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Tenacity: Cultural Practices in the Age of Information- and Biotechnology 1)

Yvonne Volkart


Forthcoming In: Dominguez, Ricardo: Hacktivism. Autonomedia, New York 2002

'Tenacity' is, above all, about our contemporary state of being and acting which, to me, consists in connecting and being connected - connected to people and bodies, to computers and data streams, to content, screens, sounds, and visuals. It is about motion. The translucent screens, which divide the exhibition space, are skins and temporary borders through which one passes, they carry images into which you have to penetrate to become part of the spatial fluidity and movement. You enter distinct but similar zones - constellations of different entities. 'Tenacity' wants to create a model of the virtual and give you the opportunity to play the role of being embedded in it. It wants to investigate in forms of "re-fleshing the network" and "embodying communication space" (Ricardo Dominguez and Diane Ludin). 'Tenacity' is about temporary re-embodiments of contents and posthuman agents within the flickering and dislocated data streams.

My exhibition concept departs from the question, how the connections between art, new technologies and activist practices can be applied to resist global culturalism and economisation. Obviously information-, communication- and biotechnology play an increasingly important role in the globalizing society of the new Millennium. For it is obvious, that not only information-, communication-, and biotechnologies play an increasingly important role in the globalizing society of the New Millenium. It is also the arts which hold a dominant and activist role in our growingly visualized and aestheticised society of styles and brands. Especially the legacy between art, and also fashion, web/design, architecture, and high technology seems to be the most meaningful interface in the time being.

According to Wired magazine "Technology is art". Mainstream artists like Matthew Barney or Mariko Mori discovered the cultural value of working with high technology. "Technology and aesthetics come together," is written on the cover of media theorist R. L. Rutsky's book High Techne. What kind of happy marriage between two partners who used to be determined on separation is currently going on? In his conference paper Apropos: Every age has its artist, Tim Griffin will quote the following from Guy Debord's Society of Spectacle:, "In the second half of this century culture will become the driving force of the American economy." Theorist Immanuel Wallerstein talks of "Culture as the Ideological Battlefield of the Modern World-System"2), and Maurizio Larrarato speaks of culture as a new means of and for policy. Often enough art lends itself to legitimize and illustrate scientific and economic fantasies. Art can be a powerful factor when it comes to visual, social and cultural control, inclusion and exclusion, or 'cultural violence'. Johan Galtung introduced this term in the context of his peace studies. He defines it as follows: "By cultural violence we mean those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence - exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) - that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence." 3) [291] On the other hand events like the (failed) intent of E-toys to eliminate the internet-artist group etoy's site show how strong direct violence is linked to cultural violence and economic violence in the time being.

At the same time aesthetics, style and beauty have become essential and influence our everyday ways of living: ideas of hybridization, of constructivity and performing body and gender are our state of being. Although we perform a certain kind of aesthetics every day, art did not mutate to an everyday practice, but remains in a special and elitist position in this society.

It is not my aim to come up with any clear-cut definition of 'art' within or outside of a conventional understanding. Declaring the 'toywar' as art in fact does nothing else than nobilize this event and legitimize it within a predefined understanding of art. My intention is instead to discuss ways to utilize the field of art beyond what Dick Hebdige calls 'style wars', beyond producing beautiful images which affirm globalizing fantasies of technology determinism. Instead, I want to ask: As transnational, globalized and politically engaged cultural workers, what are our possibilities to steer towards an open culture society? Is it enough to analyze culture and provide awareness? Is art an appropriate medium to go further then that?

Before answering, but also proposing this topics as discussing points for the following panels, I want to quote what TV-activist Dee Dee Halleck posted on the n5m3 mailing list last spring: "What does it mean to talk of art in a society in which Philip Morris has a partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art, in which Monsanto is sponsoring the rain forest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History? We are all living in a Banana Republic." Transnational corporations have already incorporated the critical voices and follow their liberal politics with this form of cannibalism. What does it mean for 'Tenacity' to address the critique artists voice under these circumstances?

Sadie Plant takes a clear position as to where resistance is likely to happen: "In any case, and quite regardless of those who define themselves as intellectuals and artists, it's probably already happening in some cafe or basement or corner of cyberspace near you." 4) I am sure that IT already happened and may happen just now outside of this art space. Still it is of crucial importance to me to engage in a visual and spoken discourse specifically within an art context. One of the main functions of the art field has always been to create a space of distance and reflection. I want to use this traditional function of the arts in order to initiate a process of considering our own intertwinnings in the social and capitalist system.

If we want to insist in the relevance of other than hegemonic aesthetics, we have to strategically occupy the field of art for politically motivated crossovers and hybrid art practice. I consider it a big mistake to dismiss the field of art or to 'emigrate' into other fields (like Plants cafe, basement, or corners of cyberspace suggest) without fighting for an open and heterogeneous art field. Plant's sentences seem to me an example of a very often articulated reproach from activists and politically community based groups against the art context. Those critical voices identify art totally with mainstream and capitalism and do not only ignore engaged practices and contexts, but also the possibility of the art context to provide other, namely *virtual* spaces, beyond linear effectivity and political verification.

Indeed, as I explained in the beginning, the art field is ambivalent and there are good reasons why we have to be skeptical. However, it is neither so homogenic as many friends and enemies suggest, nor completely part of pure economy. I said before that it is crucial to differentiate this universal and problematic term "art," which is still perceived as a more reflective term than for example "popular culture", although it is just as suited to stabilize the capitalist system. Still, departing from a critical understanding, we have the possibility to intervene at this point. We can profit from the elitist and also relativist position of art and try to negotiate our critical issues. Meanwhile we still have to do everything to bring art practices out of their limitations and develop new art practices, crossovers, interventions, participation, and adopt new media and technologies that are related to social and political issues. Certainly moments of 'stubbornness' may happen, where engaged crossover practices and critical discourse settle in a café of cyberspace nearby. But the fact that many of us are engaged both in activism and in the making of art can open other perspectives. Besides inhabiting the café and the cyberspace, we need to implant in-between spaces into the capitalist art scene. We have to re-politicize art and the web without being driven by melancholia, but with the conviction, that the effects of critical aesthetic and web-based strategies are stronger than we might think — since we are living in the age of aestheticism and virtualization of realities.

Galtung says that "Direct violence is an event; structural violence is a process with ups and downs; cultural violence is an invariant, a permanence." [294] I consider this definition very useful with respect to our context, as it shows the power which art and culture do have in the permanent processes of symbolization and the performing of the real, but it also shows how difficult it may be to see direct effects on the so-called political reality, compared to for example direct actions.

The artist subject and its artwork are an offspring of the privileges of the traditional art world territory. Although the printed matters accompanying 'Tenacity' list the names of the participants in this traditional way, to me what produces 'Stubbornness' is provided by what I would like to call agents and temporary alliances. I like the way Sadie Plant's cybernetic motto describes my own perception of how many things happen outside of our subjective intentions. Still I think that even in a posthuman world autopoiesis cannot substitute engaged positions of critical agents. It is an artistic privilege to choose positions, sites, spaces, media, aesthetics, strategies and practices and keep an auto-critical consciousness. This privilege is at risk with activism - even virtual activism. Thus, in order for Plant's *it is probably already happening* to happen, it has to be triggered and set in motion again and again by specific agents, at specific times and in specific places!

Therefore the most crucial questions of this show are: What do the different spaces of 'Tenacity' look like? What agents and entities penetrate the images and cross the zones? With who and with what do tenacious data streams connect? How do they call themselves - cyborgs, monsters, nomads, pirates, hackers, hacktivists etc. - and what does it exactly imply? "How can we re-flesh the network? How do we embody the communication space?" (Dominguez/Ludin)

In preparation for the conference, I read the interview of Toni Dove and Brian Massumi 5), and discovered, that their idea of the virtual mostly matches to my ideas of the installation as model for creating and appropriating the virtual: Massumi resumes Dove's interactive cinema with the following: "What happens happens in between, in the relationships and rhythms, the movements and connections. [..] It seems to me that the virtual is that slipperiness of experience. It has to do with the relation and what happens in between."

Claudia Reiche, a member of the cyberfeminist network Old Boys Network, like Cornelia Sollfrank and me, developed a very similar idea regarding the appearance of the female. She asks: "So, where the hell is the woman in this story? She is places inside the apparatusses of media and perception." Reiche locates "woman" "in the artificial zone, in the middle of a cross, framing an in-between." 6)

To me, it is significant that in 'Tenacity' most fictional figurations and real subjects are female characters: My vision for this project as well as for the future is to connect women and technology, and provide space for stubborn female agents.

The title 'Tenacity' and stubbornness - originally grounded in the German translation of Shakespeare's *Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung*, signifies in German an untamed, a bad girl who does not want to obey. The exhibit space with its divided zones of insular constellations of projects is framed by projects which negociate stubborn femininity. In the first section it's more about sexual desire, cyberspace as zone which is appropriated and adopted as a phantasmatic space for female desire, the third zone is more about female subversive agents, the hacker, the sniffer, the radio pirate. In the middle, I gathered different projects which analyze the internet outcomes of the time being and propose very different ways of subversive appropriation.

To conclude my introduction, I want to talk in short about the piece of Marina Grzinic, as she cannot participate here. I wanted to show her video piece Luna10. The Butterfly Effect of Geography (Ljubljana 1995) as it is paradigmatic for my thoughts of appropriation of ideologically coded techno tools by the subalterns. At the beginning of the video we see a woman looking through a telescope - the repetition of the female viewer's own situation as observer. The woman from Eastern Europe has seized control of the telescope (outdated technological "prosthesis" and phallic substitute). She too wants to go to the moon, and she too will only pass on the images she sees. While the man who joins and accompanies her, ironically recites Western technological phantasies of transgression, we see images of private domesticity, rustic simplicity, weddings, Communist parades, or three soldiers executing a woman in field. The green tinge which refers to military infrared surveillance scenarios also emphasizes the archival aspect of the footage. Spaces, bodies, identities, and technologies are represented as historical, medial, and ideological constructs. Everything becomes reciprocally involved with everything else, but there are very real spaces and bodies in which we experience everyday emotions like desire, fear, sadness, joy. Medial constructs of places and bodies do not preclude intense experiences. "Live is a very simple program", the man in Luna 10 sarcastically states as he sits half naked before us. His survival philosophy is simple and radical in its whish potential. " Have you queued up for the virtual bread? As it is with technological revolutions in the West, you well get only bread crumbs. Better than nothing."

Creating stubborn strategies in the field of art and new media not only means to criticise the culturalising and hegemonic aesthetics of control and their capitalist ideas of art, it not only means to create alternative spaces and contexts of production and consumption nor to reflect own contexts, involvements and codes by different media and aesthetic strategies. It also means appropriating codes to create a "secondary mythological system" (Roland Barthes). This means, for me as an art critic and curator - and with the exhibition design of 'Tenacity' I tried to visualize that - , to find out the soft zones in dominant ideologies, to name them, to pervert them, and to re-produce them not in a mimetic manner, but by a very aggressive irony which is nurtured by my own desire of living and acting, though. It's about articulating the pleasure of a nowhere as my "ironic myth" (Donna Haraway) of a tenacious survival in a posthuman world.

1)This text has been written as introduction for the conference Stubborn Practices in the Age of Bio and Information Technologies and was part of the exhibition 'Tenacity'. Cultural Practices in the Age of Bio and Information Technologies, Swiss Institute New York, March 24 to May 13 2000, and Shedhalle Zurich, June 30 to August 6 2000. Participants of the exhibition included: Ursula Biemann, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Ricardo Dominguez, Marina Grzinic/Aina Smid, Natalie Jeremijenko, Kristin Lucas, Diane Ludin, Jenny Marketou, Jennifer and Kevin Mc Coy, Francesca da Rimini/Michael Grimm, rtmark, Cornelia Sollfrank. Participants of the conference were beyond the artistis Tim Griffin (editor) and Toni Dove (electronic media artist). Further information: http://www.thing.net/~tenacity
2) Immanuel Wallerstein, in: Theory, Culture and Society (London, Newbury Park and New Delhi), vol.7, no.2-3, June 1990.
3)Johan Galtung: Cultural Violence. In: Journal of Peace Research, vol. 27, no.3, 1990, pp.291-295
4) Sadie Plant: The Good, the Bad and the Productive, p.358, in: Ine Gevers/Jeanne van Heeswijk: Beyond Ethics and Esthetics, 1998.
5) Artbyte, The Magazine of Digital Arts, February — March 1999, Vol.1, No.6, p.30-37
6) Claudia Reiche: Feminism is Digital, in: First Cyberfeminist International, the reader, printed in 1998

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