Thursday, April 21, 2011

DECODING THE NOW: Modern Art, Mashups & Memes

I recently came across a online discussion whereby one semiotician inquired, "Why is modern art so boring?" It was a hypothetical and fuzzily defined premise at that, but I still thought the question intriguing and wanted to take a stab at answering it. That is, its very open-endedness presents us with an entertaining intellectual challenge, even if the answer we arrive at will be every bit as open-ended as the initial query.

And it's certainly ironic, I thought, that someone who trades in signs for a living, thinks modern art is boring.

The phrase, 'modern art', itself goes undefined, but I will accept it to mean not the works produced from the 1860s to the 1970s, as the phrase usually denotes, but the contemporary western art scene –art and artists, inclusive of all mediums –i.e., what's happening right now.

It's actually a provocative question, which may be one reason why I'm attracted by it, and it reminds me of another recent debate swirling around a statement by one composer who said something to the effect that, "There are no good Jazz musicians anymore."

Well, I might say the same thing about Disco singers, and if I believed it, I would probably think the statement a throw-away line, or simply another over-enthusiastic if ultimately banal claim. But if I were a Jazz musician who had devoted my life to this art –now my art– and especially if I considered myself at the top of my game, then upon hearing that someone had said that there were no good Jazz musicians, I would take real offense. So, when someone says modern art is boring, I wonder how one can possibly answer that question without presently riling someone who has given their life to the pursuit of their craft, regardless of whether or not it is successful, according to anyone, by any measure.

Obviously modern art is not boring. The real question is what cultural or societal factors would bring someone to think that it is? That said, while I don't necessarily agree with the premise, I do understand the sentiment, because, you know what?

For anyone who is north of thirty, you probably have the feeling that you've seen (and heard) it all before. Some will say that it has always been like that, but I'm not so sure. In the Twentieth Century, fashions changed rather radically throughout every single decade from 1915 to 1985, ushering in cultures, economies, living standards and shiny new things to try and buy, the likes of which had never been seen or experienced in the prior ten thousand years.

So, it's an irony that at about the same time our tools for communication began rapid evolution, our culture stalled. And somehow, I think, we've gotten stuck in the eighties –myself included, perhaps. I get the sense that language and design continue to evolve at light speed, but the form of content itself feels stagnant. So what if bricks have chips in them, if we're still using them to build classic colonial homes and French Normandy or Tudor styled mansions. Or is that the dream we aspire to now? Greco-Roman Pavilions with flat screen TVs?

No wonder we're bored.

WASH, RINSE, REPEAT

Sometimes I feel it's as if western culture has been on a wash, rinse and repeat cycle ever since Sade, Sonic Youth and Spandau Ballet ruled the charts. We have nifty new smartphones that can do a million amazing things, but western culture has been on hold since the Reagan/Thatcher era.

Maybe 'hold' is not the right word, because we aren't frozen in 1985. What's happening is the entire last century is suddenly present, and demanding equal space/attention/value with everything else. Whereas once we lived serial lives, now all fashions co-exist. Every color is color of the year; every hemline is in; everyone is doing and wearing and tapped into everything. Or as my friend Hal Cragin puts it, "Everything is happening at once."

And just coincidentally, on a 2006 blog entry actually titled, 'Everything is Happening at Once', then Sun Microsystems Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Gregory Papadopoulos has written, "…the technology constants change rapidly (faster, smaller, cheaper), but the rate of change for organizing principles and architectures are glacial."

These are not necessarily competing observations, and in fact, together they identify one reason why we may feel stuck. We must not have really figured out what to do with the all this new technology yet, because we're not doing much more with it than remixing the past. Suffice to say, we have eclectic tastes, if not necessarily original.

Trends, as they go, don't necessarily signal the ascent of something new anymore, but rather only something popular, and often even more accurately, something returning to popularity. and that's an interesting distinction.

The way we experience trends has changed, too. We don't actually experience them personally, we link to them from the other side of the planet and then share our finds with our friends, who may or may not actually be, you know, real friends.


This kind of activity is practical if our main point is research, or if we want to tap in or become a hub for a perpetual feed of self identified crowdsourced, niche-defined mass entertainment, and to that extent, we've certainly succeeded. This has been boon times for porn, of course, and content has never been in greater demand, but maybe not so good for Art with a capital 'A', though.

REALITY OR REPRODUCTION

We may be awash in great industrial design, but I wonder how many people today actually experience a painting with their faces so close to the canvas that it can be appreciated not simply as a two dimensional image on a screen, but as the 3D object it actually is?

Because at such scale, image is incidental. Instead, we become aware that the thing can be appreciated for its texture as well as the image it projects. This is an important note, because it is in that very texture, in the evidence left behind by the application of paint, that we can experience an artist's effort, energy and humanity. It is, to put it another way, the blood left behind at the crime scene.

A parallel circumstance exists in music. There are substantial numbers of people who rarely experience music live. For them, music is experienced as a recording. Even many so-called live events may actually be more accurately described as live presentations of pre-recorded material. The result is that we've produced in ourselves a population that considers the product of art to be some perfect thing, when in fact, its real power is in it's ability to communicate something about our humanity.

What is 'Style', anyway, but the sum composite of perfectly executed imperfections from a given performer?

I can imagine that one day the act of looking at a painting will come to mean all of the following as a simultaneous action:

• Looking at a given painting
• Listening to a playlist or pre-recorded narrative
• Watching a multimedia display
• Taking a picture of the given artwork
• Posting the image to the web
• Alerting all our social networks that we are presently admiring art

Or will we instead choose to take our time sauntering through World of Warcraft galleries, content to linger in the cloud for hours, just so long as we don't actually have to leave the house?

Don't laugh, because actually, we are already there.

So, if our main experience of art is only via reproduction on a screen, it may seem to lack something. Or if our main experience of art is flipping through an online gallery, it may be that art in the flesh, however original or brilliantly executed, simply doesn't move fast enough (to move us). Or if we have all suddenly evolved into astute, design minded visual thinkers, then maybe we're simply jaded with this avalanche of image –screens and logos everywhere, even in one's pocket!

Certainly there are new artists doing new things, even old artists doing new things and artists and non-artists alike doing interesting things. But on the surface it also feels like many of those things are additions to an existing cultural repertoire, not a radical evolutionary shift.

Thus it bears mentioning, the digital divide is not simply an economic one, nor does it always favor the wired.

THE MP3 REMAINS THE SAME

Today the tools of creation and distribution have not only changed, they've made it easier for anyone to enjoy the act of making art on a level that would have been simply impossible or unaffordable a decade before. And we enjoy a plethora of digital devices with which to create, communicate and distribute our collective brilliant inspirations.

I think most will agree that Andy Warhol was right when he postulated in 1968 that "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." –Except of course, the real time frame is the 1.5 seconds it takes 15 million 'followers' to read your 'tweet'.

But to this observer, the content being pushed through the pipes remains traditional in almost every aspect.

Granted, the integration of game theory into many heretofore non game platforms is an interesting movement, as is nonlinear and hyperlinked story telling in both advertising and entertainment platforms. But if we narrow our focus to the so-called fine arts, then why is it that even art which calls itself experimental or Avante-garde is not so different from the experimental or Avante-garde created more than a half century before? With a few notable exceptions, modern dance, for instance, is no more modern than the 'modern dance' of Hanya Holm, Anna Sokolow or Alwin Nikolais.

Perhaps one day this word, 'modern', will only refer to the hundred years spanning the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century. Or we may have just begun the Modern Age, which in that case, we have a century or more, and maybe a another millennium before its played out.

And that may be a more accurate prediction, because as of right now, we have a hard time shaking it off.

FROM PRINT TO PIXEL

Consider, also, that even major advances in film making address the technology of capture and perception, but story experience itself has remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. Sorry, but even print to pixel is still a minor advance compared to the quantum leap from stage to screen.

True, film makers oft transfer traditional stories into movies, but the scale of the screen and the portability of the cameras allow for radical perspective change. Smaller screens projecting material from ever more portable cameras do grant wider access to the filmmaker, thereby providing a broader social context, but they can also produce a simultaneous effect of putting blinders on the viewer. Yes, now you can participate in the revolts in North Africa from the comfort of your home, and even pause to brew a pot of tea, but how is that going to help you cross a busy street in London, or Madrid, when your nose is in your phone?

No doubt activists are using technology to dramatically change their social and political circumstances. Not to mention that the disabled now have powerful tools with which to interact with worlds once beyond their physical reach. But equally interesting is how an exponentially greater demographic is choosing an alternate route to the future, that of the urban technologist (or technologista). This person's idea of participation and engagement is limited to a text exchange, and rather than experience the world firsthand, he or she would rather observe it at the comfortable distance provided by a lens.

TAG IT AND IT'S YOURS


If it sometimes feels as if modern art collectively lacks the necessary stimuli to trigger excitement in a presumably jaded and increasingly selective audience, perhaps it's because we in the West live not in an age of Artistic Discovery –despite the new tools at our disposal (and presumably new ideas in the air)– but rather an the age of Autistic Discovery, "...characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior."

Indeed, in this way it is also an exciting age of rediscovery and recycling, which a future historian might one day point out paralleled a tandem growing awareness and social movement that called for the recycling of our entire environment.

But whereas once art was the product of recombinant processes, now we simply copy and paste, sample and loop, layer and remix. Or if we are really clever, we establish where points A and B are on a graph and then we take credit for the space between.

We tag a wall, for instance, and it is ours.

Entire bridges and buildings are for the taking!

WHY ART IS LIKE SEX (OR SHOULD BE)

I don't accept the oft held notion that making art is just expressing an idea or making stuff (except within a pedagogical context). I think making Art is like having Sex (or should be). But in this I mean, "the process of combining and mixing genetic traits".

And if that's the case, then what's the implication of a society where the term is more commonly thought of as a solitary practice one does in the loving company of one's computer? Or executed as a fleeting hook up, whereby we are not so much hoping to 'combine and mix our respective genetic traits', but instead simply enjoy a momentary mash of external body parts?

Obviously, there are those who are using new media tools and concepts to create new and interesting artworks. But it is also interesting to note that the trend (or movement) which has currently captured the widest public attention is the one that parallels contemporary notions of coupling. Of course, I'm talking about the Mashup, and the more I look and listen, the more I notice how this activity resonates in every aspect of our culture.

By now, most people have heard of Moore's Law, which states the number of transistors that an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And if we have thought at all about that statement, we might have realized that as chips are getting faster, all this power will have (is having) an increasing effect on our collective ability to process information.

Some say we are evolving. Others say we are losing our ability to concentrate. Neither statement is completely false nor true.

Regardless, I cannot help but wonder how the onslaught of a self-prescribed sugar drip of disruptive information is impacting art, artists and audiences. And it should be obvious by now what the future holds:

Modular all-you-can-eat works that present a buffet of images within a single frame remixing everything the artist has ever googled in a lifetime for audiences who select and simultaneously consume multiple works layered one upon the other, synced to a playlist, compressed to a thumbnail, and arranged in such a way that the entire experience can be enjoyed as a secondary or tertiary activity, like while running on a treadmill, for instance, or like while talking or texting while running on a treadmill. This technology has existed since the 1920's (it's called 'Television'), but it will seem absolutely revolutionary streaming out of our smartphones, because additional plugins allow us to connect with the real world which we are otherwise intent on ignoring. Not to mention that it won't be the only screen in the room competing for our attention. And not to say that it won't be enjoyable. We won't be able to take our eyes off of it.

Or will we indeed walk into a real gallery or museum only to be faced with rooms full of blank canvases whose content can only be seen once you hold your iPhone up to them? Even if each canvas represents the work of a single artist, isn't our perception of them through the lens of an electronic device, itself also a manifestation of the mashup mindset?

At which point we might then very well lament the good ol' slow days, but who would want to return, really, when you can now carry the entire Louvre around in an app?

Here's the Mona Lisa for you –Enjoy!:






AN 8-BIT FLASHBACK

Let's get this out of the way, first thing: Things were not better in the old days. Make no mistake, my iPhone circa 2011 is way more cooler than my TRS-80 circa 1979 (though I still wish I had it), and my iPad does so much more than an Etch A Sketch. But one thing I sometimes miss, is a world in which songs were not slammed together in the titillating Celebrity Deathmatch we call the mashup.

Yes, mashups are fun, entertaining, –a bold new art form, perhaps.

But have you noticed, the mashup is not just a technique or medium, but in fact a mindset which has produced a transformative effect on the way we measure the value of objects which otherwise serve no utilitarian purpose. I know that in and of itself sounds rather negative, but of course, I'm talking about Art.

For instance, if you are old enough, or have some understanding of the history of computer assisted composition, recall that prior to the turn of new millennium, music composed with, on, or by computer was far more original by any subjective measure than that which is produced today with Digital Audio Workstations which arguably offer far greater means of expression for their operator/ programmer/ composers than the room sized chips of past.

What I mean by this is that early computer music composers were more interested in seeing what they could do with these machines to produce that which had not been done before, and I don't mean sending untrained singers up the pop charts. Contrast this with today's music producer who employs computers not so much in the execution of something different, but in the mashup and remix of the 'pre-existent'. And it is this activity that is in fact the primary and popular trend in both the popular and fine arts alike at the present.

We don't even have to go as far back as Max Matthews or Morton Subotnick; or confine ourselves to the halls of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; or IRCAM. Even the 8-bit music of Pac-Man for instance, whether you think it amusing or annoying, simple or cheesy, and lacking a sophisticated polyphonic tapestry, nevertheless embodies –if we may say that about sound– originality.

Pac Man Arcade Game Play



Contrast that with the fact that some 30 years later, we might amuse ourselves not by creating something equally original for our time, but rather by replicating the sound of 30-yr old 8-bit compositions, only we're doing so on our tricked out ProTools systems.

At least chip tune composers using 1980s-era technology, embedded with SID chips, can now be found creating new original works, and many have become micromusic virtuosos of this technology.

Rymdreglage - 8-bit trip


Arguably, some of this originality is born of limitations. Except that now we live in age with few and possibly no limitations.

But what if originality is actually the child of limitation?

Uh oh.

RECOMBINANT COLLAGE VS. IN VITRO MASHUPS

Let's for a moment accept the old fashioned premise that traditional artwork, whatever the medium, falls into two categories:

ORIGINAL or DERIVATIVE

The following melody represents an original creation. It is not the result of a found sound, a recorded sample copied and pasted off a long forgotten B-side, or a well reiterated meme there for the mere replicating. Rather it is a wholly unique and original (though not completely alien) communication conceived via some combination of mysterious inspirational and biological processes which we still don't understand, but it is seemingly composed out of the synaptic ether from the singularly sophisticated brain of one brilliant composer:

Isaac Stern performs Bach Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 Fugue


And so was this melody:

Britney Spears performs Max Martin Baby One More Time


But this I'm not sure about:

Consider Girl Talk's latest album ALL DAY, which samples and posits each of its 372 sampled riffs, procured from a repertoire of previously recorded and popular hit songs, is an instantly recognizable hook.

Girl Talk - This is the Remix


ALL DAY is superbly fun. Indeed, it's like mainlining crystalline ear candy or some other highly addictive central nervous system stimulant, but does it represent something new? And to my ear and aesthetic, it exemplifies the latest post millennial model for presenting existing art works –all at once, sort of like bubblegum memetics or flashmobbing music. But I'm not sure the samples represent small enough microstructures that one could say the work was composed by Girl Talk. Rather, more factual I think to state that ALL DAY stretches the boundaries of the curator's craft and is more aptly considered an experimental and Experiential Playlist created by Girl Talk.

Of course, the same can be said of Kutiman's JUST A LADY, composed by editing several different video clips into a montage and layering their respective audio tracks so that they sync into a composite unified whole. JUST A LADY may or may not be a new work, or even a derivative work. To me, it is closer to representing the experience of walking into a room where more than one sonic artist is performing, and their respective performances (10 to be exact) just happen sync. This is what 5.1 Surround Sound sounds like when it's squished into a compressed A/V file. And quite elegantly, actually.

Kutiman-Thru-you - 07 - Just a Lady


BLURRED BOUNDARIES

There are several works in the Kutiman oeuvre, and together they remind me very much of Darren Solomon's interactive 'In Bb', which may either be a composition or an electronic game; John Cage's Music of Changes (1951); Nam June Paik's Düsseldorf matrix 1995 Swatch installation; and even the Brian Eno and David Byrne collaboration, 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts', among many other such works created, constructed or composed over the last fifty years.

Nam June Paik: installation Düsseldorf matrix 1995 Swatch



Present distribution platforms may be revolutionary, but our experience of all the above mentioned works is similar to some degree. I think it interesting, though that the Byrne/Eno cycle is the only one which offers a memorable audio experience. Whereas Solomon's 'In Bb' is a fun interactive device, the content itself is forgettable, maybe because each A/V asset is not the result of Solomon's singular inspiration, but the result of crowdsourcing. Paik's audio is simply incidental, and Cage, one suspects, simply wants to be appreciated for his theories. But of course, that is the point of much 'modern art'. What the artists want us to remember is the concept. Neither sound nor object is the thing, it is the blurred boundaries, and that is an intangible.

So if one is simply trying to appreciate a thing for itself, then no wonder it eventually strikes one as boring. Conceptually, however, all three composers –Solomon, Paik and Cage– have produced utterly fascinating works. It's when we actually listen to them that our attention wavers.

In fact, it may appear as if we are making Art where content doesn't matter.

In this aspect all Conceptual Artists share a common motivation with all mashup makers. And since mashups have gone mainstream, there now are a lot of people disseminating interesting ideas using otherwise incidental art as a means of distribution.

What amazing intellectual heights our species has reached! It's stuff like this that separates us from apes, and thanks to INTEL and others, we can frickin gorge ourselves on it.

RAUSCHENBERG OR RIP-OFF

The mashup is sometimes presented as synonymous with collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in intention and produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image, much the same way a child is not a copy of his or her parents, but a synthesis and then also, something new, as this work, untitled "combine," (1963) so adeptly illustrates:


Whereas the mashup is not really born of synthesized concepts, but rather any given mashup represents a recontextualization of pre-exisiting concepts within a single 'frame'. It's purpose is not so much to advance, but to reflect; not to break down beyond recognition and recombine into a new form/s, but to layer existing elements in a manner that comparison is forced. The mashup itself does not present itself as something new. But its curator/creator hopes it will inspire new thinking.

As it happens, Rauschenberg was also a trickster and often revealed a sublime conceptual side to his craft, which doesn't necessarily support my argument, but it's a worthwhile look if you haven't seen it before:

Robert Rauschenberg - Erased De Kooning


It may be that one day we think of Rauschenberg not as a prominent 20th Century American artist, but as the Father of 21st Century Art.

TO FRANKENSTEIN OR RE-ALIGN, THAT IS THE QUESTION

If you accept my premise, mashups are always derivative by definition, as they are by nature always constructed from pre-existing works, be they text, graphics, audio, video, animation, etc. But it would be hard to argue that this work, 'Blue Nudes' by Henri Matisse (1952) is derivative (except of the life model on which it is based). Though it is a collage, it is not a mashup. Like J.S. Bach or Max Martin, BLUE NUDES represents an original expression made manifest.


It's easy to think mashup is a synonym for collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image. Whereas the mashup's purpose is often just the opposite, not to combine beyond identification, but to layer in a manner that comparison is forced.

Collages are Frankenstined together from recycled bits of other works, and then given a new life. Mashups, on the other hand, represent not reanimation but a realignment of the original corpses, wheatpasted up on the wall and one laying or metaphorically 'beatmatched' next to the other, with the purpose of illumination. Conceptual art was always interesting but was it ever exciting?

Whereas the traditional artist would, say, sculpt oolitic limestone into The Venus of Willendorf, the modern artist takes the The Venus of Willendorf, positions her next to an Enoch Bolles Pin Up, and then sign his name to the composite image:

Venus Versus Venus, by Terry O'Gara (2011)


BROOKLYN, BERLIN, BICYCLES AND BETA

If we are already familiar with the statue and the pin up, then the recontextualization may be interesting, strike us as novel, and even be something we Twitter about, and it may even be art – but it is not art in the way we have long considered it. But in our brave new world, whether it is, or isn't art is actually besides the point, because the point of the thing is not to be judged as a work of art, but as a lens on our personal relationship with the culture, to demonstrate a new way of seeing, or hearing, or sensing in any capacity. See, the thing itself is incidental. All the value is loaded in the idea. And if you find it instantly forgettable, it's because ideas by themselves are like balloons: pretty, color, things, that eventually lose gas if they aren't first popped by the next new thing.

But is it okay to appropriate other people's works of art?

No, not without credit, but then it doesn't really matter, actually, because everyone is doing it. The digital medium has democratized art, and the most popular mode of expression is remixing other people's yellow-around-the edges objects into our own cutting edge, cut and paste 'new' ideas.

See, we are not simply citizens anymore, bound by the rigid rights and responsibilities of the state, we are something more than that. We are DJs.

–With the immediate result being an Internet powered global explosion of 20th Century memes into 21st Century culture. It begs the question: if we are so immersed in the past, then are we actually living in the present? The effect from all this stimulation is titillating, that's why we tweet each new trending fact, not because we think no one else reads the New York Times or the Daily Mail, but rather to make it clear to everyone else plugged into the zeitgeist, (all together now) "Look, my brain is infected, too!"

And it's also a bit like spending hours and hours learning how to manipulate a video game? Sure, maybe you are learning a new skill set that will be useful when you have to navigate your X-wing fighter at light speed to find just the right position to take out a Deathstar and save mankind, or maybe it's just a huge waste of time? Or maybe you've spent so much time taking out Deathstars that simply standing still in order to appreciate someone's subtle application of dirt on canvas, knife to wood, chisel to stone, etc –it all lacks an bit of iThrill that you now require to enjoy anything? It's a possibility, yes?

Even otherwise young and healthy Brooklyn based digerati, though their thumbs appear to text in the 21st Century, their brains remain soaked in 20th Century popisms. Will it take another generation before we can begin living in the future? In fact, it may be more accurate to say that our future is not in nineteen year olds or even nine year olds but in nine month olds.

Imagine then how it feels to be over forty and suddenly realize that not only have you been living in The Matrix all this time, but that you're actually the BETA version.

In real life, however, you hit forty, and realize that's what your twenties were –beta. Only today, it may be that our entire culture is twentysomething (in nation years).

President John F. Kennedy is noted for declaring in a 1963 speech that "Ich bin ein Berliner". Except that today, in 2011, he might well have declared, "We are all 25."

The proof is in the tweets.


HERE'S THE RUB




MASHUP VS COLLAGE

With Art, one dose can last a lifetime. It's like being inoculated from stupidity, but of course, it doesn't always work. Consider for instance how smart you usually are, and then consider the hot laptop resting on your lap.

Granted the line between mashup and collage is as fine as the one between medication and meditation, especially in the areas of graffiti, remixes and digital photo manipulation, all three of which are exercising tidal forces on our culture. But for the purposes of this discussion, mashups deconstruct; their aim to direct viewers to compare and contrast, the medium is not so much paint or pixels but context.

Collages, on the other hand, combine and construct, rendering source material obscure or irrelevant. Rauschenberg's Riding Bikes (1998) simply posits two bicycles side by side, but the effect is unique in every way imaginable, so much so that it we easily forget that we are looking at bikes.

Mashups shout: 'Look at this!'

Collages, ask: 'What am I looking at?'



In direct contrast, consider this next video, apparently produced for the sole purpose of comparing and contrasting one rock band's music and hairstyle with another rock band's music and hairstyle:

The Final Teen Spirit Mashup (Nirvana vs Europe) by Wax Audio


But of course, we enjoy layered media, don't we. A symphony, for instance, might be composed of a simple melody, but arranged for an orchestra, it demonstrates one pinnacle of human intellect. What's different today is that much music in the past was the construction of one mind. whereas today, layered mashups find their final form as the result of a division of labor. This activity, in and of itself, is not new in the commercial arts, but it represents a dynamic new trend for the fine arts.

My immediate inclination is to say that either Jeffery Koons or Damien Hirst (who are both known to work with teams) initiated this trend, though I know the process goes back centuries, and possibly millennia. It is curious to note that at least one thing we learn from Hirst, Koons and even DJs spinning wax in Ibiza, is that when art is presented as the effort of many, whether crowd sourced, remixed or mashedup, the originating or 'actual' artist/s themselves are relegated towards increasing obscurity, because the final work is said to belong to the curator/creator.

The Physical Impossibility of a flower from a Balloon
by Terry O'Gara (2011)




DERIVATIONS VS ORIGINATIONS


Contrast again mashups (of any medium) with traditional art. I don't mean pre-Impressionist works. Traditional art, for our purposes is simply that which is born from unique, recombinant conceptual material. In the creation of traditional art, the artist's progeny grows to maturation from a mutated meme into a wholly original work.

And sometimes, a meme is not even involved, and we are presented with the artistic treasure of a true soul diver who has descended into his or her psyche and returns from pituitary depths with archetypal treasure. And in this category we will also include the ocular seer who simply, but also superbly, captures wisps of our external world and presents them in a way that pleases the senses and strikes our fancy.

But here we are: we live smack in the middle of an age when Derivations have proven more popular to those who can afford nifty new media than 'Originations'.

It's as though it's not enough that something may be new or unique or original, or even simply decorative. What we're really interested in, is a Celebrity Deathmatch between competing ideas. And make no mistake, while many of us are at least delighted by the expression of ideas, others are just in it for the fight.

DIGITAL DADAISM

This Digital Dadaism reminds me also of Duchamp's 'Readymades'. For some, Duchamp's Fountain (1917) "is the most influential work of art of the twentieth century".



Whether it is or isn't, it's interesting to note that a man named Duchamp created nothing and became celebrated for it, and if that doesn't characterize our age, what does?

His genius, if you will, was not in the creation of a new object but in its 'recontextualization'. Or as it has been argued: What makes Duchamp an artist and the urinal his creation is that he "created a new thought for that object."

Yet, if the urinal is a work of art (I think it is), then the fact that Duchamp tagged it (with the name "R. Mutt") does not make him the artist, or even an artist, but a curator with a sense of humor. If that was not the case, then I know a kid in Brooklyn with a spray can who owns a train.

To compound things, what if you photograph the thing, what have you got then? Another original work of art? A copy? A representation? And what if I print the photograph to a T-Shirt and I only make one shirt. There are many 'Fountain' reproductions in the world, so if I only have one T-Shirt, what becomes the more valuable thing, the original or the derivative?

What Duchamp has done, really, to use modern parlance, is that he 'sampled' an object, and in the process demonstrated that industrial design could be and should be considered Art. Therefore the real artist of 'Fountain' is –MUST be– the actual designer/s of the thing, and his or her or their name/s appear lost to history (and/or to the Bedford Ceramic Urinal Manufacturer files).

As it happens, Duchamp's original 'work' was accidentally thrown out with garbage but authorized forgeries exist in museums all over the world, and we couldn't be happier about that, because we don't need the original nothing Duchamp didn't create, when we have something even more valuable and interesting to 21st Century audiences: a reproduction.

Not to mention, this circumstance makes my one-of-a-kind T-Shirt worth a million bucks.

A GOLDEN AGE OF ENTERTAINMENT

So, no surprise, right, that today's TV/PC and possibly Adderall enhanced human chooses this exercise –COPY AND PASTE– to exemplify the height of new media/ new millennium creativity. And why not, when the process is democratic and damn fun to boot, even if the results inconsequential (and even profitable)? Art (With a capital 'A') has had its golden age; maybe this moment (right now) is a Golden Age of Entertainment? I think it is.

And yet, even if that is the case, then you still have to ask: If everyone is doing it, how special can it be?

The answer?

Only time, critics and copyright law will tell.

OUR EVOLVING CULTURAL ECOLOGY

Finally, this all brings to mind the word ECOTONE

Ecotone is formed from a combination of 'ecology' and 'tone', meaning a place where ecologies are in tension, and is meant to indicate transition areas between two adjacent but different plant communities.

It strikes me that global culture can also be said to be at present an ecotone, and largely because of the introduction of digital tools. We have not quite moved from one century to another however, and we have not quite adapted to these new tools at our disposal. But as such, we stand at the cusp of another great adventure, and all we need to do is not let ourselves get bogged down in remixing past works when absolutely original things are still to be conceived, whether with rubber bands and paperclips, or Adobe Photoshop and CSS+.

And it may very well be that new forms emerge from old tools.

PUT DOWN THE REMOTE AND PICK UP THE KALIMBA


There are still many new and innovative works to be composed on piano, kalimba or yanqin, and novel gestures to be communicated by ballet, for instance. A healthy human body does not require an upgrade. The violin can't be improved upon, nor the paint brush, and there is not a single machine on the planet that will ever weave the kind of magic that a mere child can conjure with smile.

We know ourselves, as artists, that whether made from twigs or pixels, clay or light, or our own bodies and voices, that regardless of result, Process will always be exciting to us. So, if audiences appear collectively blasé, and they frequently do, then maybe we might use the new communication tools at our disposal to 'mashup' the audience with our own lives. In this way we invite them into a mutually shared experience. We witness a fair bit of that already, and naturally I think that is a good way to go.

In the meantime, it is also fair to ask if it is art that is boring or the audience that is bored. Is someone disinterested because of external or internal factors?

I recall how as a little boy arriving in the United States having spent great swaths of my childhood without television, how I found even the most poorly made commercials deeply entertaining. Perhaps, in the last twenty years we've assimilated so many new technologies that our brains have learned to demand an accelerated diet of novel stimuli on a regular basis? Will we one day say, 'there's nothing interesting on the Internet?' Hasn't that happened already? If that's progress, it also strikes me as a kind of sad atrophy of our cognitive ability to appreciate the single frame, a single object, a still life, a captured moment, whether in Tempera, stone, vinyl, sand, glass, clay or even as a digital media file.

Racing through an online gallery so that a thousand images dance by like a single work of stop motion animation may seem an increasingly comfortable way to absorb visual information, but I think in order to deeply appreciate a single, static work of art, one must pause and linger, for there is another dimension at play in the sensory reception of art. And that is the notion of Time. Giving a single work our attention and our time can mean the difference between real experience and mere observation.

So it may be that if we still hope to sustain an interest in traditional media methodologies, which I think is a cultural imperative, then one might actually have to stop the feed, break the screen and step back through the shattered shards of so-called social media, if only to revel for a faintly reminiscent moment of what it means to be present in the proximity of visceral, physical, human expression –and to feel again how thrilling Art is, that it might even transform your life, if you let it.

And why would anyone want to do that?

Because we're still human.

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The image that leads this article is the West African Adinkra Symbol, 'Nkyinkyim' which is a symbol of initiative, dynamism and versatility. The original image can be found at Adinkra.org, which allows use of African symbols at no cost for non-profit uses. The image of the cat in the car is from puntabulous.com. The Image of the saluting woman was sourced from disassociated.com, and was used as a promotional image for the Paste-Modernism 2 charity auction for Queensland flood victims. 'The Physical Impossibility of A flower from a Balloon' is composite two works: The shark image is from the Damien Hirst work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991); the image of the balloon sculpture is of a Jeff Koons work: A flower from a balloon (Purple) (1995-2000). All other images presented here are provided for the necessary purposes of illustrating points of this essay.

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