20. November 2014

Boris Groys

Fiction Defictionalized: Art and Literature on the Internet

Am 25. Oktober 2014 organisierte Fiktion gemeinsam mit dem Goethe-Institut New York den deutsch-amerikanischen Workshop The Word Electric. Der Medientheoretiker Boris Groys hielt folgende Keynote:

Over the past few years, the Internet has become the primary site for the production and distribution of writing, including literature, artistic practices and, more generally, cultural archives.

Obviously this shift is experienced by many cultural workers as liberating, because the Internet is not selective—at least much less selective than a museum or a traditional publishing house. Indeed, the question that traditionally troubled artists and writers was: What are the criteria of choice—why do some artworks get into the museum and other artworks not? Why do some texts get published and others not? We know the, so to speak, Catholic theories of selection according to which artworks deserve to be chosen by a museum or publishing house: They should be good, beautiful, inspiring, original, creative, powerful, expressive, historically relevant—one can cite hundreds of similar criteria. However, these theories collapsed historically because nobody could persuasively explain why one artwork was more beautiful, original, etc., than another. Or why a particular text was better written than another text. So other theories succeeded that were more Protestant, even Calvinist. According to these theories, artworks are chosen because they are chosen. The concept of a divine power that is perfectly sovereign and does not need any legitimization was transferred to the museum and other traditional cultural institutions. This Protestant theory of choice, which stresses the unconditional power of the chooser, is a precondition for institutional critique: The museums and other cultural institutions were criticized for how they used and abused their alleged power.

This kind of institutional critique does not make much sense in the case of the Internet, however. There are of course, examples of political censorship of the Internet practiced by some states, but those are a different story. Another question arises instead: What happens to art and literary writing as a result of their emigration from traditional cultural institutions to the Internet?

Traditionally, literature and art were considered fields of fiction. I would argue that the use of the Internet as the main medium of production and distribution of art and literature leads to their defictionalization. Traditionally, institutions like a museum, a theater, or books presented fiction as fiction by means of self-dissimulation. Sitting in a theater, the viewer was supposed to reach a state of self-oblivion—and forget everything about the stage, everything about the space he or she was sitting in. This enabled the spectator to spiritually leave everyday reality—and to immerse him- or herself in the fictional world presented on the stage. One had to forget that the book was a material object like every other object to be able to truly follow and enjoy the literary narrative it contained. And one had to forget that one was inside the art museum to become spiritually absorbed in the contemplation of art. In other words, the precondition for the functioning of fiction as fiction is the dissimulation of the material, technological, and institutional framing that makes this functioning possible.

Since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, the art of the historical avant-garde has tried to thematize and to reveal the factual, material, nonfictional dimension of art. The avant-garde did so by thematizing the institutional and technological framing of art—by acting against this framing and thus making it visible, experienceable by the viewer, reader, visitor. Bertolt Brecht tried to destroy theatrical illusion. The Futurist and Constructivist art movements compared artists to industrial workers, to engineers who produce real things—even if these things can be interpreted as referring to a fiction. The same can be said about writing. At least since Mallarmé, Marinetti, and Zdanevich, the production of texts was understood as the production of things. Not accidentally, Heidegger understood art precisely as a struggle against the fictional. In his late writings, he speaks about technological and institutional framing (das Gestell) as being hidden behind the image of the world (Weltbild). The subject who contemplates the image of the world in an allegedly sovereign manner necessarily overlooks the framing of this image. Science also cannot reveal this framing because it depends on it. Heidegger believed that it was art alone that could reveal the hidden Gestell and demonstrate the fictional, illusionary character of our images of the world. Here Heidegger obviously had in mind the art of the avant-garde. However, the avant-garde has never fully succeeded in realizing Heidegger’s quest for the real because the reality of art—its material side that the avant-garde tried to reveal—was refictionalized, by being put under the standard conditions for art representation.

This is precisely what the Internet changed. Internet data is virtual but it is not fictional. The Internet functions under the presupposition of its nonfictionality, of its having a reference in reality offline. One speaks about the Internet as a medium of information, as a space of information flows—but information is always information about something. And this something is always placed outside the Internet, namely offline. Otherwise all economic operations on the Internet would become impossible. Or military operations. Or security surveillance. The Internet is, by definition, the place of truthfulness; being virtual, having virtue (virtus) means, among other things, being truthful. Of course, there is the possibility of creating a fiction—for example, a fictional user of the Internet. But in this case, the fiction becomes a fraud that can be—and even must be—revealed. (In the case of fictional identity, the film Catfish shows how the real story behind such an identity was revealed.)

But most importantly, on the Internet, art and literature do not get a fixed, institutional framing, as was the case in the analog world: here the factory, there the theater; here the stock market, there the museum. On the Internet, art and literature operate in the same space as military planning, the tourism economy, capital flows, etc.: Google shows, among other things, that there are no walls in Internet space. Of course, there are specialized websites and blogs for art. But accessing them means a user has to click them, to frame them on the surface of his or her computer, or iPad, or mobile phone. Thus, the framing becomes de-institutionalized and the framed fictionality becomes defictionalized. The user cannot overlook the frame because he or she has created this frame in the first place. The framing—and the operation of framing—becomes explicit and remains explicit throughout the experience of contemplating and writing. The dissimulation of the framing that defined our experience of the fictional throughout centuries here finds its end. Art and literature can still refer to fiction and not to reality. As users, however, we do not immerse ourselves in this fiction; we do not travel, like Alice, through the looking-glass; but, rather, we perceive art production as a real process, and the artwork as a real thing. One could say that on the Internet there is no art or literature but only information about art and literature—alongside other information about other fields of human activity. For example, literary texts or artworks by a particular author can be found on the Internet when I google his or her name, and they are shown to me in the context of all the other information that I find about this author: biography, other works, political activities, critical reviews, and details of his or her personal life. Here the “fictional” text becomes integrated into information about its author as a real person. Through the Internet, the avant-garde impulse that has driven art and writing since the beginning of the twentieth century finds its realization, its telos. Art is presented on the Internet as a specific kind of reality: as a working process or even life-process taking place in the real, offline world. This does not mean that aesthetic criteria do not play a role in the presentation of data on the Internet. In this case, however, it has to do not with art but with data design—with the aesthetic presentation of documentation of real art events, and not with the production of fiction.

The word “documentation” here is crucial. Over the course of recent decades, the documentation of art has been increasingly included in exhibitions and museums alongside traditional artworks. But this proximity has always seemed highly problematic. The artworks are art; they immediately demonstrate themselves as art. Hence they can be admired, emotionally experienced, etc.. And such artworks are fictional; they cannot be used as evidence in a court of law; they do not guarantee the truth of what they represent. That is the role of documentary photography. (Sure, one could use a painting as a document in the absence of photography; one could fall in love with a beautiful lady by looking at her painted image.) But art documentation is not fictional: It refers to an art event, or exhibition, or installation, or project which we assume has really taken place. Art documentation refers to art but it is not art. That is why art documentation can be reformatted, rewritten, extended, or abridged. One can subject art documentation to all these operations that are forbidden in the case of an artwork because these operations change the form of the artwork. And the form of the artwork is institutionally guaranteed because only the form guarantees the reproducibility and identity of the fiction that this artwork is. Documentation, on the contrary, can be changed at will because its reproducibility and identity is guaranteed by its “real” external referent and not by its own form. But even if the emergence of art documentation precedes the emergence of the Internet as an art medium, only the introduction of the Internet has given art documentation its legitimate place (as Benjamin noted regarding montage in art and cinema).

Meanwhile, cultural institutions themselves began to use the Internet as their primary space for self-representation. Museums put their collections on display on the Internet. And, of course, virtual depositories of art images are much more compact and much cheaper to maintain than traditional art museums. Thus, museums gain the opportunity to present the parts of their collections that are usually kept in storage. The same can be said about the publishing houses that permanently expand the electronic component of their publication programs. And it can also be said about the websites of individual artists, where one can find the fullest representation of what they are doing. During studio visits, artists now usually simply put a laptop on the table and show documentation of their activities, including the production of the artworks, participation in long-term projects, temporary installations, urban interventions, political actions, etc. The Internet makes it possible for the author to make his or her art accessible to almost everyone all around the world—and, at the same time, to create a personal archive of his or her own art.

The Internet thus leads to the globalization of the author, of the person of the author. Here, I again do not mean the fictional, authorial subject allegedly investing the artwork with intention and meaning that should be hermeneutically deciphered and revealed. This authorial subject has already been deconstructed and proclaimed dead many times. I mean a real person existing in offline reality to which Internet data refers. This author uses the Internet not only to write novels or to produce art, but also to buy tickets, make restaurant reservations, conduct business, etc. All of these activities take place in the same integrated space of the Internet—and all of them are potentially accessible to other Internet users.

Of course, the authors, like other individuals and organizations, try to escape this total visibility by creating sophisticated systems of passwords and data protection. Today, subjectivity is a technical construction: The contemporary subject is defined as the owner of a set of passwords that he or she knows and that other people do not know. The contemporary subject is primarily a keeper of secrets. In a certain way it is a very traditional definition of the subject: The subject was always defined as knowing something about him or herself that maybe only God knows but other people cannot know because they are ontologically prevented from “reading another’s thoughts.” However, today, we do not have to deal with ontologically protected secrets but, rather, with technically protected ones. The Internet is a place in which the subject is originally constituted as a transparent, observable subject, who only afterward begins to be technically protected to conceal the originally revealed secret. Every technical protection can be broken, however. Today, the hermeneuticist has become a hacker. The contemporary Internet is a place of cyber warfare in which the secret is the prize. To know the secret means to put the subject that is constituted by this secret under control; cyber wars are wars of subjectivization and desubjectivization. But these wars can take place only because the Internet is originally a place of transparency and referentiality.

Nevertheless, so-called content providers often complain that their artistic production drowns in the sea of data that circulates through the Internet. Indeed, the Internet functions as a huge garbage can in which everything disappears rather than emerges, never granting the degree of public attention that one hopes to achieve. Ultimately, everyone searches the Internet for information about what has happened to their own friends and acquaintances. One follows certain blogs, information sites, e-magazines, websites—and ignores everything else. So the standard trajectory of a contemporary author is not from the local to the global, but from the global to the local. Traditionally, the career of an author—be it writer or artist—moved from the local to the global. One had to become known locally to be able to establish oneself globally later. Today, one starts with self-globalization. To put one’s own text or artwork on the Internet means to directly address the global audience, avoiding any local mediation. Here the personal becomes global—and the global becomes personal. At the same time, the Internet offers the opportunity to quantify the global success of an author because the Internet is a huge machine for equalizing readers and readings. It works according to the rule that one reading equals one click. However, to be able to survive in contemporary culture one has to draw the attention of local, offline audiences to one’s own global exposure—to become not only globally present but also locally familiar.

Here, a more general question arises: Who is the reader, or who is the spectator, of the Internet? It cannot be a human being, because a human being’s gaze does not have the capacity to grasp the whole of the Internet. But nor should it be a god, because the divine gaze is infinite, and the Internet is finite. Often enough we think about the Internet in terms of infinite data flows that transcend the limits of individual control. But, in fact, the Internet is not a place of data flows—it is a machine to stop and reverse data flows. The unobservability of the Internet is a myth. The medium of the Internet is electricity. And the supply of electricity is finite. So the Internet cannot support infinite data flows. The Internet is based on a fixed number of cables, terminals, computers, mobile phones, and other units of equipment. The efficiency of the Internet is based precisely on its finite nature and, therefore, on its observability. This is demonstrated by search engines such as Google. Today one often hears about the increasing extent of surveillance, especially through the Internet, but surveillance is not external to the Internet; nor is it some specific, technical use of the Internet. The Internet is, in essence, a machine of surveillance. It divides the flow of data into small, traceable, and reversible operations and, thus, exposes every user to surveillance—real or possible. The Internet creates a field of total visibility, accessibility, and transparency. And it allows the behavior of all Internet users to be tracked. The gaze that reads the Internet is the algorithmic gaze. And, at least potentially, this algorithmic gaze can see and read everything that has been put on the Internet.

But what does this original transparency mean for artists? It seems to me that the real problem is not the Internet as a place for the distribution and exhibition of art but the Internet as a place of work. Under the traditional, institutional regime, art was produced in one place—the atelier of an artist, the room of a writer—and shown in another: the museum, or a published book. The emergence of the Internet has erased this difference between the production and the exhibition of art. The process of art production insofar as it involves the use of the Internet is always already exposed from its beginning to its end. Earlier, only industrial workers operated under the gaze of the others—under the permanent control that was so eloquently described by Michel Foucault. Writers and artists worked in seclusion—beyond panoptic public control. However, if the so-called creative worker uses the Internet, he or she is subject to the same or an even greater degree of surveillance than the Foucauldian worker.

The results of surveillance are sold by the corporations that control the Internet because they own the means of production, the material-technical foundation of the Internet. One should not forget that the Internet is privately owned. And profit comes mostly from targeted advertisements. Here, an interesting phenomenon occurs: the monetization of hermeneutics. A classical hermeneutics that sought the author behind the work was criticized by theoreticians of structuralism and close reading, who thought that it makes no sense to chase ontological secrets that are inaccessible by definition. Today, this old, traditional hermeneutics is reborn as a means of additional economic exploitation of the subjects operating on the Internet in which all secrets are originally revealed. The subject is here no longer concealed behind his or her work. The surplus value that such a subject produces and that is appropriated by Internet corporations is the hermeneutic value: The subject not only does something on the Internet but also reveals him- or herself as a human being with certain interests, desires, and needs. The monetization of classical hermeneutics is one of the most interesting processes that we have been confronted with in the course of the last decades.

At first glance, it seems that for artists this permanent exposure has more positive than negative aspects. The resynchronization of art production and art exposure through the Internet seems to make things better, not worse. Indeed, this resynchronization means that, as an artist, one does not need to produce any final product, any artwork. Here, the documentation of the process of artmaking is already an artwork. Art production, presentation, and distribution coincide. The artist becomes a blogger. Almost everyone in the contemporary art world acts as a blogger: individual artists, but also art institutions and in fact even museums. Ai Weiwei is paradigmatic in this respect. Balzac’s artist who never could present his masterpiece would have no problem under these new conditions: Documentation of his efforts to create a masterpiece would already be his masterpiece. Thus, the Internet functions more like the Church than the museum. As Nietzsche wrote his famous “God is dead,” he continued: We have lost the spectator. The emergence of the Internet means the return of the universal spectator. So it seems that we are back in paradise and, like saints, do the immaterial work of pure existence under the divine gaze. In fact, the life of saints can be described as a blog that is read by God and remains uninterrupted even by the saint’s death. So why do we need any secrets any more? Why would we reject radical transparency? The answer to these questions depends on the answer to a more fundamental question concerning the Internet: Does the Internet effectuate the return of God or of the malin génie, with its evil eye?

I would suggest that the Internet is not paradise but, rather, hell—or, if you like, paradise and hell at the same time. Jean-Paul Sartre has already said that hell is other people—life under the gaze of others. (And Jacques Lacan said later that the eye of the other is always an evil eye.) Sartre argued that the gaze of others “objectifies” us and, in this way, negates the possibilities of change that define our subjectivity. Sartre defined human subjectivity as a “project” directed toward the future; this project is an ontologically guaranteed secret because it can never be revealed in the here and now, but only in the future. In other words, Sartre understood human subjects as struggling against the identity that was given to them by society. This explains why he interpreted the gaze of others as hell: In the gaze of the other, we see that we have lost the battle and remained prisoners of our socially codified identity.

Hence, we try to avoid the gaze of the other for a while in order to reveal our “true self” after a certain period of seclusion—to reappear in the public in a new shape, in a new form. This state of temporary absence is constitutive for what we call the creative process—in fact, it precisely is what we call the creative process. André Breton tells a story about a French poet who, when he went to sleep, put a notice on his door saying, “Please be quiet—the poet is working.” This anecdote summarizes a traditional understanding of creative work: It is creative because it takes place beyond public control, and even beyond the conscious control of the author. This time of absence could last days, months, years—even a whole life. Only at the end of this period of absence was the author expected to present a work (maybe found in his or her papers posthumously) that would then be accepted as creative precisely because it seemed to emerge, as it were, out of nothingness. In other words, creative work is the work that presupposes the desynchronization of the time of work from the time at which its results are exposed. Creative work is practiced in a parallel time of seclusion, in secrecy, so that there is an effect of surprise when this parallel time gets resynchronized with the time of the audience. That is why art practitioners traditionally wanted to be concealed, to become invisible. The reason they want to keep away from the gaze of the others is not that the artists have committed crimes or have dirty secrets to conceal. The gaze of the others is experienced as an evil eye not when it wants to penetrate our secrets and make them transparent (such a penetrating gaze is rather flattering and exciting)—but when it denies that we have any secrets, when it reduces us to what it sees and registers. In this sense, one can suffer also under the algorithmic gaze—even if the algorithmic gaze, unlike the human or divine gaze, does not judge us.

Of course, today we discuss the Internet as we know it. But I expect that the present state of the Internet will be radically changed by the coming cyber wars. These cyber wars have already been announced, and they will destroy or at least seriously damage the Internet as a means of communication and as the dominant marketplace. The contemporary world looks very much like the nineteenth-century world. This was a world defined by the politics of open markets, growing capitalism, celebrity culture, the return of religion, terrorism, and counterterrorism. World War I destroyed this world, making the politics of open markets impossible. In the end, the geopolitical and military interests of individual nation-states showed themselves to be much more powerful than their economic interests. A long period of wars and revolutions followed. Let us see what awaits us in the near future.
But I would like to close with a more general consideration of the relationship between the archive and utopia. As I have tried to show, the utopian impulse has always had to do with the desire of the subject to break out of its own historically defined identity, to leave its place in a historical taxonomy. In a certain way, the archive gives the subject the hope of surviving its own contemporaneity and revealing its true self in the future, because the archive promises to sustain and make accessible this subject’s texts or artworks after his or her death. This utopian or, at least, heterotopian—to use Foucault’s word—promise that the archive gives to the subject is crucial to the subject’s ability to develop a distance from, and critical attitude toward, its own time and its own immediate audience.

Archives are often interpreted merely as a means of conserving the past, of presenting the past in the present. But in fact archives are, at the same time, and even primarily, the machines by which the present is transported into the future. Artists do their work not only for their own time but also for their archives—and that means for a future in which their work remains present. This produces a difference between politics and art. Artists and politicians share a common here and now of public space and they both want to shape the future; this is what unites art and politics. But politics and art shape the future in different ways. Politics understands the future as the result of its actions, which take place in the here and now. Political action has to be efficient, to bring results, to transform social life. In other words, political practice shapes the future, but it disappears in and through this future: It becomes totally absorbed by its own results and consequences. The goal of politics is to become obsolete, and to make space for the politics of the future.

But artists work not only inside the public space of their time but also for the heterogeneous space of art archives where their works are placed among those of the past and the future. Art, as it functioned in modernity and still functions in our time, does not disappear after its work is done. Rather, the artwork remains present in the future. And it is precisely this anticipated future presence of art that guarantees its influence on the future, its chance to shape the future. Politics shapes the future with its own disappearance. Art shapes the future with its own prolonged presence. This gap between art and politics was demonstrated often enough throughout the tragic history of the relationship between leftist art and leftist politics in the twentieth century.

It’s true that our archives are structured historically, and our use of these archives is still defined by the nineteenth century’s tradition of historicism. Thus, we tend to posthumously reinscribe artists into historical contexts from which they actually wanted to escape. In this sense, art collections that preceded the historicism of the nineteenth century—the collections that wanted to be collections of examples of pure beauty, for example—seem naïve only at first glance. In fact, they are more faithful to the original utopian impulse than their more sophisticated historicist counterparts. Now it seems to me that we are becoming more and more interested in a nonhistoricist approach to our past; more interested in decontextualisation and the reenactment of individual phenomena of the past than in their historical recontextualisation; more interested in the utopian aspirations that lead artists out of their historical contexts than in those contexts themselves. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the Internet as an archive is precisely the possibilities for decontextualisation and recontextualisation it offers its users through cut-and-paste operations. In a certain way, the Internet, and especially Google, is the fulfillment of the program to liberate words that Marinetti famously proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Asking for specific words and word combinations using Google, the user is able to create his or her own contexts, breaking through historically established narratives and discourses.

And this, to me, seems like a good development, because it strengthens the utopian potential of the archive and works against the risk of its betrayal, which is inherent to any archive, in whatever way it is structured.