Immaterial work and impersonal body in computational age

     In the last fifty years digital computers have extended exponentially the quantity and quality of media used in the production of art. If twentieth-century had persistently tended “to question the long tradition of painting as the privileged medium of representation”[1], contaminating the canvas with everyday materials as clothes and newspapers (Picasso and Braque), dripping and pouring it (Pollock), slashing it (Fontana) or puncturing it (Shimamoto), today the canvas may seem even unimportant, a marginal medium in the mass of all the available ones. In this mass, digital media are predominant.
     Representation is today a wide and indecipherable milieu. It is open to accept everything it may be useful to the artist to express himself and his ideas, whether a precious material or a mundane one. It is open to use every kind of technology, whether analogic or digital, whether derived from high engineering or from the tradition of arts&crafts. The physicality of the work of art is also questioned as well as the way the viewer is called to respond to it. Virtual reality or videogames are extreme examples of all these aspects and they show also how contemporary art is able to offer an experience that may be completely immaterial and extremely interactive, following radically Duchamp’s statement that “the viewer completes a work of art”. 

Valla

CLEMENT VALLA
Seed Drawings (2011)
collective drawings through an online labor marketplace called Amazon Mechanical Turk, software[2]

     We are attempting here to briefly analyze the immaterial nature of contemporary art in relation with digital and mass communication technology. At this purpose we selected the work of an artist who might be emblematic and representative of internet art.
     Clement Valla is an American based, French born whose work, according to his artist statement, explores “digital technologies […] that also enable new social relationships through which people produce multiples”[3]. He treats “existing artifacts, existing site conditions, market relationships, or networked and collaborative systems as programmable systems, using simple algorithmic methods: copying, repetition, iteration”[4]. In his piece Seed Drawings he drawn with a Paint software a simple line picture and asked people, through an online labor marketplace called Amazon Mechanical Turk[5], to redraw it with the same software, while an algorithm specifically designed for the project assembled incrementally each single result in a large scale image.
     For their job Mechanical Turk workers presumably were paid 2 cents for every single line stained (according to Amazon rules and other projects by the same author).
     This project is interesting under many points of view, first of all for its physical qualities. It is an online collective work executed by thousand people who do not know each other nor they have ever meet. This is a peculiarity of the digitalized world which find the embodiment of its users inadequate to accomplish tasks, since digital data need to be fast, ubiquitous and replicable and of course human body has not any of these properties. Humans in a computational universe must be disembodied[6]. Also nobody had any control on the resulting image. “Each drawing is produced by a single individual with no knowledge of the overall forms and structure within the larger drawing” Clement states in describing his project[7]. Like a music composer he prearranged a set of conditions but the final result is the product of many single executions and their assemblage is operated mathematically by an algorithm, also defined by the author.
     We can consider the piece either a work, an image produced by many co-executors (one of them being a program) or a process, a performance activated on a sharing platform or social network, how one prefers to call it. Such platforms are very interesting social phenomena able to change habitudes and costumes as well as collective status and desires and they are changing our societies. Impressing are recent revolts happened in a quick chain in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, all of them started, generated and organized through social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In addressing a social network Clement deliberately explores those “virtual” dynamics and their “real” effects on societies.
     Also interesting is the nature of the final piece. It appears as a conventional video where every frame documents a step in a subsequent more complex image, revealing that the process is potentially infinite.

Seed Drawings from clement valla on Vimeo.

     A video, as the one above, is included apparently in an individual website that shows personal materials, but if we observe with more attention we could find that it is embedded in the page from an external source, Vimeo [8] precisely, which is an online archive of videos in high definition, one of the biggest on the web.
     Valla’s final piece then, as shown on his website, is a combination of colored dots on our screen, processed by electronic components hidden in our computer, that elaborate data coming from a remote source (a server), that recalls other data from a second source (another server), which is actually an electronic database containing the piece in the form of a digital code, i.e. a combination of binary numbers: 1 or 0, on or off. It is already enough complicate without retracing the travel of data from the begin and during the creative process; it is easy to guess that multiple transfers and encoding/decoding have occurred. What is relevant is that the simplicity of the visualization on a minimalist webpage covers a very complex reality that is identifiable or made possible by the database. “[…] Creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database” Lev Manovich states[9]. The database permeates all digital works and imposes, according to Manovich, a new emerging artistic need, that of merging it with a narrative, i.e. an imaginative component.
     It is evident that Clement’s narrative in this piece is not as much concentrated in the final form, as in the process, in that sort of collective performance made of replication and iteration by unknown people, and in the ability of a mathematical algorithm to direct and coordinate them. In this sense his work has a politic and socio-economic value. It addresses the global economy, the spread of communication, the increased links within people, the organization of work, and so on, in an age where work becomes more and more immaterial and impersonal as well as relationships. We could suppose, then, that Art, as reflex of society, is becoming immaterial and impersonal too.

[1] Michael Rush. New Media in Art, 2nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. P.7.

[2] Pictures courtesy by Clement Valla website http://clementvalla.com/ ; Last access 03/26/12;

[3] Clement Valla website, http://clementvalla.com/index.php?/artists-statement/ [link broken]; last access 03/26/11;

[4] Idem;

[5] Amazon Mechanical Turk website, https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome; last access 03/26/12;

[6] Katherine N. Hayles. How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill. : University of Chicago Press, 1999;

[7] Clement Valla website;

[8] Vimeo, linked page to Valla website, http://vimeo.com/19001635 ; last access 03/26/11;

[9] Lev Manovic. “The Database” in Theory in contemporary art since 1985. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. P.413.

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