? Do you feel it to be heavy or light?
Today it seems almost impossible to reconcile the output of two forms of labor: one that arrests working bodies in space and time over the long term—over days, weeks, years, lifetimes, and generations—and another that takes place in an instant, in the time it takes for a camera shutter to snap or for a commercial spot to be shot and broadcast in all directions to project an instant of work across the earth. We are still trying to figure out how capital pools around commodities that can be copied and distributed at no cost. The models for doing so only become more fleeting as audiences become more vast and unpredictable. Interns exchange free labor for knowledge. But then someone like Eric Glatt, a former AIG employee who turned into a labor activist after being fired from AIG and taking on an internship as an accountant, put it eloquently: “I can’t tell my landlord to give me free rent so he can gain experience as a landlord.” But a sharing economy booster might say that Glatt could have posted his apartment on Airbnb and turned a profit to subsidize his internship, essentially gluing together multiple extractive enterprises into a tangle that might look ethical or at least feel fair-ish. The distributed sharing economy now seems to show us that the property speculation that broke the markets in 2007–08 was actually no small matter at all, but actually a profound antimatter made out of regimes of visuality and visibility that are so sophisticated that we need technologies developed in the contemporary arts to untangle the meshing of their symbolic, informational, and economic values. And of course the contemporary arts are at the same time bound up in that same tangle.
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