Fields - an Index of Possibilities

This text outlines a research strategy and context for the Fields exhibition to take place in Riga in 2014. While not directly about the exhibition, this text explores the notion of Fields as a broadening and deepening of an inquiry began with the exhibition Waves. The notion of the field and its various links into scientific disciplines purports a long term epistemic shift from fixed identities and dualisms to vectors and forces/lines of attraction and repulsion; from a world of fixed entities to one of energies and the exertion of force from a distance.


FieldsIn 2006, Armin Medosch together with Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, artistic directors of RIXC, jointly curated the exhibition Waves (2006) at the Arsenals, the main venue for contemporary arts in Riga. Waves was re-staged in modified form in collaboration with Inke Arns and HMKV, Dortmund (2008). Waves was an exhibition conceived as an artistic research project and explored electromagnetism as a ‘principal material of media art’. Now, another large-scale exhibition at the Arsenals, co-curated by Medosch, Smite, and Smits, Fields, is planned as a major contribution to Riga European Cultural Capital 2014. starts from the assumption that the changing role of art in society is one where it becomes a critical interloper in patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations. The range of practices which were once subsumed under terms such as media art, digital art, art and technology, art, and science have experienced such growth and diversification that no single term can work as a signpost any more. Fields is about mapping those expanded fields of artistic practices which are generative, productive and axiomaticAxiomatic means working at the same time artistic, social, technological and scientific fields.. Fields are contextual seedbeds for ideas and practices aiming at overcoming the crisis of the present, inventing new avenues for future developments by bringing together traditionally separated domains.

Theoretic Research Context

Fields develops a novel approach to mapping, defining and curating of post-media art practices. The term post-media art is used here in awareness of great tensions concerning its definition and usage, which this project hopes to make productive. For Lev Manovich, post-mediality arose from the digitalisation of cultural production so that ‘the old tradition of identifying distinct art practices on the basis of the materials being used’ had become inadequate (Manovich 2001, p.4). The discourse launched by Rosalind Krauss on the ‘post-medium condition’ (2000) builds on a New York-based debate on the term medium, strongly affected by Clement Greenberg’s ideas on the essence of modernism (Greenberg 2003).

Modernist and avant-garde art practices in the 20th century have been characterised by their medium-specificity. This means that a medium, ‘to sustain an artistic practice, [...] must be a supporting structure, generative of a set of conventions, some of which, in assuming the medium as their subject, must be wholly “specific” to it, thus producing an experience of their own necessity’ (Krauss op.cit., p. 26). But for Krauss, that was exactly what had become obsolete. ‘Modernism was probing painting for its essence,’ argues Krauss, and ‘that logic taken to its extreme had turned painting inside out and had emptied it into the generic category of art’ (ibid., p.10). Since then, ‘being an artist means to question the nature of art’ (Joseph Kosuth quoted in Krauss 2000, p. 10).

The other tradition, of which Manovich writes, has once been called ‘new media’ or, alternatively ‘media art’ depending on the era and/or cultural geography. It refers to certain artistic practices that engaged with technology and science through what according to Jesa Denegri is a ‘constructive approach’ in art (Denegri 2004). In the decades after the Second World War, artists re-connecting with Constructivism, de Stijl and Bauhaus began their search for artistic clarity under the new conditions of advanced industrial societies. After humble beginnings, this reached a first peak during the late 1960s, with initiatives such as E.A.T. in the USA, the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, London 1968, or the international art movement New Tendencies (1961-1973), based in Zagreb, Croatia (Medosch 2012).

In the 1980s and 1990s media art formed own institutions, festivals, and places of gathering (cf. Gere 2008). The rapid expansion of new media art practices during those years was in step with the advance of the ‘digital revolution’ as Wired magazine insisted to name it; a paradigm change from an industrial to an information society (Castells 2010). The variety of terms used over the past forty years - luminokinetic art, electronic art, video art, computer art, net art - suggests a close interlinking between those practices and technological progress. According to Manovich, the rise of ‘digital’ forces us to abandon the technical carrier medium as a signifier for artistic practice. Since the computer can render and manipulate images, text, film/video, music, that particular version of medium-specificity collapses.

Krauss’s conception of a ‘differential specificity’ however, offers another line of argument. Krauss writes ‘the specificity of a medium must be understood as differential, self-differing, and thus a layering of conventions never simply collapsed into the physicality of their support’ (op.cit., p. 53). For the naming, describing, discussion and curating of post-media art, the technologies used are not irrelevant but also not wholly sufficient; other concepts are needed too. If an indistinct usage of the term post-media leads to the misunderstanding that there was no difference between contemporary art and media art, an important discussion is rendered moot.

We need to recognise the historic depth and geographical diversity of those art forms once associated with media art which have now entered a new, post-media stage, which is very different from saying that there was no distinction to be made in the first place. Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook have through their mailing list CRUMB and books such as Rethinking Curating (Graham & Cook 2010) worked hard to find contact points and points of translation between those domains while maintaining their ‘differential specificity.’ At a panel recorded by them at the conference Transmediale in 2007 in Berlin, Inke Arns, Diedrich Diederichsen, and Timothy Druckrey agreed that what they called ‘gallery art’ formulated its relation with technology mainly through ‘displacement, caricature and negation,’ while media art ‘charts new paradigms of perception, humanity and the physical’ (quoted in Graham and Cook 2010, p. 31).

There is a widely shared perception among practitioners and scholars of post-media practices that their fields are still marginal in relation to the contemporary art world and that this has partly to do with a lack of informedness on behalf of theorists, curators, funders, and audiences of contemporary art. The other side of the argument is that contemporary art considers new media art as quite flawed regarding its relationship with techno-science. There have been certain shifts in thoughts and ethical values that affected people in privileged positions to become highly critical of technology and science (although they live in societies utterly depending on it) (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005). The anti-technological shift in art after the late 1960s and early 1970s had the effect that contemporary art increasingly differentiated itself from media art. This, however, is an approach not followed in the Fields project, and another distinction needs to be introduced.

Some parts of the media art world are indeed characterised by a lack of critical engagement with the social forces behind narratives of technological progress. As my M.A. thesis (2005) has shown, the trope of technological determinism, although academically long defeated, had a lot of currency in the media art discourses of the 1990s and 2000s. The he rationale for funding of post-media art today (2012/13) is based on assumptions such as that it contributes to innovations that can be economically exploited and instrumentalised. For contemporary art, such an industrial logic would be completely anathema.

Those border disputes between new media and contemporary art can be made productive by seeing them through the lens of Thomas F. Gieryn’s concept ‘boundary-work,’ which he defines as ‘an effective ideological style for protecting professional autonomy’ (Gieryn 1983, p.789). According to Gieryn, ‘the intellectual ecosystem has with time been carved up into “separate” institutional and professional niches through continuous processes of boundary-work designed to achieve an apparent differentiation of goals, methods, capabilities and substantive expertise’ (ibid., p. 783). Just as the boundary-work done by scientists ensures that science is seen as the sole source of cognitive authority (ibid., p. 784), contemporary art defends itself against the interlopers from the digital underground as the sole maintainers of a supposedly 'autonomous' art practice (Bürger 1984).

While Krauss highlights that the category of the autonomy of art has become problematic, she and other art theorists of October magazine such as Benjamin Buchloh have been consistent in their harsh critique of media art. Nam June Paik for instance, who in the field of media art would be seen as a great pioneer, was dismissed by Buchloh as a ‘technocratic idealist’ (Buchloh 1985, p.271). The issue the October critics take up is not so much the usage of technology per se but the fact that artists such as Paik fail to sufficiently redeem themselves from the force field of the culture industry. As the media are dominated by a corporate culture industry, any message passing through them must be designed to critically subvert that very condition through what the French Situationists called détournement (subversive appropriation) (Krauss, op.cit., p.33). Yet Krauss is aware that capitalism is ‘the ultimate master of détournement’ (ibid.). It is therefore that she develops a double-edged argument. On one hand she dismisses traditionalists, by writing, ‘in the age of television, so it broadcast, we inhabit a post-medium condition’ (op.cit., p. 32). Whilst the Portapak3 ‘shattered the modernist dream,’ the work that best meets the challenge of the post-medium condition for Krauss is that of artists such as William Kentridge and James Coleman who use traditional media to reflect on the current condition.

In a world where the influence of technology can ‘hardly be overstated,’ (Gere 2008, p. 14) the question of how technologies are being imagined, thought about and discussed is too important to be relegated to such marginality. The instrumentalisation of science and technology for economic gain and military needs has to be met with creative and imaginative uses of technology that answer fundamental needs of societies. The constructive approach that such practices that were once subsumed under media art bring to those tasks is indispensable if we want to move on to a more sustainable future.

Those practices, however, have not yet done enough boundary-(home)-work to gain the level of appreciation they deserve. Until recently, there was a reticence by protagonists of new media to try to define their field. A leading scholar and curator such as Christiane Paul wrote in 2008 that new media was ‘impossible to pin down,’ and sometimes appeared to be ‘more fluid than its protagonists want it to be’ (Paul 2008, p.3). It is time to overcome the widely held notion that this field is too young to be defined. As Graham and Cook assert, ‘new media art can be regarded as contemporary art only if it can find a place in the category of art and can develop a critical vocabulary only if it can define itself accurately’ (2010, p. 288).

Graham and Cook state that ‘curators need to be clear about their categories because they need to know what kind of exhibition they are putting together’ (2010, p. 5). The research project Fields is about mapping and categorising artworks, which are of a hybrid and transdisciplinary nature and have not yet assumed a fixed position in any ‘canon’ (Shanken 2007). The developments of art and technology practices in recent years, for example the kind of projects brought together by RIXC’s Renewables network, make it increasingly clear that sticking to new media art as an umbrella term makes less and less sense.

The artists, whose work will be re-considered for Fields, work with, to give some examples: solar energy, bees, mushrooms, water, wind, computer code, local communities in the Arctic region, discarded mobile phones, cloth used as a Faraday’s cage, radio telescopes, kayaks, co-operatives, permacultures, etc. Those works are bringing human and non-human actors into an interplay and thereby enlist them as witnesses in an argument for how we could live life differently. Those works can hardly be accused of ‘technocratic idealism’ but grind out different paths for the co-development of human communities and their technologies. Technologies are not understood simply as things but as parts of larger assemblages that create connections between multiplicities drawn from the different ordering systems ‘art’ and ‘technology,’ to paraphrase Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, p.23).

Naming and categorising the connections that those practices create between different multiplicities will be a significant challenge. Fields is based on a number of propositions made a priori by the curators, but is also about opening up such curatorial processes and making them a subject of public discourse. Out of the engagement with works of artists and theorists, the project undertakes a mapping of practices of a ‘rampant impurity’ (Krauss, op.cit., p.33) for which open taxonomies are being developed in a participatory, interactive, and playful way.

Themes and Re-Appraisal of Work on Fields

Fields will be a self-reflective project. We are aiming at identifying fields which act as catalysts for change. In doing so, we also question the notion of the field itself. The ways in which we use the term Fields today owes everything to James Clerk Maxwell’s paper A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field (Maxwell 1865). The field as an agricultural entity had wielded its very strong social, organisational power for thousands of years; and the field as a metaphor, a sign or a signpost of divisions, has long been the driving force of scientific inquiries. With Maxwell, the field became thought as something that makes it possible that one body exerts power over another one without any visible connections. We will interrogate the cultural history of fields as a metaphor in science and scientific theory, as well as the way it resonated (sic!) in the arts and humanities.

Social Fields

Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of culture as a relational field (Bourdieu & Johnson 1993) is a welcome stimulus for this work. Our initial search and research has taken us to the curator and theorist Jack Burnham who proposed the notion of relational fields in art in the landmark publication Beyond Modern Sculpture (Burnham 1968). Like Burnham, Umberto Eco’s notion of the Opera Aperta (Open Work) (1962/1989), understood as creating a ‘field of possibilities,’ was based on a cultural interpretation of quantum physics (Eco 1989). Long before Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (Bourriaud 2002), relational field theories about art were flourishing. The epistemological implications of quantum theory left their marks on the art of the 20th century in ways that have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged (cf. Bachelard 1984; Barad 2007).

Gestalt Fields

In the early 20th century, Gestalt psychology developed a field theory of visual perception (cf. Koffka 1935; Köhler 1947). Whereas some of the assumptions of early Gestalt psychology were built on poor understandings of the physiology of the brain (Piaget 1971, p.55), the structural form of those theories has shown to be very productive in the arts and social sciences. Artists have explored the ‘phenomenological vectors’ that create force fields between works and viewers (Weibel 2007). Participatory and interactive work by artists such as Gianni Colombo or Rafael Jesus-Soto drew on Gestalt principles while proposing a role for artists as agents of change (Brett 2000). Exactly because that type of inquiry has been discontinued, we will re-engage with Gestalt ideas about structure, form and perception and examine to what extent they are supported by current neuroscience.

Kurt Lewin combined influences of Gestalt psychology and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic fields to create psychological and social field theory (Lewin 1951). His ideas, together with those of Jacob Levy Moreno, became influential for social network analysis (Scott & Carrington 2011), which also underpins the new field of network science (cf. Barabási 2002). Social network analysis has become a very controversial field because of the practices of state and private actors who collect and data-mine large sets of data on citizens. It is thus a good example of how in the proposed project hard science inevitably becomes linked with social fields.

Unpacking the Social Content of Science

Fields seeks to unpack the political content of supposedly neutral scientific and aesthetic knowledge. The way in which the anthropologist Michael Taussig (Taussig 2009) contextualised the history of colour by connecting it with the realms of politics, religion, empire and colonialism serves as a methodological inspiration for our project. Fields interrogates how ‘field’ as metaphor has been reflected in structuralist and post-structuralist discourses.

Gilles Deleuze defined the ‘empty square/field’ as ‘that differentiating element of difference itself’ (Deleuze 2004). In our work, the notion of ‘the empty field’ serves as important inspiration. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987) can be read as a philosophy of fields, from the ‘empty field’ as a pre-condition of the creation of concepts, to ‘vectorial fields’ and ‘fields of immanence.’

Greening the Field

From this meta-semiotic discourse we return to the real field, as in agricultural field and all issues relating to green issues. The agricultural field is the starting point and green issues will feature importantly in the exhibition. While we will not be able to cover all issues adequately in the remaining time, the field as in discipline will always play an important part.


A short recollection: Fields starts with a mapping of practices. At this stage it uses combinations of descriptive terms to summarise practices, drawing on a wide range of social, technological and artistic fields. Examples for such terms are: ‘bio-arts’ (art using biological things as ‘medium’); ‘critical cartography’ (mapping projects by communities rather than governments); ‘typographical craftivism’ (craft based activism using typography as medium, a term used by the collective De Geuzen); ‘molecular networked activism’ (networked activism drawing on Félix Guattari's (1984) notion of the ‘molecular’ revolution). In this way, the mapping of practices produces an an ever expanding matrix of connected fields. Yet we do not stop there, we proceed to the creation of concepts.

What kind of concepts are we seeking?

As Michel Foucault has made clear in The Order of Things (Foucault 1970), the very act of categorising things is intrinsically political. The concepts we are seeking are more likely to be expressed by single words rather than combined terms and could sometimes be verbs. Candidates for concepts, for example, could be serial or seriality. Mathematical methods used to create a series are called Markov chains, Fourier chains, or Fibonacci series. If we zoom in closer on one of those methods, we discover that Markov chain analysis has been developed first by Andrei Markov, Sr. in 1913 to analyse the frequency of vowels and consonants in the poem Eugen Onegin by the Russian author Pushkin (Gerovitch 2002, p. 106). Later, Markov chain analysis was developed into a general theory of stochastic processes. Through the use made of it by Claude Shannon in his Information Theory (Shannon and Weaver 1949), a concept that has emerged from linguistics has become near ubiquitous. Markov-chains have found their way back to the arts and humanities because of the adoption of the information theoretical model by structuralist methods of art and literary criticism.

The concepts that we arrive at can be viewed as ‘boundary objects’ (Star and Griesemer 1989; Bowker and Star 2000; Star 2010). The ‘object’ is defined as a ‘set of work arrangements that are at once material and processual’ (Star 2010, p. 604). It ‘resides between social worlds (or communities of practice) where it is ill structured' (ibid.).

But exactly that quality, the vagueness of its identity, allows it to be used by different groups who treat it as a common object, while making it more specific (ibid.); those groups are ‘cooperating without consensus’ and they ‘tack back-and-forth between both forms of the object’ (ibid., p. 605). We are aiming at creating, defining and refining concepts that, understood as boundary-objects, support the boundary-work of creating the tag cloud that makes together post-media arts. This will permit our trans-discipline to find a common language and facilitate collaborations between actors who are normally separated.


Fields is a curatorial research project that engages with the works of selected artists in order to explore generative concepts – concepts that do not simply describe what exists in a static way but are contextual seedbeds for new practices. Fields seeks a novel approach for the mapping of potential new territories for artistic explorations. ‘The traditional art museum has a set of categories determined by medium, geography and chronology that was ungainly even before the challenge of new media,’ argue Graham and Cook (2010, p. 4). Modern and contemporary art have already necessitated big changes to the business of classification. The post-medium condition implies that the medium used has only a limited ability to signify the work. The succession of art forms based on increasing levels of technological newness, i.e., from analogue electronic to digital art, as a structural principle has been rendered ineffective.

The web and emerging new practices such as collaborative filtering and social tagging have added wholly new dimensions to those issues. As Joasia Krysa explains in Curating Immateriality, ‘curatorial work has become more widely distributed between multiple agents including technological networks and software’ (Krysa 2006). Web 2.0 platforms, but also more traditional online media such as mailing lists provide technical and social mechanisms for the filtering of content. The politics of curating – how power relations and control are expressed in contemporary forms that curating takes and offers in the context of network technologies – have changed (ibid.).

Traditionally, the results of classification would have been a taxonomy, a hierarchically structured index of categories. Through new practices engendered by the net, so-called social tagging, in which people freely associate categories with items on an ad-hoc basis, ‘folksonomies’ instead of taxonomies are created (Graham and Cook 2010, pp. 45-6). Yet despite such a broadening of participation brought about by new technologies such as the net, the wider implications of a knowledge society remain unrealised because of intellectual property laws, the inertia of institutions and the conservativism of many cultural producers.

It is for this reason, that we can find also inspiration in unrealised potentials from the past, in abandoned or derelict theories of fields. Fields is thus also a gathering of the forces to name and claim shared intellectual resources from which can be derived new artistic inspirations.


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