Eric Kluitenberg

Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code

[Note: This text is an expanded version of a talk given at the Pro@Contra symposium in Moscow (May 2000) and at CFront 2000 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (June 2000). Though the text does not specifically address the position of artists and the cultural world in Eastern Europe, it does provide incentives towards the development of practices and tools for cultural resistance and autonomy that can be applied in this context.]

A double conversion….

In the age of NASDAQ mania, technology and new media have become the principal sites of manifestation for the next transformation of the negative dialectics of avantgarde art. This tradition is by no means dead, it is simply transferred to a new domain. The death of art, and its subsequent rise from the dead, is followed by the death of the avantgarde, and the subsequent discussion if either of them is actually dead or alive. That discussion can be skipped. Art still exists and is very much alive, in countless magazines, in art sections of news papers, in web environments, in countless art galleries, in museums world-wide, and above all in the art market.

The avantgarde has, however, performed a double conversion upon the sacred concept of art: it has turned the profane into an object of art, but more importantly; with this act, accepted, sanctified, and legitimised by the very figurations that determine what actually counts as art, it has simultaneously converted the objects and practice of art itself into profane entities. As a result art has become part of the conventional economy, part of the secular cycle of demand and supply, production and consumption – it lives on but without the aura of the sacred.

Avantgarde practice itself might be a more difficult case, since its operations rely on the ‘shock of the new’ or the ‘blow of the sublime’, which it brought about by negation of the existing order of art practice, the negation of the positive sign; the sign that wants to communicate that points towards something it wishes to indicate, some message it wants to convey. After a long century of avantgardes, practised in the most violent and destructive epoch since the dawn of human existence and civilisation, the avantgarde has apparently completed its task – Art has been deconstructed beyond repair. It is now completely obsolete, irrelevant, superfluous, out of date and out of touch with any significant social reality. It is dead beyond dying, born again in insignificance, a notion nobody wishes to take serious anymore, a playing field at the edge of the social sphere that is reduced to pure amusement, a fancy for the tourist industry. A domain where ‘anything goes’ because nobody cares.

The end of negation?

The avantgarde, in short, is left with nothing to negate. It would seem that the avantgarde has lost its ‘raison d’?tre’. Its fundamental principle of operation, the negative dialectics of denial, has lost its object to deny. Art exists as if nothing happened even though its death has been accepted, or at times even celebrated. It has, however, been stripped of all its powers to inform the ways in which we speak about the world. Art has dropped back behind the spectacles of the media and advertisement industries, the abstractions of advanced physics, molecular chemistry, genetics, medical biology and all the other natural sciences, and finally the political scenographies that dominate the cerebral sphere of the global populous.

But I do not believe that the avantgarde is now dead, or about to die. Instead it is very much alive, but it has transferred its field of operation. After the conversion of the (al-ready-made) profane into the realm of aesthetics, after the disentanglement of the spectacle, and after the dissimulation era, now the negation of the positive sign has entered into the realm of pure simulation, the digital hypersphere. This digital hypersphere is constituted by the interconnected structure of digital networks, and its most familiar (and written about) manifestation is the internet. The transferral of avantgarde practice from the realm of arts into the digital hypersphere is by no means accidental, it occurs right at the moment when the internet is turning into a mass medium, and at a moment when the surface of the internet is cleaned of its radical past, domestified, regulated, but also professionalised.

The dominant media discourse is not that of conversion, but that of convergence. For some years the convergence of the new digital networked media with the old (formerly analogue) has been discussed, proposed and theorised. The big bang fusing the old and new media structures, was the unexpected announcement of the merger between America Online and Time Warner. If anything, this event woke up both the media world as well as the political elites. We can now in retorspect evaluate this announcement as a turning point in recent media history. The moment when the ‘net got real’, as The Economist put it, and the final fusion of old and new media was put on track.

The infrastructural preparations were already going on for many years. Cable television was gearing up for the net age. Telephone was extended into digital and asynchronous modes, and fibre-optic and satellite connections stepped up the push for more bandwidth. In a contradictory way the provision of net services for free proved to be the final ingredient to turn the internet for the billions into a reality, enforcing critical mass for the new medium. Obviously the massive influx of newly connected will change, once again, the nature of the digital matrix. In many ways we can safely predict that the net of the future will be much like the television of yesterday, but the development is more multifaceted than simply that alone.

‘On Air’ - No Disturbance Please!!

On the level of the net as the media unifier of the future, its professional augmentation will draw upon the traditions of the existing media industry. What the network inherits from the old media is first and foremost the illusion of the seamless surface. The professional code demands the uninterrupted flow of information, communication and above all entertainment. This seamless media surface provides the viewer with the illusion of absolute professionalism and control. The image projected from the screens is that of completeness: The ‘proper’ image of the world is propagated through the appropriate and right use of the medium. It assures the viewer that her/his electronic ears and eyes are still in focus. The world becomes a transparent global village in which m/disinformation disappears in the crystalline media scenography.

The absolute horror of the media professional is the interrupted broadcast. In the TV format it is sometimes witnessed in an ultimately brief interval as a traumatic black screen. In radio the despair of silence is even greater than the absence of the image on TV. Horror Vacui is replaced here by an electronic form of Horror Silentiae. The silence of the faded radio signal and the blackness of the imploded TV screen does not merely mark the absence of a signal. The horror implied is the immanent destruction of the illusion of the seamless media surface, which requires the continuous suggestion of immediacy and connection that gives the viewer the reassuring impression of the transparency of the media screen.

This illusion requires the purification of the network environment. The net has to be cleansed from its plethora of anarchic impulses. The temporary autonomous zones are relegated to the far edge of the networks, replaced and superseded by the professionalised media formats and codes. The media professional applies skill, technique, knowledge, and the new ‘net-subjects’ brand loyalties to the new high bandwidth content zones, to create the uninterrupted network flow of interactive shopping and fun, interspersed with the occasional suggestion of actual information.

It is only in the moments when this flow is interrupted, when the code is broken, when the sound has collapsed and the screen has extinguished that the possibility for an alternative message, a new code is created. This is the space of negation: The void created by the rupture is the open field in which a new synthesis of unique forms in space and time becomes possible. The emergence of the new code out of the void of the Horror Silentiae reconfirms the connection of the media subject to the world. It is in this moment of delight over the conquered threat of the end of existence / connection that the avantgardes can come into play and transform the meaning of the media codes.

The tools of avantgarde practice in the new digital hypersphere are familiar, satire, reversal, appropriation, displacement. Nothing new here, except that the interesting moment no longer is the disruption of the aesthetic framework, or even the negation of the concept of the author, the artist, or the artistic practice itself. Instead, the negative dialectics of the digital avantgarde no longer challenge the notions of art, but those of the by nature symbolical digital realm it operates in.

The examples of this new field of avantgarde operation abound, but one interruption of the seamless media surface is particularly relevant here. It both exemplifies but also points beyond the sphere of mediated communication and media convergence discussed so far – the WTO web site hack by the US based art collective RTMark. Though witty, original and skilfully executed I did not choose this example to cultivate the mythology of the artist/genius. The hack is rooted in an understanding of networked communication and internet practice that is available too many digerati, hackers and IT pro’s. What is relevant about it is that it combines avantgardistic gesture and net savyness with an acute sense of timing.

During the anti-WTO protests at the occasion of the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999, the networked presence of the activists was an essential ingredient of the activists’ communication strategy. In the new media ecology attention is a prime economic asset, and attention had to be drawn to the negative side effects of the proposed world trade agreements for the vast majority of the world population.

RTMark simply appropriated the web site of the World Trade Organisation [] by copying all the graphics and the lay-out of the official site to the domain: [note: GATT – General Agreement on Traffic and Trade ? one of the principal international trade agreements]. The site however did not link to any official information of the WTO organisation itself, but instead links to all counter-information sites and web casts produced during the Seattle protests.

Where the official WTO site contained a personal address to the visitor by then WTO director Mike Moore (a famous New Zealander, once a prominent international protagonist of the “Lambburger” – a curious contribution to ‘cultural diversity’ in the global food chain, countering the dominance of the US Hamburger), the GATT site of RTMark in turn contains the same photograph of Mr. Moore with a text declaring the ‘true purpose’ of the WTO organisation, “to broaden and enforce global free trade. Global free trade already gives multinational corporations vast powers to enforce their will against democratic governments. Expanding these corporate powers --as the WTO intends to do in Seattle and beyond-- will further cripple governments and make them even less able to protect their citizens from the ravages of those entities whose only aim is to grow richer and richer and richer.” (citation from the site)

The GATT site infuriated WTO director Mike Moore to such an extent that he not only published a warning on the site warning the public about “a fake WTO site misleading the public”, immediately mimicked by RTMark with a highly similar notice on, complete with a link to the official WTO site claiming its misleading and disinforming nature. Moore also put out an official WTO press-release, condemning this action as a threat to the transparency of the WTO organisation and its efforts to make its thousands of drafts and policy documents public. With this action Moore drew the attention of the mass media to the hitherto almost unnoticed existence of the web site and sky-rocketed the number of hits on it, fuelled by world-wide media attention. Moore’s press release thus completed the hack by RTMark. The incident shows how the disruption of the seamless surface of the WTO’s media image produced a fundamental and irreparable transformation of the WTO’s pr strategy.

Beyond the politics of representation…

It is clear by now that the sphere of international economics and politics has become inseparably linked with the new constellations of broadcast and networked media. The principal challenge of the network society is the complete fusion of media, digital technology, economics and politics. The logic of the digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society. This fact on the one hand marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has become completely intertwined with the *real* world. At the same time, however, every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by virtue of how it is mapped in the digital domain.

Beyond representation, the space of digital networks has become the backbone of economic interaction, enabling the immediacy of financial and economic flows across the geographical and territorial divides. The connections between the networked structures and the physical domains they hook up with each other, have become so endlessly complex, manifold, and interdependent that it is no longer useful to distinguish the physical geography as ‘real’, from the networked constellations as ‘virtual’. In fact the very opposition of the real and the virtual has become misleading. Geography and technological, social and economic networks together create one system that becomes increasingly integrated and sophisticated. But this system is highly problematic because it excludes more than it allows.

Access to tools and ideas is replaced by the dominance of vested powers that project their outreach on a global territory by means of the most sophisticated control apparatus in the history human civilisation. The authority of this system can only be challenged, and its structure can only be changed, if the seamless surface of the media-interface and its illusion of transparency are broken and reconstructed in a multitude of alternative agenda’s.

The net, the space of interconnected computer networks, derives its power from its disembodied informational nature. But this symbolical construction (the digital code) also makes it vulnerable to symbolic de- and re-construction and analysis. Saskia Sassen pointed out quite rightfully, speaking on the edge of Europe in Tallinn, Estonia only weeks before the turn of the millenium, that the Internet is constituted by the practices employed in it. This is the point of entry, where the negative dialectics of the avantgarde can challenge the established canons of vested interests and powers.

Avantgarde practice no longer needs to concern itself with aesthetics and art. Those notions have already been thoroughly deconstructed, or otherwise have become irrelevant beyond repair. The avantgardists can now concentrate on the new sphere of digital mediation. Their practices break the clean surface of digital media and disrupt the flow of networked interaction. The subversion of ‘real virtuality’ breaks the illusion of so-called globalisation, which excludes 90% of the world population. By breaking open the semi-transparent box of consumer technology, the avantgarde breaks the spell of over-mystified technologies.

The stocks are already falling, but the negative dialectic of the digital age will only come to completion, after the bubble of the new economy has finally and irreversibly burst.