On Art and the Universal, II

Last July, I wrote a piece “On Art and the Universal, I” and promised part two within a week. It’s almost 11 months later, so here it is. The first piece stands on its own as a critique of the political cynicism of the academic-gallery nexus. This second piece stands alone as well. Read part I, re-read it, or don’t bother. 

As an art scholar and artist, I find the Greenbergian tradition invaluable. I studied for a year with Hal Foster in graduate school and was compelled by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on sculpture in the expanded field, as well as by Clement Greenberg’s efforts to find a trajectory for research within postwar painting. Briefly, Greenberg asserted that each art form should concentrate on its own unique properties or “the specificity of the medium“. Famously, Greenberg believed that the essence of modernism was to “use the characteristic methods of the discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” To this end, painting, for Greenberg would best focus on the flatness of the canvas instead of imitating the three-dimensionality of sculpture. This was of great utility for the last generation of truly productive artists in the US, from Kenneth Noland to Donald Judd to James Turrell to my father, all of whom engaged with Greenberg—even when they disagreed with him. Disciplinary self-criticism and the specificity of the medium was a research project that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of a shared project of advancing human knowledge in a particular discipline. Krauss, who studied with Greenberg, reinterpreted his philosophy, moving away from the idea of medium specificity to propose art as an expanded field of practices and mediums, including conceptual, installation, and performance art. The object of interrogation ceased to be the medium and became the institution of art itself and with this, a greater element of political critique could be introduced. Foster took this further in his writings on the Pictures Generation, shifting to a postmodern exploration of the process of art making, originality and identity, and the nature of the sign itself.

Although I empathize with the Greenbergian search for politically progressive forces in art, this aspect of the project has run aground, even if is the only part of the project that remains popular. I detail this in my previous post, but in sum, the quest for the political in art has amounted to little more than a justification for guilty consciousness and the drive to affirm one’s virtue. Far from a place of resistance, the political in art is cynical in a Sloterdijkian sense: its proponents know that it has nothing to do with actual political progress, but they claim it nevertheless.

Perhaps not coincidentally, art lost the thread since the 1970s. Even as postmodernists deployed postmodernism as a totalizing concept, they claimed that totalization was obsolete (the classic boomer move of declaring itself the best and last generation at anything). For postmodernists, totalizing historical frameworks overgeneralize the intricacies and nuances of historical events and cultural phenomena, leading to oversimplification and inaccuracies, they overlook differences within a given time period, such as the experiences of marginalized groups, and they perpetuate existing power dynamics by privileging dominant cultural or social perspectives. But the price for rejecting totalizing narratives is that where art used to make clear, measured progress, after postmodernism, it is stuck in an endless loop of pluralism, sustained only by self-justifying statements about politics. Today, the relationship between theory and totality is fractured and postmodern thought, ironically, leans toward irrelevance. In his 1979 La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (translated as the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), Jean-François Lyotard observed that knowledge—primarily science—was being fragmented into incommensurable discourse as an incredulity to metanarratives emerged. Today, the arts and humanities are also splintered into incommensurable discourses. But rather than being a position of greater strength and self-criticism, the fracture of narrative banally reflects our very existence, our selves intensely fragmented by the operations of media. Art practices and theories that exacerbate that fragmentation are merely accelerationist or, more likely, uncritical and reactive in nature. Lacking a metanarrative, however, there is little else they can do besides exacerbate fragmentation. 

I contend that it’s time we breathe life back into the Greenbergian theoretical framework. This revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

Except for the most feeble-minded of thinkers, the development of advanced levels of networked computation is the single biggest transformation in human existence in many decades. Our sense of what media is and our relationship to it has changed profoundly. Thus, although it is entirely possible for artists to pursue other, legitimate forms of research, my own work largely revolves around the role of technology in our lives. In the last year, I have specifically been compelled to explore the new generation of Artificial Intelligence software, particularly AI image generators.

What is specific to AI image generators is not the creation of the new, but rather their endless capacity to remix the history of art and imagery. We could see this as part of a dialectic, or more simply, as part of a back-and-forth process of art history since the late eighteenth-century loss of the absolute belief in the principles of classical art. After the archeological discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a consistent system, art was set adrift with its terrifying newfound freedom. Nineteenth-century eclecticism followed: rules were treated flexibly and forms could be freely combined at will. The backlash came with modernism’s rejection of all past forms and its search for a new, universal language of form, a project refined in Greenberg’s late modernist turn toward the specificity of the medium. In response, Postmodernism critiqued the new and turned toward the semiotic recombination of past forms and/or imagery from popular culture and commercial art. Starting about 25 years ago, Network Culture or Metamodernism supplanted postmodernism, largely relying on a resurgence of interest in technical effects and their capacity to elicit sensation. Think of Anish Kapoor or Olafur Ellison, for example, or the emergence of the very large, technically flawless salon-painting-sized photographs by artists such as Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall.
The era of AI creation is not, primarily, an era of the new. Architecture throws things into heightened relief. A furry, feathery building is not new. Nor is it interesting, except as a means of generating Instagram hits. Within a few years, AIs will be developed to effectively generate endless, plausible architectural models from a set of given parameters (site, area needed, programme, etc.), but even those are likely to remain endless permutations of the sort a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe might have done in their offices. For now, AIs are not yet capable of producing sophisticated three-dimensional models, but they are capable of producing imagery by remixing content. When something new emerges, it is through unusual juxtapositions thought up by the operator, but also through accidents. Malformed image generations can be interesting: for example, in my project on an alternative history of art in Vilnius, a series of glitched images appeared like the following image, which was supposed to be of a painting exhibit in a gallery. This process can be iterative since open-source AIs such as Stable Diffusion can be trained on specific datasets, so when accidents happen, artists can take those unusual results further. 

AI image generation reveals that all art is already intertextual, that is, shaped by, and in turn shaping, other works through allusions, references, and influences. My father was a modernist but nevertheless spent his evenings looking at coffee table art books of Renaissance and Baroque masters for inspiration. Nor was this an uncommon practice among modern painters. We now have a different way of accessing that cultural subconscious. It does not reveal itself easily either. Working with AI image generators is, for the serious artist, as time-consuming as any other practice. The virtue of a Critical AI Art, however, is to explore how artworks are developed within a network of works, historical and recent, and the cultural contexts that surround them. A Critical AI Art expressly addresses intertextuality and its relation to the idea of originality, not merely because these are the issues raised by AI image generation, but because these are issues inherent to art itself. 

On Hipster Urbanism

Over at Fantastic Journal, Charles Holland writes about hipster urbanism, comparing the High Line, which turns infrastructure into tourism with the reopening of a train line in east London as…get this: a train line.

Hipster urbanism is hardly rare anymore. A short while back, I enjoyed a stroll on the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge in upstate New York. Near where I live in New Jersey a project is underway for a train line that leads into Hoboken. The idea of building a bike path to the city is laudable. After all, I could get a Brompton and ride to the PATH train and head to Studio-X. But note that not only do trains still use the line, the train company that owns it expects that use will expand in the next few years. So is riding my bike to the city really the best use of the line? Maybe industry is old hat? 

[Walkway over the Hudson]

In the countries once known as the developed world, we’ve replaced productivity with tourism. This is a prime difference between modernism and its successors, postmodernism and network culture. Few modernists could have understood relinquishing production. Think of Tony Garnier’s fabulous Une Cité Industrielle, for example. Today, however, industry plays little role in (formerly) developed economies like the United States or the United Kingdom. In the case of the former, where finance generated roughly 12% of the GDP in 1980 and industry generated around twice that, today the figures are reversed… and this has only been exacerbated by the economic crisis. 

Remember the Roger Rabbit conspiracy theories that General Motors paid to destroy the train system to favor the automobile? It’s hardly so simple, but surely as we are heading into a new century, we wouldn’t want to exacerbate those mistakes, would we?  


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On Architectural Photography Today

As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.

During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us. 

Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA’s Yokohama Terminal, or OMA’s Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.

Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.   






*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall. 


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deferred action


In response to a reader’s request, I have posted my 1999 essay Postmodern Permutations to the site. It was good to revisit this nearly decade-old work that came at a crucial moment for me. In the essay I am still concerned first and foremost with architecture. I have not yet begun the move into my broader research emphasis on architecture’s role in urbanism or into computation and networks. But the essay is consciously framed within the context of dot-com Los Angeles. This is already after the demise of Assemblage and the exhaustion of a certain critical project in architecture, but unlike the purveyors of post-criticism (note: when is the last time that term still seemed current?), who largely formulated their project a few years later, my interest lay in complicating matters not simplifying them. 
As my project this year is to continue my work on Network Culture, looking back at that issue, I can see the importance of periodization to me already. I begin the essay by recounting my students’ bafflement at my asking them what period they live in (modern, postmodern or other). To a degree, I misread the signs, arguing that in fact we were postmodern and that stylistic postmodernism could now be dispensed with in favor of a more complex and postmodern relation between architecture and capital. Now, in a sense I was right. The post-critical obsession with capital highlights this. Read in the context of this essay, post-criticism is a last moment of postmodern culture. As readers of my network culture work know, our cultural dominant is the network. Post-criticism now seems adrift against the demands of a new culture emerging from the context of the infomatic realm. My students were already telling me that we were not postmodern and that we were in another time altogether. 
But there’s another dimension to the article.
I don’t have the capacity to incorporate the student work that accompanied the piece. For that you will have to go to the issue of Thresholds itself. But I was able to scan and OCR a small section of that text and reproduce it for you here: 
The SCI-Arc project "Sampling Linux" represented on the opposite page and throughout this article is Rocio Romero’s reaction to the impact of post-Fordist capital on design, and her propositions for other, future forms of design methodology and practice. Inspired by the Utopian possibilities inherent in late capital, Romero proposes a new model for architectural practice. This model explores forms of consumption and production on the Internet for which capital has literally become superfluous, even an impediment. If the Internet can be seen as the furthest elaboration of the Post-Fordist service economy, it can also be seen as an anticipation of a future stage of culture in which capital has withered away. This exploration led to the copyright-free Linux, an "Open Source" version of the UNIX operating system hacked together for personal computers. Linux avoids capital to an even greater extent than the academy, the former, self-proclaimed locus of resistance. Proponents of Open Source software make what they need for themselves and share it. When traditional software companies offer to produce software for Linux, they often find the only way to succeed is to make their software free. This might be the beginning of a new, even more pervasive form of capital, but it could also be the beginning of a new Utopian impulse-one in which capital, pushed to its furthest extreme, becomes pure information.
-Kazys Varnelis
Open source and networks paid off for me. And what of my student? Although she hasn’t ventured back into open source, Rocio instead developed her research with prefab. To be sure, prefab is not the same thing as open source, but nevertheless it is a much more advanced way of thinking about architecuture in that it posits object-oriented thinking over the repetitive redesigning necessitated by animation software. While I haven’t seen her in a few years, I hope to see Rocio this weekend at one of her LV Homes in the greater New York area this weekend. Rocio’s work has been featured in a lengthy piece in the New Yorker by Paul Goldberger, in Dwell, and in many other venues and she’s one of the most succesful students to ever graduate from SCI_Arc. 
It’s fascinating to see where things wind up, years later. 


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