Some remarks on digital art, autonomy, and the labour of others (Eleonore, part III)

This final piece in the Eleonore series sums up some more theoretic and political thoughts about the relationships between digital art, autonomy and the division of labour. It comes to the conclusion that the least digital artists can do is to use free software, strive for egalitarian types of working relationships and to name all their collaborators as co-creators of work, regardless of the usual social valuations of types of work and the institutional pressure they come under if their work joins the art circuit.

In an article presenting the conception of Eleonore, Floating Structure, I presented a conception of media art which mixes aspects of thought of my friend Franx Xaver and my own. In this piece I re-run some of those ideas. Franz Xaver insists on the autonomy of the artist in a way which I find both fascinating and stimulating, but also running danger of following an endearingly outdated concept of the autonomy of the artist. Franz Xaver takes a 'position' whereby the artist has to have complete control over the means of artistic production. For an artist working with traditional materials this appears to be a goal that can be relatively easily realised. Painters, for instance, used to produce their own frames, canvases and colour pigment. Even if there existed already a market for canvas, pigment and oil, where those things could be bought as commodities, it would not have presented an obstacle in principle for an artist to produce those things her- or himself. The same counts true for a sculptor working with wood, iron or stone.

The problem becomes ultimately more complex in a technological society where commodities are produced through production processes relying on science-related technologies, especially for those artists who desire to work with the latest technologies. To apply the same requirements, to be in complete control of the means of production, runs danger of being seens as naive or fanatic or, in other words, underestimate the interconnectedness and systemic character of the current technology-insatiated world. If an artist, for instance, works with computers, that artist would, following the same logic, have the need to have command of a chip factory. That artist would also have to write all code from scratch, programming in machine language. It is not impossible to do that, I know people who are capable of doing that, but very few of them are artists in the conventional sense, most are hackers, or artist-engineers. The problem of hardware is even a greater obstacle. A chip factory is a huge capital investment which no artist or even artist community or association of artists is capable of mobilising. Thus, the requirement needs to be softened a bit. While the processor would still have to be manufactured in a commercial chip factory, the design of the chip would have to be transparent, i.e. 'open hardware'. For various reasons open hardware has still not been fully achieved. But why go to such length, and why propose such a requirement in the first place?

Because, firstly, being in control of the means of production is a basic pre-condition for artistic production. If this condition does not exist, the artist will depend on others, either on the collaboration of others or means of production provided through some institutional context. The latter is the rational of those residencies for digital artists who provide 'technological support'. It is no coincidence that the outcome of those residencies is dubious in most cases. What has happened, however, is that the tools of digital production have become cheaper and cheaper so that artists are capable of buying the things that they need. So, in the sense of ownership, they are in possession of the means of production. This, however, does not make them free from societal control. Firstly, there applies the notion of 'freedom' as RMS defines it. The hardware and software can have various strings attached, which restrict the freedom to create. But secondly, there is another aspect of the commodity character of computers which RMS does not reflect on. As prefabricated computers, under the conditions of todays economic system, are commodities, the commodity becomes a part of that artist's work who unthinkingly -- without further reflecting on that issue -- uses a computer. And at that very moment, the artist buys into a whole system of relationships which characterise contemporary capitalism. The artist can now proceed to tackle the problem head-on, by addressing the issue and make it the subject matter of the work. Two recent works, Tantalum Memorial and Coal Fired Computer, are rare examples of such an approach. If the artist ignores the question and simply 'uses' the computer as if it was a neutral tool, the artist gives up a great deal of his or her autonomy and allows the meaning of the work to be determined to a large part by a combination of market forces, commodity fetishism, and/or the technological imaginary that surrounds the computer. In other words, the neo-liberal mystifications of the information society pre-determine the work. The meaning which the 'computer' has acquired at that given point in the respective social system within which the artist works and exhibits becomes a part of the 'meaning' of the work. And this is not fundamentally remedied by the use of old or second-hand computers. Then the artist is simply a beneficiary of planned obsolescence in economies dependent on ever faster product cycles. Another strategy, rather than trying to become autonomous, would be to declare the computer used in the artwork as a ready-made. Through such a conceptual trick, in the footsteps of Duchamp, the commodity as ready-made enters the whole complex of the artist's 'creation'. This gesture, however, can only be carried out so and so often. From a certain neo-Dadaistic viewpoint one could claim that in the past certain artists acted as if they treated the whole internet as a ready-made which became an artwork throught their signature to certain web-pages which then were considered to be net.art - an approach which has yielded some results but showed to be short-lived.

A further point, however, has to do with the division of labour in capitalist societies. Franz Xaver's requirement is interesting because he asks the question of control over the work and the possibility of artistic re/production in the first place. An artist can only produce if s/he has the freedom to do so. At a certain historic period in media art, artists used to use corporate computer systems to which they had only very tentative access. Their access was totally dependent on institutional sponsorship. Consequently, the artistic achievement emphasised the software. The layer of software was the only layer over which the artist had some level of control and often not even that, as the code was written by a professional programmer following aesthetic instructions or guidelines by the artist. The question which arises here is one of priorities and hierarchies. In contemporary societies, from the point of view of the art system, the conceptual decision making capacities of the artist are privileged, whereas the programmer is merely a technician carrying out some pre-conceived idea. This is of course without any real foundation other then the ideological pre-conceptions of late capitalism. The fetishisation of knowledge and of certain professions of privileged knowledge producers, such as scientists, engineers, high-level managers, rubs off on the artist. Behind the recent emphasis on 'software art' we may detect such a motivation coupled with a Platonic hangover - something that is, software art aside, much more prevalent in certain types of media art histories which give preference to forms of interactive art considered 'immaterial' production and therefore inherently superior to grime-faced art of the industrial age. In such valuations of different types of labour and different societies based on different modes of production certain symmetries keep re-appearing: the social division between manual and mental labour is reproduced in the base-superstructure relationship and the priority of artistic 'software' and aesthetic decision making over handwork and craft-based artistic production.

In the current hierarchical system surrounding the production of digital art, the technicians and builders of machines - while they may actually earn more money than the artists - are in terms of social capital closer to 'workers', whereas the artist as a kind of instruction giver and aesthetic decision maker is closer to the upper class of 'managers and priests'. What's wrong with that? First of all, such a perspective on digital art unconditionally and uncritically accepts the class-based nature of the 'relationships of production'. Yet out of the division of labour in capitalism directly grow the social divisions, inequalities and injustice on a local and global scale. There may be possibilities for having different types of the division of labour in another type of society - I would be glad to learn more about this - but currently this is quite narrowly defined. Furthermore, and I should have brought this up much earlier, we are not speaking of the individual machine which an individual artist uses in an individual art object, but that machine is part of a large-scale system or infrastructure. As societies we have made ourselves dependend on those large-scale systems and now that we find they are somewhat poisonous we learn how difficult it is to get off the hook. The global system of production with its international division of labour, accompanied by as much environmental destruction as human exploitation (not to speak of the cognitive dissonances of the guilt ladden rich) is by necessity 'inscribed' into the art work of the contemporary digital artist with or without her or his willing. I admit to have made some ethical pre-decisions which I have not yet stated. My requirement to an artist, art critic or media art historian is not to uncritically accept the current class structure - and thereby power and domination structure -- of society but rather to critically address those issues in their work and seek to overcome them. If they fail to do so, they easily glide into age old 'intellectual furniture' provided by Platonic idealism. Platonism was at the time of its creation already the product of a class society based on strong ideological divisons between manual and mental labour, where slave labour supported the capacity to be a patrician 'idealist' philosopher.

Currently, where class divisions have reached extreme technologically supported forms, through robotized labour which creates structural unemployment in the former industrial countries, counterposed by slave-wage labour in 'emerging economies' and, here as well as there, populations made subservient by the high-tech panopticon and a mind numbing, overpowering media sphere, it is only natural that on the institutional level the mystification of 'digital arts' is near complete. Platonic idealism has become built into the physical infrastructure, made hardware in the Boolean logic of computer switches, robotizing intellectual labour Thus, whe have the playful homo ludens who revels in creative interactions with his peers goggling and fondling 'smart devices' and, what an irony, getting lost in dreamy neo-Situationist deriv├ęs. The speed of technological development is only matched by the stasis or even regression of social relations; the very specific type of technopolitics we have, the relationship between society, technology and the arts, is a system which is unsustainable not only because of environmental destruction and depletion of natural resources. In my opinion, digital artists, critics and art historians have a special duty to look at those critical intersections, otherwise they become mere functionaries of an unsustainable and unjust system.

But maybe such strong words are not even needed today anymore. When I first developed such lines of thought I felt rather alone. Today, more and more people are waking up to the fact that we are living in a techno-culture, where technological artefacts are loaded with cultural values and where the production of cultural values is usually done through technological artefacts. Therefore an attentive focus for the relationship between high-tech and labour relations from an artistic point of view is also increasing. We can see that in festivals such as Pixelache, Piksel, the arts+communications events by RIXC in Riga with their focus on Renewables, the activities of kuda.org in Novi Sad and many others. For some reason or other, those events are located on the European periphery and have not yet reached the institutional castles of high-media art. So, what is to be done, and who is going to do it, to quote the inspiring last chapter of David Harvey's latest book? My personal trajectory at this point is to carry out more research on technopolitics and the arts from a historical point of view.

I think, as a practical minor point, resulting from this, there is no alternative to the use of free software, open hardware, as far as it exists, and free networks. Any excuses, such as the lack of efficiency of certain pieces of free software, are just lame. Politically, to return to the propositions made by Franz Xaver, I think I have found out now where we agree and disagree. I find his approach regarding the autonomy of the artist very useful, but a bit too individualistic. The kind of social relationships which this system is dependend on and which it at the same time produces will impede on the freedom of the artist. It is therefore important to keep free spaces of creation open, but free software alone will not be enough. Truly free and autonomous artistic production can not be achieved individually only and not only on the basis of the relationship with the means of artistic production. The heroic individual who possesses all necessary skills to produce complex artworks all by himself is an exception. To produce anything that is technologically, socially and aesthetically complex and rich, I, personally speaking, need collaborators. Therefore I think it is also important to seek for conditions of artistic production in which free, self-defined collaboration between all participants is possible and the rule rather than the exception. I do not insinuate that my friend does not think the same, but this has not been emphasised in previous statements. Finally, such an egalitarian quality of collaboration should be made visible by clearly naming all collaborators and insist on them being equally valued in listings of works when they enter the institutional system of art (because all too often, artists first do it, but then the institution comes and asks for the collaborators to be removed and they comply).