At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet
Editor: Annmarie Chandler, Norie Neumark
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: September 2008
I want to begin by saying how much I appreciate Jennifer Way's thought-provoking review, which raises many interesting questions and most usefully and positively locates it in the context of relevant and related books, including a number published since At a Distance first appeared. Given the title and concern of the book, it seems most appropriate that the review itself comes at a distance of several years from the book's writing, during 2002-04, and publication in 2005. This distance enables me to bring forward a number of assumptions that were not as obvious at the time. It also brings the book to the attention of (new) readers in this very different Internet moment of social networking.
In 2002-04, when At a Distance was in process, the Internet itself was also in process. It had emerged from the particular moment defined at one end of a spectrum by net.art and at the other end by the broad hype of Dot.com boom (and then crash). And, it was on the verge of a major shift in its landscape with Web 2.0. Even though it wasn't clear at that point that this was coming, it was obvious how quickly things were changing and we sensed that tying the book to a particular moment of the Internet would risk all too quickly dating it, reducing the impact of the different political, economic, media and media art moments and locations of our examples, and closing off important connections readers might make then and later.
I'd like to tease out further the assumptions behind our editing strategy of asking contributors to maintain a certain distance from the overwhelming pull of the Internet, in order to be able to bring forth and explore projects' actualities and potentials. In one sense this strategy came from an awareness that memory is contextual and is produced through the questions asked -- through the conceptual framing and writing strategies that elicits it. In another way, it actually developed over time, as we found that a couple of early first drafts, where authors were framing their memories and discussions directly around the Internet -- with all its hype and promise -- sometimes ran to repetition and cliché. But once the grip of the Internet was loosened, and the authors set about searching for and attending to a different set of questions -- generated from projects, rather than those posed by the Internet at the moment of their writing -- all sorts of unexpected material emerged. It still seems to me that our decision was worthwhile, given this wealth of important and unusual thinking and material produced. Here I would also like to particularly acknowledge the generosity of the artist/activist authors -- with their material, their memories, their images -- and their willingness to think again about their own work and ideas.
It's particularly interesting to me that Way notes the recurring presence of Fluxus in the book. In relation to this, it is noteworthy how so many artists today are re-working Fluxus art works, in ways different even from those common at the time the book was written. While this isn't the place to enter complicated debates about the politics of current social and participatory art or its relation to relational aesthetics -- it is noteworthy that Fluxus certainly does seem to have become even more relevant and centre stage in the years since the book was written. In his article "Fluxus – reference or paradigm for young contemporary artists?" Bernard Clavez engages with Nicolas Bourriaud's (Relational Aesthetics) discussion of participatory or "convivial" works:
The gap between the two eras is due to two ontologically distinct conceptions of the function of the work of art. In the 1960s, the exploration of conviviality was seen as an act of possible cultural regeneration. At the time this vision extended to a larger culture, including the culture outside of the world of art. Today the work is the place of conviviality itself. It uses the context it questions -- mostly institutional -- without trying to modify, change or disturb it in any way.We may now be in perhaps yet another 'era' in relation to distance and/or convivial art, where intimacy is often a defining quality. Which brings me to my latest project, which I appreciate the opportunity to mention. I am co-editing a volume, V01CE: The Grain of the Voice in Digital Arts and Media, which is tentatively scheduled to be published by MIT Press next year. My sense is that voice plays a more prominent role in media art in this current era because it can work performatively to engage an audience intimately, while speaking of alterity and intersubjectivity, rather than calling to essentialism or authenticity. Intimacy has an interesting and sometimes paradoxical relationship to distance. I thought about this with At a Distance, especially thinking about Mail Art as being at the intersection of communication art, Fluxus, and what Craig Saper analyzed as intimate bureaucratic art practice. Distance can instigate a certain desire for intimacy and it can give the intimacy of these works an added intensity, as with the pleasures of Mini-FM and other radio projects discussed in At a Distance. Another connection between the two projects is the editing strategy of involving practitioners as well as theorists and calling on them to address technical and technological issues outside a framework of technological determinism.
At the end of her review, Jennifer Way raises a number of key questions about the art/activism relationship. Annmarie has discussed this but I would like to add that we specifically chose the range of authors we did in order to bring out the diversity in their experience and understanding of the relation between art and activism. And, as Annmarie said, we think they did so admirably. In the Introduction, I aimed to develop the figure of distance art/activism through a particular example of the envelope and mail art on the one hand, and the shared concerns and themes on the other hand. I hoped that this strategy, rather than, say, a categorizing approach, would position the reader in a more open way toward the chapters that followed and would, along with those contributions (and our section introductions), open up the sort of important discussion Way calls for.
Finally, I would like to again thank Jennifer Way for her thoughtful review and RCCS for honouring us by choosing At a Distance. I am particularly appreciative that RCCS invites reviews of books, like ours, that have been available for a few years, and for enabling the sort of dialogue that the call for response allows.
Bertrand Clavez, "Fluxus-reference or paradigm for young contemporary artists?" Visible Language: Special Issue, Part 1: Fluxus and Legacy, 39.3, 2005, p. 239.
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