Eclipse of the Spectacle
: Art and the Network of Networks
Not long ago, I saw a Bangladeshi woman say on Al Jazeera English that Barack Obama should come to Bangladesh and do something about the flooding disaster that had just befallen her. I was fairly certain that she was not talking about the problem of climate change and how it affects her country. She did not articulate a condition of global interconnectedness. She did not speak about how the benefits and the responsibilities for the adverse effects of the international economy and its ecological impact are unfairly distributed between South Asia and North America. Instead what this painfully grotesque comment seemed to reflect was the lure of global media spectacles.
The tragic media moment I witnessed heralded in many ways the final stage of globalization of Guy Debord’s spectacle critique: “all that was once directly lived, now has become mere representation.”1 Instead of turning to local authorities, her own community and family, or personal resolve, this helpless woman, amidst the now-annual floods in Bangladesh, turned towards a media icon for help in her desperate situation. She was calling on an imaginary man she will never meet, literally from the other side of the planet. The man she knew only as media simulacrum had become more real to her than the people on the street around her. And where else better to express this media-induced desire but in the global spectacle machine that is Al Jazeera?
Apotheosis of the spectacle
The spectacles of global media are pure violence, whether they are connected to news, entertainment, or sports. Created in satellite links, these spectacles invariably and inevitably disrupt and displace local cultures and uproot the local in the flow of globalized forces. Economic, cultural, and political globalization has been the object of intense civic and academic critique for more than a decade now. These debates reflect deeper changes in societies and life on the planet that have been in the making for a much longer period of time. The processes of economic globalization and the presence of hegemonic (Western) power shaping them stand in a direct lineage to the histories of colonial power and earlier forms of global economic domination. It is the spectacle of real-time global media, however, that integrates these processes into a seamless experience in which local cultures and global icons become ever more entangled.
The visual arts long ago ceded their function of organizing the visual experience of the world to technological media. The transition came with the advent of mechanized printing, photography, and subsequently film. Conventions of image production were programmed in the machine, ready for mass production and for appropriation by anyone. This shift opened up the space for avant-garde art movements to direct attention towards other questions. They embarked on a trajectory of self-interrogation that has put all visual and material conditions associated with the practices of visual arts into question. As famously observed by Jean-François Lyotard, the avant-gardes centred on the interrogation of the concept of “art” itself.2 This self-interrogation has negatively opened up an infinite space of possibility for the arts through a systematic denial or sometimes outright attack on existing conventions of image making. Now practically any material, artistic program (or absence of a program), method, style, subject matter, subjectivity, de-subjectivation, politics, or purely formal aesthetics is available to the artist as a matter of choice. With this freedom has come a certain form of arbitrariness that many artists implicitly or explicitly feel: while everything is possible, the dominant modes of organizing the visual experience of the world are no longer located in the realm of the arts. Today, globalized media spectacles, in their various forms and guises, have violently taken over this pivotal role by producing ominous grand-scale spectacles, and they are not about to let go of their privileged position voluntarily.
The question is where do critical art practices position themselves vis-à-vis the violence of these ever-expanding global media spectacles? Is there a viable choice for artists working today among engagement, denial, and the creation of alternatives to the violence of the spectacle?
Eclipse of the spectacle
One productive starting point for any critical artistic, social, or cultural practice is to look more closely at the apotheosis of the Debordian mega-spectacle. It is interesting to note that while most observers outside the media industry itself recognize the unprecedented power of television and broadcasting, which are reaching ever greater audiences while being consolidated into fewer and fewer global media conglomerates, the mood inside the broadcast media industry is notably different. Attitudes vary between blind denial and utter despair about the impending demise of the mass-media machine, primarily caused by dwindling advertisement budgets and shifting audiences that migrate to the Internet. This remarkable contrast in attitudes and understanding of the current situation indicates an emerging space of possibility and contestation.
What we see today is not just the expansion of media spectacles but a split between disparate media practices, where a simultaneous scaling down and profound diversification of media forms and content accompany the rise of global mega-spectacles. The convergence of a fragmentation of mass-media audiences, combined with new technological possibilities, invites a radical fragmentation of the media landscape in the coming years. Rather than witnessing the apotheosis of the spectacle, we are confronted with the eclipse of the spectacle—that crucial moment when a particular cultural form reaches its pinnacle, just before dissolving and ultimately fading out.
The process of diversification of audiences and technological forms dreaded by the mass-media industry has already been underway for some years. In the midst of it, the integrating force of the Internet plays a crucial role. The Internet has been adopted by general audiences at a rate similar to that of television after World War II, as repeated studies of Internet usage and its penetration rate with national audiences after introduction of public Internet services show. But the Internet’s founding culture and initial user demography were very different. As a network of networks, the Internet, after leaving its military origins behind, was adopted first by academic and research communities, then by civic and activist groups, and subsequently by an audience with above-average education levels.
The civic activists who began opening up the Internet as a public medium in the 1980s3 instilled in it a libertarian ethos that still informs much of Internet culture today, as well as the governance structures and discussions surrounding it. This history stands in marked contrast to the largely statist projects of broadcast media in Europe. While the cultural aspirations of broadcast television in postwar Europe were high, these aspirations had a primarily bourgeois ethic and aesthetic, aimed at the cultural emancipation of working class and lower class citizens in a grand civilizing project. Especially in postwar Germany, television was introduced with high expectations in this regard, inspired by the best of Social Democrat intentions. The wildly popular talk show host Hans-Joachim Kulenkampff, for example, revealed in a television interview that in the last stages of World War II and immediately following, a group of activists, politicians, and thinkers with strong Social Democrat ties convened to draw up and later establish the public broadcasting organization, WDR, in Cologne. Kulenkampff remembered a strong conviction among the group that television for the masses would, within ten years, “create an audience in which everyone would be reading literary classics and that the demon of Nazism would be banished from Germany for eternity.”
In contrast to this particular German example, the cultural profile of the Internet and its main protagonists is far less clearly defined, given the Internet’s global reach and multiple uses and purposes. One important lesson has been learned from the failure of the centrally imposed cultural emancipatory project for mass media in Europe and elsewhere. Television and mass media in a more general sense have become primarily spectacle and entertainment machines, dominated by large-scale strategic interests. The Internet, by contrast, seems to promote an atmosphere of liberty and a rather undefined and highly diversified cultural and social agenda—usually compounded in the idea of a “home of the free.” This conclusion should be considered somewhat premature, however.
The pivotal role of the Internet as agent provocateur for the transformation of the media landscape also changes its mythic, early nature. As strategic interests have moved in—such as media conglomerates, e-commerce sites, search engine empires, and social networking platforms—the Internet can no longer naively be considered a wide-open network. New large-scale media industries such as Google and Apple’s iTunes store, currently the largest music retailer in the United States, have emerged almost over night, and remarkable forms of concentration have already taken hold. This presence of strategic interests in the Internet alters the context for the multitude of alternative cultural, artistic, and communicative practices employed in it. To promote and maintain a diversity of cultural and social practices, it is necessary to understand and articulate more precisely the mechanisms at play in this newly emerging networked media space. Art operating in this space needs to position itself more consciously vis-à-vis such strategic interests, and its practitioners need to take the mechanisms behind the emerging interconnected media space into account.
An important characteristic of networked media is that they tend to scale down the media production/reception process. First radio, then television, followed by international and intercontinental transmissions, all expanded the audience reach of media content, scaling up to reach global audiences of sometimes billions. The Internet tends to reverse this process. The mass audience is broken up into a multitude of niche audiences. These micro audiences are often organized in social groupings, adorned with terms like “communities” or “social networks.” Where broadcast emphasized shared experiences around the largest common denominators, the Internet is most suited to accommodate singular and often entirely heterogeneous interests. In many ways new media reflect the emancipation of a now much more highly educated and self-conscious media audience. The model of broadcast media is centralized, much like industrial production. The model of the Internet, however, is distributed, operating at the nerve ends of the network more than the centre.
A new scale for human affairs
One of the more crucial insights of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan has been that new technological media introduce a new scale to human affairs4 (rather than changing the essential nature of what people communicate and share among each other, or what they compete for). The unspoken premise here is that new media technologies enlarge these scales. McLuhan, of course, lived before the emergence of the Internet as a public medium, and for him it was difficult to imagine what a networked communication space would look like. In McLuhan’s view, the networks of connected computers functioned chiefly as a nervous system, an appropriate image when considering that most activity happens at the nerve ends. But the image also implies a central brain processing all these activities. This is not the reality of the Internet as we use it in our everyday lives. The network is distributed and based on shared protocols for coordination, not a central switchboard. While certain parts of the network can be closed down (as in recent examples from China and Iran), many tinkerers still find ways of bypassing blockages, building on the multiplicity of connections a distributed network allows for.
For hitherto marginalized artistic and social practices, this all sounds primarily like good news. Media forms and content can now be attuned to singular interests. Distribution channels can be scaled up and down much more flexibly than under conditions of broadcast media. Government and corporate control is less stringent. More space is available for new producers, artists, writers, communities, online art magazines, and discussion networks that mash up artists, curators, and theorists in exciting and often surprising ways. There is a tremendous liberating potential in such a medium that can scale flexibly and is less stringently controlled by a very few gatekeepers controlling publishing houses, radio stations, and television networks, defining the cultural experience for mass audiences.
However, while the fragmentation of mass audiences is taking hold and new channels for cultural production, distribution, and deliberation have sprung up in a multiplicity of different forms, the capacity of broadcast media to reach ever-larger audiences has by no means disappeared as yet. Instead, the consolidation in the media industry through continued mega-mergers5 leading to fewer and fewer media conglomerates controlling ever larger shares of the broadcast market, can, to some extent, be seen as a reaction to the changing demography of media audiences or as attempts to create larger economies of scale in response to the expectation that future production budgets will be under pressure. The panic in the mass-media industry set in when advertising budgets started to shift to the networked media space, where new players were most efficient at harvesting them—most notably, of course, a particular search engine turned media empire that I need not name here. The response has been an ever more aggressive takeover policy and expansion of media formats sold to now global media markets. It is this aggressive response that produces the eclipse of the spectacle we are currently witnessing.
In this reduction of the diversity of local and national broadcast media, the space for alternative and small-scale cultural production has all but dwindled. Interestingly, what can be observed today is this split of the media space in two decidedly opposed directions: the global expansions of standardized mass media spectacles and the simultaneous radical fragmentation of the media landscape in a myriad of singular media forms. A variety of self-publishing and broadcasting initiatives have sprung up, and with open source systems such as Wordpress, millions of ordinary citizens now create their own Web outlets and distribute video material via many channels (certainly not only on YouTube). Grassroots news networks continue to thrive, and countless small-scale cultural organizations, groups, initiatives, and individual artists have created their own online publication platforms.
How do artistic and alternative cultural practices locate themselves within the split between the eclipse of the spectacle of mass media and the radical fragmentation produced by the new Internet-based forms of self-mediation? At least three notably different responses can be observed, each with its own merits, successes, and limitations.
The first response is insular: art retreating into its own circuits of circulation, most of which are quite resistant to both mass media as well as networked media. This response is very much in line with the self-interrogation that began when the visual arts ceded their role as the principal site for the organization of the visual experience of the world to photography and subsequent technological media (film, television, digital media)—the “negative dialectic of the image” as identified by Jean François Lyotard. This self-reflective process, which included a critical interrogation of the status of the work of art itself, should in no way be regarded as a mere reduction of that status (or a trauma over “loss of aura”). The new position that artists found for themselves, more or less overnight, allowed for tremendous freedom and experimentation. Art relieved of its representational functions enabled artists to embark on an adventurous and unnerving exploration that would produce some of the most remarkable works, oeuvres, styles, and movements in art history that we now celebrate as the grand epoch of the historical avant-gardes. It created room for some of the most profound questions to be asked about human experience, aesthetics, and, ultimately, from this liberated standpoint, about life and society itself.
The insular response is quite immune to the hegemony of global media spectacles, which it can appropriate or ignore at will. Recognizing that art’s role as principal organizer of the visual experience of the world is over, artists no longer need to engage with the mechanized spectacles of everyday images. They can follow art’s own sovereign trajectory and create art’s own singular realities.
The problem with this insular trajectory is that the contemporary art practices associated with it are very difficult to situate within the realities created by the evolving media system. Programs about contemporary art on broadcast television, for instance, rarely meet the aspirations set out for them by artists, curators, and the art audience, and mostly manifest themselves as a deeply uneasy compromise between the singularity of a particular artistic vision and the common denominators that are used to communicate to a (mass) television audience. It is not surprising, then, that a certain segment of the art world started to look for other strategies that could engage the globalized spectacles of mass media.
The second approach that can be distinguished emerges where artists and mediators leave the conventions of this insular art world behind, perhaps temporarily, and try to appropriate and internalize the rules and systems of broadcast media to put them to their own use. Such an attempt may rightfully be perceived as a daunting task, yet there are highly successful examples that manage to penetrate the space of global media spectacles.
Amidst all its controversy, no doubt part of the original “design” of the work, Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007), a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century European skull beset with 8,601 diamonds, can serve as an example here. Hirst, well established as the enfant terrible of the contemporary art world, managed to position himself as a media prankster and has achieved great notoriety in this role. It is this reputation that enabled him to embark on his scandalous project, and with it, he created a global media icon. One can debate at length the work’s artistic merit, its questionable ethics, and its displacement as a media icon, but as a tactical intervention in the space of global media spectacles, it is an exceptional work.
The problem with such interventions is the same as with all tactical operations. As so aptly pointed out by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, tactics always operate on someone else’s territory. Strategic interests (i.e., power) define a territory for themselves and determine their use. Tactics operate sometimes inside and sometimes outside of these strategic domains. They never define a territory for themselves, however—they become strategic interests themselves the moment they cross this line. The question that befalls any tactical operation on a strategic terrain, and especially with regard to the highly contested domain of global media spectacles, is, who appropriates whom? Is it Hirst who has managed to appropriate the global spectacle machine, or have the global media conglomerates simply assimilated the prankster?
The third response that can be observed is that of the appropriation of digital networking structures by artists and cultural operators as a domain to work in, as a communicative structure, or as a space to organize their practices and find their audiences. There is a wide variety of vibrant artistic networks in operation today. Mailing list culture still thrives,6 bringing artists, curators, and theorists together in intense and prolonged discussions hardly imaginable in any other medium. Here, the extended temporality, where discussions and debates can be continued literally for years in varying degrees of intensity, is truly remarkable. The simple space of online text exchange has helped a younger generation of artists, curators, and theorists to establish new working relations and define transregional and translocal art projects, sometimes conducted entirely online, such as the sound art experiments in the international Xchange Net Audio Network,7 but often in the form of exhibitions, festivals, art projects, site-specific interventions, and even new art institutions.
Online meetings and collaborations can as such have surprising real-world effects. In the wake of the demise of communist political systems in Central and Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in the 1990s, various online art and media culture networks sprang into life—the Xchange network for networked audio art mentioned earlier, or the Syndicate network for media art and culture in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe. Born out of the desire to connect to peers in other parts of the world and a hunger for new cultural and artistic impulses, these online networks sparked an intense series of meetings, festivals, conferences, and physical collaborations. One of the more interesting side effects at the time was that artists, curators, and other professionals working in different former communist countries became aware of each others’ existence and recognized similar problems that were blockages but also opportunities in their respective local and national contexts. The networks served not simply to connect the “East” to the “West” but spawned a variety of interrelations that irrevocably changed the cultural landscape of Central and Eastern Europe.
There is a different kind of insularity implicit in the digital networks approach. While the network serves a particularly strong and highly productive function for the artists, producers, mediators, and the knowledgeable audience involved in them, these participants rarely develop a clear relationship with a wider public domain. Such relationships must be established externally, outside of the network itself, and thus they fall prone to the same institutional limitations that mainstream contemporary art initiatives face (critical acceptance, competition for ever more limited cultural funding, pressures from the art market, or a general lack of public appreciation). Activity in the digital networks rarely spills over into the wider context of contemporary art and its established presentation and distribution practices, let alone the circuits of mass-media circulation. Such boundary-crossing activity, which still has a highly productive potential for both the new networked art practices and the wider field of contemporary art production, will not happen unless a conscious engagement between these different domains is sought.
Wherever these disparate art practices choose their position, they need to locate themselves. Articulating this position is the first step in beginning an important conversation about art in an era of global spectacles and ubiquitous communication networks.
- The opening sentence of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1999, 12 (originally published in Paris in 1967).
- In Lyotard’s work on aesthetics and contemporary art, the idea of a “negative dialectics of the image” was developed in a series of essays—among them: “Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime,” Artforum, March 1982, 64–69; “The Sublime and the Avant-garde,” reprinted in J. F. Lyotard, “The Inhuman—Reflections on Time” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); and “La philosophie et la peinture à l’ere de leur expérimentation,” Critique no. 378 (1978).
- By way of example, in 1985 the group that published the Whole Earth Catalog founded the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, often credited as the world’s first public/civic Internet network (see www.well.com).
- See, for instance, the first chapter of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: New American Library, Mentor Books, 1964).
- The mega-merger of AOL and Time Warner in the later 1990s is an early example of this trend. Rupert Murdoch’s expansion of his media empire is a particularly disturbing one.
- Exemplary fora for online discussion on art, culture, media, and politics include lists such as
for net criticism, for media arts debates, the Crumb network for curatorial practices around new media arts, and the Spectre mailing list for media art and culture in “Deep Europe,” among many other local, national, and regional lists.
- See http://xchange.re-lab.net.
About the Author
Eric Kluitenberg is an independent theorist, writer, and organizer on culture, media, and technology. He is head of the media and technology program of De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics, Amsterdam.