Simplicity: The Art of Complexity

Festival Ars Electronica 2006

There are now two worlds of art: fine art and media art. The most signifcant theoretical text to emerge out of fine art of the 1990s was Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics 2002.1 Bourriaud claims that art of the 1990s saw a successful elimination of the barrier between the viewer and the work of art evident in ‘relational art’ such as that of Rirkrit Tiravanija. What is signifcant about such a claim is that it maps onto an avant-gardist project to bring art into life that can be traced back to the radical art of the 1960s and ’70s and further to Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. But the institutional fabric of fne art makes this long-standing and crucial ethico-aesthetic goal extremely diffcult to attain. Media art, in contrast, fnds the task relatively easy.

Tiravanija is best known for installations such as Untitled (Free), 1992, in which he made pad tai every day for a month in the 303 Gallery, New York. The gallery became an open house into which anyone could enter and have a meal with Tiravanija together with anyone else who turned up. The problem here is that this is an instance of an art game for artists. The giveaway lies in the fact that Tiravanija stages his get-togethers within the gallery/museum.

By the 1960s artists were well aware that the Duchampian Readymade proved that anything that could be exhibited within an art gallery became framed as art. Tiravanija’s ingenuity lies in framing everyday activities, such as a convivial gathering around a dining table, as a work of art. The Readymade art game depends upon acceptance into an institutional frame and so it is, in all its variations, an art game for artists in which the viewer is, as always in fne art, an onlooker.

In August 2006 while attending the Ars Electronica festival I walked into the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz and had the typical art museum experience. Well-dressed upper middle class visitors pondering beautiful and/or interesting objects, pristine white walls, a discrete silence, guards everywhere, photography banned (we do not want to steal the precious soul of art). Then I walked over the Niebelungenbrücke to the Ars Electronica Center where a number of Ars Electronica prize winners were exhibited.

They do not even call it a gallery let alone a museum. It is an extraordinary exhibition space, not only because it is devoted to interactive art, but because it is noisy. The highly visible orange-coated personnel are not there to stop you from touching the exhibits they are there to help you touch them. It is the exact opposite of the art museum. The inveterate art lover will experience something akin to culture shock, or a panic attack. He or she will probably want to run out the door. Then there are the children. Of course we let children into art galleries and museums too but, as in Victorian times, in most cases they have to be seen and not heard. In the Ars Electronica Center they have free rein. They take over most of the exhibits and one spends quite a bit of time standing around waiting for them to get off so one can have go oneself. From the heights of one’s highly developed aesthetic intellect one might suggest that if children like this kind of work then it is obviously not very good. Well, that is not really the case because, although some of the long term exhibits are obviously designed for children—as in a science museum—the pieces associated with the Ars Electronica Festival possessed suffcient sophistication to make even the aesthete’s visit worthwhile. One can also note that children are often naturally relational, open and disinhibited. They ft the Bourriaudian bill perfectly. They show the older and possibly not that much wiser visitors the way.

Ars Electronica is a doorway into another world, the parallel universe of media art. And what is most signifcant about this mode of art is that it attains crucial goals of deconstructive art, such as bringing art into everyday life and involving the viewer, that fne art has found pretty well insurmountable. If we accept that these long-standing goals are the ethico-aesthetic core of deconstructive art, then we have to conclude that media art has taken over the avant-gardist baton from a now signifcantly compromised world of fine art (would you really call the grunge chic of Thomas Hirschhorn or the cynicism of Santiago Sierra political art?).

Artists of note at Ars Electronica include the remarkable Toshio Iwai of Electroplankton fame, he delivered a fascinating and uplifting two hour lecture performance. Zachary Lieberman who has designed interactive sonic-visual art that possesses the elegance of simplicity, and the fulflment of function that fne art abjures. And one can also mention Kaffe Matthews’ remarkable sonic bed which this participant did not want to get out of, it was the most corporeal immersive installation I have experienced; using infrasound to create meditational drones and bodily vibrations. Then one can cite prizewinners such as Antoni Abad (http://www.zexe.net/) and the Graffti Research Lab, New York, who really do bring art into life rather than simply talking about it.

notes: 

1. Bourriaud, N., Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du reel, Dijon, 1998.