Valdas Ozarinskas, 1961-2014

Valdas Ozarinskas passed away yesterday and a bad year became much worse. I had heard he was not well when I was in Vilnius last week and I feel awful that I didn't make an effort to see him. 

Valdas was a brilliant architect. For years he practiced at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, creating exhibitions that were stunning. Minimal but aggressive, Valdas's works were comparable in force only to the very earliest moment of minimalist art, before it became a style, an architectural equivalent of industrial music (I mean from the days of Throbbing Gristle, not the drum-machine driven works of the 90s). Valdas publically eschewed ideology but could probe theoretical questions as deeply as any architect I know. We had many conversations whenever I visited Lithuania, generally about the problem of the individual in a post-industrial society. Had he spoken English and had he written his thoughts down others would have understood how deep a thinker we have lost. The loss, to put it in a Lithuanian context, is comparable to the loss of George Maciunas 35 years ago, another figure of similar force, but who I only had a chance to meet once. Their minds were not dissimilar: both Sloterdijkian kynics in the best sense.  

He made many projects, but I will only reflect on one here. Valdas often collaborated with Audrius Bučas and together they produced Black Pillow, which was shown at the ŠMC in 2011 and subsequently at the Liverpool Biennial. The show'sweb site wrote that given its exhibition at the peak of the economic crisis in Lithuania,

The two architects’ formalist idea was initially supposed to appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences. However, it quickly got wrapped in various stories and interpretations due to its unusually large dimensions, menacing black colour and the moods that prevailed in Lithuania at the very peak of the economic crisis. Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives.

From our discussions in the gallery next to the black pillow it was clear that Valdas understood and intended such a symbolic dimension from the start. Or more specifically, he intended—as he often did—to give us a neutral but cathetic object that we could project onto as we wished. Never melancholy, Valdas was always relentlessly positive even about the bleakest of conditions, albeit often astounded at the stupidity of our world.

Alain Badiou's 12th thesis on contemporary art reads "Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star." Nothing could describe Valdas's work better. One night over beers at the ŠMC cafe, its Lithuanian Soviet modernism itself brilliantly reconstructed by Valdas, I read the theses to him, translating them into my broken Lithuanian as best I could and we shared our analysis of the theses.  

Even last week Valdas was putting together a final show, at the Antanas Moncys House in Palanga. That we have lost such a mind only proves how stupid our world is. To talk to Valdas was to hear the Lithuanian word "siaubas" or "horror/terror" over and over. That was the madness of this place we inhabit, a world in which we battle against zombie bureaucrats and power-mad psychopaths, where goodness is rarely rewarded but idiocy is. To remember him, what can we do but we keep marching forward, one foot in front of the other and say, anything is possible? 

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Aleksandra Kasuba at the NDG, Vilnius

It's a privilege to be speaking about the work of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery (Nacionaline Dailes Galerija) in Vilnius this coming Thursday at 5pm.

One of my earliest memories, from when I was four, is crawling through her Live-in Environment, which she had installed in the townhouse that she and her husband, sculptor Vytautas Kasuba owned. You can imagine the impact it had on me. 

In my talk, I will focus on Kasuba’s constructions of the 1960s and 1970s in which she worked with high technology fabric from Dupont to create environments that occupy a third spatial order, neither art nor architecture. I will also read her work against a larger discourse on art and architecture in New York City at the time, revealing her own approach to problems that challenged other avant-garde artists and designers of the day.

The occasion is the opening of a reconstruction of her 1975 project "Spectrum, an Afterthought " which she conceived of after the installation of "Spectral Passage" at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.  

Kasuba's work is uncannily similar, and in many ways to the digital architecture of the contemporary era (not to mention Richard Serra's torqued ellipses). Still, the diaphanous qualties of the fabrics that she worked with give it a lighter feel and mark it as distinct from architecture (she was neither trained as an architect nor did she consider herself to be one). Instead, it strikes me that these kind of inhabitations are closer to tents, perhaps structures that nomads might construct within the non-places of the contemporary world. Imagine if airports were filled with structures like these, as spaces to pause in.       

If you are in Vilnius that day, I hope you can make it. I'm afraid that my talk will be in English although I'll be delighted to take questions in Lithuanian as well as English. 

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Fast Flux Opening, Studio-X Soho

Fast Flux: New Art from Lithuania Opening
Tuesday 10 September 2013, 7:00-8:30pm
Studio-X NYC, 180 Varick St., Suite 1610 (map)

Free and open to the public. No RSVP required.

This opening marks the beginning of Fast Flux, a residency and exhibit by young Lithuanian artists from Rupert at Columbia University's Studio-X NYC.
A panel of speakers will discuss the exhibit, the role of art and architecture in Soho, and the role of Lithuanian artists George Maciunas and Jonas Mekas in the establishment of the arts community in the area.

Juan de Nieves, Director, Rupert, Vilnius, Lithuania

Inesa Pavlovskaite, Co-Curator of Fast Flux, curator, Vilnius, Lithuania

Lytle Shaw, Associate Professor of English, NYU, Editor, Chadwick Family Papers

Kazys Varnelis, Co-Curator of Fast Flux, Director, Network Architecture Lab

Mark Wigley, Dean, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University

In August 1966, George Maciunas set out to found an artists collective in Soho with the help of Jonas Mekas. Together, they envisioned a Kolhkoz with a Fluxshop and a 120-seat cinema at 16-18 Greene Street, just east of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, in an area that was the site of Manhattan’s first Lithuanian-American community.

Although the Greene Street cooperative was not to be, Maciunas would go on to develop a series of lofts in Soho, all the while lurching from one crisis to another as he faced issues with money and deadlines. In November 1975, thugs hired by electrical contractor Peter D. Stefano administered a severe beating, causing Maciunas to lose an eye. Ten years after Maciunas had begun his project in Soho, he set out for New Marlborough, Massachusetts, where he would purchase a farm in hopes of starting a new, exurban Flux collective. His obituary in the May 11, 1978, edition of The New York Times was titled “George Maciunas, Artist and Designer Organized Fluxus to Develop Soho.”

In the thirty-five years after Maciunas departed Soho, the postmodernization of the area has long been complete. Not only is the industry in the area long gone, so are the art practices that eulogized it. Contemporary Soho is a preeminent location for flagship stores, boutiques, and a new infrastructure of media and design that services  the needs of this global city.

On the farthest western reaches of Soho, Studio-X NYC, part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation's global network of urban research labs, offers a site to investigate, if only temporarily, possible transactions between art and architecture, New York and Lithuania.

Between Tuesday, September 10, and Friday, October 4, 2013, Studio-X NYC will host a group of Lithuanian artists whose work will explore these transactions of art and architecture (real estate), New York (the core, the global hub) and Lithuania (the periphery, that which makes the core possible).

The exhibition will be open for public view Monday through Friday, from 1 to 6pm daily, or by appointment.

Sponsored by Rupert, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, and the Network Architecture Lab and Studio-X at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University.



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The Rise and Fall of New Media

My essay "the Rise and Fall of New Media" can be found in the twentieth anniversary issue of Frieze and online their site here. It's paired with an essay by Lauren Cornell of Rhizome and the New Museum. Together, both deal with the issue that far from being a niche interest, as Cornell writes, "every kind of artistic practice has been touched by the Internet as both a tool and as something that affects us in a broader sense…" 

Posting has been light this summer as I've moved into a new house (modernism, even!) but things have been moving behind the scenes. With the new semester coming up, expect more on the way.


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Kazys Varnelis, 1917-2010

My father, also Kazys Varnelis, passed away on Friday morning after a long illness. Born in Alsedžiai, Lithuania in 1917, his father too was Kazys Varnelis, a noted Samogitian folk artist and cross-carver. 

Briefly the director of the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art in Kaunas, he fled after the Soviet invasion and eventually settled in Chicago. After more than a decade running a studio that designed church interiors and stained glass, he turned to geometric abstraction in the early1960s. His work from this period recalls the ornament of Lithuanian folk art while also experimenting with the flatness of the canvas and the contradictions in geometric patterns that are painted using the classical convention of light coming from the upper left of the canvas. He exhibited widely in the United States in places like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Milwaukee Art Center, and Corcoran Gallery. His work is in collections across the country, from the MCA to the Guggenheim. In 1978, we moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he purchased a decrepit old estate that he restored as a venue for his increasingly large works. 

He also collected books and furniture and, when Lithuania became free in 1991 and offered him a museum to house his work, he welcomed the opportunity. Beginning this new project over eighty years of age, he had finally was able to realize his dream of returning to his homeland and to give his works and collections to the country he held so dear.

We are going to Lithuania on Monday to attend the funeral with my mother. He will be missed, but I am glad he had a chance to live a long and fruitful life. Here is a picture of the two of us in the best of days and here is an article on his work for those of you unfamiliar with it.            




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On the Art Market

I had a great time at Frieze Talks in London on Thursday with music writer Geeta Dayal, artist Thomas Demand, and Frieze editor Sam Thorne in the panel "Who Owns Images?" Sam gave a great framing introduction and Thomas presented one of his fascinating projects while lending us his insight into one cause of the extension of copyright law: the Nazis were protecting Richard Wagner’s widow’s income. For my inner (not so hidden) music geek, hearing Geeta lend her insights into changes in music relating to sampling was fascinating. Naively, I had not realized that due to the cost of licensing, sampling is now restricted to big ticket acts. With the average cost of a sample rising to $10,000, it’s easy to see why. I also was fascinated to hear that this is the reason that there haven’t been any box sets or reissues of classic hip-hop albums: they would simply prime the pump for more lawsuits. Afterwards we had a great conversation about music that ranged across the spectrum from Robert Fripp to Hafler Trio to South African shangaan electro.

My only regret that Thomas Demand misunderstood me: maybe it was a language barrier. But he seemed to be upset that I  suggested that the fact that new media art has largely proved unsellable to private collectors is a hint of a rising crisis of value in the art market. Thomas countered by saying you can’t have it both ways: infinite reproducibility and authenticity in art. Instead, he offered the example of Matisses which, as unique (auratic… although he didn’t say so) objects are worth tens of millions even though they are just bits of canvas and paint.

I found his attempt to explain authenticity in art through cash value a bit surprising but actually that was my point! Value is a funny thing and, as people who’ve studied economic theory know, it’s a gaping hole in the center of both neoclassical and Marxist formulations. We’ve got working theories, but value just doesn’t come together for us. At times–notably when bubbles burst–value collapses rapidly. Take the Dutch tulip mania or the housing crisis. These bubbles work not on the basis of inherent value, but rather because of the greater fool theory: you assume that there is someone out there who will buy what you have to sell for even more than you paid for it.

It’s surprising how much operates in terms of the greater fool theory. Take Apple computer, for example, the company is growing rapidly and–assuming that there is nothing fundamentally flawed in its price/earnings ratio and other fundamentals (disclaimer: I haven’t looked at these and since I am writing this post 38,000 feet above the Labrador Sea I am not about to) are in line, then the analysis would be in favor of purchasing the stock. I for one, greatly regret not keeping the Apple stock that I had in 2000. I’d have some absurd amount of money in my pocket if I hadn’t sold it during the crash. But Apple doesn’t pay a dividend and with the price of the stock and the amount of reserve cash they have, a hostile takeover is unlikely by anyone short of the government of China. In short, just what does one get from one’s investment in Apple besides the ability to watch the ride and pass on the share to the next fool, er, investor? Nothing really and if for some reason people stop buying the stock, the value will evaporate in the blink of an eye unless Apple makes an effort to stop it (to be fair, since Apple can, this makes purchasing Apple stock a good deal better than investing in a Ponzi scheme).

Art is like this too. There is simply no way that those Matisses return the kind of value they do. They’re fantastic of course, but their value is a social construct we agree to. Or take Thomas’s work, which I greatly admire. My father, who was a painter and collector of artworks is of a different generation and he simply wouldn’t understand how photography could be worth anything. After all, he would reason, anybody could take a photograph with a camera and an enlarger can churn out as many as you want. Naturally, I don’t agree at all, and I am sure that when it comes down to it one of Thomas’s photographs takes more hours to produce than one of my father’s paintings given the elaborate setup work necessary. If you want to go the materials route, then Thomas wins again.* Still Thomas isn’t your usual photographer. In contrast, only the value assigned by the October crowd and by the art market, plus, I suppose a bit of comic relief, makes a Richard Prince cowboy photograph valuable.

But if photography is now valued, new media art has failed to achieve that sort of value. This is not to say that new media art won’t become a matter of speculation in the future: an electronically tradable work could be subject to the same rapid financial trading that securities are today. New media art is ideal for investment-oriented collectors! Still, somehow we are’t comfortable with it. Even with brilliant and accurate televisions that rival the resolution of many cinemas in most wealthy households, new media art hasn’t made it into many private hands.

There is a resistance here and I think the reasons are complex. Perhaps it is because of the overidentification of screens with computer work and television, practices that are still somehow too low brow. Or, perhaps it is because of the threat of piracy. If one knows where to look one can find pirated video art. But right now it doesn’t seem like much of a threat: if you have a Bill Viola playing on your TV, it’s hardly going to get you much admiration from your friends if you say that you pirated it.

When I got to the airport, I checked Twitter and found out that, according to this CNN article, the art market is rejoicing because after some down years sales at the Frieze Art Fair are back on track. The biggest sale so far was a truly beautiful Damien Hirst, "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths," consisting of three glass panels filled with grids of embalmed fishes sold by the White Cube gallery for £3.5 million. I suppose that whoever bought it didn’t come to our panel or they might have thought twice.

But back to new media art. It may cut a little too close for comfort to the problem of value for us. The reason that the Matisses are so expensive isn’t because they are worth it: they are, by any accounting, vastly overpriced. Rather, the phenomenal rise of the global art market is the product of a world economy that economists have said many times over is awash in liquidity. There is so much excess capital out there seeking places to invest that it is driving the art market up to absurd levels. At a middlebrow level, such a market collapsed in the late 1990s when suddenly Thomas Kinkade’s works were worth a fraction of what they were selling for.

If it’s easy to dismiss the crash of "the painter of light," there’s more to it than that. Postmodernism was marked by the dominance of the culture industry–the permeation of culture by capital (in terms of investment) and the permeation of capital by culture (in the form of big business’s employment of cultural techniques to spur flexible accumulation). Today, however, we are seeing the collapse of the culture industry. Advertising, music, publishing, and film are eerily repeating the fall of Fordist enterprises in the 1970s and 1980s. Who would have thought that they would ever see such dark days? And yet, in part–but not entirely–due to the remorseless efficiencies of the Internet they have been brought low.

Art, somehow, seems to survive. For reasons that are hard to understand (prestige? the promise of authenticity? amusement value? sensory pleasure?) it occupies a hallowed position, if only for the moment. It’s a sink for overaccumulated capital, sopping up excess money that seeks investment opportunities wherever it can find them. There’s little question that there’s still a big bubble out there not only in art, but in the global economy as a whole. Excess capital can be easily redirected into political lobbying to protect more excess capital and–given that this is precisely what has happened under the Obama administration–we’re unlikely to see change anytime soon. Anytime soon, that is, unless the bubble pops.

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On the Hole in Space

Chatroulette—a site that pairs you with a random person somewhere on the Internet so that you have a webcam conversation—has been in the news lately. But let’s compare it for a moment to another project, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s "Hole in Space," which took place for three days in November 1980.

In this "public communication sculpture," the artists turned two walls, one at Los Angeles’s Century City Shopping Center and another at New York’s Lincoln Center, into two-way audiovisual portals. Video cameras transmitted images from each site to the other where they were beamed, full size onto walls. Microphones and speakers facilitated audio transmissions. You can get an idea for this in the video below. 

Hole in Space lasted three nights. During the first night, encounters were casual and accidental. Many of the first visitors did not believe it was live or thought that the ghostly black and white spectres on the wall were actors on a nearby set. Disbelief soon gave way to the creation of a new social space, to the invention of games and the telling of jokes. As word spread, separated friends and family made arrangements to meet through the portals on the second evening. On the third night, after Hole in Space was featured on television news, so many people attempted to participate in this shared human experience that traffic ground to a halt and the experiment was forced to end by the authorities. Incredibly, Galloway and Rabinowitz’s project is all but forgotten today.

In the original video, one woman asks why is it that this wasn’t done twenty years ago, i.e. 1960.

50 years after the possible date for the first hole in space, Rabinowitz and Galloway’s work remains a hole not only in space, but in time. We have video chat (how often do we use it?) and chat roulette, but we don’t have holes in space. Why is that?  

AUDC proposed WIndows on the World in 2004, an extension of the Hole in Space with even grander ambitions but less expensive technology, but apparently our proposal was too boring to be funded. 

The Netlab is going to try again with this in 2010, likely very soon. Stay tuned.

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On atemporality

I wanted to lay out some thoughts about atemporality in response to Bruce Sterling’s great presentation on the topic over at Transmediale.* We’ve had a dialogue about this back and forth over the net, in places like Twitter and it’s my turn to respond. 

The topic of atemporality is absorbing my time now. I have the goal of getting the first chapter of my book on network culture up by the end of next month (I know, last year I thought it would be the end of March of that year, but so it goes) and it is the core of an article that I’m working on at present for the Cornell Journal of Architecture. 

Anyway, I was impressed by how Bruce framed his argument for network culture. This isn’t a new master narrative at all, there’s no need to expect the anti-periodization take-down to come, or if it does, it’ll be interesting to see the last living postmodernists. Instead, network culture is a given that we need to make sense of. I was also taken by how Bruce gave it an expiry date: it’s going to last about a decade before something else comes along. 

Then there’s Bruce’s tone, always on the verge of laughter. It’s classic Bruce, but it’s also network culture at work, the realm of 4chan, lolcatz, chatroulette and infinite snark. And I can imagine that one day Bruce will say "It’s all a big joke. I mean come on, did you think I was serious about this?" And I’d agree. After all, a colleague once asked me if the Internet wasn’t largely garbage, a cultural junkspace devoid of merit? Of course, I said, what do you take me for a fool? She replied by saying she was just wondering since after all, I studied it. I said, well yes, it’s mainly dreck but what are you going to do with these eighty trillion virtual pages of dreck, wave your hands and pretend they’ll go away? It’s not going to happen. So yes, snark is how we talk about this cultural ooze, because that’s not only what it deserves, it’s what it wants. To adopt a big word from literary criticism: snark is immanent to network culture.   

I was also taken by Bruce’s description of early network culture and late network culture. Again, network culture isn’t a master narrative. It has no telos or end goal. We’re not going to hold up Rem Koolhaas or hypertext or liberalism or the Revolution or the Singularity, Methusalarity or anything else as an end point to history. In that, we part from Hegel definitively. Instead, network culture is transitional. Bruce suggests that it has ten years before something else comes along. He also talks about early network culture, which we’re in now, and late network culture, which we can’t really anticipate yet.   

I think he’s on to something there, but I think we need to make a further division: network culture before and after the crash. The relentless optimism of the pre-crash days is gone, taking starchitecture, Dubai (remember Dubai?), post-criticism, the magazine era, Prada, and hedge fund trading with it. We are in a different phase now, in which portents of collapse are as much part of the discourse as the next big thing. Let’s call it the uneasy middle of network culture.

Things are much less sure and they’re unlikely to get any better anytime soon. It’s going to be a slow ten years, equal to the 70s or maybe somewhere between the 70s and the 30s. Instead of temporary unemployment, we’re looking at a massive restructuring in which old industries depart this mortal coil. Please, if you are out of work, don’t assume the jobs will return when the recession ends. They won’t. They’re gone.

But as Bruce suggested, we have to have some fun with network culture. Over at the Netlab research blogs, we’re starting to put together a dossier of evidence about practices of atemporality in contemporary culture. You’ll be hearing a lot more about atemporality from me over the next month. 

*The talk is below. 

If you prefer, you can now read the transcript online here

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The Immediated Now on Networked: A Networked Book

Networked: A Networked Book on Networked Art is now live.

Produced by and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Networked includes a chapter that I wrote entitled The Immediated Now. Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality.

In this chapter, I suggest that network culture is not limited to digital technology or to the Internet but rather is a broad sociocultural shift. Much more than under postmodernism, which was still transitional, in network culture both art and everyday life take mediation as a given. The result is that life becomes performance. We live in a culture of exposure, seeking affirmation from the net. My chapter explores the resulting poetics of the real from YouTube to the art gallery. To be clear, the new poetics of reality is different from established models of realism, replacing earlier codes with immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and remix.

One distinctive feature of this book is that it is open for comments, revisions, and translations and you may submit a chapter for consideration by the editors. I hope my readers not only read the entire book, but contribute. Many thanks to Jo-Anne Green and Helen Thorington of for putting up this project. It’s been in the works for a while and is sorely needed. 

I’m excited that the research that I did for this chapter is now taking on another form as it feeds my book on Network Culture. I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day and its moving at a good clip. I hope you enjoy the chapter as a preview, and if you haven’t read the introduction yet, you can do so here.   

Finally, I’ll also confess to another role in the project, which is that the CommentPress system, developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book came in part out of a discussion that members of the Institute and I had after one of my courses three years back. That said, WordPress isn’t the best system for this. I’m dying for it to be ported to Drupal.


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Exciting news today, thanks to Bruce Sterling’s splendid Beyond the Beyond.

I’ve been immersed in writing lately, so this next exhibit slipped under my radar, but Nicolas Bourriaud’s latest exhibit, the 2009 Tate Triennial, is called Altermodern. Bourriaud’s manifesto can be seen here. Bourriaud’s one of the sharpest thinkers around today and this exhibit just cements my decision to explore network culture in my next book. Bourriaud’s show marks a break with postmodernism based on a new stage of globalization. As he writes in his Altermodern manifesto: "Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture."  

I suppose this is the kick in the pants I need to get my introduction out the door and onto this site in the next few days. Even if I fully intend to rework it repeatedly even after the draft hits the networked book, the stakes of framing the argument clearly are high so writing it has taken a month longer than I wanted. 


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