In philosophical discourse space has, since the advent of the Modern era, been given primacy over the notion of place. 1
In this essay I wish to bring up the notion of a distinction between the ideas of place and space, and examine this in relation to the web. I will follow this in Part 2 with a discussion of these issues at play in our experience of artworks.
Ancient and pre-modern Philosophy held place as a point of consideration in a position equal in value – if not in some instances even superior – to space. Since Descartes and the advent of Modern Philosophy it came to hold a somewhat inferior position, often being entirely disregarded. 2
To simplify a delicate argument we can posit that space is general, absolute, empty, idealised; perfect as in geometry, or balanced as in Newtonian physics. This is in contrast to place which is particular, inhabited by the body, and toned and coloured by experience; subjectivised.
To a phenomenologist like Edmund Husserl or Maurice Merleau-Ponty our perception – that which is given by the senses – is primary and it is from this that all knowledge follows. 3 It is here that we begin to find the markers of place; the particularities of our lived experience.
Discussion around the distribution and exhibition of art via the Internet frequently revolves around it as a space for the circulation and reception of art.
Can we consider it also as a place?
Can we consider the web a place? Do places in any conventional sense exist on the Internet? How do the problematics of place impinge upon the bodiless and free space of the Internet?
Established in 2003, the Pirate Bay is a file sharing website based in Sweden. The site was established by Piratbyran (The Piracy Bureau) – a Swedish organisation who sought to challenge current ideas about copyright and intellectual property. 4 The founders of the Pirate Bay saw the potential of the web and its dematerialisation of goods as an opportunity to overcome the restrictive controls around trade and copyright; restrictions they found anti-progressive and unjust.
In the decade or so since the founding of The Pirate Bay, the commercial importance of dominance in the virtual arena has become paramount for any company wishing to compete in a global market. Finding traction for the imposition of illegality on activities that circumvent the copyrighting of material is a flashpoint in this on-going battle. Part of the difficulty of prosecuting an organization like the Pirate Bay is that they do not actually hold any of the ‘stolen’/copyright-infringing material, they merely act as a conduit connecting users wishing to attain or distribute the goods. The use of Torrent files turns the sharing and acquiring of data into a simultaneous process allowing geographically disparate users to share the same data.
It is here that I would also like to consider the idea of the non place, as theorised by anthropologist Marc Augé. The non place is a place of transience that does not hold enough significance to be regarded as a “place” as such. Non places include motorways, hotel rooms, airports or supermarkets.
The Pirate Bay can in these terms be considered as operating in – or even as – a non place. It has always striven to bypasses the traditional restrictions on the manoeuvre of goods in place by operating a service that will allow and enable the free-flow of immaterial goods.
If we consider space as idealised and empty, we should note the importance of encounters with objects in colouring and shaping our experience of place.
It is interesting to note in this light that in 2009 the seized servers of the Pirate Bay were put on display in the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology. 5
It is here that the ideal of operating in a dematerialised field with immaterial goods start to come undone, and the hardware that facilitates the circulation and support of these goods is its undoing. This seeming non place – or even no place – begins to exhibit its placefulness.
Numerous attempts have been made to cease the activities of the Pirate Bay through the seizure of physical goods (the removal of things from place) though this has repeatedly been unsuccessful. It is the infinite copy-ability of the digital that comes to the Pirate Bay’s rescue; the goods are never held by the website itself, but on the hard-drives of their 5 million plus users.
In a recent article in Radical Philosophy, Harry Halpin points out that the numbers of people involved in these networks are frequently larger than the populations of many cities: “The scale of the Internet is something not yet fully grasped by philosophy: websites like 4Chan [the image sharing website with 5.7 million users] are like the cities of the Internet.” 6
The completed ideal of this is found in the idea of The Cloud – a totally decentralized storage space spread across servers all over the world. However, this ideal of circumventing the restrictions and anxieties of operating in the real world through this non place (or no place) frequently find the creepers of place making their way in in the form of national law enforcement. Increasingly this takes the form of censorship at the user’s end: following laws brought in this year, the ISPs Virgin, BT, O2, AOL and others will no longer allow their customers access to the Pirate Bay in the UK. 7
And so we see the problematics of operating in place impose upon the potential non-place of the Internet. It should be said, however, that dematerialised products are slippery and the Pirate Bay is currently accessible in the UK through various workarounds and mirror sites. 8
And so what seemed to be a real-life no place (Utopia) finds itself limited by the tyings of placefulness.
In his essay on the work of Barnett Newman,1 Donald Judd discusses the artist’s life by listing a series of key moments before describing his major works in detailed descriptions of their material composition, dimensions and manner of production. He states ‘This description may have been dry reading but that’s what’s there.’
This begs the question, ‘where?’ 2
To Judd, Newman’s paintings seem to exist in an idealised space removed from the texturing, cultural toning and individuating subjectivising qualities of the lived world and the specifics of the institutions in which they appear. They are autonomous and self-contained to the exclusion of all fact of their placement.
This idealised space is in fact a no place. In the mind of Judd, an archetypal modernist, this no place is the white cube, the perfect and pure exhibition space for the autonomous work of art.
To recap from Part 1 – space is that which is general and empty, place is particular. There is a contrast to be found here in the art-theoretical generality of ‘The Space’ of ‘The Gallery’ against the place of a particular gallery. The Gallery – as an ideal white cube space – does not of course really exist. The place of reception of the artwork colours it’s reading and (performatively) positions it within discourse and history. A gallery is as much a social construct as a physical construct.
So, put another way, it could be said that in Judd’s mind Newman’s work merely exists in space and not in place.
In reality, the artwork is always found in a place.
So what of space and place in relation to the dematerialised, digital artwork? Can we consider the web as a place as well as a space for art?
The experience of art in the gallery space is a bodily experience. Proximity to the work is its essence. Our understanding of place is highly influenced by how we embody it, notions of left and right, up and down are crucial; 3 the dimensions of our body are the driving force behind how we design the world we live in and how we understand proportion.
The discourse around art on the web often discusses it in relation to its dissolution of space – ‘the space of art production’ or ‘the space of its reception’. Is not the removal of the gallery in fact a removal of place?
Could the web-space be the no place sought by Modernists and Conceptualists? An immaterial space of exhibition for dematerialised artworks?
Or are there markers that create a sense of place in the experience of art on the Internet? To go back to Husserl and the phenomenological understanding of place (Part 1), can the web be said to be a place? How do we – as bodies – inhabit this arena?
This dematerialised space for the reception of artwork does at first glance seem to do away with the placing character of the physical art institutions of old. In some sense it seems to achieve the no place that the theoretical white cube sought. Artworks here are no longer subject to the weighty associations of inclusion in the great collections of the world’s museums, they are freed from the proximity to other artworks and from the politics of alignment with the ideals of gallerists and from the physical constraints of placement within architectural space.
In part 1 I discussed the problematics of distribution of dematerialised cultural products on the ’net in the operations of the Pirate Bay; how the particularity of place creeps into the Utopia/no place that the Internet seemed to promise. This placefulness imposes itself through legal limitations on the distributive power of the Internet and through the seizure of physical goods.
While the digital artwork may have no material substance, we again find the problematics of the hardware used to facilitate its dispersion at play when we consider it in relation to place.
The point of reception here – where the artwork meets its audience, the point at which we find our body in proximity to the artwork – is the home or the desktop. And in between our body and the artwork is the hardware that mediates it; the apparatus that supports it or the interface that connects us and renders it readable, visible. The fact that it is largely out of the control of the artist or curator further complicates this. It is here that we find the intervention of the world of things into this immaterial realm; the variables of whether we receive the data via a desktop, laptop or tablet computer or a phone, the relative power and age of said machine, or the software we elect to use. Anyone with a little experience in web design can tell you about the kind of contingency planning that is engendered by the differing web-browsers and the various types and ages of hard- and software used in order to connect to their output.
Whether it’s the restricted browser-window-size of an iPad, the painful buffering of an nigh-on obsolete machine, or the slick perfection of a brand new laptop and a well-made website, these differences can create radically different experiences of the work.
Works uploaded to the web also carry their restrictions. Much of the content on UbuWeb, for example, was uploaded at a time when high-quality video was just too large to be manageable, when the only way to make it available was through the circulation of low-resolution copies (‘poor images’). 4 The hardware shapes the software; both in turn shape the content.
Placement is key not only to the reading of an artwork, but in our ability to recognise it as art in the first place. Aesthetic theory has for a long time considered that anything can be aesthetic when viewed in an aesthetic attitude. 5 In the physical world this is one function that the gallery or institution holds; to signify that you are to view its contents in the aesthetic attitude.
And so too online.
The artspace online is delimited and marked in much the same way as the physical gallery. We rarely find the content free-floating amongst so many other kinds of content – images, news, LOL Cats, porn – unless this content has been artistically appropriated. 6 We enter into an aesthetic mode when we enter into a virtual artspace be it a blog such as vvork.com, an archive like UbuWeb, an exhibition space like or-bits.com or an individual artist’s Vimeo account. These websites (web sites) carry the markers of place and direct us as to how we are to view the content. This is often through familiar layouts and editorial content, sometimes a sense of the abstract or uncanny, or an overall sense of design.
We can understand these places online through the markers that enable us to enter into the aesthetic mode. They enable us to understand that what we are being presented with is in fact art and not any other form of data that we may choose to consume and interact with on the Internet. As such our reading of the work is shaped, dictated, coloured and placed by the parameters imposed by the website or context in which we experience it, and our prior understanding of that place.
So it follows that as above the place of reception (gallery, art institution, private collection, website) governs, affects or generates our reading of the work, enabling us to register the work as art and to position it historically or theoretically.
The artwork is always encountered in place.
1 Edward S. Casey, How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time, 1997, Pg 20 http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/philosophy/people/faculty_pages/docs/
2 ibid Pg 20
3 ibid Pg 16
6 Harry Halpin, The Philosophy of Anonymous, Radical Philosophy 176, Nov/Dec 2012
1 Barnett Newman by Don Judd, Studio International, Volume 179, Number 919, 1970
2 For this idea I am indebted to Dr Jonathan Dronsfield at the University of Reading
3 Edward S. Casey, How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time, 1997, Pg 23 http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/philosophy/people/faculty_pages/docs/Casey_How_to_Get_from_Space_to_Place_b.pdf
4 For more on this see Hito Steyerl, In Defense of The Poor Image, e-flux
5 Aesthetics, An Introduction George Dickie, USA, 1971, Pg.12
6 See for example Trade Gallery Cat Take Over by pyramidd.biz
https://www.facebook.com/events/453785091298272/?ref=nf or http://psychoanalysl.blogspot.co.uk/
As part of ‘Hashfail’ at Grand Union, Birmingham this writing was presented in context with: architecture, digital, distribution, essay, geography, industry, interface, physical space, publication, social space, software, technology, the internet and virtual space alongside works by the following artists: .