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Marialaura Ghidini — On the Ecology of the Distributed Work of Art
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During a conversation about online distribution and popular culture someone said to me: “Rick Astley owns 4chan”, meaning that musician Rick Astley would have not made it into music history, or better still business, hadn’t his music video “Never Gonna Give You Up” become an Internet meme. Namely, hadn’t it come to really matter as a hyperlink widely spread across websites via randomly being connected to other online material with little apparent relevance to the content of the music itself, let alone its author [image 1].


We are here navigating through the realm of social phenomena on the Internet, for which – as we all know well – notions of originality and authorship are put into question even as plausible concepts in themselves, along with historical givens pertaining to the science of classification, such as activities of categorisation and labelling which have been entrenched in the understanding of culture and creation of knowledge. At least, thus far.


Within such online-induced social phenomena, it seems that a thing exist as an in-between other things, that cultural material is a sort of fluctuating whole in which its parts always exist as and in connection with something else, most likely the everything else. There is no chronological order, no beginning nor end, because sources and conclusions do not matter anymore in the same way they mattered before. In this in-between, subjects often turn into objects of and in transmission; they are virtual packages gone viral, such as the one introduced above, the meme which becomes a sort of content-means. This is the in-between for which receivers – our unaware users, the rick-rolled – turn into consumers and often active producers in themselves – see the theorisation of the figure of the “prosumer” by artist Curt Cloninger. [note 1]


Moving away from our metaphorical Astley, I wonder what sort of reverberations the scenario above has had and has in context of contemporary art production, in relation to its ecology. If we take forward the aforementioned workings, the cultural material that circulates in such manner seems likely to have an equal and simultaneous existence, impact and therefore significance both online and offline. It also exists not as a static form but as a form and content in movement, likely to be subjected to continuous transformations which disregard neat distinctions between that online and this offline. It is all part of our socio-cultural scenario, after all, a scenario which by being highly related to communication infrastructures sees an erasure of the that and the this.
That said, how might we discuss the ontology of the contemporary art product in the wake of such Internet-induced phenomena, its condition of being? I am using the world product because what I have just sketched out dispute with the established and institutionalised system(s) of the contemporary art world, in connection to economic models and critical methodologies for example. A straightforward example of how this friction could emerge might go as follows:


If a work of art exists as a web-based artwork encompassing textual elements, visuals and an appropriated video from YouTube, but it also exists as a limited-edition poster which stems from its online precedent as well as a looped video which reworks the other two versions, all while bearing the same title and author – to whom perhaps the creator of the appropriated video could be added –, where would its value lie? Would it be considered as one piece comprising all three, as a distributed artwork? Would one format, perhaps the most stable, be chosen amongst the other two? Moreover, how would a critic analyse and describe the work? Under what kind of category, or labelling, would this work enter, if at all, the history of contemporary art? Under the label of inter-media narrative work, perhaps? [image 2]


Reflecting on this unanswered set of questions, I cannot help recalling a more historical example of artistic practice. In 1968 Marcel Broodthaers founded the Musèe d’Art Moderne – Department des Aigles which over the course of 5 years presented 12 sections, all of which, despite taking up different formats of display and including material spanning various mediums and forms of arrangement, examined the symbol of the eagle in relation to ideas of power and supremacy – see the theorisation of “the eagle principle” by critic Rosalind Krauss  [note 2]. The Musèe d’Art Moderne – Department des Aigles, Section XIXem Siècle was the first iteration of the project, a fictitious museum which was installed in Broodthaers’ own house. This museum displayed empty crates upon which there were projections of images of 19th-century paintings, with no sign of eagles, were it not for the title. After other and different iterations, the Musèe went to the Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf as an installation in 1972, presenting various sections such as those des Figures and Publicitè, for which the artist included 300 objects – from brooches to stuffed animals – and images, many of which were taken from advertisements and comic strips, representing eagles. Such material was on display along with plastic plaques with numbers – such as Fig. 1, 2, etc. – and the following sentence “This is not a work of art” [image 3]. The display chosen by Broodthaers was fictitious as it was the museum itself, it functioned as a parody of the classification and value systems which had developed within the institutionalised world of contemporary art, of the process of selection of artworks, their inclusion or exclusion. In a nutshell, the way in which the Musèe operated throughout time is – as Krauss aptly describes it – by “internalis[ing] the field of work, such as the mass media forms of production” of the artist’s times which predominantly lay in the photographic image spread across billboards and magazines, the new means of communication of the 60s. The fact that for Documenta V, in 1972, Broodthaers’ Musèe was included in the catalogue in the form of a full-page advertisement does not only symbolise the artist’s act of “internalisation” of communication systems but it also brings forward his attempt to disrupt notions of authorship and object-hood by moving the artistic product through different sites of display and experimenting with appropriation and what site-specificity might be in relation to processes of repetition and transmutation. To quote Krauss one last time, “the triumph of the eagle [Broodthaers chosen symbol for the Musèe, perhaps a sort of content-means in the context of this text] announces not the end of Art but the termination of the individual arts as medium-specific; and it does so by enacting the form that this loss of specificity will now take”; in some ways we could read this as an attempt to bypass dichotomies as well as a straightforward engagement of the receiver.


Going back to the condition of being of the contemporary work of art in relation to Internet-induced social-phenomena, we might then catch some resemblances with the characteristics and workings of Broodthaers’ Musèe, at least for that which concerns the narrative of a distributed object, its mode of existence in and across multiple sites and the complications related to its contextualisation(s) as issues that have been brought about by social phenomena generated though the spread of new means of communication into the everyday.


What unites these two scenarios, the Internet-induced one and the print-induced one, is the fact that they both aim at disrupting power structures, in relation to their economy and critical values, by appealing to mass mediatic communication infrastructures. But here is where we might also see a difference, or better still, a possibility; that is the possibility of moving from creating a conceptual disruption with such power structures to that of practically shifting the power structures in place.


The ecologies that might arise from the in-between I briefly described above have still been little explored, while there is a growing number of practitioners, artists and critics who are attempting to creatively devise other models, other methods of classification and judgement, other ways of thinking about what value might be and mean nowadays, a time in which many previously established and stable systems have been falling apart. And this is because within this Internet-induced social phenomena, there are the potentials inherent to readily-available web-based tools, which, for their being simultaneously means of production, display and distribution, allow us to break with previous more recognised ecologies.


Astley is a metaphor and its only value in our context lies in making transparent the movement, and the possibilities ingrained in this movement in-between the online and offline. But it still operates as a product, a distributed product that little has to offer to the creation and understanding of other narratives; narratives that are scattered through sites, that are overarching, that disregard stability in favour of erasing dichotomies and setting into place other ecologies.


[image 1] Screenshot of Google Image search for Never Gonna Give You Up

[image 2] Damien Roach, Michigan parachute/Kitchen/Arp 147, 2011-2013; web-based work on display at [2.1]; digitally printed poster on Newsprint, 57.8 x 38 cm produced as part of On The Upgrade edition box set [2.2]; digital video, 10 min 48 sec (looped) produced as part of (On) Accordance exhibition at Grand Union [2.3]
[image 3]  Musèe d’Art Moderne – Department des Aigles, Section Publicitè; installation shot of display; Documenta V, 1972
[note 1] Cloninger, C., 2009. Commodify Your Consumption : Tactical Surfing / Wakes of Resistance. Available online,
[note 2] Krauss, R.E., 2000. A Voyage on the North Sea. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

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